It was on the first full day of their vacation that Ana saw the otter.
She had woken early to a pearlescent morning, glowing with dew and the pink remains of mist. Silently, she pulled on a pair of shorts and slipped her feet into her sandals before heading quietly outside. The dew on the lawn was cold on her feet. She followed the brick pathway to the end of the garden.
Below her, the river rushed strongly. Opening the rickety wooden gate, she descended the moss-stained brick staircase winding down the steep bank, cut among the bushes and trees, down to the little jetty.
The rowboat that came with the rental rocked and swayed on the water. Ana didn’t get in it, but sat on the jetty, admiring the river, running gray and strong in the morning light, still wreathed with pale mists. The scene—running river, rising mist, dim trees beyond—might have come from another time.
There came a splash.
Ana looked down—and lurched to her feet, heart pounding. There was a huge smooth head in the water, as dark as her own—a person! But no: she saw the ears, the eyes, the huge wide snout. It was an otter—but an otter with jet-black fur, the size of a seal, here in this little river. It was looking right at her.
Ana backed away. A gleam caught her eye.
Earrings. The otter was wearing round golden earrings.
It gave a gruff bark, echoing on the silent river, and flowed closer, head cutting the water. Its huge dark eyes were intent on Ana. The water made a vee behind its determined progress. Any minute now, it would be at the jetty.
Ana turned and ran, scrambling up the staircase, while behind her the otter’s frustrated, angry barks rang.
She told her brother and sister-in-law about it at breakfast.
“I saw this huge otter this morning.” She did not mention the earrings.
“Down by the river?” Megan took a bite of toast.
“Yes. Thing was the size of a harbor seal!”
“That’s ridiculous.” Jose barely looked up from his laptop. “River otters don’t get that big.” He frowned into his screen and typed some more.
“This one was.”
“You were probably imagining things. You do imagine things, you know, Ana.” He saw something on the screen and smiled. “Ah.”
“Maybe.” Ana licked her lips, mustering her courage. “Um—Jose?”
“Yes?” he grunted from behind his screen.
“You know about the trust? I still haven’t gotten my share, and I was wondering when—”
“Not now, Ana.” He made a cutting gesture.
“Yes,” said Megan kindly, taking a sip of coffee. “We’re on vacation.”
“Well, you know, I would have been better able to help pay for this vacation if—”
“You’re the one who insisted on becoming an artist,” said Jose. “I told you there was no money in it.”
“I’m a designer,” Ana said. “A graphic designer.”
“Well, go design some graphics, then,” he said. “Get a job in advertising. You can’t rely on your family forever, you know.”
Ana did do some work, setting up her laptop outside in the sunlight. It made her feel calmer, after this morning’s animal encounter and then the confrontation at breakfast. She actually had a gig right now, designing a website. She sighed, thinking of the art she could be making if only she didn’t have to take these jobs. If only she had the money from Dad’s trust…
Ana looked up, just in time to see a slim, overalled figure drop a cascade of cleaning equipment over the garden fence. “Oh—I’m sorry!” Red-faced, the girl hurriedly opened the gate and knelt to pick up her dropped tools, shoving them back into her basket. Behind her, an old bike leaned against the fence.
“Here—let me.” Ana hurried over to help.
“Thanks!” The girl pushed back wild red hair, grinning sheepishly. “I’m Mary Slocum. I’m supposed to be doing your cleaning.” She glanced ruefully at her downed equipment. “And here I’m already making a mess.”
“Not at all.” Ana took the basket and helped Mary to her feet. “I’m Ana Salinas-Garcia. Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” Mary beamed. “Ah—where should I put my stuff?”
They went indoors, where, it turned out, the vacation rental was already amply stocked with cleaning fluid and equipment. “Guess I didn’t need to bring all this stuff,” Mary said, shifting uncomfortably. “Oh, well, it’ll come in handy, I suppose.”
Ana looked at the vast array of supplies. “We’re not going to be here that long.”
“Yeah, well, my boss said the house had to be kept clean. The house is special, she said.”
“It’s beautiful,” Ana agreed, looking at the polished floorboards, the hand-plastered walls and the dark beams.
Mary shook her head. “That’s not all that’s special about it. They say the first family around here built the house using treasure they found in the river!”
Ana cocked her head. “What kind of treasure?”
“Gold!” Mary waved her hands excitedly. “The first settler here followed the Draitsie down, and found treasure at the river bottom.”
“The Draitsie?” Ana stumbled on the unfamiliar word. “What’s that?”
Mary reddened, her mouth closing. “Nothing,” she said, all her animation dying. “Just a local legend.”
Ana folded her arms, a grin growing despite herself. “What, is it a monster? Bad luck to talk about it?”
“No!” Mary said hastily. “It’s just—stupid. I don’t believe in that stuff.” She turned away. “I—guess I should be getting started.”
Ana smothered a disappointed sigh: the conversation, animated and entertaining, was over. “Okay. I’ll get out of your way.”
“Not at all, ma’am.” Mary smiled at her as she reached for her plastic gloves.
Ana returned to the sun and bright flowers, and her laptop, while the river gleamed through the curtain of dark trees.
Mary left before lunch, and Ana didn’t see Megan and Jose again until dinner. They came in flushed and bright-eyed from a day of walking—at least, Megan did. Ana couldn’t tell much about Jose as he barked into his phone.
“Yes. No. Tell him the election…Well, it isn’t—”
“So,” said Ana to Megan over the background noise, “did you have a good walk?”
“Oh, yes,” said Megan happily. “You should have come with us, Ana. The river walk is great.”
“See any otters?”
“No, but I’ll tell you if we do.”
“Still going on about that, are you?” Jose hung up and glared at Ana. “Honestly, Ana, one little river otter and you’re jabbering about it all day.”
Hardly a little otter… “I was just asking Megan how your day was.”
“You were asking about otters!” Jose waved his phone at her. “You need more focus in life, Ana. You need to wake up and face the music. Go back to school, get a real degree—”
“Oh, really?” Ana said before she could stop herself. “And if I do, who’s going to pay for it?”
Megan’s face tightened. Jose paused, but only for a moment. “You could take out some loans—”
“If I had my money, I wouldn’t need any loans!”
“Ana! I told you, we’ll talk about it later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make some calls.” Jose stamped out into the living room.
“Ana—” Megan said, but Ana was already whirling out, storming into the garden, now dim with long shadows. Overhead, the summer sunset had washed the sky in pale yellow, but purple twilight was already spreading among the trees.
She couldn’t see the river’s gleam anymore, but she heard its voice. Treasure, it seemed to whisper. Treasure.
Ana was swimming.
She swam as she’d never swum before, her whole body smooth, sleek, strong. Every muscle moved in perfect coordination as she followed the gleam of gold through the darkness of the river.
Vague shapes swayed and moved, fish flashed past—but still she pursued the golden rings that glowed on the long black tail, the golden anklets around the back paws.
The huge black otter looked over its shoulder at her and let out an encouraging chirp. Silver bubbles rose from its mouth, shivering toward the surface. But it led her deeper, deeper, into the muck and mud at the river bottom, where another, elusive light shone forth.
Ana awoke still grasping for it.
The next day, Mary didn’t come in to clean. Ana accompanied Megan and Jose into town for lunch. The village was peaceful and picturesque in the sun, clapboard houses sloping down to the dark blue river. Looking around at the locals, Ana wondered how many of them knew of the legend Mary had mentioned; but she was too awkward to ask.
Later, when dusk was settling along the river in indigo bands, Ana went out for a walk.
The river trail cut through the woods, winding along the shore. She hiked along, admiring the silver gleam, the transparent pools in the shade of the leaf-heavy trees. The trail came to a flat place where the river spilled over into a marsh, decorated with cattails. A beaver lodge, squat and messy, stood in the middle. Ana craned, but didn’t see any beavers.
There came a sudden surge behind her.
Ana whirled around to face the river. The trail here was a wooden walkway between the marsh and the river proper. It was elevated a good two feet above the water’s surface, but this distance was insignificant to so large a beast as the otter, who now had both front paws planted on the walkway’s edge. She hadn’t been imagining the earrings, Ana saw through a haze of shock; and golden bands glowed around the otter’s front paws. A golden collar gleamed around its neck. She couldn’t see its back paws or tail, but she was willing to bet they boasted their own rings.
The black otter barked, a deep, loud sound that echoed around the marsh. Ana stepped back, but didn’t run this time.
“Are you the Draitsie?” she said, sounding braver than she felt.
The otter gave a proud-sounding churr and seemed to puff up with smug pleasure.
Ana took that as a yes. “What is it you want?”
The Draitsie barked again and shoved itself forward insistently. Another bark and, in a fluid movement, it seemed to gesture with its whole body back at the river.
“You want me to…go in the river.”
The Draitsie barked vigorously, and stamped its front paws in affirmation.
Ana looked at the unnatural beast. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” Even to her own ears, it sounded weak and unconvincing.
The Draitsie gave a frustrated growl, and Ana backed away, heart pounding. Whatever it truly was, this animal was huge. But it didn’t attack. Instead, with one last disgusted look, it flipped over and dived back into the river with a resounding splash.
Ana waited until the last ripples were gone before turning to make her way back to the house, legs still weak.
She cornered Mary the next morning.
“I saw the Draitsie.” She kept her voice low; Megan and Jose were still in the house, moving around and calling to one another as they prepared for the day.
Mary’s eyes widened. “Big black otter with gold jewelry?”
“That’s the one.”
“Wow.” Mary turned away, getting out her vacuum cleaner. “I never…I thought she only appeared to locals.”
“It’s supposed to be a female otter.” Mary shrugged. “If you can call that thing an otter.”
Ana eyed her sidelong. “You sound like you’ve seen it—her—before.”
After a moment, Mary nodded. “Yeah. But I was stupid. I followed her.”
Mary sighed and rubbed her eyes. “The story goes that the Draitsie knows where all the treasure in the river is hidden—or maybe she steals treasure to hide there, I don’t know. Anyway, if she appears, you can follow her to where the treasure’s hidden. Swim after her. But it’s not easy; her treasure’s at the very bottom of the river. You only get three chances; if you lose your breath or fail after the third dive, she swims away and you never get the gold. You never see her again.”
“Did you? Get the gold?”
Mary gave a wan smile. “Do I look like I’ve got a magical treasure hoard at home?”
“Oh.” Guilt and embarrassment kicked Ana’s stomach. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Mary rolled the vacuum from the closet, wheels whirring over the floorboards. “I shouldn’t have followed the Draitsie. She’s magic. She’s dangerous.”
Mary began unwinding the vacuum’s power cord. Jose’s voice rose, inquiring about the weather forecast. Ana spared a moment to contemplate how utterly surreal it was to be having this conversation in such a prosaic setting. “I didn’t follow her. I’ve seen her twice, and I didn’t follow her either time.”
“Twice?” Mary paused. “Wow. I didn’t think that ever happened.” She laughed a little. “You must be special!”
Ana wanted to ask if there was any chance she’d see the Draitsie again, but that seemed cruel after Mary’s own experience. Disappointment still shone dully in the other woman’s eyes. “Well, I guess I’ve wasted my chances, then,” Ana said instead. “Maybe it’s just as well. Look at all those stories. Accepting magical gifts is never a good idea.”
“Yeah.” Mary gave a quick, forced smile. “Maybe you’re right.”
They looked at each other wanly, and in that moment, whatever the differences between them, they were as one: two women who could use a bit of magic in their lives.
The weeks of vacation went by. Though she walked by the river every day, and went swimming sometimes, Ana didn’t see the Draitsie again. She found secret pools where white water lilies bloomed; she spotted deer slipping away through the woods. Kingfishers swooped in sapphire flashes, turtles sunned themselves on logs and cattails waved in the sunlight. She saw many things on the river. But she didn’t see a giant, magical black otter. She told herself she didn’t mind. Magic. Dangerous.
She also didn’t see much of Megan or Jose. The couple were out for long hours every day, bicycling, hiking or swimming, and Ana found herself left behind time and again. When they were around, Jose was shouting into his phone or typing on his laptop and somehow there was no way to have a conversation about anything.
By default, therefore, Ana spent a lot of time with Mary. Inevitably, it started out awkwardly, with their roles of vacationer and cleaner standing between them. But, little by little, their discomfort fell away, dissolving before their shared secret and the rapport building between them. Their conversations illuminated the vacation rental, and their laughter soon followed.
On cool mornings when the summer breeze blew in through open windows, Ana showed Mary her work as a graphic designer, teaching her the basics of the software. On hot, sunny afternoons when the heat lay like a blanket along the river valley, Mary showed Ana the garden, pointing out her favorite flowers and reminiscing about past summers. Together they stole moments; they sat on the back porch, holding long discussions about the local wildlife, their childhoods, the beauty of the summer, their complex plans and hopes and schemes, unfurling around them in their private pocket of time and space.
“Where do you think the Draitsie came from?” Ana asked three days before the vacation would end.
“No one knows.” Mary laid an arm along the back of the seat, behind Ana’s shoulders, and Ana reached up to lay her hand on Mary’s. “Maybe she was always here. Or maybe she came from Scotland with the first settlers.”
“Or maybe people dreamed her up and sort of…wished her into being.”
Mary laughed dreamily. “Wouldn’t that be something! The Draitsie a figment of our imaginations.”
“Not a figment. Just…created by us.”
Mary’s smile was wistful. “Could well be.”
A moment’s silence elapsed. It was a hot, muggy day, heavy with rainclouds. Any minute, the raindrops would start thundering down.
“You know,” said Mary in a small, hesitant voice, “I’m going to miss you, Ana.”
It was like a cold breeze on a warm day: the reminder that the summer idyll could not last. “Yeah. Me too.” She paused. “Maybe we could keep in touch?”
Mary’s hand turned, taking Ana’s. “I’d like that.”
They sat silently, clasping hands, while around them the storm began in a hot spatter of droplets.
It was still raining hard when Ana next encountered Jose.
He and Megan had come home drenched and irritable; Ana had stayed out of their way, working on her latest design. Mary was gone. Heat and humidity rose off the earth in miserable clouds; she could hear the rush of the flooded river even through the pounding rain. Naturally, it was then that Adobe had to develop a mysterious glitch and send Ana’s design spiraling into some blurred circle of software hell.
“Arrrgh!” At least she had the last version saved. But all her work today, gone!
She came stamping out of her room, to run almost headfirst into Jose, who was—surprise, surprise—on his phone, barking at someone.
“Yes, yes. Well, tell the solicitor that Dad’s money—”
At this point, something in Ana snapped. “I hope you’re on the phone asking about my share,” she snarled. “Or you might find I can talk to lawyers too!”
Jose flicked a look at her, gauging her mood. “Call you back,” he said to the phone, and pocketed it with a resigned expression. “All right, Ana. Tell me how unfair I am. Ask me where your money is.”
“I’m through asking you about that.” Ana folded her arms, hoping she looked formidable rather than petulant. “I’m just saying. Keep up this little game, and you’ll find yourself facing my solicitors.”
He laughed unpleasantly. “I doubt you could afford any decent ones. And anyway, they wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Not until you’re at least thirty.”
It was like getting punched in the stomach. “What!”
“It’s true.” He was edging around her, already fumbling his phone out of his pocket again. “Dad arranged it.”
“Or you did.” Ana was vibrating, she was so angry. “How come you never mentioned this before?”
His eyes shifted aside. “I didn’t think it was important.”
“Right. I’m going to check this, you know!”
“Please do,” he advised her cordially as he rounded the corner. “Then maybe you’ll get off my back…”
For a moment Ana couldn’t move, but only stare at the empty hallway, rage a red haze in her vision. Then, with an effort, she turned and went back into her room.
The rain was slackening a bit, though still steady. Through the trees, Ana could see the strong gray rush of the river. It was then she knew she was resolved.
The rain cleared away that night, but Ana waited until the last full day of the vacation, hoping for the flood to recede, before she went down the hidden path to the jetty, slipping away early to open the gate and descend the brick staircase. Around her, the early morning glowed a pearly gray. The water had gone down a bit, but still ran dark and strong beneath the cloudy sky, slopping a bit over the worn old boards of the jetty. The rowboat rocked uneasily.
She was not surprised to see the Draitsie already waiting for her. The otter had pulled herself completely out of the water this time, sitting on the jetty, and Ana drew her breath at the creature’s sheer size: like a seal, like an aquatic leopard. Gold gleamed in her ears, around her neck, her paws, in rings on her mighty tail. Her jet-black coat shone over rippling muscle.
She chirruped at Ana inquiringly.
Ana nodded. She began taking her clothes off, casting off her shoes, shirt and shorts, to the bikini she’d put on underneath. “I’m ready,” she said at last.
The Draitsie gave a satisfied purr. Then, with a flip, she dived back into the water.
Without hesitation, Ana dived after her.
The water hit her like a fist: not cold, but so much stronger than she’d expected. It whirled her aside almost immediately, pelting her with twigs and leaves and other bits of matter as she strove after the golden gleam of the Draitsie. But the river was murky and deep, and grew rapidly darker the further down they went. Ana’s lungs began to gripe; then to scream.
At last, she could bear it no longer. Clawing for the surface, she gasped for breath and, reaching out for the jetty, found herself clinging to a tree root. She’d been swept quite a distance downriver, she saw, blinking water from her eyes.
There was a splash, and the Draitsie’s smooth black head appeared nearby, easily holding position in the sweeping water.
Three tries. Right. Ana held onto the tree root, taking deep breaths and calming down, before nodding to the Draitsie.
The Draitsie chirped and dived down again, and Ana quickly followed.
Again, the struggle against the current. Again, the murky darkness. Again, the elusive aureate gleam of the Draitsie’s jewelry, such a thin, dim guide in such gloom. Weeds brushed slimily against Ana’s bare skin; she could barely see the Draitsie up ahead. But there was something else, a gleam beyond—But her lungs were burning again—
Ana’s head broke surface once more, gasping again for breath. Somewhat to her surprise, they were in the same place; she was even clinging to the same tree root, curving out of the clay bank. She must be getting better at this. Or—as the Draitsie surfaced with an encouraging growl—the magical Draitsie was helping out.
The thought was encouraging. And she had seen something beyond the Draitsie this time, a glint of gold that was not the otter’s jewelry…
Ana turned to see Mary at the top of the bank, seated on her bike and dressed for work, looking utterly aghast. “Ana! What are you doing?”
“It’s okay,” Ana called breathlessly. The Draitsie gave an impatient chuff.
“Ana! Don’t—!” But Ana was already diving after the otter.
She was getting tired now, her whole body struggling against the river’s might, but still she kept grimly on, knowing this was her final chance. A thin ringing developed in her ears, but still she followed the Draitsie, toward that dim, twinkling glow of golden treasure, down in the muck at the bottom of the river—
There was a strangled noise behind her—a scream. A splash. Eyes dimmed by the river, Ana looked back to see a long, pale shape thrashing and struggling, caught on something in the water. Mary.
Ana almost hesitated. She was ever ashamed afterward: but the treasure was so close, and this was her final chance…But Mary screamed again, desperate, and Ana changed course.
Shooting upward like an otter herself, she soared to where Mary thrashed, one leg caught in a driftwood log. Taking hold of Mary’s leg with one hand and the log with the other, she shoved the two apart and caught hold of Mary. The women broke the surface gasping, ears ringing, spots crawling before their eyes, in the gray light of day.
Ana pulled air into her burning lungs, each breath agonizing, and held Mary’s head frantically above the surface, pushing her toward shore. The other woman’s red hair clung dark to her pale skin, like a drowned person’s; and Ana prayed desperately as she hauled her out onto a thin sliver of pebble beach. Please please please breathe, please be all right, please breathe—
Mary coughed, letting out about a gallon of river water to splash on the pebbles. Ana went weak with relief as she took one breath, coughed again, and took another. “Mary!”
“Ana…” Mary opened her eyes and reached for her. “You saved me.”
“Save you, nothing.” Guilt twisted Ana’s insides. “I was an idiot! You almost drowned because of me.”
“Yeah…you are an idiot.” Mary laughed weakly. “Following the Draitsie…Right after a flood, too.” She coughed again.
“Lie still.” Ana tried to arrange her more comfortably. “I’m sorry, Mary. So sorry.”
“I’m sorry.” Mary opened her eyes. “That was…your third try, wasn’t it? I ruined it…”
Ana shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. As long as you’re okay.” She was surprised by the truth of this. Mary was alive. That was all that mattered. Mary was alive.
Mary looked up into Ana’s eyes. She smiled weakly. “You were looking for treasure…”
Unbidden, unasked, Ana bent over and placed a kiss on Mary’s mouth. It tasted of river water, power and darkness. “I think I’ve found it.” She began to grin, despite herself. “Or is that too corny?”
“Not too corny…” Mary began to laugh. After a moment, Ana joined her, and their laughter rang across the swollen river, in the gray morning.
When their watery laughter trickled away, Mary leaned up and planted a kiss on Ana’s lips. Then she drew back, suddenly uncertain, doubt flickering in her eyes, even now.
In response, Ana bent down again, and this time the kiss was shared, and long, and deeper than the river. Mary’s arms went around Ana’s waist, Ana’s hands went to Mary’s face, and soon the pair began to move passionately together, there by the flooded river with the birds beginning to sing.
Unnoticed by either woman, the Draitsie resurfaced. She arrowed toward the beach and spat something onto the pebbles: a thick chain of gold, set with rubies, glinting in the light. She retreated further into the river to watch the pair for a long moment before, with a satisfied chirp, flipping back over to disappear into the unseen depths.