They were there again this morning, almost in the same place.
November mist, and mild. Bird calls. Water birds. Moorhen, mallard, geese. Nobody much about. I've dropped the kids at school and can breathe a little. My dog Barney and I are bimbling along the river bank. He with his agenda, I with mine.
It's nearly the same place as before, and the water is otter-coloured, silted with roots, reeds and fallen leaves. It ribbons around submerged things, slides with strange ripples and currents that swirl to the surface. It's hard to focus. Time and sound bend and stretch. The surface is chinked with light and smoothness; it ripples, confuses, changes.. and I'm coming out of my human skin with all its dark thoughts and wonderings. I'm empty enough to see them, I think.
There's been heavy rain, and I'm worrying that this will have flushed out my otters. One of them disappeared into an underwater holt last time I was here, and if the river level rises like this, do they have to move out? Do they struggle? Will they have gone to some other part of the river?
Anyone else might have thought it was bird-sound, but my ear tells me otherwise. It's a musical 'cheep' ... 'cheep' - soft, but insistent. It slides over the water. O to have the ears of an owl. Lopsided, but very effective. I wish. I strain my senses, but they're no use, so I let them go.
It's there, again, and now I'm even more sure. It's not particularly distinguishable from the many bird calls that ring from every direction, but most resembles the kingfisher. The otter's call has an irregular rhythm, and unlike the startling kingfisher note as it arrows upstream, it's brief, staccato. Even knowing this, you may not hear it. When I recognise their voices, I can tune in.
While I'm still, the mallards flurry in a kerfuffle of panic; they fly up and away, indicating exactly where the otters are.
A presence pops the surface and pours downriver. Purposeful. They could be just ripples. They appear and disappear. Everything about the otter, including its voice, is honed for disguise. I'll lose them soon.
I should go back a bit. I was bimbling along, but I was going too fast to notice anything. The brisk walk most of us do, the kind of walk that's filled with thoughts and clutter, of the weekend's frustrations, joys, sadness.. this kind of walk will yield nothing. I can't hear properly. So I check my pace, slow, focus my eyes on the edges of the water. Its surface is dark, sinister-brown, with inscrutable depths. Barney dog, intrigued at the change in my behaviour, begins tiptoeing carefully behind me. He's a collie, and although he sometimes has lapses, now instinctively understands what is required.
I'm standing beside a gate, screened by some sallow and oak branches. A movement on the water. The size of a water vole, but with a wake. Henry Williamson, who wrote 'Tarka the Otter' and spent many years down at otter-nose-level, called it a 'ream'. Half way between a ripple, and a beam of light. The otter's head catches light, is light, is water.
It dives and its companion dives with it. They are water shapes, a presence that could be nothing, and most would miss them. How many times have I been here and not noticed? Travelling downstream this time, their bubbles fizz to the surface where they are foraging in the river's belly. A split second later they are slippery, up on the slope of a half-sunken tree, exposed fur smooth as silk and dripping. One is slightly slimmer, or smaller. A pair? They could be mother and yearling.
Their fur is exactly the colour and texture of the water. They chew their prey rapidly, swallow and dive again, this time porpoising a little, but moving as one. I follow them. Barney, following my whispered orders, sits like a statue. He knows the routine.
As I scan with my binoculars a runner distracts us; shocked by his sudden appearance, we fall out of our watching. Barney wants to play, offering a stick, and I want to tell. Are they there? he asks, stopping his run, looking at the water, steaming a little. Yes, I say, but we won't see them now.
I follow their chirps downstream but do not see them again. They dissolve in a trail of calls that vanish up the riverbank and into a tangle of marsh.