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.