By Gary Leising
On vacation in Guatemala, my friend was swimming in the Rio Dulce when three giant river otters grabbed her, pulled her under, their teeth stretching the edges of her nylon/lycra composite bathing suit, and she was gone. Never to be seen again. Her husband and the guide stared, watching other otters cut the brown water’s surface. Their aerodynamic heads, bullet-shaped, appeared then vanished. They dove for food or played as if nothing had happened, but the guide knew their paths crisscrossed the spot where the abductors went down, waves destroying the widening circles a scuba rescue team might use to triangulate a dive spot. “Rio Dulce,” he told the husband, “means River of Death.” He did not say what he thought: “Another gringo taken means one less of my family will be.” He skippered a tour boat named Pura Vida, which, that night, the husband told the hotel bartender meant “pour me another drink.”
Unable to get drunk on two cases of cheap lager, the husband stayed awake all night certain that tingling feeling was from little fish that darted up his urethra when he swam in the river. He felt them nose against then nibble on the fleshy tissue of his bladder. In that aquarium, they would erect plastic plants and a mossy sunken pirate ship. They would lay their eggs in his cells. The eggs would hatch, he told the concierge in the morning, and the little fish would reprogram his stem cells, which would divide and replicate into little fish. From the inside out his organs were turning to fish—he could feel it—so he needed a taxi to the river. “Take all my money,” he said, “my ATM card.” He whispered his PIN and said he needed to be at the river when he became entirely fish, whose millions would disperse to find her, then reunite, school in the shape of his body, and swim her back to land.
In a cave of ancient Mayan ruins, the otters keep my friend. There is enough air there for her to live forever. They treat her like a goddess, sacrificing otter virgins and winning athletes to her. They bring her shellfish she cracks open with stones and they praise her ingenuity, though all of them have known the use of this basic tool since youth. She can not hear the inflection of mock-praise in their voices. In other rivers she is otter-myth, woman who swims the Dulce’s length in an hour, who holds her breath for days, who resurrects the souls of all otter dead. Other rivers’ otters send her gifts of small fish packed in mussel shells, fish she eats like sardines, tiny fish tasting of cerveza and ammonia. Otters who love her say Rio Dulce means “River of Pee-Fish Goddess”; those who fear her, “River of the Husband-Eater.” It means neither, but my friend’s name is Linda, which is Spanish for pretty.
Gary Leising is the author of a chapbook of poems, Fastened to a Dying Animal. He lives in Utica, New York, with his wife and two sons, where he teaches creative writing and poetry as an associate professor of English.