When the cold nights close in and the old house can’t possibly feel warm enough, there’s just enough downy comfort under which we can crawl. For this we are very fortunate, because generations past didn’t have the L.L.Bean catalog, general supplier of immediate winter warmth, to keep their toes warm. Instead, they made their own insulation, collecting goose down themselves and preparing pelts ahead of season, when balmy breezes blew dandelion puffs across summer meadows.
Last summer, Dad was driving home along the highway when he watched an unlucky river otter meet the fender of a pickup truck, five-odd cars ahead of him, as it crossed the paved wetlands. Mind you, an otter encounter in Texas is a rare event, much less along the interstate. Dad would need no convincing otherwise therefore when he let off the gas that day and turned on the blinkers. An animal so curious and playful demanded a proper rest, he thought. So dad laid the poor dead otter in the trunk of his car and carried it home, eighty-odd miles west, to Houston.
Dad says there is no animal more difficult to skin than a river otter. It is long, slender and strong and the hide is tough. It took the sap out of dad to prepare this hide, but he will agree that it’s the finest fur he’s ever felt. He seems nostalgic to talk of the otter, thinking perhaps of its sad fate that day.
Until he slides his arm into the pelt, like a sock, and begins to animate it for Chas!
They get so carried away playing otter that it seems perfectly natural to sneak into the bathroom and surprise Ford, who is meanwhile very occupied with other business:
I run my palm down the length of the pelt, smooth and slick, a coffee brown summer coat. All gleaming hairs lay flat, in one direction, perfect for fast swimming. They speak nothing of insulation. Months would have added thick pile, something your fingers could have detected blindfolded. Now, though: summer taper.
I don’t like to think of what may have happened to this beautiful creature, had Dad not chanced upon it in time; nature begins the recycling process very quickly in Texas, especially in the heat of summer: vultures, crows, seagulls, raccoons, coyotes and certainly the dreaded flies. The carcass would take less than a half hour to lose recognition.
Instead, this animal plays on in our home, from hand to hand, exploring a curious world through our imagination. Its skin reminds us how difficult it once was to make a simple winter coat. It teaches us about the otter’s kind, its fur giving us a new vocabulary of texture; its blunt mortality providing us a deeper understanding of the size of our footprint on the neighboring wetlands.
It’s people like Dad who synapse us to the past, to our roots and to the earth. I wouldn’t feel as connected if it weren’t for him, as crazy as he was for pulling over on the interstate to cradle fresh roadkill home.
(not to mention hiding all four feet of it from MOM!)