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?