You, Me, and Your Pet Otter

by Vanessa Saunders

You are my grandmother, it is the 1960s, and you have a bad habit of living with strangers. Like that baby alligator who took refuge in your bathtub for one night. A fat white rabbit lived in your Tallahassee house until he began to gnaw at your electrical wiring and you did not have the money to fix the wires, so you got rid of him (that was when your first husband was still around). In Sarasota, there was a rooster with bright plumage who liked to stalk around the front yard. This rooster had a violent edge. He loved to peck at the naked ankles of anybody entering the house. He drew blood (this was after your husband was gone). Frustrated, you and the children drove the rooster out to Myakka River State Park; you let the rooster wobble out of the car; my father, age nine, shook some corn out of a burlap sack. Corn sprinkled across Myakka jungle floor was that rooster’s last supper. You left the bird alone near a broad river, where you hoped he would be eaten by an alligator.

For years, the running joke in your four-person family was, “Our vicious rooster probably became the kingpin of the jungle.”

He was a tough bird.

One day my teenage aunt, Susan, saw a for sale sign outside a pet shop in downtown Washington, DC (you moved there after your divorce). The shop was advertising a wild otter, and Susan loved animals, so she saved up her money. Without hesitation, you welcomed the otter into the house where you and the children lived with your elderly mother. The house was built for two people, but five lived there.

From the start, your otter promised to be a distraction. This critter was a foot long, had round soft pads on his feet and long white whiskers around his mouth. There were thousands of little hairs on his body; this is why he felt soft when you’d brush your hands along his spine. Your otter could not be trained to defecate outside the house. Sometimes, he pissed on your bed sheets; you spread newspapers over the floors because the otter shit wherever he was when the urge hit. Always your house stank of poop, dried in Pollock-like spatters, across the newspapers.

The truth is, some wild animals can never be domesticated. Not completely.

Your otter loved the sound of money. He stole the loose change out of your pockets, out of the pockets of your houseguests. Clutching the pennies against his chest, the otter would spindle across the living room on his two furry legs. As his pennies would clatter toward the floor, he would swoop down, scooping them into his paws. He loved fingering coins. You suspect the clinking of change reminded the otter of seashells; he ate shellfish. When you could afford fried chicken, he ate it. Stripping the meat from the bone, using his two pointed canines as his knife.

You started to rush home from the hospital at the end of the day, still wearing your nurse uniform. You were so curious about this pet.

Like you, he was a delicate mammal. For instance, he could not stand the shrill whistle as the plastic skin of the water hose snaked against the painted side of your house. Once, when you were trying to close the window, he latched his knife-sharp incisors into your Achilles heel. The otter could not stand the high squeak of the window shutting. It frayed his nerves.

Susan was fifteen years old, and she was supposed to take care of the otter. He was her pet. But your children roamed the city, sleeping at different houses on different nights. None of them were in school. Their wild habits could not be tamed, not by you. Your three children were no help caring for this pet. Finally, the otter took a raw bite from Susan’s boyfriend’s arm. Then the otter was no longer allowed at that family’s house. So you took care of the otter, which did not bother you. Many visitors, including friends of your children, often stopped by the house to visit him.

When the otter matured he was desperate to fuck anything. He would throw his body over and thrust any available surface. You used to wrap a towel around your bicep and sit down on the living room couch, averting your gaze while the otter humped your arm. His desire for sex was distracting. At night, you and Susan used to phone the local radio station to voice your plea for his mate. On air, you’d say in a low, graveling tone, “This is a shout out for a female river otter; if you know one, please call…” But no listeners ever called you back. You and your daughter would laugh after you hung up the phone.

My father says the otter was completely insane.

One day, my father had a tonsillectomy with an anesthetic because the doctors were concerned his chest cold would cause complications in the surgery. When he got home, my father’s throat was aching still. While you were at the store buying him ice cream, my father reached for the remote on the newspaper-covered floor. The otter shot out from his dark hiding space under the couch and pushed his canines into my father’s exposed wrist. The bright shot of pain startled my father into a standing position, the otter still attached to his hand. When my father swatted him away, the otter darted back under the couch. You got home; blood was pouring from my father’s wrist (the otter’s teeth could shatter seashells). Red blood stained the newspapers as you watched my father overturn the coffee table. The otter scurried from corner to corner. My father grabbed the sharp end of a broken broom. He positioned it above his head, trying to skewer the otter against the floor. You crept towards the back door and pushed it open. A slit of light fell through the crack as the otter slithered out, hurrying down the back steps. Your otter had a curious way of moving across land. Throwing his weight across his body; front and back, side to side. Following the otter, you snuck down to your driveway, opening the car door. The otter hopped across the broken leather of your passenger seat. You drove your otter around your block while your son calmed down (he ate his strawberry ice cream).

Tension between the otter and my father simmered. There was still love between these two irascible creatures.

One evening in March, your elderly neighbor sunk to her knees and wept at your feet. She was crying because my father and my young aunt dug the otter a pool in part of her backyard. The hole was wide, scraped with sticks, and stretched three feet. After they’d finished, they tossed a dirtied plastic tarp over the hole. Your neighbor was afraid she would fall down into it, walking at night.

It occurred to you, your otter needed a real pool for swimming. This would help ease his sexual frustrations, his random acts of violence. So you paid a professional to build the otter his own pool. And you built him this pool, even though money was very short. You had no husband, and you had no education. No trade, just a string of odd jobs you kept for a little bit. Sometimes, your bones sagged with so much sadness, you couldn’t work. And so the pool was built at a great expense from your limited budget (my father sold marijuana in middle school to afford cans of beans to eat).

You hired a professional.

It was shallow, the size of a baby lap pool. It was enclosed, so the otter couldn’t escape. A cement bottom, filled with fresh water. One humid summer afternoon, after the builder left, you and your children lowered the otter inside of it. But the otter refused to swim; he dug his clawless paws into its cement slope, exposing his canines in distaste. You, Susan, and my father leaned over the professional rocks to squint at him. The otter’s incisors were hook-shaped and slightly discolored.

You could never convince the otter to swim in his pool after the first day.

You bought the otter a dozen crayfish to eat, months after. But he did not eat any of the crayfish, and he killed every single one of them. He left their red carcasses strewn, their piquant entrails twisted across the fake rocks of his professional pool.

The pool remained in the backyard, unused.

Before the otter came, there were months you could not get out of bed. All night your mind rolled in black flames. You’d wake sweating, heaving. In the morning, you couldn’t find one reason to leave your mattress. Your unhappiness was not unlike the distaste your otter showed inside the prison of his pool. Nothing could sate you.

You and I both struggle with the gift of depression, but I have found ways to manage it, through exercise, through writing. You live alone now, inside a house of plants and swirling dust, convinced the world is your own personal hell. You have said this to me.

The otter used to dive right into the bathtub with you; he wouldn’t mind the soap. His snout followed your hand like a fish. When the rain pounded on the roof, he’d slip out the back door. You found him swimming in the rushing gutters, and he didn’t mind the trash sediments or the unclean water. Inside your house was dry. But what the otter wanted was water, water of any kind: he was horny for it.

One day, the rain beat in thick stripes across your roof. When you looked, the otter was not anywhere inside the house. Hours passed and he did not crawl up the back steps. In the following weeks you and your children pasted LOST OTTER signs to the telephone poles in your neighborhood. Months passed in suspended animation. You did not remove the newspaper from your floors, waiting. Then, one evening, a stranger, a woman who lived five blocks away, appeared at your doorstep.

You let her inside.

One evening, this woman peeled her front door open. Your otter was sitting on her doormat, his little dark eyes peering up. The sky cracked, signaling an impending storm. The otter waddled in through her open door as if he owned the place. First he took a dump on her prized oriental rug, leaving a puddle of excrement in his wake. His poop had no definition; it just came out. But that wasn’t why she called the wildlife sanctuary, where she took him the next day, wrapped in old towels like a newborn.

You let the woman out of your house.

After he was gone, you dreamed the otter was back in the house, up to his old tricks. Thrashing around the newspapers, chewing fried chicken down to the bone, paddling with you in the bathtub. In the dream, your ex-husband was complaining about the otter fur that had accumulated inside his coat. You woke up to the strangest kind of empty. For months after, you’d find yourself imagining the sound of the otter’s paws traipsing across the living room floor. When you peer out your bedroom, you don’t find what you are looking for.