Monday, May 30, 2011

Tick days

The ticks came early this year. I watched in horror as they lumbered across the snowy trail in early April, fat and swollen like ripened grapes that have rotted on the vine. My mouth hung open in a silent scream. They must have dropped from the moose whose tracks we were following.

I clutched Murdoch’s leash tighter as we skirted around those alien creatures making their way across the top of a frozen landscape beneath which I was sure they should still be lying dormant. Gagging, skin starting to crawl, I dragged Murdoch down the trail as he worked to inhale every last scent left by the moose. I tried not to panic but all I could think of was this new breed of super-tick that defied the snow, our last defense.

A month and a half later Murdoch and I sit side by side on the edge of the deck, my arm draped across his neck. I comb through the long fur of his chest with my hand then follow the bony ridge along the front of his shoulder blade, twirling his wiry hair around my fingers. I glance sideways at him, see his eyes fluttering half-closed and I give him a quick one-armed hug.

“Good boy Murds,” I say as I shift sideways and run my hands along his shaggy snout, around his eyes and over his cheeks. Then I find it; what I’ve been looking for, a bump. I brush his hair back from the spot to reveal the light brown teardrop shaped body of an already expanding tick. With one hand still smoothing the hair around Murdoch’s ear, I grasp the tick firmly between the thumb and forefinger of my other hand and gently pull.

It comes away with a tiny, tissue-thin, piece of skin. “Good boy,” I say again and tousle the hair on his head as if it is a game. Murdoch jumps to his feet and turns quickly to see what I have done, goes cross-eyed as he sniffs the tick and his skin and a few strands of his hair pinched between my thumb and finger.

“I knew one of you had a tick on your face,” I say as I get up from the deck and walk over to the stones so I can crush the little parasite under a rock.

I spend a lot of time during tick season massaging Bear and Murds around the shoulders, neck and head, administering impromptu belly rubs and smoothing the fur around their ears. They love it. And somehow in all of that I seem to have developed a sixth sense that not only tells me if one, or both, of the dogs have a tick on them but almost exactly where it can be found.

I can deal with the ticks when they’re small and dark brown and shiny, have even made a kind of peace with them as part of life on the edge of the wilderness. It’s the fat ones that turn me inside out.

I didn’t see any more mutant ticks defying the laws of nature since that fateful day in April, but the image of those inflated sickly gray bodies creeping across the white snow flashes through my brain periodically like a scene from a horror movie I can’t get out of my head. And I search my dogs again, a little more carefully.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Random act of kindness

“Okay, that’s enough,” I said as I scooped Cleo into my arms. “You’re coming with me.” I knew she’d be back, but at least Bear could spend five minutes not drowning in cat.

The second I knelt down in front of Bear to stretch out her legs and scratch her back, Cleo was there, two-stepping under Bear’s chin, chirping and mewing, trying to brush up against my arms, Bear’s face, anything that brought us all into contact with each other.

Shoving her away didn’t work. She only came back more determined each time. I deflected her with my elbows and knees when she returned to us as if fired from a slingshot from the outer edges of Bear’s blanket. Finally, I decided to remove Cleo from the entryway completely.

At the best of times Cleo is not big on being held, she doesn’t melt into your arms like Chestnut does, but stiffens up, splaying her legs out in all directions; it’s kind of like hugging a fat starfish.

As I carried her rather unceremoniously towards the stairs, clamped awkwardly to my chest with her mountainous white belly stuck out in front and her paws spread wide at the ends of her rigid legs, she twisted sideways and a searing pain exploded on the surface of my arm. I froze, rendered speechless for a moment, as a needlepoint claw that should have been cut a week ago, pierced my sweatshirt and hooked itself into the sensitive skin of my upper arm. I was stunned that something so small and simple could hurt so much.

It felt as though her toenail was barbed in five different directions. It was stuck fast in my arm and there was no way I could pull it out, moving even slightly made the pain intensify as the claw dug deeper and twisted sadistically. The best I could do was suck air noisily through my teeth and choke out a few sounds that vaguely resembled speech. “Aaargh! Cleo! Aaaargh!”

Murdoch came clattering out of his kennel to see what all the fuss was about, eyes inky black pools, always eager to help when a cat is getting in trouble, “Want me to take care of that little problem for you?”

“Murdoch, in kennel!” Morgan commanded as he appeared at the top of the stairs. All the excitement was too much for Cleo who ripped her claw from my skin and thumped to the ground, disappearing at a run. “Aaargh!” I cried again with that final flare of pain.

“In kennel Murdoch,” Morgan said again, focusing on Murdoch’s blatant disobedience now that the Cleo crisis was over. He passed me on the stairs as I climbed to the kitchen, the relief of a dull ache settling over that pinpoint of skin.

Murdoch backed in to his kennel as Morgan stood beside him. I looked over the railing in the kitchen as I rubbed at the tiny bruise that was appearing on my arm. Murdoch wouldn’t take his eyes off me. His face peered up at me from under the edge of his kennel, every bit of excitement gone from his brown eyes, replaced with something akin to concern.


“I think he wants to know if you’re okay,” Morgan said. I hung over the railing and made eye contact. “I’m okay Murds,” I said. “It’s fine.” But he didn’t move.

“No, I think you have to come down here and see him,” Morgan said. I couldn’t help but smile a little as I returned to the entryway. “Come here Murds,” I said when I reached the bottom step. He bolted from his kennel with great purpose and screeched to a halt in front of me.

I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t melt a little bit then for that egomaniac. Displays of selflessness are so rare with him I revel in them. I hugged him around the neck as he rested the top of his head just below my chin. “Good boy Murds,” I said and kissed his ear.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Water wars

The repeating click, slosh, smack of a tongue greedily scooping up water cuts into my thoughts and I realize I’ve been listening to it for quite some time.

“Okay, Murds,” I say in my serious voice. “That’s enough.” There’s a few more quick slurps followed by the whispered lapping of a soft tongue against linoleum, as Murds mops up the water he splashed over the side of the dish, and then it’s quiet.

I glance over my shoulder to make sure he’s really done and is lying down. I can always tell it’s him at the water dish because of his frenzied attempt to inhale every last drop. Bear drinks at a much slower, more methodical pace, but Murdoch has an ulterior motive, I can see it in his rigid posture and the glazed, manic look in his eyes when he plunges his tongue into the water.

In Murdoch’s world, everything is about leverage, about timing, who’s first, who’s stronger, who controls this environment right now. To Murdoch, a water dish is not just a water dish; it is something to be conquered, manipulated, won.

The water dish wars began when Murdoch and Max shared a space that no longer included a locked kennel door. The two of them lived side by side with Max always, always, getting preferential treatment. He got fed first, went outside first, got attention first. I wanted there to be no doubt in Murdoch’s mind where he ranked

Murdoch had other ideas.

The one thing he had control of was their water and he wasted no time in asserting his dominance as far as that was concerned. Murdoch drained Max’s dish at every opportunity. If Max was drinking from his dish, Murdoch would sit nearby, fidgety and wide-eyed, then move in as soon as Max turned away. It became an obsession

It was kind of funny at first, another eccentricity to add to the lengthening list of Murdoch’s delinquent personality traits. But it escalated as Murdoch’s evil plan unfolded and I stood one day in the entryway yelling for Morgan’s help as I hauled Murdoch off Max’s neck.

Max had just come in from outside and was in his wheelchair when Murdoch pounced and tackled him to the ground. His wheels stayed firmly on the floor while his front legs slipped out from under him and he lay twisted with the front half of his body lying flat at my feet.

In that moment my mind flickered back to the first days Murdoch lived with us, before he had a name, when we thought he might be crazy and didn't want to keep him.

I locked Murdoch in his kennel and turned to help Max who was stuck, unable to push himself back up. I could have strangled Murdoch then, or at the very least banished him to some far off land of giant dogs who would torment him relentlessly.

After that, we added a third water dish and started reminding Murdoch that it’s not a race and he doesn’t have to drink it all at once. I don’t think he really got it.

Murdoch doesn’t challenge Bear the same way he did with Max, the water seems to have lost some of its significance, but we still have to remind him his bladder is only so big, and usually we make him wait until Bear is done.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bear’s fan club

“Poor Bear,” I say as I kneel down beside her and smooth my hands over her face. I start at her nose and work up towards the top of her head, running my thumbs along the space between her eyes as my fingers spread out across her cheeks, wiping away the wispy white cat hairs that cling to her black face.

She peers up at me with her big brown eyes, making her lips look extra droopy, “Yes,” she seems to say. “Poor me.”

Beside her, taking up about two-thirds of the blanket, Cleo sprawls on her stomach, shaped like a teardrop. Her front legs form two perfectly straight lines, stretched as far forward as her paws can reach. Face-on she becomes an inverted triangle, her paws are the tip, the base her relaxed ears. Everything in between falls neatly into place as though in her contentment she is melting downward, to a point, while her self-satisfied feline smile puffs out her chipmunk cheeks.

If Murdoch wasn’t lying nearby, Chestnut would be here too, purring his bulldozer-engine purr, snuggling up to Bear’s other side, boxing her in.

I don’t know if the cats think they are small dogs or if they think Bear is a really big cat, but if they could hold up banners and march around with them clutched in their front paws they would be painted with things like “We love you Bear!” and “Bear rules!”

They have worshipped Bear since the day they met her. Brought home in a box with four other three-week-old kittens, I doubt they had ever seen a dog before, Bear was probably their first and when she didn’t try to eat them, they installed her as some kind of idol.

Since then, their roles as Bear’s biggest fans have only grown.

When Bear walks into a room the cats leap to their feet and rush at her, winding around her legs and arching their backs to rub against her chin or belly. I imagine them squealing her name, “It’s Bear!” as though she is some kind of rock star disembarking from a plane, gracing them with her presence on her world tour.

They act as though their reverence is some kind of great honour. Cleo spends every waking moment keeping tabs on Bear’s movements, watching her from afar if not right in her face, while Chestnut embraces his flying visits when Murdoch is outside. As soon as the door is closed with Murdoch safely on the other side, Chestnut stomps purposefully down the stairs and makes a beeline for Bear on her blanket. If she has also gone outside, Chestnut contents himself with rolling around on her bed, inhaling the Bearness from her blanket, often burrowing in between layers and lying still, transported to some Zen place.

As far as Bear is concerned however, she looks like she wants to crawl into a hole when the cats show up. She mopes around with cat hair clinging to her fur and lets out deep gut-wrenching sighs whenever a cat encroaches on her space. She tries to look away when Cleo marches around in front of her meowing and prancing in some kind of bonding ritual only she understands.

Mostly, Bear conducts her daily routines as if the cats don’t exist at all. The cats have refused to acknowledge this, preferring, I think, to believe Bear loves them just as much as they love her. How could she not?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fearless hunters

Our house was made for cats; three stories, tall and skinny, straight up into the trees, with lots of windows. Chestnut and Cleo spend their time between naps dashing from window to window, clattering up and down stairs, chattering at birds and squirrels.

Deer render them silent, but fascination and curiosity always get the better of them and they peer over the lips of window sills, resting their paws gently on the wood, ready to duck down and slink away at a moments notice.

Of course we’ve had our share of mice scrabbling in the walls and the few that have ventured into the house have not been long for the world, but the thing that probably occupies the cats’ time the most is moths and other doomed flitting things that find their way inside.

In the summertime hordes of moths plaster the front of our house, drawn to the outside light. Some of the moths are the size of small birds. The cats know this and wait by the door. Well, Cleo waits by the door, Chestnut sits on the bottom step of the short flight up to the kitchen ready for a quick getaway if Murdoch decides to lunge in his direction.

Inevitably moths get in, no matter how much we flap our hands and turn off lights and fumble around in the dark to let the dogs out. So we spend many summer evenings racing the cats to capture the papery fluttering creatures, and set them free again.

They’ve already started to appear, and as I lay in bed reading one evening I became aware of the cats sitting pin-straight, side by side, almost pressed right up against the wall, staring bug eyed at the ceiling. Our bedroom is the top floor of our house, the ceiling follows the line of the roof, peaked in the center and sloping down to three-foot walls on either side of the room. The bed, pushed up against one of those walls, sits directly on the floor, as does my reading lamp, which is often the last light on in the house and is a beacon for wayward moths.

I put down my book with a deep sigh and followed their gazes up the slope of the ceiling. The brown moth rested just out of their reach, the most enticing place it could be. The cats stretched up the wall, their claws clicking against wood. I tried turning off the light for a while, but when I turned it back on the moth hadn’t moved and the cats were still sitting, rapt, eyes like marbles, the tips of their tails flicking back and forth.

Great. Either I was going to have to get up and catch the moth or listen to the two of them dance about for half the night, then feel guilty for letting the poor thing get eaten.

Cleo began to pace restlessly then stood poised to jump onto the dresser that stood against the joining wall and would put her within reach of the moth.

“Cleo!” I said sharply, slapping my hand on the wooden floor to try and break her concentration. She ignored me and launched herself onto the dresser, landing on the clock radio. It blared to statically crashing life. This she also ignored as she tiptoed around in a circle to get her balance, never once taking her eyes from the moth. I flung back the covers, leapt across the floor and gave Cleo a hefty shove. She landed with a loud thump that managed to sound annoyed.

I turned off the radio and then reached for the moth. I caught it on my first try, folding the fingers of my right hand gently over my palm, closing the moth inside, where its wings whispered against my skin.

I opened the window just enough, as the cats looked on in wide-eyed disbelief, and pushed my arm out into the black night before opening my hand. I pulled it back quickly and closed the window so nothing else would fly in. As I gave the window a final crank closed, I felt something crawling on the back of my hand and I shook it without thinking. The moth fluttered into the shadows of the room.

I didn’t see where it went, neither did the cats, but they knew it was somewhere. I joined them on the edge of the bed and the three of us, sitting tall and straining to hear the dry patter of moth wings on wood, scanned the ceiling in silence.