Wednesday, December 30, 2009

For the love of dog

I tell my dogs all the time they’re lucky they’re cute. They’re lucky they have wiggling furry bodies, soft ears and pouting mouths. Lucky they have liquid brown eyes, brows that furrow and big floppy feet. If it weren’t for these things, I would have told them to hit the road long ago; especially Murdoch.

As much as they have brought to my life, they have also demanded a great deal.

When it was just Bear, it all seemed so easy. Then Quincy came and went and left the cats behind, which complicated things immensely. Max showed up next, a swaggering old dog who stunk like a junk yard after spending most of his life living outdoors and was slowly losing his ability to walk, necessitating extra care that eventually led to us buying him a wheelchair. Then there was Murdoch, the dog nobody wanted - for good reason.

We all kind of limped along together and jostled ourselves into a sort of family, complete with sibling rivalries, temper tantrums and teenage angst.

Most days my patience is on the verge of plummeting to a grisly death.

It all starts innocently enough. Kisses are planted on the tops of furry heads, ears are scratched, cheeks pinched. Then the day begins to derail. While I’m walking him, Murdoch lunges at a car, dragging me behind at the end of his leash. A dark, menacing bark emerges from somewhere deep in his chest and his muscles turn to steel, he becomes rigid and immovable. Or he dashes off to the neighbour’s house, but not before stopping at the end of the driveway to turn and thumb his nose at me, while I wave a stick in the air in a futile attempt to lure him back to the house. Or he catches a whiff of something interesting and is off like a shot into the woods, his name leaping from my mouth louder and louder, which he deflects by cleverly weaving around trees.

I eventually retrieve him and return to the house to find Max has had an accident, sat in it and smeared it across the floor. Guilt-ridden for not getting him out sooner, I lift him up by the harness he wears and begin the awkward dance with his wheelchair that involves leaning over at a strange angle to steady the two-wheeled contraption while holding the handles on Max’s harness to keep him standing and snap the clips into place on the metal frame. It is made all the more difficult while wrestling with Max, who eagerly tries to walk towards the door, and at the same time keeping an eye on the mess on the floor with the view to avoid it at all costs.

In cleaning up the mess I need to go to the kitchen where I find Bear has ripped into the garbage and strewn trash all over the floor, angry to have been left behind. I trip over Chestnut, who has thrown himself in front of me because he thinks he’s starving to death, while yelling at Cleo for scratching her claws on the wooden spindles of the banister that overlooks the entryway.

Sometimes these things happen separately, a lot of the time they happen all at once.

Yes, there are moments when I feel like I could pack a bag for each of the animals, shuffle them out the front door and send them on their way. Just a moment here or there. It always passes.

It’s that tug inside that constantly reminds me I no longer live for just myself. My dogs require me to be present when I would prefer to be miles away, physically and mentally. They require love when all I want to do is curl up in a ball of frustration or anger and pull the grey clouds close around me and shut out the world. They require that I go outside with them and really be a part of the day.

They remind me how much I love to walk in the rain or run through deep, fluffy snow before collapsing in a heap. They remind me how beautiful a forest is, how serene it can be one minute and the adventures that can be found there the next. They remind me how much fun it is to play your favourite game, how satisfying it is to be outdoors everyday, how grounding a walk in the woods can be and how wonderful it is to share all these things.

So, yes, they are lucky they’re cute, but I guess I’m lucky too.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The couch came back

Our house was beginning to look like an abandoned cabin in the woods that had been recently pillaged and the couch, which was too awkward to carry, had been dumped outside the front door, on end, leaning against a tree.

During the three weeks it sat there waiting for us to announce its fate, it had been rained on, snowed on and become a sort of a magnet for other stuff to accumulate. Around the base of the tree against which the couch leaned had materialized an industrial strength black garbage bag, growing fatter by the day, a blue plastic garbage bin filled with birdseed, a couple of shovels, a mop bucket, a metal ash bucket and a pair of boots that waited to be cleaned before entering the house.

It had all got a little out of hand and finally, beneath the weight of it all, we decided the couch would go, no discussion, no waffling, it was time. Morgan wedged the edge of a fridge cart under the arm on which the whole couch now stood. He wrestled it around the tree and the wheels of the cart were almost enveloped by the stones that sketched out a path through the trees.

The path is made up of the roundest, smoothest stones I’ve ever seen, as though they were picked from the shoreline of a turbulent lake where they tumbled together and were swirled about by the water until all the rough edges were worn away. Individually they were quite beautiful. Piled together as the foundation for a rough flagstone path, they were almost lethal. Our feet sunk into them as though we were walking on a dry sandy beach. The flagstones, that were themselves rounded and smooth as though they’d been plucked from the bed of a river, skated over the top of the small spherical stones and encouraged excellent balance on a good day.

As Morgan trundled the wheels over uneven stone, the couch bounced and swayed like a tower threatening to tumble to the ground. I ran up behind to steady the beast as Morgan navigated the path that wound through the trees to our driveway.

By the time we reached the trailer, the couch had shimmied so far to the side, it barely clung to the edge of the cart. We lowered it to the driveway and finished loading the trailer. The couch was the last thing onboard. We lifted it almost effortlessly on to the four-foot by five-foot box, flipping it from where it stood on all five legs beside the trailer to rest on the edges of the seat and back rest. The legs pointed out from the bottom of the couch at a forty five degree angle to the sky. It looked helpless, like an ant that had been flipped on its back.

We tied the couch in place and started out for the dump. It hung over the front and the back of the tiny trailer and I sat in the passenger seat craning my neck around to keep an eye on it as we drove along the dusty road beneath a turquoise blue sky. The sun shone brilliantly on our couch that day, catching the orange stripes with a shimmer and a wink and the triumphant decision to throw out the couch dimmed a bit. It suddenly seemed like a sad journey to be making.

Then, Morgan said he really didn’t want to get rid of the couch. With that spoken doubt hanging in the air between us, I looked at him and realized I didn’t want to get rid of it either.

I turned back to face the couch again, it followed us down the road like a lost puppy. We hadn’t made it half way to the landfill site before we decided we couldn’t throw the couch away. At the dump we took the couch off the trailer and set it gently on the ground while we disposed of our garbage, then replaced the couch, roped it down and drove home.

The drive home was much more jubilant as we watched the couch bounce happily along behind us on the trailer. We discussed our plan to learn how to reupholster it ourselves, maybe even cut it down to make two oversized chairs. It was going to take a lot of work and was a project that would have to wait. In the next couple of days, we decided, we would strip it down and store the wooden frame in the crawl space under our house.

Other projects soon emerged, more pressing ones, and the couch settled into its new home just off the edge of our driveway where it collected pine needles and rain. Amidst the browns and burnt yellows of autumn leaves that carpeted the forest floor, and those few that still clung to trees whose skeletal frames emerged more with each gust of wind, the couch almost became invisible. Almost.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The perfect dog

In a very short time, Bear became my constant companion. From the beginning she has always been more than a dog to me, and amongst the string of animals that have come to define the last five years of my life, Bear stands just off to the left in a special place all by herself. When asked if I have a favourite, without hesitation I can say hands down I do.

Bear is my soul mate. She is one of those creatures who fits so perfectly into my existence that I can’t remember what it was like not having her in my life, and I don’t really care to remember.

There is something calming about Bear, a warmth and comfort from her body that translates itself into mine. She is big and solid with a barrel chest and thick neck, often mistaken for a male dog, and perfectly sized for full-body hugs, best shared on the bed or a couch where she can stretch out and reveal her soft pink belly.

Silky smooth ears frame her face where tiny eyelashes curl delicately out from her gentle eyes of chocolate brown. Her feet smell like popcorn and when I take them in my hands they fill my palms completely, a reassuring weight clothed in shiny fur and tough black pads.

Her velvety coat is close cropped to her body and hugs every contour of her frame, rolling smoothly over tight, toned muscle. When the light hits her it is completely absorbed in midnight black then reflected the next minute as silver. When in full flight, chasing a ball or leaping through the air after a stick, she reminds me of a horse, muscled, strong and powerful.

Sometimes in the silence of a room when I’m sure I am alone, I can hear the rustle of her wagging tail and know she is standing nearby, looking at me with her questioning brown eyes, communicating volumes.

She’s one of those dogs who understands full sentences and looks at you like she’s really listening to every word that comes out of your mouth, then replies just as clearly as if she’d spoken in return.

One day we took Bear and Murdoch paddling. Morgan and I set the canoes down on the sandy shore where we loaded some gear and ropes and tied down important things as Bear paced nearby. She and I crossed paths on one of my trips back to the truck to get my life jacket. We stopped and looked at each other and I said, “Are you coming with me?” Her ears perked up and she turned her head to the side before setting off in a purposeful march to my canoe and jumped in, then sat there for the next ten minutes waiting patiently for us to cast off into the deep blue lake.

For me, Bear has always been the perfect dog, but I wasn’t there for the first two intense years of training. I missed the part where Morgan battled with her every day to make her realize she was not in charge, and I missed the part where they got kicked out of puppy school because Bear hadn’t got it yet.

Morgan told me he chose Bear from the litter of puppies because she seemed sweet and calm. She was asleep when he picked her up. What he didn’t realize at the time was she was so calm and relaxed and tired because she had just finished beating up on all her siblings.

Bear held on to her alpha dog tendencies and still finds it difficult to share the spotlight. Part of our decision to bring Quincy into our home was so Bear could have another dog around, someone to play with. Since then we have realized Bear prefers her space from other animals. She is not terribly social, except in small bursts, and has had to adjust her life quite a bit as more animals continued to drop in our laps.

Often we find ourselves apologizing to her. Sorry Bear that Max is so needy. Sorry that Murdoch is such a jerk. Sorry Cleo keeps peeing on your bed. Sorry Chestnut likes to grab your tail. Sorry the cats tumbled off the back of the couch onto your head again while they were wrestling.

Even though I love the animals completely and without question, some days it does seem all a little too much. Regardless, there is something energizing about them and something incredibly rewarding about being loved by a dog. Whenever I’m with one of my dogs, really with them, time stops for a while. Dogs bring me into the moment like nothing else, even when it’s not because I’m watching Murdoch hyper-vigilantly for the bad dog to unzip the good dog costume and emerge with teeth gleaming and claws drawn.

In one way or another, each animal that has become a part of my life has played a significant role in shaping my path. They have shown up at turning points or instigated turning points, for better or for worse. And though I carry something with me from each of them, Bear will always have the biggest chunk of my heart.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Two canoes and a Bear

Before Bear, I never owned a dog. We had cats growing up - two, at separate times. I suppose I was a good candidate for a dog, thinking back. I always managed to terrorize the cats. By terrorize I mean I loved them too much and wanted them to love me the same in return; which, to our cats, was the greatest insult known to feline kind.

I hugged them a lot, wrapping my arms around their round bodies, where they nestled into a chair or the couch, while resting my head on their fat-cushioned sides. I think I saw them as super-soft stuffed animals come to life and just like stuffed animals, they were made for squeezing as tight as you could and curling your body around beneath the weight of blankets pulled up to your chin at bed time.

I imagined they wanted to be picked up and dragged around the house. I kissed their heads and tried to rub their fluffy white bellies. When I was feeling particularly brave, or moved by swells of love for these haughty creatures who probably wished I would go away and drop dead somewhere, I would wrap my arms around their girth and lift them from the floor.

My attempts to have any kind of relationship with the cats past breathing the same air as them were always met by indignant glares through slitted eyes. I never took the hint though and persisted, forcing them to shed their last scrap of dignity and turn into swirling whorls of flying fur and otherworldly growls that started deep in their chests before climbing through every octave to heights of adrenaline-charged shrieks.

I would back away, still determined to touch even just a toe till the last possible moment, as they swatted violently at my hand. Their feet disappeared beneath them in an instant as though they were mounted on springs.

Still, I never thought about wanting a dog. Despite the cats’ utter dislike of me, I loved them completely and thought they were the absolute best animals in the world. But if I had imagined the perfect dog at that time, she would have been exactly like Bear.

When Bear was two-and-a-half and I started seeing her regularly, there was never any awkwardness between us, no suspicion on her part that I was trying to steal Morgan away from her. She welcomed me into their world as though she’d been expecting me for ages and was delighted I’d finally shown up.

The very first day Morgan and I decided to do something together, just the three of us, we went canoeing on a tiny pond behind a saw mill owned by one of his friends.

We each paddled our own canoe - Bear and Morgan together, I by myself - and set about exploring the winding path that meandered through a small clearing in a patch of forest. Lazy strokes in still, dark water moved us slowly around towering blonde reeds, bleached and dried in the sun.

It was spring and the brightness of the day made it feel like we were paddling through an overexposed photograph. Everything was still tinged brown after a winter slumber, but the earth was awakening, we could smell it on the air, rich golden tones with hints of fresh green. Along one bank, tiny white flowers dotted the ground at the base of an old tree whose roots clung to the edge and trailed in the water.

The sun was hot, but the air in shaded spots still held on to the last wisps of wintery breath. That didn’t stop Bear from plunging into the water every chance she had and when Morgan tucked his canoe into a nook on the shore, she wasted no time in availing herself of a swim. As Morgan put his feet up to enjoy the sun, I continued on from the spot where he stopped and disappeared around a bend, beneath a small foot bridge where I also found a place to pull into shore.

I turned around to see Bear paddling towards me, her tail swishing behind like a snake following her through the water. Her little face peered up at me in my canoe, a look of alarm in her eyes, before turning and swimming back around the bend and out of my sight.

She returned a few minutes later, then swam to the opposite bank where she stood dripping wet, her toes in the swampy shallows, and stared first at Morgan, then swung her head around to stare at me. Her midnight-black hair stood off her body in slick clumps, wet and oily-looking beneath the glare of the afternoon sun. The brightness of the day made her features fade into the outline of her body, but I could imagine the questioning look in her deep, thoughtful eyes, the furrows on her forehead as her floppy ears pulled together towards the top of her head, making them hang sideways, away from her face.

Bear skipped and ran along the bank, where she could see both of us, for the entire time we sat there. She didn’t relax until Morgan and I were once again in sight of each other and the three of us were underway, returning through the maze of golden water reeds.

We laughed at her antics, but it was our first glimpse of how Bear would later be the glue that held us all together.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The face of destiny

I never planned on having a houseful of animals. But, somewhere between living the single life in my own apartment with no attachments and buying my first house with my husband, I became one of those people who animals just happen to. I didn’t expect any of it and really didn’t want to be tied down by that kind of responsibility.

Now, it seems, I can’t leave the house without an alarm going off somewhere in the collective consciousness of dogs throughout the land, that the treat lady is about. Dogs just seem to know that I may have a goodie for them hidden on my person, or at any moment I’ll produce a ball they can chase. It could be because the pockets in almost all my sweaters and jackets are lined with a fine sprinkling of treat dust, or it could be the layer of animal hair that constantly surrounds me like a type of protective packaging, or perhaps it’s the splotches of dried dog slobber on my clothes that shimmer tellingly when the light hits them just right. Whatever the reason, I have started to feel guilty when met with a pair of pleading eyes peering up at me from a furry face and I have nothing to give but a pat on the head; although I’ve learned, sometimes that is quite enough.

My descent into a life carpeted with dog hair began the day I met Bear, which also happens to be the day I met my future husband.

I was standing in the cool damp of a farm house kitchen, the darkness just barely chased away by a bright cold spring light that squinted in through tiny windows, when the door flew open, banging against the wall and Morgan and Bear burst into the room.

Although Morgan’s personality filled the kitchen instantly, the first thing I said was “Ooh, a puppy!”. I reached down and managed to just brush my fingertips against the little black ball of energy as she galloped past me, ears flapping, and tumbled into the living room in search of the little dog who lived there. Bear was only six months old and was incapable of sitting still long enough for me to even see what she looked like. Before I could blink, she breezed by again on the heels of a tiny white mop of hair and disappeared into the bright rectangle of light that spilled in from outdoors.

It was another two years before I really got to know her. She and Morgan did everything together, so when Morgan and I started seeing each other she did everything with us. I was sucked in right away by her big brown intelligent eyes that looked right into my heart and floppy ears that were silky soft against my cheek. I loved to bury my face in the thick ruff of fur around her neck and kiss the spot between her eyes that seemed to fit my lips just perfectly.

The more time the three of us spent together, the closer Bear and I became. Morgan was born with cerebral palsy that affects one of his legs. It means he is unable to spend a lot of time on his feet doing strenuous things, like hiking or running, things I enjoy. Bear and I bonded over those things. I would sometimes show up at Morgan’s house to pick up the dog and take her for an afternoon of walking in the woods.

It wasn’t long before we were inseparable. Morgan and I joked that it was Bear and I who were supposed to be together and Morgan just happened to come with the dog. He even began to see similarities developing. He says we sigh the same way when we’re bored and hold the same worried expression in our eyes when we’re concerned about something. He gets the same disgruntled sideways glance from Bear and I whenever he fights for a spot on the couch between us.

Morgan and I clicked instantly that day we met each other in the farm house kitchen. It was as though something inside each of us cracked open and took a deep breath for the first time in a very long time - something we didn't even know was there. Our hearts knew we belonged together before our heads did and a connection formed that very instant the door flew open. Then, as we navigated our clunky human relationship, I began to see how simply in tune Bear and I were with each other and I realized, in her, I had found a soul mate.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Murdoch dethroned

It was early Fall when the couch moved outside.

The thing that forced the decision was a need to move our wood stove from where it sat - outside - back into the entryway where it belonged.

The white one-inch-square tiles that sat under the stove when we moved in, began to pop out one by one during our first winter in the house. Grey grout flaked, then crumbled, helped along by Murdoch who spent every waking minute investigating anything that looked like it might hold some importance to someone else, until it was good and broken. By the time spring rolled around, our floor in front of the wood stove resembled someone who had come out the other end of a street brawl, having taken a number of hits to the mouth. I spent many days sitting on the floor filling in gaps with the tiny white squares. Some were still attached to each other in larger groups and it was a little like putting a puzzle together over top of the brown plywood.

In order to fix the tiles properly, we needed to peel back the linoleum that covered the rest of the floor in the entryway. We’d put that project off long enough and now the temperature hovered around zero at night, which injected a bit of urgency to the job.

That is why I came home one day to find the couch propped up on end against a tree outside the front door of our house.

As I turned the corner onto our road and saw the orange stripes through the trees, I felt both a lightness of heart that a decision was on its way to being made, and a heavy weight around my neck that it was actually sitting outside, exactly where I dreaded it would end up.

My biggest concern about the couch being outside was that Murdoch would pee on it; then, of course, Max and Bear would have to do it too. One of the reasons I never wanted male dogs in the first place was because of their incessant need to mark things. Murdoch excels at it.

The line we attach him to when he goes out for bathroom breaks was long enough to reach the couch. I imagined the thoughts rolling around in his head - This wasn’t here before, I think I’ll pee on it. We hooked the line up for him a few months earlier when he decided our neighbours’ house is much more fun than ours. As soon as we opened the door to let him out he would bolt across the threshold as though he’d been shot from a cannon and morph into a black blur, streaking inches above the ground while our angry shouts followed him first down the path, then the driveway, and finally tripping through the trees and along the road after his retreating tail.

But the dogs were far less put out by the couch’s presence than I was. After a cursive sniff, they couldn’t be bothered. As far as they were concerned that was the new spot for the couch. Although, I think it did knock Murdoch down a few pegs when he had to join Max on his own pile of blankets on the floor.

The couch stayed where it was for a few days while Morgan cemented in new tile, and we luxuriated in the space. Our entryway is quite big. We have plans for it. It will be an extra sitting room someday, when Murdoch learns to reasonably co-habitate with other creatures. But even with the room’s size, the couch, paired with Murdoch’s kennel, eats away a fair chunk. When you factor in a stack of wood in the winter, it gets a little crowded.

We agreed the room was so much nicer without the hulking brute of a couch, which at one time had seemed delicate and low profile, and decided it would not be returning to it’s spot in the entryway. A trip to the dump was once again planned.

The dump is open only on Saturdays. If you miss it, you have to live with your garbage for another week. This happens to us frequently. We don’t try to go every week, so we don’t really pay attention to what day it is. We go when we’ve accumulated enough stuff to make the trip worthwhile. Needless to say, between that slight hitch and other life crises popping up unexpectedly, as they do, the couch continued to hold up that tree for a good three weeks.

I was determined not to stop seeing it there. It is ridiculously easy to no longer notice something when it stays in one spot too long - even though there is nothing particularly subtle about a striped orange couch leaning against a tree.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Lament for a couch

Like so many of the animals whose paths crossed mine in the last five years, I often wondered about the previous life of our couch. When we found it sitting amongst the other couches and chairs at the Salvation Army it almost sparkled in comparison. Where other couches drooped in spots or sported shadows of ancient stains that had been scrubbed and scrubbed so they convinced the eye to believe them a trick of the light, our couch was immaculate.

The velour fabric gave the oranges and browns and army greens a richness that begged to be touched. It could be argued its only downfall was the colour scheme. The special blend of garish hues that screams 1970 is not something that would match many decors, but with our plywood floor and renters-beige walls, it was perfect.

The couch had definitely been sat on, but not really and truly used. Not like it was about to be.

Four and a half short years later, it sat cushionless, the front valance torn away and stuffing hanging out where thin strips had been peeled from the backrest. The arms, that had made perfect scratching posts revealed glimpses of wooden frame, the fabric that still covered the seat of the couch had become a muddy gray. A Murdoch-shaped sooty black smudge highlighted one corner while the opposite end was forever dotted with various dog toys. A squeaky football, a bright orange street-hockey ball, a tennis ball and a black Kong regularly co-mingled with Max’s bone and food dish - all things Murdoch collected throughout the day. The entire couch was also strewn with torn bits of cardboard as though a parade had marched by throwing confetti and streamers in great celebration. It was a sad sight.

When we re-purposed the couch, as first a storage area for moving boxes and then a dedicated dog bed, we planned it to be for Max. Our new house had lots of stairs; each room is located on a different level. Max, who had never been able to walk without a drunken swagger the entire time I’d known him, seemed to be finding it more difficult to get his back end to cooperate with his front end and I assumed, unwilling to tackle the stairs, he would stay in our spacious entryway with the kenneled Murdoch.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. We tried to get him to crawl onto the couch, which he had done with great pushiness bordering on a sense of entitlement at our old place, but he wasn’t interested. The couch was invisible to him.

Instead, with great determination he hauled himself up the six stairs to the kitchen three or four times a day. Either he really wanted to be in the middle of the action or, even gentle Max who loves everyone, couldn’t stand to be anywhere near the new puppy.

So the couch eventually became Murdoch’s space - once he’d been freed from spending chunks of his days in lock down. It wasn’t long before he set about destroying it once and for all.

Morgan and I lived beneath a mantle of guilt over that and shuffled that particular problem to the back of our minds where it would hum away quietly, waiting for just the right stress-filled moment to resurface. Then, we would discuss it all over again, an exasperating trod down all the same roads.

I decided we should find someone who wanted a re-upholstering project, but no one was interested, just as Morgan laughingly predicted. We did get one response from an ad we posted on freecycle. A bunch of college boys wanted it to actually sit on! Sit on? I couldn’t give this couch to anyone to be used as a couch, as is, unless they were decked out in full haz-mat gear. No. The couch had to go.

So we were back to the dreaded trip to the dump. It felt like we had failed. The dump is my least favourite place in the world. I find it utterly depressing. A kick in the face kind of reminder of our irresponsibility as a species; the ease with which people shed their extra stuff and then turn around and consume some more. I didn’t want to contribute to that with such a huge item, one that really wasn’t broken, wasn’t unfixable.

But it was making our living space less than inviting. We needed to make a decision. My way of handling it was to hum and haw, present both sides of the situation, then walk away shaking my head, hoping the answer would appear in some prophetic dream. Morgan really didn’t want to get rid of it, but he really didn’t want to keep it either. At one point he suggested just moving it outside.

I had visions of a weather beaten, rotting hulk emerging in the spring from a couch-shaped mound of snow that had occupied my view for months. For Morgan, who has a junk yard side to him, moving the couch outside behind a shed until we figured out what to do with it was a legitimate solution. For me, it made my brain curl up into a tight fist and beat against the inside of my skull. We agreed this plan would not work, and so Murdoch got to keep his throne for a little while longer.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Planet Cleo

Cleo is one of those cats that make you realize why some people don’t like cats. She’s destructive, she pees in strange places when she’s mad - or if the wind blows out of the west - she’s flighty, demanding, completely self-centered and seems to enjoy hearing her name yelled so loudly it leaves an echo bouncing around in the shouter’s throat; only then will she come running.

It does sometimes seem as though she’s not from around here. And by around here, I mean Earth.

Cleo lives in an almost constant state of desperation. Everything is urgent and alarming. She’s not exactly cuddly, but she loves affection, as long as it’s on her terms. Mostly she molests people, and the dogs. Bear can hardly take one step without tripping over her voluminous body as it weaves around her legs. Cleo is static cling personified.

Her eyes point in opposite directions when she’s in a certain state of mind - or personality, if you get my meaning. She’s not walleyed per se, but her eyes sit slightly off-kilter sometimes and she kind of looks through you. It’s as though something has rattled loose in her brain. On most days her grey matter ticks along quite nicely but it cycles round in such a way the loose bit gets knocked askew and for a while she becomes someone else.

It can be traced back to the day when she was a kitten and tumbled from her perch on my shoulder. Without even thinking, my hand was beneath her as she plummeted past my knees and I caught her, splayed out on her back, perhaps causing her mild whiplash, before she had the chance to do that flippy-around-in-the-air-thing cats do. But she may have been too young even to know about that yet. She’s never been the same since.

Perhaps that was the cause of all her idiosyncracies, the most annoying of which has become her need to sink her pointy little claws into anything and everything that gets a violent reaction from us.

The couch was doomed the day Cleo gave up on the scratching post. For a few months at least Chestnut and Cleo dutifully sharpened their claws on the carpeted pedestal that sat in our living room. But one day that changed. Maybe Cleo decided she liked the feel of the taut, yet spongy fabric of the arm of the couch beneath her paws, or the particular pick and tear sound of her claws ripping through threads. Whatever it was, she was hooked.

She was at least discreet about it at first. We just noticed one day the left arm of the couch had taken on a particularly worn appearance. But after a while, as she settled into life as a rotund diva who thought everything was put there expressly for her amusement, she would stare directly at Morgan or I and massage her claws carefully into the couch then tear them out again in a slightly savage gesture. It was as though she wanted us to yell at her, get up and chase her across the living room. She delighted in our anger, dashing away at first, before slowing to a trot, then turning abruptly to quick-step back to where we stood, shaking with frustration. She would rub up against our legs, throw herself at us, purring and meowing.

It is this apparent need for destructive energy that probably attracted her to Murdoch in the first place. Murdoch - the hell hound disguised as a poor abandoned puppy sitting patiently on the side of the road.

Chestnut spent that first week after I brought the puppy home under the couch. If there had been enough room under there, Morgan, Bear, Max and I all would have joined him to get away from the swirling black vortex of shaggy hair and gleaming white teeth that was the overgrown puppy.

Cleo was the only one whose fascination got the better of her. While the rest of us tore out our hair, or curled into fetal positions in the face of his onslaughts, Cleo couldn’t get enough of him. She would lie in front of his kennel and watch him. The more excited he got, barking and shaking the metal cage, the more interested she became.

When we moved to our new house and the couch was relegated to the entryway with Murdoch, Cleo spent a lot more time underneath it. She must have fancied herself a scientist, obscured by her cleverly camouflaged blind where she could sit and make her observations.

One day I sat on the floor with my back against the couch, Murdoch sprawled at my side, his body stretched the length of my legs. He had just recently become manageable enough that I could sit with him for short periods of time without being mauled.

I tried to embody calm and spoke quietly to him while he writhed around on the floor as though trying to keep the demons from taking possession of his body again. I rubbed his chest and his ears, letting his manic energy bounce off of me and began to enjoy a few quiet moments with this problem dog. It didn’t last long.

I heard a loud scrabble under the couch. A split second later, I looked down and there was Cleo. She lay on her back, her claws sunk into the front of the couch where she had grabbed it and slid along the floor, propelling herself out from under her safe haven well past her shoulders. Everybody froze. Cleo stared at me as though she had no idea how she got there, then glanced at Murdoch whose head whipped around on his shoulders to look at her, though he still lay on his back. Not even the air particles moved around us for that moment when no one dared to breathe.

I had just a flicker of thought to get out of the way before the scene exploded. I made a hasty retreat as Murdoch dove under the couch where Cleo had just disappeared again. He was too big to fit right under it, so Cleo sat against the wall at the back of the couch and taunted him. It entertained her for hours.