Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A winter walk

We walk across the open field, follow the looping tracks carved by snow machines, weave our way out and around the edge of the field, cut through the middle, over the lip of an old beaver pond, break through a hardened crust of snow where the wind has resculpted it over the tracks, leaving just a hint of an indentation to indicate there was anything there at all but a smooth white expanse from the trees at the base of the mountain to the trees of the forest a field away.

We cut a trail ourselves in the beginning, trying to find the best way across, winding towards the mountain and a whole different piece of land to explore, off limits the rest of the year when it is unreachable for the swamp. I tried to choose our route carefully, tried to find snow that had hardened, though I punched through often, and then tried to follow the same trail each time even as the wind worked to erase our tracks. I thought about the lives lived out beneath the snow, the secret tunnels of mice and voles and other tiny creatures and with each step I thought I might be destroying someone’s home.

But then the snow machines came back. They had not been here for a few years. The first time I found this field it was criss-crossed with the wide tracks, from one end to the other and back again a hundred times. They returned this season in smaller numbers, the tracks looping just a handful of times around the field but enough for us to use as pathways across the snow, packed down and solid.

We follow the loops, making a few rounds of the field, first along one track and then another and we follow our old trail too, the one we made before, picking it out carefully from the fresh white blanket smoothed over the top. Out in the middle of the field, far from tree cover, the wind bites at exposed skin even on days that seem windless. Sometimes it pushes against my back, rustling at my jacket, and I can feel its solid coldness through the layers of clothing I wear. I make for the trees again to find no wind at all and I am on the verge of overheating.

The dogs skip across the open landscape. Murdoch out in front, dashing over expanses of snow between tracks if I take a turn he is not expecting, clamouring out in front again, though he casts glances back over his shoulder, his face half-black, half-white, snow encircling his snout, frozen in tiny balls under his chin.

Molly walks with me, overtaking me by a few paces then stopping and waiting to see if I will throw the stick she has dropped for me in the middle of the trail. I tell her to bring it as I push past and she leaps on the stick, falls in to step behind me and then shoulders me out of the way as she brushes past to run ahead and try again, turning to stare at me with her intense eyes as though she is trying to plant a thought in my head. Perhaps sometimes that works as once in a while I will stoop as I walk past and pluck her stick from the snow, toss it ahead or behind and watch her chase it with great enthusiasm.

The sun shines at our backs as we make another pass of the field, looping back to the start on a different track. My shadow angles out in front of me, moving across the untouched snow beside the trail. Molly’s shadow is projected just to my right and I watch it move with me, marvel at its perfect shape, the pointed ears, the long snout the confident stride, the tail swinging casually behind. In the shadow I can even see the stick clamped in her mouth and I kind of laugh as I look away to watch Murdoch and his shadow scampering ahead, nose to the ground, searching for anything of interest.

Then Molly bumps me in the back of the leg and I think she has become distracted, our gaits have changed and she has run in to me. I expect her to pass but when I glance at her shadow again it is as it was before, head tall, alert, stride smooth and unflinching, so I shrug and look out over the landscape until she does it again. I laugh and say her name but keep going. I watch her shadow again and this time when she bumps me I see it is on purpose, she launches herself forward and makes deliberate contact with her nose and it is strange because I see the shadow dog bump the shadow person but I feel it as I am watching it happen on the snow in front of us.

I stop and turn and she stares at me with those intense “I am putting a thought in your head” eyes. And I know I shouldn’t do it, but I pick up her stick and throw it anyway because I think it’s funny how adamant she can be, how pushy, and yet have that face with its intensity and the sense that if you just throw that stick she will be the happiest creature on the face of the Earth. And for a moment it is so easy to believe, so easy to grant her that one thing that makes her life complete.

So I shouldn’t be surprised later that day as we walk back through the woods towards home that Molly changes the rules and now, instead of a bunt or a nudge, I feel her right paw wrap around my left boot from behind, her head wrapping around the outside of my leg as she tries to stop me in my tracks or trip me up, I’m not entirely sure which, but she does it often enough so I know it is not an accident. When I turn sternly to confront her, there she is again with that face and I almost give in because when it comes to the animals my resolve is often short lived. They know this about me. They know it quite well, which is why at the moment when Molly was trying to trip me up in the woods I was calling after Murdoch as his black form slipped in amongst the trees and disappeared.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The tapeworm(s)

“What?” I ask as Morgan casts a sideways glance at me and moves with a punctuated slowness past me to reach for the frying pan.

“Why do you always have to talk about tapeworms when I’m eating?” he asks.

“I don’t,” I say. And I don’t, I’m sure I don’t. Except maybe this time, but technically we aren’t eating yet, we are just getting ready to cook dinner and even taking into consideration how easily Morgan is moved to squeamishness, I figure I am still within a safe zone to bring up the subject so we don’t have to talk about it while we are eating.

I have to admit, part of me finds tapeworms somewhat fascinating, which is a weird thing to say and maybe fascinating is too strong a word, but they really are so alien and so different from the everyday I couldn’t help bringing them up since at that moment Murdoch had one of his very own, his third in the last year and a half.

The first time he had one I was suitably disgusted and completely grossed out. “Ewww,” I said when they were pointed out to me in his feces by a friend, “And are those more on his butt?!” But like anything that becomes more - for lack of a better word - ‘normal’, the disgust becomes downgraded over time and for me this latest parasitic invasion elicited disappointment more than anything else.

When Murdoch flashed past me on the stairs that morning a couple of weeks ago and I caught a quick glimpse of some small stark white thing against the black fur of his backside in the shadow of his tail, I knew instantly what it was. I tried to convince myself that it was a splinter of firewood from the pile stacked in the entryway, the pieces of which are sometimes specially selected by one dog or the other and carefully shredded to bits on Molly’s bed. He sat on those splinters, I told myself, and a couple stuck to his fur. But I knew.

And when I followed him outside that morning with the flashlight, climbing into my winter coat and boots, and trailed him to the spot where he always does his business, I saw a couple of the white segments moving about on top of his deposit.

“Oh Murds,” I said as he looked at me with indignation in his eyes for so blatantly invading his privacy. “Why?” And I flashed back in my mind to remember the various things he had eaten over the previous weeks, digging up old bones as well as fresher carcasses from the snow. Where did it come from?

And that’s the fascinating part. Most commonly dogs pick up tapeworms from eating an infected flea. What that means is a flea larva has to ingest the microscopic eggs of a tapeworm that are found inside those broken off segments which emerge from the intestines of some infected animal or other. That flea, as an adult, then has to be swallowed by another animal for the resulting tapeworm to arrive inside another gut and settle in for the cycle to begin again. The whole thing seems very unlikely. What are the odds?

Obviously quite good given Murdoch’s track record.

The plus side of all this though is that no one else in the house can pick up a tapeworm from Murdoch. It has to go through a flea first, which is why during all three of Murdoch’s infections, Molly never showed any signs of her own. And I’ve been keeping a close eye on that.

Which is also why after a few days of tracking dogs through the woods and watching what comes out of them I am more desensitized to the whole thing than Morgan and can have these conversations in the kitchen and, yes, probably even during a meal.

But I acquiesce, “Okay,” I say, hands in the air, “I’m done.” although I'm not and his admonition that I always talk about tapeworms when he's eating makes it sound like that's all I ever talk about, which it isn't. Although, as we turn our attentions back to dinner prep and more appropriate topics of discussion, I file away the tapeworm info for later.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cleo’s gift

“Merry Christmas!” Morgan said then leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. The two women behind the counter at the vet’s office laughed knowingly as I half-heartedly joined in. It was just the second day of the new year and we had already spent over $300 in unplanned expenses.

Cleo sat in her kennel at my feet, arms crossed, disgruntled after an hour-long visit with the vet being prodded and poked and shaved in a long contoured strip across her chest to be stuck with a needle for blood collection. Not to mention the indignity of having to pee in her own kennel on her red blanket because we’d dragged her out of the house with a full bladder.

Cleo, who had been a picture of health for the last seven months, off insulin, high-spirited and full of more energy than she had exhibited in the previous 10 years of her life, decided the last week of 2015 to stop eating. Well, she didn’t completely stop, but her habits changed dramatically. Usually a voracious eater, she picked at her food during meal times leaving half of the meat smeared around the bowl untouched, when the food was placed in front of her she sat for a few moments contemplating her dish as though disappointed with what was on offer and more than once she had come marching after me as I walked away with an expression on her face that read, “I can’t possibly eat that, what else have we got?”

Clearly she was hungry but the food she had been eating ravenously for months was suddenly off-putting. So after some preliminary proddings that turned up nothing out of the ordinary, we assumed she was just being a cat, deciding on a whim that she didn’t like this food anymore and refusing to eat it. We tried her with different things, which she would eat agreeably for one meal but the next time it was on offer she turned up her nose. I even resorted to feeding her food that I had deemed unquestionably off limits since we got control of her diabetes months earlier.

And then on the second morning of the new year, Cleo did not get up for breakfast. While Chestnut carried on for the both of them in the kitchen, stomping and meowing and pinballing across the floor in erratic arcs in desperate attempts to be noticed, Cleo burrowed further into Morgan’s brown chair in the living room.

When I gave her a poke and called her name she raised her head slowly and looked up blearily as though she had just pulled an all-nighter, and could we all just be a little more quiet so she could get some sleep. I tested her sugar, which was elevated and called for insulin, which she hadn't had since April. By rights she needed to eat something first so I stuck a scrap of turkey under her nose, to which she pursed her lips, and then some ham which she tasted but would not eat. I got her to eat a treat and then gave her a shot while Morgan called the vet.

“Judgement day,” said Morgan after he had dug out the cat carrier from under the house.

“I know,” I said in an agonized kind of way. “But she’s been perfect,” I added, trying to convince myself and Morgan that I had made all the right decisions over the last several months, that going off-script from what the vet recommended a year earlier was completely justified.

“This is what I was worried about,” I said. “That something would happen and we would have to take her in and they would question everything and even though she’s been so good I look like the delinquent cat owner because I didn’t bring her in every six months and I fed her something else than what they recommended.” And on I babbled, steeling myself to defend my actions.

But I never had to. Cleo’s history was discussed concisely on that quiet day at the vet’s with the sun gleaming brilliantly off the snow outside the window. We sipped mugs of tea while we waited for test results which confirmed her blood sugars had been good over a period of time, putting her on the “remission” part of the diabetic scale. With a slightly elevated temperature the only real indication something was amiss, they gave her some antibiotics and sent us home.

As early as that night she was back to eating her regular food with ample amounts of gusto and her sugars were almost instantly back to normal I determined as I ambushed her in the kitchen before meals.

And within days we slipped back in to a happy rhythm, both cats demanding food hours before meal times, Cleo meowing excitedly and running at breakneck speed to the spot on the floor where her bowl is always placed and then licking it thoroughly clean and asking if, perhaps, there is any more. And for a moment or two we breathed sighs of relief as our world sprung back in to its familiar shape and our days rolled along into the new year with a balanced sense of regularity until, exactly one week later, our focus shifted to Murdoch… and his tapeworm.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Echoes and snowflakes

The snow came in time for Christmas; a great walloping deluge of heavy wet snow created by too-warm temperatures. It bent pliable trees in half, sent them arching across the trail caked with snow to become white impassable walls. It snapped the less pliable off near their roots. Trees toppled into other trees, exposing splintered interiors, a shock of clean, blond wood against a black and white world.

I spent half a day shaking snow from trees. But the great heavy clumps had frozen in dropping temperatures and they did not tumble easily from branches and the trees did not spring back to their rightful places. Our trail slowly altered as we picked our way around and over the new landscape.

But there is snow and the grassy, swampy field that runs widely and invitingly from the tree line where we usually walk to the base of the mountain in the near distance has filled in and frozen over and we hike a zig-zagging, looping trail across it following the carved tracks of a snow machine ghosted over by blowing snow.

Murdoch barks in the middle of the white expanse where we stand exposed between mountain and forest. He barks in Molly’s face, ice clinging to his beard, ringing his eyes. He throws his whole body behind his big voice, his ears flap forward and then back. Molly just stares at him, bunched up inside herself, frozen to the spot. He wants to play but he does not ask nicely.

Oftentimes he runs up behind Molly, pokes her hard in the hip with his nose, jumps back on splayed toes, barks antagonizingly. Sometimes Molly obliges, leaps forward, swipes at him with her paw. But Murdoch does not want to lose, refuses to lose, so he throws himself wildly into the game, snapping out short staccato barks, teeth flashing, full-body contact, tail crooked down at a serious angle. It is too much for most dogs.

And so, as we stand in the middle of the field and Murdoch barks in Molly’s face, his voice coming from somewhere deep and rumbling in his chest, rolling at speed up his throat, ricocheting off his voice box and exploding from his mouth like a solid thing of great weight, Molly freezes, unsure of what else to do, stares at him with a look of startled panic.

I encourage her to run with him. “Get him Molly,” I say and am about to start running with him myself, he is so desperate to play, when in the split second of silence following his latest booming entreaty, Murdoch’s voice bounces off the treeline to our left, travels across the expanse of the flat open space and a beat later bounces off the mountain to our right.

A double echo and Murdoch stands at attention, tail curled high behind him. He turns his head first to the wall of trees and then to the mountain, ears pulled back, listening, eyes scanning the landscape for that other dog. He barks again, then listens and again and again as snow quietly drifts down from the textured grey sky.

“Who’s that?” I ask with a smirk and he flicks a glance at me before resuming his search. Molly still does not move even though his attention has shifted from her to the mystery dog. I stand quietly and watch them as snowflakes begin to settle on their black fur, perfectly formed six-pointed stars of shimmering lace.

After a while I start walking across the squeaking snow. The dogs fall in step with me and we saunter towards the woods in our usual way, separate but together, the outburst of a moment ago completely forgotten, the mystery dog deemed insignificant.

But this is how it goes, one moment it is all terribly urgent, earthshatteringly important, and then it is not. The silence does not miss Murdoch’s booming voice as the air fills up instead with drifting snowflakes, those cold and perfect little white stars that alight on trees without maiming them, stack gently atop one another with air pockets in between and do not completely erase our tracks in the snow.