Monday, December 27, 2010

Greatest Christmas gift ever

Morgan and I brought home Max’s shiny new wheelchair on Boxing Day two years ago. It was the most thrilling part of our Christmas that year when we pulled the sparkling chrome contraption out of the box and assembled the various pieces. When put together it looked like a cart with two small mountain bike tires slightly angled at the rear and a couple of metal arms that would run along each side of Max’s body, parallel to his back.

I flipped through the instruction booklet, examining the different straps and clips that would attach the cart to Max, hoping to make his introduction to this apparatus as smooth as possible. But enthusiasm gripped us. We had been searching for a chair for Max for three months by then and had been thinking about it at least four-times as long. In our excitement we descended on him like a pair of ravens investigating a particularly shiny object in the snow.

“The strap goes over his head like this and under his chest.” “No, wait, that’s backwards. Take it off again. It goes like this.” “His leg goes through here. Wait. It has to go in this way. That’s right. His legs go like that and that piece clips in there.”

It was an intense flurry of activity as we poked and prodded, but Max just stood there patiently dipping his head down for a drink from the bowl on the floor in front of him while we pulled and tugged and adjusted straps.

When he was ready, we opened the door and shunted him outside. He stood there for a moment in the fading light, the snow a cool slate blue all around him while we waited anxiously, barely breathing. He took his first step, followed by another and another and then he was trundling around the open area in front of our house, snow caking into the tread on his tires.

“Good boy Max!” both Morgan and I cheered, while Bear skipped about in the snow looking for a ball, completely oblivious to the event at hand. Max looked at us as if to ask what all the fuss was about and was the camera really necessary?

I don’t know what it must have been like for Max to suddenly be able to walk again, to go effortlessly where he wanted to go, but he seemed absorbed in the moment when he trotted down the snow-covered driveway. I had to run to keep up with him.

He planted his great front feet with purpose, one in front of the other pulling him along the road faster and faster while his back legs hung down, scissoring in time with his front legs as though helping to propel him. Max jogged determinedly down the road he hadn’t been able to walk along in months. It was like he had a score to settle.

I suppose he did. By the end of the summer that road had defeated him. He couldn’t go any farther than the end of our driveway before his back legs gave out. I began sneaking past him to take Bear and Murds for walks while he dozed beneath the trees outside our house. More often than not, when we were halfway down the road I would look back over my shoulder and see a tiny Max in the distance his front legs dragging his collapsed backend toward us, sending up small plumes of dust from the dry dirt road. We’d hurry back and I would half-carry an exhausted Max up to the house.

That first evening in his new wheelchair must have felt like a victory. I stopped jogging with him and he continued on his own, barely noticing my absence. I watched him beeline down the road, seeing for the first time the shape I would soon be so accustomed to, as Max became a tiny blue shadow with wings in the half-light of the snowy landscape.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best buds

Fat flakes of snow drift through the crisp air like weighted feathers and patter against my hood. It sticks to Murdoch’s fur as he strides out in-front, head held high, tail swaying eagerly. The world is colourless. A snow-covered road hemmed in by squat snow banks that give way to white narrow strips of filled-in ditches that in turn give way to gray trunks, marking the edge of patches of forest. Above, gray-white clouds become a solid dome, metallic and heavy with snow.

It is all a great blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled by the prints of romping paws and clomping winter boots.

We walk down the center of the road towards the trail that begins at the frozen creek where the road ends. I breathe in great swathes of clear wintry air and share in the giddy sense of freedom that makes Murdoch bounce along on his toes.

In the distance I hear a soft jingling and I stop to look back up the road from where we came. Jack, the neighbours’ dog, and Murdoch’s best friend in the entire world, is running towards us, his feet barely touching the ground as though he’s been shot from a cannon. I smile as I watch his creamy-coloured body fly over the snow. His dark ears, peppered with black hair, flap out like tiny wings as he runs, giving him an expression of immediacy.

When he is a few feet away he plants all four feet flat on the ground and slides past, then turns sideways as he skids to a stop in front of us.

“Hi Jacky!” I say. His Lab-like face beams with excitement as his pink tongue sticks out in a pant from between his smiling black lips.

He turns abruptly and continues to run down the road to the trail. Murdoch stiffens and surges forward eager to follow, but I make him walk with me more sedately as we watch Jack become a spot of pale colour against the white road ahead.

When we reach the trail, Jack is waiting for us. Murdoch sits and waits while I remove his leash. I picture all his energy gathered into a tight ball in his chest as he looks at me, eyes huge and round, mouth closed tight as though it is taking every ounce of effort to sit still.

“Okay,” I say and wince as Murdoch explodes to life. Usually he explodes right into Jack, jumping all over him, forcing him to wrestle. But today the two of them run. It is as though they are celebrating the snow, the cold, their friendship. They run side by side up the trail through snow that reaches up to their knees, leaping through it as though they are frolicking along the shores of a lake. They jostle each other and run for a stretch with their sides pressed together.

I trudge behind at a distance, weighted down by my huge winter boots that make my feet look twice their normal size. My snow pants swish with each trodding stride I take reminding me how cumbersome I can be, how inefficient on my two legs compared with their four as they move effortlessly through the snow, running faster and faster until they are the size of ants.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Just a giant puppy

Morgan backs the car up to the growing pile of garbage that looms out of the pit like a wave anxious to crest. Wind slices across the elevated clearing of the local dump as people rush to throw their bags of garbage onto the heap and then jump back into their vehicles, slamming doors against the cold. The two women who work at the dump are hidden beneath thick layers of clothing. Protected against the elements they stand outdoors as though completely untouched by the wintry weather; hoods pulled up around their faces obscure their true identities.

The sun shines down from a clear sky but the icy atmosphere scatters any heat and stings our faces as we pull bags of garbage from the trunk of our car, then sort our recycling into the appropriate bins. The dump is a small one but our visits usually stretch towards the hour mark as we chat with the women who work there, but it is not a day to stand about so we say quick hellos, how are yous, and Merry Christmases as we walk swiftly back to our car.

And then I stop in my tracks as one of the women calls after us, “Oh, I have puppies.”

“Puppies?” I say, turning to watch her walk towards us.

“They’re Rottie, Shepherd, Collie mixes,” she says.

“Ooh, how cute,” I can’t help but exclaim as I smile at Morgan. He agrees they sound cute but with far less enthusiasm.

For a moment the cold is forgotten, I want to hear about these puppies and even though she’s not specifically asking if we want one I briefly entertain the idea of a new dog.

“How many dogs do you have now?” she asks.

“Just two,” I say, then think of Murdoch and add, “But one of them is like having five.”

I know we’re not getting another dog any time soon, but the fact that I can consider the idea without collapsing in a heap and curling into a fetal position speaks volumes for how far Murdoch and I have come.

About five weeks after I plucked the six-month-old hairy beast from the side of the road and resorted to just about begging someone to take him before realizing he was ours for good, I vowed I would never, ever, under any circumstances, have a puppy again. “Why would someone purposely do this to themselves?” I asked Morgan, deflated and worn out and nursing a few new bite wounds after my latest battle with “the spawn of satan”.

Morgan assured me it wasn’t usually like that then reiterated his theory that perhaps Murdoch wasn’t quite right in the head.

Murdoch is three now, we think, or at least closing in on three, and as I watch him sleep in front of the door, peaceful and calm, I can’t believe he’s the same dog. His side gently rises and falls with each breath and his long black body curves in a relaxed C-shape. Four legs run like spokes on a wheel straight from his shoulders to meet at the hub in a jumbled cluster of feet.

He must feel me watching him because he opens an eye and stares back through the wispy ends of a shaggy eyebrow. “Hi Murds,” I say quietly and he curves his back a bit more, conjuring a stretch that travels along his spine, down his legs to his toes. He closes his eye again and sighs.

He looks serene, but he doesn’t fool me. Within that slumbering form lies an eternal puppy, a pushy brat who thinks he should be the pack leader, a bully who gets carried away and always takes roughhousing just a little too far, a thick-headed mule who drags me behind him chasing cars. He still growls at me occasionally and sometimes tries to eat the cat. So, while I have warmed to the idea of getting a puppy someday, at the moment I’m good.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Murdoch? Is that you?

Morgan’s sister and her husband have a gigantic Doberman Pinscher. His name is Larsson and he’s the size of a small horse with long muscular legs that let him leap up a flight of six stairs in a single bound.

As we enter their house, Larsson explodes up the steps towards us then spins and spins on the spot, filling the entryway with his long, sea lion-like body. His hair is super-short, so slick and shiny he almost shimmers as he spins. I just stand back and watch.

If it weren’t for my experience with Murdoch and his huge jaw and giant blocky head and over-exuberance for life, I think this dog might intimidate me, but Murdoch prepared me for these situations (and insisted I read countless books on dog training). So I wait, and laugh, because what I see in Larsson is a bigger version of Murdoch, just more hyper – which I really never thought was possible.

His feet, a rich chestnut brown that fades about mid-leg to black, thump and stomp as he propels himself in circles, head down, soft silky ears flapping on either side of his slim, bony head. His tail, about the length of a sausage link, wiggles back and forth.

When he slows down enough for me to get his attention, I tell him to sit and then run my hand over the top of his smooth head. I cup his velvety brown chin in my hand and tell him he’s a good boy. I leave my toque and mitts at the front door and climb another short flight of stairs to the living room. My toque is not my favourite, I had to leave that one behind after Murdoch got a hold of it for the hundredth time.

He snatched it from the basket I keep at the top of the kitchen stairs as I ushered him back to his side of the baby gate. He clattered down the stairs with it clutched between his teeth. Even though he hasn’t actually destroyed anything in a long time, preferring instead to parade around with stuff in his mouth, I can’t turn my back on the possibility he may decide to shred his latest catch, so I followed, trying not to make it a big deal, trying to keep that tone out of my voice that signals to him this could be the start of a really great game as I say, “Uh-uh Murdoch, that’s mine.”

He padded quickly across the space from the bottom of the stairs to the front door, flicking a couple of sideways glances my way from eyes that were twice their normal size. My green toque, my favourite toque, the fleecy, warmest one I wear all the time, stuck out in small crushed folds from between his lips on either side of his giant square jaw. I imagined it inside his mouth, all bunched up and slowly absorbing every last drop of slobber.

I reached out and grabbed a corner of the toque, “Mine,” I said firmly and felt his hold loosen. Clearly he wasn’t in the mood for a good fight that day and in a moment had spit the toque out in my hand. I held it up between my thumb and forefinger, wet and glistening with new globs of slobber almost artfully splattered across the fabric. Older, dried slobber shimmered through from beneath. I didn’t have time to wash it so I wore another toque on our trip to visit family, a striped one of pinks and pale blues and grays.

We sat in the living room of Morgan’s sisters house admiring our new nephew when Larsson clip-clopped past with a small green toy cup in his mouth. I glanced up to see him flick his eyes in our direction and recognized Murdoch in that sly, yet bratty expression. He saw me looking at him and changed course to trace out a big circle around the perimeter of the room before the cup was taken away from him.

A few minutes later he appeared again, his long legs striding with great purpose along the same path, this time with a super-hero action figure clamped in his long jaw.

I should have seen it coming, but it never crossed my mind until much later when Morgan called to me in another room over the sound of Larsson’s feet marching along his well-worn path, “He’s got your toque.”

Of course he does.

I got it away from him by offering up a potato chip in exchange. He tiptoed hesitatingly towards me and carefully laid the toque at my feet. “Thanks a lot Larsson,” I said, picking it up and wiping it off on my jeans. “It’s like I never left home.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Following the river

The little square house we lived in when we first came to Thunder Bay sat on the top of a steep hill that abruptly fell away to the river below. It was January when we arrived and the river was frozen and buried beneath a thick downy blanket of snow.

We watched the season change from our giant picture window looking down the river valley. The snow slowly receded, pushed back into piles shrouded in shade by the sun’s intensifying heat and the river turned from white to silvery gray. As the ice melted, moving out from the middle of the river in ever-widening circles, the silver deepened to pewter then black as the water coursing along beneath the ice was finally revealed.

Swollen by the spring melt, the river tumbled swiftly below, speeding along its length and climbing a little farther up its banks every day. Trunks of weathered dead trees sailed past the house, swept away from the water’s edge by the extended, greedy grasp of the river.

Other tall trees whose roots grew sideways into the hill while their gray trunks stretched straight up towards the sky framed the river outside our window. If we ventured closer to the rushing water and looked past the trees we could see where the river disappeared around a bend. It then cut a mildly meandering course past homes with manicured lawns, homes hidden behind trees, and other spots where trees and brush filled the landscape.

Bear and I later found the river again tumbling and churning along the edge of a conservation area where it burst its way over jumbled boulders strewn in its path. We could hear the water from every trail that webbed through the forest as it roared and frothed white energy down troughs cut sharp and slick in the rock.

We stood on great slabs of flat rocks that pushed the river into a narrowed band and watched the water gush like a waterfall down jagged stair steps, feeling its vibrations in our chests. On our rocky perch, water gathered in small pools around us in dish-shaped gouges and reflected the sky, some of them catching the black silhouettes of trees.

Bear and I walked those trails often through the trees, narrow dirt paths snaked over by tangles of roots. The sun, high in the brilliant blue northern sky reached down to us through the canopy, dappling our path in green and gold.

We walked mostly in silence, Bear easily filling the space at my side, her body swaying casually to match my relaxed gait; the sound of the river a third companion. As we moved through the trees, the surging water became an anchor of sorts amidst the endlessness of the woods, its white noise urging us on and always calling us back.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Murdoch is my best friend

Cleo’s round body makes me think of a lumbering armadillo as she picks her way through the jumble of boots and shoes that spill out from the corner of our entryway.

She tiptoes along the wall throwing sideways glances at Murdoch who lies stretched out in his kennel, deceptively despondent. I would think Cleo is trying to sneak past undetected to sit on the low sill of the bay window that looks out into the forest yet is still within the warm glow of the wood stove, except with every other step she utters a plaintive little high-pitched squeak.

I begin to think the sideways glances aren’t so much a safety precaution as Cleo trying to discern whether or not Murdoch is noticing her. She stops mid-stride, her front paw raised to step over the toe of one of Morgan’s shoes, and squeaks again. I hear the familiar rustle and clang of Murdoch moving around in his kennel and know he has pushed himself to a half-sitting position. Cleo’s paw hits the ground and she squeaks again, looking away almost coyly.

There is an explosion of clattering metal and feet skittering across linoleum as Murdoch launches himself from his kennel to stand, tall and stiff-legged over the cat.

“Murdoch,” I say with what I hope is a mildly threatening voice. “You be nice. I’m watching you.” From where I stand in the kitchen I can see his tail curves up rigidly over his back while his neck cranes to almost twice its length, casting a shadow over Cleo. She looks suddenly very small.

Murdoch towers over Cleo in an intimidating pose that calls to mind the Big Bad Wolf leaping out from behind a tree, gleaming teeth sharpened and unsheathed. There was a time when witnessing that would have resulted in me jumping up and down in a panic while rushing to Cleo’s aide. I would awkwardly scoop up her balloon-like body, clamping my arms tightly around her wriggling girth, and whisk her away before Murdoch could turn her into a pre-dinner snack. But I have since learned their relationship is a complicated one; Cleo actually seems to enjoy these, often times violent, little skirmishes.

A peep escapes her throat as she tries to turn around. Murdoch lunges with scrabbling paws and a guttural huff that sounds like a battle cry, then stabs her roughly in the side with his nose.

“Murdoch,” I say sharply. “That’s enough!” He lunges again and clamps his giant jaws down over her neck and shoulders.

“Hey!” I holler in a voice that doesn’t sound at all like mine. “In kennel!” I am halfway down the stairs when I say it and he lets go of the cat. The pressure that began to pile up like a storm cloud in the house and made Murdoch’s body tense with potential mayhem dissipates as though it was never there. Murdoch wanders back to his kennel with a casual fluidity, if he could shrug with the haughty disinterest of a teenager, he would do it now, “Whatever.”

Cleo dashes up the stairs. The hair on her back is stuck out at strange angles, slicked into clumps with dog slobber.

I glare at Murdoch. “That was not nice,” I say. He looks back at me, completely relaxed, not an ounce of malice in his face. Does he think they’re playing? I wonder. Does she think they’re playing?

The problem is Murdoch is by nature a rough-houser. He doesn’t consider it a good day unless blood has been drawn, while Cleo can’t seem to fathom a world in which everyone doesn’t love her, making her instinct for self preservation a little sketchy.

I truly believe if she were to get outside and meet up with a real wolf in the woods she would try and befriend it. “Hey, you’re a dog!” she would say while running eagerly towards the bewildered creature. “So am I!”

It’s understandable the line between species may be a little blurry for Chestnut and Cleo, the pair have mingled with dogs since they were three weeks old and at one time even thought Bear was their mother, much to her mortification. But somewhere along the way Chestnut realized he was a cat and when Murdoch showed up, a wild giant jaw that threatened to eat anything smaller than itself and maim everything else, he developed a healthy fear of him, while Cleo found him fascinating.

I’m not sure she gets it. But then maybe she understands far more than I do. About an hour after Murdoch tried to inhale her, I look over the railing to see Cleo back in the entryway snuggled up on the edge of a blanket in front of the woodstove, her eyes half-closed in utter contentment. Two feet away Murdoch is sprawled languidly on the floor, basking in the heat of the fire.

Monday, November 15, 2010

First snow

Murky gray sky, the colour of dirty steel, settles itself over the day. It is so heavy, it cannot be contained by the upper atmosphere and instead seeps down to the ground, clings to trees, hangs limply over the gravel road, deadens daylight. It carries with it a cloying damp that presses down on everything, absorbs colour, and light, an invisible mist.

The grayness pushes at the windows, an endless twilight, but I stop on my way through the kitchen, drawn to the cold panes by a familiar feeling. I know what I will see before I see it. White flakes move diagonally past the window, sifting gently yet purposefully through the invisible mist, disappearing into the ground.

“It’s snowing,” I half whisper to myself as my stomach does a happy skip. These flakes, falling deliberately from that menacing sky, look like they could mean business. I hurry to get ready and take Murdoch for a walk.

Outside the whiteness of the flakes seems out of place in the gray wash that covers everything, it almost seems unnatural, but in a wondrous way, as though the weighted sky carries a lighthearted secret.

The world is wet beneath this slushy fall that can’t quite decide if it will be rain or snow. Our feet squelch a bit and crunch over the dark brown road as we walk through flakes moving hypnotically downward. The air carries an icy, crisp smell of coming snow and as we wind our way along the trail through the bush, the falling flakes hiss in the grass and make gentle kissing sounds as they patter onto the hood of my jacket.

Mid-walk I am soaked through. My jeans are coarse and cold against my legs, water drips off the edge of my hood. For a moment Murdoch is sprinkled with crystal white flakes that melt slowly to great globes of luminescent water droplets.

By the time we return home we both look like we’ve been swimming. The air is colder and the snow has decided to be snow, quietly clinging to blades of grass. It’s not long before the sun, setting somewhere behind the thick wall of cloud, steals away the suggestion of light it brought to the day. The sky darkens to a murkier gray as the snow flies more seriously past the windows. Individual flakes flash like sparks from a fire as they pass through the yellow beam cast by the light outside our door.

In the morning it is as though clouds fell to Earth overnight. The sky is a flat, shapeless gray while the world below seems illuminated from within, a soft, white glow. Snow covers everything. The world is solid, all reduced to basic shapes, empty spaces filled in. Pine trees draped in heavy white cloaks become looming frozen ghosts, while the black branches of bare trees are defined like sketches by their white outlines.

Soft, muted light brightens the morning. It bundles quietly yet deliberately into the house; windows and walls prove to be no barrier as it moves effortlessly into every dark corner. It should feel cold because of its starkness, but it doesn’t it’s a warm glow as though someone has wrapped a great cozy white blanket around the forest and the light that filters through is quite diffused by the time it reaches our house tucked away comfortably somewhere in the middle.

Stepping outdoors there is a sense of relief in the air, of something anticipated for such a long time finally realized; a release of energy that has left the world calmer somehow.

Even Murdoch can’t completely destroy the serenity of the forest transformed. His black shape moves like an escaping shadow through the bright, muffled silence. He disappears under low hanging branches heavy with snow. Muted snuffling sounds reach my ears instead of the usual snaps and cracks of him crashing through underbrush. When he emerges, his beard has turned white. He buries his nose in the snow and sniffs about almost frantically as though investigating each and every flake that fell.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pure Murds

I stand in the forest on a thick blanket of burnt orange and brown leaves jumbled together below a tangled bare canopy of skeletal fingers like umbrellas blown to bits in a wild storm. I can feel a dry, brittleness through the toughened outer skin of the gray-brown stick I hold aloft and wave over my head to get Murdoch’s attention.

“How about this one?” I yell, trying to be heard over the loud rustling and snapping sounds of Murdoch attempting to wrestle free a small tree from a tangle of underbrush. It’s like an elephant is crashing through the forest.

Moments before, as we crunched our way through the leaves laid down amongst the forest that encircles our house, I watched Murdoch, free from his leash, slowly widen the gap between us. He leapt over fallen trees and rotten logs, head down, nose buried in the leaves. I could see the wanderlust emanating from him as he weaved his long, black body around trunks of gray and white.

Walking in our woods is different from walking the trail at the end of the road. Our forest is crisscrossed with thin, barely distinct paths that inspire a sense of adventure. Traversing our woods feels more like a pass to freedom than walking the well-defined, one-track road into the mountains. I am more concerned about Murdoch’s great escape from our woods than I am on the walking trail.

“Murdoch,” I shouted ahead to his retreating shape. My voice bounced off his back and I could feel the line fast approaching that would render me completely invisible to him as he careered off through the trees. I wouldn’t see him again until he was good and ready to be seen.

I shouted a little louder with a hint of desperation, “Find me a stick.” If anything will slow him down it is this magic phrase.

Murdoch stopped mid-trot and spun around to face me. “Find me a stick Murds,” I shouted again and could see the spark of excitement ignite his eyes as he lengthened his neck and scanned his surroundings before pouncing, predictably, on the biggest stick he could find.

I watched for a minute as he clamped his teeth around the end of the fallen tree. Every ounce of strength and pent-up energy shimmying through his muscles amalgamated, morphing into an ocean of power funneled through his compact frame to gather in his jaw. It was as if he had wrapped his entire body around that tree to heave and yank and pull on it, a giant tooth being wiggled loose.

In his intense struggle with the downed tree I witnessed Murdoch fulfilling some deep-rooted primitive part of himself. That power, concealed in his slim, wiry body was pure energy solidified. It came not only from shear strength but also a deeply felt stubbornness and determination. Those things that make him so challenging to train and even love, are the same things that make him so impressive and, at times, awe-inspiring.

I heard the splintering of strained wood giving way and marveled again at his focus, his fortitude, his power, and then I rolled my eyes. “I’m not throwing that for you, you know,” I said and began looking around for a stick of a more manageable size.

I have to wave this new stick right in front of his eyes before he releases the tree. The preceding battle has only served to rev up his energy and I hold the stick above my head again for a moment, his full attention now on me, the woods suddenly silent.

“Are you ready?” I ask. Brown eyes flick to my face then back to my arm, widening as though defying the stick to try and elude him. Anticipation shivers through his body and sets his leg muscles quivering beneath black hair that can’t quite decide if it’s shaggy or sleek.

I wind up and he lunges, then I throw the stick in a perfect arc through a maze of trees. Murdoch springs after it and snaps it up in his jaw with an almost angry authority. As he barrels back towards me, he lets the stick fall from his mouth and changes course at full speed. A sneak attack. When he pounces on the downed tree again I imagine the muscles in his body turning to malleable steel as he gives two powerful yanks with his jaw that reverberate all the way down to his toes. I shake my head as I pick up the forgotten stick and begin walking away into the trees.

I hear a snap and a crack and then Murdoch is by my side. He glances up at me and I see an almost sheepish satisfaction flash across his eyes before he glimpses the stick in my hand and I send it flying through the air.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bear in the woods

In the early evening, those last moments before true twilight, the sky is washed of almost all colour; its face of palest blue is lit by an afterglow. Light emanates from its great expanse as though each particle of atmosphere holds a fragment of the suns light after it has slid behind the mountains but not yet dipped below the horizon. In the woods, that light becomes almost tangible.

I stand in the middle of the clearing outside our house and watch Bear weave her way slowly up one of the barely discernable footpaths through our forest. In the flat, gray light that seems to be a solid thing descended from the sky to fill the vertical spaces between a battalion of spindly trunks, she’s a shadow come to life. Her blackness absorbs everything.

One minute, she doesn’t seem to belong there, her inky black shape looks foreign beside the grays and flat browns of trunks standing watch, but with her next step everything shifts and she, turning just slightly this way or that, slips effortlessly into the spaces between the trees as though the forest has finally recognized her and envelopes her with invisible, welcoming arms.

I’m about to call to her, but I pause to watch her move comfortably, familiarly through the trees. This is her forest. Surrounded by that gray light I could reach out and grasp, Bear is solid one minute, the next I imagine her flickering out of this existence, stepping into the grayness, disappearing.

Her shape amongst the trees is like a secret whispered to the bare branches overhead. She becomes a mythical creature on a silent passage through the forest glimpsed from the corner of my eye. I know the sounds of dry, crumbling leaves beneath her feet, the swish of her gently swaying tail, the rush of air in and out of her nose, but they don’t reach me. That heavy light absorbs sound as well as shadow.

During the day, with yellow beams slanting through the trees colouring the woods in gold and bronze, silvering Bears fur as it glances off her back, she is small beside these towering sentinels. In this opaque light that seems to spring into being from every pore of nature, she becomes larger, part of the forest before my eyes.

When she is on the brink of disappearing behind that curtain of trees and light in the distance, I finally call to her. She turns to look, craning her neck around a leaning trunk to see if I can actually see her or if I am blindly calling her name.

“I see you Bear,” I say and point to her to prove it. “Come on.”

She seems to consider for a moment, then turns and wanders slowly back down the trail, purposely taking her time.

As she gets closer I can hear the leaves crunching under her weight, kicked up in little crackling clouds around her feet. She looks like she is about to break into a run and I have to tell her, “No”. I’m worried about her leg injury worsening. A look of confusion brushes over her face and, conflicted, she trots awkwardly to my side.

I reach down to smooth my hand over the silky, black fur on her head but she dances to the side and stomps her feet. Her ears pulled up towards the top of her head accompany the question flashed at me from the depths of her brown eyes.

“No Bear, we can’t play,” I say with a genuine sadness in my voice. “I can’t throw anything for you.”

I turn to walk back to the house, gesturing for her to join me. Bear prances at my side as though her leg is healed, but I know it’s not and it won’t take much to make it worse, she will be limping again in a minute.

A warm cushion of air greets us as we enter the house, becoming a solid barrier to the dampness pushing at our backs. Its dry welcoming warmth makes the cold flare brightly on my skin for a moment and sends a giddy shiver through my core.

I kneel down and hug Bear. She smells like the woods. A cold, crispness has clung to her, she has gathered the outdoors around herself like a thin cloak. I can feel her heat seeping through and inhale deeply before the fresh smells of burnt leaves and green wood and pine melt away like a dream dissipating in a morning mist.

As she settles down on her bed by the fire, I gather her cold ears in my hands, kiss the top of her head and breathe the lingering sweet minty scent of balsam on her fur.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I'm sure that's mine

I march up the stairs with the half-chewed stick clutched protectively to my chest. Its ends are frayed into bright golden splinters. The bark is mostly gone from its 12-inch length, and has been for some time. Only about an inch of tarnished birch bark remains, circling the stick like a cuff near one end, the rest of the stick is dark brown, weathered and dry except for the two distinct chew marks near the middle that look to be the work of a savage beaver, or maybe just a frustrated Bear.

Two pairs of brown eyes follow my progress from the room. I can feel the question hanging heavily in the air, “You’re not really taking that are you?”

“Don’t look back,” I tell myself. “Just keep walking.”

If I cast even a glance over my shoulder, I will fold. It’s Bear who will melt my heart, her big brown eyes saturated with “but I thought you loved me.” If I return and hand the stick back to a wagging-tailed Bear, she will keep it for less than a minute before Murdoch manages to slip in and carefully steal it away.

Murdoch, having learned how to interact with Bear without slamming into her or stepping on her or trying to leap over her back from five paces, has become the quintessential bratty little brother. Everything Bear has, he wants. Nothing else will do.

I toss Bear a ball so she can catch it while lying on her bed. She snatches it masterfully from the air, chews twice, then spits it out and it rolls back to me to throw again. By the second toss, Murdoch is standing to my left, head cocked, body stiff, “I want to play too.”

I find another ball and throw it for Murdoch. He explodes after it, overshooting his target and sends the ball flying across the room. I instinctively duck and move closer to Bear as Murdoch storms past, feet skating out in all directions, pent up energy looking to escape through his gangly limbs.

He brings the ball back, but his eyes are glued to the naked tennis ball squelching between Bear’s teeth, “I want that one.”

“Murdoch, that’s Bear’s,” I say, holding up the orange road hockey ball to catch his eye. “This one’s yours.” He shuffles his feet spastically to turn towards me. Sitting on Bear’s bed, I am just about face to face with Murdoch. His long body angles away from me but I can feel the energy pulsing from his every muscle. He locks his intense gaze on the ball in my hand, his eyes big black pools that just about swallow it. I find myself caught between laughing at the expression of serious concentration that seems misplaced somehow behind a pair of bushy eyebrows, and cringing at the size of his jaw and its proximity to my face.

In the space between us I can feel the energy swirling into a tight spiral; the potential for greatness and calamity all balled into one amidst a breathless pause. I consider him for a moment in this trance-like state, and then throw the ball in the opposite direction. He explodes after it again, released energy now ricocheting off the walls.

He brings it back, seems focused, but somehow he knows where Bear’s ball is at all times. The minute it rolls free from a missed catch, he changes direction and pounces. The tennis ball just about disappears in his mouth as he parades around with it jammed between his back teeth.

There was a time when I wouldn’t even think about putting my hands anywhere near Murdoch’s mouth for fear of losing a finger, but now I reach into the jagged-tooth-lined abyss, yank out the ball, with a sharp, “Mine,” and I hand it back to Bear. Murdoch’s determined expression tells me this isn’t over.

The minute my back is turned, he will have that tennis ball again, or that bone Bear loves so much, or the rope toy they have each spent time shredding. Sometimes the only thing that puts an end to Murdoch’s egomania is confiscation. That is how I found myself claiming a slightly used stick as my own and carrying it to the safety of my living room.

In late October the trees around our house are bare, it gets dark early and dampness settles over the land like a wet blanket with the setting of the sun. These evenings we light a fire in the woodstove using wood scraps we've piled in the corner of the entryway. There’s always a stick or two the dogs end up chewing.

I watch Bear choose that weathered stick of birch from the pile, plucking it carefully from the bunch and settling down on her bed with one end held tightly between her paws while she chews thoughtfully on the other. Within minutes, Murdoch slinks into her personal space, stretches his neck out slowly, and gently wraps his lips around the stick, teasing it out from under Bear’s nose.

“No Murdoch,” I say, making my way down the stairs. As I take the stick from him and hand it to Bear I watch his expression change from one of anticipation to forlorn longing.

I give Murdoch another stick from the pile. It’s bigger, more gnarly than Bear’s, surely this one’s better. With his eyes staring greedily at the twisted piece of wood, he takes it from my hand and sets about chewing on one end as I return to the kitchen. The next time I look, that stick lies abandoned by the door while Murdoch sprawls on one corner of Bear’s bed with her stick between his chomping teeth. Bear, her back turned to him, her head on her paws, is a portrait of dejection.

Around about the tenth time I pull the stick from Murdoch’s mouth, I pause, glance at Bear, then back at Murdoch and I know this will go on all day. I refuse to let Murdoch win so I tighten my grip on the stick, hold it close and push past pleading stares. “This is mine now,” I say as if claiming a tremendous prize, then as I stomp purposefully from the room, I have to wonder, what’s so great about a weathered, half-chewed stick anyway?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hidden agenda

Cleo stomps into the bedroom and marches stiff-legged towards a pile of clothes on the floor. I barely notice her, my attention focused on the book I’m reading, but something in Morgan snaps in that moment and in one motion he props himself up on an elbow, extends his other arm like a whip and points a rigid, angry finger at her.

“Cleo, don’t you even start.” The words tumble from his mouth so fast they trip over each other in their haste to reach the closest ear.

“Go,” he says, dramatically sweeping his pointing finger towards the door.

Cleo doesn’t even look at him, but turns abruptly and heads towards the door with a couple of quick steps as though gearing up for a run, then slows to a saunter that ends with her sinking to the floor as though she’s suddenly run out of energy. I look up to see Cleo stretch out her voluminous body right at the top of the stairs, which at the best of times are rather treacherous. The stairway from our bedroom plummets to the floor below at such a steep angle, at first glance you wonder where the repelling lines are.

“Great. That’s how we’re going to die you know,” says Morgan in all seriousness. “Tripping over a cat in the dark”

I burst out laughing. Even though it rings with truth, the idea seems so ridiculous. I immediately imagine the cats sitting around their food dish plotting our demise. But then I look at Cleo’s gray and beige-splotched back, her head held at such a defiantly straight angle, her ears standing tall on her head and I realize Cleo has been a lot more mysterious lately. Her loopyness is legendary, but looking at her now, I realize I don’t really know anything about her.

Cleo has always marched to the beat of a different drum, but it was usually a very loud drum that banged out its rhythm just inches from your face. She has a needy streak a mile wide that turns off and on with the flick of a switch. One minute she’s perfectly happy gazing out the window, the next she’s urgently throwing herself in the path of anything with a pulse, manically winding herself around legs, or loudly sharpening her claws on wooden railings and corners of walls. In the quiet of an evening her shrill voice pierces the peace with a mournful, lost meow. “Cleo!” I yell in frustration; the yowling stops. I hear the thump, thump, thump of running feet. She appears with a distinct look of relief in her green eyes as if to say, “There you are, I thought I was all alone.”

Everything she does, it seems is designed to get a rise out of us. She makes herself as annoying as she can possibly be until everyone is yelling at her or chasing her or generally focusing their anger in her direction. She loves that stuff. But lately she’s been conspicuously quiet, almost purposely staying out of the way.

When I think about it, I can’t remember when I last spent any time with her. She’s big and round and not terribly stealthy, but in the last month she’s somehow managed to flit along just below the radar.

She used to barge her way onto my lap every morning and just about knock my mug of tea out of my hand in her desperation to get some attention. Cleo was the one who regularly stormed into the bedroom at some ungodly hour to find just the right type of rustling noise to shatter the silence and break into a sound sleep. But she doesn’t do that anymore, forcing Chestnut to take over. In fact she’s let Chestnut do all the bad stuff lately while she slinks off to a corner for a nap, after opening the baby gate just enough so Murdoch can “find his way” into the kitchen. It’s like she’s setting up distractions.

I watch her one morning while I’m eating breakfast. She stomps past me with great purpose on a beeline from the baby gate to the bathroom, her shoulder blades rhythmically counting off each stride. A few minutes later she returns on the same path, stomp, stomp, stomp. She seems to be pacing off times and distances.

“Cleo, what are you doing?” I ask, as she thumps past again. She ignores me completely as though her head is full of calculations and she can’t possibly stop now, especially not for frivolous back scratches or loving headbutts.

There was a time I thought she was in cahoots with Murdoch. Cleo does spend an inordinate amount of time in his space, sitting in his window, sleeping on top of his kennel, parading around in front of him. But no, when I really think about it, Cleo strikes me as more the type to work alone and as I follow her progress across the kitchen, yet again, I wonder what diabolical plans are swirling around in that head I always thought was full of air.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A fearless appetite

I hear Murdoch’s nails click quietly on bare wood and glance sideways in time to see him slip his head under the slightly open baby gate at the top of the stairs. He nudges the gap wider and then creeps slowly up into the kitchen. I stand at the counter making lunch and watch from the corner of my eye as his black shape sneaks like a shadow across the dark wood floor to my side.

“Hello there,” I say as his nose appears at my elbow. “How did you get up here?” It is the same question I always ask him when he finds his way to the kitchen. I feign surprise, as though I didn’t see him force his way up the stairs.

His ears fall away from his face as he stretches his neck as far as it will go making his face look thin and sleek as he tries to get a glimpse at what I am making. Of course the what of it doesn’t matter, the fact it is edible is all he really needs to know. I can feel him trying to hold himself back from placing his frazzle-haired front paws on the counter for a closer look.

Air whooshes greedily in and out of his nose. All his energy is reverted to this task; I can see it in the slightly glazed look in his eye, if he could just inhale everything. His nose grazes the counter. “Back up,” I say with a hint of impatience even though I find it a bit ridiculous, this big black nose like a snorkel breaking the surface of the food-prep area, this same nose that is completely useless at sniffing out anything when actually pressed to the task.

He backs up and I throw him a slice of orange. It disappears as though it never really existed. His steel-trap jaw snaps closed around it and he swallows in the same motion. He looks at me for a minute like as if he’s trying to remember if he tasted what he just ate, and wonders did I actually throw him something at all or did he imagine it. I start to question that myself when my eyes are drawn to movement just past Murdoch’s shaggy shoulder.

Chestnut is tiptoeing cautiously closer, just a few feet away from Murdoch. I’m forced to do a double take. Usually Chestnut will only relent to be in the same room as Murdoch if there is a vast expanse separating them, it helps if there are a few obstacles as well, like a table or iron bars. I am momentarily confused and then I notice the look of alarm in his amber eyes. Clearly he has surrendered to his stomach, sending his brain into a panic.

Murdoch is the only thing I know that strikes fear into Chestnut’s heart. On any given day Chestnut could vie for the title of world’s most laid-back cat. He excels at passive resistance and usually doesn’t get in a flap about anything, except when Murdoch shows up. The first day Chestnut met the black tornado, he disappeared under the couch, not to appear again for three days with a stress induced urinary tract infection. Since then, he has kept his distance.

Now, in his hesitant lurch across the kitchen, he moves stiffly as though fighting the forward momentum with every fiber of his being. His body is scrunched up awkwardly causing his back to arch as his nose moves somewhat erratically searching for a hint of what Murdoch has just inhaled. I’ve never seen a cat look so conflicted, if only he could split himself in two, his stomach piloting one half, his instinct to preserve life the other.

Chestnut isn’t used to choosing between food and safety. Murdoch’s presence at this moment is an anomaly, it’s supposed to be Bear. Chestnut is Bear’s shadow in the kitchen. When she stands at the counter, he is always found right there with her, underneath her, beside her, mimicking her movements, like a remora suctioned to the side of a whale.

He knows this scenario isn’t right, that Murdoch can’t be trusted, but like the scavenger he is, Chestnut can’t seem to help himself. I stand motionless and watch for a minute, amazed as he sidesteps closer to his arch enemy, he is even looking up at Murdoch’s chin the way he looks at Bear’s, as though he expects some forgotten morsel to be dangling there just waiting to be plucked by his eager teeth.

I picture for a moment Chestnut rubbing up against Murdoch’s shoulder, sniffing his beard while Murdoch, too distracted by the possibility of more food to notice his stripy beige adversary, lets him do it. It’s a turning point, a chance at a new, tolerant relationship.

But I ruin it. Standing there watching history happen I am electrified by a giddy energy at the possibilities, I involuntarily blurt out, “Look at you Chestnut,” and break the spell.

Chestnut freezes, his wide eyes lock onto mine staring into them almost accusingly. Murdoch turns his head and sees the cat. He lunges forward in the stiff-legged pounce he reserves for intimidating smaller animals, his head sits taller on his shoulders and makes his neck look extra thick. Chestnut becomes a beige streak heading for the stairs.

“Murdoch!” I shout sharply. He turns his blocky head to me and looks as though he’s trying to decide if he should come or chase the cat farther, then he remembers the food and saunters over to me as if to say, “well, I showed him.”

“You’re such a bully,” I tell him. I swear he swaggers a bit as though I’ve paid him a great compliment.

Monday, October 4, 2010

If you really loved me…

I had been home for two days and it had barely stopped raining long enough to drizzle. Dull gray light seeped through dark, slate clouds hovering just out of reach above. A heavy gloom threatened to swallow our house, but the deep yellow glow of the woods created a warm bubble around us, pushing back the gray.

I poured myself another cup of tea and looked out into the trees. The forest was lit from within, a golden autumn yellow brought alive by the rain, an ember glowing amidst ash.

I cupped my hands around my mug and was happy to be home, happy to be back in the woods, happy for the rain - an excuse to drink more tea and just ease into the day.

In the entryway the woodstove glowed with a slow fire to keep the dampness away. Bear lay curled up on her bed in front of it, Murds was splayed out in his kennel.

“Good girl Bear,” I said as I looked over the railing. “You’ve got the best seat in the house.” She afforded me a sideways glance that said she knew I was just saying that so I didn’t feel so bad about making her live in the entryway with “the beast”. On cue, Murdoch sprang to his feet with a clatter and quick-marched out of his kennel to stand below me and look up, tail wagging expectantly.

“No Murds, we’re not doing anything right now,” I said. “Later.”

He continued to stand and stare, but his tail was no longer wagging. Bear looked at me over her shoulder. If she wore glasses, they’d be at the end of her nose and she’d be peering at me over the rims.

“You’re good puppies,” I said, turning away from the railing. “We’ll go out later.”

Murdoch clomped to the door. I looked back in time to see his long, lanky body sink down in front of it with a sigh. He then put his chin on the floor and stared off into space. Bear had already turned away and laid her head on her paws, managing to look somehow flatter than normal.

I forgot about the guilt.

In true absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder form, I missed my dogs completely during the five weeks I was out of town. Bear was restored to the perfect angel in my mind and even Murds became somewhat of a noble gentleman. I forgot how they toy with my emotions. I can barely make a move without thinking I’ve made Bear sad or somehow crushed Murdoch’s spirit.

“Look at the sad puppies,” I say to Morgan on a semi-regular basis.

“How do you know they’re sad?” he always asks with a hint of exasperation.

“Just look at them!”

I forgot how deep, brown eyes, coaxed into just the right kind of big and round, can bore so deeply, and sometimes painfully, into my very soul. I forgot the way in which down-turned mouths shaped into forlorn pouts pull at my heartstrings. I forgot how the deep-chested, end of the world sighs, dripping with self-pity can wash over me like a deceptively calm sea hiding beneath its gently lapping waves a strong and deadly undertow.

I forgot what a tough crowd these guys can be. It doesn’t help that they know where my pushover button is; all it takes sometimes is a look. It goes something like this:

I scrape a knife across a piece of toast spreading peanut butter for my breakfast when out of the corner of my eye, I become aware of two black shapes, intensely focused on me. I glance towards the entryway and there, like a couple of bookends, are Bear and Murds both with their best “oh please” look on their faces. Murdoch, who is more vocal than Bear, throws in a thin whine.

“No,” I say, returning my attention to my toast. “No one’s getting any this morning but me.” I look at them again to make my point.

“There isn’t much left,” I add and finish spreading the peanut butter. They continue to stare, guilt creeps in, I look at the knife, I look in the jar of peanut butter, I sigh, “Okay, where’s your bone?”

It was kind of nice while I was away to make decisions about my day without thinking about hurting my dogs’ feelings. I never once worried I was being a delinquent pet owner because I didn’t get them out during the best part of the day or didn’t spend enough time with one because I was busy with the other, or denied them peanut butter when clearly they deserved it because they’re cute.

With tea in hand, I settled back down with my book as the rain clattered on the roof and made leaves shimmy on the trees. I was happy for the rain, an excuse even Bear and Murds can understand to sit a little longer in the quiet and let guilt wait in the wings.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Murdoch uncertainty

Beneath the yellow warmth of the early morning sun, cool air carrying the slight dampness of the night before swirled lazily around us as Morgan and I discussed the basics of tennis. I stood on one side of the net while Morgan sat in his wheelchair on the other side. It was just Morgan’s second time playing, the first being the evening before as the dark blueness of twilight descended on the court painting everything the same shadowy indigo. We called it quits when the tennis balls seemed to fade in and out of existence as they flew through the air.

Now, in the brightness of day, we started again. As we conversed over the net, my dog radar suddenly went off and I turned to see another couple stepping from their car with tennis rackets, a Frisbee and a border collie.

“Oh, look!” I blurted out somewhat involuntarily and watched as the three of them entered through the gate and jogged past us with a friendly wave to the second court. I had seen this dog before playing Frisbee in the open grassy field that rolled away from the fenced in tennis courts towards a row of houses in the distance. Walking along the gravel path one day that winds through the open space I watched as this black and white dog flattened itself into the ground as though made of nothing more than shadows and felt the intense stare from a distance as her eyes remained glued to her owner and the blue Frisbee in her hand.

Today the collie took up position in the shade beneath a weather worn bench as her owners began to play. She focused intently on their every move, her entire world was there on that court, everything else faded away. I could feel her presence as Morgan and I hit the ball back and forth, the very air vibrated with her intense purpose, her unspent energy held at the ready, waiting for just one word.

When it finally came, the dog was on her feet and moving across the court with such ease and grace, it was as though she had never been lying still. She flowed out from under the bench, and moved like a steady, rolling river purposefully cutting its way through the landscape to retrieve one ball at a time. Somehow, she knew which of the yellow fuzzy balls belonged to her owners and which ones were ours.

“We should teach Murdoch how to do that,” Morgan said as we stopped play to watch.

“Yeah, right,” I said with a laugh, “Could you imagine it?”

I pictured his large black shape galumphing across the court after every ball, leaping up and catching them before they sailed over the net, each ball getting heavier and heavier as they became saturated with dog slobber. Somehow along the way I’m sure he would find himself tangled up in the net, ripping it to shreds in a panicked attempt to escape its evil clutches.

Morgan and I do a lot of surmising about Murdoch. It has become somewhat of a game that usually begins with “Can you imagine?” and ends with descriptions of mass destruction and chaos, sometimes unspoken and left completely up to the imagination.

Visiting Upper Canada Village in Cornwall, Ontario, Morgan comes flying down a ramp in his wheelchair and spooks a couple of horses pulling a wagon. “Oh my god, could you imagine if Murdoch were here?” Morgan says as we watch the coachman take control of the sidestepping horses. I just shake my head, picturing myself being dragged behind him as he lunged and barked maniacally at, first the horses, then the giant wagon wheel as it trundled by.

At a park with my nephew, I pause atop the play structure and spot away in the far corner an off-leash dog park. Through the chain-link fence I can see a crowd of dogs, tails waving happily in the air as though the canine community is meeting for a chat over morning coffee. If Murdoch were in the mix he would be like a fox loose in a chicken coop. I imagine the air suddenly full of multicoloured tufts of flying fur as the black tornado rips through the once pleasant playtime. Amidst the ensuing melee would erupt deep-throated, no-nonsense growls and barks and when the dust finally settled, Murdoch and I would be banned for life from any further attempts to play with other dogs. I would leave quietly and quickly, dragging Murdoch behind me who would no doubt still be trying to start something even as the gate slammed shut in his face.

In the backyard of my sister’s house I gaze into the deep blue, crystal clear water of the swimming pool. “If Murds were here,” I think, “We would never get him out of there.” I imagine his lanky body barreling so quickly down the stairs to the poolside that he trips himself up with his oversized feet. But that doesn’t stop him from launching himself through the air, a kamikaze leap into the pool, gangly legs flailing for a moment before the desperate splashing attempts to swim while inhaling every last drop of water. I imagine the hacking and gagging, the less-than crystal water becoming gray, a film of long hairs woven together on the surface of the pool, the giant hair clog in the filter, a less than welcome house guest.

Poor Murdoch. I think sometimes we don’t give him enough credit, letting our imaginations carry us completely away. Maybe he would be a good ball dog on the tennis court. For a moment I see him sitting up straight and tall on the sidelines, watching the ball fly back and forth over the net, waiting. When I say “Okay Murds!” he jerks to life, off and running, perhaps not as gracefully as the border collie - moving more like a train wreck waiting to happen than a gently rolling river - but he’s doing it. Perhaps we could teach him this I think. Murdoch is full of surprises I remind myself, and sometimes they’re even pleasant ones.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Face of change

Dark amber liquid poured from the spout of the teapot into my mug, sending swirls of steam up into a beam of morning sunlight. Individual pinpricks of water shimmied in place for a moment and then disappeared as though swallowed up by cooler air outside the pocket of warmth. I cupped the mug with both hands and held it up to my face to let the steam play across my nose, inhaling the comforting, rich scent. I took another deep breath to prepare myself before reaching for the phone.

I had played over in my mind countless times the story I was sure I was about to hear. It could have very well been one of unbelievable destruction, embarrassment and shame; in other words a story that was plastered from stem to stern with Murdoch’s messy paw prints and claw marks, with great chunks missing that remained clenched in his teeth.

It had been just about three weeks since I last saw my dogs, leaving them in Morgan’s capable but less than hands-on hands. I admit, I was worried about not being around for a month to buffer Morgan and Murdoch’s rocky relationship, but with me gone, Morgan was forced to step into my role as chief dog-walker, stick-thrower and cheek-pincher and found that, surprisingly, he enjoyed it. Morgan and Murds were actually doing stuff together, hanging out and, dare I say, bonding. It was kind of nice.

But when Morgan told me he was taking Murds to visit friends who were camping with their dog on a lake with other campers nearby, I was a little nervous to find out how it went. I already had a number of possible scenarios running through my mind, none of them ending particularly well. I cringed to think about the myriad things that could have gone horribly wrong.

I was ready to hear how Murdoch had terrorized the other campers, started a brawl, bit another dog. Would we be spending a small fortune on surgery to sew an ear back on? Anything was possible.

I braced myself and dialled.

“He was great!” said Morgan, his voice leaping into my ear with enthusiasm. “Fantastic! He was such a good dog!”

“Really?” I asked with a little more disbelief than was maybe necessary. “Murdoch?”

I settled back in the oversized chair in my parents’ living room with my mug of tea and listened as Morgan regaled me with stories of just how much Murdoch acted like a normal dog. He didn’t jump on anyone, or bare his teeth. He didn’t eat anything valuable or rip through any tents. I had to stop Morgan mid-sentence and make him repeat what he said about Murds looking the other way when a rottweiler growled in his face. He behaved as near to a perfect gentleman as we could even begin to hope of such a delinquent dog.

When Morgan told me Murds even came when he was called, breaking off a carefree gallivant with the aforementioned rottweiler along a sandy beach, a great swell of pride took me, followed by a small pang of jealousy to be the one to have missed this border-line historic moment.

I often think about Murdoch somewhat wistfully. He’s the personification of: “We’ll laugh about this later.” He is a much better dog in retrospect than he appears to be in any given moment and while he probably will never be an actual perfect gentlemen, Murdoch has developed his own special brand of charm over the last two years, becoming more fun than scary.

Two years ago I fantasized about the days when Murdoch wasn’t in my life and constantly questioned our decision to keep him, which was really more of a default than a decision since nobody else wanted this particular hellhound. Now I can’t imagine my life without him.

Murdoch does everything with great enthusiasm. His main purpose in this world seems to be to have fun at all costs, which sometimes leaves me stripped of my sanity. But I can’t wait to see him again. I can’t wait to stand next to his quivering body as pure excitement for life rolls off him in waves. I miss his big square pushy head, his forever licking tongue, the way his eyes pop out of his shaggy face when he knows he’s doing something wrong but just can’t help himself. I even miss our stand-offs when we’re both trying to figure out which one of us is actually thinking two steps ahead and which one is really good at faking it.

It's weird to think of the way he was two years ago, an angry whirlwind of teeth and claws who listened to nobody and seemed bent on complete annihilation of all things good, because now I wouldn't change him for the world - except maybe the psycho car-chasing thing.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Doggone crazy

I sat in the back seat of the car as it glided along the road, tightly hugging turns and bouncing over dips, my eyes flitting from scene to scene; corn field here, house there, giant tree, blue sky, white clouds, dog asleep in the grass.


My eyes locked onto the unmistakable shape of a black lab flopped on the lawn in the sun. It lay with its back to the road just off the front porch of a small farmhouse, along the edge of a perfectly straight line of shadow cast by the roof overhang. Sun shimmered familiarly off the midnight fur, making it glisten against the bright green grass. I whipped my head around to watch it as we drove by and it was all I could do to keep myself from telling my dad to stop the car, jump out and run across the road to lie down beside that dog before throwing my arm across its body.

Even in my dog-deprived state I knew that would be crossing some sort of line, so I sat back and sighed and missed my dogs even more.

It was two and a half weeks since I had last seen Bear and Murdoch and I was starting to go a little bit crazy. I knew I would miss them when I left town to visit family, but less than a week into my trip I found myself focusing on any four-legged, wagging-tailed, furry animal that fell within my line of sight to the complete disregard of everything else around me. I knew I was really in trouble however when within the second week I was torn between my two-day-old niece and the puppy visiting my sister’s neighbour.

As we stepped inside the neighbour’s house with the new baby to delighted oohs and aahs, I caught a glimpse of a golden haired puppy being ushered through a door into another room. My heart leapt and I had to restrain myself from dashing down the hall and following its gangly-legged body as it disappeared around the corner.

To be fair, I had already oohed and aahed over my new niece and now dutifully faded into the background so everyone else could get a look at her and cuddle her brand new tiny pink body, but I thought I should at least wait a few minutes before piping up “can I see your dog?” How do I do this without insulting anyone? Would it be weird, I wondered, if I slipped quietly around the corner without a word amidst all the hoopla? And then I honed in on my two-year-old nephew who was wandering around looking for something to do. “Would you like to go see the puppy?” I asked him.

A baby gate, like the one we use for Murdoch, split the hall and contained the big, liquid-limbed puppy behind it. She lay pressed against the wall, her pouty face turned in our direction and as we neared she stood up with the awkward confidence of a growing five-month-old just getting used to her body. She then placed her paws on top of the gate and pushed herself up to meet my hand as it smoothed over the downy hair covering her little round head.

I was struck by how gentle she was. Murdoch was six-months old when I found him and if he was the one on the other side of this particular gate, I’m not sure the gate would still be standing. More likely there would be a Murdoch-shaped hole in the middle of it and I would have been left flattened on the floor with a vague impression of a black whirlwind that just blew through.

This puppy kept her paws to herself and when she sat down again and I cupped her buttery, soft face in my hand, she didn’t once try to bite me. My heart melted right there as I looked into her dark, soft eyes in that caramel face. Her eyebrows seemed to push in slightly at the sides, giving her a concerned look, but with her black smiling mouth, it was the type of concern that made you believe she was thinking only of your own well being.

I reached around to scratch behind one soft, floppy ear covered in krimped, frazzled hair the colour of creamy butterscotch and she poured herself into a puddle on the floor. She lay back against the wall again moving as though every bone in her body had about a million joints.

I looked around with what I’m sure was a dopey smile on my face and found my nephew had already lost interest in the puppy and was on to something else. I tried to entice him back, not ready to tear myself away. Would it be weird, I wondered, if I climbed over the gate and gave her a big squishy hug?

Monday, August 30, 2010

I am not amused

Sam walks into the room with a clunky fluidity. Air trips loudly in and out of her nose as though she is breathing around a head cold. The black fur that covers her back like a hooded cape is still deep with colour, the white underneath still bright, but both in a dishevelled kind of way. She has shrunk in the last couple of years, become bonier in her hips, thinner all over. Her brow seems to have pushed down into a permanent scowl over eyes of tarnished bronze, but she still moves with purpose, carrying the air of entitlement expected of her species.

Sam and I have never been great friends, not for a lack of trying on my part, but any chance I had of developing any sort of bond with our family cat was thrown out the window after the Christmas Bow Incident of 1991. Sam is 19 now and despite her determination to hate anyone who is not my dad I still attempt to mend our very broken relationship every time I see her.

When she stops her purposeful stroll into the room, I kneel in front of her and run my finger gently along the top of her head between her ears. She seems so fragile, like she’s made of spun glass and anything more than a whispering touch will make her shatter into a thousand pieces.

She sits slightly forward on her haunches as though too stiff to settle into a more relaxed position. Her eyes seem to focus on a spot on the floor in front of her as I carefully scratch behind her ear. I am about to ask my mom if Sammy hisses anymore when her front paw flies out from her body and swats my hand with a force that betrays her feeble appearance. Her mouth is open so wide it swallows her face and she lets out the loudest, longest hiss I have ever heard. “Okay, fine,” I say as I get to my feet. I walk around her and as I pass by she swats at my leg and hisses again. I can feel waves of anger, indignation and frustration rolling off of her. Ah, there’s the Sam I know.

We have always had a love-hate relationship. The love came from me while Sam nailed down the hate all by herself. It wasn’t long after the cute, tumbling fun of kittenhood was passed that the chip on her shoulder began to grow. For as long as I can remember she has been the grumpiest cat in the world, but I have to take at least some of the blame for that.

I know I contributed greatly to her dislike of people in general. I can pinpoint the very day when our relationship began its nosedive into the side of a mountain. It was completely my fault.

It was her first Christmas, Sam was barely a year old. I sat on the floor of our living room surrounded by a colourful sea of torn wrapping paper and freshly opened gifts when Sam wandered past. I don’t know why I did it, but I thought it would be cute, maybe funny, I didn’t expect the cat to have a near meltdown and mark me for life as enemy number one. I held a large shimmering golden gift bow in my hand that I had just removed from a present and as she walked by I reached out and stuck it to her back.

She began to throw a nonchalant glance behind her when, catching just a glimpse of this foreign object on her back, sheer panic took over. It was as though a spring had released beneath her, shooting her three feet straight up into the air. By the time she’d touched down, she was already running in a blind panic. I have never seen anything like it. Sam shed every ounce of dignity she had and if she could have yelled out, “What the hell is that?! Get if off, get it off!”, her shrill shrieks would have filled the room.

She tore around the house as though her tail was on fire – under the table, over the couch, into the bedrooms, over the beds. My family stared on in stunned disbelief as I ran behind the cat trying to grab the bow from her back, hoping it would fall off on its own. Every time I lunged for it, she was too fast, already out of my reach. I eventually caught up with her hiding in a dark corner in the basement under the stairs where we stored the suitcases. I turned on the light and saw her eyes flash out from where she crouched, they were wide and tinted with paranoia.

I reached in carefully over her stunned figure and pulled off the bow, apologizing profusely the whole time. She did not accept my apology. I suppose I can’t blame her, I still laugh about that incident till this day.

The Christmas bow was strike one. I don’t know how many strikes I accumulated over the years, but the day I showed up with Bear in tow, I’m sure my name was moved to the top of her hit list.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Woe is me

Bear's black shape is bundled in a heap on her bed. Her chin rests on a swell of yellow blanket, making her lips pool around her face.

"Are you okay Bear?" I ask with a hop and a skip in my voice, waiting for her standard reaction of a slapping tail against the ground that says, "Yes, I'm okay." But all I get is a pair of brown eyes slowly rolled up to look at me where I stand in the kitchen leaning on the railing that overlooks the entryway.

"Bear!" I say with enthusiasm, trying to excite a different response. Nothing. I expect Bear to lift her head, perk up her ears, flash me a hopeful expression, but she doesn't move. She's given up, resigned herself to her fate. To her complete and utter devastation she's been sentenced to live with Murdoch for an indefinite amount of time. The horror.

Looking down I see Murdoch sprawled on the floor, his big blocky head lies on the corner of Bear's bed. "Murd," I say and watch his body stiffen. The one eye I can see widens and looks sideways in my direction. "Get off Bear's bed."

Murdoch lifts his head, turns it towards me while he stretches all four legs straight out from his body, then flops his head back where it was. "Murdoch, come on." I open the baby gate to go down the stairs and Murdoch springs to his feet. He's beside me in two bounds swiping his tongue across my shin. Then, after shoving his shaggy face into my hand, his wide pink tongue spills across my palm. "Stop licking me," I say, pulling my hands up to my shoulders. "And relax, we're not going anywhere I came to see Bear."

As I kneel down beside my sad-eyed girl, Murdoch jams his giant head under my arm, knocking me over. I catch myself with my hand on Bear's bed while in one fluid motion Murdoch licks my face, slides down my bent leg to the ground, flips onto his back before he reaches the floor and squirms and slithers until his face is directly below mine, flailing black paws scrabbling at my arms. "You could rub my belly if you want."

I straighten from my crouched position, pushing his paws away from my face, and stand over him. "Murdoch, in kennel." In a blur he's on his feet, then walks casually into his kennel as though every ounce of hyper energy has evaporated from his body. I tell him to wait as I kneel down again and run my hands over Bear's silky, black head while her eyes grow rounder and stare deeply into mine. I put my forehead against hers, wrap my hands around the back of her neck, kiss her nose. "I'm sorry you have to live with him," I say, glancing sideways at Murdoch who sits with his toes right on the threshold of his kennel, watching us intently.

“But, it’s kind of your own fault,” I continue, turning to look at her again. Bear was exiled to the entryway after an ill-conceived pursuit of another dog left her with a badly injured leg that would barely take her weight. Morgan and I agreed she was banned from climbing the stairs. Her big brown eyes swallowed her face in a mix of panic and disbelief as we ascended to the kitchen and told her to stay, closing the gate behind us.

I gathered up Bear's bed, a yellow and lime green comforter, from her spot below the kitchen windows and carried it down the stairs, got her settled, then set her water dish beside her. Later, when I looked over the rail to check on Bear I found Murdoch sprawled on her bed after having polished off almost all of her water. Bear lay curled up at the bottom of the stairs in a sad lump. I spent the rest of the day orchestrating dogs and beds and water dishes as guilt descended on me like an anvil dropped off a cliff.

If it were left entirely up to me I would have relented in a heartbeat and dragged her bed back to the kitchen and winced while I watched her limp up the stairs. I admit it. I'm a pushover. Easily swayed by the bat of black, curled eyelashes over a set of deep golden-brown eyes.

"It's only six steps," I say to Morgan with a hesitant shrug. "Maybe she could manage those and she only has to go out a couple of times a day." Morgan just looks at me with an expression that says, "I know you and Bear are essentially one person, but she needs to do nothing."
I cast a forlorn glance over the railing down to where Bear lies, with her eyes closed, curled in a ball on the edge of her bed. Murdoch stretches his shaggy body along the other edge and for a moment I imagine his intensions are completely innocent, that perhaps he’s enjoying Bear’s company, trying to bond with her. Then I come to my senses. “Murdoch,” I say as I head down the stairs once more, “Get off Bear’s bed.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Murdoch’s shining moment

Late evening light bathes the road in gold. Grasses swaying in the field shine an emerald green, vibrant, alive. In the distance individual trees stand out from the forest cover on the mountain, define the dips and points of the rock face beneath as though someone has thrown a velvet green blanket over the land. Golden warmth surges over me, beams of light on my back feel solid as though I can climb them up to the sun.

I bend down and pick up the stick, splintered on one end, that Murdoch dropped at my feet. He stands in front of me poised to dash off after it again. His back legs tremble with stored energy as his eyes lock onto my arm, watching for me to make a move, ready for the slightest twitch of muscle.

I wind up and let the stick fly from my outstretched arm. Murdoch is already running, his black coat changing tone as he moves from the warm rich light into the long evening shadows cast by the row of towering pine trees. Bear stands nearby chewing on her own stick, watching. She wanders towards me, her fur glowing a hundred different colours beneath its blackness, elusive and melded into one.

Bear spits out the stick at my feet with a toss of her head and a stamp of her foot. She performs a fancy backwards two-step and stares directly into my eyes. Hers seem to glow from within, the warmest milk chocolate brown with a hint of gold. I want to just look at them and I reach out my hands to hold her face for a minute, but she thrusts her head forward as I move towards her, then drops her nose to the ground and plucks the stick off the dusty road and spits it out again before bringing her eyes back to mine. “Throw it!” she says.

I laugh and reach down to pick up the slobber-coated stick and toss it straight to her. She does a little hop off the ground with her front legs, catches the stick with a crunch and parades off to where the undulating line between long grass and mowed strip meets the road.

Murdoch is beside me again, sides heaving in and out, bright pink tongue hanging down like an unfurled flag, at his feet the stick. I bend down to grab it and in one fluid motion straighten up, fling out my arm and send the stick flying once more. Murdoch is off and running to my right, becoming a black shadow in the shade of the trees but I barely notice, I’m already staring at the other black dog that has appeared on the road.

Bear has seen it too. She stands tall, about 20 feet away, with her back to me. Her shoulders square, neck craned, ears pulled together on top of her head. She’s halfway between me and this new dog.

A brief cloud of confusion drifts through my brain. “Murdoch’s over there, Bear’s there, who’s that?” Then, “That dog has really big feet.” My stomach drops to my toes, my heart pounds up into my head as I recognize the sloping back and rounded rump; that’s not a dog, that’s a bear, and it’s standing between us and our way home.

For a moment we are frozen and I notice the bear’s head is turned away from us. My eyes flick up the road in the direction it’s looking and I see a flash of silver and chrome and hear the distant rumble of a truck backing down a driveway.

The bear turns and in two lumbering strides slips back into the tree line. My Bear takes off at a run.

“Bear!” I shriek in a voice that doesn’t sound like mine. I am disconnected from everything for a moment as I watch Bear run with great purpose over the spot where the real bear was just standing. I can tell by the way she moves her world has shrunk to her and her quarry. This is exactly how these encounters are not supposed to go, I think.

Murdoch returns with the stick but lets it fall from his mouth as he sees Bear running hard up the road. He never saw the real bear, but he knows she is chasing something and takes off after her.

“Bear!” I yell again, the words vibrating in my chest, “Come here!” Murdoch stops dead in his tracks, pivots on his back legs and comes running back towards me as I watch Bear disappear into the trees on the same trail as the bear.

What is going on here? Murdoch came back? I take a couple of steps forward, and he turns to resume his pursuit of Bear. “Murdoch,” I yell this time, “Come!” and he does.

Murdoch stops in front of me and I fumble with his collar, trying to attach his leash faster than my fingers will move. Clearly he has no idea what’s going on. Why else would he have come when I called?

Murdoch trots beside me as Bear appears on the road again. The hair all the way down her spine is standing on end and she’s sniffing the undergrowth that tumbles out onto the road from the tree line.

“Bear,” I say in my own voice this time, “Come here.” She wanders towards me with her head down and her hackles still up. “What were you doing?” I ask as I clip on her leash. The three of us walk quickly towards home. I look back over my shoulder every couple of steps expecting to see the black shape appear again on the golden, dusty road.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Missing Max

Time stretches and morphs into strange shapes and loops, following no schedules, disagreeing with clocks and calendars. Sometimes it feels like Max was here just yesterday. His absence is overwhelming.

I look out the window and expect to see him lying in his spot amongst the clustered spindly trunks of new poplar trees, or flattening the weeds beneath the bathroom window, snoring softly as a brown, round rabbit hops by within three feet of his slumbering form, both seemingly unaware of the others' existence.

His wheelchair sits in the corner of our entryway, leaned back on its metal frame. Silvery arms reach up, waiting. A hug just hanging. My arms feel extra-empty looking at it. Hairs of white, caramel and bronze are still entwined and sewn into the black fabric of his harness. The wheels gather dust.

Max inhabits my heart, he has a chunk of it all to himself. He was my dog for three years. I wish sometimes I had known him longer, watched him navigate his way through the world from a tiny, tumbling puppy, but then he would have been a different dog, shaped by different circumstances. By the time I met him his back was crooked, his feet dragging, his eyes starting to cloud, his spirit sent soaring with the moments others took for granted.

There was just enough mystery surrounding his existence that made him seem larger than one life could contain. The stoic, wise old Max I knew was a connection to a deeper wisdom thrumming along just below the surface of this world.

It was his spirit that inspired me and yet all I want sometimes is to reach out and run my fingers through the thick coarse fur of his neck, smooth my hand over the silky hair on top of his head, touch his downy soft ears. I want to see his face again, look into his brown clouded eyes and feel that peace he and I shared in the quiet moments, the one that was powerful enough to make life itself make sense, if only for a little while.

I look for him in the trees sometimes, hoping to feel his presence, hoping that he is still somehow walking beside me. I think part of me actually believes I will find him one day trotting towards me with his laughing eyes, his big front feet leaving solid tracks in the mud. Maybe I look too hard because all I see flashing through the green of the forest is the fiery fuchsia and bright salmon pink of the flowers we planted over his grave.

There are days when my soul aches as though a piece of it is missing. A Max-shaped hole. And I wonder if he knows how big his life was, how far reaching his spirit.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Best intentions

I sit slouched back in my seat and stare at the harsh glowing screen, lost in some kind of computer trance. Beside me sits Murdoch, his head comes up to just past my elbow. My arm rests across his shoulders, fingers idly twirl the shaggy black hair at the top of his leg. The room is quiet and as my attention on the screen wanes I become aware of Murdoch’s eyes burning two perfectly round holes in the side of my face. I turn my head and look into the bulging, black pools of intense energy. “What?” I ask as if expecting a response.

Over the last two months, Murdoch has been venturing up the stairs from his lonely lair in the entryway to the kitchen where he attempts to be a normal, functioning part of the family. His first few forays into this other world ended quickly and with little fanfare after he pounced on Chestnut and lifted his leg on the side of the toilet.

For the first while it was as though opening the baby gate released a flood of adrenaline from the walls of the house itself. Murdoch’s blurred body worked quickly through the newly electrified atmosphere of the kitchen, inhaling every smell he could, casting his eyes on every unexplored surface while his nose and tongue worked the corners as though he knew it was only a matter of seconds before this dream ended abruptly with the gate slamming closed behind him.

One day I turned to find him with his front paws on the counter, standing there like an orangutan, his thin body tapering in at the waist and long hair hanging down from his bony elbows. I paused for half a beat, shocked to see how big he looked standing there, a Sasquatch in my kitchen. He stretched his neck toward the back of the counter and snatched a great hunk of stale bread that was earmarked for the birds.

I lunged forward and grabbed a hold of the bread as he returned his front paws to the floor. It tore in two and I stood there with half the bread in my hand while he worked his jaw in a frenzy, inhaling the other half with gusto as though making a point. He always takes everything just a hair too far, doesn’t seem to know how to stop when he’s ahead.

Inevitably he becomes overexcited, gets pushy when I stop petting him, chases a cat, cranes his neck and tries to nonchalantly let his tongue roll onto the counter top in search of crumbs. I banish him with an outstretched arm, finger pointing to the stairs. “Go.” And he clatters down the wooden steps to the entryway, all knobbly knees and lanky legs.

But more and more, in the latter half of his two-year-old year, Murdoch is showing signs of maturity. Sometimes those signs are so small and fleeting you have to really look closely, but they are there. He seems to learn quickly, when things work in his favour, and more often than not he settles down beside me, hangs his head a bit while I run my hand over the smooth hair that follows the roundness of his skull. Sometimes he rests his chin in my lap.

Mostly he can just sit or lie quietly beside me in the kitchen for brief stretches while I work on something on the computer or at the table, his shaggy body a constant presence in my periphery, my senses heightened, coiled nerves waiting to pounce on him, snap out his name with authority. But sometimes I let my guard down, lulled into a false sense of calm because he’s right there beside me and my hand is on his body.

He rarely sits staring at me like he is now, eyes bugging out from behind the shaggy sprays of hair on his face. We study each other for a minute and I start to laugh because it looks like he has something important he’s just bursting to say. Then I notice that’s because his mouth is buttoned up tight. I tilt my head slightly, look at the side of his face. Amongst the scraggily hairs of his mustache that overhang his lips and mingle with the scraggily hairs of his beard, I see a scrap of white.

I feel my face change, my smile falters, my brow pulls into a questioning furrow. Murdoch notices me noticing the white material emerging from between his tightly closed lips and he hops a little as his back legs unfold beneath him and he stands, tensed, ready to bolt. “Murdoch,” I say, trying to sound as though I haven’t noticed a thing. If I’m too stern, I play right into his game. His jaw loosens for a moment and I see a flash of white in his mouth. It’s as if he’s letting me glimpse his prize on purpose, taunting me.

It’s my sock. I always leave a pair at the top of the stairs so I can throw them on with my shoes to take the dogs out. I have been doing that for weeks and Murdoch has ignored them. Today, I guess he was bored. I manage to get a hold of a corner of the sock. “Mine,” I say. Murdoch’s eyes shimmer as though his alter ego is trying to come forward and take over. “Hey,” a knife edge in my voice. “Murdoch, mine.” He hesitates, looks like he’s thinking about his best course of action, then slowly releases the sock. I hold it up between us, pinched by my thumb and forefinger. Another sopping wet sock to add to the tally of slobber encrusted socks that Murdoch has claimed at one time or another as his own.

My eyes refocus from the sock to Murdoch’s face, “Oops,” his eyes seem to say. “Downstairs,” I tell him calmly and point while getting to my feet. He turns and, sheepishly, he goes. Later when I take the dogs out I wear the sock, glimmering with dried slobber. My own statement perhaps. But Murdoch doesn’t notice