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On the Banks of the Sararahelkos

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After the first two days, the giant otters of River Sararahelkos take pity on the floppy-furred pink thing. Clearly it is inadequate relative to otters – a poor disposition, clawless paws, no waterproof skin, although the flawlessly groomed fur on the top of its head is entertaining to bat about – and the otters begin to fear it may not be capable of feeding itself. Great Mother, the eldest of the clan, takes it upon herself to teach Floppy-Hair to hunt, bringing the creature dead fish at first, then live ones for it to kill. She will not let it starve. That would be inhospitable.

Floppy-Hair clubs the fish with a rock – a cruder tool than claws, but just as effective – and anoints Great Mother “Squeakywhiskers.”

The warm and crackling orange thing it constructs and places the fish upon is intriguing. Nose-tickling char wafts towards the otter clan, bringing them round to watch and wonder what Floppy-Hair is doing to the fish, why it is not ripping it with tooth and claw, or cracking clams on its belly with a spare shell. Whatever creature it is, it’s unknown and hilariously awkward, but the titbits it doles out are solid-textured and unique; less spongy, more silky, oils muted but complex. Not every member of the clan enjoys their gift, but Squeakywhiskers gives Floppy-Hair a chittering of approval and receives a tap on the nose in return.

It can swim, albeit not as gracefully as the rest of the clan. When it sheds its skin, it’s as pink as young freshwater salmon, but curiously, it can put its skin back on again, and usually does. Occasionally, it disappears inside a tall blue box and returns with a slightly different skin, the red band round its neck mysteriously turning blue or purple, perhaps due to the creature’s mood. The box will not open to the clan’s touch, but it warms their paws and vibrates soothingly when the otters curl and sleep beside it.

They discover the stranger is soft and squishy in the middle, like good shellfish, but should not be eaten, for its fingers are longer than otterkind’s and can be used to reach the itchy spot at the centre of the spine. The otters line up for blissful back-scratches, offering iridescent trout in return that Floppy-Hair impales on sticks and places in the orange glow until the musty scent of fish oil is maddening. But it always offers flakes of flesh, sometimes even the crunchy eyes and sharp-edged cheeks, to those otterkind who have learned to enjoy it.

On the day the clan’s latest pups begin to open their eyes, they spot a new creature, one with corkscrewed yellow fur that puts Floppy-Hair’s pelt to shame.

“You’re still here?” Yellow-Hair says to Floppy-Hair. Its tone is needling but gentle, and half the clan bets the other fistfuls of mussels that the two creatures are mates.

“Just waiting for you to see the error of your ways,” Floppy-Hair replies. “I knew you’d come round eventually.”

“I haven’t, but Father said you should never go to bed angry. So I went back to work, finished out the term, marked up all the exams, and now I’m not angry anymore, except at that one little Lunan who thinks his parents can buy him full honours. Oh, no, not in my class, they can’t.” Yellow-Hair reaches for Floppy-Hair’s purple skin, begins removing it from the top down. “Anyway, since I’m not angry with you anymore, and there’s our lovely bed on the TARDIS –”

Floppy-Hair’s paws, then his lips, caress the other creature’s face. Half the clan grumbles and hands over the victory mussels.

“If you insist,” Floppy-Hair says, leading its mate away from the riverbank. “But I still say ‘GIF’ is pronounced with a soft ‘g’.”

“Of course it isn’t, sweetie, but I forgive you.”

Paw-in-paw, the creatures walk towards the blue box, still arguing with good humour. Great Mother squeaks her well-wishes as Floppy-Hair turns to wave goodbye.

None of the otters ever finds out what a “GIF” is.