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.

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