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.


  1. Well-defined setting concretely and deftly drawn - you see the natural landscape and your eloquent words paint clear images on the canvas of the reader's eye: ". . . tiny white flowers dotted the ground . . . trailed in the water." You possess the piercing eye of a painter. Bear, too, is very much a part of this natural world, not too humanized, not denatured. And, with a glance and a brief toss of her head, she knits you to life, to love. You are on a quest, a discovery in your writing, Heather. As in all quests,literary or otherwise, you pursue initially what you want, but end up discovering what it is you really need. May you find what you need. It is a journey to find out who we are.

  2. Tears of joy! I remember you telling this story when it happened. Bear knew right from the start. How I love the way you have written it here. How lucky to have your first moments documented so beautifully! Love and hugs,
    cher- ps got your Christmas card yesterday featuring none other than beautiful Bearie. Love her to bits.