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