“You want me to do what?”
Beetle thought she must have surely heard her mother wrong.
“I want you to watch your little brother for a few hours. I have some things to do, and the two of you don’t get to spend enough time together as it is.”
As Starskimmer spoke she handed Beetle the large pouch which held some of her brother Otter’s toys and a change of clothes.
“He shouldn’t be much trouble. Just play with him for a while and the time will pass quickly. See you soon.”
She bent over and gently hugged Otter, who was sitting in the floor of his sister’s den and looking about in wonder at all the strange new things he had never seen before. With a quick wave and a mischievous wink towards her daughter Starskimmer was gone, leaving Beetle to wonder how she had come to be in this predicament. Normally her mother would turn to one of the older and more maternal females in the tribe if she needed some time away from the baby. She could only suppose all of them were busy, which had left Starskimmer with no choice but to turn to her.
It wasn’t that she minded spending time with the baby. Otter was a wonderful child and she looked forward to him growing up so that they could actually talk on an intelligent level. It was just that she didn’t particularly like to deal with one as young as he was. She had seen him born, but that didn’t necessarily mean she was particularly adept at cleaning up after him. Her mother, though, was always encouraging her to spend more time with him and grow more accustomed to such things.
As she thought about this, and about what…or more likely who…it was her mother needed to rush off to take care of she was suddenly struck by the realization that she wasn’t actually watching Otter so much right now as she was looking out the door her mother had just left. This was brought to her attention by the sounds Otter was now starting to make.
She turned to look at him and found that he had pulled himself to a standing position and was staring at her. This was not so much surprising, since he had recently been taking his first few tentative steps into walking on his own. What immediately caught her attention though was that his cheeks were strangely puffed out as if he had something much too large in his mouth.
“What do you have in there, Otter?”
Sighing, she knelt down beside him and gently pried his lips apart. Starskimmer had been complaining lately that he could seemingly fit anything smaller than a fully grown wolf into his mouth. In fact, there was very little in their mother’s den that he hadn’t chewed on, spit up on or attempted to swallow. Checking now, Beetle found that he had managed to stuff a small candle he had found into his mouth and was busy trying to chew it up. With only a minimal amount of fighting with the boy she managed to retrieve it.
“Otter, don’t do that. You could choke on those things.”
“Beeple!” he exclaimed happily, which was as close as he could get to saying her name thus far. Belatedly, she realized that he seemed to see this as a game. No sooner had she set the candle aside then she turned back around to see him starting to gnaw on one of her boots he had picked up.
“No, Otter, you don’t know what I stepped in with those. That’s nasty.”
As she pulled the boot from his grasp, Otter’s lip began to quiver and his eyes to tear up. He plopped down on his butt in the middle of the floor and began to wail with great, wracking sobs that sounded for all the world like his heart was broken. Beetle actually began to whimper a bit herself at the display. He looked so miserable that she felt the need to try and comfort him, even if she wasn’t sure exactly what he was crying about.
“Come on, Otter, it's not that bad,” she said as she sat down in the floor beside him. Then, on a sudden impulse, she reached for the bag Starskimmer had left.
“I know. Let’s see if any of your toys are in here.”
Otter’s cries subsided to a low sniffling as his sister searched the bag. Within moments she pulled out a ragged, stuffed creature of some sort and his eyes lit up. Beetle wasn't sure what it was supposed to be but the sight of it made her brothers eyes sparkle and a smile come to his face. This was definitely better than the heart-wrenching tears, so she handed the plaything to him.
“Grrrrrssshhh,” he said as he pulled it close and began to gnaw on it much as a wolf would a bone. Beetle smiled and watched him play and even laughed a bit as he tried to growl and be fierce with his toy prey. Eventually, she joined in by pulling on one of the oddly matched limbs sewn into the stuffed animal. Much like a wolf cub with a chew toy, Otter would renew his attacks and pull back fiercely as his sister tugged on it. This went on for a good, long time and she began to suspect that maybe this wasn’t going to be as bad as she feared. She soon discovered how incorrect she was.
As they played, something new assaulted her senses. She sniffed the air to figure out what this could be and immediately regretted it. Then, with some trepidation she peeked into the skin covering he wore over his bottom.
“High Ones, child, what have you done?” she said, suddenly pinching her nose. “That’s awful.”
Otter only giggled and made a face back at her. He seemed to think she was playing a game and covered his eyes for a round of peek-a-boo. From what Beetle could tell he wasn’t at all concerned, at least not yet, with the huge mess he had just made. Soon enough, though, it would become uncomfortable for him and she could only guess how shrill his cries would be then. She had to get this cleaned up and quick.
A little later, out at the river, Beetle was once again congratulating herself on her ingenuity. Yes, she could have cleaned and changed him in the conventional manner but that hadn’t really occurred to her in the moment. Instead she had brought him to the river and after stripping both his and her own clothes off had taken him into the water. It was a warm evening and the water felt rather good. It also cleaned him quite well and on top of that, he seemed to enjoy it!
As she held him under the arms his bottom half dangled in the water. Even as he was rinsed clean he kicked happily and laughed up a storm. This was working out even better than she could have imagined. Who would have guessed that he would like the water so much? Maybe the name Otter was going to fit him more than anyone had realized. For the better part of half an hour he played like this till finally he seemed to tire out a bit. She noticed that he gave a great sigh and turned his eyes from the water to look up at her. He then held up his arms in a gesture that she took to mean he wanted held closer.
Beetle’s scream could be heard all across the Holt. Since her scream was quickly followed by Otter’s outraged cries it brought Starskimmer running from wherever she had been to the river’s edge. Adjusting her clothes hastily she, and by now most of the Holt, ran to the river’s edge. There they found Beetle standing waist-deep in the water and once again holding the baby at arm’s length. He was having a full-blown fit as he kicked and screamed while she tried to keep from dropping him.
“What happened?” Starskimmer managed to ask once her shock had passed.
“He bit me,” Beetle moaned as she tried to keep her grip on the child. “We were playing in the water and he reached for me. When I pulled him in close he reached out and bit me!”
Starskimmer tried not to laugh but she just couldn’t resist. The expression on Beetle’s face was just too priceless for words.
“Sweetie, he wasn’t trying to bite. He was trying to nurse. You two played so hard he’s hungry. Since his teeth started coming you just have to remind him to be careful.”
It took a moment for that to sink in for Beetle. Once it did her expression changed from comical outrage to one of terror.
“Oh no... no, no, no, no. I’m done with cubsitting for the night.”
She rushed over and handed her brother back to their mother who by now had regained some of her composure. The same could not be said for their gathered tribemates who weren’t even trying to stifle their amusement. Beetle could see Notch all but doubled up in mirth and One-Leg, who apparently had been the one keeping her mother company, laughing so hard that tears were rolling out of his eyes. Even dour old Blacksnake was having a hard time concealing his amusement. Beetle gathered up her clothes and stalked away with what little dignity remained to her. Starskimmer watched her go and then turned her attention back to Otter who was looking at her in confusion.
“Don’t worry about her, precious. She’s just not ready yet for motherhood. One day perhaps, but not yet. Come on, let’s go home.”
With that she took her son home to feed him. It would be a while before she would ask Beetle to watch the boy again. Perhaps once he was weaned….