Monday, July 26, 2010

So... hungry

The quiet of the afternoon is a heavy presence in the kitchen. Lazy sounds fill the space. The mechanical hum of the fridge. Sighs and deep, steady breaths of sleeping dogs. On the wall, the clock ticks out a plodding rhythm. Somewhere, the drip, drip of water.

Then a slow crinkling from the cupboard beneath the counter top.

In one stride I am beside the door, pulling it open. In the gloom of the cupboard I see Chestnut’s beige face, wide-eyed, indignant, peering over the dog food bag, his stripy front legs disappear into it. He’s frozen, looking at me as if standing still will make him invisible. I reach in behind and give him a shove. Soft, silky fur pushes back against my hand, then he starts to move slowly forward, stepping carefully over the bags and onto the kitchen floor. He takes his time as though he is doing nothing wrong. “Well what did you expect me to do?” he says with his shrugging walk. “Clearly you don’t care that my stomach is empty.”

If Chestnut suddenly developed the ability to speak English tomorrow, I’m sure his first words would be, “I’m starving!” yet, when he turns sideways he is the very un-cat-like square shape of a dairy cow. Chestnut is obsessed with food. He believes he is in imminent danger of wasting away.

While his empty dish mocks him, Chestnut takes matters into his own paws, goes directly to the source. Ingenuity fueled by desperation. He found the one cupboard door of the five beneath the counter top that opens differently than the others. With a curled paw underneath the bottom edge, a flick of the toes, it swings easily open.

Behind the doors the cupboard space is one long connected storage area, there are no walls compartmentalizing. I imagine Chestnut picking his way over and around the jumbled bags of potatoes and rice, beans and flour, careful not to make a sound, be found out too soon.

If we remember to chain that door shut, Chestnut spends his waking hours in the kitchen pacing desperately between the food cupboard and whoever happens to be nearby, including Bear. He walks with purpose and great seriousness, like he has something extremely important to tell everyone.

“My dish is empty,” he says with a head-butt under Bear’s chin. He rubs his creamy caramel body against her barrel chest. Bear, ignores him, holds her head high in the air, her mouth pulled tight. She glances furtively down her nose at the cat, careful not to let him see her take notice. Her eyes meet mine for a moment, I see white cat hairs stuck to her black face. “Okay Chestnut,” I say, swatting at him, “That’s enough.”

He rushes away, but stops within a few feet, turns and looks at me, his burnt-amber eyes bug out of his face. His pupils tiny black slits, his lips pursed. The face of panic. Somehow he looks gaunt, I swear I can see bags under his eyes.

“Please,” he begs, “My dish is empty.”

I tell him it’s not time to eat, he has to wait, then go back to what I was doing. Chestnut appears in my periphery, sidling up to the plastic laundry bin. He places the side of his face against its edge, then curls his lip back, teeth scrape against plastic. With a glazed look in his eye he begins to chew with the corner of his mouth on the curved edge of the bin, like he’s biting off the end of a cigar.

“Chestnut,” I hiss loudly. He snaps his head round to look at me, a faint wash of guilt on his face is quickly replaced by an eager and hopeful expression, “My dish is empty.” Then, with a whiney moan in his throat, tail swishing in frustration, he rubs against my leg, looks up at me with his cutest face.

I turn away, ignore him. He jumps onto a seat at the table, looks me in the eye, cranes his neck forward and repeats his side-chewing on the corner of the table. Wood crunches between teeth, I lunge at him. He thumps to the floor, scurries away, but not in remorse, he moves with a fluid confidence that says this is a game.

He finds a cardboard box and begins ripping chunks from it. He chews on the corner of my book that sticks out over the edge of the table. He chews on my toe, he runs between feet, he lies in the way, he trips everyone up.

“But surely,” he protests, “you must know, my dish is empty.”

I finally give in and scoop some food from the bag in the cupboard, he runs as though being chased by Murdoch himself, then hovers over his dish, anxiously awaiting the sweet plinking sound of kibble hitting metal. He takes a few bites, then walks away.

Cleo thumps down the stairs, stretches her back legs behind her like some kind of strange march as she strolls across the kitchen. The sound of food being poured awakened her from her nap. She pulls up close to the dish and settles her round girth about her. Cleo’s face disappears into the bowl and doesn’t come up for air until every last morsel is gone.

Twenty minutes later I am sitting at the kitchen table engrossed in some important thing and I become aware of Chestnut beside me. With one front paw on the seat of my chair, he stretches up with the other and taps me gently on the arm. I turn to look into his huge round eyes staring deeply into mine. “Excuse me,” they say with a hint of desperation, “but my dish is empty.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

A cruel wind

Thunder rumbles tentatively behind a solid grey, lowering sky. I picture it rolling in a big arc around the mountains, circling undecidedly. Rain could be on the way, but it might veer north. Either way, we hurry along the road, gravel crunching noisily beneath ten feet. With a blue leash in each hand, I march between Bear and Murdoch, their black shapes like bookends, only one shaggier and slightly taller than the other.

The first drops of cold rain fall when we reach the end of the road. I have just unhooked the dogs from their leashes. Murdoch skipping off to find a stick and Bear on the trail of an interesting scent. The air feels heavy with rain, the sky, menacing. I call the dogs back, re-attach their leashes and with profuse apologies, stride out for home.

We outpace the rain, staying within the sprinkle of the leading edge. Behind us, it falls harder and begins to sweep up the road. We reach the house as it starts to pour. The thunder has already moved on.

Inside we watch torrents of rain close in around the house, then, rain blowing sideways, great sheets moving in waves, like flags cracking and snapping angrily in the wind. Grey light falls in at the windows and stops short.

Morgan and I stand in the kitchen, watch the rain gusting back down the road, a roaring wind at its heels. The wind just showed up. It arrived a solid thing with great purpose, like the door of a vault clanging shut. We watch it mold the rain, mesmerized. Then the crack of a breaking tree, thunk and clatter on the roof.

A split second of stunned silence, eyes wide, mouths open. A parody of disbelief. We take the stairs at a run.

I scramble up the last flight to the top of the house and crane my neck to see, expecting a hole with branches poking through, stabbing at the bed, wet leaves and rain. There is nothing. Outside the window on the flat roof of the second story a huge branch curves out of sight. The tree that stands ten feet from the house has lost its top. It hit the roof, left an arm behind, before crashing to the ground, flattening the lid of the barbeque and driving its legs several inches into the earth.

Wind is an ever-present being in the woods. Trees are as much made by it as they are by the sun, earth and rain. It shapes them as they grow, like a river carving its way slowly, over time, through rock. But this wind, it doesn’t belong.

From the bedroom we watch, in the treetops ourselves now. Rain blurs the windows as if we are in a boat at sea where crashing waves slap against portholes. Outside the trees bend almost in half, like nothing more than grass and I am an ant in a field clinging to a single blade.

The animals have all sought refuge in the lowest parts of the house. Morgan mentions something about not being in the safest place where we are, but neither of us makes a move, unable to tear ourselves away from the spectacle of the wind throwing a violent, screaming temper tantrum.

Trees bend away from the house on one side and bang against it on the other. The wind is ceaseless, crashing, angry. Branches pelt the roof. Any minute I expect a tree to break through. For the first time since we moved in I think about cutting down the trees that grow within inches of the house.

Splintering sounds of great trunks being snapped in two fills the air. We feel helpless, will the wind to stop. Then as suddenly as it all began, the trees aren’t rocking so wildly, no longer pounding on the house. The rain tapers off. There is a breathless quiet in the forest, like the hollow silence that follows in the wake of a raging argument.

When the wind is gone we step tentatively outside into this altered world. We stare into leafy crowns of trees flopped on the ground like casually dropped bouquets of flowers. Deeper into the woods we can follow the path the wind took, leap-frogging it’s way through the trees. A swath of forest down here, trees completely uprooted and tumbled like dominoes, then a group of still standing trees there, then another patch where the sky looks bigger than it did before.

It starts to rain again as we pick our way through underbrush looking for the gleaming brightness of freshly broken trunks and tangles of roots now pointing to the sky, like someone tilted the world on its side. A morbid giddiness carries us. Our eyes scan as far ahead through the standing forest as they can see. What next? What next?

But there is a feeling of remorse in the air, a sense of things done that can’t be undone. We quietly mourn each tree, try to imagine getting used to so much sky. Even from inside the house the forest feels empty, the holes swallow us up.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Morning rituals

Cool, early morning light filters through trees before it presents itself, quietly, at the windows of our house. It enters through clear panes of glass and pauses on wooden window frames before sliding into the room. From my bed I can see into the leafy treetops and, through the spaces, beyond to the pale, silvery sky.

I am awake, not because of the light or the birdsong that began before the first rays of sun had barely stained the sky a brighter hue, but because the cats have decided I should no longer be asleep. Their attempts to rouse Morgan or I usually begin around the time of the first tweet of a bird in the forest. They walk stiff-legged with stomping steps around the room, or climb the walls with scratching claws, or stick cold noses and tickling whiskers into our faces. If we somehow weather these things, clamping the covers tighter, they might settle down for a while but usually so they can think up louder, more disruptive things to do.

I stumble out from under the covers and Chestnut, who has been loudly grooming himself at the foot of the bed, looks at me eagerly as if to say, “Oh, are you getting up now?” He leaps from the bed and thumps down the stairs behind me.

In the living room, Bear is waiting at the bottom of the stairs, tail sweeping from side to side. She does a tiny tapdance, then stretches her front legs straight out, chest to the ground, tail in the air like she’s bowing, then yawns a squeaky yawn. She stomps her feet again, then with an over-exaggerated lick of the lips, a circular toss of the head and a snort, she’s clambouring down the stairs to the kitchen.

Chestnut stands waiting for us at the bottom of those stairs and makes a disgruntled, grumbling, beeline to the food cupboard when he sees me appear. I turn in the other direction and Bear and I descend the last few steps to the entryway, where Murdoch is emerging from his bed.

Murdoch stretches like a cat, first bowing with his tail in the air, then pulling himself forward until his back legs stick straight out behind him and his toes curl. When he stands tall again, he yawns with a loud, deep vocalization from his chest that could be interpreted as “Good morning!” or “It’s about time. Breakfast was supposed to be an hour ago.”

I put the dogs out and turn to see Chestnut and Cleo sitting as close to the edge of the top step as they can. Their bell-shaped bodies fill the space and they stare at me with focused eyes as though trying to bore into my brain and control my thoughts. If they could stamp their feet, they would be doing so at that moment with great impatience.

As soon as I make a move to go up the stairs, the cats are running to the cupboard again, meowing; it seems almost involuntary in its insistency. I scoop out some food for the cats and they fall all-over themselves each trying to be the first one to the empty dishes, then anxiously wait for me to fill them before jostling for a place at the bowl that appears to be heaped a little higher.

I return to the door to find Bear and Murdoch standing with their noses just about pressed up against it. I tell them to wait and as I open the door Bear rushes in with Murdoch right behind her. I dish their food, and for a moment the sounds of crunching kibble and clanging dishes fill the air.

In the contented lull after plates are licked clean, I have a few minutes of peace to brew a pot of tea and make my own breakfast. I sit down and just bite into my toast when the cats flash past in a blur and thunder up the stairs. In the living room overhead they tumble across the floor. It sounds like there are twenty cats instead of two. I know Chestnut is chasing Cleo, it’s never the other way around. Hisses and loud, angry half-growls are tossed down the stairs followed by the cats themselves thumping back to the kitchen.

Murdoch’s feet clomp on the stairs to the entryway and his face appears at the baby gate, anxious to know what he’s missing out on while Bear looks at me from her bed in quiet exasperation as the cats tumble past. I shake the spray bottle menacingly at the cats and they stop what they’re doing. Cleo walks away with her tail straight up in the air like a victory flag and Chestnut retreats to the stairs to sit quietly and wait for me to put down the sprayer.

I resume eating and a few minutes pass before Chestnut appears beside me. He sits and looks up at me, wide-eyed and cute, feet and tail all neatly tucked in tight to his body like a model cat. He almost looks small from that angle. I shake my head, but pat my lap and he leaps into it, his solid, warm weight settles in and he drapes himself across my arm which rests on the edge of the table and purrs his loud purr, like an idling engine, while I finish my breakfast.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Big brave Bear

Bear only climbed the boxy, awkward stairs to the bedroom of our new house once more after the first attempt that ended in her suffering the indignity of being half-carried back to the safety of the living room when she realized she couldn’t climb down on her own.

The flight of stairs, designed to take up as small a space as possible, is closer to a ladder in some ways than an actual set of stairs. We really didn’t think Bear would even attempt to go up, but it turned out going up wasn’t a problem.

The first time Bear climbed to the bedroom she marched up the strange, offset stairs with confidence, her feet automatically choosing the correct steps as she followed eagerly along on a tour we were giving our friends the day we moved in. Going down was much more challenging. Bear couldn’t understand that the stairs were designed so each foot had its own small step, taking up half the space of a standard flight of stairs. As she looked down, processing only one side of the stairs, what she saw was each step was twice the height of a regular one and extra steep. The only way for her to get down was for Morgan and I to awkwardly lift her between us.

After that embarrassing fiasco Bear contented herself with standing forlornly at the bottom of the stairs as we ascended and waved back over our shoulders and told her everything was fine. We didn’t expect her to ever venture up the stairs again.

She climbed them the second time because she was scared.

It’s kind of funny to look at Bear, who has been mistaken for an actual bear in the past, and realize she’s scared of stuff. Her intimidating charge down the driveway at any newcomers or alarmist barking at a knock on the door and refusal to stop when we tell her in increasingly louder and angrier voices “THAT’S ENOUGH!” makes it even harder to believe. Bear fancies herself a protector, and there have been times when I was grateful for her intimidating presence.

The thing that completely undoes Bear isn’t something she can see, it’s what she hears. Maybe it is fear of the unknown. I have had the same conversation with her repeatedly during the seven years I’ve known her, “Thunder won’t hurt you.” Anything that grumbles or rumbles or pops in a menacing sort of way, like the distant crack of fireworks, turns Bear inside out.

It was during some firework-laden holiday that Bear once again braved the bedroom stairs.

It was late and I was reading in bed. The cats had been particularly annoying the past couple of nights, deciding it was time to wrestle and thunder across the bedroom floor at 3:00 in the morning so, with no door to close as our bedroom is much like an attic room that is entered through a hole in the floor, we positioned a large cardboard box over the hole to keep the cats out.

In the distance we could hear the odd hollow pop of fireworks exploding. There was a pause in which I swear I could feel Bear losing complete grasp on her cool and then I heard the click of her nails as she pushed herself off the couch and paced in the living room below us.

It wasn’t long before the sound changed to a deeper clack of her nails on a different type of wood and I knew Bear was climbing the stairs. She crept slowly up to the bedroom as if in hopes of sneaking in unnoticed.

I sat up in bed and looked to where the box covered the entryway. I could see Bear’s brown eye peering back from the space where the box didn’t quite cover the entire hole.

“Oh, Bear,” I said, trying not to laugh too hard. “Are you scared?”

We slid the box aside and Bear bounded eagerly into the room, panting, probably from stress but also I believe from a sense of relief at not having to face those scary fireworks alone, as in, “Whew, thank goodness. Did you guys hear that?”

I put some blankets on the floor up against my side of the bed, and patted them to show Bear that was her spot. She sat down as I climbed back into bed, then stuck her head under the covers, trying to crawl in beside me.

Our mattress sits on a box spring directly on the floor, so once I got Bear to reluctantly lie down on her blankets, we were just about face-to-face as she craned her neck around and rested her chin on the bed to give me her best heart-melting look.

She tried a few more times to weasel her way into the bed before finally settling down for what would be the one and only night she slept with us in that bedroom. As the sun came up the next day and the fireworks were but a vague memory, Bear was her old, happy, confident self. She seemed quite pleased to have spent the night in our room, where she belonged, and probably wondered why she didn't do that every night. Then, turning to follow us out of the room, her face fell as she experienced what I’m sure was one of those stomach-plummeting “oh yeah” moments.

Being carried down the stairs for a second time was plenty I suppose. Bear has never attempted the bedroom again.