Monday, April 25, 2011

You’re not the boss of me

And I wait. I stare at the trees; a jumble of slanting light and haphazard trunks, spindly and fat, crammed together, a puzzle beyond my comprehension.

I can’t believe I fell for it again. You’d think I would know better by now, but every day I think, “This time will be different.” I give Murdoch far too much credit, but that’s because I choose to remember the good stuff, like the times he comes when he’s called, or when he walks sedately by my side and we actually share moments instead of tackling them as they flit by, or when I can hug him without fear of losing an appendage.

“Murdoch!” I call again and dig my toe into the remaining snow, heavy and wet, and blue in the shade. To my left the trail slopes gently uphill and curves out of sight, to my right it descends slightly toward the road. I can just make out the dark brown strip through the trees.

I suppose the real reason I am once again left standing on the trail after watching Murdoch get swallowed up by the forest is that I’m lazy. It is far easier to just let Murdoch run free than it is to actually work on leash etiquette, plus, these walks are mine too and I want to spend the entire time tied to Murdoch about as much as he wants to spend it tied to me.

There aren’t many days that go by without the sun’s bright yellow face making an appearance in a field of blue. Now that spring is here, its warmth pours across the landscape almost daily, snow recedes and streams gurgle and bubble everywhere. Warm breezes carry layers of scents: pine mixed with dried, bleached grasses and burnt leaves left over from the fall, hints of fresh green new growth still hidden, pungent, earthy mud tinged with the clear crisp bite of lingering snow which melts quickly to ice water.

The footing is difficult now between slushy patches of snow, slick mud bogs and great puddles that span entire sections of the trail, like tiny lakes. Trying to navigate it all attached to Murdoch is less than relaxing. But I guess that’s just another excuse. It’s even less relaxing to wander along the trail calling his name and not knowing where he is.

I can only imagine what festival of smells reaches Murdoch’s eager nose and leads him astray, but I should know better than to get sucked in to Murdoch’s good behaviour. Even still, I’ve been content to blame Jack for this delinquency.

Jack, who has been the greatest gift to us: a dog that can actually tolerate “playing” with Murdoch and who comes back every day for more even though their games usually end with Murdoch sitting on him. I really haven’t a bad word to say about Jack, except that more and more he has led Murdoch off into the forest, usually at a run, usually on some scent.

I blamed Jack because for the longest time Murdoch continued to walk on the trail with me when Jack careened off into the bush, mostly I think because Murdoch’s nose doesn’t seem to work all that well, at least a whole lot less accurately than Jack’s. But something changed in the last few weeks. At first I thought it was Jack encouraging Murds to follow, then I figured he was setting an example that Murds could no longer resist, but now I know it’s that they egg each other on. Together, the two of them get bolder, a couple of boys looking for adventure and they lead each other deeper and deeper into the woods, farther and farther away from me and my hoarsening voice.

Against my better judgment, I let Murdoch off leash today because Jack isn’t with us and I tell myself it’s an experiment. And it’s good for a while. We’ve covered our usual path through trees, past new growth forests and around marshes brimming with melt water and we’re heading home. We are so close, I am relaxed as we ramble back down the trail, then he catches a scent or a shift in the light and he’s slipping between tree trunks, head down, already lost in his next adventure. I call, but he ignores me, then turns and goes further into the bush, becomes his surroundings, he’s a shadow and then he’s gone. And I wait.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bear’s "new" knees

My feet crunch over mushy ice pellets of melting snow still spread out beneath the trees like a white blanket. Beside me Bear skips and twirls and for the first time in over a year and a half I wince instead of cringe and I don’t yell, “Stop! Slow down! Relax!”

She marches almost sideways through the snow as she turns her head towards me, her velvet brown eyes stare into mine from beneath a midnight black forehead wrinkled with the weight of one very important question. “Can you throw me a stick?”

My aerobatic Bear has been grounded for so long, great excursions clipped to gentle meanders through the trees, stair climbing completely out of the question, necessitating that she bunk in with Murdoch in the entryway – the ultimate insult. Adventurer Bear has been on strict bed rest after suffering cruciate injuries to both back legs. We were devastated when she damaged that ligament in her left knee, and completely crushed a year later when, on the mend, she injured the other one.

We opted for rest and physio instead of the very expensive and oftentimes unsuccessful surgery, but it also meant long difficult months of leaving behind my constant companion when I headed down the road for epic walks with Murdoch.

But now, as we walk through the snow together, Bear hardly limps and I can relax a bit with each of her knees wrapped securely in a brace. From behind it looks like she’s wearing a pair of red pants with a belt looped over her hips, the harness that goes around her chest to help hold the braces in place is almost invisible against her black fur. Morgan and I sigh with relief to see her legs stronger again, propelling her forward with purpose.

I imagine it has been a kind of torture for Bear to lay about and heal while there are squirrels that need chasing and sticks that need catching. This is a dog who can boast to having swam in every one of the five Great Lakes, as well as the Atlantic Ocean and a handful of major river systems. She’s camped halfway across Canada on pine needle beds, sandy beaches and rocky outcroppings from the outskirts of cities to the middle of nowhere. She has skipped the length of beaches most people have never laid eyes on and shot rapids alongside Morgan and I in our canoes. I’m sure if she has to hear “Bear, on your bed,” one more time, she just might explode.

So, we walk on the snow beneath the trees, Bear and I, and I glance sideways at her, smiling. That’s all she needs and she bounds ahead, pounces forward and buries first her front paws and then her nose in the snow. She comes up snorting and snuffling with a stick clamped triumphantly between her teeth and parades back to me to spit it out at my feet.

The braces do not make her invincible, so I hold the stick up in front of her widening eyes and throw it gently to her so she can catch it without having to run. She looks thrilled at the satisfying crunch of wood fibers as she snatches the stick from the air, then turns and marches off again. I follow, and catch glimpses of her freedom returning.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

There and gone

Yellow warmth pours down from the sun, its light shimmers briefly across Murdoch’s back before it is absorbed, swallowed up by his black fur. Beside him, Jack’s coat glows deeply and reflects a golden puddle on the snow. They run, black shadow and pool of light, side by side along the trail.

Jack stops, his body stiffens, listening. He leaps forward sending up sprays of snow as he runs faster and faster. Murdoch, a step behind, unsure of what’s happening follows anyway.

I call their names as they disappear into the trees. My voice bounces back at me, unheard. I stand and listen to them crashing away like a couple of bulldozers through the bush and shake my head. But then a slightly different sound reaches me, a secret sound I’m not supposed to hear. I stand still and hold my breath. Branches break in a more refined way, like they are made of glass, and underneath that sound of trees being politely brushed aside I hear the light swish of feet in snow.

I watch the stand of trees, stare into the vertical spaces and see them, almost unreal in their sudden appearance. Two deer move almost silently forward, impossibly big and solid to be making their way through that space. For a moment I think they will leap right into me.

But with just a slight turn, like a trick of the light, they are gone again amongst the trees and with them any sound that could even hint at their presence.

Monday, April 4, 2011

That is not a stick

Murdoch and I walk smartly down the trail towards home. I glance sideways at him trotting amiably at my side and I’m momentarily elated. It is as if he is a well-behaved dog with no agenda, but I remain guarded, sure this is the calm before the storm, at any moment our comradeship will be torn asunder.

It is early spring but everything is still covered in a thick layer of snow. The trail is firm underfoot, compacted like cement in the shadows and easy for walking. In the sunniest spots the top layer has become the consistency of a slushie and makes an agreeable swish-crunch sound as our feet tramp through it, side by side, in perfect step.

Overhead the sun beats down so strongly if I close my eyes I can imagine it to be among the first days of summer. I breathe deeply of the fresh, sun-drenched air and imagine for a moment Murdoch is the perfect dog, before he leaps ahead and pounces on a stick.

“Okay Murds,” I say, disappointed our connection is broken. “Bring it here.” I take the stick from him and hear the rattle of Jack’s collar behind us on the trail, his feet kicking up sprays of melting snow as he runs to catch up.

Jack, whose nose works far better than Murdoch’s, had taken off after a scent that Murdoch couldn’t seem to follow, which is often the case. So it was just the two of us on the trail for a while with Jack somewhere in the surrounding thick of the forest.

“Quick,” I say to Murdoch. “Here comes Jack.” And I throw the stick as Jack’s yellow shape runs past me. Jack’s favourite game is to try and wrestle sticks from Murdoch’s strong jaws, but as I look at him from behind I see he has a stick of his own.

But it’s not a stick and as Murdoch stops, stands tall and stares with great interest I see what is hanging askew from the side of Jack’s mouth is a pair of mottled gray legs. My stomach drops as I recognize the feet of a rabbit that had been in the midst of changing its winter white coat for the brown one of spring.

We stand frozen for a moment. “Murdoch,” I try, knowing full well I have been rendered invisible. “Come here.” Jack and Murdoch stare at each other for a minute before Jack turns and wanders slowly off the trail into the midst of a scattering of saplings. Murdoch walks stiffly behind him. Great, I think, this is going to get vicious. Now what do I do? I follow a few steps behind with Murdoch’s leash in my hand.

But to my surprise Jack relinquishes his prize and steps away as Murdoch investigates what I now see is just the back half of a rabbit. I take a couple of long strides to try and make up the distance but, no longer on the trail, my feet punch through the still knee-deep snow and tiny ice pellets tumble down into my boots. Murdoch glances back, then scoops up the rabbit in his mouth and leaps away, just out of reach.

I chase him around and around the tiny stand of saplings, back onto the trail, then off again, the whole time trying to ignore the crunching sounds as Murdoch devours as much of the rabbit as he can while running from me.

When I lay my hand flat on his flank, he stops. I reach forward and grab his collar, and only fumble a little bit as I clip on his leash. I drag him away from the trees and back on to the trail. “Drop it!” I say, even though I know it won’t do any good.

I try not to gag at the wet, gurgling noises as he chokes down more of the rabbit. It is as if he is attempting to swallow it whole. I’m trying to decide how to get it away from him without having to touch the remaining slobber-soaked and slightly bloody leg when it drops to the ground.

I pull the leash tight and drag Murdoch away. We both look back over our shoulders to see Jack emerge from behind a spray of dried up weeds poking through the snow and saunter over to reclaim his treasure.

Breathing more heavily than before, walking a bit more quickly, I tug sharply on the leash and continue down the trail. Not given much choice in the matter, Murdoch resumes his companionable trot beside me. All things considered, I think to myself, that went quite well.