A mystical, magic evening - for those who know

By Lynn Stratton
Published May 6, 2007

Before sundown, the visitation begins.

My husband and I go to the park near our home. We bring the dog.

It's a nice park: 20 acres or so, with a big lake, lots of ducks.

We walk toward the shoreline and take our positions.

And we watch.

The dog, unconcerned, goes about his business at the end of his leash, pursuing each smell as if it holds some great secret. He sniffs and stares at each fallen palm frond with powers of concentration I envy.

But our eyes are on the shoreline. We begin to walk in a slow, careful circle around the lake.

The others have begun circling as well. Some are not accustomed to the peculiar gait of walking on sloping ground, but we all persist, knowing this is important.

When we pass the others, we nod. We don't know one another, but we share a secret, one that has brought us all to a small lake in the center of a small city.

One block away is a busy street, all neon and rushing vehicles, exhaust and noise. As the sun disappears, we can see the lights of restaurants and cafes beyond the trees, even make out the time on the clock on a tall building downtown, close enough that we could walk there. A few blocks away, a coffeehouse is getting livelier.

In the park, it's getting quieter.

As shadows deepen, we linger at the culverts that dot the edge of the lake. We wait, watch, and then, reluctantly, move on to the next one.

Again, we linger, peering at the lake's edge, trying to will their appearance.

Then we see that a small knot of people is gathered at the culvert beyond ours. Someone is pointing downward.

We make our way there quickly, not running but wanting to. The dog plays along, although he is a strong-willed animal and used to getting his way.

The three of us arrive at the correct culvert and creep toward it quietly. We don't wish to startle our visitors, make them disappear.

We look down at the concrete pad that slopes into the water.

A fish lies there, dead, one of the big tilapia that inhabit the lake.

They spawn this time of year, their nests the large, pale circles of sand visible in the shallows. Those who care to can often find a single fish in the center of each nest, very still, making just a slight movement to show that someone is home, guarding the eggs.

This night, the dead fish is still intact, which means the visitors haven't eaten yet.

Suddenly, a head pops up from the water, looking almost cartoonish. The otter has sleek, glistening fur, and its dark eyes peer at us as curiously as we peer at him.

No one speaks. The dog seems to realize something special is happening, and he sits quietly beside me.

And then one of the pups appears. It moves fluidly, as if it's part fish.

Then the others appear one by one until we are watching all five together, the two adults and their three pups.

The evening grows darker, but we stay, maybe a dozen of us and two or three dogs, although the numbers are fluid, too, people and dogs coming and going, greeting one another briefly.

We're all unusually well-behaved. We speak in whispers.

There's a noise like fabric tearing, and I realize one of the adult otters has seized the fish and is beginning to eat.

One pup noses a paper cup that's floating in the water. Someone says it's playing with it. Maybe so. Then another pup joins it in pushing the cup around.

We stand and watch until it's almost completely dark. The otters enter and leave the water so smoothly that one second they're there and the next they're simply gone.

One woman holds up her cell phone, trying to get a clear shot, then frowns, says it's too dark. Can she take a picture of our dog instead?

Our dog stands, curious, and stares into her phone. She clicks it, looks, then smiles. Thanks us.

The atmosphere is festive, as if we are celebrating something.

The otters poke their heads into the culvert pipe, come back out, slide into the water, surface again. Then they begin to appear less frequently. As if we are watching fireworks, we peer into the darkness. Are they really gone? Is it over?

We wouldn't want to walk away and then realize there was more, that we had left too soon.

But there isn't more, and it is over, at least for this night.

The circle breaks up slowly. The dog stands, stretches. We nod at the few who remain with us, acknowledging this secret we share.

A raised eyebrow: Tomorrow?

A nod: Of course. And the secret smile.

Then we turn to leave, and we melt into the darkness.



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