Thursday, June 18, 2015

One six zero

I should have been horrified. The numbers are horrifying. And yet I feel almost nothing. It is a number. That is all. One hundred and sixty. One six zero.

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.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Cats at large

“I’m going to assign you each a cat,” I said to the dogs, damp and musky after coming in from the rain. “You will each be responsible for your cat and make sure they return safely to the house every day.”

Two sets of brown eyes stared fixedly at me from serious, dark faces each enthralled, it seemed, at what I was asking them to do.

“Murdoch,” I said sharply, pointing to where he lay at attention on Molly’s bed. “You can have Cleo because Chestnut is just plain scared of you and will run away.” Then, thinking of how just that morning Murdoch stood over Cleo stiff and alert, tail held high, shoulders braced and ready to pounce while Cleo flitted by on tiptoe, arching her back up to rub against his face with a happy little trill in her throat, leaving Murdoch at a loss for what to do, I added, “And Cleo doesn’t have the good sense to be scared of you at all.”

I then turned to Molly who sat in front of me tall and still, like a statue unblinking, I aimed my finger at her and said, “Chestnut is yours.” And then I laughed because Molly looked so serious with that long nose and those giant ears of hers standing at perpetual attention I almost expected her to salute and click her heels and march off directly on her mission.

“I’m just kidding,” I said, reaching out to try and ruffle Molly’s unruffleable hair and then turned to look out the window as the rain sprinkled down in bursts and the sky darkened another shade of grey and the green leaves of spring glowed a little brighter.

The cats were out there somewhere. I was sure they would have come running when the rain started and I called to them as the dogs and I returned from our walk. I expected to see the cats sitting at the door waiting impatiently, standing at our arrival and marching in circles; white paws flashing, meows piercing. But the house was quiet, the deck empty.

I put the dogs inside and did a loop around the house calling, “Chestnut! Cleo!” wondering if they sat hunkered beneath the thick, green clamour of balsam saplings just steps away from where I stood, watching soundlessly, sheltered from the rain, smiling slyly at each other.

It had been only a week since I began letting the cats go outside on purpose. We haven’t done so in years, after the songbird body count started to rise each time the cats slunk about beneath the trees. And then there was the mildly questionable diagnosis of feline immunodeficiency virus that I imagined left them open to all sorts of fatal ailments, not to mention the very real possibility that they would be eaten by something, and not just the foxes we had occasionally seen skipping past our windows, but there are eagles out there too and ravens, and there are horned owls nesting somewhere in our woods whose low, soft voices pulse through the trees at the same time every morning and every evening.

But after Cleo’s recent brush with becoming an invalid as her diabetes slowly stole her ability to walk, I had to rethink some things. The cats are nine and a half now and they have spent a good portion of their lives indoors. It seemed unfair to me that these creatures with their partial wild streak should never be allowed to wander free amongst the trees, to be allowed to do what they naturally do.

So, after a few months of convalescence and Cleo regaining almost full function of her legs and her energy levels spiking so that she no longer dragged herself, flailing from point A to point B, but trotted around the house chasing shadows, her green eyes flashing wildly upon entering a room, charging headlong into whatever adventure presented itself, I decided one day to let them go outside.

I am still getting used to the idea, jumping up every so often, peering out of windows to try and catch glimpses of them flashing through the trees, taking random walks around the house, strolling into the bush, down the driveway, listening for rustling leaves or the occasional distant meow. And every day when they return to the house I am relieved that the last time I saw them, skulking down the path midday, would not be the last time I saw them.

Inside again, I walked from window to window peering out into the greenness beneath the grey, thinking about how practical an idea it would be if I could assign a cat to each of the dogs and then train Murdoch and Molly to keep track of the cats, send them outside at times like these, with storm threatening, to bring them home.

I thought about that as the sky darkened ominously, stealing all the light from the day, flattening everything so the woods looked like a scene set on a stage in some grand auditorium. When Chestnut appeared, suddenly and dramatically, he was like a character on that stage, his beige body, square and oddly large in the natural environment beside the tree outside our window. His neck long, stretched towards the house, his amber eyes wide and alert, black pupils round, full of panic, willing someone to look out the window.

“Of course,” I said to nobody in particular, and smiled. Chestnut the scaredy cat who runs for cover if the wind blows the wrong way, who startles at the slightest change in his environment, at the sound of a dog clomping up the stairs or dishes rattled loudly in the sink. Trust him to show up in the calm just seconds before the storm.

Outside the window he meowed, and then stood with his mouth partially open, ready to meow again, like someone calling for help. His voice was loud and low and insistent. I could still hear it clearly when I turned from the window to head for the door and when I opened it, he heard the squeak of the springs of the wooden screen door and came trotting around the side of the house. I stepped out on to the deck, closed the door on the dogs, frothing and excited, ready to set upon this tiny adventurer who had returned from the unknown with such interesting smells and such a skittish way about him.

I scooped Chestnut up into my arms and carried him inside, past the dogs whose noses were in the air, their bodies stretched on tiptoe. I dumped the cat on to the stairs so he could run up to the kitchen and safety, then turned back to the door as fat rain drops began to fall.

The rain battered the roof, came down in sheets, and I busied myself in the house, wondered about Cleo. I assumed she would appear after the storm, picking her way carefully over sodden ground, the white of her fur crisp and clean against the rain-soaked earth and the trees and the fresh green of spring growth. Then, between the clatter and ovation of the rain against the house I heard a sharp meow so loud for a minute I thought it was Chestnut in the house making a fuss about something. But the voice was insistent, sharp, urgent.

I returned to the door, the dogs leaping up with excitement, jostling for position as I pushed in front of them and peered outside. Cleo was flattened against the side of the house, barely protected from the slight overhang of the roof above, wet but not soaked through. Her fur clumped in spots making the grey darker and the beige more vibrant.

She charged forward when I popped open the screen door, holding the dogs back with my knees, bumping first Murdoch on the cheek and then bracing my calf against Molly’s chest. Cleo hesitated for just a fraction of a moment, meowing her displeasure as the dogs threatened to block her path, and then she charged in the way she does, head down, full speed ahead, see you on the other side. She zigzagged her way past the dogs and up the stairs to the kitchen where she finally stopped to assess the fallout from being caught in the storm and then promptly sat down to clean the raindrops from her fur.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Rude awakening

For a moment, I think, I could be anywhere. I am in total darkness, hauled backwards out of a dream, violently removed and spit out into a black hole. But there are blankets, and warmth, and a green glow from the numbers on the clock giving shape to the room. And there are the dogs.

Murdoch’s voice, agitated, throaty, slices through the house as though he is standing beside me. And there’s Molly, her steady, deep bark filling in the gaps around Murdoch’s piercing alarm.

I glance at the clock, 1:30, and stare into the darkness, wait and see if the blare from downstairs will stop as abruptly as it started. I could just grab on to the last tendrils of sleep, ride them back to wherever I was before all this started. But Murdoch becomes more insistent; so I throw back the covers, stumble from bed, wonder what’s out there.

The tiny sliver of a moon is long gone from the sky, casting the woods, the house, into a heavy darkness. I feel my way down the stairs from the bedroom, step carefully into the living room, strain through the barking to listen for cats under foot. I don’t turn on any lights. If there is something outside I want to see what it is even though it is too dark to see anything.

I stop beside the windows on the stairs down to the kitchen, look up at the sky. The stars are brilliant. Bold, silver orbs scattered across the blackness, their cold points of light giving some definition to the sky against the black shapes of trees. It is so still and dark the barking becomes more jarring, completely out of place.

I would normally have said something by now. Called out to the dogs to tell them it’s fine, but tonight I move quietly down the stairs a part of me believing if I don’t engage with this moment beyond observing, it will be like I was never there, as though I didn’t get out of bed or wake up even. If I stay quiet, I can slip back to bed and into sleep as though I never left.

But my mind is already turning over, though I try to ignore it, that tiny flame of panic in response to the insistent, alarmed, barking. What is out there?

In the entryway the dogs are loud black shapes against other black shapes. I move slowly towards the window, bumping first into Molly and then Murdoch, their furry bodies warm and solid and moving around my legs like hungry cats. I almost fall over one of them in the dark and have to feel my way around them with my hands. I see Murdoch’s curled tail against the slightly lighter shade of black at the window as he moves in the direction of the door, still barking.

It is too dark to see anything outside. I turn my face away from the window try to see movement with my peripheral vision. But there is nothing. Finally I have to shush the dogs.

“Okay,” I say, adding my voice to the moment and becoming present. “Enough. You’re fine. It’s fine. There’s nothing there. And nobody is going outside.” In the ringing silence that follows, I hear the staccato beat of a dog barking in the distance, and then Murdoch starts again with fervour.

“Are you kidding me?” I say, rolling my eyes to the dark ceiling, this is why I was so rudely awaken? “Murd. Enough. Stop.” It is quiet just long enough for me to get back upstairs and in to bed with the light on so I can read because now I am well and truly awake.

For the next hour I can hear the dog in the distance. Now that I’ve heard it, I can’t un-hear it. Murdoch and Molly join in every few minutes and I yell “okay” and “enough”. I read and watch the clock and finally I turn off the light, grateful for the total darkness of the moonless night, and the silence.

I close my eyes and wait, surprisingly relaxed, I think, surprisingly unconcerned about the early hour as though I might just slip back in to the moment when I was ripped from sleep. I feel like I am on the cusp of it when Murdoch’s piercing voice slices through the silence, ricocheting from his mouth in layers the way it does. I push myself up on my elbow and scream into the room until my throat hurts, “MURDOCH!! STOP!” Which he does, abruptly, and I throw myself back down on the pillow, resigned to a night of lying awake, waiting for the next outburst. But nobody says a word.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Unexpected adventure

I picture the scene from a distance. Imagine what it would look like to someone happening upon this spectacle in the middle of nowhere. A flat grey day, a white open field, the three of us running full out, two black dogs and a human in a bright red jacket, arms flailing, voice yelling incoherently.

It is a big space. The mountain with its rows of different tree species, ribbons woven across its face, stands like a protective wall on one side of the field of marsh grasses emerging from the snow as winter wanes, a field we discovered this year is actually made up of numerous beaver ponds. Mounded dens of pointed, weathered sticks dot the landscape. We have walked here most of the season, striking out across the frozen field that is puddled and marshy the rest of the year, full of waist high grasses and little islands of clumped together trees.

On the coldest days we followed the meandering channel cut through the snow-covered grasses, a frozen river connecting one beaver pond to another. We climbed the snowy banks to get around dams of haphazard sticks with whittled ends jammed together expertly, and left criss-crossing footprints on the untouched white expanses of wind-blown snow on the ponds as though we were the only living things for miles.

But I wondered about those beavers. Tried to imagine them in their cozy lodges, hidden away from the harsh winds beneath layers of sticks and mud and insulating snow. I wondered if they knew we were there, especially when Murdoch ventured close and occasionally stood atop the hilled dens like some conquering army of one.

A lot of the snow has melted from the field on this grey day, the grasses that were crushed beneath the weight of it lie flat in large sweeping swirls as if a torrent of water has rushed through. It is spongy under foot and so we walk on one of the still-frozen ponds. Along the edge a muddy dam emerges and in spots the snow has melted and the ice has begun to thin and re-freeze. Beneath the clouded sky the frozen pond is an expanse of various shades of grey.

I am not watching the dogs when Murdoch bolts. I see the snappy movement from the corner of my eye and I turn as my stomach drops, his name forming on my lips. He is already in full flight and ahead of him a brown shape lumbers awkwardly across the ice. I am running before I can even think, shouting his name, uselessly yelling “no!” and “come!” and Molly, who has started to skip along nearby because I am running, suddenly sees the beaver, shifts gears and is gone, looping around to the animal’s right as Murdoch loops around to the left. They are gaining on it as I fall further behind.

I have visions of a bloody massacre, unsure of who might emerge the victor. Beavers have very sharp teeth and can be vicious when threatened. But I think Murdoch can be too. I continue to run as the space between Murdoch and the beaver closes. The air is consumed by a thick smell of urine. I will the beaver to escape.

It is in this moment I picture the scene, the ridiculousness of it; the panicking beaver, humping as fast as he can across the ice, the two dogs in serious pursuit, and the human, completely ignored running behind, uselessly yelling.

The beaver makes it to a clump of scrub trees growing out of the ice and dives into a hole, a dark space made of sticks and mud. Murdoch is right on its tail and is just about down the hole behind it. He is frantically digging at the ice when I catch up. Molly is running in agitated circles.

“Leave it!” I snarl at them, grabbing Murdoch’s collar and hauling him away. “Idiots!” I say. “That beaver could have ripped you both to shreds.”

But they are giddy and distracted, their brains still in the chase and I have to circle around them, herd them towards the tree line at the base of the mountain, away from the beaver dens and the pungent smell hanging heavily over everything and the drama.

Slowly, grudgingly, they come back to the moment. Murdoch picks up another scent and follows it into the woods, Molly canters in circles looking for a stick for me to throw, and we continue our walk as I replay the chase in my mind. Later, I think if the dogs had organized themselves, gone in with a plan, not been taken by surprise, they probably could have caught that beaver.

And then what?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The cedar trees

I have a vague idea of where we are in this endless white landscape. We are not really lost, I assure the dogs, I know if I keep clawing my way in this direction we will eventually stumble upon the walking trail that begins at the end of our road and winds its way towards the mountains. But it is little consolation. We have been walking for hours and I am tired trudging through the knee-deep snow. Molly is walking so closely behind me she catches my heels with her paws, pitching me forward with every other step.

We are in the middle of a jungle of poplar saplings. My brain tries to convince me I am claustrophobic, but I push the idea away, focus on keeping some momentum as I wade through the snow along a narrow track in this new-growth forest. I use my hands to pull me along, grabbing hold of the tiny trees on either side of me as my legs churn up the snow, my whole body propelling me forward as the dogs fall in line behind, let me cut the trail.

When I stop in the whiteness to rest, the sky, the snow, the trees, everything is white and everything looks the same. We are at a point where the ten-foot tall, wiry trees are thick enough and the land curved at just the right angle that we can’t see the mountain behind us, it is just white on white on white, an endless march of saplings leading like a maze in every direction.

I am frustrated because we lost our trail for the second time in three days. It all started with the cedar trees. We stumbled upon them one day when the dogs and I went off trail, cutting a new path through previously untouched snow. I pushed my way through tight spaces, crawled beneath knots of branches, climbed over downed trees, and shielded my eyes from the smallest twigs and branches slapping at my face and pulling at my jacket before snapping off in the cold. I followed Murdoch mostly, and Molly followed me and we circled south towards the mountain.

When I stopped to determine the best route around a jumble of branches and saplings, the ropey bark of a small cedar tree caught my eye, its skinny trunk remarkable because it was so young and new. I stared for a moment in some disbelief at this tiny treasure. Cedar trees are scarce around here; it is usually remnants I come upon, trees half fallen over or logs left in a pile from the time before when machines clawed through these woods. But when I pushed ahead through the deep snow, there was another tree, a large tree, and then another and another, and we were in a stand of cedars with their twisting branches and yellow drops of sap frozen in deeply patterned faces.

They looked ancient with gray weathered bark that spread almost fluidly over their fat trunks, giving the illusion of motion, as though the trees were growing right before my eyes. I stood beneath one for a while leaned against its sturdy trunk and looked up into the snarls of branches that seem to have formed in the swirl of constantly changing wind currents. It felt like a place out of time and when we left to continue our circuitous walk through this unfamiliar part of the woods in search of the familiar, I vowed to return.

But the next day, retracing our steps, entering the woods from the trail we cut on our way out, we couldn’t find them. The trail we made seemed to peter out, branch off in ways I didn’t remember, and then I was standing in front of a puzzle of branches made up of a fallen tree ensnared in a clutch of saplings which I swore I had never seen before.

After a few attempts to set out in different directions in hopes of discovering my path, we gave up and returned to the meadow and our well-worn trail and headed for home with half an idea that perhaps the cedar trees did not want to be found.

We did find them though, the following day, as the wind whipped across the meadow and I mapped in my mind the ground we had covered the two previous days. I pulled the hood of my jacket around my face as we re-cut a path across the beaver pond at the edge of the meadow, the open space wind-blown and harsh, the trail we had made the day before just a dimple in the deep snow.

The day swung between sunshine and white outs. Patches of blue sky sailed past overhead chased by the bright white blankness of snow-filled cloud as we crossed into another beaver pond, this one sheltered by brush and clusters of trees and we wove our way diagonally in the direction of the mountain. Just on the far edge of this second beaver pond we found the cedars again, standing where we had left them two days before, creaking in the wind and casting complicated shadows in the sporadic sunshine.

It was then, on a whim, we set off up the mountain, the one on the other side of the meadow where we walk everyday, the mountain that echoes my voice back at me when I stand in a certain spot and call the dogs. We followed the gentle slope of the land through a section of mature forest, protected from the wind and the whipping snow above. Our trail twisted around clusters of birches and spreading pines, until we stood almost parallel with the canopy below, glimpsing the distant view through gaps in the branches.

But when we turned to go, to follow our fresh-cut trail back down the mountain, it became muddled and confused. I retraced our steps to a group of tiny maple trees whose brown leaves curled and clung to tapering twigs, and then I lost the thread.

I zigzagged back and forth between the trees trying to recognize my trail or particular clusters of trees or the way the land dipped and rolled. Eventually I picked a direction and started walking. The mature woods began to thin as the brush thickened and the snow deepened. And then the poplar saplings began. The new growth forest crowded down the side of the mountain and we were swept up into the midst of it.

I know this mountain from a distance and I try to imagine where we are, try to picture the way the new forest swells up the side of it, where it melds into the mature woods. But I can’t do it; all I know is if we keep heading in this direction, with the sun at our backs, we will have to emerge on that walking trail that used to be a logging road, but I have no idea what part of the trail that will be.

I try not to think about how far we still have to go, or about how utterly the same everything looks in the white clamour of saplings. The dogs follow single file behind me as I push on, cursing our lost trail and wondering out loud how we got so far off track. And then to my right, just peeking up above the battalion of saplings, I see a dark green shape. In the next breath I recognize the mature tree looming out of the white, the shaggy outline of the greenery on twisting branches and I abruptly change direction, pick up the pace as I wade through the snow in search of the edge of this monotonous forest and toward the stand of cedar trees, our stand, the one that just found us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The wind

We walk on the lee of a hill. Wind whips overhead, rushes through the trees nearby and sails off the crest of the hill before swirling down to where we walk, the bite of it tempered by obstacles and changes in direction and velocity. Still, I make sure the scarf is pulled up over my nose; hold my hood taut at the side of my face as a windbreak.

In the open, as the dogs and I move away from one section of forest, leaving the trees and the voices of birds behind us, and follow the curving trail down the hill to its base, the wind sweeps up handfuls of snow, dispersing it out over the marsh grasses, clumps of gold rustling away to the distant mountain, sculpting the landscape.

I am struck by the cold wind and the warm sun mingling here in this open space, imagine how much more bitter it would be if the sun were obscured by cloud and the sky a flat gray and the landscape not lit by its golden light. I might have not come to this spot today, I think, if the sun wasn’t shining.

The wind began early, with the lightening of the sky before the sun sent the first of its yellow rays down through our woods. It did not buffet the house or roar through the trees, but there was movement outside the windows, the woods swaying as a dark mass against the deep indigo sky.

I became more aware of it because of Chestnut’s absence. He had appeared in his usual indelicate way to rouse me from bed and I followed him downstairs in the half-light of predawn seeping in at the windows, turning my head to catch a glimpse of him at the edges of my vision and listening for his movements ahead of me so as not to step on him and send us both tumbling down the stairs.

After everyone was fed and I sat finishing my own breakfast I became aware that Chestnut was not circling the room, pacing out a route with the not so subtle pad-pad of his feet, nor was he sitting at the table, eyes peering over the flat surface at me with a look of almost-panic, as if I might not give him the bowl with remnants of oatmeal and yoghurt to clean like I do every day.

I looked for him, waited, called his name, and then I thought of the wind. I had heard it of course when I put the dogs out, when I opened the door and listened to it wash through the forest, but it had seemed fairly tame, not as remarkable as those days when it crashes against the house, making it creak and groan with the trees.

So when we walk the lee of the hill later that day and the wind roars overhead, I think of Chestnut, a lump in the middle of the bed huddled beneath the covers. He would hate this. The sun warms my face on one side while the wind slices at me on the other and I think of Aesop’s fable about the sun and wind and their dispute about which one is stronger.

We head into a stand of trees and the wind grows louder but we are sheltered down amongst the trunks. We walk a loop, ducking under low branches and scrambling over downed trees and then we return to the open field to retrace our steps. But our trail is gone, covered up the by wind and snow as though it had never been. And there is a part of me that thinks, as I stand at the edge of things and look at the smooth, seemingly untouched snow ahead before striking out again for home, that this is exactly as it should be.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Molly’s find

Night has not yet fallen, but it is there, waiting to cast its black net across the sky, to illuminate this corner of the world with a thousand stars. The forest is like a solid thing in the fading light, the trees a dark mass here, the snow white and featureless there.

I stand on the edge of it in the cold absence of the sun and I scan the muted landscape for movement. I listen for the ring of a collar, the shush of feet moving quickly through snow. But there is a wind coming up, featureless in the same way the woods are featureless, gray and cold as it creaks around trees and rustles through branches in the same way the light is gray and cold.

In these half times, between light and dark, when the world is neither fully awake nor fully asleep, there is a restlessness that seizes the senses, that tempts a running forward into things, into the dark, into motion of any kind and I stand on the edge of the darkening woods teetering forward while the house sits comfortably behind me, smoke puffing out of the chimney, warm light beckoning at the windows.

Part of me wants to strike out into those woods, into the featurelessness of a world I know so well by daylight. I want to follow the familiar trail and listen to the woods at twilight, in the flat gray. But I am waiting for Molly, and Murdoch is waiting for me.

I watched from the window when I put the dogs out before their dinner, Murdoch on his line and Molly wandering free. I don’t trust her, not after a number of evenings when my voice bounced hollowly about in the trees calling her name and there was no reply but the silence of the forest after dark. Putting her on a line of her own didn’t work as she wrapped herself around trees, winding up the rope until she had nowhere to go and nothing to do but lie down, pinned to the ground.

So I watch from the window, call her back the minute she looks like a notion has passed into her mind to head in the opposite direction from the house. Mostly I just step outside with her, follow her around. But that is ridiculous, I think. I am being overbearing.

I let her out this night on her own. It is suppertime she won’t go far, but I am wrong and I watch from the window as she finishes checking the perimeter of the woods, steps beyond the outlying trees, takes a hard left and disappears.

Murdoch returns on his line and I call for Molly, expect to see through the window her dark shape leap across the snow towards the door. But there is nothing. No dark shadows detaching themselves from the dark shadowed woods, no bounding figures racing at the house.

I put on my boots, grab my coat from the hook, and step out into the quiet of this half time. I call her name and my voice falls flat in the flat light. I walk to the edge of the woods where I saw Molly disappear and I call again, cast my eyes over the ground that has been churned up by many feet leaving their prints over a stretch of days. And I am tempted to wander off in to the woods myself.

I take a few steps along the trail and call her name again and then turn away and head for the road. It would not be the first time a dog managed to show up in exactly the opposite direction from the one in which they disappeared. But there is no sign of her there either, so I return to the gray and creak of the woods.

Now I start to worry. My mind begins to skip ahead, making a list of people to tell I have lost her, imagining their reactions.

I turn around with her name forming on my lips, and she is there, silently and suddenly as though she has never been gone, as though I had just overlooked her there on the edge of my vision. She skips towards me, her whole body wagging, so happy to show me what she has found. It is lying behind her in the clearing on the way to the house.

The creamy yellow of the bone is jarring against the flat gray-white of the snow, making the partial ribcage and section of spine almost glow in the low light. It was a deer, I imagine, taking in the broken ribs still curving towards the missing sternum, the vertebrae locked in a gentle C shape with a twist at the end, but the shape makes me think of a giant scorpion or something insectile.

I escort Molly inside and then scoop the hunk of skeleton onto the rake I use for cleaning up after the dogs and it clicks against the plastic fingers and overbalances one way and then the other. I do not study it as I walk it down the driveway to the road and then across to the gully. I do not want to think about the animal it used to be and how it ended up in pieces, perhaps scattered throughout the forest.

It is awkward to aim with the smoothness of the rake and the roundness of the bones, so I kind of flip the partial skeleton over the edge and it tumbles down where the road falls away to a shallow ravine and I watch it disappear amongst a featureless mass in the half-light of the woods, a mass which I know to be a tangle of fallen trees laden with snow.

I stare down after it for a moment, trying to pick out the creamy-yellow glow against the black of the trees or the darkening gray of the snow but the fading light, lying heavily now over everything, has swallowed it up. Gone. But I wonder how long it will be before Molly or Murdoch finds it again.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Pileated Woodpecker

There is a road, white and featureless, tapering to the dark smudge of trees in the distance which are picked out in minute detail by dustings of fresh fallen snow. A pink-hued sky stretches overhead, tinted by a late afternoon sun completely hidden behind a wash of cloud.

There is an unending sense of stillness. A moment out of time, an old photograph, faded through the middle and sharp at the edges where the woods are black in the muted light. Cold drapes heavily over everything. It would be bleak if not for the faint blush of sky.

And then a voice startles from the woods. The rising and falling peal of the Pileated Woodpecker cuts a path ahead of the bird, which appears from amidst one patch of forest and flies up the center of the road straight and true, a dart aimed with precision.

It cries and dips with unseen currents, its wings tucked neatly about its torpedo-shaped body. And then the wings unfold with a snap, white underneath edged in black, like a cloak lined in white satin. Within a beat the wings snap back into place, there is a flash of red from the crest atop its head and then it disappears into another patch of woods, on the path of the tree with the hole picked out ruthlessly months ago, from where chips once flew and littered the ground in a radiating semicircle.

In its wake the startling cry remains and an afterimage of white underwing like a secret revealed, that red flash. And then there is stillness, a white road and a pink-hued sky.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Wake up call

It is dark these winter mornings, even as the sun rises a little earlier each day. I awake to a dull light at the windows. A row of trees on each side of the room are dark gray rectangles punctuated by the black gnarled fingers of bare branches.

I close my eyes against the cold of the morning and wait for the light. The house is quiet and then Chestnut leaps unceremoniously into the room with a muted thunk and I lie in the melting darkness and listen to the pad, pad of his feet pacing out a semi-circle around the bed.

I picture the pink skin on the bottom of Chestnut’s feet striking the wood floor again and again as he slinks about the room. I imagine him casting glances at the bed, wondering if I have caught on yet, that it is time to get up. And then, when it is clear that I have not, he is beside the bed, stretching his body up the wall, his claws skittering loudly across it, his paw slapping the cord of my bedside lamp against it and I roll away from the noise, pull the blankets up to cover my ear, pretend to sleep.

Whether or not he is fooled by my clever plan he moves away to the other side of the room to find something else. There are papers to rustle through and a box to sink his teeth into, cardboard to tear at loudly. The sound echoes thumpingly inside the empty spaces of the box, amplified by the wooden floor on which it sits.

So I sigh and whisper his name harshly into the shadowless room. There is a quick pad-pad of feet and then the weight of his body is on the bed and he is peering at me over the edge of the covers. I can see his shape, make out in smudges some detail on his face.

“Are you the spokesman?” I ask. “Did the dogs send you up here to get me up?”

What kind of deal have you struck with them, I wonder, because Chestnut always seems to be set upon by the dogs. Just last week Murdoch body-slammed him against the wall as he tried to bolt up the stairs. I saw it the instant before it happened and was on my feet as Murdoch leapt across the floor at the cat. Chestnut squawked and was spun around and left sitting bewildered on the stairs as I yelled at the dog and banished him to the entryway. So I think this early morning visit is entirely self-serving.

But there are some mornings, if he is not too far-gone with hunger, when I can entice him to stay awhile, to pretend to sleep with me. Sometimes if I pull back the covers just a bit, revealing a black cavern, cozy and warm, Chestnut steps over my arm and circles himself into the space I’ve created. He pushes his body into mine and I curl myself around him and feel him breathe and listen to him purr his very loud purr as the light brightens slowly at the windows and the room emerges as shades of gray.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Testing smoke alarms

Molly is like a cat sometimes we say. She is frequently underfoot, parking her body in front of your legs so you walk right into her side, or lying down on the floor exactly where you were about to step in that slow motion way she has.

When I work around the wood stove, tossing in more wood or stirring up the flames with the metal pipe we use as a poker, she paces behind me, sometimes rubs her face against my back and when I finally push her out of the way, she slides to the floor at my side, peeking at me under the open wood stove door. I glance at her and shake my head and explain for the millionth time, it is not safe to play around the fire.

She lies there one evening peering up at me, as I begin to clean out the wood stove. The sky has just darkened outside the windows but it is still warm enough outdoors to let the fire die down to coals and embers. I reach inside, scrape the shovel along the bricks that line the bottom, scoop up a pile of ash, white on top and grey beneath. I work around the coals still glowing brilliant orange, flecks of them fall away from the ash heaped on the tiny shovel. I bring it out carefully and dump it into the old metal bucket, worn thin in spots, dented and needing replaced.

It is a trick to find that perfect moment when the firewood has burned away to coals so the heat is not unbearable, but the coals are still alive with fire so I clean out the ash around them and I don’t have to start the fire again from scratch.

I wear an old pair of oven mitts on my hands and use a metal prod to shuffle the large orange chunks, rippling blue around the edges, from one side of the stove to the other and then reach in with the narrow shovel and scoop the ash out from underneath, then shuffle the coals back to the other side and scoop the ash from where they had just been sitting.

Heat snaps at my face where I kneel at the open door, it bites through the oven mitts at my fingers. Sometimes the surface of the mitt begins to smoke before I am done. Part way through I exchange the mitt on one hand for the other, the one with the shovel always thrust furthest into the midst of the heat, reaching for the very back of the stove.

I pull out a smoking lump from the fire and by the way the smoke purposefully rides the air currents I know it will not extinguish in the bucket. The bucket is three-quarters full, I am almost done, if I could just finish, I think, before the smoke alarm goes off. The smoke funnels straight up from the bucket, swirling in a plume towards the ceiling and I scoop a little faster.

“Hold on,” I say to the dogs, “I’m almost done.” And then the pierce of the smoke alarm slices through the house and all other sound is gone. I glance sideways at Molly, and can’t help but laugh a little to see her giant ears like sails are pinned flat to her head, her eyes narrow and she stares straight at me down her long nose.

“I know Molly,” I shout, as I shovel another scoop, “I’m almost done.”

I am still wearing my boots from when I retrieved the bucket from outside. There are puddles, I know, underneath my feet where I kneel by the fire. It will take more time than is necessary to remove my boots, run up the stairs, wrestle the smoke alarm off the wall and pop out the battery. If we can stand it for just a minute.

I can feel Murdoch’s presence behind me and Molly’s eyes boring into me. I am impressed they haven’t begun a riot. “I’m almost done,” I say again as the other smoke alarm on the second floor joins its screaming to the first. I drop the metal shovel on the ceramic tile, hastily close the door of the wood stove and grab the handle of the smoking bucket. “Okay, let’s go everyone,” I say and lunge at the outside door, throwing it open and waving the dogs outside, where they happily bound and I follow out into the dark and the cold that is refreshing, slamming the door behind me.

We can hear the muted blare of the alarms outside and I take my time to walk to the ash pile and dump the bucket, the orange embers sizzling into the snow beneath a black plume of particulate. I hold my breath and turn away. But when I look back the embers flare against the darkness and I imagine for a minute a piece of the sky has fallen to Earth.

The dogs meet me back at the door and I can hear the alarms have stopped. Inside the air is a thin haze, the smoke dispersed and just hanging there. I return to the stove as Molly lies down again at my feet, rake up the coals and toss in some wood, open the damper wide so the orange coals blaze brilliantly, and we wait for the fire to catch.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Because it was there

I walk past the thing all day, registering it, filing it away to investigate later. It looks like a twisted piece of tissue paper that had once been wet, but is now dry. I register it as something new, but hardly startling, hardly worth looking at immediately as it is lying on the floor in the entryway amidst a million other things on the floor in the entryway, a whirlwind of bits and pieces.

The entryway is like a dog’s breakfast my mom would say, which would be fitting because it is where the dogs stay most of the time, where they eat and where they lay by the fire, their blankets strewn about on the floor amidst bits of firewood and clumps of sawdust and intermittent pools of water where snow has melted from the treads of boots or from between the toes of Murdoch or from the pile of firewood stacked beneath the window.

And there are fragments of stick smuggled in from outside. Bite sized pieces. Molly, forever melded to whatever stick she happens to pick up at the beginning of our walks, stands most days contemplating whether to stay outside all day hanging on to her stick or drop it by the door and come inside where it is warm and where there might be food.

“Come on Molly,” I say as she eyes me dubiously from a distance and all the cold air rushes into the house around me, the hot air escaping in great puffs of steam. “It will be there when we come out again.” And about nine and a half times out of ten it is still there. So, she drops it kind of mechanically and steps slowly over it, padding into the house at a snail’s pace. “That’s okay Molly,” I say, waving her on with my mittened hand. “Take your time.” But sometimes the stick is small enough to hide in her mouth and I find it later, a gnarled and splintered lump on her bed.

There are other things in the entryway too, shoes and tools waiting to be returned to some toolbox or other, gloves drying on top of Murdoch’s kennel, a chainsaw or two and bags of various things coming or going, not to mention great rafts of dog hair collecting in corners and occasionally sailing across the floor.

So when this thing catches my eye in the morning, a white thing that looks like a fragment of partially twisted tissue paper, it is of little consequence to leave it where it is for awhile.

When I eventually do pick the white thing up off the floor, carefully because I think it will be delicate and papery, I am momentarily taken aback because it is rubbery to the touch. In the next instant I know what it used to be, “It’s that glove!” and I turn to Murdoch where he stands at the top of the stairs in the kitchen and I hold up what was once the cuff of a white latex glove, now a white string with bits of glove still clinging to it. “Why would you eat this?” I ask him, because I just know it was him. He stares back with his dark brown eyes peering out from beneath his shaggy eyebrows and says nothing.

Of course, I am not surprised, it is Murdoch afterall and he has eaten all sorts of things. Like the bowl of that wooden spoon two Christmases ago, and the forks he chewed on when he was much younger, snarling the tines into deformed twists of metal. He used to eat the fingers of gloves and he has swallowed entire socks, not to mention that deer hoof he inhaled whole and then threw up a few hours later in front of the fire.

And of course there’s the neighbours’ garbage he has got in to on occasion, returning home to regurgitate scraps of tin foil and plastic wrap, and the various dead rabbits and animal organs he has found in the bush of which I have lost count, and there was that bone fragment he swallowed a few months ago and we thought for a moment that he might be dying as he lay lethargic on the floor.

In retrospect, I think as I look at the scrap of a thing dangling from my fingers, I suppose the hand of a latex glove is nothing to be concerned about. I shake my head at Murdoch’s Murdochness as I throw the remnants of the glove in the garbage and realize the answer to my question of why would he eat this, is simple: because it was there.