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.

Friday, March 7, 2014

For the love of sticks

Murdoch’s breath smells like death.

“Ew,” I say as I pull away after planting a kiss on top of his head. “You stink.” I wave my hand in front of my face in an exaggerated show of disgust and then ask, “Do we need to clean out your teeth again?”

Murdoch stares back with his best flippant expression.

I retrieve the plastic toothpick I’ve been using for Murdoch since the fall and kneel down on the kitchen floor, tapping my finger on the hardwood in front of me. “Lie down,” I say. And he does, in his awkward, stiff-legged way that says ‘I am doing this under extreme duress’.

When he finally flumps down and his overgrown nails have finished raking noisily across the floor and his head is resting on my outstretched leg now that I am sitting behind him, I peel back his lips and look at the spot between his last premolar and first molar that has been a problem for months. It is packed with junk.

Bracing his head against my leg with my forearm, I hold his lips open with one hand, wielding the toothpick in the other and attempt to pluck out the crap that has lodged between his teeth and into the hollow in his gum. He grumbles his usual throaty grumble and flicks his tongue and snaps his jaws in frustration. I aim the toothpick the best I can as he writhes beneath my grasp and poke at the bits of stick detritus that are wedged between his teeth. He usually lets me get a pick or two in before he jerks his head away and then we have to start over again, but each attempt always yields some freed bits of stick and we repeat until the area is cleaned out.

I’ve been doing this since the beginning of fall when I first noticed his breath change. When I peered in to his mouth to investigate, I found he had this sort of greenish goop between those two teeth.

“Well, that looks kind of gross and rotten,” I said to him and contemplated how I might clean it out. I cast my eye about the room as Murdoch and I sat together, relaxed by the woodstove, not wanting to make a grand show of searching for some sort of tool and then descending on him and his very suspicious nature. He was already eyeing me warily when I picked up a splinter of wood off the floor, shaped very much like a toothpick.

I let him sniff it and then as he relaxed again beside me I carefully peeled back his lip and flicked the gunk from his teeth.

In the split second between me poking at the gunk with the toothpick and him jerking away to flick his tongue about furiously, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a trough that had been cut in to his gum.

“What was that?” I asked him, as he sat staring at me, his mouth buttoned up tight.

I stood up and braced his head against my leg by the window so I could peel back his lips again and look at that spot between his teeth on his lower jaw that I had just cleaned. My heart sank a little when I saw that his gum had worn away right where those two teeth meet. There was a rounded trough cut in to his gum that ended in a pocket and I realized then that the stuff that I had picked from between his teeth had actually been packed into his gum.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. He attacks sticks with such vengeance, dragging small trees out of the bush and ripping them the shreds, even breaking a couple of teeth in the process. It only makes sense that he has also damaged his gums.

“Oh, Murpy,” I said as I released him. “I don’t think gums repair themselves.”

So, every couple of days since then I have sat down with Murdoch and cleaned out the trough in his gum the best I can. And for the most part Murdoch has cooperated. Until that day when his breath actually smelled like death.

I left it too long between cleanings, because I had been away, so when I finally peel back his lips to look at the gum it is packed with more stuff than ever before and when I poke at the accumulated junk, his gum starts to bleed. I try to steady Murdoch’s head as it jerks around, thinking if I could just get one clear shot I could clean it all out. But the bits of stick and bark, and whatever else is in there, are jammed so tightly nothing budges. It looks like a splinter of wood is protruding from lower down on his gum, as if it is trying to work its way out from the inside.

I let him go when he starts to snarl and take swipes at my hands with his paws. The vet is an option from that moment on, but I am determined to fix this myself.

“It’s ridiculous,” I rant to Morgan. “We should be able to do this ourselves. If he would just sit still for a minute.”

But it is useless. Two or three times a day for four days I get him to lie down like before and manage to poke around between his teeth, but with each attempt he gets angrier and meaner. His throaty grumbles become full-on growls, his snapping jaws suddenly snap with more purpose, he snarls with wild eyes and claws at my hands until I am shoving him away and both of us are completely out of patience.

After the second time he bites me, I finally agree to take him to the vet.

“When he’s knocked out,” Morgan says. “Maybe they could cut his toenails too.”

We have half-joked in the past about having Murdoch anaesthetized so we could get his claws trimmed since the last time we tried to do it Murdoch broke free of my hold on his head and grabbed Morgan’s hand in his jaw so fast neither of us had time to react. He clamped on to his hand with an iron grasp just long enough to prove how serious he can be. He didn’t break skin, but he left his teeth imprints behind and a bruise that lasted for a week. Since then we have been very apprehensive to try again.

“Yes,” I say flatly. “That would be good.”

And so, we make the appointment and I explain to Murdoch how ridiculous he’s being about everything. But I really don’t think he gets it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Disturbing the peace

Overhead there is a clunk and a thump and the pounding of little feet across a bare wood floor. There is a scrape-shush-shush as though something heavy is being dragged from one side of the room to the other and a thump and clatter, and more pounding of feet.

I sit at the kitchen table with a steaming mug of tea and stare at the ceiling. It had been a quiet morning, with the crack and tick of the woodstove the only sound accompanying the arrival of the sun peeking up above the treeline, reaching its first rays over the windowsill and spilling puddles of warm light on to the kitchen floor. Peaceful.

I hear a rumbling groan that I imagine must be vibrating through the floorboards, the thump of a tail whipped angrily against the hardwood, a hiss and a clunk.

I take a sip of my tea and try to imagine what the cats are doing. There are just two of them, but it sounds like a whole troupe of acrobats has taken up residence in my living room.

Cats. I expect one of them to come crashing through the ceiling at any moment to plummet into my lap amidst an explosion of fur that drifts silently down in the quiet aftermath, caught in a sunbeam.

They don’t often do this in the morning, lately it happens in the middle of the night, at that fleeting moment when we are just perfectly comfortable, and finally warm beneath the weight of seven layers of blankets, tendrils of sleep swirling our thoughts in to a dull, shapeless hum, when a thump or a clunk or a hiss bolts us awake and we find ourselves pounding on the floor of the bedroom as though the neighbours living below us have the television turned up too loudly.

But this morning, for whatever reason, Chestnut has decided to stir things up. I know it is Chestnut, because it always is. He is the sweetest, cuddliest cat most days, but whenever he is disgruntled about anything, such as being hungry or having a new dog thrust into this life, he becomes a merciless bully and takes it out on Cleo.

I track their movements across the floor as they clatter and thunk from one side of the room to the other. There is an angry kind of growling meow that sounds like Cleo has finally lost patience. She appears then, and I watch her storm down the stairs, hissing all the way followed a few seconds later by a floating tuft of hair.

When Chestnut finally slinks in to view, he has composed himself. He takes his time on the stairs, craning his neck so he can look down to that spot in the kitchen where we have thrown an old quilt on the floor and where Molly often snoozes.

I smile to myself as this mini-dictator, swaggering and throwing his weight around just moments ago in the living room is stopped in his tracks by the mere thought of a dog he can’t quite bring himself to stand up to, a dog who Cleo regularly sleeps near, unconcerned and unruffled. There’s some skewed justice in that, I think, smiling as Chestnut continues his cautious, tiptoe advance into the room while Cleo settles down with the dogs by the fire and I sip my tea, warming my feet in a puddle of sunlight.