Monday, March 28, 2011

The great escape… sort of

Morgan and I worked beneath a bright white sun in the fading days of autumn. The burnt yellow smell of fallen leaves filled the crisp air. Overhead, silhouettes of naked branches reached for each other like fingers against a field of deep blue. Amidst the constant rustle of leaves we piled wood and cleaned up tools in preparation for the first snowfall.

We were jolted from our task by a loud, matter-of-fact meow nearby.

“Is that one of our cats?” asked Morgan.

“No. It can’t be,” I said, and scanned the woods with a sinking feeling. I did not want another cat, but what could we do if we found one? My eyes strained to pick out a cat-shape in the jumble of underbrush and fallen leaves; it was like one of those hidden picture games. When the second meow came it was muffled as though a long way off. “It’s moving fast,” said Morgan. I was flooded with relief as we returned to our work. It must know where it’s going, I thought.

Although we have two cats, the sound of a meow coming from outside amongst the trees is quite foreign to us. Chestnut and Cleo are indoor cats. We decided they would be when, as kittens, they tested positive for FIV. With their compromised immune systems I didn’t want to take any chances. Of course they still managed to get out anyway from time to time, making kamikaze charges for the door when we opened it for the dogs.

In the face of their determination we may have relented on our decision if they hadn’t proved to be such efficient bird killers. After finding dead songbirds around our house courtesy of the cats, we became more diligent about keeping them inside.

It didn’t take long on that perfect fall day to almost forget about the mystery cat passing through our woods. We were once again quite involved in our cleanup almost 20 minutes later when the meow came again sounding as close as it did the first time.

“What the…?” Morgan said, straightening from gathering leaves.

It sounded as though it were standing right beside us, and this time it didn’t fade or stop but became more insistent. Morgan and I stood silently turning our heads one way then the other trying to pinpoint where this distress call was coming from.

Through the trees, about 25 feet away, I could see the back wall of our sauna, a small building painted autumn orange. As I cast my eyes in that direction I caught a glimpse of white. And then Cleo’s face came in to focus, wild-eyed and desperate, framed by the square vent just a foot below the roofline.

“It’s Cleo!” I said, pointing and starting to laugh. “How did she get there?”

The vent, just big enough for her face, pinned her ears flat to her head as she tried to push herself through. Bright green eyes, wide with panic, stared at me above her mouth flashing pink accusingly as she squawked again and again, “Can’t you see me here? Help me! I’m stuck!”

I clambered through the underbrush towards the sauna shaking my head and laughing as I imagined her frenzied attempts to find a way out on her own. Cleo revels in her independence and spends her time trying to convince us she doesn’t need anyone, except maybe Bear, but she and Bear could get along quite fine on their own thank you very much (as Bear backs away slowly). I could imagine her indignation at actually having to ask for help.

She tried to dash past me as I opened the door, but I expected it and clamped my hand on the back of her neck, then scooped her up into my arms. I could feel the embarrassment coming off her in waves as I carried her unceremoniously back to the house.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dancing with sticks

He pauses on the threshold. The door thrown wide before him, his black shape perched like an eagle ready to dive from a cliff, wings spread wide to tame wild air currents. Fresh snow lies before him, a carpet of white unfurled from between roughened trunks and beneath a canopy of skeletal arms and fingers until it stops abruptly in a perfect line at the front door.

A shiver runs the length of his body, not from the cold but in anticipation of a world not more than a step away.

“Okay!” and he’s bounding out the door, footprints pressed into untarnished white, snow scattered like confetti under the flip-flap of rubber limbs. He leaps, a blur of black in a newly white world, then slides to a stop, his nose buried beneath a long shape in the snow. A flick and twist and the stick is unearthed. But it is a tree branch, longer than his body, thicker than my arm. The ends are splintered and worn down by gnawing teeth, its length caked in snow, or more likely frozen slobber from yesterday and the day before.

He scoops it up in his mouth, tosses it over his back, flips it behind him then rams into it with his head.

This tree branch that I can only throw as if tossing a caber, becomes a toothpick in his jaws.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Can I just show him how it's done?

“Murdoch, bring me your ball,” I say confidently, eying the bright orange orb pushed up against the back door of his kennel. If it weren’t suppertime he would snap up the ball in his jaws and clatter out of his kennel to place it in my hands before I could even blink. But, instead he sits quiet and patient on the threshold of his kennel. A Muppet with his floppy feet, lanky legs, wild eyebrows and a long body covered in hair that can’t decide whether or not it is truly shaggy. When he gathers his feet together in a perfect sit, back straight, eyes front, he is a parody of an obedient dog.

“Bring it Murds,” I say with the accompanying ‘come here’ hand gesture. The stare he returns is on the cusp of blankness. I won’t feed the dogs until I have Murdoch’s ball. It is hollow inside, covered in dimples and has a hole into which I always pour half of his kibble. In order to get the food out he has to roll the ball around the floor with his nose or paws in intricate patterns. It makes mealtimes last longer and gives his brain something to do besides plotting his next misadventure.

“Bring it here. Ball.” I try again. “Come on Murds, I know you know this!”

He continues to sit like a gentleman, the way he’s been taught to do before he’s allowed to eat. I haven’t even mentioned anything about food, but clearly supper is on his mind and every other piece of useful information he has ever learned has tumbled out his ear. He stares at me. This is ridiculous, I think to myself. What is wrong with him? Okay, don’t lose your cool, make it fun! It’s like dealing with a child.

Bear watches anxiously from her bed where I’ve told her to wait. Her eyes are glued to my face as I implore Murdoch to bring me his ball. Her expression is one of someone who knows the answer to a question and is biting her tongue to avoid an outburst but is waving an impatient arm in the air, “Ooh, ooh, pick me, pick me, I know this one!”

“Bear, no,” I say, looking her in the eye and holding up the palm of my hand. “You’re a good girl.” Then turning to Murdoch I say again, “Murdoch, bring me your ball.”

After the tenth attempt, Bear can no longer contain her enthusiasm. She jumps up and stomps in a quick march across the floor to where her tennis ball lies in front of the door then stamps her paw beside it and turns to look at me, “It’s right here!”

“No Bear. Murdoch, ball.”

Bear snatches up the ball decisively in her mouth, stomps over to me and spits it out violently at my feet with a triumphant expression on her face.

“Thank you Bear,” I say as Murdoch continues to stare at me with giant eyes that flick occasionally in the direction of the kitchen, “Um, isn’t it time to eat?” I am on the verge of tearing out my hair as he sits still as a statue looking at me like I am asking him to sprout wings and fly. Bear tap dances impatiently in front of me. I cringe as each of her paws falls heavily on the floor. She is not supposed to be jumping around with a double cruciate injury.

“Bear, on your bed,” I say sharply, pointing to her blanket. She looks at me with a wrinkled brow and stomps her foot again, just catching the ball with her toenail to send it skittering across the floor. “Bear!” She turns reluctantly and walks in slow motion back to her bed, throwing a glance over her shoulder.

“Murdoch,” I say, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice. “Bring me your ball.” Bear spins around and is about to come charging back but freezes when I half yell, “Bear, no!”

I eventually manage to convince Murdoch to nose his ball halfway to the door of his kennel. “What? This?” he says with a glance. I reach past him and pick it up then hold it in front of his face. “Ball,” I say. “Good boy!”

Now I can say the word. “Okay. Who wants their supper?” as if they didn’t know what time it is. “Finally,” they seem to say with an eruption of clattering toenails. “We can eat. Why does she have to make it so difficult?”

Monday, March 7, 2011

How not to start your day

It’s early morning, too early to be awake, and certainly too early to be dressed and struggling into my boots. Night still drapes heavily over the house, blackness pushes in at the windows.

Morgan closes the door behind him, heading outside to start the car as I sit on the second step in the entryway and pull on my boots. Titus turns from the door and barges past the duffle bag I have unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of the stairs with my toque and mitts perched on top. He shoves his big pumpkin head between my arms and then turns his tiny brown eyes, each beneath a rich golden brown polka dot, to stare into mine. I scratch his ears roughly and kiss the top of his wide head.

“Thanks for coming to stay Titus,” I say. “Sorry I won’t be here for the rest of your visit.”

I grab the wet towel I washed that morning after Cleo peed on it for whatever purpose she deemed reasonable, and push past Titus to hang the towel on the line by the woodstove. Murdoch lies in front of it on Titus’s bed, his black shape a solid shadow in the dim light from the stairs. I take a step in his direction as his head dips to his paws frantically and I know he's stuffing something into his mouth. Of course, it’s my toque.

“Thanks Murds,” I say, trying to sound cheerful as I reach for the scrap of fabric sticking out the side of his mouth. Sometimes that is all it takes for him to loosen his jaw and let me ease his latest prize from between his teeth amidst great gobs of goober. But this morning, while I’m on a tight schedule to catch a plane, he decides to hold on tighter.

“Okay Murds, mine!” I say forcefully. His eyes goggle up at me and seem to say: “You don’t want to mess with me lady, I’m crazy!”

“Mine!” I try again and tug a little harder. In my bleary-brained early morning stupor and my rising panic to get out of the house on time, a window that is quickly closing, I don’t really notice Titus creeping up beside me.

If I hadn’t draped the towel over Murdoch’s face to try and trick him into releasing my toque, perhaps I would have left the house that morning with my sanity in tact. Instead, I am suddenly standing with a wet towel in one hand and a soggy, limp toque in the other, stunned in the wake of an explosion. The entryway shrinks instantly, every square inch of breathing room swallowed up by a manic swell of energy. Titus and Murdoch bash into each other, locked chest-to-chest. They are the same height standing on hind legs and their heads blur in a frenzy of sharp, snarling strikes. Gleaming white teeth snap and grab at necks and shoulders.

“HEY!” I yell in my now signature ‘voice from hell’ that will leave my throat rough and raspy for most of the day. “STOP!” I smack them both with the wet towel, directing its long, limp form like a whip, hoping to get their attention. Nothing.

They tumble into the corner, Murdoch flattening Titus with a sudden surge forward. I search frantically for the spray bottle then grab it from the top of Murdoch’s kennel, sight down the length of my arm and pull the trigger in quick, sharp bursts, again and again, sending a jet of water straight into their faces. They continue fighting for a moment amidst the barrage, but with less focused energy and then step apart, squinting as the water hits each of them between the eyes. “That is enough!” I continue to pull the trigger as they circle each other warily.

“In kennel Murdoch.” I say with venom dripping from each syllable. “Titus, on your bed.” I have to spray him once more before he goes.

I lock Murdoch’s kennel against the still-charged atmosphere. He peers out at me with big round eyes while Titus perches on the very edge of his bed. I glare at them, throw on my jacket, wipe slobber from my toque, snatch up my bag from the floor and step out into the darkness while stray bolts of adrenaline snap at my heels.