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.