The shoosh, shoosh sound penetrates my thoughts, pulls me from the story I am reading. I look up from the book on the kitchen table, my eyes not quite focusing in the near distance as I test myself. What is that?
There are a number of sounds I have become familiar with, a number of things that can be batted about the floor or dropped, or bounced, or licked. There’s the little pink rubber ball, a cat toy that Molly likes to carry around inside her mouth to be spit out at random moments at unsuspecting feet; there’s the tiny red mouse of faux fur with the green tail that frequently disappears beneath the stove or the fridge before its enthusiastic rediscovery some distant day when its existence has been all but forgotten; there’s the orange catnip-jelly-worm thing that tumbles awkwardly when swatted and clonks against the floor when rubbed against a feline face by eager paws; there’s the odd uncooked rice noodle that has fallen from the counter and skytes quickly and satisfyingly across the floor; and then there’s the chewing of dog beds, the licking of paws, the eating of firewood scraps. I know the sounds each of those things make, but this sound, I begin to realize, I can’t place.
I turn then in my chair, glance over my shoulder to see Cleo playing with the tennis ball. She sits tall above it, staring seriously, intently at the graying felt orb and taps it carefully with one paw, sliding it ever so slowly this way and then that. Shoosh, shoosh.
The tennis ball smells like the outdoors, like spring rains and wet earth and decaying leaves. It smells like melting snow and just-frozen ice and crisp breezes. We found it sometime in February when it emerged from the retreating snow of an early melt beneath a warm spring-like sun. It brought the essence of the forest into the house and everyone has quickly fallen under its spell, Cleo batting it about, Chestnut curling his body around it, hugging it to his chest, kicking it with his back feet, Molly mooning over it, choosing it above anything else to carry around. Murdoch likes it too, but only when someone else is getting attention because of it.
“Maybe it smells like Bear,” Morgan said one day as we watched Chestnut roll about on the floor with it before we had actually sniffed it ourselves. The ball had belonged to Bear, and when I found it that mild day, poking out of the snow, I picked it up and brought it inside, uncertain then what to do with it. The part of me that wanted to preserve it somehow, not give it to the dogs, placed it carefully on top of Murdoch’s kennel where it promptly got lost amongst the gloves and sweaters and winter things that accumulated there.
But then Morgan found it one day and tossed it casually onto Molly’s bed. It landed with a thunk and when Molly lifted her head and saw it sitting there, her eyes lit up as though she had uncovered a treasure she had been searching for her whole life. She scooped it softly into her mouth and headed up to the kitchen to try its bounce on the wood floor.
It turns out Molly is more careful with the ball than Bear ever would have been. Bear delighted in stripping tennis balls of their fluff, ripping and tearing until the ball was no more than a rubber orb and then she would work that between her teeth, chewing and chewing until there was the very satisfying pop of the seam letting go and then she would work it until it eventually split in two.
Molly is a lot less aggressive than that. She is mildly obsessive, but in a loving sort of way. Molly pads around the kitchen with her slow, purposeful walk, the ball carefully clamped between her teeth. When she thinks one of us is looking, she drops the ball, lets it bounce once, and then snatches it up again. She sinks to the floor front end first, places the ball between her paws and looks at us expectantly. Sometimes she scoops it up again as we make a move to take the ball, and then, when we ignore her, she grumbles in her throat until we make eye contact.
Molly likes it when Morgan bounces the ball off the wall and she tries to catch it as it flies past her head, or when he bounces it off the ground at an angle that makes it ricochet off the kitchen cupboards and she has to think on her feet, tap dancing across the floor, attempting to guess where it might go next. The other balls don’t bounce like that, the road hockey ball and the other hard rubber ball Molly brought with her when she came to live with us, this tennis ball, she says with her intense brown eyes, is pretty awesome.