Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Feeling the cold

When Morgan, Bear and I announced eight years ago that we were moving to Thunder Bay in the middle of the winter, we were most often greeted with a loaded silence followed by, “Why?” asked in such a way that suggested we might be just a bit crazy.

We really didn’t have a solid reason for our decision other than because it is on the shores of Lake Superior and is surrounded by great tracts of accessible wilderness and because it is far enough north to get real winters with cold and snow, something we were experiencing less and less of in southern Ontario.

We were set to move in January. So, that Christmas I was festooned with gifts of woollen hats and scarves and mitts, far more than I could ever wear. Apparently everyone thought I might freeze to death.

And some well-meaning family member bought Bear a knit sweater dotted all over with a snowflake pattern.

We had never considered getting Bear a sweater. Sweaters, we thought, were for dogs too small to create their own body heat or for those with such short coats that they may as well be naked. Bear, being a Lab with thick black fur and plenty of body-warming bulk on her 80+ lb frame, was quite capable, we were sure, of fending for herself.

The sweater was about two sizes too small. We could tell by looking at it that it would be a tight fit, but we tried to squeeze her into it anyway. It was the kind that actually goes on like a sweater, over the head and then the front legs fitted through a couple of stubby sleeves.

We only got it about ¼ of the way on. The neck of the sweater was stretched to its limit, making visible each individual stitch. The body of the sweater was completely twisted to the side, with one paw jammed through one sleeve as far as her elbow so it functioned like a sling and she sat there hunched over, ears flat, one paw pointing straight out in front of her and she rolled her eyes up at us and just about said, “Are you kidding me?”

The sweater was never seen again.

I thought about it the other day though, as the real cold finally descended on us this winter, the kind that snaps at your skin and freezes your breath to your hair. We were up in the woods cutting firewood with the dogs. Murdoch buzzed back and forth, leaping over downed trees, disappearing amongst hosts of snow-covered pine trees and running and running and running. Bear diligently sniffed every inch of the trail and then veered off into the deep, un-trodden snow and investigated that.

She emerged from beneath a canopy of clustered balsam trees, covered in snow from her nose to her tail and I noticed she was shivering. She looked at me as if to say she wanted to go inside and then she and I quick-marched back to the house where I wrapped her in blankets in front of the woodstove and thought perhaps she could use a sweater.

We never really forget that Bear is sick, but it is easy to sweep it to the back of our minds most days as she skips through the woods behind Murdoch and jumps enthusiastically for sticks and eats with gusto. But her illness is making her more sensitive to things like the cold and food. If she doesn’t keep moving when she’s outside, she starts to shiver and if she eats too much of the wrong thing, she becomes bloated almost instantly.

And then there are those seizures.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I thought it was food

I noticed the stick of wood on the floor as I crossed the entryway from the stairs to the woodstove. It was about six inches in length and perfectly cylindrical, like a small piece of dowelling rod. I frowned as I bent down to pick it up, wondering exactly what it was and why it was lying there conspicuously in the middle of the floor when it was so obviously not firewood related.

It took just a moment to understand what happened as I examined it more closely. The one end that was frayed and splintered gave it away almost instantly.

“Murdoch ate the wooden spoon,” I called up to Morgan in the kitchen.

“Nice,” came the sarcastic reply.

It was Christmas day and we had put a cast iron frying pan into the woodstove filled with a small crowd of chestnuts to roast them for our stuffing. The wooden spoon Morgan used to jostle them about when we pulled them out of the stove to check on their progress was left lying on the low windowsill of the large bay window beside the stove.

In the short time it took for Morgan to place it there and return to the kitchen and then for me to go downstairs to check on the chestnuts, Murdoch snatched it from the sill and munched away the entire bowl of the spoon, and nothing more. He ate the part that is most heavily infused with various smells and tastes of a hundred cooked meals and discarded the rest. I’m sure it tasted delicious, if not a bit splintery.

We were not really surprised that Murdoch ate the spoon, he has eaten utensils before, though those were metal ones that he didn’t really eat so much as maim and disfigure, but that was during his complete delinquent phase early in our relationship. Lately he has been much more civilized. Or, so we thought. I realize now it may be that he’s just getting wilier.

He has put a lot of effort into dazzling us with good behaviour, such as not jumping all over people when they arrive at the house, playing a more mannerly game of stick, learning to bring his Kong when asked and not continuing to bark like a lunatic when told to stop. It has all been rather impressive, even stunning at times, so much so that we let down our guards and have done things like leaving tasty wooden spoons just lying around, or not properly defending our food at the kitchen table.

It was just a few days after Christmas that Murdoch cruised on tiptoe past the table and snagged the lettuce and a slice of bread from Morgan’s turkey sandwich.

“No!” Morgan yelled in his deepest, loudest voice. "Bad boy!" And I spun around from where I stood at the counter in time to see a blur of white and green something fall to the floor with Murdoch’s nose closely behind and as I stepped in to grab his collar, his teeth clunked against the wooden floor, his toenails skittered wildly, as he made a frenzied attempt to eat everything in one gulp.

Clearly he was becoming bolder. Or else he decided his good behaviour wasn’t really getting him anywhere. Christmas had come and gone and all he got for his more mannerly efforts was a new collar and a squeaky hamburger whose purpose continues to elude him.

So, it’s back to being pushy in the kitchen, grazing the counter with his nose, “accidentally” brushing our hands with his tongue while we’re cooking, and eating anything within reach that remotely smells like food, or not.

After all, it’s a whole year till next Christmas and a full ten months before he has to start at least pretending to be good.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Just another day, but not really

I come home tired and ready for tea.

Another night of broken sleep, lying in the dark listening for Bear, the clippety clop of toenails in a panicked march across the wooden floor after drinking too much water before bed, or the throaty roar and scuffled flailing of limbs as she disappears into another seizure. But there are cats too and I stare, bleary-eyed into the incomplete dark of the bedroom and try to decode the sounds; cat’s wrestling on a chair or sharpening claws on the carpeted scratching post, tiny cat feet thumping hungrily down the stairs, rattle of dishes in the kitchen.

There is not much sleep to be had after 3 o’clock in the morning.

So, home from work, tired, needing food and tea and some quiet. But the sun is shining and it is a beautiful day. At the door, two black dogs tap dance a greeting, tails sweeping large arcs through the air, great excitement to finally be able to go out and play after sleeping all morning.

I eat a late lunch, pour steaming tea from the pot into my mug with a sigh of complete contentment, and I endure the stares with my first sip, and the second, and then the moment has passed and the pressure mounts.

I try not to make eye contact, but I can’t help it. I see Bear’s shape from the corner of my eye lying on her bed, her neck stretching longer and longer, her ears perked forward, her white chin thrust out in anticipation. I glance her way and she stomps her front feet as she lies on her bed, thumps her tail.

“Just a few minutes Beary,” I say and then turn and glance towards where Murdoch sits, just to my right, all prim and proper as though he is the perfect dog and he stands to attention, his tail poised for action and stares into my eyes with the one all important question, “Now?”

I try to finish my mug of tea, but it is no use. The dogs drag me outside and I clomp up the trail behind them in my giant winter boots, my snowpants swishing and my breath billowing out in clouds of steam and I think of the warm house left behind, and I move through the trees slowly without saying a word.

But the dogs leap and skip and tumble up the trail we walk every single day as though they have never been there before, as though it is all brand new, and somehow their enthusiasm rubs off on me.

The sun slants through the trees casting long blue shadows across the snow that, beneath the sun's gaze, has turned golden and sparkly. The trees glow with golden-pink light and the mountains east of us too, every tree and rocky cliff picked out clearly in relief.

We follow the trail up to the back of our property and turn right. Murdoch heads into the new growth forest of spindly gray saplings and I watch his black shape move like a shadow between the growing trees. I call to him before he gets too far, breaking my silence.

“I can see you,” I say, stopping on the trail to watch him move amongst the clamour of trees. I see his shape more than I really see him and it is as though I am squinting through a rain storm. He turns on his heel and comes flying back through the gray haze of tiny tree trunks.

“Look out Bear,” I call ahead where she tromps confidently along the trail and she stops and waits for Murdoch to blur past. He leaps over downed trees, kicks up sprays of snow.

The three of us move towards the western mountains, silhouetted behind the trees by the sun as it skims along the rocky crests. I throw sticks for the dogs to chase as we walk the ever-changing familiar path beneath the deep blue sky and we stay outside until the sun slips behind the mountains and the light in the woods turns flat and cold.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Watching the wind

We can hear the wind before we see it. It rolls in like a wave through the forest, thundering in the distance at first and then swelling to a roar as it batters against the trees right outside the windows. I watch the show from the couch, half covered by a blanket.

I follow the wind’s path through the woods, this invisible force made visible by everything it touches. I watch its rush towards the house, I have a clear view up the trail we walk every day, a clear view of the farthest treetops starting to rock wildly and then the next closest and then the next until the wind crashes about the house and the trees right there spring to over-animated life, limbs tossed about violently.

Bear is stretched out beside me, the weight of her head pushed against my thigh. Chestnut is draped across my stomach purring his loud purr so it fills the room and vibrates through my body.

The wind gusts louder, washes angrily against the house. It creaks a little and there’s a faint whistle at the corner of the roof where tin meets shingles. In my lap Chestnut stops purring abruptly, he turns his face, wide-eyed, to the windows, listens as the wind buffets around the house, and I expect he will jump up and run, crouching, his belly just inches from the floor, down the stairs to the bathroom where he will crawl into the space in the wall behind the vanity. That is where he goes when he’s scared, and strong winds scare him.

But he stays draped across me as that gust rolls away and is not immediately followed by another. I had not planned to stay so long on the couch, but Chestnut is so warm and Bear’s weight against my leg is nice, after she settled down and stopped grumbling about how I have not yet taken her for a walk in the woods.

The day has become gray, though it started out all golden with sunshine and blue sky and it felt like spring for a while, before the wind showed up. Even with the wind, though, it is too warm for January. There have not been any stretches of icy cold temperatures long enough to rid us of ticks and tree-destroying beetles that have invaded our area.

And there is not enough snow, just a thin layer that has melted and refrozen so that it crunches under foot. In the open areas of farmers’ fields the snow has just blown away. In the woods pine needles dot the ground like sprinkles on vanilla icing, and there are bare patches beneath trees, exposing dried-up brown leaves that skitter across the snow with each gust of wind.

There is an abundance of quiet in the house now that Chestnut’s purr is not filling the space. Murdoch sighs from his spot on the stairs, the big wide step at the corner where the stairs make their 90-degree turn down to the kitchen. It is just the right size for him to curl into a ball like a husky in the snow. His sigh is bored, frustrated and carries far more weight than the wind.

I glance at Cleo, her white fluffy belly half exposed where she sleeps soundly on the bean bag chair in front of the windows and I murmur a quiet apology to the dogs as I sink into the couch a little further and watch the next gust of wind make its way down the trail, rolling and crashing amongst the trees and I wait for the wave to hit the house.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013