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.

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