The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer

The Preposterous Adventures of Swimmer

Alexander Key

To a certain knowing otter

I met on a stream one day

May his tribe increase


He Opens a Cage

wimmer's first escape was a tricky bit of business that required the most of his cleverness and stealth. It involved unlatching the iron gate to his pen, opening the laboratory door and the one to the hall, then slipping all the way through Dr. Hoffman's sumptuous town house to the front entrance, which had two locks.

The most delicate part of the operation, which Swimmer considered great fun, was stealing past the two guardian bulldogs who had no use whatever for an educated otter with a silver bell around his neck. The bell was a tinkling nuisance he had been unable to get rid of, so he held it between his teeth until he had fiddled with the locks and was safely outside.

On the sidewalk Swimmer froze, shocked by the unexpected rush of midnight traffic. Dogs and doors he could deal with, but the horror of man's traffic was something else. Finally, seeing his chance, he streaked across the avenue and managed to make it unharmed to the park on the other side.

A sort of creek, he knew, wound through the park and opened into a canal not far away. Somewhere in the smoggy distance the canal emptied into a river. Up that river, surely, lay wildness and freedom.

As he slid eagerly down to the creek, Swimmer had a momentary vision of the sparkling stream he had played in as a pup. It was a delightful place—full of crawfish and trout, and with hundreds of little waterfalls and pools to explore. He and his family had spent a wonderful summer in it before being captured.

The pleasant vision instantly dissolved as the murky creek closed over him. He came up snorting in disgust. The water, he thought, was enough to make a mud turtle gag.

Determinedly, though, he sped forward in the direction of the canal. It couldn't possibly be much worse there than here. If he could stand it till he reached the river, he'd soon be out of man's world forever.

The canal gave him another shock, but it was the reeking river that stopped him. The river was a horror.

So by daybreak Swimmer was back at his prison. There was nothing else to do, unless he wanted to tackle the immensity of the city on foot, facing a nightmare of traffic.

Since it was impossible to enter the house the way he had left it, he went around to the service entrance and waited for the arrival of Clarence, the black caretaker.

At the sight of Swimmer, Clarence's long jaw sagged. “Swat me down!” he muttered. “Who let you out?”

“Nobody,” Swimmer said irritably, in the voice of an exasperated gnome. He was in a high state of disgust, as well as a little sick at his stomach. “Stop staring like a gloop and let me in.”

It was the first time he had ever spoken directly to anyone, though he had often used his voice to play jokes on Miss Primm, his teacher in the lab.

Clarence swallowed, clearly jolted. He was very lean and had a thin, shrewd face. Suddenly he slapped his knee and began to laugh. “So it's you that's been saying ‘Hi, dovey!' to Miss Primm and kidding her along! And we thought it was the mynah bird. I should have
you could talk.”

Swimmer grunted. He had never thought very highly of the human voice. There were more pleasant sounds. “I'm not proud of it. Are you going to tell Doc about me?”

“Of course not! He wouldn't believe it, anyway. And don't call me a gloop. I'm your friend.”


“Honest, cross my heart,” Clarence told him solemnly.

Swimmer studied him a moment. Of all the humans he had come to know since his capture, he liked Clarence best. Which wasn't saying much, of course, for there wasn't much you could say about the whole human tribe. But at least Clarence had always been good to him, and he was not a pompous old goat like Doc.

“Clarence,” he said slowly, “would you help me escape?”

“Escape? Hey, what kind of talk is this? Were you trying to run away this morning?”

“I'll tell you when I've had some breakfast. Let's go inside before somebody sees us.”

The lab was a separate wing of the house where the much-talked-about Dr. Rufus Hoffman was studying animal intelligence. It seemed to Swimmer that Miss Primm, Clarence, and the various secretaries did all the work and studying while Dr. Hoffman, when he was not away lecturing, merely strode about majestically, playing the role of God. Once there had been more than a dozen captive creatures in the place, including three other otters in the enclosure with the otter pool. Now the lab housed only a white mouse, a black mynah bird, and himself.

As he slid into the pool to erase the smells he had acquired during the night, the white mouse sent forth a thought of inquiry:
How did you find the world outside?

It stinks
, Swimmer told him.

I knew it was better here
, the mouse replied.
You are safe and warm, and there is plenty of food. What more do you want?

You wouldn't know. You were born here

The mynah bird sent a thought:
I know. I remember the great forest where I was born. But I can only dream
. Aloud, in a voice like a bell, he called, “Another day, another dollar. Oh, what a wonderful life!”

Swimmer sniffed uncertainly at a dish of shrimp Clarence placed before him and wondered what Dr. Hoffman would think if he were told of the silent conversations that went on among the prisoners. Old Doc probably wouldn't believe it. But Clarence would. Clarence was one of those very few humans who could sometimes feel things that couldn't be seen or heard.

“Now, let's get this straight,” Clarence was saying. “You really were trying to run away, eh?”

“I had it in mind,” Swimmer admitted.

“Then what happened that made you come back?”

When he had explained to Clarence about the river, the black man said, “You've been here nearly three years. Why didn't you try running away before?”

“Because I wasn't ready. I was only a pup when I came here, and that's a crazy world out there. What chance would I have had?”

“And now you think you're ready?”

“I've been ready,” Swimmer acknowledged sourly. “I've had it to the teeth with education.
kind, I mean. And I don't like these shrimp. They stink.”

“But they're the best shrimp money can buy!” Clarence protested.

“I know it. I don't blame you. It's the way things are. If you'd ever tasted a crawfish right out of a high-country pool …”

Clarence tugged thoughtfully at his jaw. “I see what you mean, Swimmer. And you think it's better where you came from?”

“Of course it's better!”

“And you want me to help you escape?”

“That's the idea. Will you?”

Clarence slowly shook his head. “No. I think that would be wrong.”

Swimmer kicked over the dish of shrimp. “You said you were my friend! What's wrong about helping me?”

“It's like this,” Clarence began patiently. “You're no more fitted to go back and live where you came from than I am to go to Africa and live off monkey meat, like my people once did. You see? Nature would kill us. We're soft and weak. We're
. Anyone as smart as you—”

They were interrupted by the opening of the laboratory door and Miss Primm's forcibly cheery greeting, “Good morning, all. How are we this morning?”

Clarence said, “ 'Morning, miss,” and the mynah bird, in a perfect imitation of Swimmer's gnomelike voice, called, “Hi, dovey!”

Miss Primm gave a little sniff, then smiled and took her seat at the desk facing the otter pool.

“Swimmer,” she began brightly, “I've just had the most exciting talk with Dr. Hoffman. We're to appear at two big lectures next week—Washington and Nashville. Isn't that wonderful? So we must work very, very hard to improve our spelling. We wouldn't want to shame the doctor before all those important people, would we?”

Swimmer almost said Phooey, but controlled himself and scrambled over to an apparatus with a keyboard like a giant typewriter. Whenever he pressed a key, a large tab with the same letter on it would flip up on the board behind him.

Quickly he tapped out: N-O S-C-H-O-L T-O-D-A-Y. H-A-D B-A-D N-I-T-E. F-E-E-L L-O-W-S-Y.

Without another glance at her, he crawled into his concrete den and curled up to sleep. Maybe his spelling wasn't so hot, but there wasn't a thing wrong with his geography. He knew exactly where Nashville was. To reach it from Washington, Clarence would have to drive their van across the high country where he had lived as a pup.

The very thought of it sent an excited tingling through Swimmer.

Whenever Swimmer was scheduled to appear at one of the great Dr. Hoffman's lectures, he and Clarence would travel in the van, which also carried the big apparatus with the keyboard and the lettered tabs. The doctor usually went in his limousine, and Swimmer saw little of him until it was time to begin answering questions at the keyboard.

Though the doctor treated him like a laboratory creation, Swimmer often found it great fun to be in front of an audience, the center of attention. It was that way in Washington. He was an immediate hit with the bigwigs, who soon began asking questions of their own.

“Swimmer,” said a famous senator, “what do you think of people?”

He tapped out: N-O-T H-A-F A-S M-U-C-H A-S T-H-E-Y T-H-I-N-K O-F T-H-E-M-S-E-L-V-E-S.

Another asked, “What is your opinion of money?”

V-E-R-Y L-O-W, he replied. Y-O-U O-U-G-H-T-A G-E-T R-I-D O-F I-T.

“Swimmer, do you believe in God?”

W-H-O E-L-S-E C-O-U-L-D H-A-V-E C-R-E-A-T-E-D A-N O-T-T-E-R?

“Swimmer, how do you feel about your benefactor, Dr. Hoffman?”

H-E-S N-O B-E-N-N-Y F-A-C-T-O-R. H-E-S A-N O-L-D F-R-A-W-D.

The audience was still laughing when a uniformed Clarence hauled him off the stage and locked him in his cage in the van.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said Clarence. “You had no right to say such a thing about Doc in front of all those people.”

“Why not? That's how I feel.”

“But you didn't have to say it. He's been good to you. You have a fine home, the best food—”

“Aw, fiffle! I'm nothing but a trained slave, and you know it. He bought me and my sister from that dirty trapper just to experiment with, and instead of trying to help her when she got sick, he told the vet to get rid of her. He was through with her anyway—”

“Now, Swimmer,” Clarence interrupted. “I've explained how it was. She had to be taken out of the pen to protect the rest of you. But it was too late. All of you got sick. It's too bad the others died, but …”

“Go 'way,” Swimmer muttered. “I hate you. I hate your whole stinking tribe.”

For a little while, remembering his mother, whom the trapper had killed, and playful little Sprite, his sister, he really did hate the entire human race. What Clarence did not suspect was that Swimmer could always tell how people felt toward him, and usually what they were thinking. So could the white mouse and the mynah bird and every other creature he had met except man. Dr. Hoffman's true feelings had never been hidden from them.

Since Clarence liked to drive at night, the van was headed west for Nashville as soon as the keyboard-and-tabs machine was loaded. With the van in motion, Swimmer's mood changed. Immediately he turned to a lower corner of the cage and began digging at the fastenings.

Three of the fastenings were clinched nails that held the heavy wire to the frame. By turning the bent nails a little more, the wire could be loosened. It ought to give plenty of space for four and a half feet of overly educated otter to squirm through.

Sometime after midnight Clarence halted near an all-night restaurant. “I'm going in for coffee, Swimmer. Can I bring you anything?”

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