Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Found and lost


It’s amazing what you can get used to. I often marvel at things second nature to me now that I once could never have imagined myself doing. I think about this again as I jog awkwardly down my driveway in clomping winter boots slipped hastily onto bare feet, holding my down vest closed with one hand while the other gingerly clasps the detached lower leg of a deer.

An icy wind whips down the road and takes my breath away as I turn my face and cross the short expanse in four long strides to the ravine on the other side. The ground drops sharply away from level here and I pause at the edge, look down through the tree trunks to the serene gray-white scene below. Then I pull my arm back and toss the leg into the trees. I turn away as soon as it has left my hand and I imagine it turning end over end through the air. “I’m really sorry little deer,” I call into the wind.

It is not a well thought out plan I tell myself as I sprint back to the warmth of the house, it won’t be long before one of the dogs finds it again and I’ll be running around looking for a spot to put it. But I couldn’t bring myself to stick it in the freezer to wait until we can take it to the dump.

We live on the edge of a vast tract of Crown land that becomes a major thoroughfare for hunters in the fall, so I have become used to finding deer legs, the bit from the ankle joint to the toe, about the length of my own arm from elbow to wrist. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have stood on the walking trail holding a deer leg over my head with two dogs at my feet eyes turned giddily skywards, bodies rigid beneath tap-dancing paws waiting for me to throw the tasty morsel.

I usually head off the trail into the thick of the forest, leg held aloft, until I find the crook of a tree, just the right height, and then tuck the leg there out of reach, secure it in place while trying not to look too closely at the rich, tawny fur and shiny black hoof that still seem so full of life, and certainly not at the bit where the fur is frayed and the pinkish-white rounded bone of the joint protrudes.

This latest find was sniffed out of the bush by Bear and carried carefully home. I watched her from the window as she swaggered along the road from our neighbours’ place, head held high, tail swishing triumphantly, the stick-like object clamped securely in her mouth. It took me just a second to realize it was a leg.

She placed it gently on the deck before walking casually, innocently, into the house. “Good girl,” I said, and slipped out the door behind her.

Not too long after I return from my mission to the ravine, Bear paces anxiously at the door, throwing looks of deep concern my way. “It’s gone Bear,” I say apologetically and open the door for her to see.

She leaps out on to the deck, ready to scoop up her prize, but stops short of where she’d dropped it, snuffling incredulously around the glaring emptiness. “I know I left it here,” she seems to say with her hunched shoulders and frantic sniffing. I tell her again that it is gone. But she won’t hear it and sets about investigating every square inch of the deck, pressing her nose right up against the hard packed snow, air whooshing noisily in and out, as if she can will the leg to re-appear, reshape it out of nothing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Breaking trail


We could see the curve of the logging road beneath the snow as it rose before us and disappeared to the left behind a stand of trees; an unbroken ribbon of white. Morgan and I trudged along its inside edge where the snow was shallowest, where the wind had skimmed across its surface, carving and shaping the snow up and away to the far side into a half-parabola.

In clomping winter boots we marched uphill pulling behind us what would prove to be inadequate trappings for our maiden firewood collecting expedition. It was our first winter in our new home, our first winter heating with wood. Morgan hauled our homemade firewood sled, an old heavy-duty plastic bin with worn-out downhill skis glued and then bolted to the bottom. Inside rode his chainsaw and an axe. I dragged the metal fridge cart.

Beneath our feet the snow squeaked like blocks of styrofoam rubbing together as the clear biting air gnawed at our cheeks. Bear and Murdoch struck out ahead, a couple of black shapes like solid shadows against the field of untouched white. Bear powered through the polished snow, the muscles of her broad shoulders moving in time with the swish of my snow pant-clad legs. Murdoch, not quite full-grown but long and lanky, swam and leapt through snowdrifts as effortlessly as a fish through water, kicking up sprays of white powder in his wake.

The road in seemed a lot longer on foot than it had when we drove over the hard, packed gravel in the fall, scouting out the broken trees and towering heaps of scrap wood left to wallow in the aftermath of this clear cut. Our plan, once we got permission, was to return and haul out the usable wood to heat our house instead of leaving it to rot in haphazard piles.

When we crested the hill, emerging from the fringe of forest left behind after the big machines had clawed and mawed their way through, we stood for a moment beneath an endless powder-blue sky and contemplated the long, white, formless road ahead. We had assumed there would be trails; long winding snowmobile tracks cutting an easy path over the deepening snow.

Snowshoes would have been an excellent idea, or maybe a dogsled.

But we had come this far, so we pushed on, until we were knee-deep in snow, dragging our tools with great effort. I tried to follow Murdoch as he broke an erratic trail, the fridge cart clattering noisily behind me until it became bogged down. I left it sticking sideways out of a snowdrift. “I’ll get it on the way out,” I said to no one in particular.

The piles of wood we scouted in the fall had disappeared into the landscape, becoming giant mounds of white. So we set our sights on a still-standing tree, a great big birch with broken and withered branches that stood about 20 feet off the road. We waded into snow up to our waists and then swam towards the tree, shoveling armfuls of feather light snow to the side of our trench which quickly filled in behind us.

We spent the better part of the day hauling that tree out one tiny sledfull at a time. Morgan cut and I trudged to and fro up over that curve and around the bend back down to the main road where our vehicle and trailer were parked. By the third trip Bear had staked out a spot in the snow to sit and wait while Murdoch leapt and twirled along beside me, behind me, in front of me. “Why aren’t you pulling this?” I asked as I leaned all my weight against the handle of the sled.

Murdoch didn’t slow down all day, not until we got home did he finally melt in a heap. It was the first time I’d ever seen him truly tired. That night was also the first time in the ten months he’d lived with us that I was able to hug Murdoch as he lay, flattened on the couch by the fire, too exhausted to show the whites of his eyes or even lift the corner of his mouth in his signature snarl.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When Murdoch is good


When Murdoch is a good boy, we can walk in silence. He runs ahead on the trail, becomes a smaller and smaller black dot, then turns where the path disappears around a bend, looks back to see if I am still coming.

If I am stopped, listening to the distant call of a raven or watching a chickadee pick at berries in a tree, he launches himself down the trail, slides to a sloppy stop by my side, and waits. His big round eyes flick from tree to tree, What are we watching?

If I change direction as he blunders on ahead I call “This way Murds,” and turn my back knowing I will hear the calamitous charge of his feet, the whoosh of his breath as he comes up behind and then overtakes me.

When Murdoch is a good boy we play stick in the woods accompanied only by the thunderous rhythm of galloping paws and the hard roar of air tumbling in and out of his lungs. The stick clatters against tree trunks, shakes loose chunks of snow from the canopy that float soundlessly to the ground. Murdoch leaps effortlessly after the stick, brings it back in a big loop. If he loses it I say, “Find it,” and point, then watch his frenzied search as he steps on it again and again before focusing long enough to sniff it out.

When Murdoch is a good boy he sits and waits while I unhook his leash, not daring to move a muscle until I say, “Okay.” Then he explodes to life, his feet flailing about in every direction at once, ears flapping up and down on either side of his head as though he could take flight, his whole body bucking with each galumphing stride into the great unknown.

When Murdoch is a good boy he can rest his head on my leg and I can smooth my hand over his silky ears, watch his eyes un-focus beneath shaggy eyebrows and then plant a quick kiss on his head and inhale his smell. When he flips on his back I scratch that spot on his belly that makes his back leg thump wildly at the air and for a moment he forgets to be invulnerable.

But then he remembers.

When Murdoch is a good boy, it doesn’t last.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Who's in charge here anyway?


There is no good reason to be frustrated today, but I am.

It is Bear’s 11th birthday and I want to take her for a nice walk in the snowy woods. I am looking for a tranquil stroll with my dogs; a postcard moment of their black shapes weaving around tree trunks, in turns illuminated by a sinking golden sun and cast in the cool blue light of reflected white shadow.

But I feel my nerves fray with the snapping and tugging of bare branches picking at my shoulders and toque, the tips of winter-toughened twigs flicking me in the face, the cold wash of snow down the back of my neck as I duck under another beautiful tree laden in winter white finery.

The dogs have charged ahead, Murdoch leaping over downed trees and running zigzags across the trail as if he’s never seen the outdoors. Bear disappears amidst low hanging evergreens and white-blanketed saplings that swallow her up as she finds a path around obstacles. I try to keep them in my sights as I trip and stumble over deadfalls concealed beneath smooth mounds of snow.

I kind of catch up to them in the clearing at the back of our property, I can hear Murdoch crashing around somewhere in the trees. Bear has started walking up a trail that veers to the left and runs parallel to the road, eventually emerging at a sometimes-occupied house on the hill.

“Come on Bear,” I call. “We’re not going that way.” She ignores me. Her nose is stuck to the ground. I sigh. “Bear, Bear, Bear,” I say to her swaying backend as she moves slowly but deliberately away from me. She stops and looks at me. Hmmm? She seems to say, were you talking to me?

“This way Bear,” I call and wave my arm in a big arc. She turns away and continues on her original course. Murdoch appears then, flies past me as though he is being chased, and follows Bear.

“Hey,” I yell in my serious voice. “Bear, Murds, come!” They do, but in a very distracted sort of way.

I feel like I am playing catch up with the dogs as we move along the overgrown trail that runs behind our property. We are strung out like beads being slid along a wire. I find them huddled around something on the ground. They are chewing. I hope it is snow but suspect it is something left behind by a rabbit or a deer. “Come on guys. Leave it,” I yell. “That’s gross.”

They march ahead. I am invisible again. They follow trails I do not see, sparing me the odd glance as I tell them to “stick around” and “don’t go that way”. Our connection is tenuous today and it stretches and thins until we are scattered to the wind. “Come on you two,” I call into the woods, directing my words at their vague shapes poking out from behind brush and trees.

Murdoch disappears twice. I stand and listen for him, then try to hurry Bear through the trees so we can find him. She pokes along at her own pace, weaving around downed trees, distracted by smells. I stomp on dried branches in our path, splintering them under my winter boots. “This way Bear,” I say, becoming exasperated.

We step back into our own woods and I hear a faint jingle in the distance. Murdoch. I can hear him panting and then crashing and thundering. I am out of patience when we assemble again and continue on this expedition that seems to have three very distinct purposes.

Bear snuffles the ground to my left as Murdoch pounces off the trail to my right, honing in on a great big stick emerging from the snow. It is the size of a small tree limb. He swings it towards me. I put out my hands to protect my face, knock the stick away from me with my knee, but somehow my knee finds its way between Murdoch’s jaws as he clamps down a tighter grip on the stick.

“OW!!” I yell, and it echoes through the trees. He drops the stick and looks at me. Bear looks at me.

“That’s enough,” I say and dig Murdoch’s leash out of my pocket. “We’re going back to the house.” Murdoch leaps around me in a big circle at the sight of his leash as if I am taking him for a much better walk than this one.

He surges eagerly ahead on the end of his leash and I walk briskly behind him, desperate to just have a moment of calm. I look back to see Bear scooping the stick into her mouth, Wait guys! Don’t forget this! She trots down the trail to catch up to us. At the house she spits the stick at my feet with a decisive stomp. Murdoch stiffens into his ready-to-dash-in-any-direction pose.

“No,” I say and usher everyone inside.

“Why does it have to be so difficult?” I ask them as I unhook Murdoch’s leash. They have no idea what I’m talking about and as I turn to head back outside to get firewood, they clatter at my heel, determined to follow me. We knew you were only joking, they say.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Snowy morning


I watch from the window as Bear moves through our woods, a solid black shadow against the pure white of fresh snow. She picks her way slowly around gray trunks, becomes partially obscured, following the narrow path that ascends gently away from the house. She carefully investigates every inch of the white ground before her, pushing her nose down into the snow.

I am on the second floor of our house, my hands wrapped around a steaming mug of tea, looking down through the bristling branches of pine trees to follow Bear’s progress. The woods seem more tangible, more open; nooks and crannies well defined by white against not white, illuminated by an almost otherworldly glow. Bear doesn’t know I watch her and somehow I feel closer to her in that moment. And then she disappears into the thick of the forest.

We woke that morning to muted white light whispering softly in through our windows. As the sky turned from deep indigo to pale pink, the treetops visible from the third-floor bedroom windows emerged from night shadow to show us their fresh white cloaks. Until that moment I thought I was happy to not yet have any snow.

The sun, travelling much closer to the horizon now, is a smudge of cold fire behind the trees, tinging the white sky golden pink. Perfect, flat light fills the house with its gentle glow and as the wood stove ticks quietly in the entryway, time slows and the world becomes very still.

For now the snow is just a thin blanket on the ground. It coats pine boughs, outlines bare branches, defines shapes. I am still standing at the window watching the pastel sky seep its colours into the forest when Bear emerges again from the woods on a different trail. She strolls along the gentle curve of the path, stopping occasionally to snuffle at the snow.

It is relaxing to watch her quietly interact with this altered world. She moves purposefully but without hurry. Her hips sway casually with her soft footfalls, leaving a trail of wide paw prints in her wake. I stand at the window, a layer of cold air cushioning the space between me and the glass, and watch until she is directly below me, two stories down. She is cloaked in a swath of white from pushing through the spaces beneath saplings laden with snow.

I meet her at the door with a towel and sweep it the length of her body as she steps inside. The snow is partially melted and refrozen and crunches under my hands. Bear swishes her tail as I give her a quick kiss on the head, brush my hand against her cold ear and inhale the fresh, crisp smell of winter on her fur.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembering Sammy


March 28, 1991 – November 11, 2011

Sam was our family cat for over 20 years. But if you ever asked her she probably would have said, “What family?” Sam was completely devoted to my dad. She barely batted an eye when my sister and I left home, and greeted us with a scowl whenever we returned. My mom maintains that whenever Sammy looked at her all she saw was a tin of food with legs.

My relationship with Sam hit the dirt after the Christmas Bow Incident of 1991 and completely shattered when, years later, I showed up with Bear in tow. But it all started out so well.

The first time I saw Sammy she was three weeks old and tumbling about in a rabble with her brothers and sisters in the middle of a horse barn. I followed my parents and sister past stalls of shuffling horses to an open storage area of solid square wooden beams and warm yellow light and a floor covered in straw.

I remember a crowd of people, of voices and laughter overwhelming the space. By the time my sister and I got to kneel down beside the tiny cats most of them were spoken for. The little black and white kitten with the white spot on her back and the white-tipped tail was destined to be ours.

The barn was so quiet the day we picked her up, three weeks later. My parents and I followed a woman back to that room where the kittens had been. She pulled aside a bin, revealing the mother cat and our black and white kitten curled up together in a ball.

“She’s the last one,” she said and a bolt of sadness stabbed through my heart. How could we take away her last baby? Just look how content they are.

The mother cat stared up at us and then stood and slinked away into the shadows, leaving her kitten behind.

“Where is she going?” I asked.

“She knows you’re here for her kitten,” said the woman.

My stomach dropped as the black and white kitten blinked up at us. I quickly knelt down and plucked her from the floor, bringing her tiny body up to my neck, cradling her in my hands.

My mom named her Samantha on the way home. I sat in the back seat of the car with the kitten beside me in a small cardboard box with a folded towel on the bottom. Sam mewed and peeped and climbed out again and again, so I held my hand down to her in the box to try and keep her in one place, but she scrambled up my arm and sat on my shoulder.

After we tucked her in to her cardboard box that night I sat on my bed and listened to the plaintive cries of the tiny creature who had never been alone before. I flung open my door and in the light that spilled from my room I saw the little black and white kitten standing in the living room. She saw me and ran as fast as she could, launching herself into my arms as I knelt down, rubbing her face against mine, purring so loudly.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Game on


I hefted the wheelbarrow stacked with firewood through the forest, bumping its fat tire up over roots and zigzagging around trees. Somewhere to my left Murdoch thundered past, I could hear him kicking up dirt, crashing over fallen trees, snapping off dead branches as he ran hidden in the shadows; behind me the determined footfalls of Bear, swishing through the leaves.

I stopped to unload the wood near the house and turned to find Bear standing inches away with a stick clamped firmly in her mouth, its stripped length protruding from between her lips like an over-long cigar. When she saw me looking at her she dropped the stick, her eyes brightened and she stomped her feet, squaring her shoulders, and backing up a few steps. Anticipation shivered through her body as she readied herself to dash off in any direction or leap straight up in the air, high enough to clear a small building.

A groaning-whine half-bark escaped her lips as I said “Okay Bear,” in an extra-calm voice, “Just one. But you have to be careful.” Bear often conveniently forgets she has bad knees. “I’ll throw it to you,” I said as I stooped to retrieve the stick from where it lay between us on the leaf-strewn ground and watched as Bear’s eyes widened, her feet stomped faster and the words I’d said bounced unheeded off her forehead.

I tossed the stick gently to her across the three-foot gap between us and she threw her front legs up in the air in a half-jump that was completely unnecessary. She snapped her jaws shut around the stick with a decisive splintering crack and then proceeded to shake her head as though she had just caught that cheeky red squirrel that chitters at her from somewhere in the pine tree by the driveway. She paraded in a circle as I finished unloading the wood.

Bear fell into step behind me again as I returned on the path through the trees to round up more wood. The empty wheelbarrow clattered and banged noisily over rocks and roots, drowning out the sounds of Bear’s feet behind me.

When we stopped, there was a moment of silent peace before Murdoch burst onto the scene like a superhero running late for the big rescue, chest puffed out, eyes ablaze as he caught sight of Bear dancing around with her stick. He cast about the forest floor and then leapt forward, dragging out from beneath the leaf litter a stick that was twice the size of Bear’s.

Bear’s jaw dropped, releasing her stick, and she sashayed over to where I stood as I took the bigger stick from Murdoch and tried to find a straight path through the trees where I could throw it.

I wound up and glanced down at the two black dogs with identical expressions of unbridled excitement plastered across their faces. “No Bear,” I said firmly. “Where’s your stick?” I pointed in the direction of her stick as I released Murdoch’s. It arced up overhead into the trees, hit some dead branches and dropped like a stone to the ground about five feet away.

Murdoch leapt and pounced and flowed around trees on the line the stick should have taken. He was a good twenty feet away when he turned at the sound of it hitting the ground and came bounding back over deadfalls and tiny saplings.

But Bear, who watched the whole thing unfold, bolted forward the minute it landed and scooped it up in her mouth just as Murdoch arrived. She turned her back sharply to him and trotted away as Murdoch grabbed the end of the stick.

Bear stormed forward, trying to wrench the stick away from Murdoch. A guttural snarling growl, hearkening back to her wild ancestors, rolled up from somewhere deep inside her and I had a flash of a fur-flying battle, white teeth bared, talon-like claws unsheathed.

But it never happened.

Murdoch let go. He actually listened to her and stood staring at me as if to say, “Well, now what am I supposed to do?” I returned his stare with a shrug as Bear trotted off the trail, propped the stick up on end against one front paw and stood chewing on the other end, spitting out chunks of wood with a certain triumphant vigour.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Max on the brain


Autumn reminds me of Max.

He is there in the way sun filters through the thinning canopy overhead, muted and golden, catching hints of rich browns and fine details in the trunks of poplars and firs, the pale cream on the underside of peeling birch bark.

He is in the crispness of the air; a memory of fresh, burnt autumn smells clinging to the thick mane about his neck and the warmth of his fur against my face.

I follow the narrow trail through our forest and he is there in the caramels and toffees of the leaves strewn about my feet. It is in this autumn forest that he could blend in, disappear and become larger than life at the same time.

Wood smoke drifts through the trees, a white ghostly presence shaping and reshaping itself, dispersing amongst the branches. It smells like the passage of time and I see Max curled up by the brilliant orange fire tumbling against the glass of the woodstove.

He is in the rustle of leaves, the rasp of dried marsh grasses, the breathy sweep of a raven’s wing. He is in the dazzling blue of a clear sky and the heavy gray of rolling clouds. He is in the silvery droplets of water gathered on golden leaves and the sparkling frosts of early morning.

Max is everywhere, always, but in this Max-coloured autumn landscape, I see his face in everything, his kind eyes returning my stare from behind trees and amidst piles of browning leaves. Sometimes I can even imagine the squeak and trundle of his wheels behind me; the determined plod of his wide front paws defining his own path through the woods.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Defiant? Me? Never


We stood in an alcove of trees, Murdoch and I, just off the trail and listened to the low rumble of idling engines, the rabble of voices raised slightly to be heard over the din. I held Murdoch’s leash tightly in one hand, his collar in the other as he cocked his head towards the noise.

“Murdoch, sit,” I said, trying to sound casual, even though he knew what was coming and the time for being casual was already past. He sat stiffly.

I waited and looked across the sodden path to the trees that straggled at the edge of the forest and gave way to the view of low mountains in the distance. The sky, gunmetal gray and heavy, hung low overhead, absorbing light from the landscape so the mountains and trees looked like cardboard cutouts painted black.

The voices quit and the engines revved and I braced myself as the first ATV trundled into view around the corner. I smiled and nodded as I jerked the leash and tightened my hold on the collar to keep Murdoch from leaping forward. “No, it’s fine,” I said in response to apologies from the people riding past, as though they were the ones with the crazy dog.

There were four of them and for each one that drove by Murdoch lunged and bucked and reared up, his wiry frame becoming one corded muscle, completely overtaking his brain. And yet, I managed to hold my ground, instill some sense of control in the chaos. It was going to be okay, I thought, and then the other dog appeared around the corner and time stopped.

It was an almost imperceptible pause, a hiccup in which the very air ceased to be when Murdoch’s energy changed shape and the two dogs locked eyes. In the silence of that moment there was just one leaden thought in my head: “Oh crap.”

I swear I saw the same thought flit across the other dogs face and as time resumed, his spirited skip faltered and, with head slightly bowed he changed direction to run on the other side of the trailing ATV.

Murdoch bolted forward yanking me with him, his power somehow doubled, shrugging me off as though I were a bothersome fly, as if his bucking and leaping of moments before was just a silly game for my amusement.

I dug in my heels and leaned back against this surge. “Hey!” I yelled just before my feet slipped out beneath me and I was on the ground. I wrapped my hands around his collar and he hauled me sideways through the grass as he inched closer to the trail with each lunging stride.

The dog had already slipped away, disappearing around the far side of the group and as the last ATV putted out of view, the raw engine sounds becoming one low rumble in the distance, Murdoch stopped pulling.

Just as quickly as his energy exploded, it dissipated and as I picked myself up from the ground, gritting my teeth in frustration, embarrassment and anger clashing furiously in my chest, Murdoch casually cast his eyes about the woods as if to say, “Well that was fun, now what are we going to do?”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Water logged


When Murdoch is wet he is all jaw. His hair, normally shaggy and wind-blown, clings to his body, sleek and shiny. His long legs become toothpick skinny and even his feet, which seem huge when he’s dry, are bony; the usually frazzled hair, now sodden and heavy, defines each toe.

This past summer Murdoch lived in the swimming hole. Every day he dashed down the bank and waited in the shallows, water up to his knees, for me to throw a stick so he could plunge in, sending up white cascades of water. If the swimming hole did not freeze in the winter, I am sure he would paddle through it, steam rising from his fur, while snowflakes drifted down and melted into the black water around his head.

But in the late days of September beneath blue skies and the summer heat of a fast moving autumn sun, winter seems months away and Murdoch splashes enthusiastically around the pond, snatching up ripples in his mouth on his way to retrieve the stick.

He emerges from the water, bounds up the path and appears at the top of the slippery slope streaming water behind him from a rat-thin tail while it sheets off his sides. He drops the stick and stands for a moment, stares at me, contemplating my next move. Is it worth it to shake off before turning again for another cannonball into the pond?

I hesitate a moment too long and as I step forward I barely notice the cock of his head before water is flying from his fur, corkscrewing down his body as his lips wobble, his ears flap and his backend shivers down to his tail. His hair stands off his body as if electrified and I am soaked.

“Thanks,” I say as he stomps his feet in anticipation, eyeing up the stick in my hand. I let it fly up over his head to splash again into the water and he turns, kicking up mud as he leaps down the hill after it, water sloshing in his belly.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Encroaching storm


Chestnut scurries through the kitchen, his belly mere millimeters from the floor as though his legs have vanished and his body now rests solely on his feet.

It must be serious, this lowering sky.

Wind has surged around the house all day, but it gusts now and the trees outside my window bow violently to one another. Chestnut squeezes himself in behind the bathroom vanity; his “safe room” when disaster seems imminent.

I cringe too when the wind blows this hard, when the trees bend more deeply than seems natural and their branches whip aggressively, erratically at the sky. They are like little boats tossed about on a vast squalling sea. I wait for the splintering sounds, the loud cracks and the hollow crashes of falling trees. I cross my fingers against the storm.

The power goes out as rain clatters on the roof and I watch twilight fall four hours too early. Through the trees the sky glows an eerie yellow, a light too heavy to travel. It falls dead outside the window.

Bear stretches out on the kitchen floor, a dark shape blending with the other dark shapes in the room beneath a tinny light that casts no shadows. I wait for her to panic, but she seems quite unconcerned by the descending storm today, even as thunder circles overhead.

In the entryway Murdoch sprawls on his blanket while Cleo snoozes on top of his kennel. Chestnut is the alarmist of the group, cowering somewhere behind the wall, expecting us all to blow away in the storm.

I contemplate lighting candles against this false twilight, but decide against it for now. Instead I lie down on the floor beside Bear, curl myself around her, my body following the shape of her back. The hair on her head tickles my nose and I drape my arm over her shoulder.

I close my eyes and breathe in Bear’s smell. Her muscles twitch as she relaxes, drifting away while thunder rolls heavily in the clouds around the house. I listen as her breathing gets slower and deeper until it becomes a low rumbling snore. On the wall the clock ticks loudly. Rain clatters on the roof.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Where oh where?


I walk up the trail for the third time today. I yell Murdoch’s name over and over but the wind that whips through the trees grabs the words as they leave my mouth, shatters them into a million pieces and drops them at my feet.

Murdoch has been gone almost three hours. He and Jack disappeared within minutes of starting out on the trail. He tensed, leapt forward around a tree, and was gone, crashing after something through the bush. Jack returned later, showing up at his house, but Murdoch wasn’t with him.

I am not worried for some reason. It is not like the day Quincy disappeared when I was overcome with an empty feeling of loss as I watched his retreating form. Today I felt sure I would see Murdoch again even as my mind tried to play out scenarios of me walking the hills for weeks to come looking for any sign of him.

I thought perhaps I should feel worried. At least I should feel something more than hot and tired and sticky after traipsing the trail again and again beneath a sun that arrived late to the day.

In thinking that I should feel worried my brain started imagining reasons why he wasn’t returning. He was lost and would wander aimlessly until the wolves got him, or until he stumbled on to a road somewhere. I imagined someone picking him up, helping the poor lost dog, and him eating his rescuer the minute he got in their car.

He was injured, he’d broken a leg or a tree fell on him. I could hear trees crashing over in the woods beneath the gusting winds and imagined him pinned, wondering when help would arrive. Where would I even start looking? The woods suddenly seemed endless and so vast; he really could be anywhere. I pictured him dragging his poor broken body through the forest trying to get home like those dogs who follow their owners from one side of a country to another after getting lost and finding their way home.

I finally turned again and headed back down the trail. Jack had shown up at his house, I figured Murdoch must be close to home somewhere, I would go back and wait for a while and then head out for another search. I imagined a candle light vigil.

“Murds!!” I called again and again, more sporadically now as I had already covered this ground. I looked into the dark shadows of the woods on either side of the trail and wished I was a tracker, how many signs was I missing?

I returned to the road, stopped, called his name thinly into the wind, watched the trees shake their leaves crazily overhead as though the forest was thumbing its nose at me.

I glanced over my shoulder at the empty trail and started walking again towards home. I considered cutting through my neigbours’ woods, maybe he was poking around in there not so far behind Jack after all.

I turned back to look again and there he was, running up behind me as though he had been gone all but five minutes. I had no idea which direction he’d come from but the relief I felt was not the way I had imagined it. I had pictured this reunion after my other scenarios of despair.

Murdoch would drag himself towards me, exhausted after hours of running lost in the woods, I would fall to my knees and he would collapse against me, I wouldn’t care how much he smelled like whatever he’d rolled in because I would be just so happy to see him again, so relieved he was alive and he would be grateful that I was out there searching for him, I hadn’t given up on him and he would realize how good he had it. I would hug him and he would limp along home beside me.

What really happened was a watered-down relief on my part, more to the point that I wouldn’t have to walk the trail yet again that day and he stood beside me distracted by the sunshine in the trees, restless to be running again. Seeing me was more like a pleasant visit with someone he thought he might bump in to on his walk but wouldn’t have been too bothered if he hadn’t.

I clipped on his leash, asked him where he’d been – he was conspicuously clean and fresh smelling – and turned towards home, desperate for a drink of water. Murdoch started walking in the opposite direction. I tugged the leash and he took two steps in my direction and then veered to the left to check out a smell in the grass. All mushy feelings I’d had about the dog were gone. I was tired of being jerked around on the end of the leash and was so disappointed he wasn’t even remotely tired.

I tugged again and he reluctantly walked behind me but kept throwing glances back over his shoulder. I think he wanted to go swimming and then chase sticks, which had become our routine lately, but I was tired of being in the sun and I just wanted to go home. He dragged his feet behind me, already plotting his next big excursion, realizing that returning to me means going home, which just isn’t any fun at all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Treasure hunter


Muted light from an overcast sky trickles through the trees. I stand on the deck waiting for Bear and watch leaves drift slowly to the ground through still air already carrying the rich smells of autumn.

Bear emerges from the trail. Her black shape sways casually against the glowing backdrop of a yellowing forest. She stops briefly in front of Murdoch before angling sharply to the right, skirting around the limits of his line.

I watch as she picks her way through undergrowth awash in hues of pale greens and deepening yellows. I lose sight of her for a moment behind the dark trunks of trees. But I can see by the way she moves, how she carries her head, that she’s hiding something. I call to her and she turns in the opposite direction throwing me a quick suspicious glance. Her cheek bulges on one side.

“What did you find Bear?” I ask as she spits out whatever it is into a small drift of leaves. It can’t be a bone, I think to myself as I step inside and slip on my boots, Murdoch would have been all over her.

I find Bear trying to roll a black shiny object about the size of a golf ball under the edge of the ground-level deck beneath our kitchen windows. It’s been a long while since Bear has attempted to bury any treasure. She used to do it all the time.

Bear would tiptoe around the house, head down, trying to conceal the toy or bone she carried in her mouth, and search out a safe hiding place. She bustled from room to room throwing glances over her shoulder every few seconds, convinced we were following her every step. Inevitably she would tuck the object in the folds of a sweater dropped on the floor or under a blanket or behind a chair and then lie down not more than five feet away and try to act like she wasn’t guarding something.

If we so much as glanced in the general direction of where she “hid” her treasure, she would snap to her feet, roughly uncover the object, and storm off in a huff in search of an even better spot; usually under a pillow on the bed or behind a potted plant. Eventually we would have to take the object away so she could relax and stop obsessing.

“Bear, what is that?” I ask again as I walk towards her. She stops trying to roll it under the deck, scoops it up in her mouth and slowly begins to inch away when I reach her side. Bear looks past me as nonchalantly as she can, unable to make direct eye contact. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she seems to say around the bulge in her cheek. I reach out and lift up the edge of her lip with my finger.

“That’s the tip from Morgan’s cane!” I say. “Where did you find that?” Bear wags her tail and wanders over to the trees to lie down with her prize. The fat rubber end from Morgan’s cane was lost in the woods beneath a thick blanket of snow last winter during a firewood-scouting expedition.

It always amazes me what lost objects Bear uncovers that the woods have swallowed. Just last month she found a ball that disappeared two years ago. She came wandering out of the woods with it clutched between her teeth as though she had known where it was the whole time. She probably did.

I kneel down beside Bear as she lovingly noses her latest find. She won’t tell me where she found it; she never does even though I always ask. Instead, she plucks it up with her teeth and chews on it thoughtfully as her tail thuds against the ground, disturbing a scatter of leaves.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Car ride


Bear parades down the pathway, her tail swishing triumphantly, eyes bright, brimming with excitement, focused on the dusty car in the driveway.

She throws a glance over her shoulder to make sure I am still following, that we really are going out together in the car and this isn’t some cruel joke. When she sees me, she tosses her head with a grin and skips a couple of steps onward as if anticipation is bubbling from the very soles of her feet. I watch her knees and wince as we both stumble down the long path from our house to the driveway. It is defined by a curving line of smallish rounded rocks, not quite as smooth as if they had been plucked from the bed of a river, but just about. They are not good stones for a pathway.

“Relax Bear,” I try to tell her, but hearing her name she gallops on and then stomps and dances in the driveway.

When I reach her side she surges forward, her back end swings wildly from side to side and she cranes her neck to try and look in the window of the car. She is too polite to put her paws on the door and peek over the lip, but if she were able she would open the door herself and probably already have the car backed out on to the road.

I swing the door wide and Bear takes a running jump to help her creaky knees hoist her up on to the seat. Then she sits, her tongue hanging long and pink out one side of her mouth as I roll down the window a bit so she can feel the wind on her face and smell all the interesting smells of the world rushing past.

Bear is an expert passenger now, having spent countless hours in the back seat of our old car, trundling over back roads through tiny towns halfway across Canada and back again. But I remember the first time I ever had Bear in the car with me. She was two years old and I picked her up from Morgan’s house to take her for a long walk at a conservation area slipped in between fields of corn in southwestern Ontario, a small forest amidst a sea of farmland.

That day she leapt onto the front passenger seat and sat tall and proud as I pulled the car out of the driveway. We turned right and then right again and the car bumped onto the dirt road out of town. Giant corn stalks marched along either side, hemming us in as though we drove through the thick of a forest. The late afternoon sun hung low in the sky before us, silhouetting the corn stalks ahead and making the ones that lined the road shine a brilliant golden green.

Bear perched eagerly on the edge of her seat, anticipating grand adventure. I was so excited to have her with me I kept running my hand over her fur and throwing giddy glances in her direction.

It was all very "Norman Rockwell" until a plume of dust bloomed ahead as a truck pulled on to the road. I squinted to make out the shape of the vehicle lost in the backlit dust cloud and it took me a moment to realize Bear was no longer sitting beside me. When next I glanced in Bear’s direction, her bum was where her head had been, tail tucked firmly between her legs, and her head had disappeared in the shadows of the foot well as she tried to dive to safety.

I watched in bewilderment as she wiggled and pushed and jammed her muscular 80 lb body in to the small space between the seat and dashboard. By the time she got herself situated, curled in a tight ball that filled the entire foot well, the truck was long gone. She looked up at me with bugged-out eyes as if to ask, “Did you see that?!” and then tried to slither awkwardly over the console and put her head in my lap.

Bear has faced down much bigger beasts on wheels since that day and now acknowledges passing vehicles with barely a bat of an eyelid. In fact after about five minutes on the road, Bear is already bored. With a couple of loudly inhaled nosefuls of air, Bear sighs deeply and then settles down on the back seat with a grumble that sounds very much like “are we there yet?”

Monday, September 5, 2011

Jack of the wild wood


“He strides across the land, his golden coat glistening in the sun, his tail a proudly waving flag. With each step the ground trembles beneath giant paws tipped with claws of steel. These woods are his; from the flat open lands of scrub and new-growth trees to the pungent swamps to the towering trees that travel up the side of mountains and run along their peaks.

“Jack knows every inch of this land, becoming almost invisible when he needs to, slipping through the woods like a ghost, catcher of rabbits and chaser of foxes. He leaps downed trees with a single bound and scales gray trunks to scan the treetops. Squirrels don’t dare to tread where Jack has been. They scurry silently away beneath underbrush, but nothing escapes Jack’s sharp ears, his powerful nose.

“Deer cannot outrun him. Bears refuse to lumber across his path. Song birds and ravens scramble to safety amongst a flurry of wings and eagles wheel away from him against endless blue skies. One snarl and flash of his gleaming white teeth and the forest falls silent, his presence fills the spaces and his bark shakes the leaves on the trees.

“Locusts swarm down the path in front of him and he scoops them up in his mouth with one fell swoop. Snap. Crunch. And he continues along the sun-bleached dirt trail, strutting over rock, swishing amongst the grasses and wading through swamp.

“Wearing a clever camouflage of cold gray mud, his fierce brown eyes peer out from a face streaked with white and black and miss nothing as he stalks the woods. He surveys his domain, challenging anyone, anything, to get in his way. Jack, the conqueror of the forest, holding sway over all the beasts, none dare enter his woods, he is a legend in these parts, a bold warrior, a…”

“Jack!” The booming voice stops him in his tracks. “Go Home!”

Silence.

“Thwarted again by his arch nemesis The Neighbour, the hero turns slowly, head down, tail lowered, and tiptoes away. He moves like smoke on the wind, disappearing amongst the trees as though he never existed. The Neighbour will soon forget he saw him and once again Jack will stalk these woods, his woods, where none are safe from his piercing eyes, his kingly roar.”

Monday, August 29, 2011

Caper in the woods


Jack and Murdoch traipse ahead on the trail as we return from our walk. We move slowly through the cool shade after a long trek over sun-drenched land with barely a breath of wind. I look ahead to the dirt road for signs of vehicles. It is a white line in the glaring sun rising up and away from the green grasses of the trail.

We are still a distance from the road when the fox appears at the trailhead. It skips into view as though it hasn’t a care in the world and at first I think it is a cat out for a romp in the wild. But then I notice its gangly legs and large ears and the way its tawny coat glows golden in the sun.

“Murdoch come,” I call as I watch the fox bounce sideways with its long bushy tail streaming behind it, poking its pointy nose leisurely into the raspberry bushes that line the trail.

The dogs don’t see the fox and return to my side as though they are truly obedient. I hook Murdoch to his leash, talking loudly and stomping my feet trying to alert the fox to our presence, give it a fair chance to escape. It frolics along the edge of the trail and I wonder if it is just young, unaware that it should be mistrustful of strange creatures. When it looks up, it pauses mid-skip, then begins walking towards us before it finally turns and runs back the way it came, disappearing into the woods.

At the spot where the fox has played in the shadow of the raspberry bushes Jack and Murdoch are seized by missed opportunity. They dart about the trail, frenzied and erratic yet focused, sniffing loudly and I wonder what a fox’s footprints smell like.

We stop at the swimming hole and I convince myself Murdoch is distracted enough by the stick I wave in front of his face that I let him off his leash. He plunges into the water after the stick, shattering the still surface of the pond. Then he is leaping up the steep slope and running past me, a soggy black blur streaming water behind him. I call after his retreating form as he bolts up the road and watch, deflated, as he veers sharply into the bush.

Across the road from our usual walking trail, there are other pathways into the woods, overgrown and forgotten. I stand up to my knees in weeds as the dogs flash past, half-seen like ghosts, around gray trunks and through rustling green foliage. I shout their names to the trees, then wait and get nothing but silence in return.

I pick my way back to the road and begin reluctantly to walk towards home, Murdoch’s empty leash clutched in my hand. It would be ridiculous to try and follow the dogs through the thick of the bush, I decide, but perhaps I could head them off if I join the trail that snakes through the woods of my neighbours’ property. It is a favourite route of Jack’s and I have found the dogs wandering there in the past.

I throw glances over my shoulder at the empty road as I march onward, the walking trail shrinking to a small point in the near distance. Each time I hope to look back and see Murdoch’s tiny black shape. With every step my stomach drops a bit more as I imagine him emerging from the woods in pursuit of passing cars or ATVs or bicycles.

I slip around the great metal gate that marks an entrance from the road into my neighbours’ forest. Not too far in a tangle of trees lies across the trail, marking the path of the violent windstorm that tore through our forest last summer. I tie the leash around my waist and am about to hoist myself up unto the first trunk to scale this wall of horizontal trees when I hear thundering footfalls.

I turn just as Murdoch comes flying around the corner. He is panting heavily, a great wide smile on his face. His sides heave in and out furiously and I think his lungs might burst as I clip on his leash and rest my hand on his head.

For a moment I am speechless, imagining him running down the road, a black figure against the bleached dirt, sending up plumes of dust behind him as he pounded the gravel, following my scent, choosing me over the fox. But in the afterglow of my brief flare of ego I realize it is far more likely that he lost Jack on the trail, had no idea where the fox went and decided the human, plodding in mostly straight lines, would be much easier to find.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Joyful spirits



A pair of hummingbirds visits my garden every day. They show up around the same time each morning when the sun moves across the gap in the canopy of trees that opens the forest floor to the sky. The lilies glow orange and the bee balm flashes rich fuscia and the hummingbirds shimmer green.

I watch from the window as they dart about from bloom to bloom and hover in place. Their bodies dip and dive and flick like fish swimming against a current.

One perches on the auburn center of a freshly opened coneflower and slides its beak along each pale pink petal as though drinking beads of dew. The other sits weightlessly on one of the skinny leaves that ladder up the tall slim stem of a bee balm flower while it sips nectar from another.

Their movements are otherworldly. They are tiny joyful garden spirits; their wings whir about them, smudges of the softest brown. Flowers sway gently at the touch of needle beaks, while the greenery below rustles turbulently and flattens beneath the wash of their wings, like tiny helicopters coming in to land. Soon they are dashing off again into the woods after an occasional peek in at the window.

I am standing amidst the flowers one day taking pictures of the orange wild lilies that hang upside down and curl their petals almost completely around themselves when I hear the deep drone of the hummingbird’s wings. She appears beside me, two feet away. I hold my breath and watch as her long, thin beak disappears into the fluted pink crown of the waning bee balm.

I barely dare to move, angling my camera as best I can. I am granted one picture before she darts up and stares me in the eye for a moment. I can feel the gentle wind from her wings before she zips away amongst the trees and blends in with the leaves.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Forest garden



Our house sits in the midst of a forest. Trees stalk up to the windows, shielding it from the heat of the sun. In one spot the roofline dips in, accommodating the straight gray trunk of a poplar tree.

In the summertime when the trees are rustling with leaves and the wild flowers and leafy undergrowth fill in spaces between roughened trunks, the house becomes almost obscured from the road.

By July, the forest floor is a riot of green. Plants grow at a calamitous rate beneath the trees, climbing and clinging and rolling across the ground like a great wave. This year we let it tumble right to our door.

Our decision not to cut back the wild plants around the house this year, to give the forest its head so to speak, was part laziness and part curiosity. What would happen, we wondered, if we let this greenery go without checking it, without snipping or clipping or interfering?

Where the tree cover is thinner just off our driveway, flowers grew this year over six feet tall with giant spiky leaves and great white heads that tracked the sun through the trees. Thistles with bright purple tops and thorns the length of darning needles stretched just as tall. Winding their way through it all were monstrous daisies and determined buttercups.

Just off our front deck Bear disappears daily beneath leaves that grow the size of dinner plates. I once thought these plants were a type of wild rhubarb, until they grew to five feet tall and flowered with spiny purple-tufted globes and then I recognized them as the burdocks that always get stuck to Bear’s tail.

Obscured by the leaves, Bear’s black shape winds through this forest in miniature and then stops. I can hear her digging through the debris of brown leaves, pine needles and choked-out grasses, shuffling them this way and that as though she is looking for something.

“What are you doing Bear?” I ask. She peers up at me from under the ruffled edge of a giant leaf and then resumes her search.

I watch her reach out with first her left paw, dragging clear a swath of forest floor, and then with her right before she dips her head and carefully picks up a stick in her teeth. She settles down under the leafy canopy to shred her latest find. The snapping and splintering sounds of wood being torn to bits mingle with the low buzz of bees floating busily from one flowering plant to another.

In mid-August the burdocks are bending precariously towards the ground and we’re feeling hemmed in now, overwhelmed by these plants. But I can’t cut them down until the bees are done. They are still heavy with flowers; just starting to brown, while thistles are turning to seed and sending out fluffy white wishes on the wind.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My nose doesn't lie




The clattering sounds of breakfast fill the house. Dishes clank and shuffle across the linoleum floor, kibble crunches between teeth, tongues lap noisily around bowls already licked clean, searching out every last crumb.

Murdoch is a power-eater. He hoovers up the food in his dish as if challenging some kind of time record, then scoops up his food ball in giant jaws and disappears with it into his kennel. Bear trolls the area, padding quietly, looking for any dropped morsels. She swipes her tongue around Murdoch’s empty bowl in case he left something behind.

Satisfied for the moment, Bear settles onto her bed with a grumble and watches as Murdoch bangs about in his kennel, extricating the rest of his breakfast from the bright orange ball. Kibble rattles and tumbles about inside as he rolls it around with his paw.

It is supposed to keep him busy for a while, solving this puzzle. But it isn’t really a challenge any more. He has become so adept with the ball, one turn to the right, two back, another to the left, and food pops out of the hole, is instantly inhaled. I’m sure he doesn’t even taste it.

Morning sunlight filters through the trees and seeps gently into the kitchen as the feeding frenzy in the entryway ends. It is quiet but for the ticking of the clock and I pour steaming tea into my cup.

A few minutes pass before I hear a rustle and then click, click of claws and Bear appears at the bottom of the stairs, fixing her gaze on me, something very important on her mind.

“What is it Bear?” I ask. “Do you need to go out?”

She backs up eagerly as I descend the stairs but instead of turning towards the door to go outside, she marches over to Murdoch’s kennel and looks back over her shoulder at me.

“What is it?” I ask again, though I already know. “Show me."
She stomps her foot on the floor beside the kennel and turns her head abruptly to look at me again, her ears swishing about her face.

“Bear, I don’t see anything.” She steps forward and stomps her foot again, more forcefully this time, more insistent as if to say, “Right here! Can't you smell it?”

Murdoch emerges with great urgency from his kennel and appears behind Bear, scanning the floor. He knows Bear is almost always right, so there must be something.

I crouch down and peer along the edge of the kennel. There is nothing there, but I know pieces of kibble have somehow slipped beneath the blankets, wiggled under the metal tray to become lost between the thin metal bars that make up the very base of the kennel.

I sigh and look at Bear. Her brown eyes stare deliberately into mine, her brow wrinkles, she stands with her shoulders square and her tail wags faster.

“Really Bear?” I ask. She stomps her front feet again: one, two. I know Bear will not rest until the food is retrieved.

With the dogs poised on either side of me each ready to be the first to rush in and scoop up anything they find, I lift up the back end of the kennel and slide it forward along the floor. Bear and Murdoch descend like vultures, plucking up the few lost pieces of kibble, then snuffle around in a race to find more. But that’s it, it’s over before it’s barely begun and I shove the kennel back into place as the dogs walk backwards, noses stuck to the leading edge, sure there must be more than that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When a tree falls


On the walking trail, I let Murdoch off his leash and he runs ahead, his black shape disappears in the grasses that grow tall down the center of the path and along its edges. His tail becomes a flag to let me know where he is. I listen too; focus on the sound of his movements. Once out of sight I am sometimes able to tell where he is by rustling grasses, crashing underbrush, thundering feet over packed dirt.

This trail we walk every day used to be a logging road. In some spots it is still wide enough for a large truck to rumble through but mostly grasses and weeds have grown over the path, reclaiming the gray patches of exposed earth. Where grasses don’t grow, the ground is dried out by mid-summer, pale beige beneath the bright sky and zigzagged with cracks.

There is still some forest left, areas thick with trees and cooling shade, but in the spaces between are large tracts of land that were once plucked almost clean. These areas are filling in again with tiny trees and underbrush gone wild in an endless bath of sunshine.

I catch up to Murdoch when he stops to drink from a mud puddle on the edge of a slice of forest. The land opens up here, becomes a tumble of underbrush that rushes away towards the distant hills patchworked with green foliage. Odd trees still dot the landscape; they stand around like forgotten children on an empty train station platform. These remnants of what came before look a little lost, a little out of place. They are thin and tall, balsam mostly, with bottlebrush tops, broken and wind-worn. They seem brittle to me, sickly. I can’t believe they are still standing, these stragglers, but they sway in the wind and endure.

Murdoch trots ahead again and I am struck by the silence. Something has changed here. I walk slowly along the path, scan the landscape, and then I see it. A tree has fallen. Where once two trees stood, side-by-side, there is now only one.

I always heard those trees before I saw them, creaking and squeaking across the open space. They stood maybe an arm-span apart at their bases and leaned in to each other until they almost entwined near the top. Long yellow gashes stretched about a third of the way down each trunk where the bark had worn away. It always struck me as kind of funny that these two trees stood right on top of each other when there was such an expanse around them and I wondered if they were fighting for space or holding each other up.

I stop and look at the empty spot where that spindly tree stood. The tangled underbrush has swallowed it up and it is as though that tree has just ceased to exist. The sky looks bigger. A breeze rustles across the waist-high brush, perhaps the remaining tree sways, but I can’t tell, the creaking conversation is glaringly absent, and the landscape is completely changed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cleofatra and the baby gate revisited


When Morgan brought home the box of kittens, almost six years ago now, Cleo was the second smallest of the bunch. She fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, a tiny ball of fluff with big green eyes peering out of her classically beautiful feline face.

Her features are still rather delicate, her paws dainty, her tail not overly long. Above her little face, framed by luxuriant white whiskers that catch the sun just so, perch her ears, two small triangles. I think she would be quite a petite cat today if she had not settled so easily into the pampered life of a housecat, expanding ever outward, becoming rounder and rounder.

Sitting in the kitchen I hear a quiet creak and gentle rattle of wood on wood and glance over at the baby gate at the top of the stairs, put there to keep Murdoch from bolting up from the entryway every five minutes to wreak havoc on the rest of the house. It is attached to the wall with hinges so it can be opened and closed like a door.

Cleo’s head and shoulders are framed by the square hole in the gate that is there for the purpose of cat thoroughfare. One little white paw rests on the bottom edge of the hole, behind it, Cleo’s face is set in determination as she pulls on the gate, trying to open it enough to slip under and emerge into the kitchen.

She began avoiding the hole after that day she got stuck halfway through and the gate began to open as she scrabbled at the kitchen floor with her front paws. It swung out over the stairs and she was left hanging there for a moment, folded in half, before she finally slithered through and walked up the stairs as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all.

Cleo will still use the hole if she has to, squeezing herself through slowly, careful not to be too bargey and risk repeating that embarrassing predicament. But when she can, she prefers to use the gate like a door, swinging it open on its hinges dramatically as if to make a grand statement of, “I’m a cat and no gate will stop me!”

I sit at the kitchen table and watch as she tugs on the gate with a little more force. When it doesn’t open I swear I see a look of disappointment cross her face. “Oh man, it’s locked.” Followed by resolved determination. “Okay, I’m going through.” I imagine I hear a sigh of resignation and then I take pity on her. I move to get up and Cleo’s eyes focus on me, suddenly brighter with a hint of relief. And she waits.

I swing the gate open for her. It squeaks on its hinges and she has to duck underneath as it floats over the top of her head where she sits on the first step down. Then she snakes underneath, tiptoeing quietly into the kitchen.

After a stiff-legged tour of the room followed by a quick stretch in a patch of sun, Cleo returns to the stairs. She throws open the gate so it bangs against the wall and stomps back down to the entryway.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Flowers and smelly dogs


The world is green and blue. Foliage encroaches on the trail. Buttercups on spindly geometric stems spill on to the path with daisies and softer, five-petaled white flowers I haven’t identified. Ahead, beneath the clear sky of vibrant blue, Murdoch and his Rottweiler friend weave in and out of the tall grasses that march down the center of the trail. I mosey behind, keeping an eye on their wagging tails.

Beyond the shade of forest patches still standing amongst the re-growth of a clear-cut the wild plants grow faster and bigger, everything is more abundant and the flowers tumble right across the trail. I stop to watch two electric blue bugs, like mini dragonflies, each thinner than a toothpick, hovering amongst the buttercups. Mesmerized, I lean closer but they are so delicate I can’t hear the sound they make or see their wings until they land on a blade of grass. For a moment it was like some magical crossover from another world to this one and when I look up, the dogs are gone.

I know where they are headed, so I continue along the trail, walking faster, calling and listening.

I reach the spot where the ground curves up away from the trail, becomes a berm that is almost at eye level but obscured by the abundant undergrowth. On the other side of the berm is a great, wide pond. I hear splashing and call again. The splashing seems to be getting farther away.

I hesitate for a moment, think of ticks, before plunging in to the waist-high foliage. I climb the steep, but short embankment and emerge atop the lip of the half-bowl that encloses the pond. On the other side I see two small black shapes trudging out from the weedy water.

“Come on you guys!” I yell, hoping to get their attention before something else does. They almost vanish behind a green veil of waving grasses; I can just make out vague dark shapes when their heads appear and look my way, a pair of pink tongues hanging askew. “Let’s go!” I yell.

They skirt part of the pond, which has become a large obsidian disc reflecting tops of trees upside down on its surface. Murdoch wades in up to his shoulders sending gentle black ripples across to where I stand. He looks as though he is preparing to swim across and for a moment I am happy he is listening to me and then I remember he is not a strong swimmer and I think he might panic halfway across.

Also, it is a beaver pond. The great mound of a den rises up from the center of the pond all beached and broken sticks and chalky-beige dried mud. It has been there so long grasses grow over it; it is a balding head emerging from the water. I am worried about the dogs getting attacked by a beaver and am relieved when they turn around and disappear back into the grass.

I call again hoping I do not have to trudge through the harsh weeds that grow on top of the berm and sludge through the muck I know edges the pond. For a moment it is quiet and then their black shapes are crashing towards me, bouncing along the lip of land. I laugh as they tumble to a stop in front of me, tramping down the weeds as though they are no more than air. They smile and shake and I am covered in specks of muddy water, awash in hot breath and pungent smells of marsh.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The sky is falling


It is a relief to step into the shade of our forest when we return from our walk. In a cloudless sky the colour of forget-me-nots, the sun is a smear of white fire and floods the dirt road below. It illuminates different shades of green in leaves and grasses, creating a sort of stained-glass mosaic and it defines in shadow and light the distant hills.

Murdoch and I usually meander home after our walks, treading the bleached road slowly, bearing the heat from the sun as if it is a solid thing. He slinks beside me, fluffy and tired out after a run up the trail followed by an energetic plunge in the swimming hole at the end of our road. Beads of water still glisten amongst his shaggy fur and his tongue hangs almost to his knees.

As we step across the threshold of our forest, that solid line where shade meets sun, it becomes almost easier to breathe and I am amazed each time how much cooler it is. Our feet crunch over gravel as we follow the overgrown path to the house. As we approach the screen door, I can see Bear is sprawled on her bed, dozing through the heat of the afternoon.

In these first moments after our walks Murdoch sinks to the floor, panting and relaxed and Bear flumps back onto her bed after lifting her head in greeting, and light shimmers through the trees into the house as the cats snooze in golden squares of sun. These are moments of perfection. And then inevitably Murdoch will make some guttural sound and Bear’s world crumbles around her.

I am in the kitchen getting a drink of water when I hear Murdoch’s panting change pitch and then stop with a wet hacking sound as though he’s gagging on excess saliva or a super-dry throat or some stick detritus.

“Bear, you’re fine,” I say before I even turn towards the entryway and look down over the railing. But it’s too late. She has already scrambled to her feet and is charging up the stairs, her nails clacking on wood. She bumps her nose aggressively against the baby gate again and again, making it shake and rattle on its hinges. Get me out of here!!

“Bear. No,” I say, trying to be firm yet understanding, though I really don’t get the problem. Bear has been known to make the same gagging sound herself. In fact it is a very common thing that dogs do, and her complete over reaction to Murdoch’s dogness is a little baffling. She acts as though he is about to explode and I wonder sometimes if her panic stems from concern for his well-being, but no, most likely it is from disgust at the thought of being covered in bits of Murdoch when he finally blows.

“Bear!” I shout as she tries to fit her face through the hole we cut in the gate for the cats. She looks at me with eyes bugging out of her head. “You’re fine,” I say again and then push my way past her down the stairs and call her to her bed. She quick-marches behind me trying to hide under my legs and when I kneel on her blanket, smoothing it with my hands, she hunkers down and squeezes herself under my arms, just about lying on top of me.

“Relax,” I say as I try to pet her belly, but she pushes herself forward, puts her face close to mine and pants in my ear. I glance sideways and I’m staring into a big brown eye.

“Bear, you’re being a bit ridiculous,” I tell her as I stroke her ears. She looks at me as though she is on the verge of agreeing; perhaps she is being ridiculous. Then Murdoch hacks again and Bear actually starts trembling and I’m sure she would climb into my pocket if she could.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Just add (less) water


Bear stands at the bottom of the stairs anxiously shifting her weight from one paw to another. A thin line of drool spills from the corner of her mouth as I return to the entryway carrying two dog bowls full of food.

Murdoch scrambles from the wooden chair whose seat he stood on with his front paws to peer through the spindles into the kitchen and watch me pour kibble into the bowls. It sounds like he has eight feet instead of four as he spins around, then he lifts his leg on the threshold of his kennel. I stop mid-stride, stunned for a minute as I watch the dark stain spread out in a circle from the corner of his blanket.

“Murdoch, no! Bad!” I say as I put the bowls of food on top of his kennel. “Outside.” He stops peeing and trots to the door where I hook him on his line and send him out.

“What the hell?” I say to his retreating form and then to myself as I turn back to the kennel and start carefully gathering up his blanket. “If he had to pee why didn’t he ask? And why would he pee on his own bed?” I look at Bear who continues to drool on the floor while eyeing the bowls where I put them out of reach. “Um, I still get to eat supper though, right?”

As I stuff Murdoch’s blanket into the washing machine I try to think if there was some clue I missed. Did he ask to go out and I didn’t notice? But when I appeared to collect their dishes for dinner, Murdoch was lying on the floor in a relaxed sprawl. Perhaps he didn’t realize he had to pee until he leapt up at the utterance of the word “supper” and then he was too distracted by thoughts of food to even consider going outside.

His bladder must have been bursting I realized, feeling like a delinquent dog owner. He had gone swimming earlier, which means he probably drank about a gallon of water, but he never said anything. Usually, Murds is not a dog who keeps his opinions to himself, but for some reason in the three years he’s lived with us he has only ever asked to go out a handful of times.

The first winter we lived in our house Murdoch spent half a day outside eating every scrap of snow I shoveled from the roof and the path and the driveway. That evening while I sat in the kitchen and heard water running, it took me a minute to realize it was coming from the entryway. When I looked over my shoulder, I found Murdoch, leg cocked, flooding the tiles around the woodstove.

Last summer when Morgan and I took the dogs to a river near our home for a day of swimming, Murdoch drank so much water it later leaked out of him while he slept on the floor. Twice I found him lying in a big puddle of water as though it had seeped through his skin and I thought for a while there was something wrong with him. Later I realized he just doesn’t have any self-control and would probably drain the entire river if we let him.

I hear Murdoch’s feet pad purposefully across the deck and then his face appears at the screen door. “Murds, you have to tell me when you need to go out,” I say as I let him back in. He storms past me, completely unconcerned, and clatters into his kennel. He sits politely on the now bare metal floor and fixes me with his wide-eyed, expectant stare. I shake my head as I reach for the bowls of food and silently wish for the conscience of a dog.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dreaming of Max


In the dream I emerge from the cool dark of a tall brick house into the heat of a mid-summer day. I clatter down a set of rickety wooden stairs and stand with my back to the nondescript building, raising a hand to shade my eyes as I scan the surrounding land. The sun, shining high overhead, bleaches the sky white and casts hard shadows through the leafy tops of trees.

At first I think I am looking for Murdoch. My eyes move across the small, bushy trees of bright green behind the house, to a dirt road that runs beside it. Across the road there is a store of some kind and there are enough people milling about for me to be worried if Murdoch is on the loose. I’m not worried though, so I must be looking for something else.

The house is at the edge of a town. Behind the row of trees stretches great open fields. Farmland, I’m sure, though I can’t actually see it. What lies in the other direction is a mystery, but I assume the bustling life of a small town.

I still don’t know what I’m waiting for, but it feels as though I’ve been standing there for hours, though it may have been just a few minutes. The people, the house, the store, everything is secondary, flat, like background noise, details lost in the hazy heat of the day.

Then, behind the store, I notice a path I haven’t seen before, it is out of the way and sneaks behind a row of houses. I see a dark shape along the trail in the distance lying on the grass and I am flooded with relief. There he is, I think, and start walking towards him.

I don’t hurry because as I move through the warm summer sunshine towards that resting figure I know it is Max and he’s tired and taking a break after a long walk. I know he will be there waiting when I reach him so I move slowly along the dry dusty trail, catching just the edge of shade from the trees that line the path.

There are other people there too now, walking with me, talking about every day things, but I don’t really hear them. I smile vaguely as though I’m listening, but I am entirely focused on Max.

When I draw closer to him, I break away from the group without a word and scramble over a low stone wall. Max lies in the shade, panting, with a relaxed smile on his lips. There is no sign of his wheelchair. I kneel down to kiss the top of his head then wrap my arms around his neck. He glows a golden caramel even in the shade and his fur smells like sunshine.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Of mice and mice


I lie in bed listening to rain patter lightly on the roof. My eyes follow laddered slats of wood, the colour of warm butterscotch, up the vaulted ceiling to its peek. The sound of rain crescendos as water shakes loose from the surrounding trees and there’s a metronome drip, drip, drip of water where it gathers at the edge of the shingles. I picture great crystal blobs fattening quickly and dropping down one level of roof to the next.

And then a tap, tap, tap, like a beak against wood. I tell myself it is the rain, but I know it’s not. I wait for it to stop and when it does, I pretend I didn’t hear it. But Chestnut has bolted from the bedroom with purpose.

The scratching comes next and I know it is a mouse.

Living in the woods, surrounded by land left wild, it is no surprise to find mice scurrying around in our walls. We were almost overrun a year ago, desperately pulling down wooden panels where our walls meet the ceiling, uncovering secret tunnels through pink insulation and one large cache of food - sunflower seeds that rained down from the ceiling for a full two minutes like we hit the jackpot on a slot machine.

The first mouse we caught was in a live trap that I carefully smuggled out of the house past the cats and the dogs. I walked up the trail with the green box clamped in my hands, careful to hold it steady as the little mouse cowered inside. I could see the shadow of his body through the opaque plastic trap and I spoke to it in quiet tones, probably scaring it even more, though I thought I was helping.

I released it well up the trail, opening the box and setting it down near the tall grasses where they merged with the big-leafed weeds that spread out into the forest.

The second mouse was caught in a boot. Morgan and I knelt on either side of the woodstove, each with a big orange logging boot in hand, angling the wide mouths towards the mouse where it had curled into a tiny ball in the corner, perhaps willing itself to become invisible.

Each time the mouse made a move towards one of us, becoming a blur of motion, we shifted our steel-toed boots from side to side trying to catch the tiny thing. Soled with metal cleats, the boots clunked and clattered against the tiled floor.

The mouse skittered one way, then the other, back and forth in a frenzy, trying to dodge the roadblocks until it finally dashed into Morgan’s boot. He clamped his hand over the opening then folded it over on itself like closing an envelope. We drove up the trail in the dark, and in the beam of a headlight I upended the boot. A tiny body tumbled out, haloed by the light from the truck. It thudded gently to the ground and rustled off through the grass.

This spring we filled our house with super sonic rodent repellents, tiny plug-in devices that fit in the palm of your hand and emit sound waves that rodents don’t like. We peppered them around our house and so far they’ve worked. We are surrounded by a constant low buzzing, but it is better than listening to a thousand tiny feet scamper through our walls.

The mouse I hear as I lie in bed seems to have found a gap in our clever plan. I slip out from under the covers and tiptoe downstairs to find Chestnut staring up at the ceiling where tiny claws sound like giant picks chipping away at wooden beams. I move one of the sonic devices to the wall where the mouse is and there is a pause in the scrabbling followed by a mad dash scramble across the beam in the wall. It is so loud I can almost see the mouse as it runs the length of the room and squeezes back out through whatever tiny crevice it had squeezed in through and disappears down the side of the house.

Chestnut runs to the window, desperately searching in the darkness, sure it will appear. When it doesn’t he turns and marches towards me. He sits at my feet and fixes his eyes questioningly on mine. “It’s gone,” I say, unapologetically and go back to bed.