The air smells like autumn leaves and sunshine, wet earth and swamp grass. We are on the trail that weaves its way from the end of our road through new growth forest of mostly poplar, past more mature stands of cool green spruce trees, along the edge of swamp land and eventually up the side of a small mountain.
Murdoch has fallen behind, which is weird. Usually he is more of a “me first” kind of dog, charging ahead, barely looking back. I am suspicious but keep walking because it feels good and free on this warm fall day in the sunshine with the leaves bright yellow like lemon candies wrapped in clear cellophane and stark white tree branches looking polished and new against a sapphire blue sky, unblemished by even the slightest wisp of a cloud.
It is perfect and I want to keep moving over the flattened grass along this part of the trail I haven’t been on in months. It has opened up again after the swamp receded enough for the ATVs to skirt and flatten and ravage their way past the deep pools gathered in the middle of the trail. I took advantage of this mild devastation and picked my way around the muck, sticking to the long grasses that are flattened down like mats and painted sickly gray with dried mud. On the other side of the swamp the trail narrows considerably, hemmed in on both sides by battalions of ten-foot tall new-growth trees standing shoulder to shoulder, lining the path to the mountain. Today, I think, I could walk the whole trail.
Jack trots along beside me, which is also weird. He is the one who usually disappears amongst the trees on this trail and from whom I have to keep Murdoch distracted so he won’t follow and then not return, which has happened more than once. But for the moment we walk together, Jack and I, with the joint purpose of exploration, his collar jingling companionably, and I shuffle Murdoch’s absence to the back of my mind.
My pace slows as I consider turning back and then I hear him coming, his feet thundering over the ground, claws tearing at the grass, I can almost feel the vibrations as he pounds up behind me. I love this part, I think, as he whips past in a black blur and keeps running, his feet flying in all directions, sunlight flashing off his shiny black coat. Murdoch runs for the pure joy of it.
Jack leaps after him, his ears bouncing up and down with his round gait and I laugh at how different they are and how much fun they have in the simple things and I think how lucky I am to be here with them on this glowing trail beneath an endless blue sky on this warm sunny day. And then I get a whiff of something sour and rotten and pungently wild and I think there must be something dead just off the trail. But I know before I really know and I stop abruptly and watch my spirits collapse around my feet.
A picture flashes in my head of Murdoch alone on the trail after Jack and I have marched away, stumbling upon this rotten thing that could only smell good to a dog and throwing himself into it, writhing with glee.
“Murdoch!” I shout. “Why do you do that? That’s disgusting!” He looks back at me from where he’d been skipping ahead with Jack and I spin around on my heel, start walking back down the trail. “Walk’s over,” I yell. “We’re going back.”
Murdoch charges towards me and I step to the very edge of the trail as he bounds to a stop. “Don’t touch me!” I say, imagining him sidling up to my side, bumping my leg good-naturedly. The hair on the top of his head is slicked up into a cowlick and the soft fur behind his right ear is matted and greasy and his shoulder looks a bit suspect as well. “Just go!” I point savagely back the way we came.
I storm down the trail herding Murdoch ahead of me, thwarting his attempts to get me to throw sticks for him, enticing him onward with the word “swim” snapped repeatedly from my mouth. It keeps him focused and moving forward because Murdoch loves the water and at the spot where the trail leaves the road, a great culvert ushers a creek into a depression in the land where it gathers in a pool that Murdoch cannot resist. My plan is to make him leap into that water again and again until all the stink is washed off. It has worked before.
Today, however, after a good dousing I still detect a hint of odour beneath the cold, earthy smell of the water as I lean in precariously for a sniff. He is soaked through and I can already hear water sloshing about in his stomach. It doesn’t seem right to make him go in again, even though he would do it in a heartbeat. But I don’t want to give him a bath either.
Murdoch has never officially had a bath because the one time I tried to bathe him in a little blue kiddie pool out the front of our house, he eyed the water suspiciously and refused to go in. When I scooped up water in a tiny bucket and sloshed it over his head, he went crazy, running in circles like his tail was on fire and despite a tremendous feat of self-control on his part he did eventually jump up on me, raking his claws across my arm and leaving some lovely red scratches that lasted a good week.
So no bath, but I could spot-wash him, I think. At home I make him wait outside while I get a basin of warm water, a towel and some soap. I wring water from the towel over him and rub a dab of lavender and tea tree dish soap into the fur on his head, behind his ear, over his neck and shoulders. It goes surprisingly well. There is no jumping or scratching or running in circles. In fact I think he almost enjoys it. And when I finish toweling off the excess water, he stands frazzled and clean in the dappled sun on the deck with just the slightest air of lavender about him. But mostly he smells like wet dog, which is pretty much perfect.