On one hand I can’t even fathom the number, can’t even picture it. On the other there is some practical part of my brain that knew it was just a matter of time before I found that many ticks on Murdoch, and yet I am at a loss to explain my nonchalance about the whole thing. Have I really become that desensitized?
When the dogs took off that day, when the wooden screen door squeaked open and Morgan stepped out on to the deck with the dogs clamouring behind him all stompy and clattery clawed, and I heard the riotous crash of underbrush as they raced down the side of the house, my first thought was that they must be chasing a cat. And when I stepped outside just minutes later to round them up and return them to the house only to find the lush green of the woods still and silent, my second thought was how many ticks are they going to bring home?
The dogs had completely vanished and in the quiet that marked the next two hours of their absence my mind went to all the places I imagined them to be, all of them punctuated by tall swaying grasses and all of them off-limits this time of year because they are havens for ticks.
I found my first tick on April 20th. I marked it on the calendar. It was unexpected, a bit early, but except for one day when we went through a fairly grassy area and I later found about 19 ticks on Murdoch, their numbers haven’t seemed too bad. What I believe has helped is a recipe for a natural tick repellent Morgan found online that I mixed up in a spray bottle and administered liberally to both dogs and myself each day before venturing outside.
Of course the mixture only lasts a short time and when the dogs bolted that day what was sprayed earlier on their fur had long since dissipated. They were gallivanting through tick country without any protection; I knew it wasn’t going to be good.
The dogs returned on their own, like I hoped they would even though I ventured out on our regular trails to see if I could find them. Murdoch appeared from the main road, I saw him from a distance rounding the corner at the stop sign and I wished, not for the first time, that we had trackers on their collars. Beyond being mad at them for taking off and relieved they had returned I was burning with curiosity about where they had been.
It wasn’t until much later that afternoon that I finally allowed myself to think more seriously about the ticks. I had carried the weight of it with me all day, the not knowing how many I would find, while part of me thought if I didn’t look at all perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. But when I stood outside with the dogs so they could pee before Morgan and I went out that evening I began to realize the scope of this thing. I hadn’t planned on starting the tick checks right then, but when Murdoch sat down beside me and leaned against my leg and I finally looked, almost reluctantly, into his face and saw seven shiny brown seed-like bumps protruding from the fur around one eye, I knew we were in trouble.
“Um, Morgan,” I called. “Could you help me for a minute?” And I proceeded to pick each tick from around his eye and then the others I found on top of his head and on his ears and under his jaw.
I sat on the deck beside Murdoch running my hands through his fur, methodically pulling ticks from his body and handing them to Morgan where he sat on a chair and squished the ticks between two rocks. Before we went out that evening we had found 59 ticks on Murdoch and a handful on Molly and we knew that was just the beginning.
“How many do you think we'll find?” Morgan asked later in the car on the way home. “I bet we’ll crack 100.”
We were up till 1:00 in the morning killing ticks. Every time I put my hand on Murdoch I found another one. Rhythmically we worked. I pinched the ticks from Murdoch’s body, handed them to Morgan and he squashed them with a pair of pliers. Their crumpled dead bodies, entwined with dog hair, piled up on an old t-shirt on the table hauled into our entryway a day earlier so Morgan could work at repairing a radiator away from the bugs.
As we approached and then passed 80 it became almost like a game, as though reaching 100, surpassing it, was some kind of goal.
By the time we went to bed we’d found a total of 120 on Murdoch and we only stopped because everyone was tired. Within 24 hours of their great escape, I found close to 60 ticks on Molly and 160 ticks on Murdoch.
One hundred and sixty. That is a horrifying number, but I can not seem to muster the amazement that other people feel, the shocked expressions on faces, the astonished “What?!”s, the panic flashing across eyes. I feel none of it.
“Yeah, 160 ticks,” I say with a shrug. But those ticks were small and newly attached, fairly inconsequential. My alarm didn’t come until a few days later when I found a fat tick, and then another, and then another hidden expertly in Molly’s thick, densely packed, fur. I found them in clumps of three, in odd places like the middle of her back and some random spots on her side.
I ran my hands through her fur, greasy and dusty after days of romping through mud puddles, and teased and plucked out the ballooning ticks, one after another. I found 22 that morning, only seven of which were small, and it was after I had squished them all outside on my tick-squishing rock and I had sticky blood on my hands and odd splotches of it dried brown on the toes of one foot and a pile of deflated bodies that I had an irrational moment of wanting to lock the door and keep the dogs inside until the fall.
It’s those fat ones, the ones that have been clinging to the dogs for days, bloated and grey and soft, emerging as bumps from beneath their fur, that are truly horrifying. Have I become desensitized to the point that 160 little shiny brown ticks barely make me flinch? Perhaps, but it’s only because I have seen something much worse.