Stella’s New Family

Sometimes, your family finds you.

Photo by Manuel Sardo on Unsplash

The tide is turning. I never remember if it is in or out. But the ocean noises change when the tide turns. I can’t remember who taught me that. Maybe my grandmother?

I was named after my other grandmother, Stella. She had had six boys and never knew how to treat me, a girl. The handful of times Stella found herself watching me for a bit were all awkward. With mum, it was always just a bit or a minute. But her minutes were never just that. They had a way of turning into hours, sometimes even longer. Early in my seventh year of life, one of my mother’s minutes turned into a three-day bender.

After that, Stella was hesitant to look after me.

Grandma was always “Stella” to me. We both had the same name, and this felt right in my eight-year-old thinking. I felt I’d discovered a loophole for not addressing her as she wished. I think she hated me. I know she loathed me calling her by her first name. She complained to mum a few times about this “disrespectful behavior.” But she didn’t understand how to choose her moments. She usually just laid right into mom when she pulled herself away from whatever gin joint or dive she’d been holed up in for the past hours or days.

She was usually bleary-eyed and hungover or drunk. I almost laughed each time. Mom’s eyes would go wide. For some reason, that was funny to me. I usually had to leave the room and find some remote corner in Stella’s musty house where I could laugh without fear of punishment.

Grandma wasn’t a nice lady. Mom had an excuse; she was an addict. Grandmother Stella had no such excuse. I guess her excuse was she was a jerk.

An early morning mist covers the ocean. Not thick enough to be considered a fog. Not by me.

It’s going to be a gray day. If the sun doesn’t appear soon and sweep this light-blocking moisture away, it’s going to be a gray day.

Squeals of happiness make their way over the small set of dunes that are essentially my front yard.

My otters are back.

I wish I still had my phone, the one with the nice camera. I’d take pictures of the castles. No one would believe me without proof.

I’ll tell you the story, but you’re not going to believe me. Trust me, I wouldn’t believe me either. Don’t feel bad. It’s a crazy story.

Photo by Ryan Hyde on Unsplash

It was a few days after I first came to this place. My divot in the cliff wall was much shallower then. This would have been three years ago, give or take. I remember it was my birthday when I arrived here: September 7. Finally, I was twenty-one! Hooray. All alone in a mostly empty world, but at least I was a legal adult.

That was the first time I heard the otters laughing. I went to investigate. It was hard finding them; the sound does funny things near the ocean. The sand, wind, pounding waves crashing into the beach, and even the salt content in the air, I think, do peculiar things to the soundwaves. My brother could have explained it better. I miss him. He’s all gone now.

I found them in a depressed expanse that sat between three dunes. Dozens of otters engaged in an unlikely enterprise.

Still with me? Good, because none of this is the unbelievable bit. That’s next and concerns the nature of the otter enterprise.

They were building sandcastles.

See? I told you. Unbelievable.

But it gets worse. If you weren’t ready to write me off as a loon before, you will after I tell you the next part.

Photo by Emmanuel Acua on Unsplash

The castles, unlikely as their structures were in the first place, were brighter than I expected from the sand.

It was a misty day then, too. It’s usually overcast to a greater or lesser extent here. I’m used to it by now. By now, this is my home. Well, specifically, my shallow divot in the crumbly cliff wall is.

I approached the otters. From an oblique, non-threatening angle, while displaying my palms, as if to show the otters: ‘Hey otters, look here. It’s just me, Stella, from southern Illinois. I don’t mean you any harm.’

My brothers would laugh at this. They’re all gone now. In the end, the vid took most of the male species. It was an ugly time.

The otters looked at me briefly. They were focused on their castle constructions. It wasn’t just one castle. No, it was an array of white sandcastles. And I’m not being generous. It wasn’t a dozen pillars of sand. They were glorious castles. With lots of details. Plinths, columns, arches, stairways, balustrades, balconies, and elaborate details-all rendered in what I thought was white sand.

I was wrong. It wasn’t white sand; it was salt.

Dozens of otters creating elaborate, detailed castles out of salt.

If you think sandcastles are fragile, try making one out of salt. Ha!

Somehow, the otters had pulled enough salt from the sand to create an enormous stockpile over the next dune.

I watched them do this. They sifted through the sands, grain by grain, extracting individual grains of salt and then storing them separately from the sands.

I looked around for a camera crew. I was sure this was a prank, but it was just me and the otters.

Skeptical old me wanted, no, I needed proof that this wasn’t a prank.

Would the otters bite me if I proceeded directly to what I had in mind? Were they ever violent?

I didn’t want to make enemies with them. I was new to the neighborhood, and I hadn’t seen another animal or human, so upsetting the playful creatures was the furthest thing from my mind.

I made what I felt were enough oohs and ahs as I approached the edge of the division of castles. I picked a more modest-sized castle, probably belonging to a lesser royalty.

“Wow. That is so gorgeous, you guys. You did all of this? By yourself? Unbelievable.”

When I lived in Missouri, I did a bit of community theater. I reached back to those memories. I had to make this next bit believable to my audience of distracted otters.

Method acting tip: if you want to project distracted, find a way to be distracted. I fumble through my purse, taking the next several steps without watching where I’m going.

I intentionally rolled my ankle, the one I broke years ago. I did enough rehab and strengthened the surrounding muscles that I thought I could do without hurting myself.

I was still looking through my purse.

For theater fans, my interior dialog was something like this.

“Don’t I have my phone in here somewhere?”

I wanted to impress my neighbors. I didn’t have many options for social interactions in this barren world.

I’d like to thank the academy, my parents, my brothers, rest in peace fellows, a God who has clearly abandoned his pet project. 

When I fell forward, I stretched out my arms as if to break my fall. My real motivation was to take out as much of the castle as possible.

When I stood up, I was covered in salt.

My performance wasn’t over yet. Then I had to do penitent, clumsy human number one.

I brushed the salt away from my limbs and torso. But what was this? Did I destroy your tiny house? I directed the thought will all the energy and intensity and compassion to the nearest group of otters.

There were four of them. In unison, they ceased their efforts on the castle next door and regarded me solemnly.

“Oh! I’m so sorry,” I said.

Then the crying started.

At first, the crying was an artifice. Acting.

But then, the accumulated sorrow of the past twelve years burst through, and I wasn’t acting at all. I was bawling before my new neighbors, in their subdivision of unlikely salt castles.

My brothers. Gone. Dead now. They would always and only be dead from this point forward.

And then a peculiar sadness invaded my consciousness.

The otters. My neighbors. The only fellow creatures I’d seen in years, and I crushed one of their creations.

But I had wanted proof. I tried to rationalize my destructive first interaction with my furry friends.

The tears turned into sobs. Then the sobs turned into a bawling, and I threw myself to the sand again, this time away from the circle of princely homes.

I was bawling.

The otters encircled me. They slowly approached. I was Gulliver to these hairy Lilliputians. I heard a dry scratching.

One of the larger otters was rolling a can toward me. He or she pushed the can against my thigh. It was a beer. Mom’s favorite indulgence. But, as far as I know, I’m not an alcoholic like her.

I’m not going to be so gauche as to commit two faux pas on my first meeting with these unlikely architects.

I picked the beer up. It was dented on the bottom end, but looked intact. I wiped a few grains of salt sand off the top, pulled the tab, and took a long swig. It wasn’t overly cold, but it was delicious.  

Then I was crying again.

Eventually, I fell asleep.

When I woke, they’d nearly finished rebuilding the castle I had damaged.

I had my proof.

Crazy as it sounds, the otters had built these structures.

Even better. I had new neighbors, ones that cared about me.

I make my way to the otters.

I see three new members. Glenda delivered her litter during the night.

She approaches me, holding one of her new offspring. She hands me the little thing. Its eyes aren’t even open yet.

The otters are waiting. They stand in a loose arc behind Glenda, watching me, waiting, a ritual we’ve repeated since shortly after I got here.

I study the warm little fur ball in my hand. Without effort, memories of me holding a different baby fly into my mind.

“Adam,” I say.

My third brother.

I check, and the new otter is a boy. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it did this time.

“Adam,” I saw again, holding the little fellow up to the others.

Glenda takes Adam from me, then hands me the next one to name.

They are my family, and I am theirs. I’m honored to be such a member of this clan. I get to name them; they are my family.

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