Monday, February 28, 2011

The house guest

I stood on the road a few feet from my driveway beneath a picture perfect blue sky that felt like it could go on forever. Its vibrant colour deepened as it leapt the width of the road, crossing the stretch of open space between pointed tops of evergreens iced with glittering, fresh snow. With a leash in each hand, I inhaled the crisp wintry air, fixed my eyes on the trail at the end of our road and tried to ignore the butterflies flitting about in my stomach.

One leash hung loose at my side. It left my mittened hand and travelled through an easy arc, ending at Murdoch’s collar. He stood a few feet away, alert and tall, waiting for me to start walking. The other leash pulled taut, straining and trembling with tension at the end of my outstretched right arm, making a perfect line from my shoulder straight to the collar of Titus, our house guest.

He arrived the night before, a 10-year-old Rottweiler who acts like a puppy. Stalky and barrel-chested like Bear, but with a bigger head, Titus has the power of two Murdochs. When Morgan returned home with him I scrambled into my boots and jacket and dashed out to meet them.

“Hi Titus!” I said to the gentle giant with the face of a teddy bear while he leapt in circles sniffing the snowbanks, the car, the trees, individual snowflakes. Morgan handed me his leash and I started enthusiastically for the house. After Murdoch I figured I could handle any dog.

“He pulls way harder than Murdoch!” I called to Morgan as I planted my feet against the bull I was now trying to herd. My excited spirits sank a bit as I realized walking Titus and Murdoch together wasn’t going to be the rollicking, fun adventure I had envisioned.

The next day, with a dog secured by a tightly gripped leash in each hand, I stumbled and tripped along the path through the trees to the driveway, stopping every other step as Titus powered ahead. I was already flustered by the time we reached the road - the very long road that seemed twice the distance that day.

Murdoch was surprisingly good, he stood beside me, eager to go but waiting while Titus manically sniffed the ground and jerked my arm this way and that. I snapped the leash and Titus loosened his pull then tightened it again before I could praise him. I looked back at the house and considered calling off the walk but I knew if I could just get Titus to the trail he would relax. I was about to take a step and commit to our morning outdoors when Jack appeared on the road ahead. His excited trot came to a dead stop when he saw the strange, hulking black dog.

“Titus,” I said sharply, but his focus was already locked on Jack's slightly raised hackles, I could tell by the set of his shoulders. Titus began to walk slowly in Jack’s direction and with my arm already hyper-extended I couldn’t give the leash a good yank. I steeled myself and tried to be an immovable rock. It didn’t work. Beneath the fresh layer of snow the road was pure ice and with each step, Titus pulled me almost effortlessly behind him. I looked down as my feet began to slide forward and with bent knees I tried to dig in my heels. If Murdoch bolted then I would have been careening down the road, completely out of control, picking up speed as I went. I imagined the neighbours looking out their window as I flew past, “Oh look,” they’d say. “Heather’s taking the dogs for a walk.”

That thought flared up and then dissolved in an instant as I realized Murdoch still stood by my side, waiting. I barely had time to question his uncharacteristic moment of sanity when Jack’s retreat for home caused Titus to falter. I yanked his leash with all my strength, hauling him back a few steps and when he stopped for a moment to glance over his shoulder at me, I plunged into our walk.

When we returned three hours later, after a sufficiently rollicking and fun adventure, everyone was walking much more sedately.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My thoughts to your thoughts

I roll the shimmery red ball across the floor. It is the size of a ping-pong ball and is covered in sequins. Chestnut reaches out one white paw at the end of a stripy leg and half-heartedly swats at it as it rolls by, then watches over his shoulder as it trundles to a stop about two feet away.

“Is that not fun?” I ask him. He stares at me. I roll my eyes then turn my back and return to my desk and laptop. Chestnut, suddenly animated, skips along behind me. “No,” he seems to say, “I’d rather chew on an electrical cord.”

I had unearthed the tiny red disco ball to distract him from that very thing. Not long after I initially sat down at my computer, Chestnut appeared beside my desk. When I didn’t acknowledge his presence he leapt on to the wide windowsill just to my left and sat up tall with his tail wrapped neatly around his feet. I could feel him staring at me. A sort of desperate impatience came off him in waves.

“What?” I asked, turning to look him in the eye. He stared back. We sat looking at each other for a minute in silence, Chestnut as still as a statue. I imagined he was trying to beam his thoughts into my head. “I can read yours,” he seemed to say. “What’s wrong with you?”

Finally I shook my head and returned to what I was doing. He became an unfocused beigey blob in my periphery, but I was keenly aware of his sharp, unwavering gaze. “Stop staring at me! What do you want?” I said with a hint of exasperation. Chestnut reached out a tentative paw to the edge of my desk. “I want to sit on your keyboard” was written all over his face.

“No,” I said and pushed his paw away. He reached out with his other paw. I pushed that one away too. And back and forth until he finally gave up, except he didn’t really.

Balancing on his back legs, he leaned forward over the edge of the windowsill and stretched down with his front paws to grab the cord of my laptop where it plugged into the wall directly below the window. He batted it with one paw then the other, then he pulled the cord towards his mouth, his little needle teeth already exposed and ready to clamp down on the black snake.

“Hey!” The word snapped from my mouth as I pushed Chestnut back to a sitting position. “Stop it.”

“Look, that is not a toy,” I explained. “Go find something else to play with.” He gazed at me with his amber eyes, a blank cat stare that questioned my very existence. I got up from my chair and began crawling around the floor in the living room. Chestnut thumped down from the windowsill and followed. I looked under the couch, muttering, “There’s a ball around here somewhere. I know it is because I almost vacuumed it up the other day.”

I saw a glimmer of red in the murky shadows at the back of the couch and reached under, up to my shoulder. The little ball was swirled in a nest of dog hair. “I swear I just vacuumed.”

I shook the ball at Chestnut after I swept off the hair with my hand, the plastic pea inside rattled excitedly. “Ready?” I asked then rolled the ball past him and watched his less-than-stellar attempt to play with it.

“Whatever,” I say as I sit back down at my desk. Chestnut leaps into my lap, stomping around with his pointy little feet as if he’s making wine until I grab him by the waist and hold him still. “Just sit down,” I say with a gentle push. Chestnut settles into a sit and then rests his front paws on the desk in front of him, like he’s waiting at a bar for the drink he just ordered.

I have to reach my arms around either side of him to type on my laptop; his ears frame the screen. He purrs for a while, content for now. “How difficult was that?” he seems to say with great disdain for my clumsy human communication. “I can’t believe you don’t get me.”

Monday, February 14, 2011


Murdoch and I stepped into the open field from the thick strip of trees that hid the expanse from the road. In the summer I imagine it to be a little swampy, but I’ve never been there when there isn’t snow on the ground. In the winter everything is frozen and tucked snuggly beneath a heavy white blanket; waving grasses disappear, the landscape becomes almost stark. Almost. But the swathes of snow, like frozen rippling waves, cover everything in white, casting shadows of cold blue.

Two weeks earlier this place was crisscrossed with snowmobile tracks, like the aftermath of some wild party. The wide field that stretches out between the tree line where we emerged to the shadowed silhouette of the mountain in the near distance was decorated with ribbons of packed snow. Murdoch and I had followed them like we were navigating a maze.

Since then more snow fell and the snowmobiles did not return, leaving the expanse of soft, fluffy snow smooth, untouched, like a giant sheet had been freshly laundered and laid flat across the land.

I could see a slight impression where the snow had blown over an old snowmobile track and tried to follow it, thinking beneath the softer top layer there would be a hard, packed surface to walk on. It didn’t quite work that way. The ghosts of tracks were not much help beyond a couple of feet. With each step, my boots punched through a thin icy crust then plummeted into what felt like emptiness beneath, until the snow was up to my knees.

We walked anyway, striking into the barren landscape as if we were the first to set foot in this place. Murdoch leapt up like a spring was attached to each foot, and propelled himself forward, bounding across vast swathes of untouched snow, this way and that, leaving not a neat line of footprints behind but great holes where his entire body landed with each leap. The snow was up to his armpits.

When he stopped ahead and looked back at me as though questioning where the path had gone, I made my way to him with my marching stride, then collapsed beside him. We sat together in the snow, the sun a bright white ball in a bright white sky, and we listened to the wind roll shyly across the open field between the trees and the mountain. The harsh, alarmist cry of a woodpecker punched through the quiet and I turned to see his red crest in an island of scrub trees about fifty feet away.

I stood up and plowed through the snow towards that little island. Murdoch fell into step behind me on the shifting path I cut. He followed so close that my heel bumped his chin with just about every other step. In his eagerness to move faster as he fumbled along in my wake, he kept stepping on the back of my boot, his paw holding my foot to the ground so I pitched forward, causing him to run into my legs.

“Give me some space,” I said, but laughed, reveling in our comradery, our shared struggle and solitude, and at the absurdity of it all as we waded through a field of snow, crammed together in such a wide-open expanse.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Whose bright idea was this?

The first winter Max lived with us we took him and Bear tobogganing.

We were on the logging road I walked everyday with the dogs. It was just across the street from the wooded area in which we rented a tiny house on the bank of the Current River. The road disappeared around a bend and then ascended steadily, alternating between gentle slopes and more tasking uphill treks. From the summit we could stand and look across bald rocks and the twiggy clamour of new-growth trees to the sometimes turquoise, sometimes gray ribbon of Lake Superior where it blended into the lighter sky.

Around that first bend in the road was a good uphill climb, just about the right size for some casual tobogganing. The hill wasn’t very big, but we could pick up enough speed to make the world blur around us, and it curved to the right, which made it slightly more challenging.

When Morgan and I first climbed the hill that day and stood at the top with our Crazy Carpets at the ready, Bear and Max poked around in the snow behind us enthralled by interesting smells, completely uninterested in what the humans were doing until, first I, then Morgan, made our running starts and launched ourselves, yelling, down the hill. Bear and Max barely had time to think before instinct kicked in and the two of them, presented with low-to-the-ground, fast moving prey, gave chase.

Noses and teeth blurred with our surroundings as they head-butted and nipped at our toques and mittened hands. Bear easily kept pace with us, her excitement escalating with each run, but even as Max started to tire and lag behind, he was determined to follow us up and down the hill.

“Stay where you are Max,” I yelled over my shoulder as I began to jog back up the hill. “I’m coming right down again.” I looked back to see Max plodding determinedly behind me, his powerful front legs striding confidently across the ground while his back end slowed him down, hips swaying drunkenly, toes dragging in the snow. I started to run. My red Crazy Carpet banged against my legs making me sound like an approaching thunderstorm.

When I reached the top, I turned quickly, took a couple of running steps then flattened myself out on my stomach with my Carpet positioned beneath me and rocketed down the hill.

I could see Max’s head peeking up over the snow bank at the elbow of the turn, but it wasn’t until I rounded the corner I saw he was walking up the middle of the run. “Look out Max!” I yelled, as I put one booted foot down to try and steer around him.

I have no idea if he even had time to consider moving out of the way, but in an instant Max’s body filled my entire view. I turned my head away and felt his weight push down on my legs as he let out a surprised groan. The extra weight combined with my dragging feet slowed us down as we slithered our way to the bottom of the hill together.

When we finally slid to a stop, I twisted myself around to look at Max, his front half draped across my legs while his back half sprawled on the snow. He stared back, “What the hell?” he seemed to say, and I had to laugh at the startled expression on his very serious and dignified German Shepherd face.