Monday, January 31, 2011

Bear and the raven

When we moved to our house in the woods two and a half years ago, Morgan and I were thrilled to learn we had a family of ravens living on our property. We followed a trail that wandered past trunks of spindly balsam, sturdy poplar and peeling birch until we found the nest, a jumble of bleached branches wedged into the crook of a tree.

Each morning the ravens’ raw voices greeted us as we watched their huge black forms glide through the treetops outside our bedroom windows.

The towering balsam that grows not far from our front door became a regular perch for the giant black birds. My eyes would often be drawn way up to the top of that tree to see a sleek silhouette against the thick bushel of green needles. Their natural curiosity brought them close to the action as we hung up laundry or kicked a ball for wobbly Max. They probably shook their heads in disbelief as they witnessed each of our chaotic interactions with Murdoch, a tornado of gnashing teeth and scrabbling claws. From that perch they watched everything. And Bear watched them.

As long as I’ve known Bear, she has had a fascination with ravens. She doesn’t seem too concerned about other birds, unless they happen to be standing on the ground, then they’re fair game. I imagine Bear’s idea of utter happiness is an endless sandy beach full of loitering birds. She would barrel, barking, into their midst, sending the flock up into the air in a flurried panic and then run at full speed beneath them as they squawked and flapped madly to get away.

Ravens, on the other hand, are always in her sights. Whenever she sees that midnight black form flying overhead she gives chase with such determination I think she really believes she can fly. I imagine Bear’s pre-occupation with these birds stems from the fact they don’t intimidate easily. Ravens pose an interesting challenge to my big burly Bear, she’s not used to being teased by a bird.

I find Bear one day on the gravel road in front of our house barking at a raven overhead. I watch for a minute and see they are deeply involved in a communication I don’t fully understand.

They are two solid shadows come to life, each mirroring the other. Their blackness is almost the same, a matte finish in fur and feather. They stand out because of the way light disappears into them amidst the vibrant greens and browns and beiges of their surroundings.

Bear skips in place, her face turned up to the sky, ears flopped back, and barks as the raven hovers only fifteen feet above. Its great wings move in an intricate pattern, like a magician furling and unfurling his cape, conjuring a solid perch out of thin air. I almost expect the bird to fall amidst the unnatural movement of its wings. But then it rises up, becomes a cutout against the gray clouds and flies high above the road for a couple of wing beats as Bear gallops below, throwing her voice at the sky.

Wings twitch, change shape and the raven is a torpedo aimed for the earth. It swoops mere feet above the road, dwarfing Bear with its wings spread wide. Bear skips and barks as the raven stops in mid air, then rises with just two or three powerful wing strokes.

I imagine Bear can feel the wind from its wings as her feathered counterpart returns to the sky to fly in line again with her running form. They play like that for a while until the raven grows bored with the game and disappears into the forest, its large form swallowed by trees that seem too small, spaces too narrow for the raven to fit through.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Morning exercise

Outside it is still. Nothing seems to move in the muffled white world except for a few flakes sifting down from the sky. Through the window I watch mini avalanches of snow tumble from the tops of trees and shatter into a million tiny shards like the spray of a great wave crashing over branches so heavily laden they are transformed into white drooping blobs of undefined shape.

On the stove the kettle begins its rush to boil and brings the white noise of a cascading waterfall into the kitchen. Cleo stomps by, stiff-legged and full of purpose as Chestnut watches from the stairs. His amber eyes track Cleo across the room as he sinks into a crouch.

There’s the pick of claws in carpet as Chestnut launches himself off the second step, then a whump and a surprised hiss as he lands on top of Cleo. They tumble across the floor in a jumbled ball of flailing limbs and whipping tails, bony elbows and knees clonk loudly against the wooden floor.

Tufts of creamy white hair flurry around them as though a feather pillow has burst a seam. So much fur settles to the floor in their wake I am surprised later when I don’t find any bald spots on their bodies.

They roll to a stop and leap apart then stand still for a moment poised on their haunches. Each holds a front paw at the ready, ears pinned back, eyes slits, tails swishing. With a jerky fluidity, they begin to circle each other.

“Get him Cleo,” I say. I usually cheer for Cleo, ever since the time Chestnut bit her ear too hard and left a tiny notch along its papery thin edge.

When Chestnut makes his move, he leaps straight up in the air, front paws splayed, claws unsheathed. But Cleo flips on her back and twists to the side as Chestnut lands on her fluffy white stomach and she grabs him around the neck, kicking his face with her back feet, claws rake through fur, catch on skin. I have found tiny scabs on Chestnut’s head more than once.

When he pulls back, Cleo leaps to her feet and scrambles away but Chestnut pounces again. A low growl emerges from Cleo’s throat then becomes a screeching yowl as Chestnut sinks his teeth into her neck.

“Okay. That’s enough,” I say and stomp my foot beside them. They both slink away like shadows.

On the stove the kettle whistles, piercing the air with urgency while the woodstove ticks quietly in the corner.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Not so faithful companion

“MURDOCH!!!” I yell for a third time across the leaden-gray landscape. I stand at a clearing way up the walking trail at the end of our road amidst a sea of spindly, twig-like trees and scrappy bushes. Squinting back through falling snow, I watch the trail expectantly. Murdoch and Jack will come careening around that bend in the path at any moment.

I wait. And watch.

What are they doing?

“MURDS!!” I yell again, “JACK!” and there’s the clacking of their collars. I can hear them breathing, panting loudly as they run together. Here they come, I tell myself and relax a bit. What dorks. I imagine so clearly their feet thundering over the ground that I almost see them coming, speeding around those tiny trees where the trail twists to the right and disappears.

But then it’s quiet and there’s no sign of them. I will my ears to find a familiar sound beneath the steady ruffle of an icy breeze, the flick of snow against my jacket. Nothing.

I stalk back down the trail to where I last saw them. Was it here?

Murdoch had stopped on the trail ahead of me; a statue, stiff and straight, pointing his nose across the expanse of scrub brush and frozen swamp hidden beneath rolling white swells of deep snow. A moment later, urgent sniffing of the air, his nose like a snorkel breaking the surface of an invisible barrier, feet trotting quickly, a few steps up the trail, then back down again.

“What’s out there Murds?” I asked as I walked briskly past. He dove off the trail into snow up to his shoulders and leapt through it like a dolphin playing in the ocean. Jack followed closely behind. I didn’t wait for them. Usually they catch up.

I look at the snow now but can’t remember where they left the trail. It’s so deep here, their tracks have caved in and it’s hard to tell which ones are new.

Wait. What was that? I stand very still. Was that them panting again? Another sound like a clacking collar in the distance. No, just twigs rattling against each other. I glimpse movement out of the corner of my eye, turn my head quickly, it’s only a lone brittle leaf nudged by the wind where it clings to a branch like a curled up cocoon.

“MURDOCH!!” I call and call until my voice is hoarse. Do I just head home? What if he's in trouble somewhere? Or causing trouble. What do I do? I’ve been standing still too long and the cold is starting to slice through my jacket.

I reluctantly start walking back down the trail, scouring the snow for signs. There's a footprint ahead, pointing in the opposite direction. And another, and another. Did they run down the trail instead of up? What a couple of jerks.

I follow their tracks, they don’t veer off the trail once. The two of them just walked straight out while I stood around calling them. It’s as if they planned it. I can hear Murdoch now, “Let’s ditch her in the woods and go play at your house.”

I am halfway up the road by the time the two of them spot me walking towards them. I haven’t taken my eyes off them since I left the trail and saw their two tiny figures gallivanting all over the road as if they owned the whole place.

They freeze on the spot and watch me for a minute. Murdoch’s face is white with snow. I walk with great purpose, hoping to convey my displeasure, make them feel at least a little bit guilty.

Murdoch jolts to life and starts running at me, that psychotic dog run he does so well where his lips flip up and down while his body does this wild bucking motion and I can just about see the whites of his eyes while his feet fly in a million directions at once. Jack runs too, but he runs like a normal dog.

When they are still ten feet away from me I throw my hands out in an exasperated gesture and say the first thing that comes to mind, “What the hell?”

They slide to a stop in front of me, all smiles and wagging tails as though I’m the one person in the entire world they wanted to see at that moment. I don’t buy it.

Murdoch leans his head against my leg and I scratch his chin and then the two of them are off and running again, jostling each other on their way back to Jack’s house.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Guest post

I was invited to write a guest post about Max for the blog A Scratch Behind the Ears (and other nice things). You can check it out at, as well as some other animal stories.


Monday, January 10, 2011

My solar system for a bed

I close the door quickly against the wall of cold air that threatens to slam its way into the house and then I watch through the window as Murdoch trots over packed snow, sniffing the air as if it were not icy, the ground not frozen. Cold radiates off the door as winter seeps in. Behind me a loud thump and a slight vibration under my feet as Chestnut drops the three-and-a-half feet down from the kitchen to the floor of the entryway after squeezing his well-fed girth through the spindles of the railing.

He slinks across the floor with urgency, making a beeline to where Bear lies curled up on her bed. Time is of the essence, his archenemy could return at any moment.

Chestnut throws himself down on the light yellow and lime green blanket with a kind of gurgling meow, rolling onto his back as though he hasn’t a bone in his stripy orange body then stretching out and rolling some more, rubbing his face against the fabric.

Turning her head in my direction, Bear rolls her eyes up to meet mine, then sighs deeply and returns her chin to rest on her curled paws.

“I know Bear,” I say and shake my head in sympathy.

It seems Bear is always fighting for a spot on her own bed.

“Come on guys,” Morgan said the other day on his way down the stairs to the entryway, “it’s not a life raft.” I looked over the railing to see Bear clinging to the edge of her bed, folded up like a broken umbrella, all twisted and cramped, while Murdoch sprawled out perpendicular to her, his shoulders and head taking up about a third of the bed, his front legs stretched straight out, luxuriating in the heat of the wood stove. Right in the center of it all, like a fat toad ensconced on a lily pad, sat Cleo, her feet tucked in comfortably beneath her spreading patchwork body of gray and orange, eyes closed, purring loudly.

I laughed at the thought of these three in disaster preparedness mode if there ever were a flash flood on our mountain. “Just grab on to Bear’s bed and everything will be fine!”

The analogy is appropriate, I think, because on any given day Cleo is one part beached whale and one part barnacle. But I’ve always thought of Bear’s bed as more of the center of a mini solar system.

If the bed were the sun around which life in our house revolves, Bear would be the Earth, the most stable, agreeable, and life sustaining, while Murdoch, for obvious reasons, would be Mars. Cleo would claim to be Saturn because, clearly, it is the most beautiful, but really she is more like Pluto, complete with identity crisis. Also she is the smallest of the bunch and regularly trolls around at the farthest reaches of sanity.

Chestnut would not be a planet. With his fleeting appearances in the vicinity of the bed Chestnut is more like a comet hurtling through periodically, when the conditions are just right, which is usually when our Mars is traveling very far from this particular sun.

“I’m letting Murdoch back in,” I tell Chestnut, who lolls on his back, front paws in a relaxed curl over his chest, eyes slightly glazed. “You better get going.”

I reach for the doorknob as he watches me and I can see in his eyes an internal battle: “Do I tempt fate today? Does laziness win out over preservation of life?” I turn away and open the door.

“Come here Murds,” I say, and hear the quick thump-thump-thump of Chestnut’s feet on linoleum. Out of the corner of my eye there’s a fleeting streak of orange and in its wake a trail of sparkling cat hair.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Who IS that dog? Oh… right

Our forest is wrapped in white and seems to glow on its own; a pale light filling the space beneath a moonless sky of cold, silver stars. Snow clings to tree branches, weighing them down. On the ground it lies almost knee-deep.

Chunks of wood, cut from a fallen tree, crash and clunk into the sled as Morgan and I gather up firewood. Murdoch dances around us, leaping at snow sent spraying from the wood as it flies through the air.

“Here Murdoch,” I say, holding the handle of the sled out to him when it’s full. “Pull this back to the house.” We stand for a minute and stare at each other then he looks at my feet and wags his tail. “Kick snow in my face!” he says. I shake my head and begin pulling the sled up the hill, digging in with each step through the deep snow. Murdoch leaps effortlessly up the slope ahead of me.

Near the house, on a particularly steep incline, I pause and watch as Murdoch buries his head in the snow, snuffling after a scent. Yellow light from our kitchen windows spills out onto the ground here and when he comes up, it looks like he has something black and furry clutched in his teeth.

“Murdoch,” I say. “What have you got?”

He glances sideways at me as he wanders further away. In the dark I think I can see the shape of a gnarled claw sticking out at a bizarre angle.

“What is it?” Morgan asks from behind me.

“I don’t know,” I say, somewhat wearily. “Some kind of animal.” Morgan and I stand knee-deep in the snow for a moment and I imagine a great chase through the dark, around trees, tripping and falling and scrambling through the snow to catch Murdoch’s retreating form as he nimbly leaps and dodges and swerves his way through the forest.

At the edge of the pool of light, Murdoch drops his catch to investigate, secure in the fact, I’m sure, that neither Morgan or I have yet made a move to take it away from him. I sigh deeply and say, “Come here Murds,” because I’m not really sure what else to do.

Murdoch turns his head in my direction then looks back at the frozen black shape in the snow. “Murdoch, come,” I say again, and he actually does.

There is a split second of stunned silence and then an explosion of “Good boy, Murdoch!!” from both Morgan and I as he trots towards me, leaving his catch behind.

I grab his collar and I’m promptly pulled to my knees as he twists around and cranes his neck to watch Morgan clamber through the snow towards the animal. “It’s a bird,” Morgan says when he reaches it. He lifts up the frozen dark ball and I wrestle a stronger hold on Murdoch as he tries to lunge forward. “One of those tree chickens,” he says, a grouse or maybe a partridge.

We are still talking about Murdoch’s non-Murdoch-like behaviour ten minutes later when we are unloading wood outside our front door. Murdoch is safely sniffing around on the other side of the house at the spot where he found the bird, and for a brief, fleeting moment I am in a semi-euphoric state. It is as though we are a normal family with a trustworthy dog who does not need to be kept under lock and key.

Whenever I am outside with Murdoch and he is not attached to anything solid I have to be always thinking two steps ahead, listening for the rumble of approaching cars or the high-pitched insect whine of snowmobiles. I can hear them coming from miles away, and have refined it to a point that eight times out of ten I can tell if a vehicle is going to turn on to our road long before it is within turning range.

Whenever I hear a vehicle approaching, my heart gasps in my chest and my brain goes into panic mode, “Quick! Distract him!”

“Stick! Stick! Find me a stick!” I will yell loudly, trying to drown out the sound of the approaching “prey” because I can see he hears it too. His head is cocked to the side and his eyes are focused in the distance and we stand like that for a moment, in a kind of standoff, as we both listen and imagine and I realize my brain is trying unsuccessfully to think faster than my dog’s brain.

It can be exhausting.

This night, I am too relaxed after the bird incident, distracted by the potential of Murdoch to actually be a good dog that I don’t hear the car turn on to our road. I only become aware of it after I see Murdoch streaking past in a blur, like a shadow that’s broken away from the darkness around the house.

“Murdoch!” I yell in a panic as I swivel my head round and see the trees lining the road light up as headlights stretch along its length. By the time I start running, Murdoch is already standing in the middle of the road, straight and tall, ready to take on whatever is behind those bright white orbs.

It is our neighbours’ car and it slows down to maneuver around him then speeds up again. “Murdoch!” I yell, but he is chasing the car, racing it, and disappears down their driveway.

I run along the road, my boots clomping over the packed snow, my snow pants swishing loudly. A familiar feeling of panic and adrenaline and embarrassment roll around in my stomach obliterating the euphoria of moments before as though it never even existed.