Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My diabetic cat

The needle is less than a quarter of an inch long and laser thin, its point disappears to almost nothing. I gather Cleo’s skin between the thumb and fingers of my left hand and push the needle into her fur, I expect some resistance when it reaches her skin and I expect a reaction from Cleo. But there is none, no pulling away or twitching or growling or hissing, and there is no resistance, no definite moment when the thin point of the needle contacts anything but air.

Cleo is happily eating her evening meal as I pull at her skin and poke the needle into the gray fur at the back of her neck. She is even purring, I realize, and I am sure I am doing it wrong, so I pull back and try again. I am skeptical that the needle has even found her skin, but it must have, so I push the plunger, remove the needle, check her fur for dampness. It is dry, but the amount of insulin is so small, just two units on the tiny syringe that I think perhaps I wouldn’t even notice it in her fur.

The vet was 99% sure it was diabetes when we took Cleo in to figure out why she was walking funny. Her back legs thumped loudly on the floor when she walked, putting her weight on her hocks instead of on her feet where it should be. She became wobbly at times and plodded slowly up and down the stairs, seeming to put a lot of thought in to her next move when she used to run with reckless abandon, and when she tried to jump on to the couch she only made it half way before sliding back to the floor.

This sort of nerve damage is common in diabetic cats, we are told, glucose toxicity and cell starvation. We feel terrible. How long has this been going on? We ask each other. But we can’t remember. It’s not like we haven’t been paying attention, but Cleo has always lived on the periphery of things, her personality, though very distinct and intermittently loud, is constantly overshadowed by the neediness and egocentricities of everyone else in this house.

Cleo has always been somewhat elusive, which is why it took me being away for a couple of weeks to notice what turned out to be the first sign that something was wrong. “What happened to Cleo?” I said when I walked in the door mid-September, after my absence. She had dropped a bunch of weight. The cat who had always taken the shape of a well-inflated balloon, was suddenly half her “normal” size. When she sat down her back feet no longer disappeared beneath her overflowing belly.

But as I stared at this newly slimmed-down cat with concern, Chestnut appeared beside her, huge and round and just about bursting out of his skin. If Cleo hadn’t been right there I would have thought perhaps he’d eaten her.

Oh, I thought, mystery solved. Clearly Chestnut had been eating all the food, pushing Cleo out of the way to stuff his face with not just his own meals, but hers too. I had seen him do it before which is one of the reasons the cats are separated during meal times, though we had become lax about enforcing that over the summer.

I decided to look on the bright side, Cleo needed to lose weight anyway and with her new size as a starting point I began separating the cats again. Cleo ate in the bathroom with the door closed, giving her ample time to eat at her own pace while Chestnut bolted his food in the kitchen then wandered around meowing for more.

Cleo didn’t bulk up again, but I noticed a patch of hair missing from one of her front legs. That, I chalked up to a stress reaction to being starved because the fur seemed to be growing back in again now that she was actually getting something to eat. But I kept a closer eye on her, seeking her out in the house and paying her more attention. I wasn’t completely unworried.

And then the leg thing started and we knew there was definitely something wrong.

“Is she walking funny?” Morgan said one day.

“Maybe,” I said, though I think I was initially in denial.

“She seems awkward on the stairs,” he said another day.

“Yes,” I agreed. “But she’s not losing any more weight and her eyes are bright and she seems like herself.”

I really didn’t want something to be wrong with this cat who has been hardly any trouble her entire life with us. Except for occasionally letting her frustrations be known by peeing on random things, Cleo could mostly be counted on to be low-maintenance.

But, there it is. Diabetes. Insulin shots twice a day and special food, which Cleo eats behind the closed door of the bathroom. I kneel beside her dish and slip the barely there needle in amongst her fur, aim for her skin, hoping for the best, and Cleo just lets me do it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Waiting for Cleo

I wake up early to stalk the litter box. The cats blink sleepily at me when I turn on the kitchen light and then wrap themselves around my legs even though their official breakfast time is still a couple of hours away. I put down food for Chestnut in the kitchen and take Cleo into the bathroom. I sit on the closed lid of the toilet seat and watch her eat. When she’s done she will use the litter box, that’s her routine, though the day before she did things backwards which is why I am up before the sky begins to lighten, sitting in the cold bathroom half asleep, waiting for my cat to pee.

The sterilized collection cup with the orange lid sits on the countertop beside me; I have taken the top off the covered litter box in the corner. If this goes smoothly, I may be able to sneak back to bed for a few hours.

Cleo finishes eating, eyes the wooden laundry box with Morgan’s clothes from the day before piled on top, then turns and sits by the door.

“You should pee Cleo,” I say and she looks at me with her round green eyes. We stare at each other for a moment and I know it is futile so I open the door and we leave the bathroom together.

I dish myself some yoghurt with blackberries, put the kettle on for tea because it is cold, and eat quietly at the table. Chestnut sits on the chair next to mine, his chin just an inch above the tabletop, and watches me eat by the lonely yellow light of the kitchen. When I’m done, he gets the bowl and I wander over to the railing that overlooks the entryway.

I stand looking down into the darkness with the kitchen light at my back. I am wrapped in a blanket, the hood of my sweatshirt pulled up over my head, as I lean against the wall.

I can just make out Cleo’s lighter coloured shape stretched out beside Murdoch’s dark one. I know it is Murdoch even though it is Molly’s bed because he is curled into a ball the way he does when the house is cold, which it was when I stumbled down the stairs at 5:30 in the morning, the fire burned out so that only the tiniest coals winked weakly when I opened the door of the woodstove, reached in with the metal prod and stirred them up, raked them forward and opened the damper wide, then selected the smallest bits of wood from the cart, peeled some birchbark and tossed it in.

There is a faint orange glow visible through the glass of the stove door indicating heat to come, but my eyes are trained on Cleo, trying to decide if she is settling down for the long haul. She spent the entire day before on that bed while I hovered about waiting for her to do something; lid off the litter box in the bathroom, collection cup standing by.

Behind me the kettle is starting to boil and I make myself a cup of tea instead of a pot, still convinced I may be returning to bed before the day really starts.

I sit at the table and I read, my feet up on the chair where Chestnut sits waiting for something interesting to happen. I sip my tea as the minutes tick by and the blackness at the windows fades to indigo and still Cleo does not pee. “This is insane,” I say to the room.

And then Molly’s face appears at the baby gate at the top of the kitchen stairs and there is no denying the lightening sky and the snowy white woods outside the window emerging from the black. I can hear Morgan upstairs getting out of bed and the day officially starts.

The dogs go out, come in, get breakfast and the cats get second breakfast. I carry Cleo into the bathroom and set her down in front of her dish and then I am sitting in the bathroom for the second time this morning waiting for my cat to pee. And then she does and I catch it in the cup and for a moment I am so excited I forget to be tired.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Under the cover of night

There is a straight line of footprints down the center of the road, a story tapped out on the first thin layer of snow. A story of a dog who has wandered off at bedtime. I shine the dimming beam of my flashlight along the pattern in the perfect white.

“Molly!” I call into the darkness ahead, shine the light on the ground, white and smooth and perfect, like icing on a cake. It looks good enough to eat.

This is a familiar sight, I think: pyjamas, boots, winter coat, flashlight, me looking for a dog. Snowflakes like delicate shards of glass glint in the light as they fall through the beam, tick gently off the hood of my coat.

Molly’s tracks pace out a perfect line from our driveway down the middle of the road, disappearing into the darkness at the farthest reaches of the flashlight. Each step has churned up the unblemished snow into a swirl of a footprint. The even spacing of the prints describes the rhythm of her pace as she snuck away under the cover of night. I imagine the bounce in her step, the happy smile on her face as she bopped along thinking she was being so sneaky. “I am black like the shadows and light of foot, they will not be able to find me.”

She didn’t think about footprints. I am pleased with this first snowfall, this blank canvas that betrays plainly Molly’s secret adventure.

I follow her tracks across the road to the neighbours’ driveway and shine the light ahead to see them disappear in a muddle of snow-covered leaves. I stop at the edge of where the smooth snow on the driveway gives way to the uneven patterns made by leaves strewn on grass and I call Molly quietly, imagining my neighbours looking out to see a flashlight scanning across the front of their house.

I listen and hear nothing but the quiet kiss of the tiniest snowflakes pattering on my coat and on the ground. The longer I stand without moving, without saying a word, the more abrasive my voice sounds when I call again, louder this time.

When I listen again, I hear the faint jingle of her collar and the gentle swish of her feet in new fallen snow and shine the flashlight toward the opposite corner of the house from where I stand. Just beyond the fading beam I see a shadow move and I stare at it until I can make out Molly’s shape, those big ears and sure stride. “Come on,” I say, in a stage whisper. She hesitates and I wonder if she is trying to decide if I have actually seen her or if she is still undercover, and if she has been spotted, how much trouble is she in.

I keep it light and airy. “Good girl Molls, let’s go,” I say turning towards home and waving my arm in a hurry-up fashion. She joins me at a trot and then pulls ahead on the road. “Let’s go home Molly,” I call, keeping my flashlight trained on her diminishing figure as it slowly seeps back into the darkness.

When she sails right past our driveway as though my being there means this is an authorized adventure and therefore not yet over, I yell,  “Molly!” short and crisp. She stops in her tracks, swings sideways on the road and looks back in my direction and I imagine an innocent yet incredulous expression on her face. “Home!” I say pointing with my whole arm up the driveway.  “Fine,” she seems to say as she turns and joins me and we crunch over the snow together up the path to the door.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The civilization of Murdoch… but not really

I am one of the last off the plane, sitting near the back; I watch the scramble of people ahead of me, everyone hurriedly claiming their bags and their places in line. A space is left for me and I step into the aisle.

I imagine Morgan waiting for me on the other side of the double glass doors at arrivals in the airport, watching the faces as they appear around the corner, waiting to see the familiarity of my own. I am excited to see him.

For the last two hours aboard the plane I thought of Bear and missed her terribly. She would always be there whenever I came through those double doors, tail wagging so hard her entire body swayed as soon as she picked me out of the crowd, her brown eyes glued to mine as though to say ‘I will never let you out of my sight again.’

It was one of the best things about returning home, having Bear meet me at the airport. She was always there, to meet people arriving, to see people off. I loved how passersby would smile widely at her, call her beautiful, ask to pet her.

It is a quiet night at the airport. Only a handful of people are milling about in the departure lounge as I walk through. I expect Morgan to be standing in view when I round the corner, the other passengers having already cleared away the waiting crowd, but when I pass through those doors, the space at the end of the short hallway is empty. Perhaps he got caught up with something I think, and walk through.

I head for the escalators, a little disappointed, thinking maybe I will see him downstairs when I hear Morgan’s voice, “Hey,” he says. I turn around and there he is sitting at a bank of chairs against the far wall, the farthest away you can sit from any hubbub at arrivals, and beside him is Murdoch, his black shape like a dark shadow against the white wall.

I let out a laugh of surprise, shaking my head. “What are you doing?” I ask, incredulously, glancing around the empty area, wondering what it was like just moments ago with people streaming by, excitedly greeting other people streaming by.

Murdoch is vibrating, his ears pinned to the side of his head. I can tell he wants to tear around and leap up and down and welcome me home. He is ready to jump out of his own skin. When I reach down to hug him I see he is tied off to the bank of chairs; his eyes are red from over excitement, his tongue is too. I ask, “How did you do this?” And I’m not sure exactly what I mean. How did you make it here without getting killed, or maiming someone, or being tossed out by security? How are you sitting here with this dog?

“He only dragged me down once in the parking lot,” Morgan says, with such a chipper lilt that I think he must be kidding. “Really?” I ask.

Oh yes, he confirms. And then, he tells me, they quick-marched through the main floor of the airport with Murdoch just about walking on his hind legs, eagerly choking himself. They met many people who gave them a very wide berth. “Nice dog,” some apparently called across the distance between them, and not at all in a sarcastic way. I can’t believe they made it this far.

“Why?” I can’t help myself from asking. Why would Morgan risk insult and injury, why would he put himself in a situation where he had to trust a dog he has just never trusted, why would he put himself through the stress of it all?

“Because I knew it would make you happy,” he says.

“Aw,” I say. “It did!”

“Are you ready?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. And we untie Murdoch from the chairs and make a run for it.

Monday, September 22, 2014


The first day of fall arrives with summer clinging to its coattails. It is warm in the woods, the air holding on to the strength of the sun, which has not yet lost its power. Not really. It hangs lower in the sky these days, but the sky is so gloriously blue and completely unblemished, there is nothing to detract from the sun’s heat.

I walk that old familiar path with the dogs, yet it is different, as it always is. Today the treetops, yellowing with the season, hints of orange amongst the gold, glow like stained glass in a cathedral. Mushrooms, startlingly orange, bloom from the rich, dark forest floor, green moss so vibrant it seems to be lit from within, forms a soft carpet over rotted logs and stumps and fills in the spaces between trees. I step carefully around these things, look for the glistening line of a spider’s web so I can duck underneath, direct the dogs around with their clomping and stomping oblivious movements, watch them kick the tops off mushrooms, appear before me with fine strands of webs strung across their faces, between Molly’s ears.

“What?” They seem to say with their eyes as I shake my head disparagingly, and we continue on, clambering over the same downed trees we have been clambering over all year. “But look how the light has changed things,” I want to say to the dogs, “look how the colours are different, how the woods glow this time of year, how perfect it is because there are no mosquitoes, no blackfly, no deerfly, no ticks.”

And I do say these things when I can no longer keep them in as a warm breeze moves through the trees and I stop to watch the treetops sway, listen to them sigh in these few days between seasons before the smell of burnt leaves is carried on the wind with a bite of winter on its heels.

The dogs look at me, bright eyed and full of anticipation, and for a moment I think they get it, of course they do, we are in tune with these woods, the three of us, but then I realize at my feet the ground is strewn with sticks.

Oh. Right.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Early morning visitor

We are woken abruptly by angry barking and lie there for a moment in the early hours of the morning, listening.

Outside the sky is just starting to lighten. Trees at the windows are scraggily black shapes only, no distinction between twig and leaf, against a pale gray twilit backdrop. There is just enough light in the bedroom to make out the beams of the ceiling and the clothes on the floor.

The barking does not stop. We sit up in bed because Murdoch’s forceful voice is insistent, constant, which means there is a reason for the noise. Molly’s staccato bark is there too, but she is a bit of an alarmist, we have learned, and barks at the slightest provocation, so we look to Murdoch for confirmation.

Many times Molly has leapt up from a snooze to bark at the window or the door or just into the room in general, alerting Murdoch to some unknown danger, and many times Murdoch has checked it out with a preliminary huff, ears alert, tail raised high, and then, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, has cast a look over his shoulder at Morgan or me as if to say, ‘She’s crazy’, and then returned to his bed with a grumble. If, on the other hand, he joins in with the alarm, then we know it is to be taken seriously.

So, just before 5:30 am, with Murdoch’s loud voice echoing up through the house and the cats scurrying hastily into our room, we crawl out of bed. Chestnut leaps up on to the wide windowsill, his shape silhouetted against the predawn and I know his curiosity has got the better of him, so I join him at the window to see if I can see anything.

“It’s a bear,” I say before I am even sure. We are three stories up in the trees, looking out over the edge of the second floor roof. In the space between the corner of our rickety old shed and the little pine tree growing valiantly straight, it’s boughs fanned out symmetrically, there is a shadow darker than the other shadows.

“Where?” Morgan says, appearing beside me.

“Just by the edge of the shed,” I say, turning my head sideways to try and get a sense of movement in my peripheral vision.

Downstairs, the dogs are still barking and I imagine them at the tall windows of the entryway, not 20 feet away from the bear, getting angrier at this belligerent creature just wandering around in their woods.

We watch the black shadow morph like an ink stain from one shape to another, more a suggestion of something large and black in the dim light than anything defined and obvious. In a moment the bear turns and lumbers fluidly across our small clearing and up into the woods, although we are confused by a low hanging branch also black in the gray light of predawn and for a moment we think the bear is lingering. But it has gone, and Murdoch’s bark is more pleading now, an entreaty to us to let him out to investigate.

We head downstairs then and Molly meets us in the kitchen. “Did you see a bear?” Morgan asks and she bounces happily and rubs her face on our legs. ‘Now that you’re up,’ she seems to say, ‘Let’s eat and then go play!’

“Good doggies,” I say as I head to the entryway where Murdoch is still standing at the window, vibrating with excitement, eyes glued to the woods. “Good boy Murds,” I say and touch his head. He huffs and shuffles backwards, then forwards, and I add, “No, you are not going out there.”

It is not long before everyone has settled down again and we head back upstairs to bed, although I am sure as the sky lightens quickly I will not really be sleeping.

A couple of hours later, with sunlight streaming through the trees, we get up for real. I wonder where the bear has gone as the Robins, who are nesting in an old Pileated Woodpecker hole in a tree by our house, fly by with worms in their beaks.

Downstairs, Molly greets us again as though she did not just see us two hours earlier, and Murdoch emerges from his kennel stretching eagerly. He is still itching to get outside, but I make him wait for a minute or two because now there is a rabbit in the clearing where the bear had been. His tall ears catch bits of sunlight that filter sideways through the trees while he munches on the green leaves of all kinds of forest plants growing there, and I think I do not want to disturb him because he looks so content.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lost on the mountain

I spent the afternoon picking ticks off the dogs with the sun streaming down on us between the trees. It fell weighty on my shoulders and filled the clearing around our house as I first leaned over one dog, then the other, their black fur smelling like swamp and sunshine. I knelt on the deck, my knees crunching on bits of stick spewed about by Molly, and ran my hands up and down their legs, then sat side-by-side with them, letting my fingers disappear into their fur almost idly, knowing sooner or later they would happen upon that tell-tale bump on otherwise flat spans of skin. Even as I found one tick after another, I knew I was missing so many.

We spent that morning getting lost on the mountain trails down the road from our house. Not our usual walking trail, a different one we have left unexplored for so long, mostly because it requires traversing a stretch of the main road that runs perpendicular to our little dead-end road. It is still a country road made of dirt and gravel with wildflowers spilling out onto the edges from the ditches on either side, but it is a thoroughfare and it is not uncommon to see a car or two.

Cars make Murdoch’s brain shut off to the point he thinks he is invincible, a giant even, that could very likely catch and eat the metallic beasts as they rumble past. I become nothing more than a nuisance fly buzzing about behind him, a superfluous accessory to get snagged on things and slow him down as he lunges after his prey. So, Murdoch and I came to an agreement years ago that we would not venture on to that road together lest we kill each other.

But there was this trail, we heard, one that would take us up to the top of the mountain where we could look out over the valley. Our usual trails have become so familiar, an adventure seemed like a good idea once we discovered we could get to an access point of the trail by walking through our woods and emerging onto the road for just a short stretch before being able to duck behind a line of trees into a meadow on the other side.

So this morning beneath an overcast sky we headed into our woods, taking a left instead of a right to crash
through the line of trees that contains our world, and crossed the road without incident. Once in the meadow of wildflowers, a sea of yellow and purple and green, I unhooked the leashes to let the dogs dash through it all and watched the grasses swallow them up. I knew there would be ticks. Even as their numbers seemed to be diminishing along our usual trails, here we were immersed in grass up past my knees, a completely different environment from the broad-leaf carpeting in our own woods. But I put the tiny creatures out of my mind and followed the dogs into the scrub and new-growth forest and away from the road as the trail started up the mountain.

We climbed and climbed, following the curving trail of waving grasses meandering through the patches of scrub forest, accompanied by the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes and the pattering of blackflies against my face. I put up the hood of my shirt over my sunhat to keep the bugs from attacking my neck and watched deerfly land on the dogs’ heads.

There were more trails on the mountain than I had anticipated; kept open it seemed by four-wheelers and probably snowmobiles in the winter. At each fork we stayed to the right as I tried to imagine our position on the mountain and keep us walking towards the top. When we were quite high up and the trees changed from new growth to mature woods, we headed in beneath the canopy, our feet slurping along the muddy trail, everything cast in green.

Looking up through the trees I could see the cliff face at the top of the mountain staring back at me and I thought we must be close, but when the trail began to track downhill again the whole adventure started to feel a bit like a wild goose chase. We had been walking for quite some time and we would have to do that same distance in return. Anyway, I was getting hungry and it felt like we would be searching for the top of that mountain for the rest of the day. So we turned around and began to retrace our steps home.

Then, on the way down, we missed a turn and got lost. I had a sense the trail didn’t seem familiar but I reasoned, how would I really know one patch of trees from another. But the puddles were different; it hadn’t been quite so wet on the way up. I couldn’t find my footprints from earlier, or the dogs’. And what about that tree I had to duck under, surely I should have passed that by now. And where was that pile of old weathered logs I’d found behind a row of newish trees, the light shining down from a tiny clearing above as though the logs stood in a spotlight on stage, the trees kind of containing them, defining them. It was like catching a glimpse through the curtain just moments before the show was to begin. I would have remembered seeing that again.

When the trail straightened out on its downward grade, I could see the distant view between the columns of trees and I knew we were heading down the hill in the wrong direction. We were facing north towards the valley, not west towards the mountain that rose up behind our woods.

I stood on the shady trail and pulled my hood close around my face against the bugs as I felt that glorified sense of satisfaction at being in the homestretch dissipate. The sun peaked out now from behind the cloud cover heating up the day, and I wondered where I had gone wrong, disbelieving that we were actually lost. Of course, we couldn’t get thoroughly lost on this mountain, there were trails all over the place that went somewhere and worst case we would just follow one and stumble into someone’s back field and then figure out where we were. But that wasn’t much of an option for me, trying to wrestle my dogs in a civilized setting.

So, I turned and called to the dogs as I tried to muster some enthusiasm for climbing the mountain again. I glanced over my shoulder at them as they stood in the middle of the trail, peering over the grasses at me as though I were crazy. Hadn’t we already climbed this hill? But when they saw I wasn’t kidding, they followed and the three of us trudged back up the trail together and I tried to forget about how hungry I was.

We walked and walked, making one more wrong turn, until I found the last spot I recognized and then I stood in the middle of the forked trail and turned slowly until all the elements of the landscape started to fall into place one by one. I pieced together a view I remembered, ‘that little tree there and that stand of poplars. This is the way we came’. Then I recalled the short side jog we did from one trail to another and we were on our way again.

We all sort of shambled down the mountain, passed the tree across the trail, the pile of old logs, and our footprints in the mud pointing up the hill. It was a while before I could hear the road ahead, the odd car rushing past. I leashed the dogs before the road came into view, not wanting them to tumble on to it in front of a truck

The flowers in the meadow glowed brilliantly beneath the full face of the sun and in some ways it felt as though we had just been here moments before and in others as though we had been gone for days. We crossed the road, again without incident, and then clambered through the trees and brush back into the cool familiarity of our woods.

Back at the house, the sun now streaming through the windows and spilling on to the deck, I found 17 ticks on the legs of my pants after I had discarded my hiking clothes for something clean and I shuddered to think what I would find on the dogs.

After lunch I ushered them out on to the deck, the two of them tired enough after our three-hour adventure they seemed happy to lie on the warm, sun-drenched boards as I worked my fingers through their fur.

The sun slipped quickly across the sky, soon throwing ragged shadows from the treetops onto the deck. I watched the shadows inch closer and closer to the wall of the house, the patch of sun diminishing, its intensity muted by the shade as I pulled more ticks from fur, and still more. In the end there were so many, I lost count.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Learning curves

It was a flat grey day in late winter and the light coming in at the windows seemed pale and listless. Molly lay sprawled out on the kitchen floor across the garishly coloured, fraying quilt that was folded into a square for the purposes of an impromptu bed for the dogs or a place to tunnel for the cats.

Molly had been with us only a few months and while we were all managing to fit together in some sort of new family kind of way, there was a lot about Molly we still didn’t quite get and there was a lot about our life that Molly didn’t understand. For one thing, she seemed a bit perplexed with the profusion of hugs we tossed around.

I’m sure she had been hugged before. She came from a loving home after all. Perhaps she did not feel as though she knew us well enough at that point to truly get into the spirit of things, but whenever she was lying on the floor and one of us knelt down beside her and then wrapped our arms around her neck or tried to stretch out along the length of her back and drape an arm across her shoulder or pet her head or scratch her ear, she would stiffly pull away and then leap to her feet, an expression of incredulousness flashing across her face, before she scurried from the room, throwing an uncomfortable glance over her shoulder.

This day, with the flat light at the windows muffling the life within, I lay down in front of Molly, leaving a good five inches between myself and where the tips of her toes rested at the ends of her stretched out legs. I propped my head on my elbow and stared Molly directly in the nose. I decided not to stare her in the eye in case she took this as some sort of intimidation technique, and I didn’t say a word.

She sighed deeply and I told her she was a good girl and then I noticed the little pink spot just to the right of and a little bit below her nose, kind of like a beauty mark that had not been there the last time I looked.

“What’s that?” I asked as I reached out to touch it. Molly lifted her head up with a snap and lay in the awkwardly crouched way she lays when she seems uncomfortable about something or unsure of what she will do next. And then she leapt up and walked away.

“It’s probably an ingrown hair,” Morgan said later when we sat at the table and Molly stood between us, surreptitiously perusing any interesting smells that may have wafted from the tabletop.

That seemed reasonable I thought until later when I watched Chestnut, a cat who the last I had seen would rather fight Murdoch for a piece of cheese than be within earshot of Molly, sit quietly beneath the table and lash out with his paw at Molly as she walked past. He smacked her in the tail and she kind of two-stepped and pulled her tail closer to her body as she circled the table. When she was about a quarter of the way around, Chestnut swiped at her again, charging towards her with purpose. Molly leapt forward in a crouch and made a beeline from the room with Chestnut stomping out from under the table to see her off.

It was then I became pretty certain the pink spot beneath Molly’s nose was most likely where a well-aimed claw had landed when Chestnut finally stood up for himself. That, I thought, I would have loved to have seen.

At first I was quite pleased as I watched the balance of power shift between these two. Chestnut was no longer slinking around from room to room, scared to live in his own house, running in a panic for cover whenever he caught a glimpse of Molly, who had been spurred on by his dashing form to lunge and try and grab him in her jaws. But it wasn’t long before we realized Chestnut was taking things a bit too far. He wasn’t just standing up for himself and making sure Molly respected his space and his position as cat in the house he was becoming a tyrant.

It was Molly now who would enter a room, then turn on a dime and rush out again when she saw Chestnut was already in that room. And he would sit up a little taller, smile a little more slyly, twitch his tail with confidence.

Soon we were imploring Molly to stand up for herself. “Don’t let him push you around Molly,” we would say. “He’s just being a bully, and you’re a dog!”

But the more nervous she became, the more power that gave the cat. She would refuse to walk past him on the stairs, turning and turning in a dither about what to do. Chestnut sat in doorways and just stared, while she paced back and forth and tried to work up the courage to run past him. For a while she walked around with a bit of a panicked look in her eye as though expecting Chestnut to jump out at any moment.

As is usually the case, food became the great equalizer. Specifically cheese. It didn’t matter where Chestnut or Molly or Murdoch were in the house or what they were doing, the minute the crinkle of the cheese wrapper was heard, everyone came running and congregated around the legs of whoever was manning the block of cheese. It is what ultimately allowed Chestnut to be in the same room as Murdoch a few years ago and now, more recently, what has allowed Chestnut and Molly to stand side-by-side, neither one chasing the other or being chased, and join forces for the greater good.

Slowly, they seem to have worked out some sort of agreement. There are days still when Molly is leary of walking past the cat and days when he swats her triumphantly, making her jog from the room. But there are also days when Chestnut swats the wrong dog with the wrong attitude and Murdoch spins around with a snarl on his lips and Chestnut is taken down a peg or two. Mostly, though, a sort of peace has been restored, a peace that can be fleeting in a home that includes two dogs, two cats and two humans.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Games in the woods

In the woods there are pockets of warm air hovering in the shadows not too far from where bright beams of sunlight penetrate the leafy canopy. We walk into them unexpectedly and it is like swimming into warm pools of water suspended in a cold lake.

The day is hot. In summer we walk before the sun reaches its apex for the day and try to avoid the hours on either side of it when the sun blares down with all its power and the air is still but for gentle currents stirring the tree tops lethargically.

The heat is a surprise as we walk out the door. It holds a heaviness at its edges that speaks of hotter days to come, but even now in the shade of the woods the air is thickened by the sun, the saturated air from beyond the woods seeping in from the edges to mix with the shade, and when a cooler breeze blows as though created somewhere in the middle of the forest in the darkest places between the trees, we stop our bounding run through the woods and let it find us, swirl around us like a current in a river around rocks in its path.

It is the seventh day of summer and already we have started a fire in our woodstove three times. But it rained off and on over the course of a week, torrentially. The sky was obliterated by it; there was thunder and dampness and cold nights. We are told, in spots, there is still frost in the ground. So, we had fires in the afternoons to chase away the damp that penetrates everything, makes your very spirit cold. The dogs, of course, thought we were nuts.

Today, though, it is hot and we are running through the woods. I am chasing Murdoch because I do not trust him. We left the house and headed up the trail in our woods together, he and Molly and I, but part way up I could see his distraction taking hold. His nose pointed skyward with purpose, his eyes partially closed, concentrating on the smells carried on the wind and he marched onward with more determination.

The undergrowth has grown thick and full with all the rain and the dogs can turn a corner and disappear in the blink of an eye. It has happened more often recently with Murdoch taking off for stretches of time leaving me to call his name into the green wall of the leading edge of the new growth forest behind our woods, and Molly to jab me in the leg repeatedly with a stick. A couple of times, Molly has disappeared with him.

So, today as I watch Murdoch’s demeanour change, I quicken my pace to keep him within view, until we are all running through the woods and I hope the dogs think it is a game, fun enough to distract them from anything else, like whatever it is Murdoch smells in the great expanse of the woods or the intriguing noises of heavy machinery and grumbling compressors and banging and clanging coming from the direction of our neighbours’ place where a new home is being built.

The dogs leap over downed trees and I leap over the expanses in between, my momentum carrying me from log to log and it is a game for me too as the tread of my shoe grips the bark of one tree and then the next and the next and I wonder how far I can go before my feet miss and I crash to the ground.

But I stop before that happens, to enjoy the cool breeze pushing through the trees. And then we head for the farthest corner of the woods, away from the noises of building and the smells of whatever it is that always leads Murdoch astray, and we find sticks and the dogs run after them until they are tired enough to walk back with me through the woods.

We walk through dappled sunlight and those unexpected pockets of warm air amidst shady coolness and we head to Bear’s puddle, full with rainwater and grown around with the bright green leaves of forest plants. The dogs stop for a drink before following our trail back to the house where they spread out on the floor to cool down and I watch the clouds close in overhead, blue sky pinched out by flat greyness, sunlight diffused into uniformity and a light rain begins to fall, shushing through the trees, filling the air with a smell that is electric and sweet as though sparks from the sun have been doused with sugar water.

There is cool air coming in at the windows again and the day has completely changed and I think I can exchange my glass of water for a warm cup of tea.

Later, when the sun comes out again, the dogs stare at me meaningfully, clearly having decided they have never been more bored in all their lives.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Nothing to see here

There is a kerfuffle in the bathroom. The muted gong of the cast iron tub, the click of tiny claws against wood and the porcelain tub coating. I think I can hear static crackle off the ends of fine hairs. There is the sound of scampering feet spinning in a circle and the squeak of the wooden lid against the wooden box that sits beside the tub.

I tiptoe towards the door, peek around the corner to see a white paw dart over the lip of the tub and swipe at Cleo, who sprawls lazily on the box, her favourite spot by the large window looking out to the garden where birds can be watched and rabbits regarded.

Cleo reaches out her own white paw, cocking her head, and swipes back. Fine fibres of hair are released into the sunbeam that angles across the tub, hang there for a moment and then float effortlessly away, disappearing in the shadows.

I attempt to move silently, to get my camera and return. But they are on to me. The sounds stop, and when I return to the doorway I am greeted by two pairs of wide accusing eyes. I have interrupted or disturbed or discovered something I wasn’t supposed to know.

The fun is over. Chestnut leaps casually from the tub as though he was bored with this game anyway, and Cleo takes one last swipe before settling in for the afternoon on top of the wooden box, turning her head away, eyes half-closed, denying everything.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Winter spring

I awoke to snow drifting lazily and steadily past the window. Outside, beyond white, still winter-skeletal poplar and birch branches, the sky matched the colour of the snow almost exactly and for a moment as I first opened my eyes to see this white on white on white world, I thought perhaps I was dreaming.

But somehow this May snowfall seemed perfectly normal, perfectly timed, as though a farewell of sorts to this winter that has stretched it’s cold, pointing fingers into spring.

The snowflakes, fat and gentle and full of whimsy, rested easily on branches, gathering in little clusters, coating the evergreens once again in white, and because the snow has been receding and there have been days that seemed very much like spring, days with strong sunshine and the sound of burbling waters and the smell of wet earth and fresh buds and melting snow, it all seemed very dreamlike, even as I stumbled down the stairs to the kitchen.

It is not unexpected, this snow that falls throughout the morning, at one point sounding like rain on the roof, it is the way spring has gone. Snow falls one day to cover a field in white to melt again the next day to be covered once again the day after that.

So we revel in it. We laugh to see the snowflakes falling again, and beneath a hot sun on another day we are amazed to see the ground as though we thought we never would, the dried leaves from last season, emerging flattened and damp, the water running freely along our driveway, across the stones of our path, and right there beside this new, busy river, a snowbank still feet deep.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Spring scavenge


I yell Murdoch’s name until my throat hurts and then I look about me and wish the snow was gone so I could dig out a rock from the dirt trail and throw it at him. Not to hit him of course, I don’t even think I could throw a rock that far, but just so it lands in the water with a splash or on the piece of land where he’s standing, with a thunk, just to break his concentration, get his attention.

Instead I scoop up a handful of slushy, half-melted, snow and haphazardly fashion it into a ball of sorts and fling it in his direction. It hits a tree and disintegrates and I angrily yell his name again, trying to be heard over the rushing water. He completely ignores me, working busily at eating the dead thing he found on this little island in the growing pond at the end of our road.

This is our second walk of the day. That morning Murdoch, Molly and I walked the familiar trail through our woods, investigating the newly fallen trees, snapped off under the weight of the heavy wet snow that piled and piled onto branches a few days before. We wound our way along the usual path, trying to stay on the packed snow we have worked on all winter, still somewhat stable in the warmer temperatures while the untouched snow just off the trail threatened to swallow us up.

Later, when the sun came out, we went for another walk down the road, clear of snow and dry for once. The wind blew in our faces carrying the bite of lingering winter even as the sun warmed everything.

When we reached the trail, blinding white with snow, I decided we would just walk up to the first set of downed trees, which I could see from the trailhead as a dark mass not too far along the path. The dogs bounded ahead and Murdoch, as I had expected, veered off the trail into the woods towards the beaver dam. But the water was flowing and the solid trail he had followed in the winter to dig holes around where I imagined the den was and where he smelled interesting things, had melted away, so I thought he would have to content himself with scouring the ground amidst the trees on shore.

Molly and I continued on without him. I called to him periodically, thinking he would get bored and join us, but as we approached the downed trees the trail behind us remained empty and I had a thought about Murdoch plunging into the icy cold water and running into a beaver. Molly and I turned back and headed to the spot where we had last seen him.

I am annoyed when I find him way out on this tiny piece of land in the middle of the pond, and I scan the surrounding area to see what path he took. He is dry, so he didn’t swim there. It is obvious he is eating something the way his body moves with a tense frenzy. I call to him, but he ignores me.

I clamber off the trail in through the broken trees, snapping dried branches in my hands as I slip between spindly trunks and brittle brush, blinking madly, trying to not get poked in the eye. To my right is the stand of towering dead pine trees, all brown and sad looking, drowned by the rising waters that used to run in an orderly trickle through this area, winding around great marshy stretches of swaying grasses way down below the line of the forest. But everything is drowned here now that the beavers have moved in.

The trunks of the dead pine trees disappear into rushing water, navigating its way from melting banks of snow into puddles and along the trail, down a small grade in the land to where it brims over the edge of the beaver dam and swirls around the mound of sticks that is their den.

Molly follows every move I make, stepping on my heels as she sometimes does. We maneuver our way through areas of knee-deep snow to the cleared ground around the bases of trees. There is a part of me determined to pick a path out over the dam to where Murdoch stands. He managed it, I think, maybe I can too. But I know this is ludicrous and unsafe and I have to think of Molly, because she would follow me and I’m not sure how nimble footed she is around water. The snow keeps giving way beneath my feet to unknown ground beneath and I decide I can’t go any further.

I stand in frustration and watch Murdoch and yell at him as he pulls and rips at the hide of some creature. I think it might have been a rabbit, but then it catches the light a different way and I wonder if perhaps it was a fox. And I wonder how its body ended up on that tiny spit of land surrounded by moving water. It must have been there all winter, ending up there when the world was frozen beneath several feet of snow.

I can’t physically drag Murdoch away from this place, and he definitely isn’t going to leave voluntarily, but I refuse to stand here and watch him gorge on some dead thing so I turn angrily and I scramble back to the trail with Molly and storm off towards home. I walk quickly and determinedly back up the road as Molly bounces along beside me with a stick in her mouth trying to entice me to play with her, which I do

At home Molly and I play and chop firewood and clean up the yard as things lost mid-winter begin to emerge from the receding snow. There is no sign of Murdoch. It is not until another half hour has passed and I am on the phone, standing beside one of the tall, narrow windows that line our stairs to the second floor, that I see him sauntering casually along the road towards home.

I dash down to the front door and call him and he gallops up the driveway, panting with a self-satisfied grin on his face. I leave him in the entryway while I finish my phone conversation, so it isn’t until a while later that I realize he stinks. It is that lovely mix of rotting flesh and wet earth and over-ripeness. I think he must have rolled in what he ate, but I don’t see any evidence of that. He has eaten dead things before and never smelled like this. It is as though the stench is just coming right through his skin.

I grab a basin of hot water and the face cloth I reserve for the dogs and sloosh water all over his face and down his neck. I squeeze a tiny drop of herbal shampoo onto my finger, lather it up a little and then rub it into Murdoch’s cheeks and under his chin and along his mouth and down his neck. He sits with his mouth clamped shut, enduring it. He tries to get up and leave a few times but I make him come back and sit, which he does reluctantly.

The smell does not seem to improve, so I go through the whole process again and then I towel him off. It is only mildly better and Murdoch is exiled to the entryway for the rest of the night but I am sure I can smell it on myself. I get whiffs every now and then and I wash my hands and then I wash them again, and then I change my clothes and Morgan looks at me like I am going crazy, which, because Murdoch’s involved, I think I probably am. Mostly I am just mad that my dog smells so bad I don't even want to touch him.

Murdoch sulks in his kennel because he is not allowed to leave the entryway and there is food being prepared in the kitchen. I so wish he was able to put two and two together and understand why he's in trouble. But I know in his mind he had the greatest day ever and, given the chance, he would do it all over again tomorrow which, I realize with a sinking heart, is truly a possibility.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Molly's first adventure

On Molly’s first full day with us I plan an excursion up the trail. I sling my camera over my shoulder, clip the dogs to their leashes and clomp down the road, newly white with the first layer of snow for the season.

The camera’s heavy body bounces against my lower back. I keep it tucked behind me. It is of little importance, nothing to obsess about, I want to convey to Molly.

“She is scared of cameras,” her owner said that day we took Murdoch to visit Molly on her turf, the day Morgan met Molly for the first time. “I don’t know why, she didn’t used to be.”

Molly's baby picture.
They give us some puppy pictures with her papers, and sure enough baby Molly sits up tall and defiant,
looking directly into the camera with those intense eyes, her ears flopped forward, not yet standing upright and proud on top of her head.

Quincy, the dog we had years ago for a brief few months, before Max and before Murdoch, was afraid of cameras too. The few pictures I did get of him are either at a great distance, his small dark shape slinking off in the opposite direction, or capture an expression on his face that teeters on the edge of outrage, as though a terrible invasion of privacy has been committed.

Those pictures were taken on film though, when the moments had to be carefully chosen. I have a digital camera now that can click off a dozen frames in mere seconds, and zoom lenses, and I think, Molly won’t even know. But she does, just as she knew when Morgan, holding his phone for texting switched it to camera mode, barely changing his stance, and nonchalantly attempted to get her picture. Molly got up from where she was lying on the floor that first night with us, as we all mingled by the fire, and tried to hide in a corner.

We are not too far up the trail that day of our first big walk together, dogs unleashed and running ahead and Molly skipping back frequently to make sure we are all together and to verify it is okay to explore, when I decide to start taking pictures.

I point my camera into the trees along the trail and focus on dried out leaves still clinging to spindly branches and textured trunks showing off their stunning shapes in the late fall sun. I determinedly do not point the camera at Molly. Though she becomes extremely nervous to see me with it in my hand. She paces back and forth across the trail and then appears at my side, pushed up against me, head down as if to beg, “please do not take my picture.”

I am armed with treats though and hand her some so she knows the camera is not evil. The sounds of crinkling or the sight of my hand rummaging about in the pocket of my jacket bring Murdoch flying back down the trail from where he had been leading the way, sniffing the air and sniffing the ground and eyeing the shadowed expanse of woods marching away from the trail into an exciting unknown.

I take Murdoch’s picture to show Molly it is fine. And he gets a treat, and she gets a treat, but still she does not trust the black box with the long barrel in my hand that clicks loudly.

My first picture of Molly.
I get one picture of Molly that day. I push it. I probably should have waited longer to take the camera on a walk, but I wanted a picture to show everyone our new dog. It is the picture that ends up in everyone’s inbox.

The picture reminds me of the famous shot of the sasquatch striding through the trees, all blurry and undefined. Molly’s picture is only slightly out of focus, but she is caught mid-stride, a startled expression on her face, as though I have betrayed her, revealing her existence to the world when she wanted to remain undisturbed, trotting through the woods in a life defined by the things that fell within her gaze.

I immediately feel guilty and tuck the camera behind my back again, show her my empty hands so she can stop worrying.

We are gone for two hours. The trails are more walkable when temperatures dip below freezing and the mud hardens up and when the snow settles on top we can pass places that are impassable in the summer, marshy and soft and threatening to suck the boots off your feet.

The trail we follow loops through the marshy spots, then tracks up hill and cuts a rutted path amongst the spindly new growth trees. We pick our way around barely frozen expanses of deep puddles and stick to the highest ground possible as we traverse the beaver pond and the flooded trail.

When we return to the main stretch, now retracing our steps back towards the road, Molly seems to know where we are and trots farther ahead. And then she trots even farther ahead and I get the sense that she has made up her mind about something and seems to quicken her pace.

“Molly!” I call to her, thinking she is so well behaved she will come back. But she doesn’t. She trots straight down the trail, away from me. I call her and call her, wave the treat bag over my head. There is not so much as a twitch of an ear. I start running. Murdoch runs beside me, his nose almost in my pocket with the treats.

I clomp down the uneven trail in my winter boots, panic seizing my lungs and winding me faster than I would like as I yell Molly’s name again and again and she increases the distance between us. I think she is doing this because I took her picture and I wish I had left my camera at home.

I feel like I am in one of those dreams when you run but get no where, in the dream you are telling yourself to run faster but your body doesn’t respond, instead moving like a rusted mechanical thing needing oil, like there is a force field around you pushing you down, weighting you in place, it is almost painful to move your limbs.

I keep running, holding the camera at my side so it doesn’t bash against my back, but Molly is getting farther away, a little black shape with those big pointed ears that sit on top of her head like a crown.

When Molly hits the road she keeps going. When I reach it, I stop to catch my breath and I call her again. This time she actually stops and turns, standing sideways on the road looking back to where I wave my arms above my head and use a hand signal her owners taught me that is supposed to get her to heel. Murdoch stands beside me, waiting patiently for a treat. Molly takes a step towards me and I breathe a sigh of relief, but then she bounds in a circle and is trotting down the road again, away from us.

She has lived with us for less than 24 hours and she is running away, I think. I take a deep breath and start running again.

I try not to panic as she gains more distance with little effort. It is possible that she could hit the end of our road, turn right and run back to the house where she had been living, showing up at the door where her previous owners stayed, they would open the door to her standing there and think they had made a mistake sending her to live with us.

I keep my eyes glued to Molly. As she approaches our neighbours’ driveway I will her to turn in. When we left for our walk that morning, Molly seemed eager to visit my neighbours’ house, the house where we had first taken her the night before so Murdoch could join us and we could all walk home together. She had pulled on her leash as we passed their driveway, and I hope that is where she is planning to go now.

I am already slowing down when I see her turn to the left and disappear down their driveway. I almost let out a half-crazed yell of joy. I walk for a short distance to catch my breath with Murdoch still stuck to my side and then we jog the rest of the way over the white of the road and past the dried out grasses lining the ditches until we are following the curve of the driveway around a fat, spreading pine tree to the wooden path that leads to the neighbours’ front door. And when we get there, Molly is waiting.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bringing Molly home

That evening in late November when Molly came home with us for the first time, we parked our car in the neighbours’ driveway across the road and I walked to our house to get Murdoch.

In the purply light, with the sun just gone and the snow iridescent, Murdoch and I headed back to the neighbours’ where Morgan and Molly waited. On the end of his leash Murdoch bounced and tugged as we crossed the road and I slowed my pace to make him walk properly. The excitement of an evening stroll was too much.

At the top of the driveway we stopped, Murdoch stiffening as he saw Molly’s dark shape prancing about on the walkway to the house in a yellow pool of light spilling from a bulb by the door. Our neighbour knelt to meet her, and Morgan’s dark shape stood nearby.

“I’m going to let him go,” I called in warning, knowing it would be almost impossible to control Murdoch as we got closer, I would be pulled off my feet and the energy levels would be too high, there would be confusion that could turn into a fight. Murdoch and Molly had met before, so I wasn’t worried about them meeting again without me in the middle.

I unlooped the leash from around his neck and let him run ahead. He bolted right past everyone and in through the little flap cut in the screened-in porch that had been Jack’s door to get in and out from under cover. Murdoch frequently used that door to gain access to our neighbours’ recycling bin, nosing around for any food remnants, and to stand at the glass doors and stare into the kitchen with his most pathetic expression.

“I guess that went well,” I said as I walked up to the little group.

“We thought we would let the dogs meet here and then walk home together,” Morgan was explaining to our neighbour, who was quite taken with Molly. We hoped it would send a message that we were now a unit, the four of us, and we were all starting fresh.

Of course at home everything was in an uproar. Murdoch’s kennel was in the kitchen then, sitting like a barge docked in the middle of things. In the five years we have lived here Murdoch has come to understand that the entryway is his domain, but we wanted Molly to have it for the first little while, a space of her own without having to fight for anything. And there’s a gate so we could keep her separated from the cats, give everyone a chance to adjust slowly.

The dogs don’t really take much notice of each other as they trot ahead towards home. Molly seems quite relaxed, loping along and glancing back at Morgan and I, adjusting her pace so she falls in beside us. Murdoch zigzags a trail on the road, ears flipping out cockily with each confident stride. I imagine him calculating the small window he has to find some mischief before we are at our door.

When we arrive home that evening we usher Murdoch upstairs and spread Molly’s blankets on the floor of the entryway where Murdoch’s blankets were. We explain to Molly this is her bed and she looks at us with her earnest brown eyes in her long face and seems to take it all very seriously. I dig out her Kong from the bag of things that came with her and put it on her bed. The cats make their brief appearance and then scatter and sit anxiously on the stairs wide-eyed and incredulous.

Later, I stand at the kitchen table and look through Molly’s papers, the vaccination records, microchip information, baby pictures. On top of her official vet record is her name.

“Hey, her full name is Molly Malone,” I call to Morgan, who is adding wood to the stove in the entryway. “Like the song,” I continue. “You know?”

“No, I don’t,” is his reply.

“We used to sing that in Brownies,” I say, remembering meetings in the gym in the school behind my house, and campfires in the spring and singing in rounds. I hadn’t thought about that song in ages.

I flick on the computer so I can find it online for Morgan. I learn that the song ‘Molly Malone’, about the beautiful fishmonger who pushed her wheelbarrow through the streets of Dublin, is the unofficial anthem of that city, and a rather buxom bronze statue of Molly and her cart can be found on Grafton Street.

There is some debate about whether Molly Malone is purely a fictional character or whether the song is based on a real person, but according to Wikipedia, she has her own day, June 13, and she may have plied another trade as a part-time prostitute.

“I don’t remember that ever coming up in Brownies,” I say to Morgan as we scroll through the information online.

For the first two weeks Molly lives with us I find myself singing the song almost continuously as I walk with the dogs in the woods. When I’m not singing, I hum it and then wonder if Molly has heard this her whole life and whether it is a comfort or an annoyance, but it has become a sort of theme song around here.

The song does not end on a happy note, with Molly Malone dying and her ghost wandering the streets ever after, but nevertheless it is now stuck in my mind and it plays there on an endless loop in the background every time I look at our new Molly. However, I usually leave out the last verse.


Friday, March 14, 2014

A puddle of Murdoch

We drop Murdoch at the vet first thing in the morning the day after a snowstorm. The forest is awash in white, the fields pristine and glowing with the fiery pink and orange of the sun in a frigid sky rising up behind the mountains. Snow banks tower overhead as we trundle along the road, itself gleaming, packed smooth and shiny.

Murdoch missed breakfast, but he doesn’t seem to care since he is in the car, face pressed to the window, steam billowing from his mouth, obscuring his view. We are going somewhere. It is an adventure. I turn to look at him where he sits deliriously happy in the back seat, ready for anything. Anything except what is actually going to happen.

“Sorry Murds,” I say. “But if you’d let me pick out that crap between your teeth we wouldn’t be doing this now.” He flicks a glance at me, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, and then his eyes are glued on the world outside the window again.

“He has no idea,” I say to Morgan. And we talk about the only other time Murdoch was anaesthetized, when he was neutered at maybe six months old and we were sure it would make a difference to his manic personality. We had dropped off this whirling dervish of teeth and hair, expecting a pathetic creature to emerge, drowsy and feeling sorry for himself. What appeared, however, when they brought him to us in the waiting room was exactly what we had dropped off. The cone around his neck didn’t even slow him down. He marched into the room, head held high, and when he saw us, he leapt into action as if to say, “That was awesome, what are we doing now!?” It was like he had just awoken from a really great nap. We wonder if that is how he will be this time.

But when we pick him up later that afternoon, he is a marshmallow.

He enters the exam room, mouth clamped shut, body moving like a slowly ebbing wave past where I kneel on the floor. “Oh Murpy,” I say when I see the bandana tied jauntily around his neck. Murdoch is not really a bandana sort of dog, but this is perfect. It is black and pirate-themed with skulls and eye patches and muscled arms wielding sabers.

He is mushy and subdued, not at all how we’d left him. After his frantic spin around the waiting room and then panting excitement in the exam room as he was weighed and we explained the problem, he leapt up with his front paws on the exam table and leaned in to one of the vet techs, his head on her shoulder, and flicked his tongue at her face, his mouth in a grin, tail sweeping happily.

“Get down,” I said, and then apologized to the girl, but she laughed, enjoying his enthusiasm. When we handed over his leash I explained how I use it backwards, looping the leash through the handle and keeping it high up on his neck for better control. “He’s strong,” she said with a smile. And as I agreed, Murdoch hauled her out through the door that leads to the surgery. Morgan and I exchanged worried glances as we turned to go.

But they are no strangers to Murdoch here. The last time he was at the vet it was summer and I had to wait with him outside at a distance from the clinic. We stood in a small field lined with two straight rows of apple trees across a trickling stream from the busy clinic, and watched people and their pets come and go. Murdoch stiffened with interest and paced and huffed at the air as he monitored these movements but had to direct his enthusiasm to sniffing trees and lifting his leg on various patches of grass.

He was there just to get his shots but when I pulled in to the parking area on the edge of the farmyard, it was packed with cars. I left Murdoch bouncing about in the back of ours, parked beneath a towering pine tree, and poked my head in the door of the clinic.

“I’m here with Murdoch,” I told the girl behind the desk when I caught her eye. “We’ll just wait outside.” And she nodded knowingly.

Murdoch and I quick-marched across a wooden plank spanning the small stream and wandered about in the green field until one of the vet techs appeared outside the door of the clinic with a file folder in her hand and waved at us. I braced myself and headed for the building where I wrestled Murdoch through the bustling waiting room and into an exam room so he could be bribed with treats while he got his shots and then muzzled, as one of the shots was administered up his nose.

He is known here as a bush dog, a strong personality, a handful. A vet tech once said she would let someone else hold on to him because “he doesn’t like me, he growled at me last time.” I wanted to say, “Oh, he growls at everyone.” But I didn’t.

This dog who emerges subdued and mushy after the minor surgery on his gum is too tired to growl, which has never happened. He sits beside me with his head against my leg where I stand with Morgan and listen to the vet explain the surgery, show us pictures of the deep pocket in Murdoch’s gum, discuss her concerns for what happens next, namely more surgery to remove a healthy tooth in order to gain some gum to close up the pocket and save another tooth before both teeth become rotten due to exposed roots.

As we discuss options I notice Murdoch’s head getting heavier and heavier and starting to slide down my leg. When I glance down to check on him, his back legs are splayed out almost 90 degrees to his body. He looks like a big old bullfrog.

“Look at this,” I say with a laugh as he melts into a puddle on the floor.

“Yeah, we had to give him extra sedative,” the vet says as she looks around the table. “The normal dose didn’t work, so we had to give him more to get him to relax. He’s probably still feeling the second dose.”

Oh Murdoch, I wouldn’t have expected anything less. I could just imagine him leaping around an exam room crying out “You’ll never take me alive!!” and the vet entering with a blowgun and darts packed with sedative to take him down. And then the final kick in the pants, waking up with a bandana tied around his neck.

As we get ready to go, Murdoch pulls himself together, even mustering the strength to try and haul me through the door. He makes a show of attempting to take charge as Morgan walks him out of the clinic, his body stiffening up as though he could control their pace and direction.

We drive home beneath a sapphire blue sky in a blindingly white world, promising great adventure in the depth of all that fresh snow. But in the back seat, Murdoch sleeps, grudgingly I imagine, a great big puddle of a dog with a pirate bandana, plotting his revenge.