Monday, July 25, 2011

Cleofatra and the baby gate revisited

When Morgan brought home the box of kittens, almost six years ago now, Cleo was the second smallest of the bunch. She fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, a tiny ball of fluff with big green eyes peering out of her classically beautiful feline face.

Her features are still rather delicate, her paws dainty, her tail not overly long. Above her little face, framed by luxuriant white whiskers that catch the sun just so, perch her ears, two small triangles. I think she would be quite a petite cat today if she had not settled so easily into the pampered life of a housecat, expanding ever outward, becoming rounder and rounder.

Sitting in the kitchen I hear a quiet creak and gentle rattle of wood on wood and glance over at the baby gate at the top of the stairs, put there to keep Murdoch from bolting up from the entryway every five minutes to wreak havoc on the rest of the house. It is attached to the wall with hinges so it can be opened and closed like a door.

Cleo’s head and shoulders are framed by the square hole in the gate that is there for the purpose of cat thoroughfare. One little white paw rests on the bottom edge of the hole, behind it, Cleo’s face is set in determination as she pulls on the gate, trying to open it enough to slip under and emerge into the kitchen.

She began avoiding the hole after that day she got stuck halfway through and the gate began to open as she scrabbled at the kitchen floor with her front paws. It swung out over the stairs and she was left hanging there for a moment, folded in half, before she finally slithered through and walked up the stairs as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all.

Cleo will still use the hole if she has to, squeezing herself through slowly, careful not to be too bargey and risk repeating that embarrassing predicament. But when she can, she prefers to use the gate like a door, swinging it open on its hinges dramatically as if to make a grand statement of, “I’m a cat and no gate will stop me!”

I sit at the kitchen table and watch as she tugs on the gate with a little more force. When it doesn’t open I swear I see a look of disappointment cross her face. “Oh man, it’s locked.” Followed by resolved determination. “Okay, I’m going through.” I imagine I hear a sigh of resignation and then I take pity on her. I move to get up and Cleo’s eyes focus on me, suddenly brighter with a hint of relief. And she waits.

I swing the gate open for her. It squeaks on its hinges and she has to duck underneath as it floats over the top of her head where she sits on the first step down. Then she snakes underneath, tiptoeing quietly into the kitchen.

After a stiff-legged tour of the room followed by a quick stretch in a patch of sun, Cleo returns to the stairs. She throws open the gate so it bangs against the wall and stomps back down to the entryway.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Flowers and smelly dogs

The world is green and blue. Foliage encroaches on the trail. Buttercups on spindly geometric stems spill on to the path with daisies and softer, five-petaled white flowers I haven’t identified. Ahead, beneath the clear sky of vibrant blue, Murdoch and his Rottweiler friend weave in and out of the tall grasses that march down the center of the trail. I mosey behind, keeping an eye on their wagging tails.

Beyond the shade of forest patches still standing amongst the re-growth of a clear-cut the wild plants grow faster and bigger, everything is more abundant and the flowers tumble right across the trail. I stop to watch two electric blue bugs, like mini dragonflies, each thinner than a toothpick, hovering amongst the buttercups. Mesmerized, I lean closer but they are so delicate I can’t hear the sound they make or see their wings until they land on a blade of grass. For a moment it was like some magical crossover from another world to this one and when I look up, the dogs are gone.

I know where they are headed, so I continue along the trail, walking faster, calling and listening.

I reach the spot where the ground curves up away from the trail, becomes a berm that is almost at eye level but obscured by the abundant undergrowth. On the other side of the berm is a great, wide pond. I hear splashing and call again. The splashing seems to be getting farther away.

I hesitate for a moment, think of ticks, before plunging in to the waist-high foliage. I climb the steep, but short embankment and emerge atop the lip of the half-bowl that encloses the pond. On the other side I see two small black shapes trudging out from the weedy water.

“Come on you guys!” I yell, hoping to get their attention before something else does. They almost vanish behind a green veil of waving grasses; I can just make out vague dark shapes when their heads appear and look my way, a pair of pink tongues hanging askew. “Let’s go!” I yell.

They skirt part of the pond, which has become a large obsidian disc reflecting tops of trees upside down on its surface. Murdoch wades in up to his shoulders sending gentle black ripples across to where I stand. He looks as though he is preparing to swim across and for a moment I am happy he is listening to me and then I remember he is not a strong swimmer and I think he might panic halfway across.

Also, it is a beaver pond. The great mound of a den rises up from the center of the pond all beached and broken sticks and chalky-beige dried mud. It has been there so long grasses grow over it; it is a balding head emerging from the water. I am worried about the dogs getting attacked by a beaver and am relieved when they turn around and disappear back into the grass.

I call again hoping I do not have to trudge through the harsh weeds that grow on top of the berm and sludge through the muck I know edges the pond. For a moment it is quiet and then their black shapes are crashing towards me, bouncing along the lip of land. I laugh as they tumble to a stop in front of me, tramping down the weeds as though they are no more than air. They smile and shake and I am covered in specks of muddy water, awash in hot breath and pungent smells of marsh.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The sky is falling

It is a relief to step into the shade of our forest when we return from our walk. In a cloudless sky the colour of forget-me-nots, the sun is a smear of white fire and floods the dirt road below. It illuminates different shades of green in leaves and grasses, creating a sort of stained-glass mosaic and it defines in shadow and light the distant hills.

Murdoch and I usually meander home after our walks, treading the bleached road slowly, bearing the heat from the sun as if it is a solid thing. He slinks beside me, fluffy and tired out after a run up the trail followed by an energetic plunge in the swimming hole at the end of our road. Beads of water still glisten amongst his shaggy fur and his tongue hangs almost to his knees.

As we step across the threshold of our forest, that solid line where shade meets sun, it becomes almost easier to breathe and I am amazed each time how much cooler it is. Our feet crunch over gravel as we follow the overgrown path to the house. As we approach the screen door, I can see Bear is sprawled on her bed, dozing through the heat of the afternoon.

In these first moments after our walks Murdoch sinks to the floor, panting and relaxed and Bear flumps back onto her bed after lifting her head in greeting, and light shimmers through the trees into the house as the cats snooze in golden squares of sun. These are moments of perfection. And then inevitably Murdoch will make some guttural sound and Bear’s world crumbles around her.

I am in the kitchen getting a drink of water when I hear Murdoch’s panting change pitch and then stop with a wet hacking sound as though he’s gagging on excess saliva or a super-dry throat or some stick detritus.

“Bear, you’re fine,” I say before I even turn towards the entryway and look down over the railing. But it’s too late. She has already scrambled to her feet and is charging up the stairs, her nails clacking on wood. She bumps her nose aggressively against the baby gate again and again, making it shake and rattle on its hinges. Get me out of here!!

“Bear. No,” I say, trying to be firm yet understanding, though I really don’t get the problem. Bear has been known to make the same gagging sound herself. In fact it is a very common thing that dogs do, and her complete over reaction to Murdoch’s dogness is a little baffling. She acts as though he is about to explode and I wonder sometimes if her panic stems from concern for his well-being, but no, most likely it is from disgust at the thought of being covered in bits of Murdoch when he finally blows.

“Bear!” I shout as she tries to fit her face through the hole we cut in the gate for the cats. She looks at me with eyes bugging out of her head. “You’re fine,” I say again and then push my way past her down the stairs and call her to her bed. She quick-marches behind me trying to hide under my legs and when I kneel on her blanket, smoothing it with my hands, she hunkers down and squeezes herself under my arms, just about lying on top of me.

“Relax,” I say as I try to pet her belly, but she pushes herself forward, puts her face close to mine and pants in my ear. I glance sideways and I’m staring into a big brown eye.

“Bear, you’re being a bit ridiculous,” I tell her as I stroke her ears. She looks at me as though she is on the verge of agreeing; perhaps she is being ridiculous. Then Murdoch hacks again and Bear actually starts trembling and I’m sure she would climb into my pocket if she could.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Just add (less) water

Bear stands at the bottom of the stairs anxiously shifting her weight from one paw to another. A thin line of drool spills from the corner of her mouth as I return to the entryway carrying two dog bowls full of food.

Murdoch scrambles from the wooden chair whose seat he stood on with his front paws to peer through the spindles into the kitchen and watch me pour kibble into the bowls. It sounds like he has eight feet instead of four as he spins around, then he lifts his leg on the threshold of his kennel. I stop mid-stride, stunned for a minute as I watch the dark stain spread out in a circle from the corner of his blanket.

“Murdoch, no! Bad!” I say as I put the bowls of food on top of his kennel. “Outside.” He stops peeing and trots to the door where I hook him on his line and send him out.

“What the hell?” I say to his retreating form and then to myself as I turn back to the kennel and start carefully gathering up his blanket. “If he had to pee why didn’t he ask? And why would he pee on his own bed?” I look at Bear who continues to drool on the floor while eyeing the bowls where I put them out of reach. “Um, I still get to eat supper though, right?”

As I stuff Murdoch’s blanket into the washing machine I try to think if there was some clue I missed. Did he ask to go out and I didn’t notice? But when I appeared to collect their dishes for dinner, Murdoch was lying on the floor in a relaxed sprawl. Perhaps he didn’t realize he had to pee until he leapt up at the utterance of the word “supper” and then he was too distracted by thoughts of food to even consider going outside.

His bladder must have been bursting I realized, feeling like a delinquent dog owner. He had gone swimming earlier, which means he probably drank about a gallon of water, but he never said anything. Usually, Murds is not a dog who keeps his opinions to himself, but for some reason in the three years he’s lived with us he has only ever asked to go out a handful of times.

The first winter we lived in our house Murdoch spent half a day outside eating every scrap of snow I shoveled from the roof and the path and the driveway. That evening while I sat in the kitchen and heard water running, it took me a minute to realize it was coming from the entryway. When I looked over my shoulder, I found Murdoch, leg cocked, flooding the tiles around the woodstove.

Last summer when Morgan and I took the dogs to a river near our home for a day of swimming, Murdoch drank so much water it later leaked out of him while he slept on the floor. Twice I found him lying in a big puddle of water as though it had seeped through his skin and I thought for a while there was something wrong with him. Later I realized he just doesn’t have any self-control and would probably drain the entire river if we let him.

I hear Murdoch’s feet pad purposefully across the deck and then his face appears at the screen door. “Murds, you have to tell me when you need to go out,” I say as I let him back in. He storms past me, completely unconcerned, and clatters into his kennel. He sits politely on the now bare metal floor and fixes me with his wide-eyed, expectant stare. I shake my head as I reach for the bowls of food and silently wish for the conscience of a dog.