Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Spaces we share

There is blood in the snow, little orange drops along the trail, perfectly spaced in a line. I am used to seeing that, a scratch on the side of a paw or a bitten tongue in pursuit of a stick.

Fresh blood glows crimson or bright poppy red against the white, forming into perfect balls, red globes with a sugar coating. I have had to drop to my knees, examine these globes more closely as they shift and roll against the dry snow, to determine it is not actually a chunk of flesh that has torn away.

The older the blood the more orange, or if it is warmer and the blood does not freeze once it touches the snow it becomes watered down quickly and the orange flecks can be mistaken for splinters of pale wood stripped from a stick.

Blood that has been there for days is eaten by the snow, converted from red to orange to black as it seeps out from a centre point, through the white crystals, until it is but a faded grey circle as though someone puffed a mouthful of smoke onto the surface of the snow.

The blood we see on the trail is on its way to orange. I was sure Molly cut her foot again, rubbed the raw spot on the side of her paw against the sharper edges of the worn-in trail, the icier bits, and with each step she was putting a drop in the snow. But then I see Murdoch ahead through the trees, he has found something just off the trail, he is eating it, crunching as I get close. He scoops up whatever it is in his mouth, moves further away.

The blood trail continues along our well-beaten path, emerging from the trees and heading towards the open field. There are footprints, clear now that the dogs are behind me. Paw prints, partially filled in with fresh snow obstructing the detail, large enough for my un-gloved fist to fit inside. A wolf, I am sure.

The prints are evenly spaced, a casual saunter. Sometimes a curved shape appears in the snow between the prints as though a snake were slithering along beneath the belly of the wolf. Something hanging from its mouth perhaps, I picture a white rabbit dangling down, its foot occasionally dragging in the snow, or a red squirrel.

I am not worried about running in to the wolf, though I am excited to follow its trail. The thought that it could be watching us from the darker parts of the forest does cross my mind, but it is a frivolous thought. There are wolves here, we have seen them before, we have heard them. We exist on the same paths at different times.

In the fall before the snow, before the real cold, I stopped in the bare woods with the dogs as it lit up with a thousand voices. A chorus of yips and howls rose amongst the trees like the voices of a choir soaring, reverberating in a cathedral, a physical thing. Every particle of air came alive with the sound, a joyful sound, not eerie, coming from all directions at once.

I expected a pack of wolves to come running through the trees straight at us, I expected the spirits of a thousand wolves to flash and swirl through the canopy overhead, I expected to feel their wind as they travelled by. The cacophony of voices grew and grew and then started to fade. I tried to place them somewhere in the landscape, I looked to the dogs for some indication but they didn’t care, more interested in sniffing under leaves. And then the voices were gone and the woods were silent.

We follow the single wolf track in the snow along our trail. It cut across a short expanse of deeper, untravelled snow, to the base of a large pine tree where Murdoch tracked it and sat crunching on something else. I never saw what it was, just the droplets of blood scattered about by that tree. A picture emerges of the wolf hunkering down with its kill. Not much left, not more than a couple of gulps for my dog to finish off.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Dogs on couches

Paws gathered together in a bunch, draped over the edge of the couch like a bouquet of flowers tossed carelessly. Rounded head pushed into the crook where the armrest meets the couch back, black furry body flattened across seat cushions, breathing deeply, almost snoring. Murdoch the couch dog could be mistaken for a cuddly family pet, if you didn’t know any better.

He is eight years old now. According to a chart on the wall at our vet’s office that makes him a senior dog. This is unfathomable to me. Murdoch, though he has changed immeasurably over the years he’s lived with us, still has plenty of attitude to spare and will always be wild and untrainable in my mind.

In some ways he still is that crazy dog I found on the side of the road. He is not completely trustworthy, and when we have people over we always have to prepare them to meet the “beast”. “Just ignore him and you will be fine,” I always say. “He has personal space issues.”

We are quick to shut him in his kennel or shuttle him outside to the fenced-in run we made for the dogs a couple of years ago, depending on who is visiting, whether they are dog savvy or not, whether they are nervous or not. But mostly after people are around for a while, Murdoch relaxes into a pose that could almost pass for a regular dog, as long as no one looks him directly in the eye.

Mostly we have spent our time with him redrawing boundaries every day. The problem, most likely, is my desire to treat him like the dog Bear was. Perfect in every way, trustworthy and trusting, cuddly and personable. Murdoch is not really any of these things and if I mistake that for even a second he is quick to correct me, with a growl or a snarl or, when I am particularly insistent that he should be someone he is not, a snap of his great, wide, jaw.

It was his domineering personality that decided it the day he showed up in our lives that he would not be allowed on the furniture, at least not on our current, human-use furniture. The old couch, decked out in candy-wrapper orange stripes, that was relegated to the dog zone when we moved to our house was an exception. Murdoch had a hand in destroying that couch along with every other animal who traipsed through our house, treating it like a throne to be defended or a trampoline to be enjoyed.

But the green couch in the living room was for Bear and myself and the cats. We would often pile on in a heap of fuzzy warmth. A classic couch dog, Bear completely relaxed in to snuggles, pink belly at the ready for a warm rub, obliged hugs and cheek pinches and showers of kisses. She even shared the space with Chestnut with minimum complaint, flopping her legs carelessly across his neck or moving as far back on the couch as possible to distance herself from his affectionate head-butts and jack hammer purr.

Murdoch never really showed much interest in getting on the green couch anyway, as though he chose this one thing to be reasonable about. It was Bear’s domain always and when she passed away, that didn’t change.

And then it did.

Somewhere in the couple of weeks leading up to Christmas Murdoch promoted himself to “couch dog”. I don’t know if Murdoch finally started to feel his age (which makes me unbearably sad) but one day we came home and heard the lazy clomp of clawed feet hitting hardwood after leaping from the couch. I know that sound very well. And then he was down the stairs and in the kitchen, wagging his tail widely, as if he had always been there, ears pinned to the side of his head, his roundest-eyed cute-dog mask firmly in place.

The next time he didn’t even bother to jump off the couch but stayed there until I wandered upstairs to find him splayed out, tail thumping sheepishly against the cushions as if awaiting his fate. ‘If she’s mad, then I guess it’s over, but if not… I am now a couch dog.’

Of course I wasn’t mad. He knows me well enough to know I wouldn’t be. “Look at you,” I said, my voice dripping, I’m sure, with sentiment and mushiness. And I sat beside him, wagging tail and all, ran my hand over his head, and was greeted with his customary growl.

“No!” I said. “No grumpy dogs on the couch.”

And so it has gone since Christmas, Murdoch and I sharing the couch. He on one end and me on the other, although occasionally he does flop his head in my lap or roll on his back, all four feet in the air and let me rub his belly. He snores and stretches and sleeps and sometimes growls and sometimes doesn’t.

I explain to him every day as he watches me wearily, his brown eyes brimming with his own thoughts on the matter that the couch is not for growly dogs. “If you are going to be a couch dog,” I say as I lay my head on his shoulder and listen to him grumble and complain. “You are going to be hugged.” He seems to agree, albeit reluctantly, that it is not such a terrible price to pay.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Reinvented landscape

Blue sky the colour of deep summer is worn like a canopy above the blinding white expanse of our field. The trees, the mountain, the scrub around the edges, all coloured white, abstracted by the snow to become suggestions of their true forms.

It snowed for two days, off and on, but enough to erase any sign anyone had ever walked here, or that snow machines had ever ripped up the surface, criss-crossing over themselves again and again.

We try to remember where our trail was. It was a great trail. Well worn in, taking us to the center of the field and then to the other side, to the mountain where we made other trails. I knew it would disappear with that snow and because we had not kept it open the days before, allowing the wind to have its way.

There are no ghosts of our former trail either, so we imagine the curve of the path. I think it went this way. And we strike out, finding it at first. Fresh snow comes up just past the ankles of my boots as we move along like barges churning up the formerly placid water of a harbour. I watch the snow spray out in great fans before my feet as Murdoch confidently strides ahead, and then I watch as he sinks deeper and then deeper and then he is leaping along through the snow like a dolphin following the wake of a boat.

When he stops he is nestled into the snow beneath the surface, it comes up past his shoulders and his head peers out over the top, scans the flat landscape ahead of him as though he is remembering, like I am, that this is where our trail was and why is it so deep here? I stop behind him and then wade out into the surrounding area, the snow up past my knees. Weird. The trail is gone.

I turn around, tromp back the way we came, the dogs muscling past me as though they know now, of course it’s this way. We try that way, and then another and finally I stop atop a mound in the snow that I know is the edge of the old beaver pond and contemplate the slope of the land around me, the way the snow ripples out from where I stand, sculpted by the wind over a spot that drops away somewhat drastically and has been filled to the brim with snow.

Our trail did go over here once. It did drop down with the land. I take a step and sink in up to my thigh. Murdoch takes my cue and leaps into the deep, swims about looking for solid footing and Molly waits patiently for one of us to find it. We don’t. And we turn again. Retrace our newly broken steps back the way we came over the blinding white and I tell the dogs that perhaps we will try again tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Battle scars

Murdoch turns in a circle on Molly’s bed by the fire. I watch his thoughts in his eyes, the concern, the calculation of how to lie down to be as comfortable as possible. Not the right side, he quickly realizes as he tries it and then flips his back end around so his left leg takes the weight and his right leg stretches out and away from his body as he sinks down on to his side.

He looks smaller somehow, his head rounder, his eyes bigger as they glance up at me around shaggy eyebrows with a hint of frustration colouring them a deeper shade of brown.

I am angry to see him there. Not at him, and not at myself. Not really. I was sure to keep the walk short, I told him no and meant it when he leapt on a stick poking out of the snow in that ‘happiest moment of my life’ kind of way he has that is usually hard to ignore and usually finds me throwing the stick for him over the white expanse of our trail. But I had noticed a slight favouring of his back leg the day before and I knew the frantic games in the snow of chasing sticks and balls of ice would have to stop for a while.

So we walked and Murdoch disappeared on his side adventures as he does every day, reappearing on the trail ahead of us or sometimes behind, leaping out of the deeper snow between the trail and the thick of the woods as Molly and I pause and play a bit, waiting. I didn’t wait for him on that walk though because I knew he would catch up and I just wanted to move, follow the trail out into our open field and retrace the slowly vanishing tracks there.

Molly and I emerged from the edge of the forest and circled out around one of our trails in the field. I called Murdoch’s name a few times as I walked, but I didn’t stop. I figured Molly and I would do the loop and return to the woods, pick up Murdoch and walk back home, a shorter walk would be good for him anyway. But, as Molly and I reached the far edge of the trail I glanced back to see Murdoch, a tiny black shape, barreling towards us.

I cringe to watch him run sometimes. He runs like he did that first day I found him on the side of the road, all legs and flailing feet going in six directions at once. It is as though he has not quite mastered the technique ‘but look how fast I can go!’ If he is chasing a stick he runs full on and slams to a stop as though he has hit a wall and I expect his legs to give out underneath him. I think of tendons stretching and popping and I tell him to be careful. But he will do what he wants, that wild charge with reckless abandon.

I stand with Molly on the trail and watch him come at speed, fur flying, ears flapping, lips peeled back from his white teeth, bucking his way across the expanse. He punches through the snow, trips, face-plants, keeps running. I can feel it in my own body, the tightening of muscles the stretching of ligaments, the weak-kneed aftermath of a surge of adrenaline. I want to tell him to slow down and yet there is a part of me that loves his enthusiasm, that is jealous of it even, and I love that he is running at top speed to catch up to us, not leaving us in the dust in pursuit of something better.

I kneel down to greet him as he sails past and then turns and comes back for a hug. “Good boy,” I say, wrapping my arms around his chest and kissing him on the head. I run my hand along his body, watch how he stands, he seems fine, and we carry on. For the rest of the walk he stays with us and I know he is scanning our surroundings for a stick but I keep moving. “We are just walking today,” I say.

It is not until later, after we have returned home and the dogs have napped for a bit that I see Murdoch’s leg is quite sore. He does not come up the stairs to the kitchen when I bring the cheese out of the fridge, but stares at me from a distance sitting in the entryway and I can tell when I ask what’s wrong that he is unhappy that maybe he is doing that thing where you try to convince yourself you’re not hurt at all by just not moving.

That evening he stands with his hips askew, the weight thrown over to the left side, just grazing the floor with the toes of his right foot, unable to even pretend that he’s fine and what’s all this nonsense about bed rest and sitting out walks for a few days.

In the morning he seems better, though he is not healed. He limps a bit, is not insistent about going out though he gives me long questioning looks when I sit with him in the entryway and try to check out his leg. Well, maybe a short walk, part of me says. What about on leash? But I know that’s not right. If I take him out something will happen, we will make it worse. We’ve been here before with sore legs and pulled tendons and injured cruciates.

And then there’s Molly who is fine and insistent in her own way, plodding up the stairs to find me, piercing me with her eyes, making her throaty mumbly noises to get my attention. She doesn’t understand why we haven’t been out for a walk, doesn’t understand how guilty I feel about leaving Murdoch behind.