KALEIDOSCOPE: SLICES OF LIFE #2 – The Singapore Otter Association

Written by: Leia Ong (20-U1), Pheobe Ong (20-O1)

Designed by: Poh En Xi (20-E3)

Why is it so incredibly warm?

Despite the weak rays of seven-o’clock sunshine shining down, you can’t help but feel uncomfortable in your thick blazer. You shrug it off, but the long white sleeves of your shirt are no match for the humid air.

The air in question, though, smells like grass and mulch and fresh-fallen dew. It is a welcome change from that of the cubicle you’re absent from, two bus stops and seven train stations away. 

As you walk under the shadows of towering trees, cool and green, you should feel more alarmed at your Absence Without Valid Reason, not covered by any leave. But a kind of stunned numbness has fallen over you like a peaceful veil, shrouding the unique mental and physical fatigue that can only come from three days without sleep; three days of unabated work, filing and typing and blue light and the sourness of your unwashed body. 

You can’t smell it out here. Everything is still — not silent, but calm. There is hardly a soul in the Bishan Park; odd, but maybe not. Perhaps everyone has more important things to do than be walking here, working or studying or living. 

Not like you, then.

The only signs of industrialised civilisation are the intermittent vroom of vehicles punctuating the air, already growing fainter and fainter as you pass a particularly dense and large copse of trees. Off the main path, a barely-there, dirt track leads into its dimmer depths. 

You look at the trail, then at your phone, exploding with emails, and step into the woods.

What are you even doing here? The ridiculousness of your situation is not as funny as it should be. Yet as you forge ahead into the enveloping foliage, another sound other than koel birds calling and cicadas whirring catches your ear. 

Voices. A sizeable crowd, too — at least ten people. 

Now, this, you have to see. What are this many people doing so far off the path? There are plenty other places for tai-chi classes or whatever. You move toward the sound, but you realise: the voices have become one, chanting in unison. You can’t make out what they’re saying.

An eerie feeling skitters down your spine. But you head further forward anyway, out of some sense of reckless abandon.

In a small clearing, a group of about fifteen people of various ages, barefoot, stand in a circle. In the centre of the ring is, amazingly, a flash of brown…fur? A single otter, with a fish in its mouth. It darts around the circle, black eyes rolling wildly.

Now, you can hear that they are saying in unison: remember the day. Await the Crossing. 

They stare and chant at the otter with an almost religious fanaticism, but make no movement toward it. The otter, finally seeing an opening between two pairs of legs, darts between them and back into the undergrowth. 

It streaks past you like furry lightning. Simultaneously, the people in the circle turn their heads to watch it go. And their gazes land on you, half-concealed by a tree trunk.

You’ve seen enough. These people are too strange. As you hurriedly turn to go, someone calls out. “Excuse me!”

You turn around. A woman has stepped out from the circle. She says: “You are lost, aren’t you?”

Startled, you nod involuntarily. She continues, “Come with me, please. I can lead you out.” Her smile, then, is positively radiant. No trace of the earlier intensity is in her gaze. You hesitantly follow her.   

You feel a prickling on your neck, as though the others are watching you as intently as they did the otter.

The group, the woman says, is the Singapore Otter Association.

You almost want to laugh, but she says it with a completely straight face. They have meetings to otter-watch together.

“We’re just all so passionate about the otter community in Singapore,” she enthuses. “Bishan Park is where it all started, so this is our headquarters.” 

“Uh-huh,” you say. You ask about the bizarre sight you just saw. “Oh, that was just a little bonding exercise we perform together sometimes,” she says lightly. 

“We’re like a community. I made some of my best friends in this group after I joined,” she continues. “It’s wonderful. Seeing the otters is a delight, too.”

You realise you’ve emerged onto the main path again. She waves goodbye; gives another lovely grin. “My name’s Nadia. We’re always here,” she says. “Come find us anytime — you look like you could use some good company.”

You find yourself back at the park the next day. The Association is gathered at the riverbank, this time, its members outfitted with nets and cameras. Nadia, the woman from before, waves you over. “You’ve come at a most fortuitous time. We’re preparing for the Crossing,” she says.

The Crossing is the “great migration of the Bishan otter raft”, as Nadia says. “It is an invaluable time for the Association each year. Now, we prepare to receive the otters and their inevitable departure by fishing. Care to join us?” 

You do, squatting on the grassed riverbank near the water. An elderly man hands you a net, and you begin a conversation. Everyone is unfailingly friendly, and time slips by like water, another day away from reality. Before the day is up you know you will return the next day. And the next. 

It’s about a week later, late into the night when the Crossing occurs, and in the dim light of the nearby lampposts, you catch a glimpse of the sizeable pile of fish next to the other members of the Association. There is a fire on the path, something that you’re pretty sure is illegal but that you can’t bring yourself to care about much. 

“Let us begin!” the man near the fire declares, and simultaneously, several of the people near the fire pluck up one of the fish with practised ease, and with their other hands, they brandish sharp knives that definitely were not there before. You let out a yelp, taking a step back, before the first man slashes the knife across the fish in a clean cut. It takes a moment before you see fluid dripping onto the grass. The group carefully slits open their fish as well, and you stand there, watching with mingled horror and intrigue. 

The members, who you’ve spent breezy mornings laughing and talking with, look suddenly like strangers.

You make eye contact with one of the fish, and you shudder. Its eyes are blank stones, and you do not like that they seem to reflect nothing despite being bathed in firelight. You look away, before the others in the Association step forward, taking the disembowelled fish. Liquid and viscous red masses continue dripping on the grass as the group continues their work, while a separate part of the group begins to impale the fish with sticks, cooking it over the fire.

“What is this for?” you ask querulously, after a few minutes have elapsed.

A nearby old lady — Auntie Iris, that’s her name —  smiles. It would be comforting, if not for the knife that remains in her hands. “My dear, did no one tell you?” she says. “We’re making a good dinner for the otters when they come here for the Crossing.”

“I see,” you say, despite the fact that you don’t, not really. 

She continues gutting the fish even as you excuse yourself, separating yourself from the group and standing further away from the fire. It feels colder, but it’s easier to breathe and think now that you are not being smothered by that eerie yellow light and smoke. 

You continue watching the methodical chaos. Some are cutting, some are cooking, and some are holding hands and dancing, singing an odd, high-pitched song at the top of their lungs. It’s a sight you don’t think you’ve ever seen in your normal life. Maybe you feel so intrigued because it’s not normal.

You could use things a little less normal in your life.

A while later, the people by the river let out loud shouts. “They are here!” a dancing young lady — Nadia — shouts, and everyone charges towards the river, like metal pulled to a magnet, as though drawn to something irresistible. You follow them, caught up in the wave, all of you crashing downwards to the shore. You see the splashing, and the water caught in the eight otters’ fur as they float in a ring through the water, a bit of yellow and blue light gleaming off their wet fur.

They’re somewhat cute, you think, but does this really warrant something this grand?

Then, the first fish is thrown. You think that you are imagining it at first, but then people start tossing the cooked fish into the river, tossing it at the otters as they get bombarded with it. 

You let out a shout. “What are you all doing?”

“We’re presenting them with our offering, of course,” one of them says, as though you’re the strange one here, as though this isn’t the weirdest thing ever. You see the way that the otters break apart from each other, how they seem startled, maybe even frightened by the hot fish.

That fish is hot, right?

What if it burns the otters?

“Stop!” You say, stepping away. “You’re hurting them! They’re not even eating the fish!” Some of the other people laugh, but most of them don’t even seem to hear you, and they continue tossing the fish as the otters struggle to get away.

“Yes,” one of the other Association members say, “but that just means we need to cook our fish better so that it will appeal to them! We just need to take care of them!” The other members around them laugh. You look around you, before looking back at the otters.

Moving fast, you retreat, further and further away. Some vague cries follow you, but most of the members are transfixed by the otters, diving about in the dark water.

You feel bad. How could you not see it at first? These people aren’t appreciating the otters or anything like that, they’re obsessed with them. They’re definitely not normal, but they’re weird in an awful way, in an obsessively abusive way. You can’t believe…

You just wanted to do something else with your life, not to walk into something like this. Something this cultish.

You look back for a brief moment.

It’s funny how in retrospect, there were so many red flags to the few days you spent with the Singapore Otter Association. You didn’t think at the time, because you were just so happy to have something beyond the monotony of work, the good company of others. 

At the same time…

You can’t deny that something about them remains oddly enchanting to you. A community of people this close-knit, you’ll never find again.

Maybe you should go back…

You shake your head, and you walk away.

There are extremes and limits to everything, be they work or otters. It’s better off this way. You want to enjoy life without any human — or animal — being hurt.

Three days later, you return to the park, a Notice Of Resignation clutched in your hand. You see the group by the river again. In your mind, you still remember the lights glowing in the night, and the sounds of fish splashing in the water.

You stop for a moment.

You pretend you do not see them.

And you walk away.

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With great power comes great responsibility.

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