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.