Thursday, January 28, 2010

But I’m cute

I arrived home that day I found Murdoch on the side of the road, with him tied to the front seat of my car. Only when I had managed to battle through a flurry of too many claws and teeth to haul him from the back seat into the front and secure him to the seatbelt holder with no more than about three inches of lea-way, did he actually sit still. Then I had a moment of calm thought in which I started to feel sorry again that this puppy had been left on the side of the road. It didn’t last.

I stood on the porch outside the door to our house with the puppy secured at the end of a leash. Since releasing him from the car, his nose had been stuck to the ground conducting an intense investigation. I followed him along the edge of the brownish-green grass, still flattened from the weight of snow that had melted not long before, as his feet trod carelessly over frozen clods of dirt and the air whooshed in and out of his nose at an alarming rate. I pulled him around the corner of the house to the porch and told him to be nice to Bear and Max.

When I reached out to open the door, I had barely touched the handle when the puppy shoved past me and flung himself at the flimsy barrier. The door flew open and banged against the wall while Murdoch ploughed across the threshold and slammed into Bear. Everyday Bear waited to burst out onto the porch when I got home and greet me with a full-body wag, a few snorts, and a little tap dance on the faded wooden slats. Max would charge out behind her, his back end swaying drunkenly while his front marched purposefully towards me, eyes flashing, head poised to ram into mine when I bent down to say hello.

That day, as the puppy became a black tempest in the tiny postage-stamp sized entryway, he crushed that excited anticipation instantly. Bear shrank back from the intrusion as a look of surprise and confusion flashed across her face. Max, a few feet behind her, stumbled on his rickety back legs.

The puppy pulled like a small horse. I knew he was strong, but wasn’t prepared for this surge towards the dogs and found my feet slid easily across the linoleum as he dragged me behind him and jumped on each dog in turn. Bear snarled and snapped, Max tried to get away, his back end swaying precariously as he paced nervously in the small space. The cats made themselves scarce as the wild mop of hair and teeth lunged in their direction. Up until then the cats never had reason to fear a dog. Chestnut took refuge under the couch where he would stay for days.

After striking terror into the hearts of my animals, the very next thing Murdoch did was leap on to the couch, I swear I could see a reckless grin plastered to his face, spiked with a hint of malice. He bounced along its length, then his gangly legs attempted to catapult him onto the back of the couch from where he planned, I could tell, to dive-bomb Bear as she stood beside a bewildered Max. The expression on Bear’s face read something like, “What the hell is that and what is it doing in my house?”

The whole time, in a state of bewilderment myself, I was dragged behind the charging beast at the end of the leash. I finally managed to plant my feet and get a firm hold on the leash, then yanked him off the couch, trying in vain again to use the word no.

Murdoch’s determination to destroy all things that are good revealed itself from that first day. It should have come as no surprise that the couch would eventually be a casualty of his, once and for all putting an end to those happy memories. For a while, Murdoch ate happiness, he sucked the joy out of everything.

The couch didn’t stand a chance against him, not even after he started to mellow enough that we could leave him out of his kennel in our new house for stretches of time. Eventually he started eating it, quietly and determinedly. By then it was already well past its prime and honestly we didn’t pay much attention to it, tucked away as it was in a corner of our entryway. Murdoch made short work of the cushions but eventually seemed to appreciate it for what it was, a comfortable bed to sleep on, which posed a whole slew of other problems. Whenever someone tried to sit on the couch to spend time with him he took it as an invitation to wrestle, as though that was his domain and you had to pass a feat of strength to share it with him. He would throw his front legs around your shoulders and come at you with mouth open, teeth poised to close around whatever got in his way.

Often I would hear grunts and yells from the entryway where Morgan sat on the edge of the couch putting on his shoes while Murdoch slammed into him, shoved him, gnawed on him. Usually it would all be punctuated by Morgan’s voice asking sharply, “Why is my arm in your mouth?”

It always ended with a quaking shout of, “In kennel,” and the clank of the metal door being slammed shut. It was during that time Murdoch perfected the sad dog look, peering out between the bars of his kennel as though he had been terribly wronged.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rubber Fishy, you’re the one

When Morgan, Bear and I left our homes in southern Ontario in search of a different way of life, we had no idea what we would find, but it was an adventure that began with a truck and a travel trailer.

As experts at leaving things to the last minute, we left in a rush and ended up taking more stuff with us than we wanted, boxes of things to go through along the way. Our great escape turned into a limping spectacle of us trying to outrun the trappings of society.

Bear brought stuff too, though hers was all practical. It amounted to a couple of bowls, one for food, the other for water, a bed comprised of a couple of thick quilts, her black rubber bone - a receptacle for the sweet nectar of the gods (aka peanut butter), and a green squeaky fish. Everything had a purpose. That dog knows how to pack.

Fishy may have seemed a luxury, but anyone who ever saw Bear with her most prized of possessions would quickly change their mind. Bear and Fishy were destined to be together from the moment she laid eyes on his rubbery, bright lime-green body and bulging blue eyes. Once she heard him squeak, there was no going back, she was completely under his spell.

Anything that unexpectedly squeaks, beeps or makes any number of other interesting noises instantly gains Bear’s undivided attention. She becomes so focused on what made the sound, a bomb could explode beside her and she would brush it off as a mild disturbance in her concentration. It’s as though she is completely baffled that such an intriguing sound could come from an inanimate object and she must, against all odds, understand it.

She is overcome by an expression that changes the entire shape of her face so she looks like a completely different dog. Her ears perk up, wrinkling her forehead which seems to grow taller and almost gives the impression that her snout has shrunk. Her face becomes flatter somehow but her mouth seems wider so you expect her to puff out her cheeks, clear her throat importantly and say something like “Well, well, what’s this? Let’s just get a closer look shall we?” It’s a scenario that seems all the more plausible when you see her eyes. They become giant black marbles, twice their normal size and flash from deep within, a shimmery kind of light that holds every question you ever thought to ask, plus ten more.

The fish wasn’t even intended for Bear in the first place. It was a gift to Morgan’s mom from her brother, a gag because she had installed a hot tub. In leu of a rubber ducky, she got a fish. It belonged to her for all of five minutes until Bear got her jaws around him.

Bear instantly loved Fishy and treated him with such gentle devotion. She carried him with her everywhere she went, cradling him between her sharp, white teeth. He fit perfectly in her mouth, as though he was designed to rest there. Often Bear would wander into a room with her cheeks in a relaxed hug around Fishy’s body, his belly protruding from between her lips like a big green smile. She had a contented look on her face as though all was right with the world as long as she had Fishy.

When Bear was excited about something she would run and grab Fishy then walk around the house working her jaws to make him squeak louder and louder. She threw her head around in a dance that sent excited wiggles all the way down her body to where her tail swayed recklessly through the air. She gave the impression of losing herself completely to wild abandon, except, if you looked closely, you would see she remained mindful of Fishy. She learned how to make him squeak loudly with the gentlest of pressure. She made Fishy’s super-soft, malleable body look solid and as though it posed great resistance to her eager jaws.

There was no question Fishy would accompany us on our journey. Within days of leaving, Fishy became our trip mascot. While the three of us crammed ourselves into the cab of our truck, Fishy found a place to ride in the dashboard ashtray. His big blue eyes stared out at us as we watched the world roll by the windows or pored over a road map, picking the most out of the way places to visit. His green, protruding fish lips curved into an almost imperceptible smile that gave him an overall pleasant and, indeed, calming expression despite his bulging eyes.

By day Fishy could be found in his dashboard perch or lovingly cradled in Bear’s mouth. By night he was snugged up to Bear on her bed, beneath her chin or between her paws. He became Bear's travelling companion, and those months we spent on the move will always be punctuated by memories of Bear and her beloved Fishy.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What are you looking at?

During my first four years of dog ownership I was completely spoiled. Bear, Quincy and Max, each in their own way, were model dogs. They were respectful, mostly obedient, loving, caring creatures. They were exactly what I expected dogs to be, they expanded our hearts and added something tangible and real to our lives. This whole dog thing was a piece of cake.

But then there was Murdoch.

I have never known a more frustrating animal who could flip my switch from calm and compassionate to enraged and homicidal in the blink of an eye. Murdoch helped me get in touch with places inside myself I never knew existed; deep dark places of resentment, burning anger, and the occasional blind rage.

After a week of endless wrestling matches, punctuated with teeth and deep growls on both sides where someone was bound to lose skin or fur, I wanted to know why the hell anyone would ever want a puppy.

We weren’t sure how old he was the late-April day I found him on the side of the road. From a distance he looked like a fully grown, medium-sized dog. Maybe a Scottish Terrier I thought. It wasn’t until I’d made the fateful decision to stop, as I drove home from work, and called him to the car that I realized he was in fact a gargantuan puppy.

He sat statue still on that gravel road until I patted my thigh and told him to come. He leapt to life then, as though electrified, and catapulted towards me as if by a spring that had sat tightly coiled beneath him.

This black blur barreled towards me, his four massive paws, that looked like floppy socks falling off the ends of his feet, flying in six directions at once. He stopped only when he slammed into my legs. He then proceeded to bounce around me, bucking like a small horse, so I couldn’t really see what he looked like. He made me laugh.

Two minutes later as I drove my car away from the spot I found him and he continued to explode into me, I realized he had the capacity to kill us both. He launched himself at me again and again from the backseat, like a firecracker trapped in the car, all I could see while I drove were close ups of claws, hair and teeth. As I got to know him better I knew if he did succeeded in dragging me with him to the afterlife, he was quite prepared, if not determined, to take the entire world with us.

We figured he was between five and seven months old. I quickly developed the theory that he had been a Christmas present, an adorable little fluffy black puppy with big brown eyes, a scraggily beard and bushy eyebrows. He possessed a great spirit of play that was encouraged. And then he grew, and grew, and he started to take the play more seriously. By the time whoever owned him decided to drive out to the country and drop him off, this cute dog had become a terror of pirana-like proportions.

I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a tiny part of me that eventually was able to identify with that person. The more time we spent with the puppy, the more frustrated we became. He truly seemed to believe the entire world was there for him to destroy. His response to just about everything we did with him was to growl and snarl and snap his teeth at us.

It appeared as though his head had grown faster than the rest of him. He looked kind of like a gawky teenager with his great big square block of a head that seemed just about half the size of his entire body. In that giant head was an enormous jaw absolutely packed full of gleaming white teeth that he loved to show off and sink into things, especially hands and arms and legs.

The only thing bigger than his head was his attitude. He was like a bratty kid whose ambition in life it was to become the neighbourhood bully, then maybe join a biker gang.

He also had huge feet, a sure sign that he was destined to be a very big dog, I love big dogs. In the early days, when I still thought we might be able to make him into a real dog, I excitedly asked Morgan, “How big do you think he’s going to get?”

Within a month, my patience in tatters, my soul bruised and beaten, my arms covered in scratches and my throat sore from growling and screaming at the puppy I asked again, exasperated and pleading, “How big do you think he’s going to get?” There was probably a slight whimper in my voice.

My luck had run out. Perhaps I used up all my good-dog karma on the other three, I was due for a delinquent. Murdoch was delinquent enough for all of them, not to mention every other dog that had ever even thought about crossing my path.

Monday, January 11, 2010

If I had a penny for every hair...

Some mornings I wake up before the sun to the sound of a herd of elephants running up the stairs and then tumbling and rolling across the floor with a bone-rattling enthusiasm. It is soon followed by a blood-curdling scream, punctuated by a yowl.

Ah, the cats are hungry.

Mornings like that, my mind wanders in a state of sleep deprived delirium and eventually falls to wondering how we ended up with so many animals. We took each of them in for good reason, I know that, but when viewed as a whole, sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly what we were thinking.

Stumbling from bed, Morgan and I fall into a routine while our brains remain cloaked in fog. Bear gets a quick belly rub and a hug before being let out, Murdoch gets attached to his line and sent out the door at an excited trot, Max takes some prodding to get his harness on when clearly he wants to stay in bed. Eventually, Max gets clipped into his wheelchair and aimed out the door while I whip off the wrap that velcroes around his waist and acts as a diaper, absorbing any accidents he had during the night. It usually takes about half an hour to get everyone out, then back in, and fed, which includes mixing up Chestnut’s special food to combat recurring crystals in his bladder.

Our animals are decidedly high-maintenance and it’s funny because when Morgan and I first started seeing each other, the one thing we agreed on was that we didn’t want kids. Neither of us longed to be parents or tied down by that kind of responsibility, but now I find myself able to join in conversations with parents of young children. I get what they’re talking about.

Our life has also become all about feeding times - who gets what food and when - projectile vomit, cleaning up messes, and teaching manners, right down to the endless debate of disposable diapers versus reusable; not to mention dealing with the issues that go along with those things, such as diaper rash and endless loads of laundry.

Of course, I try not to be too enthusiastic about the similarities. Nobody wants their children compared to a pack of dogs, and I am aware of the precarious line I walk where one slip would put me squarely in the crazy dog-lady camp, the one who thinks her animals are her children. But at least I can sympathize.

Aside from all that, I have inadvertently become somewhat of an expert on dog hair. Labs, despite their sleek, neatly coiffed appearance, shed a lot. Beneath the smooth, every-hair-in-place exterior lies uncertain depths of fluffy, lighter than air, dirt-catcher undercoat which emerges in clumps and gathers in tumbleweed-like dust bunnies that dart out unexpectedly from under the couch or behind a set of stairs.

Whatever abundance of hair Bear leaves behind though, I’ve learned German Shepherds shed even more. There are days when I think Max must have hidden pockets in which he carries around pawfuls of hair and deposits them strategically around the house when I’m not looking. If piles of hair aren’t gathering around him like seaweed along a sandy shoreline, then matted bits stick out of his thick unruly coat, begging to be plucked. But, like an iceberg, an aberrant tuft is just the tip of a far bigger clump of hair hiding beneath the surface.

Murdoch’s hair, I never find. Either it blends in really well, or he just doesn’t shed that much. More likely he probably eats it as fast as it falls out of him. Murdoch doesn’t have a very sophisticated palate. Whenever I brush Max he eagerly camps out nearby and pounces on the accumulated pile of hair if I’m not fast enough to stop him, gobbling it up before I can even blink.

The cats, meanwhile, leave behind great swirls of white hair as though a cotton candy machine exploded on the chair or couch or bed.

I sweep the floor constantly, and within the hour it looks like I haven’t swept at all. Hair permeates every pore of our house. Strands hang suspended in the air, turning corkscrews through beams of sun streaming in windows, others stick to all but the most slippery of fabrics, entwining themselves amongst individual threads of blankets as though purposely woven there. Pieces also turn up inside previously sealed containers that were never, before the instant of being opened, exposed to the environment of our house.

I wonder sometimes how much hair I’ve swallowed. Some days I get the odd one or two stuck in the back of my throat, scratching and tickling at the same time making me cough. I want to reach in with my finger and sweep them out and I think about the size of the hair ball that must be forming in my stomach.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Simple pleasures

People fall in love with Max before they meet him. After you spend some time with him, Max becomes a little part of you. His spirit is so big, you can get lost in it.

I don’t see it at first, not until I really start paying attention to him. The more often I venture over to where he lives next door, the more I watch Max with great curiosity. When anyone walks by, he follows at the end of his line until he can’t go any further. Mostly he carries an old worn football in his mouth and if anyone even thinks about turning to face him he drops it at his feet then stands over it, looking down. His body tenses, ears point forward as tall on his head as he can make them and he waits for whoever stands nearby to kick the ball so he can pounce on it with his big jaw open wide, clamping down. I see utter joy in that action, so I start kicking the ball for him.

That was as far as our relationship went for the first year. He was still a guard dog, though I could see right away he was more gentle giant than hardened protector. A few times I wandered over to find Quincy with his head in Max’s food bowl and Max sitting quietly by as though he was quite happy to share his meal.

I learned a little bit about where he came from, but his story has grown in my mind and I’m no longer sure what is truth and what I have imagined for him.

I do know he came from a smaller community near Thunder Bay known for its farming and he spent his first years roaming free in open fields and forests alike. When life required his owner make some changes, Max was sent to live with in-laws, our neighbours. He was still allowed to wander, but was always reattached to his line when he returned.

By the time I meet him, he is an older dog, at least he appears to be. His back is crooked and boney. In some spots vertebrae stick out as though his spine is a rope piled on the deck of a ship at sea, tied in knots and stiffened by the salt water, I want to push on his spine and loosen the links, make it relax back into its natural position.

His front legs are strong and powerful, the light golden fur that covers his large feet is tarnished gray with sand and make me think of a prowling lion. The golden ruff that grows heavy and thick at his neck furthers the comparison. Ambers and caramels, highlighted by black, paint his gentle face, which strikes me to be like that of a curious child; it is open, he hides nothing. His ears stand tall and proud on top of his head, going from light to dark to light again at the tips. If I was to imagine the perfect German Shepherd, I would picture his face. He is a gorgeous dog.

When he turns to the side though I see his back slopes down to a limply hanging tail that flops awkwardly, like it is broken. His back end is clearly withering, skinnier than his front, it looks like it belongs to another dog. When he walks, he swaggers and sways like a sailor on leave and drags the toes of his back feet across the ground. No hair grows on those knuckles.

Like Quincy, Max has an air of experience about him. He seems wise, and bush smart. He also shares Quincy’s dislike of cameras. Unlike Quincy though, he craves attention and loves people. Where Quincy was international spy, Max is the quiet cowboy.

His way of saying hello to anyone is by head butting whatever part of your body is closest. If you happen to have your head near his he will smack you right in the forehead. It’s as though his excitement suddenly boils to the surface and is uncontainable.

When I start walking him, about a year after Quincy disappeared, Max and I become fast friends. He eagerly follows Bear and I over rocky hills and dusty trails. In the winter we walk the snowy, frozen river behind the house. Even though he swaggers a bit and drags his toes Max is still a strong walker, he strides out with purpose, excited I think at the prospect of a new adventure. We never go for less than an hour.

I hate clipping him back on his line when we return. It feels like a betrayal. He stands at the end of it watching Bear and I disappear through the trees to our house. I always look back and wave, yell to him that he’s a good boy and I’ll see him tomorrow. After the walks start, we never hear Max barking anymore.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A dog named Max

Morgan, Bear and I moved to Thunder Bay at the beginning of a very frosty January. We arrived to a city encased in snow. The drive out to the tiny house we rented over the internet took us through white forests that hibernated beyond five-foot snowbanks towering at the edge of either side of the road; a road which was reduced to a snowy track barely wide enough to pass a car going in the opposite direction. It was fantastic.

The three of us huddled together on the bench seat of the big red flatbed truck we had driven from Nova Scotia, veering north through Quebec to drive across the chunk of Ontario that seems so far north from the heavily populated southern parts of the province but is really only three-quarters of the way there. That road is dotted with small towns that all look the same and are carved from stretches of wilderness where the radio cuts out.

About an hour outside of Thunder Bay our radiator quit working. Morgan wired a square of cardboard to the grill on the front of the truck to keep so much icy air from flooding into the cab. We wore our toques and scarves as we limped into town.

Thunder Bay is not the coldest place in the world. It’s not even the coldest place in Canada, but for Morgan and I it felt like we had arrived on an ice floe somewhere in the arctic. We didn’t even need a refrigerator for the first four months we lived there; the backs of our cupboards were so cold we could keep milk and eggs pushed up against the wall.

Bear disappeared in the cloud of frosty air that rolled in the door every time we opened it to let her in or out, as though someone crouched on our porch running a smoke machine. She always reappeared with her breath frozen like a fine frosting on her fur. The air crackled with the cold, the dampness frozen from the atmosphere leaving the snow so light and fluffy it was weightless as down and could be swept from our car with an expelled lungful of air. Where we were from in southern Ontario, falling in the snow meant getting soaked from head to toe, possibly suffering a cut or two from shards of ice that hid in snowbanks after being scraped from the road or a car. This dream-like wonderland we found was what we believed winter should be.

Each night that first week in Thunder Bay the clear cold air made the sky seem a deeper black. It reminded me of what happens when ice freezes so fast and cold it is as clear as glass and makes everything seen through it look more real somehow, that’s what the air was like when looking through it to the black sky and silver-white stars.

As we watched those bright stars each night nestled against rich black velvet, we snuggled into the pile of blankets on our bed and listened to the rhythmic barking of a dog. It came from next door, the cold air clearing all unseen obstacles so it sounded like the dog was right outside our window.

We were annoyed at first to have our quiet solitude shattered each night while we tried to sleep, but then I started to think about that dog sitting outside on those biting-cold nights. I wondered how he could be left out there when the cold light of the sun disappeared each day stealing away with it any memory of warmth it may have grudgingly shared while it made its short journey across the lower part of the sky. How did he stay warm?

The house we rented sat on the edge of the large patch of land that was home to four other cabins. The forested property that butted up against our little square was owned by an old world Finnish couple in their 70s who built their home over 40 years before. A twenty foot stretch of our driveways were separated by a thin line of spindly pine trees. The rest of their property was obscured from us by densely packed woods.

We got to know them our first summer there, Morgan adopting the man, a retired engineer and bush mechanic, as a mentor. He spent long hours trying to glean anything he could from a head full of knowledge.

The barking dog was a large German Shepherd who lived outdoors in front of their house in a clearing amidst a small patch of trees. He stayed on a line attached to a pulley which ran along a thin metal cable; like a heavy-duty clothes line strung up between two trees.

The scrub grass that bracketed the outside edge of his lair was all worn away in the large area where he spent his days padding around watching the comings and goings of friends and children and grandchildren. His name was Max and we understood him to be a guard dog, not a pet, so I kept my distance.

We imagined each night when his deep bark rolled through the trees to our window that he was chasing away bears or wolves, protecting his home. He was a working dog, but still I occasionally thought about him living outdoors and couldn’t convince myself that was a good enough explanation. It wasn’t until about a year after Quincy disappeared when I had the opportunity to really get to know Max and discovered him to be the most gentle-souled creature I ever met.