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.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Water dog

At the end of our road where the walking trail begins there’s a creek that winds its way through long, swaying marsh grasses, appearing from around a bend in the shadow of a small mountain. If you were to follow the creek upstream, picking your way carefully along the undefined edge where it meets spongy mud woven-over with straw-like grass, you would eventually end up at a small lake, carved from a rocky bowl where sheer cliffs drop straight down and disappear beneath the dark water.

The creek leaves that lake secretly through marsh grasses and becomes not much more than a trickle in mid-summer. At that time of year, the creek reaches our road as a thin thread with barely a ripple of movement. It slips quietly beneath the road through a wide-mouthed culvert to emerge on the other side and gather in a pool where the dogs can swim.

I used to think Murdoch was scared of water. The first week he stayed with us, a nameless, borderline-psychotic puppy, more interloper than lovably eccentric family member, he balked at the small streams that snaked their way across the old logging road where we used to live. It was spring and the melt water ran freely, gathering along the trail in large depressions that had to be waded through or leapt over.

Bear and Max sloshed through the water without hesitation, stopping occasionally to drink, while I picked my way around stepping from high spot to high spot. Murdoch seemed at first puzzled by this sudden appearance of water and then outraged that he was going to have to get his feet wet. I laughed at him, this puppy who had come into our home strutting with overconfidence and a flippant disregard for life, now humbled by a simple, gently flowing stream. I imagine Bear and Max took great pleasure in that.

Somewhere between those first tentative flying leaps over the offending streams and his latest kamikaze bombardments on the pond at the end of our road, Murdoch has fallen in love with water. He approaches swimming like he approaches life, it’s not about finesse or economy of motion or getting from here to there, it’s about how big of a splash he can make, how much of a commotion he can cause. There is nothing graceful about that dog at all.

Murdoch swims like a person drowning. His front legs pump up and down, coming right out of the water and splashing and plunging loudly with each paddle. His head darts forward between strokes, mouth wide open, snapping up mouthfuls of water. He snorts and snuffles and hacks with each swallow, his eyes wild and round as though he’s not so sure this swimming thing is altogether natural, but man is it fun.

Mostly he prefers to have a reason for being in the water, so I stand above the culvert with a stick in my hand and Murdoch, quivering in excitement beside me. “Ready?” I ask and bring the stick up over my head. Murdoch bolts down the steep, muddied slope to the water and I let the stick fly out over the swimming hole. He leaps as though his legs house coiled springs and launches out past the shallows, plunging into the center of the pond in a loud explosion of water. His black shape is highlighted for a moment with the white spray cascading up around him like a reverse waterfall and then it closes in, the water sloshing together again over his back.

His head bobs away as he swims after the stick. I can see his black shape, a shadow in the water, swirling up brown muck like smoke that will soon obscure his body entirely.

He snatches the stick in his jaws with characteristic authority and swims to the edge, hauling himself out amongst the greening grasses. Murdoch bounds back up the hill, his once shaggy hair slick against his body, black and shiny like oil, making him appear much skinnier, more sleek, less galumphing.

He places the stick in my hand, eyes locked on it, body tensed and ready to go. He doesn’t bother to shake off the water, which streams from his fur, soaking the dusty ground to a dark brown, and pools around his feet. In an instant he is off again, running, then flying through the air with a wonderful reckless abandon, pouring everything he has into making the biggest, loudest splash he can.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Who’s a senior dog?

The first summer we lived in Thunder Bay, Bear and I occasionally drove to a nearby conservation area for our walk, a change of scene from the old logging road we plodded every day.

Unlike the logging road, the conservation area was lush with towering trees. Well-worn paths meandered beneath a canopy of green, hemmed in on each side by battalions of sturdy trunks. If we felt so inclined, we could follow a particular trail along the river that eventually met up with another conservation area and we could walk for miles. But mostly we headed for the spot where the trail emerged from the trees onto a large, square plateau of rock. It sprawled out in front of us like a giant table, mostly flat except for a few deep divots where water gathered in large puddles.

Bear and I would head across the open rock to the edge where the river narrowed and changed from dark, liquid glass to a shattering rampage of white water, tumbling and churning its way over rounded boulders and sharp rocks as the land abruptly changed elevation.

We would watch the water for a while lost in the white noise of it cascading over the rocks and sometimes feel its vibrations, rushing to catch the riverbed as it dropped away beneath it.

If there were no clouds in the sky, the sun beat down on that rock shelf relentlessly so it too became a heat source and standing out there was a bit like sensory overload; the intense heat, the constant rush of water, the earthy smell of the river. Sometimes when we turned to go it felt like we had been swimming all day in the sun.

When we stepped back amongst the trees, it was like another world. We would walk the sun-dappled path, enjoying the cool of the shade, taking our time as the trail rose up from the river, steep in spots.

On one such day as we climbed back up the path breathing the green smells of the forest, the crash of the river muffled by the trees, we met a man coming down the trail with a dog toddling beside him, a spaniel mix with light blond hair and the droopy look of a senior.

“Well, here comes another old dog,” the man said with a warm, knowing smile as he looked at Bear. I laughed lightly, not quite sure what to say. Is four old for a Lab? I half wondered in my still fairly new acquired position as a dog owner. That doesn’t seem right.

“How old is she?” he asked.

“Four,” I replied.

“Oh,” he said, slightly taken aback, “She’s just a young thing.” Then added, by way of explanation I suppose, “She has a lot of gray on her chin.” I looked sideways at Bear and felt slightly insulted on her behalf.

“Yes,” I laughed again, and shrugged. “I guess she’s had a stressful life.”

As Bear and I continued along the trail bathed in golden light filtered by the trees, I thought of the times during the previous year when Bear’s life was less than tranquil; like the time she was dumped out of the canoe in a set of rapids, or got lost in the woods at night when she was frightened by a mistakenly fired bear-banger, or when her eyes swelled shut from bug bites before her body got used to them, or the time she slid off a polished rock into the cold waters of Lake Superior.

She earned every one of those gray hairs, I thought as we arrived back at the car. And she had a lot of fun doing it.

Bear is ten now and there have been countless more stressful events in her life since that day in the woods - a box of kittens, a borderline-psychotic puppy, and life-altering leg injuries to name but three. Her gray hair is no longer contained to just the very tip of her chin, but stretches all the way to her neck.

It fans out from her nose and along her lips as though she has rested her chin for a moment in a pail of flour. Tufts of white grow inside her ears and on the bottoms of her feet while, recently, sporadic strands have begun to appear along the ridges of her eyebrows. And Bear, just being Bear, catching sticks, demanding peanut butter, walking in the woods, defies labels and wears it all like a badge of honour.