by Charles Foster
Charles Foster is a writer, barrister, and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, The Sacred Journey: The Ancient Practices, and Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience. His most recent book is Cry of the Wild: Eight Animals Under Siege.
Jackie Morris is an award-winning British writer and illustrator of over twenty books. She collaborated with author Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words, voted the most beautiful book of 2016 by UK booksellers, and The Lost Spells. In 2019 she was awarded the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, the highest honor in children’s book illustration. Her latest book is Otter.
Twilight over meadow and water, and the evening star might well have been shining above the hill but would have been invisible because of the neon light flooding the sky from the new conurbation.
There had been a heron on this stretch of West Country river. An imaginative child had called him ‘Old Nog’, but Old Nog had died last season from liver adenomas—a result, said the conservationists, of a long and increasingly blighted life eating fish whose bodies were full of polychlorinated biphenyls and organochlorines.
The family of white owls who used to hunt the meadows, scanning them grid-square by grid-square, had fallen foul of the toxins, too. Their mice, voles and shrews accumulated pesticides and herbicides, and slowly the owls’ hormones were shut down. There had been seven eggless seasons, and then the adults, within a few months of one another, started to lose the sensation in their feet. The numbness crept up into their chests, and their toes lost their grip, and an owl who can’t grip is dead, and so they were both dead now, one of them dried and mummified inside a tree, and one of them eaten by a carrion crow who gibbered and died himself.
There had been a bridge over the river here since the Middle Ages, but the mediaeval stone bridge was too narrow for the lorries that carried ready meals and mobile phones into the deep countryside, and so it had been replaced by an award-winning concrete arch with no holes for owls or bees.
Had the owls still been here they would have found it hard to hunt in the roadside fields, for day and night the road’s clatter drowned out the rustlings of the small mammals through the grass.
Just downriver from the bridge there had been thirteen great trees—eleven oaks and two ashes. The ashes had gone the way of all ashes, and all but one of the oaks had been felled by a zealous farm manager, hoping to make way for a chicken farm. In the end there was no money for the new project: there had been some miscalculation, and the holding company was seeking legal advice.
The remaining tree straddled the river and the remnants of the wood. On the river side its roots formed an arch, most of it underwater. This arch was the main entrance of an otters’ holt.
The bitch otter lay curled there now, three grey cubs the size of moles hanging on her nipples, each shoving the others as it tried for a better position. Their father was a long way off. A couple of nights ago he had breached the defences of a trout farm, was full for the first time in months, and was having an unusual daytime sleep inside a drainpipe.
The river had long been tidal, washed twice a day by salt water sluicing up from the wide estuary where two rivers met, porpoises jumped, and clouds of piping birds twisted under the direction of one big mind which could not have fitted into the tiny skulls of any of them. Sea fish had been carried up with the tides into the pool by the oak tree; mullet sometimes, and even tiny flatfish. They could not have lived there long, and they never got the chance. Drowsy and moribund in the fresh water, they were easy prey for the otter dynasties. Salmon had climbed the river too, pausing often, and often fatally, in the pool on their way to the gravel spawning grounds.
There were no tides in the river now, for there were barrages in several places downstream of the holt—blockages as fatal to the functioning of the river as a tumour in a length of bowel. Not only did sea water not come up, fresh water found it hard to reach the sea. The river clotted and stank in summer. Algae bloomed and suffocated the fish. The kingfishers left. No salmon had been seen in the pool for forty years.
Why did the otters stay? That’s easy. They stayed because it was their home. But times were lean, and otters are physiologically frenetic. When the bitch swam in cold water, her basal metabolic rate was four and a half times that of a domestic dog mooching round the kitchen. That burned a lot of fuel. And fuel was scarce. Freshwater invertebrates had been decimated by the chemical weapons of industrial agriculture, and with them had gone many of the larger organisms higher up the food chain. Forces outside the river had taken out most of the rest. Eels, for instance. The bitch would have lived mostly on eels if she could. Her West Country ancestors had done. But now it was rare to catch an eel of any size in the river. The last one had tasted of brake fluid and she’d left it to rot. Where else could she look and teach her cubs to look in their year of closely supervised apprenticeship? There was the land, of course. There were rabbits, frogs, the odd wounded pheasant, and farms where the hens weren’t always locked away; but getting to them was hard and dangerous. The bitch had left two toes in a trap outside a hen-house, and still didn’t swim straight because a farm dog had got a mouthful of tail. She had to travel harder, play and sleep less, dodge more shotgun pellets and know far more habitats than her forebears in the halcyon days. Her cubs would be manic from the moment they were weaned. The farmers’ balance sheets had transformed the ecology and psychology of this otter family.
The bitch wrestled free of her cubs. They were still hungry, and mewed in complaint. But she was hungry too, and knew that if she did not feed herself, her milk would dry up and the cubs would die. She slid out into the pool, scouted vainly for anything edible, and swam upriver to some shallower pools where there were sometimes small trout. Nothing. Perhaps one of the few surviving eels in the ditch? No: the ditch was dry. Frogs among the reeds where the bullocks went down to water? One, barely big enough for her tongue to notice. She found a slug. It revolted her and she spat it out with a hiss at the world that had forced her to this. It was said that a hundred years before, a relative of hers had in this very place, in just half an hour, caught and eaten six small trout and two eels. The bitch hadn’t had that much in a week—and this was the lush season, when the land and water should have been stuffed with calories.
She followed the track of a rabbit through the grass (one species of grass here: a century earlier there had been nine, and another eleven plant species among them), hoping for a nest of youngsters. She found the nest, but a vixen had got there before her, and there were only clumps of fur and beads of blood. Back to the river, to a stinking tributary fed by a waste-pipe. She rarely came here. A dead roach floated at the edge. Now mad with hunger, she swam across and grabbed it. It writhed. It was alive with maggots. She spat that out too and rinsed her mouth.
She knew she could not leave the cubs for long, and set off back to the holt. On the way a mallard duckling fell too far behind its mother, and all its mother’s flailing and pecking could not save it. It was enough for one nipple. Two of the three cubs died that night, going first cold and then still. The mother could not bear to eat them, though it would have made sense.
She kept them by her side for five days, pressing against them, willing them to suck, and only when the smell was unbearable did she take them tenderly in her mouth and drop them in the river for the rats and the crayfish.
The dog otter never met the surviving cub. He died, as fate would have it, on the same night as his two offspring, for he made the mistake of returning to the trout farm after his gluttony and his sleep. He picked his way cleverly around the gin trap and rejected the fish laced with warfarin, but when a spotlight blared into his eyes he stood blinded and transfixed for just long enough to fall to the twelve-bore shotgun fired from a bedroom window. It was a criminal offence to shoot him, and he was buried discreetly in the wood before the sun rose.
Even without the competition of two siblings, it was a struggle for the survivor, and it was a scrawny apology for an otter cub who, one moonlit, neon-lit, lorry-laden night in July sniffed tremblingly out under the oak arches for his first swimming lesson. He was ill-equipped for an otter’s life at the best of times, and this was far from the best of times. How can you teach an otter to fish when there are no fish? How can you get a cub to swim and lope miles a day on an empty stomach?
It was an inauspicious start, and on his second outing it got worse. Crossing the bridge as he emerged was a party of snowy-haired ramblers from Barnstaple with nylon knapsacks full of good intentions.
‘Tarka!’ they breathed. ‘And at the Owlery Holt, no less!’, and within seconds the cub’s picture and location were beamed by satellite across the known cosmos, and within minutes the roads to the bridge were jammed, and within hours there was a hysterical press release from the tourist board, and within days a hotel chain was urging customers to ‘Paws for a break. Get the de-tails from our webbed-site. You’ll find it otterly relaxing down here in Devon. No need to fish around for alternatives. Our spa is re-eel-y the best’—and within the week the bitch and her cub, used though they were to attention, noise and stress, had abandoned the holt which had been used by otters since the Civil War and gone to live in a drain on the edge of a housing estate.
There, for a while, they were left alone, for the kids of the estate never went outside, and the dogs were too fat to get down the bank, and from there the cub started his travels: enormous travels.
The young otter’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents had been the last generation of water-wanderers. There was no time for wandering now. The otters had to march: to be sternly mission-focused.
The water was a poor source of food, but it was still a relatively safe way to travel. So the otters saw the rivers as the motorways, and constructed their mental maps around them. But often they would leave the rivers and range the land like giant stoats—often, indeed, chasing stoats off rabbit-kills. They became as adept as foxes at breaking into hen-houses, smart as herons at pilfering goldfish from garden ponds, and canny as crows at finding partridge eggs.
Road crossings were as much a part of the young otter’s education as catching big salmon had been in Tarka’s day. Traditions develop quickly if your lifespan is as short as a typical modern otter’s, and there were now traditional crossing places, marked by flattened otters and the daily apparition of biologists with clipboards and black bin-liners who scraped the otters up and took them off for autopsy.
The huge route marches of modern otters meant that they were far less connected to place than otters had traditionally been. It meant a much shallower understanding of the entwinedness of things, of the significance of the cycling seasons, and much less time for the intricate patterns that, in ordinary times, describe the movements of otters round one another. It meant that threat—a sophisticated and time-consuming form of theatre—gave way to violence. Territories, which had regulated behaviour, dissolved. So did ancient taboos about killing or badly injuring kin. Many an otter died snapping on its own entrails after it had been unzipped by a brother in a fight over a thin fish. And there were many eunuchs in Devon, for when fights happen in the water, testicles are hard to guard and easy to reach.
Our young otter had little time to learn the ropes. When he was eight months old a biologist sighed, made a note on her clipboard, and loaded his mother into a black bag.
He did not have the strength, the skills, the knowledge or the will to be a modern otter. He barely had the will to live at all. He certainly did not have the will to live as otters should.
He followed the river slowly downstream because it gave him a direction he otherwise lacked and a push which his legs and tail failed to give. When he was tired, as he usually was, he floated. He was safe in the water, though he once got a fright from a spaniel used to retrieving shot ducks from the sea. True otter hunting had long gone—and with it the real knowledge of local otters that used to be exchanged in every country pub in this part of the world—but mink hounds often found otters, and were intoxicated by the scent of their old quarry, and hard to stop.
He ate things his mother would have contemptuously rejected: things unworthy of otters—carrion, worms, snails and crickets—though there were enough crayfish to make his dung still look like an otter’s, and still smell of jasmine tea.
This ottery smell worried him. There was a practical reason for this. It meant that wherever he went he declared himself, wrongly, as a challenger to all other otters—otters with margins as slim as his own and jaws stronger than his. But there was that other reason too. He no longer wanted to be an otter at all. Or, rather, he did not want to be what otters had become. His decision to abandon modern otterdom was really an affirmation of his belief in true otterdom.
This sounds sentimental. It sounds implausibly cognitive. But that is how it was. And it is saying nothing more than that each organism seeks to be what it is, and tries to avoid being what it is not. There is nothing more trite or less controversial than that.
He passed under an old stone bridge, built for sheep and carts, and under the high new bridge with its notices giving would-be suicides a number to call. He started to get the nip of brine on his lips and in his eyes. The river swelled around him as if with a huge breath. He was garlanded with strips of weed, torn from a swaying field off Lundy. In his whiskers he felt big things, invisible in the brown water. His face was where he received, processed and reconstructed the world, and now, glad that his scent was being thinned by the water of two rivers and the infinite wash of the ocean, he kicked the last granules of agricultural Devon off his webs and set that face to the sea.
The tide, though it pushed him landwards when it exhaled, seemed to pull him out when it inhaled. Now, at moonrise, it took deep draughts of the heavy air of the dark woods and moors, air clinking with metallic legs and chitin plates, and a million mouths out in the sea were poised to slurp the legs and split the plates, and the otter was tugged out into this sea of gaping mouths. He turned on his back and now he could see the stars well for the first time and wondered if he could swim to them and if he could eat them.
He was far out now. Cloud covered the moon and the stars. He half remembered the womb where he had spent a secure nine weeks. It was like this, except that there there had been a pulse. But the pulse had not always been reassuring. Often it raced, and when it did, hordes of chemical messengers poured through the placenta, screaming alarm, and his paws had clenched and his heart had galloped. On balance it was better to be here in the sea. And there was, now that he concentrated, a sort of pulse, but this pulse was slow and steady and brought no alarming messages. He could not know that the pulse was the sigh of distant surf. He was content to lie here, look up and try to align his own pulse with the pulse out there.
And that’s what he did, for an hour or so. I think he must have fallen asleep. It would not have been surprising. When he awoke, at first he could hear no pulse at all, and he thought his mother must be dead, and then he remembered. He raised his head from the water and heard nothing. Then he put his head under, and behind the clickings, grindings and hissings of all night-time seas he thought he heard the pulse again. It was very soft. He put his head in the water and held his breath. Yes, there it was, way off to his right, too far to register in his face, for the face was fully occupied with closer things and could not be re-tuned to pick up distant signals. The pulse was close enough to make him happy and far enough away to make him worried, for it had been much closer before he had fallen asleep. He set off towards the pulse.
There were no landmarks by which he could judge his progress, but should it really be so hard to swim? And though the direction was clear, the pulse was getting fainter all the time. There was, though, now he was paying attention, another pulse off to his left, fainter still, but not receding. He changed direction and paddled towards this new pulse. After a few minutes the sea started to feel different. Paddling became easier. The original pulse, now off to his right, was still there, and still louder than the new one. Perhaps it was worth another try. So he changed course again, and this time the right-hand pulse grew quickly louder. A rip current had taken him out to sea, and by changing course he had swum out of it.
The rhythm of the pulse remained steady, but as it got louder he heard that it was more of a sigh than a thump: a grating, bubbling sigh. And now the clouds cleared and at once the moon was there and just ahead of him was a long line of surf, as far as his tired weak eyes could see, and beyond it a thin strip of sand, and, rising from the sand, low sand hills, bristling with grass.
He coasted through the surf, shook himself dry, hauled himself into a small sand bowl in the dunes—more like a flippered seal than an otter with four good land-adapted legs—curled up, and slept as if he were dead.
There, early next morning, he was found by someone else who had renounced their species for reasons similar to his: a hermit woman, going by the name of Beth to the very few people who ever addressed her.
Beth, appalled by the violence of a disease that could do what it had done to her beloved mother, by the passivity of a human community that could take that violence in its stride and simply send bunches of flowers and polite cards of condolence, had started to notice and be appalled at the background noise of the world: the hiss of unkindness as it corroded every surface it splashed; the chorus of brave and terrified whimpers; the whisper of slander. Once you start to notice anything, you start to notice everything. She smelt the fumes not just of resentment but also of diesel; heard the roar not only of dispossession but also of the ring road; saw not just loneliness and alienation but also the possibility of real community. So she had come to live here in the dunes, in a hut buried invisibly behind a screen of gorse, with an immediate family of two broken-winged magpies, a one-legged raven, a semi-house-trained badger, a box of grass snakes and a blind herring gull. Around her, in the dunes, the sky and the sea, were the other relatives. We’re all broken, she would say. Or soon will be.
In another age they’d have burned her out of envy and bafflement. Today, instead of faggots, they tried to use planning regulations. But the regulations miraculously failed to ignite, and, peeved, her persecutors moved on to denigration, which didn’t touch her at all.
‘Hello, my lovely,’ she said, as she knelt down beside the otter, offering him the back of her hand. He woke, and looked up, and smelt her specieslessness and so felt no fear. He let her stroke him, and she felt his ribs and the spines of his vertebrae and saw the lice scuttling for cover as she brushed back the fur, and squeezed his belly and her fingers nearly met because there was so little in there. She picked him up and he did not bite, but he looked wonderingly from his body to her hands to her face, as if he could not believe what was happening. She tucked him inside her coat and her heart started to beat for him.
It has taken about 25,000 years for wolves to turn into the wolf–human hybrids that are usually called dogs. It is not now possible to distinguish accurately between a human and a dog; to know where one ends and the other begins. It’s not merely that dogs look like their owners. They are their owners. Twenty-five thousand years is quite a long time, but then wolves never intended to become humans, and much of the process of transformation was the violent—or at least gruelling—suppression of certain characteristics of wolfishness which had been carefully cultivated by natural selection over aeons. Where two entities choose to become one it can happen very fast. Take the wedding service, for instance. And when two entities have no allegiance to their own kind, or actively repudiate their own kind, they can be melded very fast too. If a not-quite-wolf had met a not-quite-human, there would have been dogs within the week.
Something like that happened that week in the hut on the dunes. Shamans transform into their spiritual animals, usually after a terrifying apprenticeship involving death, dismemberment and rebirth, and a strenuous set of rituals, often involving profound physiological stress or the use of various hallucinogenic plants. But it need not be so hard. Think of the old wise women of northern Europe who slipped quietly into the shape of a cat or a hare: I doubt they’d dosed up on henbane or psilocybin or danced round the fire until they were so dehydrated that the vessels in their nose leaked and sprayed the fire with blood.
I mustn’t overdramatize. When the process server came ten days later bearing the latest attempt to prise Beth out of the hut he didn’t see a human–otter hybrid. Beth didn’t hastily reassume the form of a greying old woman in a flower-print dress out of a skip. He found Beth sitting outside with the otter on her lap, both of them smiling; two apparently distinct beings. And the few holidaymakers who left the café at the far end of the beach and walked along the tide-line, and the surfers who raised their heads like seals from their boards, saw an old gaunt woman with an otter at her heels.
Sometimes one of the holidaymakers came over to ask what sort of dog he was, and though they did not know why, they were on the right lines. The woman smiled and said he was a sea-hound. The best of the surfers, who were part of the sea—not separated from it by their wetsuits or any presumptions—understood what the dog was and how it really was between Beth and the otter. The really good ones were as austere and ecstatic as St Cuthbert who, after praying all night in the sea (because the sea was part of God, as was he), was warmed and dried by otters (also part of God) when he came back to shore.
The otter, like the woman, had to eat other parts of God to survive. In her early days of awakening this had troubled the woman, just as it has troubled all hunter-gatherers ever since humans discovered that they had a soul, and concluded that everything else must have a soul, too. In hunter-gatherers the problem spawned elaborate rituals of regret, thanks and reparation: in the woman it spawned an attitude and a mumbling litany of regret and thanks and reparation. That litany moved her lips as she walked along the beach—a mumbling often mentioned in statements to the authorities demanding her removal as a danger to children, public order, public morals and public health. Now she smiled, but wistfully, as the otter came out of the surf with a struggling dab in his teeth.
If something is one, as the otter and the woman were, can it become more one? It can. It is a great mystery, and the mystery of the rest of this story.
Here is a proof. Otters who become ordinarily attached to humans become psychotically possessive of their humans, so that when another creature, whether otter, human or otherwise, is perceived as staking a competing claim, the otter turns Othello, sinking its teeth into the competitor. But that didn’t happen here.
There was no doubt about the otter’s devotion to Beth. He lived up her jumper and at her heels, and at night he slept on his back in her bed, his legs in the air and his tail following the curve of her body. They came to breathe as one. He started to eat scrambled egg; she began to prefer fish. They compromised on mackerel omelettes, and ate little else. She learned to whicker and whistle; he, not having the larynx for speech, learned the significance of some human noises and signs, and beckoned with his head. His paws and his lips explored her face, and except when they walked or swam, her hands ruffled his fur. He was male, she was female. The textbooks say that any male who was affectionate to her, or to whom she was affectionate, would have his face torn off.
There were affectionate males. Dan, who was often to be found in his little boat in the estuary on a dark night when the salmon were running and their guardians were tucked up in their semis in Barnstaple, sometimes dropped in with a fish or two and stayed for a cup of tea and a witchy remedy for his warts. One-legged Sid, rat-catcher, bell-ringer and moth-collector of Braunton, came in the summer to visit his light traps on the dunes, and liked to mock Beth for being a soft touch for all animals, and liked even more being denounced as a brute. And gentle, earnest, tweedy John, who slouched along the beach feeling tragic and writing bad couplets about death in an exercise book. John came to the hut between stanzas and ate mackerel omelette gloomily, hunched and silent and looking out to sea and the oblivion he loved. Then he rose, nodded at Beth, hobbled over to her, hugged her clumsily, and stumbled out into the wind.
That hug should have been the end of him, or at least of his face. But not only did he and his face survive; he was hugged and kissed by the otter too. It was very strange. A zoology student at Exeter University wrote a prize-winning dissertation about it which came to no conclusions whatever, and so was feted for its objectivity.
The otter took to waking early in the morning, which was not like him, and undulating into the sea. There he was a different animal, every bit of him liquid, flowing in a way impossible for a creature made just of muscle, bone and blood; bending unanatomically as water winds around stone, feeling the sea fizzing into his face and from his face into his paws, and juggling the fish between his paws before biting into them and feeling their life stream into him.
He often brought his fish back on to the shore to eat them. He had a favourite rock, now crusty with scales, just above the line where the shredded weed and the wrecked birds were washed up. He saw it as a work table; a place of business, for eating was business. He could see the dogs waddling up the beach without being seen or smelt (not that they had meaningful eyes or noses, most of them), and Lundy, when it chose to be seen, and little boats dragging feathered lines for mackerel. Beth joined him here, and he ripped off and left the best bits for her, and his nose and eyes followed her finger as she pointed out the running of the waves, and the plunging of the gannets—all the way from Pembrokeshire—and the slick of oil that flattened the sea and made it look peaceful though that was the most violent part of it. And he stood on his hind legs to get a better view, weaving and swaying like an old drunk at closing time.
Sometimes she slipped into the sea beside him—the first real water she’d been in since her own amniotic sac. She did not bend as he did, but the bone spikes in her neck and back began to dissolve, and when she came up out of the surf, shaking herself, she could swivel her head as he did to watch the gulls.
The world turned, and the light drained out of the land and out of the rivers into the sea. The sea was greedier for the light, and made better use of it. The river was dark with leaves, and the light too thin to cast thick shadows from the stripped trees. But in the sea the summer still burned in the bodies of tiny things and shone in halos round the fins and gills of haddock.
The sun clung on to the roots and the sand and was clenched in the fists of the trees. Geese came from the north, and wrenched tough grass from the fields behind the dunes, thinking it luxury. At night they flew high and fast over the sea, landed in salt furrows, and watched the stars climb until it seemed they would burst out of the ceiling of the sky, and then some geese tucked their heads under their wings and swung with the waves until just before dawn, when they unpacked their heads and saw that the stars had stayed in the sky after all but had started to fall into the sea. And some geese watched all night, being the watching type, and could have told the others that there was no need to worry about losing the stars.
Smaller birds were dragged along in the wake of the geese. They looked fragile—tiny hearts humming inside weightless bone-boxes, boxes with grass-stem legs and split-seed toes and
thin horn beaks full of nerves to feel the scratch and fart of sand worms, and paper wings churning the air furiously and making it like thick cream so that the birds wouldn’t fall, any more than you’d sink through a pavement. They survived because they were small: when the clomping feet of the storms plonked down on the land, they escaped between the toes; when the punches of the winter landed they dodged into the space between the knuckles. When the ocean set out to break bigger, hubristic things, in its boiling wrath it didn’t notice these little things scampering along the seam of the sea.
The otter played with the birds as he played with summer flies, but they disappointed him. They did not buzz round his nose, but skittered down the strand and continued to dash their heads into the beach. Beth, in her old maid’s swimming costume, liked to come at them from the sea, hiding behind the surf, dragging herself the last few yards, her thin sharp hips cutting two tramlines in the sand, and then erupting among the birds. She was the least cruel person in the world, but she enjoyed their confusion; enjoyed being an event in their lives; enjoyed seeing what they did when the flock was split; wondered which of the minds—or was it all the minds mysteriously combined?—decided to wheel back and stitch the remnants of the flock together.
The otter tried Beth’s game. He burst fast out of the sea, into the birds, and up to Beth, one of the birds twitching in his mouth and sand-worm juice dribbling down his chin, and Beth took the bird and kissed it and held it up to the light, wrung its neck and left it for the rats. She said nothing, but the otter would not play the game again and soon the flock’s memory of death from the waves ebbed away.
Though the winter came, and the light left, it was not winter as it used to be. There were no huge white killing birds from the Arctic tundra or the silent woods of Scandinavia. There was only ever a puckered film of ice on the ponds, like the skin on Beth’s evening cocoa. The otter never had to risk his life by tugging down a swan and drinking its blood. He killed a dog once—a footling, yapping, irrelevant poodle which was an offence to nature, but that was about justice, self-defence and aesthetics, not food, and he couldn’t have eaten a scented, shampooed animal, as none of us should. He buried it in a rabbit hole, and after a couple of months, it smelt a good deal better.
The earth stiffened, but not to steel. The grass-tips whitened in the night, but by mid-morning were again the tired grey-green of English winter. The rooks drilled for worms in the softened earth from lunchtime to nightfall. The fleshiest surfers stayed in their summer wetsuits. Beth put out fat for the blue tits, but out of habit rather than conviction. The shore birds not only endured, which was their only job now, but thrived—which made a nonsense of many things. The red deer stayed on the moor and left the turnips and gardens alone. Bees woke before the flowers, and starved. Hedgehogs snored less deeply, and sometimes tottered from their dry-leaf nests, and round the woods, hungover with sleep, drunkenly eating the slugs that should not have been there. The fulmars did not need to fluff themselves on the ledges. Christmas bats fed on dopey Christmas moths. The dog-walkers had thin coats and no hats and in their baths, horrified, they twisted off the ticks that should have been asleep until Easter. The salmon ran up the rivers two months early, the fleas hopped in the sun on the neck of a basking fox, and a peregrine narrowed her eyes against the glare. Screaming gulls snatched ice cream from screaming children in January. Drains were blocked with unwanted soup. Streams fogged with algae. Frogs grappled ecstatically in ditches. Flowers unfurled. Snakes thawed, unwound and pushed out trembling tongues to catch the scent of an unseasonal crocus. Hedges trilled. Town cars, undercarriages scraping the tarmac under the weight of the kids and the picnic, clogged the roads down from Georgeham. There were rumours of February swallows, and before February was out a snake had climbed up the blooming blackthorn to eat a clutch of newly hatched song thrushes, the badgers had had a spring clean, the lambs were almost edible, the crows shone, the fox cubs chewed on the rubbery bones of the year’s second generation of baby rabbits, the geese were thinking of the lakes of Iceland and wondering if they were too heavy to fly that far, the Braunton shops sold out of buckets, spades and inflatable dinosaurs, farmers scratched their heads and rewrote their plans, and goldfinches stretched out on ants’ nests to be squirted with formic acid.
And the sea: the old implacable sea; the sea swelled as the bellies of the voles were swelling, but with meltwater from ancient glaciers, and bided its time, eyeing up the woods beyond the dunes, and the moors beyond the woods.
The otter loved it. There was plenty of amusing killing to be done, and after the killing a shake in the surf and a roll on the new grass. The teeth of winter had never closed in his legs or his tail or his liver, but still he knew that the warm Atlantic wind and the green were good. He saw white sunlight split by the drops of the turning wave into many colours, and thought that if white light was like that there was no end to the wonders of the unfolding world.
But when he woke beside Beth in the night he knew she was not well: felt it in her crimped neck and crouched in her bladder and running down the big lines on her palms. He tried to rub some of the sun on his coat off on to her to tell her it was all right, and she thanked him by ruffling him, but her neck and bladder and palms were the same.
She knew that the Earth needed to rest, regroup, reorganize and make sense of the summer; to redraft its stories in the cold as we did when we were sane, and knew that if the big stories failed there could be no little stories either—not that any story is really little. She knew that the stories were set to trillions and trillions of contrapuntal tunes, and that the flies and dolphins and logarithms and principles danced, and that if the pace was too fast one dancer and then another would drop behind and then, because every proper dance needs every dancer, the dance would be spoiled by the malcoordination of even one. She felt the spoiling in her neck and bladder and palms, and pushed the otter gently aside in the night to go outside and swivel her neck and scratch her palms and try to pee the spoil out of her bladder.
It wouldn’t go. It stayed and spilt out into her pelvis just as it stayed in and moved through the world, and moved into her eyes, and the otter saw it there.
He knew that the spoil would move, because everything did. Rivers flow, seas churn, prawns dash, limpets graze, rocks get wet, then dry, and lichen creeps over them, and the rocks themselves crumble into the sea and the moor. He was not troubled by worries about whether there was such a thing as an eddy in a river—the eddy being composed of different atoms every moment. He knew that all was process: he lived in process; caught fish in process; his defecation was process; the hairs on his legs had never lain in exactly the configuration they were now, and never would again in the history of the universe, and that would be true whether or not he licked his legs. And the procession he knew was all glorious: a procession from glory to glory; from mackerel omelette to a small plaice to a slow sand eel and then back to the omelette. And since by the time he ate the sand eel he had forgotten the taste of the omelette, the omelette was new and splendid and a huge improvement on the sand eel. Then, after the omelette, the novelty of a rabbit was beyond splendour. So, circling back to old–new omelettes and new chases and new waves and whirlpools, the whole procession got better and better as his taste for splendour and omelette and sand eel and waves was honed, and so of course the spoil would be washed out of Beth’s eyes and she would shine more brightly than she ever had.
Beth, long ago, before she knew what she was asking, had asked to be claimed by the land. It was a brave, terrible and very old prayer. (She had never had the nerve to ask to be claimed by the sea, but had assumed that the process of getting old would give her that nerve. That hadn’t happened.)
Her prayer had been answered. For no one distinguished between Beth and the dunes. Her hair was the colour of the moonlight on the grass, her hands mottled like the lizards’ backs. She had a mole on her back patterned like the beetles that clustered on the ragwort. Her clothes were heavy with sand. Most of her molecules came from a few acres round her hut, as a badger’s come from a few acres round its sett. She went to Braunton once a year, on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, for no reason she could identify. Last time she took the otter, asleep at the bottom of her backpack, and had tried not to see the pointings or hear the mutterings, and had bought a bar of chocolate, taken a bite and thrown the rest in the river. She kept the times of the dunes, and was awake at four on summer mornings and asleep by six in the evenings of the winters-that-never-are. Sometimes, her head on the ground, she thought she could hear the slowbreathing of the dunes and then realized it was her own.
Now her rest was gone. She could weave no new stories, and could make no sense of the old stories about herself. She simmered in the winter heat, but no flavour came off her bones along with the flesh that was now coming away.
The otter was a good judge of flesh. Now, at night, Beth’s toast-rack ribs grated against his tail. He saw that the spoil was still in her eyes; that there was more of it, and it was forming into lumps.
He did not understand this, for in this strange spring there were more fish, rabbits and flies than ever, and his own story was as sunny as the beach and the woods, and the grasshoppers were back, and he had caught a small salmon and brought it, still twitching, to Beth, who had hacked a petrol can in half and used it to steam the salmon, and they had eaten it together looking out at the hunting gannets. But Beth had jumped up and rushed off and he had heard her make the sort of sounds otter cubs make when they eat bony fish too fast, and next day there was a little pool of salmon where she had been. She melted, though not with the sun.
By high summer the dunes were an oven. The hollows filled with hot air, and there was no wind to sweep it out. Grass turned to hay in the fields long before it was cut. Ice cream ran down the children’s arms before the gulls could dive for it. Sand eels, flung on to the shore by languid waves, were cooked before the gulls could find them. Families huddled under beach umbrellas to look at their phones until it was time to join the queue of traffic. Surfers cursed the children on bodyboards. The cafés doubled their prices. The gardens smelt of paraffin and charred meat. The shops ran out of beer and fans. Everyone ignored the hosepipe ban. It was said that there was an outbreak of amoebic dysentery in Barnstaple. Some herons died of botulism. The abortion rate shot up. Youths broke beer glasses into their friends’ faces. Rabbit milk dried up and because the young rabbits died underground the young buzzards died in the tree tops. Fire from fag-ends killed one thousand three hundred and forty-two meadow pipit nestlings and eighteen late cuckoos, not to mention an uncountable number of shrews, voles, mice and sheep ticks. A desperate barn owl ate his own chicks.
‘It used to be the winter that bit us badly,’ mused Mark the cider-maker, leaning on one of the barrels in his cider shed and watching the swallows loop in through the door and up to the beams where their lean chicks were screaming. ‘Now it’s the summer. It’s not right.’
Beth was not right either. She tried to sleep in the day, but the heat that withered the dunes seemed to come from inside her. She rose when darkness fell, and limped down to the sea, now bent nearly double, the subdued otter at her side, looking up at her, trying to interest her in a dead dolphin or an oystercatcher’s skull or a doormat. He jumped up to nibble at her face: he could do that easily now, even when she was walking, and she nibbled him back, getting strength for a moment from his salt fishy spit and the keen edges of his teeth.
Only in the sea could she unbend, and then only at night, when the dogs had waddled back to the cars and the litter was invisible. Then she and the otter wound round one another and her guts let go of her. Then she opened her eyes under the water and saw friendly stars, and lay on her back and saw the same stars marching from horizon to horizon. The otter always had to push her back to the beach these days; had to remind her that the sea was not her home; that they had to go to the hut, for omelettes had to be made, birds’ legs splinted and cabbages watered.
Back on the beach she could see no stars, and the spoiling came back inside her. I should not complain, she said to herself; nothing is hale and whole for long; we are all prey. But that sounded strained and false when she heard her voice properly, for secretly she did not want to be spoiled, and did not want to be eaten. There is only so much we can share happily, and it does not include our offal or our bones.
Spoiled or not, the world continued for the moment to spin. For most humans the spinning was like the rocking of a cradle. It reassured: it was soporific. But for Beth there was no peace and no sleep, for the spoiling of the world now grew fast inside her like a monstrous child, and her spoiled belly pushed out to meet the spoiled world of which it was a part. She felt the desperation of the child to be born and to join in with the spoiling of everything, and was too tired to resist its will and its push.
There were still omelettes to be made and legs to be splinted. The obligations of caring, as the wise well know, can stave off everything for a while, including death. Whenever she stroked the otter’s head, or put his meal in the bowl, or put out fat for the blue tits, or changed the dressing on the burned hedgehog, the spoiledness retreated and the child shrank.
For a while.
On the night when, for the first time that year, there was more dark than light, Beth gently pulled back the blanket that covered her and the otter. She did not put on her shoes, but opened the door of the hut and walked out through the bowl of moonlight and into the sea, and there she lay on her back again and smiled, and her temperature was soon the temperature of the sea.
The otter was woken by the sun streaming into his eyes. He moved his tail, but Beth was not there. He slid down from the bed and undulated round the hut. No sign. The door was open. He went out. The prints of her bare feet led across the dunes and down to the sea. He followed them, stopping on every fifth print to sniff and to try to fit his prints inside hers.
The prints led into the water. The tide was coming in fast, washing the trail away; putting her traces into solution. The otter whickered; stood on his hind legs and stretched his neck to look out to sea. He turned in confusion back to the remaining prints and moved back up the beach following them. Then, understanding, he turned back to the sea.
Extracted from Cry of the Wild: Eight Animals Under Siege, by Charles Foster, published by Doubleday. Copyright © Charles Foster 2023.
Illustrations copyright © 2023 Jackie Morris.