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.