Monday, November 30, 2009

The cat came back

Everybody loves orange cats. Well, it seems that everyone who has a soft spot for cats at all, fall all over themselves when faced with an orange one. Hence, Dr. Evil and Mini Me were the first of the five to find homes. A friend of mine from work wanted Mini Me because he was the runt of the litter. Dr. Evil was taken by a woman whose grandson wanted a blue cat more than anything in the world, but he would settle for an orange one.

Chestnut, though not truly orange, could have been re-homed about half a dozen times, but he was the one I wanted to keep. I was fairly non-committal when people asked about him however, because the way things were going with the two girls, it looked like we might be stuck with them so I was caught between really wanting to keep Chestnut and not wanting to have three cats.

That Christmas, Morgan and I were going away. We found a really wonderful soul who agreed to take the three four-month-old kittens (aka hooligans) for a month while we were gone. Secretly we hoped he would fall in love with them and we would come home to no cats - except Chestnut of course.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. He did however offer to keep Chestnut. Not that one, I said, but offered one of the other two. Morgan and I both quietly hoped he would choose Cleo. There was something about Broom Hilda that was just likeable and if we had to have two cats, she was our other choice. Of course, he chose Broomie. I hesitated for a minute, ready to voice my objections but had to let it go. We couldn’t very well say, here, you can have any one of these three kittens, except those two.

So we returned home with two kittens. Chestnut and Cleo seemed to love each other. They played together and slept together, annoyed Bear together. Eventually we stopped looking for a home for Cleo and settled into life as a three-animal family in our tiny house by the river.

Until one day in the early spring when we got a call from Broomie’s owner. He wanted to give her back, it seemed he had suddenly developed allergies. Was that even possible? I wondered. Reluctantly we took her.

The day she returned, Chestnut was the happiest cat I’ve ever seen. Broomie hadn’t been spayed yet and he would not stop following her around, even though she made it quite clear she was having none of it. Cleo was less than impressed to have another female in the house and growled, hissed and swatted at her any chance she had.

We made an appointment to have Broomie fixed within the next week and spent that time obsessively guarding the door against her mad-dash attempts to escape into the wild yonder. The last thing we needed was a bunch of kittens.

I awoke early one morning, the sky sporting just a hint of deep steel blue on one horizon as darkness seeped towards the other, and I had this strange feeling that someone was missing. I’m not sure how I knew, but I was compelled to get out of bed and do a quick head count.

Cleo sat up tall and owl-like in the living room, Chestnut paced in the kitchen. Broom Hilda was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until my third pass through the kitchen that I noticed the screen on the half-open window above the sink was gone. The empty space yawned accusingly back at me and I leapt onto the counter and stuck my head out the window.

Seven feet down, the screen lay on the ground directly below at an angle, resting on the spring plants that had grown quickly against the sunny side of the house. I looked from left to right then, but after the light from the kitchen, my eyes couldn’t see very far in the dark gray of the morning.

I jumped back down to the kitchen floor, where Morgan now stood, bleary from sleep, wanting to know what happened. We grabbed flashlights and headed outside to track down the escapee.

My feet crunched on the gravel of the driveway that became a single-track road connecting all the houses in our community. I was sure I saw a white flash up ahead in the gray light. I trained my flashlight on it, but it was gone.

After searching fruitlessly, Morgan and I returned to the house with our flashlights turned off and half-heartedly calling for Broomie, knowing that even on an exceptional day cats will come only when they are good and ready.

I was just stepping through the door of our house when Morgan said, there she is. Broomie appeared at a run amidst the overgrown tangle of raspberries that grew on the hill. She tore up from the river, taking huge strides that made her seem as though she was flying across the ground. Her eyes flashed wildly and we could see hot on her tail was another cat. Broomie ran straight inside the house and we slammed the door behind her.

Within a month we found Broomie a new home and even toyed with the idea of sending Cleo with her. We tried it for two nights, giving the new owners a choice of either cat, or both. They said they would keep both, not wanting to split up sisters; except Cleo and Broomie hated each other.

Chestnut was beside himself, wandering the house meowing mournfully, and I was so wracked with guilt, we had to go and ask for Cleo back. The cat that nobody wanted became the cat I just couldn’t give away.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

And then there were six

The day Quincy disappeared, I watched him go.

The image of him slipping silently up our neighbours’ driveway until he became obscured by the pine trees that separated our lots, is forever ingrained in my mind.

Quincy spent the morning poking around outside our house, snuffling through fresh snow that covered the grass and gathered in small-mounds near the edge of the forest, the beginnings of snowbanks. I watched him turn and head with purpose towards our neighbours’ place and then begin his relaxed trot up their snow-laden driveway. It was a route he did almost every day.

That day, as he headed off, I felt an overwhelming urge to open the kitchen window where I stood washing dishes and call out his name. In my mind I saw him stop and turn his face towards our house. Past that, I wasn’t sure if he’d come back or turn away and continue on his path. Part of me really wanted to find out. It was a weird, almost unwelcome, urgency that compelled me to try it. I didn’t. We never saw him again.

At the end of that day when he didn’t return, we weren’t too worried. He’d been gone for long stretches before. But I couldn’t shake that feeling I had earlier. Would he have turned around if I called? I think I knew then that he was gone.

We spent the next few days driving around looking for him. I walked the trails, calling his name, hoping to find a sign, but there was nothing. We put up posters on the group mailboxes in our area and waited to hear.

There were sightings by our neighbours. A dog who lived a ways down the road had started coming to our community. From a distance he looked just like Quincy. I spent many days chasing him through the woods. One early snowy morning I got a call from my neighbour that he’d seen Quincy cut through the woods near their place, headed in my direction. I stumbled into my winter boots and threw my coat on over my pajamas, then ran out the door into the early pink light and a wall of cold air.

I headed up the driveway where I had last seen Quincy, and spotted the dog at the crest of a hill up ahead, bracketed on either side by forest. The early muted sun shone from behind him, outlining his silhouette in gold. I stopped and called to him. I could tell by the angle of his body he was looking at me, then he turned and sauntered off into the trees. I ran up the hill and followed his tracks as far as I could, eventually losing them amongst other tracks that criss-crossed through the woods.

Everyday we expected him to turn up. With Quincy, anything was possible. When he didn’t come home each night I went to bed thinking, maybe tomorrow. We’ll wake up and find him waiting on the deck, we told each other. I don’t think either of us really believed that.

Our hope slowly petered out, but at the same time it was replaced with a feeling of acceptance. It was Quincy’s way after all. No matter how much a part of our family he became, he remained on the fringe, always eager to do his own thing, go his own way. He left our life like he entered it, quietly and without fanfare.

We argued about what happened to him. Morgan was sure he’d met with a pack of wolves or startled someone with a gun. I refused to believe those things. To me, Quincy would always be a free spirit. Obviously it was time for him to move on and I didn’t fall to pieces because I knew in my heart that was true.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What’s in a name?

Perhaps we sealed Joan’s fate by naming her after Joan of Arc, the doomed warrior who would die young.

Her recovery was short lived. It wasn’t long before I once again found her lying motionless and flat at the bottom of the box when the commotion and cat hair had settled. I lifted her warm, limp body from where it lay amidst folds of blanket and sat with her again, straining at first to feel if she was breathing, it was so shallow. This time, she didn’t respond. We took her to the vet that afternoon and saw the same woman who so enthusiastically and caringly treated Quincy.

I discovered then, vets play favourites. This woman who couldn’t do enough for Quincy, and gushed about what a great dog he was, looked down her nose at our kitten and advised us to have all six of them euthanized. Then added, blank-faced, we should box the lot up and take them back to the Humane Society, that’s what she would do. They were not our problem. We shook our heads, we wouldn’t do either of those things. The kittens were our problem, a problem that became bigger as she told us more.

Without trying to hide the fact she thought we were wasting her time, the vet explained the kittens most likely all had FIV - Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (similar to HIV in humans). It’s a condition many, if not all, strays have. With useless immune systems, she said, if any of them so much as caught a chill, they wouldn’t survive.

She reluctantly gave us some antibiotics for Joan and we left the office in silence. Our drive home was filled with unspoken questions and concerns, the car burst at the seams with them. A mild panic began to weave its way through me as I replayed the vet’s dire predictions in my head. The way she described it, I expected the kittens to drop dead at any minute and resolved to name them and keep them all because they couldn’t possibly live more than six months.

I reluctantly brought the idea up with Morgan, who lately had complained about the kittens wearing on his nerves. He was getting anxious to find homes for them, but he agreed with me. If they were going to live for just six months, we would make sure they had a happy life.

When we got home, I quickly named the other three. The exotic calico I called Broom Hilda, Broomie for short. Out of all the kittens, she was the only one who was fascinated by the broom; whenever I brought it out to sweep up dog hair tumbleweeds that scudded daily across our floors, her entire world shrunk to a five-foot orbit around the broom. She would run behind it with great purpose, shooting out her front paws to take swats at the yellow bristles. If I changed direction to challenge her head-on, she would stand her ground before rising up on her back legs, front paws spread wide, wriggling her body like a snake ready to strike, then launch herself at the broom full-force.

The other calico, the pretty one who distinguished herself from the group by disappearing into her own little world in her head, we called Cleo, after Cleopatra.

That left the orangey-beige boy with the white feet and stripy body, the one I had already secretly claimed as mine. He was the hardest to name. I wanted to call him something special, something meaningful. I put so much importance on it, it was impossible to come up with anything.

Eventually I settled on Chestnut Canoe, after the company that made the cedar-strip and wood and canvas canoes that Morgan idolized. I wasn’t crazy about the name, but canoes were an important part of Morgan and my relationship from the beginning. The very first day we hung out together we went canoeing. We spent the previous two summers looking for new and interesting places to paddle, a quest that eventually brought us to Thunder Bay and Lake Superior. I thought we might call him Canoe, but for whatever reason, it was Chestnut that stuck.

Over the next couple of days Joan’s condition didn’t change. Her eyes would open in little slits and she would try and push herself to her feet. But she was too weak and her head, when she picked it up, swayed around in the air as though she was drunk.

We returned with her to the vet, a tiny, purring bundle that, to me, seemed to be trying desperately to get better. The vet, a different one this time, watched her shaky attempts to stand and the way she held her head as though it was too heavy for her body and determined it was a neurological problem. There was nothing they could do. But she was purring, I kept saying, surely that was good.

Cats also purr when they are in pain or distress, I found out later.

We brought Joan home in a shoebox and found a spot beside a big boulder beneath a stand of pine trees to bury her.

I cried off and on for days and couldn’t imagine the hell that awaited us over the next six months as we had to watch each of the kittens succumb to FIV.

About a week later we found out from a friend that she knew someone who had a cat with FIV that lived to be 13 years old.


That changed everything.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Circus in a box

Within a week, they were already changing, becoming more like tiny cats rather than barely kittens. They moved faster, grew stronger, and started to climb things. It was much harder to keep track of where everyone was.

One night as I rounded them up for bed, I found only four. Dr. Evil and the exotic calico were missing. I looked under the chair, the couch and the bed. I looked in closets and I checked the cupboards under the sinks in the kitchen and the bathroom. I told myself to stay calm as I repeated my search again and again, each time a little more frenzied. Then panic gripped my heart and I knew they had escaped out the door when we opened it for Bear and Quincy.

I ran out into the darkness with a flashlight in hand and Morgan at my heels and launched myself into the trees where they clamboured at the edge of the driveway then marched straight down a steep incline towards the river. I was sure that’s where they’d headed and I could picture them at that moment tumbling down the hill, lost and confused. They’d drown, I thought, or be eaten, if they didn’t freeze to death first during the frosty Fall night.

Our neighbours came to help search and I wondered how any of us giant, awkward humans could find such tiny, shape-shifting creatures in the dark.

They couldn’t have got far, I thought, and walked past the front of the house to search in another patch of trees. As the orange glow from our living room picture window hit my face, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look inside and stopped in my tracks as I saw the missing calico, luxuriating in a stretch as she took long, slow strides across the living room floor. Behind her Dr. Evil emerged, yawning, from inside Morgan’s battered old chair.

As cats do, the six kittens assumed everything in our home was put there expressly for their amusement. When they weren’t disappearing inside the furniture or wrestling shoes, they were climbing things with their tiny, tearing claws.

The couch became a favourite. They could turn somersaults in the gap between its smooth back and the wall, they could hide behind the valance that hung down to the floor and leap out at anything that passed, they could play secret, tumbling games of tag in the darkened space beneath, but best of all, they could climb it. Morgan and I both cringed to hear the pick, pick of their claws in the fabric and were forever removing kittens, mid-expedition and scolding them, but it made no difference.

One day I was cleaning my teeth when I heard the unmistakable scrabble of a climbing cat. I bolted into the living room, with my toothbrush clamped between my teeth, and plucked the orangey-beige boy from mid-way up the back of the couch. I couldn’t say anything with my mouth full of water and toothpaste, so I hung him upside down, holding him by the waist. I thought it would annoy him. He casually batted at his back feet then stretched out long and thin towards the floor, like pulled taffy, and slipped gracefully from my hands.

We tried to teach them to feed themselves, mixing formula, water and soft cat food into a type of gruel. We put it in a tin pie plate in the kitchen sink and placed the kittens in beside it two at a time. They ate, but they also sat in it, crawled through it, revelled in it, and came out looking like mud-soaked rats.

We filled the other sink with water and created a new assembly line where the kittens started in the first sink where they ate, got dipped and rinsed in the second sink, then toweled off until their hair stood straight up from their skin in frazzled sharp spikes. In the bathroom I sat on the floor and used the hair dryer to turn each damp little body into a soft ball of fluff, before setting them free to scamper across the floor.

After that, we returned to feeding them with the syringe, but I was never sure we were doing it right. Then one morning my fears were confirmed.

We were up early, before the sun, with plans to go back to bed. I opened the box to check on the kittens and the pile of furry bodies sprang to life with the first slants of light. Amidst the flurry of tiny ears, busy legs and fuzzy tails, I saw one motionless body left lying at the bottom of the box.

I picked her up gently in my hands, the little black and brown calico. She was breathing, but her eyes were closed. It was strange to feel her small, warm weight in my hand, different from the usual wriggling energy, the constant motion even in stillness, that defined a kitten’s body.

I thought, in their desire to be in contact with one another, to sleep in a heap like they always did, the group didn’t notice their sister had begun to suffocate where she lay, stuck at the bottom of the pile.

The other kittens faded into the background of our living room as I curled myself into a corner of the couch, cradling her tiny body carefully in my hands. I stroked her head with the tip of my finger and whispered to her, please don’t die.

We decided she must have aspirated some of the formula we fed them. Morgan shook his head sadly, not wanting to voice the thought that I read clearly in his face, that she wasn’t going to make it.

Slowly, over the next hour, she seemed to recover. Her eyes opened to slits at first, then she held up her head, looking around as though she’d just awaken from a faint.

Later that day she announced her recovery by scaling Morgan’s brown recliner. Her barely-there needle-point claws propelled her to the top where she stood triumphantly, looking way down to where her siblings cavorted on the floor, and we named her Joan, after the warrior spirit of Joan of Arc.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bear packs her bags

Up until that point, the couch remained relatively intact. With Quincy leaking all over the place, it was off limits, which seemed fine to him, he preferred to mope on the floor, when he wasn’t sneaking away for a wander outdoors. The couch was still mostly Bear’s domain.

Occasionally we would hear the rasp, rasp of her tongue on the couch as though she had been licking her paw when her tongue slipped from her fur and found the velour texture irresistible. She would zone out and lick and lick until someone said her name sharply. Stopping abruptly, she’d cast a quick look sideways at whoever caught her in the act, as if to say “what”, with a certain tone that thinly masked her guilt.

She always seemed to lick the fibres in an opposing direction from which they were supposed to lie and they would dry and harden like that, leaving a crispy patch with a cowlick that reflected the light in a completely different way and left a dull circle amidst the natural shine of the surrounding material.

When the kittens showed up, the couch was Bear’s safe island above the chaos. For a little while at least.

The kittens were too small to even be called kittens when we brought them home. They were more like overgrown mice. They huddled together in their box and scrabbled at its sides when we pulled open the flaps each morning, letting in the light. Just like little birds, the minute we covered their lair with a towel for the afternoon or evening they stopped their peeping and mewing, which was otherwise constant.

Our days started to revolve around feeding times. Each kitten needed to be fed from a syringe an exact amount of milk replacement, like baby formula for cats. Morgan sat on his chair while I perched on the edge of the couch scooping up kittens one at a time as though they were on an assembly line. We held their wriggling bodies in one hand and slowly depressed the plunger on the syringe with the other while each little pink tongue worked desperately to get every drop of food. The room filled with hungry high-pitched mews that left us wondering if we’d fed them enough.

As they grew, they quickly became little explorers, marching along the floor with purpose as though setting off across a vast desert, or tromping over blankets like mini-mountaineers. Outside on the lawn the kittens scrambled across the grass, taking the biggest strides their little bodies allowed, chasing my big brave black lab who leapt up and just about tripped over herself trying to get away from the tiny terrors. We teased Bear relentlessly about the kittens thinking she was their mother.

There were three boys and three girls and they all instantly had their own personalities. The runt of the litter and the largest were the first two we named. Both boys and both orange, the large one, almost twice the size of everyone else was clearly the bully, throwing his weight around from the word go. We called him Dr. Evil, which could only mean the tiniest guy would be dubbed Mini Me.

The smallest girl, a pretty little beige and grey calico - who would become the roundest cat I ever met - was the brunt of her siblings’ jokes. It was her we would find wandering around the livingroom after all the kittens had been tucked inside their fortress-like box and we imagined the others had hoisted her up and out through the cardboard flaps, a practical joke that started with them getting her excited about a covert mission.

Twice we found her with not a wisp of a whisker left on her face. I have no idea what happened, but again we pictured the others ganging up on her, holding her down and chewing them off. She seemed completely unconcerned by the whole thing, staring at us blankly as we questioned her about where her whiskers were.

The other two girls were also calicos, one beige and grey with dark-rimmed eyes that made her look exotic, the other a more traditional brown and black. Then there was the third boy, the orangey-beige one I plucked from the box that first day and accidently began to reel in tiny strands that marked the beginnings of our bond.

We didn’t plan on naming them all, once you name them it’s harder to give them away, but circumstances soon arose that made it impossible not to.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

And then there were eight

In order to clean out whatever it was that caused Quincy’s abscess, the vet explained she was going to have to perform surgery on his throat. It was complicated because of where it was. The throat isn’t like an arm or a leg.

The vet told us this, but she really needed to deal directly with the Humane Society. He was still their dog after all, we just supplied the house where he lived.

The director of the Humane Society wanted to see him. She wanted a second opinion, to check him over before a decision was made. Morgan took him in one morning while I was at work. I expected to hear from him, to find out how it went. What I didn’t expect was to see Morgan shortly after 10:00 in the morning, toting a box of kittens.

While he waited at the Humane Society, a woman came in with the kittens. They had been abandoned by their mother in a treehouse in this woman’s back yard. The Humane Society wouldn’t take them for jurisdiction reasons. Her only option was Animal Services but she didn’t want to take them there, sure they would be put down. A discussion ensued which Morgan listened to intently before finally offering to take them himself.

I’m not sure if he took leave of his senses at that moment in time, or if he didn’t think of the repercussions of such on act, but when he showed up that morning with the peeping, mewing box, I was speechless. I didn’t want a bunch of kittens. Sure, they were cute, but they were only about three weeks old. It was going to take a lot of work and care to keep them alive and then we had to find homes for all of them.

I was mad for about five minutes and then I picked up a tiny striped orangey-beige boy, who stretched up towards me from the box. What could I do? They were cute. It was at that moment I began to solidify my image as a sucker.

As for Quincy, the decision was made to do the surgery. Because it was the Humane Society the vet wouldn’t charge them full price for the operation. Partly, I think she was excited about having the opportunity to perform such a unique procedure.

In all of it though, Morgan and I were the middlemen, reduced to bystanders. We were told if things didn’t go well during the surgery, Quincy would be put down. That was a decision made between the Humane Society and the vet. We had no say in it. Of course we didn’t, he wasn’t really our dog, not on paper anyway.

It was a strange position to be in. We knew Quincy better than anyone else did and yet, if left to us, there was no way we could have afforded that type of surgery. So, we became invisible.

We felt helpless. How could they make that decision I wanted to know, when they don’t even know Quincy. They don’t know him at all, he’s just another dog to them. It was as though all the time we’d spent with him didn’t matter. We had become Quincy’s entire life but now our relationship was insignificant.

Of course, in retrospect, it was the only decision they could make, but at the time, it felt like they were stealing something from us.

We were determined to stay at the vet’s office during the surgery so we were there. Maybe we could intervene at the last minute, somehow get in the loop. We sat on a bench in the bright waiting room in front of the large windows where sun trickled in through the blinds and cast white stripes on our faces. We stared at each other and felt our world slip through our fingers. There weren’t many words exchanged, we both knew what needed to be done. If Quincy made it through this we were going to adopt him. No one would ever tell us again we had no say in what happened to our dog.

Eventually we did go home. The surgery would take a long time, they told us, and it didn’t make sense for us to stay. We left only after we were sure they understood we wanted to be called the minute anything happened, good or bad.

The day passed slowly, but we finally heard later that afternoon. Quincy made it through the surgery and was doing well. When we picked him up the next day, the vet explained to us what she had done. She spoke with a touch of pride; rightfully so. She performed laser surgery on his throat, very specific, intricate work. She was almost giddy as she showed us a diagram of a dog’s throat and how she went in and why it was not a straight-forward surgery. One wrong move and it could have been disastrous. The work she did was nothing short of amazing, however she wasn’t sure she got everything out.

We returned home with Quincy, again with instructions to keep the wounds open, though this time little rubber tubes protruded from four incisions in his skin for exactly that purpose. He couldn’t wear a cone because of where the incisions were, so we had to keep a close eye on him, make sure he didn’t rip out stitches or the tubes.

The very next day we went to the Humane Society to sign papers and make official what we already knew. Quincy was ours, holey neck and all.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Like an orange on a toothpick

The four of us settled into a happy rhythm. Bear seemed to relax as Quincy established his daily route around the neighbourhood and she realized his agenda did not include honing in on belly rubs or snuggle time. Quincy became more and more social as he found his place in our lives. He continued to wander, but he seemed to enjoy our company as well, choosing more often to stay close to home.

Even with his rough-around-the-edges persona, Quincy gave the impression of being a distinguished gentleman at times, more international spy than country bumpkin. Morgan began to address him as Quincible, accompanied by a sharp head nod when they passed each other in the house.

It was that I heard one early Fall morning when Morgan got out of bed and opened the front door. Quincy went out just before sunrise and returned for breakfast. Except, something wasn’t quite right and Morgan said I needed to get up and look at him myself.

I stumbled out from under the covers and focused my bleary eyes on Quincy’s black shape where he lay just outside the bedroom door. His head was enormous.

I stared at him panting on the floor his eyes trained on the far wall as though he knew something was wrong but was casually trying to ignore it. The word that popped into my head was frankendog when I saw his giant forehead stretching up way above where it should have ended.

At first we thought something had stung him and an allergic reaction had caused this head to swell to twice its normal size. I grabbed a bowl of water from the kitchen, placed it in front of him and watched as his pink tongue worked quickly to lap it up. He could swallow and breathe okay.

We called the vet and were about to follow their direction to give him an antihistamine and see if the swelling went down when I noticed the white fur on his chest had suddenly become pink and wet. A mucusy-pink puddle began to form on the floor just in front of him and closer inspection revealed a hole in his neck.

Another call to the vet and we were loading Quincy into the car. It seemed he had an abscess that just burst. On the plus side, his head had returned to normal size.

At the vet’s office they shaved the hair around the torn skin, leaving it bright pink and raw. We were given an iodine solution to use, with instructions to keep Quincy inside and the wound open with a warm cloth so it could drain and whatever had caused it, whatever was stuck in there, would be flushed out.

We took our leaky dog home and spent the next few days wetting down a determined scab and wiping up puddles around the house. We tried wrapping a bandana loosely around his neck to help keep the area clean and also to absorb some of the mess, but Quincy always managed to pull it off.

Sometimes the tear healed a bit too much and we had to really work at the wound to open it up again while Quincy sat still as a statue, pointedly not looking at us as if trying to imagine none of it was happening.

One afternoon I kneeled beside him with my hands on his shoulders, closely scrutinizing his sealed-up wound and the swollen skin around it. Morgan stood on the other side wielding a damp cloth. It wasn’t working, the wound stayed stubbornly closed. Eventually Morgan resorted to poking and prodding the area with his fingers to try and break through the scab.

I’m not sure if I was adjusting my position or my attention wandered for a minute, but I just moved my face to the side, away from the wound, when it erupted and a jet of pus shot from his neck across the livingroom. We both jumped back from Quincy, as though he had become suddenly too hot to touch, and we watched this perfect stream of gunk fly about six feet through the air then splatter against the TV screen, drip down the storage bin it sat on, and pool on the floor. Quincy didn’t move a muscle. Morgan and I stared at each other and shared a slightly nervous laugh and all I could think was I almost got that in the face.

Well, that must feel better, Morgan said and clapped Quincy on the shoulder.

If it did, it didn’t last long. Whatever was stuck in his skin causing the irritation, it wasn’t coming out. We flushed the area, kept it clean, allowed it to drain, but it kept swelling up. It didn’t seem to be getting any better.

The vet agreed, surmising that whatever was in there had maybe pierced through his skin from the inside, like if he got a stick stuck in his throat. She explained the only way to clean it out properly would be to go in and get it out.

Quincy needed surgery.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Quincy finds his voice

Four months went by before we heard Quincy utter a word. He slipped into life with us as I imagined he adapted to everything, quietly, with his head down, one paw out the door while sinking the rest of his body comfortably into a well-worn spot on the floor.

He had an air of quiet confidence about him, cultivated, I was sure, by a life of roaming wide open spaces and traversing dense forests. It wasn’t long before Morgan and I began to think of him as the Littlest Hobo incarnate. He was the strong, silent type who was willing to let you in, but not too far. He hated getting his picture taken.

He took up walking with Bear and I. There was an old logging road across the main road from the little cottage community where we lived. It was the aftermath of a clear cut. There were a few clusters of forested area left, but mostly it was all new growth, scraggly and rough. The new small trees that clamoured for the sky were shorter than me, and the underbrush grew thick.

Somehow I felt safer when Quincy joined us. I knew he was bush-savvy. He moved like he had spent his life running free in the wilderness. Mud puddles were his weakness. Any we found along the way, the bigger the better, he would sit in those as he did the river, then stretch out and lie there as though he had found a little slice of heaven.

Always he would leave us after a while and disappear into the trees or brush that lined the trail, appearing again a short time later, having covered the distance through the bush, where Bear and I stuck to the trail.

I found myself watching him for cues. If he stopped and listened, ears cocked towards the bush, eyes focused, I would wait and listen, wondering what he heard or smelled on the air. I trusted him implicitly.

Usually when he disappeared into the bush for about the fifth time, he wouldn’t appear again until Bear and I were almost home, then he would join us for the last leg of our walk. Occasionally we would return to find him sitting at the house waiting for us.

I often wondered where he went. I felt like we were just a tiny part of that dogs life, his days were filled with other things, other places. Sometimes he even stayed out all night. The longer he lived with us, the more the mystery deepened.

I awoke one morning to find a shoe I didn’t recognize on the deck, just outside the door. Morgan didn’t know it either. It didn’t take us long to realize Quincy had brought it home with him. The shoe was completely intact. He hadn’t picked it up as a chew toy, he’d just brought it home. We asked around our neighbours, it didn’t belong to any of them.

I wondered how far afield he travelled and why he brought home this particular shoe. I tried to picture him sneaking silently from the shadows on to someone’s back porch, checking over his options, making his selection, carefully lifting the shoe in his mouth and stealing away into the trees, then trotting all the way home with it clutched between his teeth.

Once it was deposited at our door, he completely ignored it. Was he bringing us a present? I wondered. I was at the same time flattered and mildly embarrassed that my dog stole somebody’s shoe.

Shortly after that, on another morning, I found a sandal.

During the time he lived with us, Quincy became somewhat of a neighbourhood social butterfly. All our neighbours were dog people and everyone kind of looked out for him. He quickly learned which houses had the best treats and who would give him table scraps.

When we started visiting one of our neighbours for a weekly dinner and TV night, Quincy would accompany us to the house and then loiter just off their deck until we appeared two hours later to go home. Eventually he worked up to stepping inside for brief visits to say hello, then he’d collect a treat and slip out the door to wait for us.

One night when we left their house, it was pitch black outside. The darkness hung heavily around us and seemed to stretch above to the end of time. There was no moon, no stars and I could barely see Morgan where he walked beside me only feet away. I could hear Bear’s quick steps ahead of us crunching over the gravel, but other than that we could have been completely alone in the world.

Then we heard a strange bark from close behind us. It’s funny how you can pick out the distinct barks of different dogs, we knew the sound of the voices of all five dogs that lived in our community. This was one neither of us had heard before. We stopped and I felt a flurry of soft fur and wet nose and straw-like whiskers brush my hand. Then Morgan let out a yell as he was nudged from behind.

Who was that? Was that Quincy? We asked aloud of each other and the air around us. It was the first time Quincy had ever made such deliberate contact with us. We could hear him dancing around us in the darkness with Bear and we started to laugh. For a brief moment we floated away, the four of us, and it felt as though everything up until that point had a purpose after all.