Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Murdoch’s magical stomach

Sometime in January after Cleo’s trip to the vet for a mild bladder infection and after Murdoch’s trip to the vet for his latest tapeworm, Murdoch swallowed a sock for the second time in his life and I waited anxiously to see if it would lead to yet another vet visit in the space of three weeks.

I was getting ready to go outside with the dogs, putting on layer after layer as Molly paced circles around me and Murdoch tap-danced across the floor. But this day instead of focusing his energies on me Murdoch sidled up to the woodstove, his head disappearing between it and the wall to scoop something up in his mouth.

I saw him from the corner of my eye and half-laughed, “Bring it here Murds,” I said, knowing it was either a mitten that had slipped from the window seat to the floor as Morgan sat there and laced up his shoes, or a sock that had been left absentmindedly after being peeled from a wet foot, and Murdoch was doing that thing he does when he can’t contain his excitement. Finding stuff to bring me.

It is as though he thinks that bringing me socks or mitts or toques will somehow make things go faster. Sometimes it is done with an air of helpfulness. “Can you use this? Can you use this? Will this get us out the door faster?” But he is like someone with so much nervous energy they just have to do something, anything, to keep busy and focused.

So I called him over, which usually brings him right away with whatever he has found stuffed securely in his mouth with small billows of fabric emerging from either side that I can grasp between my thumb and forefinger to pluck the object from his mouth all shiny and damp with dog slobber. But this time he did not come.

I called again, and again, each time with a sharper edge in my voice as Murdoch’s teeth clonked against the floor and his body moved in more of a frenzy, the way it does on the trail when he is trying to inhale something before I can reach him.

“Murdoch!” I half yelled, “Bring it now!” He turned toward me still moving his jaw determinedly around the black fabric, which I could now determine was one of Morgan’s socks, and walked the few steps to my side. “What are you doing?” I said, much more calmly now, back to our old camaraderie of Murdoch being a goofball and I shaking my head in mock disdain.

His jaw was clamped more tightly than usual around his prize with just the tiniest corner of the sock sticking out between his teeth. I was on my knees, looking into one wide, round eye as I reached for it, slightly confused as to why he had engulfed it so completely. Usually when he picks up a sock, or a pair, about one-third of the item hangs out and he holds on to it firmly, but softly. This was different.

My fingers pinched the fabric for just a fraction of a second before it slipped from my grasp and Murdoch gave one more mighty chomp with his jaw, sucking the rest of the sock into this mouth, and it was gone. My fingers were right behind it, breaching the threshold of teeth to the soft, warm tongue behind, trying to find a scrap of fabric to haul back out. But the sock was completely gone.

I sat back. Everything was still for a moment, he and I looked at each other in some sort of surprise before I broke the silence “What the hell?” I said, reaching for his mouth again and sticking my hand inside in disbelief, feeling around like someone in a dark room looking for something that fell to the floor. Cheeks, tongue, roof. Nothing.

“What the hell, Murdoch?” I said again, stepping back in defeat. “What did you do that for?” And he sat in the middle of the entryway and stared up at me as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

We went for our walk, the dogs leaping ahead happily while I trudged distractedly behind trying to figure out what happened. Did I really see that? I wondered. The last time he swallowed a sock, which turned out to be two socks, they belonged to our young nephew and niece. They were smallish items and they re-emerged a day later in front of the woodstove, all yellow and slimy, along with some bits of grass and sticks. I hoped that this would be a repeat performance, that the size of a grown man’s sock working its way through his system would not complicate things.

I watched Murdoch closely for the rest of the day, like I had done the last time, waiting for some sign of stomach upset a lethargic response to food a low energy afternoon of deeply depressed sighs and half-closed eyelids, but there was nothing. He acted completely normal, dashing after sticks, running through the woods, scarfing down his supper, drinking all the water from his dish in great enthusiastic gulps.

It was another day and a half before we saw the sock again, in a little pile of goop by the woodstove, and I breathed a sigh of relief I didn’t realize I had been holding in and I implored Murdoch to never do that again.

Two days after that I found another sock outside, one that had gone right through him and I balked as I unfurled it in the snow with the tines of my rake, “What the…?”, “When the…?” And I wondered, what else is in there?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Where spring and winter meet

It is spring and snow filters down through the intertwined branches of the forest. In the warmth of the sun from the blue sky snow becomes water, in the shadows it freezes again, long thin icicles hang from the tips of branches in the shape of raindrops.

Veils of snow let go from treetops drenched in sunlight and sprinkle down to the forest floor, tinkling almost musically through pine needles, crashing mutedly into branches and spraying in a fine mist against tree trunks.

The dogs disappear from the trail, the snow still deep underfoot with a hardened crust that supports some weight. They follow scents; listen for the sounds of other animals. The cricks and cracks of branches snapping back into place after relieving themselves of snow, the pops of ice breaking apart in the sun, cascading in particles through the air to crackle against tree trunks fill the woods with noise of movement. I expect to turn around and see whole hosts of animals traipsing amongst the trees.

Little sculpted mounds of snow, like tiny icebergs shaped by the sun and wind and dropping temperatures at night sit proudly on pine boughs illuminated and defiant, determined to wait out the heat of the strengthening sun before it can send them crashing to the ground.

Overhead the knocking of a woodpecker in a spreading poplar tree and above that the puffing steam-engine sweep of ravens’ wings as a pair fly in to view, jet-black bodies like holes in the sky absorb the sun and then a turn of a wing and the reflection of golden light.

There are rabbit tracks and faint imprints in the snow atop the crust of fox, maybe lynx, tiny dotted trails made by mice appearing at the base of one tree and disappearing at the base of another. The dogs break through in spots dig in others as scents emerge from beneath the thick white layer. Their heads disappear into the snow, sometimes up to their shoulders.

In open spaces the sun shines brilliantly, blindingly off the white expanse, all detail of windblown ridges or snaking animal tracks disappear at a distance, swallowed by the light of the sun. And its warmth is a solid thing, filling the spaces with a comfortable weight, mingling with the crisp cold smell of individual granules of snow shifting against one another, rolling themselves smooth and clear so up close they are a million tiny ice cubes, the look and feel of winter melting.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Peanut

Bear has been gone three years now.

It is at once a lifetime and a blink of an eye. In some ways it doesn’t feel real at all, as though she could walk into the room at any moment.

We see her every day in every thing. In my mind she walks down the trail through the woods towards the house every morning on the last leg of her casual stroll through the forest, her black shape emerging from the shadows of dark green and dark trunks. Sometimes she is carrying that antler she found, walking a little taller, a skip in her step.

I see her in Chestnut’s need to sit on my lap, drape himself across my arm while I type, how quickly he becomes an immovable furry lump purring his earth shattering purr. “You would be curled up with Bear right now wouldn’t you?” I ask. He used to be her shadow, now he is mine.

Everything we do we grade on a scale of what Bear would think.

“Bear would have loved this!” we say of the beautiful sandy beach and private campsite we found last summer on an out-of-the-way lake, imagining her running along the shore splashing in the water, sand between her toes.

“Bear would not be impressed,” we say to Murdoch and Molly as they troll through the kitchen with their hungry noses and miss half of the good stuff dropped on the floor. We shake our heads. “Bear never missed anything.”

“Bear would be outraged,” we say on day five of still not having replenished the peanut butter in the house. “She would pack up her kong and her bed, sling it over her shoulder and hit the road.” And we imagine her like the Littlest Hobo wandering the land, except instead of looking for wrongs needing righted, she would be on the lookout for the next vat of peanut butter.

“Bear would be mortified,” we say about the prospect of having to put her in a kennel with Murdoch and Molly if we were going out of town. “It wouldn’t happen,” we add. “She would just come with us.” Of course she would, she always did.

“I would not be chasing after Bear like this,” I say to the trees one grey evening with the light seeping away into the landscape, the woods becoming one dark mass, as I sink into the softening snow and stumble my way along a disused trail after Molly.

From a window I had watched Molly skip off through the trees while Morgan called her at the front door. I scrambled in to my boots and coat and called her name, trudging along the trail trying to follow her tracks. I found her at the house on the hill behind our woods. I saw her ears before I saw the rest of her, trotting down the driveway behind a snowbank.

Bear used to disappear up to the house on the hill too, but she always returned in good time, we didn’t worry about her wandering off. There would be stern looks and serious voices, “Bear, where have you been?” followed by hugs and kisses and belly rubs. We didn’t worry about her getting in trouble somewhere, disturbing the peace or chasing cars.

She has been gone three years and yet her nicknames still want to tumble from my mouth as I walk the woods and talk to the dogs. Petunia, I want to say, Peanut Bearalina, Baby Beary, Pumpernickel Peanut, Ruby Tuesday. I have to stop myself and the words pile up at the back of my throat.

“Bear was perfect,” we tell people the way everyone does, the way everyone imagines their dog to be. But in this case, it’s true.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The untrustworthiness of cats

We see spring approaching in the cats.

It is still dark in the house when I hear the scrabble of feet in the living room. There is the sound of claws being raked across some kind of smooth fabric, I hope it is not the couch but it sounds like the couch, and then the pick-pick of those same claws digging in to the scratching post. I can tell it is Chestnut if the noise is accompanied by the thump, scrape, of the scratching post being spun and moved by inches across the hardwood floor.

There is a quick-march pad, pad, pad followed by an angry hiss and then the sound of bone cushioned by fur clonked against the wooden floor. I close my eyes and pretend I hear nothing. Pretend I do not picture white fur floating through the air, that I do not feel the urge to jump out of bed and chastise them for being so loud. It wouldn’t work anyway. They are cats. 

It is quiet for a moment and then there is the steady echoing grate of claws on wood, Cleo carving out more splinters from the banister at the top of the stairs, I picture the flakes of wood piling up at her feet. I want to yell her name but Morgan is still sleeping, I can tell by his breathing and by the fact that he has not yet yelled himself.

Sound travels too well in our house, there is not much separating us in the bedroom from the living room and even the kitchen another level below, so I can hear the cats thumping up and down the stairs, I can hear Cleo skidding across the floor in the kitchen pirouetting after the plastic seal off the milk bottle or sliding after the fat string braided into a handle from the bag of rice. I can hear when a cat jumps from the counter to the floor, landing with a solid whump, and I run through my mind trying to think if I left something out they could get into. There is a thunk of something being knocked over that I can’t quite place.

These things don’t happen in the dead of winter. When it is truly cold outside and the cold makes its way in through windows, settling heavily over everything, causing the cats to burrow deeper under blankets, coil more tightly into balls. When the days are shorter and the cats do not have a vested interest in being outdoors there are no early morning carnivals, no carefully planned acrobatic activities.

But the days are warming, the snow is softening. If the cats huddle out the door they do not immediately huddle back in but stand and contemplate the slush of pliable snow beneath their feet, the smell of melt-water on the air, the smell of greenness wrapped in cold.

In the darkness of early, early morning there is a final explosion of cat sounds, of clonks and thumps and angry voices. And then it is quiet. Though I wait for more. There may be a cat in the room soon to pace the perimeter, to jump on the bed, walk all over it - pillows and bodies - with entitlement. There may be a loud bath session performed in the corner on a pile of clothes.

Or there may be nothing at all, as they wait quietly and patiently for the sun to rise as though their intentions have been pure from the start.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Changeable February


There are days of warming temperatures, softening snow, melting winter and then the air is filled with more white flakes, tiny and sparkling in the light and then fat and soft falling in slow hypnotic veils. Heavy gray skies, slow warmth, and then clear blue days of biting cold and snapping wind.

The sun, brilliant, yellow, promising heat, peeks above the hill to the east, sends its long rays reaching down into the forest where fresh snow, light and airy and resting on branches is swept up by the wind, swirled and cascaded and blown through beams of golden light. There is raucous movement outside the window, trees bend one way and then another, throwing their heads about violently, snow already fallen takes to the air again, smoke from the chimney streaks past the window at great speed.

Blue snow in the shadows of the woods is smoothed and polished as the wind finds its way down the trunks to the ground and then up again, taking another branchful of snow with it.

I watch and wait for the wind to tire, at least to find its civilized hum before taking the dogs out into the crackling forest. Winter weakened the trees this year I can’t help but think. Two or three heavy, blanketing snowfalls nearly flattened them, so many fell. The first snow inflicted its damage, set the tone for winter, and then melted.

It was a warm November day after the first snowfall had come and gone when we picked our way cautiously amongst the ailing trees. The woods were soaked after a pounding rain, water collecting at the end of branches in glass globules. There was the creaking and cracking of brittle trunks, the wind coming in waves, ebbing away and then storming back, taunting. “Go on, try me.”

We stopped beneath the aging trees covered in lichen and moss and old man’s beard hanging pastel green from darkened trunks, listened to the pop of wood fibres letting go beneath a great weight and tried to guess which leaning tree might fall next, which was the least tangled amongst the branches of another tree, a bolstering tree.

We cut the walk short as the wind roared again overhead and the sopping brown leaves fallen a month before lay in a slick on the trail.

Murdoch did not stray far, returning when I called as though he too knew the delicate balance of the decrepit trees still standing despite cracks and holes gouged out of their trunks by birds.

I watched the treetops nervously, stopped and waited for the wind to die away before walking another stretch beneath leaning trunks. I had not felt nervous in the wind-tossed woods before, but there had not been so much cracking and popping and that general sense of weakness amongst the trees like there was after that first snow fall, heavy and suffocating. It had come and gone a week earlier pushing over trees that had been balanced just so and bending saplings to the ground, to snapping point.

So I watch on this last day of February as the wind storms through the forest and back again, as it roars overhead, plays roughly with weather-worn trunks and whips the snow on the ground into a frenzy, and I listen for the sound of crashing trees giving way and we wait indoors with the sun streaming through the windows and blown snow streaming across the sun.