Thursday, February 23, 2017

Not built for leashes

“This is not fun for anybody,” I told Murdoch as he, Molly, and I bumbled along the narrow trail colliding with each other, tripping over our own feet, all strung together with leashes. It seemed ridiculous for the three of us to be clumped this way in the vast space of the woods, but I was not letting the dogs out of my sight, not letting them follow their noses, ignore my calls again.

I clamped a leash in each mittened hand as we picked our way carefully over the winding, single-file path we had worn into the snow. Murdoch out front, nose in the air pulling just enough to keep me unbalanced, Molly behind, who dropped her stick every few feet and, in stopping to pick it up, hauled me backwards as her collar threatened to shuck itself over her head.

“Guys,” I said. “Come on.” And I snapped Murdoch’s leash to slow him down so the dogs wouldn’t pull me in half. “Can’t you work with me here?”

But why would they cooperate? As I said, it wasn’t fun for anybody. These leash walks were so un-enjoyable in fact, that it had been a very long time since I had actually carried any with me when we ventured into the woods. The very reason for us to walk the trail we did, through our own forest in the direction of the mountains away from the roads and cars and people, was so I wouldn’t have to worry about the pair of them getting in trouble, so we could all walk companionably in nature, lost in our own thoughts together.

But I got overconfident and one day, out of the blue, after countless perfect walks, Murdoch disappeared. He headed off into the trees like he does sometimes while Molly and I stuck to the trail that meandered across one of the open fields between the mountains and the woods, but he didn’t come back. After a good long time playing with Molly and calling “Murd!” and listening for the distant sound of feet shushing through snow or the jangle of a collar jauntily bouncing at a furry neck with no results, I decided to head home.

“He could be anywhere,” I told Molly whose deepest concern of the moment seemed to be whether or not I was going to throw the correct splinter of wood from the shredded pile at my feet that, all together, used to be a stick. As I turned to go, Molly carefully selected the one she wanted and trotted after me.

At home, there was still no sign of him. I had half expected to hear him galloping through the snow behind us, leaping past me on the trail, falling in to line as though he had been there the whole time. When that didn’t happen I imagined we would emerge from the woods and find him sitting at the front door, perfect posture, feet arranged politely beneath him, a relaxed look in his eye straining against a hint of mischief. But the space in front of the door was decidedly empty.

I shuttled Molly inside, told her to wait as I closed the door on her incredulous face. “Murd!” I called again as I headed along the path and down the driveway. I stood in the road, scrutinized the snow-covered ground for paw prints. Not seeing any I contemplated heading towards the trail at the dead end where we hadn’t been in a while. It would not be the first time he cut through the woods and ended up in a completely different place.

But then, from the corner of my eye, movement; I turned and suddenly there he was, running down the driveway, leaping over the edge of the snowbank like a superhero, tongue lolling happily as he scampered to a stop beside me.

“Oh Murd,” I said. “Look at you. What did you eat?” Because his waist, that usually tapered in quite nicely between his ribs and his hips, had disappeared. His body had become one long solid rectangle of dog, making me think of a snake that had just finished unhinging its jaw to inhale its latest meal. He even waddled when he walked beside me back to the house.

I remembered then, that Sunday evening, just a few days ago when I sat in my living room beside the tall window looking out into the woods as the overcast sky darkened another shade of gray. The book in my hand partially forgotten as I contemplated the bluish hue to the trees as the light changed, and then there was the explosive clap of a rifle shot.

I snapped fully awake at that cold sound, my heart sinking a little as I waited for another crack that never came. It was my neighbour, I knew, a ways through the trees in his own part of the woods and I couldn’t help but think about that buck I had seen a few times wandering through our woods, the one I made eye contact with on two occasions, the one who seemed mildly unconcerned about the dogs, and I hoped he had wandered away to a safer place.

The next day, after Murdoch ate whatever he ate and then proceeded to sulk in his kennel with an upset stomach before throwing up the pink gooey mass two or three times throughout the afternoon with me running around behind him cleaning it up, I grabbed the leashes as we walked out the door.

I didn’t affix them to collars until we reached the spot that I deemed the danger zone, the place where our trail snakes its way across the very back of our neighbours’ forested property, where the dogs conveniently forget their names. But once attached, we stumbled our way awkwardly towards the far corner of the forest, with me hauling dogs back onto the trail as their noses enticed them off, untangling leashes from trees, tripping over logs emerging from the snow as I tried to not step on any paws, falling to my knees, leashes wrapped tightly around my hands, dogs staring into my eyes. “This sucks,” they said. “Yes, I know,” I replied and pushed myself to my feet, continuing onward with our shuffling, stumbling steps.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Stories in the snow

 “Timber wolves then,” said my neighbour as I put my hands together, making a circular shape with my fingers and thumbs to show the size of the tracks I had found.

For a couple of nights they had been in the woods around our house, not right outside as the volume of their voices seemed to indicate, but close enough. The first sign they had been there was not their voices at all, or their paw prints, but something else they left behind that drew Murdoch’s nose away from the house, down the driveway towards the neighbours’ woods.

I watched him move with purpose along the road, not rushing, but methodical, steady, and far enough ahead I couldn’t catch him. Molly and I followed as he walked almost on tiptoes, his nose in the air, sparing the odd glance in my direction as I called his name. When he stopped and turned abruptly towards the woods, I knew his brain was already somewhere else.

Molly and I reached the spot on the road where he had leapt onto the snow bank and disappeared amongst the trees and we clambered after him. Not too far in, where trees had fallen against other trees in the last wind storm, where branches tangled into a maze with scrub, Molly squeezed through spaces too small for me and joined Murdoch’s dark shape, noses stuck to the ground, tongues busy scooping things up from the snow.

The route I took was much more circuitous; over this tree, under that one, skirt the brush, feet punching through the crust of snow in spots. “Come on guys,” I barked at them, “Leave it!” My frustration at their belligerence building as my route seemed to take me farther away.

But just past where the pair stayed locked behind branches and trees that snagged my jacket and kept me at bay, the land opened up, airy and spacious between grey trunks sunk into the snow. The ground was completely patterned over with the footprints of birds, most likely the ravens who squawked and rabbled in the treetops above. They had formed a great latticework across the snow, so many it was impossible to pick out individual prints, instead it looked as though someone had painstakingly covered the woods with hashmarks, creating a great quilt out of the snow or else as though every bird that ever flew across this patch of sky had gathered here all at once to converse before all flying off again.

It stopped me in my tracks, this patterned forest floor, it felt like I had stumbled onto a secret meeting ground, a sacred place I had no business being, a sight I was not meant to see. I imagined the great frenzy that must have happened here and I began to piece together a story of wolves in the night, a fresh kill, birds in the dark, waiting. And then the wolf tracks obliterated as though they had never been. The birds owned these woods.

Then Murdoch skipped past and I was brought back to the moment as we clapped eyes on the deer hide across the expanse of disturbed snow at the same time. I stepped quickly after him, grabbed his collar as he grabbed for the hide. I dragged him away to the right, planning to skirt around the tangled brush, but there was the ribcage with the spine and skull still attached, small, a young deer.

I swung in the other direction. Legs. One over here, one over there, we were hemmed in by deer parts and connecting all of them, a million bird footprints. So I went in the exact opposite direction I wanted to go, hand clamped on Murdoch’s collar, made a big loop back to where I had arrived at this spot.

When Molly wandered near in her own little world, nose stuck to the ground, I grabbed her collar too and the three of us stumbled and tumbled our way back through the woods to the road. Behind us the busy voices of ravens called to one another, seeing us off, reclaiming their space, working to eradicate any signs we had been there too.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

An unwelcome snow

The forest is full of snowflakes. Those giant ones that fall steadily as though in slow motion but really moving too fast to follow just one, a stark speck against the treetops, from the moment your eye lands on it until it hits the ground. White clouds overhead, white clouds at my feet, and in between, against the black of the woods, the mass of trees melded in to one dark shape, a pouring down of white. It is beautiful.

But in its beauty, on this day, it is heart wrenching. The snow covers everything. It fills in the large tracks of my snowshoes as fast as I can make them; it changes well-worn deer thoroughfares into long, muted troughs running away between the trees. It obliterates any tracks I might stumble upon and follow over the quiet landscape that will lead me to the lost dog. That little dog we have been looking for for days.

I trudge the tracks once foreign to me, now so familiar, mentally marking the trees I had never passed before that I now recognize as landmarks, and I call his name, and I wait, and I watch the snow tumble down in its perfection. A snow I would welcome any other time, a snow that falls as though the sky itself has been torn open and poured out and would normally make a dark winter day so very perfect, but today it is deflating.

There is a steady pick of merry snowflakes banded together into circling clumps as they hit the hood of my jacket and break apart, they flick coldly against my face, melting quickly, they gather on my eyelashes so I have to blink them away. On my mittens the muted sparkle of perfect crystal formations, their feathery arms reaching out in six distinct directions. I want to enjoy it but instead I look to the sky, will it to stop.

The snow falls and falls. The world is silent, nothing moves, the trees watch, and I make tracks that disappear behind me as though I was never there. It is a beautiful day, this perfect snow day, but it is disappointing and despairing. It feels empty even as it fills up.

When I get home I hug my dogs, capturing their wiggling bodies as they frantically sniff my snow pants, my jacket, my boots, to see where I have been, what adventure I have again taken without them. “This is why you don’t run away,” I tell them, kiss the tops of their heads, hug them hard. “It breaks hearts.”

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A world lit up


The wolves circled through the woods in the dark of a winter evening beneath a heavy black sky, the moon a cold icy sliver, an afterthought of silver light. Trees creaked, moving stiffly with the cold, snapping and cracking in protest. And the voices rose around the house, a chorus started by a sonorous, distant howl like Murdoch lost in the woods and joined by rising yips and a high pitched sweeping song.

A swell of voices upon voices put a stop to our puttering in the house. We stared at each other, a flicker of a question in our eyes. The dogs are inside?

It filled up the dark spaces between the trees, approached the house as though the pack were right outside, right there, with their giant paws and long legs, just on the edge of the ring of light spilling from our windows. And then the voices receded again as though part of a current, or the ebb and flow of a tide washing through the woods.

We stepped out on to the snow-packed deck to listen, fighting past the dogs at the door, telling them to stay put in their stiffened, agitated state. Outside, cold settled heavily on our bodies as we stood silently listening to the snap and creak of tree limbs in the rising breeze, straining to hear the sounds of dozens of feet padding swishingly over the snow, of the whispering glance of furry bodies weaving around trees, angling shoulder-to-shoulder through the black of the woods. But there was nothing. The voices were gone as suddenly as they had started. The night fell heavily, silently, around us. At our backs, behind the closed door, Murdoch’s voice called steadily, a deep, forlorn howl.