“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 one.” 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.