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.

1 comment:

  1. You haven't lost your touch for revealing character, Heather. The whimsical tone, the style, and the content quite easily and solidly bring the life of these two rivals to the surface. You open softly somewhat like Murdoch in slouching shadow creeping across the floor. Nice unity between form and content. You talk quietly to him as you slap down colours to give shape to this voracious dog, in particular his shape in the kitchen: "glazed eyes", "nose like a snorkle", "steel-trap jaws". Then, with a light-hearted tone, you turn your brush to Chestnut and in 5 paragraphs of interesting detail this crouching cat appears before us:"stress induced urinary tract infection"; a cat conflicted - stomach vs instinct to prolong life; with Bear, in contrast, he's a champion remora simply awaiting lunch. Wistfully reflecting upon an outbreak of possible tolerance, you, yourself, break the frozen tableau: "Look at you Chestnut". And, the chase is on with a pouncing Murdoch and a fleeing Chestnut merely a "beige streak". I laugh when terrorized Chestnut, so full of surprised alarm at your unexpected betrayal, even takes the time to stab you with an accusing stare. Murdoch, in response to your affectionate retort, comically "swaggers". The telling here, Heather, was perfect: colours rich, tone enjoyably serio-comic. narrative appealing.