Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dogs in snowland

The day after the snow fell in a curtain, heavy and fast, flakes the size of marbles filling every empty space between the trees, Molly and I walked beneath an ocean blue sky in a world of white. The trail we have kept open all winter was obliterated in spots, the snow up to my knees as I waded through to cut the trail again. Molly walked directly behind me and when I stopped she bumped me in the leg with her nose.

“Aren’t you part Malamute?” I said, turning to look at her. “I thought you were a snow dog. Shouldn’t you be breaking the trail?” And she looked back at me along her regal German Shepherd nose with a spark in her intelligent brown eyes that seemed to say, “You’re kidding right? Why would I do all this work?”

Right, I thought as I shook my head and continued on through the snow, why would she when I am clearly capable. “I wish Murdoch was here,” I said to her over my shoulder. “He’s a trail breaker.”

The day before, we woke to a hint of snow in the air. It began to fall while I ate my breakfast, large flakes made up of smaller flakes clinging together as they sailed down to earth. We headed out, the dogs and I, to walk through the woods and the falling snow, to watch it stream past the trees and accumulate on our shoulders, to feel the magic in it before it petered out and passed away over the mountains.

But it didn’t do that. It didn’t stop. And as we walked further along our usual path through the woods the snowflakes fell more densely, filling in our trail behind us as quickly as we made it.

It’s like walking through a fairytale I thought as the dark shapes of the dogs disappeared behind the thickening curtain and the world transformed before my eyes and I was enveloped by the landscape. I followed the path of the dogs, shielding my camera the best I could with my hands as the snow piled up on top of it too.

When we returned to the house a while later, emerging from the woods that seemed entirely made of snow, the path on which we had set out was already covered in. It was as though we had never been there.

It snowed all day and in to the night. The next morning the sun revealed a flawless landscape, the trees like sculptures beneath a cloudless sky.

Molly and I re-cut our path through the woods. She skipped ahead until it got too deep, and then she let me strike out in front to make a trail for her to follow.

“Murdoch would love this,” I said to her, imagining him leaping through the fresh snow, like an otter swimming in a stream. And I hoped he wouldn’t be mad that we had gone on without him. “Poor Murds,” I said as I thought of him at the vet while we were out beneath this endless sky, the air smelling of snow; winter at its most beautiful. And I imagined what kind of trouble he was causing at that moment.

How will they sedate him? I wondered, with his explosive, manic energy and growly, grumpy attitude and his leaping, bucking, wiry strength. I shook my head, speculating how many people he’d bitten.

No, they will be able to handle him, I thought. That’s why we took him there to have the bits of stick and other detritus removed from where they had become embedded in his gums, because they have the means to handle him. He had made it quite clear he wasn’t letting us in his mouth long enough to remove what needed removing.

“We’ll save the rest of the trail for him,” I said to Molly as we turned back. “He loves this sort of thing.”

And the next day, he did.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

On a mid-winter’s night

It is well after midnight as I walk the road beneath a giant, blinding, moon. I should be in bed, I think, silently cursing Murdoch. The snowy landscape is all silver and black and cold. My breath condenses the minute it leaves my body, collects in crystals along the edge of my scarf and on my hair where it sticks out from beneath my toque.

The world is silent on this December night, except for the swish, swish of my snow pants and my jacket, the no-nonsense squeak, crunch of my boots over packed snow in the middle of the road. To my left, Molly’s paws squeak at a different pitch as she marches beside me and we head for the black void at the end of our road. In the cold light, the forest is a solid black shape against the black sky and the snow is icy-blue, densely packed on the road and spread smooth and flawless across open spaces.

In my pocket is the flashlight I don’t need with this moon in the sky, so bright it casts shadows like the sun. But when we reach that dark space at the end of the road where the trail through the woods and into the mountains begins, where trees clamour at both edges of the path and tower overhead, gobbling up all the light, we will need help to see.

Half an hour earlier, I arrived home to a cold house, the fire having petered out to almost nothing and the frigid night air seeping in at the windows and through the walls as it squeezed the house in it’s icy grasp.

I let the dogs outside while I stirred up the coals in the wood stove and added sticks and debris to get the fire going. Then I opened the front door just a crack to keep out the wall of cold, and called for the dogs before quickly closing the door again.

Molly showed up, but Murdoch did not. I convinced myself he’d be back in a minute as I climbed the stairs to the bedroom to put on my pyjamas, I had already decided I wasn’t going out there to get him.

I returned to the entryway and sat in front of the wood stove, waiting for the fire to take off and for Murdoch to return. I called him two more times before the empty path to our door began to look lonely and then I started to worry.

I stuffed my feet into my boots and threw on my coat and, with flashlight in hand I headed out to the road. The moon swallowed up any illumination from my light, so I put it in my pocket and stood in the middle of the road and listened. The silence of that clear, cold night was so present I could almost reach out and touch it. “Murds!” I yelled, and my voice sounded alien in the stillness. The cold bit at my skin through my pyjamas and I called his name again, listened, and heard absolutely nothing, as if sound, and even time itself, were frozen.

I cast my eye way down to the end of the road then, where the trailhead disappeared into blackness. “Would he?” I asked myself. “No, he’s got to be here somewhere.” And then I hissed his name in frustration at our neighbours’ dark woods, turned and stomped back to the house before I lost feeling in my legs.

I stood in front of the wood stove to warm up and argued with myself about heading for the trail. It’s the middle of the night, I reasoned, I’m over reacting and it’s too cold. But I knew that’s where he had gone. Just a few days earlier the three of us had started out for a walk there when we came across a hunter gutting a deer on a side trail. Murdoch had dashed ahead and by the time I caught him he was already inhaling an organ. I knew that no matter how well the man had cleaned up, there was still going to be some remnants left behind and Murdoch would find them.

He’ll come back, I told myself. But I didn’t believe it. Instead I pictured him wandering further and further from home on this cold night; I pictured him getting lost, I pictured wolves waiting for him in the shadows.

“Fine,” I grumbled as I pulled on my snow pants. “You stay here Molly,” I said. She stood in front of me, bright-eyed and eager, as I was clearly getting ready for some adventure or other. Then I thought about that black smear at the end of the road where I was headed and decided I would be much braver if Molly was with me, so I grabbed her leash and we headed out the door.

At the end of the road, we step into the blackness of the trail. I shine the flashlight ahead, illuminating the snowy path. On either side there is just the dark. The woods feel heavy at night.

The side trail, where we met the hunter that day, is not too far along the main trail and we walk as quickly as we can through the soft snow, trying not to stumble over the ridges left by snow machines. At the spot where the main trail starts to track up hill, we stop and I shine the flashlight along the path where the deer had been.

Two bright points of light appear in the darkness and I can just make out Murdoch’s dark shape at the far reaches of the flashlight beam. “What are you doing?” I say to him with some exasperation and I can tell by the motion of his body that he is wagging his tail and it is just at that moment I know for sure it is him. But when I don’t say anything else and I don’t move, the motion stops and the shape of his head changes as his ears flatten down and I realize he’s suddenly not so sure that it’s me.

“Come on Murds,” I say next, and he leaps forward, pounds towards me as if he is relieved, and I wonder if perhaps that moment of uncertainty will make him think twice about taking off again. But I know better than that.
With both dogs leashed, we head back to the road and step from the heavy dark of the woods into the illuminated landscape. Partway home we stop, the sounds of our movement over the packed snow, through the cold air, cease and we stand on the road beneath the giant silver moon, surrounded by bottomless silence in a world made of ice-blue light and shadows, and I find I am not mad at Murdoch anymore.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Cleo, warrior princess… sort of

I opened the front door wide that not-so-cold day in January after the papers I threw into the woodstove tumbled out again, edged in orange and sending currents of smoke up to the ceiling. I thought about the smoke alarm overhead and braced myself for the piercing screech as I stamped out what little flame there was with the metal ash shovel and jostled around the dogs to open the door for fresh air and to shoo them outside.

The alarm blared as I scooped up as much of the smoking mass that I could, which crumbled in to smaller and smaller pieces, and tossed it back into the woodstove. And then I dashed up the stairs to silence the smoke alarm.

Amidst all this action sat Cleo, ensconced in the big black bean bag chair which I plunked down in front of the fire this past fall, looking forward to curling up with a good book in the warmest spot of the house on some of those more brutally cold winter days. Of course the cats also thought that was an excellent idea and always managed to beat me to it. That day Cleo had spent the entire morning snoozing in her little nest and as smoke curled towards the ceiling and the dogs were ushered outside to the accompaniment of the smoke alarm, Cleo sat up and watched with some interest.

When the door wasn’t immediately closed again, and the cold air coming in wasn’t laced with ice like it had been throughout December, Cleo uncurled herself and stretched slowly, arching her back with her eyes fixed on the open door, and then made her way carefully across the floor to the great, white, outdoors.

I watched her do this while I finished cleaning up the mess and wondered briefly about Molly getting excited to see Cleo outside, a new take on this whole cat thing, and using the opportunity to chase her, which would of course incite Murdoch to do the same. I imagined Cleo disappearing in the deep snow beside the deck or dashing off up the trail into the woods with the dogs hot on her tail and me trailing behind trying to stop the impending train wreck. But when I peered around the door, the three of them were innocently milling about, Murdoch and Molly craning to see what was happening in the house and Cleo staring at the snow beneath her feet as she minced about on the cold surface.

“Okay you guys, back inside,” I said and they all filed across the threshold.

That went well, I thought. Good old Cleo, mixing it up with a couple of dogs who have not been above trying to eat her on occasion.

It was within the first week Molly lived with us that she and Cleo came face-to-face for the first time and Cleo explained a couple of things to her about cats.

I returned that day with the dogs from a walk, bustling them inside and closing the door before I noticed Cleo had been lounging on the back side of the bean bag chair and had not yet made her escape.

Oh crap, I thought, then quickly said, “Who wants treats?” before the dogs became aware of her presence. They whipped around to face me where I stood at the door and turned their backs to Cleo. They sat politely as I pulled a couple of treats from the bag I carried in my pocket.

“Now’s your chance Cleo,” I said. “Go!”

But instead of making a beeline for the stairs, Cleo emerged over the top of the bean bag chair sort of like a sea creature might emerge out of the ocean. There was the sound of a million tiny Styrofoam beads shifting beneath her weight as the black faux leather molded to her shape before she stopped, her front legs draped over the voluminous material and stared, bright eyed and eager, at the bag of treats in my hand.

So I gave the dogs another treat, and another as I waited for Cleo to clue in that this might be a good time to leave the area. After another couple of treats, I gave up. “You’re on your own then,” I said with a shrug.

Molly saw her immediately upon realizing I was no longer dispensing treats and she lunged. I shouted her name but she took no notice. Cleo ran towards the stairs, Molly pounced, Cleo turned and ran the other way, Molly pounced. Cleo tried the stairs again and Molly was there, standing over her, eyes piercing, ears very much forward, nose poking aggressively at the small furry creature. Cleo turned and ran back the other way again and sought refuge inside the large blue Rubbermaid bin that we use as a laundry basket. It was lying on its short side so it stood tall and gaping and it wasn’t much of a hiding place, as Molly could fit her front half in as well if she really tried, but it was where Cleo finally made her stand. She was cornered and really had no other options than to hiss angrily and swipe a paw full of unsheathed claws across Molly’s nose. Molly jumped back, and then approached again, much more slowly, but this time when I said her name, she listened and turned and that was that.

So, very quickly, Cleo resumed her life as though nothing much had changed, sprawling out by the fire beside the dogs as she always has and meowing at them for attention, even though it’s not really the right kind of attention, while Chestnut continued living on the second floor of the house, keeping just out of sight and appearing silently on the stairs to cast evil glares from the shadows over all who fraternized with ‘that dog’.