I lie on the deck with Murdoch, our bodies sprawled out
together on the worn wood, my arm draped across his side, fingers playing with
the silky soft fur on his chest. I push my nose into the back of his head and
breath deeply, inhale his smell.
It is early Sunday morning; the bugs are just starting to
wake up beneath the bright overcast sky, only one or two blackfly tick against
my skin. In another hour there will be a swarm, a barrage, they will bounce off
my face in a frenzy, try to fly into my eyes, up my nose, they will form a haze
around Murdoch. So we choose our moments, like now, to just be outdoors
together, as we have spent every day over the past nine years.
Our time is limited. We found out mid-week about the bone
cancer, the reason his leg has been so sore, the reason he’s gone off his food.
It’s not his cruciate ligament after all. I had wondered why it wasn’t getting
better, why his leg seemed to be getting skinnier, bonier. Perhaps it was never
even his tooth that we thought was causing him to struggle through mealtimes,
the one we had removed, and then the other tooth too.
Morgan called me at work. My new job that kept me from being
there when the vet did full-body x-rays and told Morgan what was going on. I
stood in the stairwell, concrete and cinderblock, as the icy sliver ‘bone
cancer’ took its first stab at my heart, and I locked it away in there, the
weight of it, as I finished my day, my week.
There is a crush of time, a desperate clinging to the hours
of each day. We feed Murdoch whatever he will eat, one piece at a time held in
hand beneath his nose, pork, ham, kibble, muffin. We walk in the woods, go for
car rides. He sparks up, he is there, excited, engaged, and then he is
exhausted. There is pain medication, and that is all we can do.
We feel cheated. It is too sudden, this news. My heart
cannot catch up to my brain and my brain does not believe any of it. So I
breathe in his smell, kiss his face, stroke his silky ears.
Saturday night he lay on the deck with his head against my
leg. A warm wind ebbed and flowed through the trees, their dark shapes swaying
against the last blue ribbons of light leaving the sky to the west. The quiet
roar of wind, like water rushing in to shore, mingled with spring frogs and
their cheerful peeping voices, the sound of life and time filling the forest; a
forest in which Murdoch is intrinsically entwined, and I along with him.
in the dark with my beautiful boy and my heart aching desperately and we
listened, and breathed, and I just held on to him.
At breakfast I hold my hand flat under Murdoch’s nose with a
tiny piece of meat laid across my fingers. An offering. He sniffs it, hovers
his big black nose over its surface. For a moment it looks as though he might
lick it before turning his head away.
“What about this then?” I ask, plucking a piece of kibble
from the bowl beside him where he lies on Molly’s bed. I hold the kibble under
his nose too, he barely swivels his head towards it before turning away again.
He reminds me of a pouting child refusing to eat his vegetables.
This is how I fed him some of his dinner yesterday, a
few pieces of kibble at a time in my hand, the soft warm fur around his lips
against my fingers, as he dabbed each piece into his mouth with his tongue, crunched,
swallowed and then returned for more. Today he is uninterested.
“Okay,” I say, dropping the kibble back into his dish,
placing some meat in beside it. “I will just leave this here for you.” And I
give the dish a little shake, tuck it in beside him so he doesn’t have to get
up or stretch too far to eat if he is suddenly struck with a regular appetite.
Murdoch has never been a ‘morning dog’, always greeting the
day with a growl and a stomp, waiting in his kennel until the absolute last
moment before charging out the door for a sniff and a pee, returning to his
kennel again until it’s time to eat. He was never one for social niceties.
“Just give me my breakfast and we’ll see where the chips fall after that,” was
always more his style.
But mealtimes have changed drastically and we scramble to
explain it. He just had a second tooth removed five days ago; a crisscross of
purple suture patterns the very large space in his gum where two teeth used to
be. The x-ray at the vet revealed a shadow on his jaw beneath where those teeth
were, an infection gone deep perhaps? The vet can’t say for sure.
There is also the pain in his injured leg, the one he won’t
put weight on first thing in the morning. Not until he’s stretched anyway,
taken a few limping steps. Pain can make the simplest things more difficult. Even
eating. So, we try everything.
Morgan bought him high-end canned food, he bought him great
frozen bricks of raw dog food, he bought kielbasa, hot dogs, croissants, ground
beef, soup. Everything works at first, “Perfect,” we said after he gobbled down
his first raw-food meal. “We’ll switch his food to that.” But the next meal, he
turns up his nose at the plate of meat and instead perks up at the sound of
kibble hitting Molly’s bowl, so we put his own bowl of kibble in front of him
and he crunches through half of it with determination.
“Weird,” we say, but if that’s what he wants. Next mealtime
he gets kibble again, refuses to look at it, refuses the plate of raw food too,
so Morgan puts down a bowl of cooled split pea soup and Murdoch slurps it up.
He returns to the vet three days after his surgery, three
days of trying to get him to take his antibiotics, slipping pills in to
meatballs, specially designed pill pocket treats, hiding it in his raw food,
all to be quickly spit out again. One, two, three, and a hard stare from
knowing brown eyes up through scraggily eyebrows, “You’re kidding, right?” he
says. “I am NOT eating those.”
Finally we resort to opening the capsules, dissolve the
powder in water, shoot the medicine into his mouth with a syringe. The vet says
they can inject the antibiotics instead, so Morgan takes Murdoch back in.
And then there’s another mealtime, more bowls of food, more
options. We wonder how much of it is the pain medication he’s on upsetting his
stomach, how much of it is psychological? It has been two months now since he
ate a meal properly, like the old Murdoch, inhale first, ask questions later;
two months, I have to imagine, in which his mouth has hurt each time he’s eaten
anything. We can’t blame him for suddenly being cautious Murdoch.
We spread out his dinner on a plate, ground beef and egg
mixed with soup, put it in front of him where he lies in his kennel. I mash the
meat in to smaller and smaller pieces, spoon it towards Murdoch’s mouth and he
licks at it eagerly. He is hungry. He wants to eat. Between pauses and getting
up and walking away and then coming back again, he gets through it, most of it.
“Good boy!” I say, making a big deal about a semi-clean
plate. It is a small victory. He ate. It feels as though we cracked some kind
of code, but it is most likely temporary. Tomorrow is another day, another
meal, another mystery to solve.
Two weeks after Murdoch’s surgery he still lingers over his
meals. Eager to eat, he appears at the sound of metal bowls set clanging onto
the counter, the crinkle of the food bag, the plink of kibble hitting Molly’s
For Murdoch we spoon rice from the cooled pot, tear chicken into
chunks, peeling meat from bone. His eyes, round and alert, pierce mine from
beneath his shaggy eyebrows as I turn from the counter. He stands at the ready,
“Is it time? Just say the word.”
“Downstairs,” I say, and he spins on the spot, bolts down
the short flight to the entryway, sits in his kennel. I feed Molly in the
kitchen and carry Murdoch’s bowl downstairs, place it on the floor. He leans
forward ever so slightly, glances from his dish to my face. His eyes land on
mine and I hold them for a moment before I say, “Okay” and he charges for his
But where he used to hit his dish like a predator taking
down its prey, scooping the food into his mouth in great engulfing gulps,
chasing his bowl across the floor as he polished off his meal in seconds flat,
now he stops, tastes the food with his tongue, carefully plucks up a piece of
chicken and chews slowly with a crinkled nose.
I watch for a minute, every mealtime hoping it will be
different, hoping he will open his mouth wide, gobble down the food in two
great big gulps, but he picks at it, rice falls from his mouth to the floor as
he tries to chew around the sore spot where the tooth used to be, where the
infection was found in his gum.
His meals these days can take up to two hours for him to
finish, so I turn and leave him to his dish, close the gate at the top of the
stairs so Molly can’t barge down there and offer her ‘help’ to clean his plate.
Murdoch eats in shifts. He nibbles for a bit and then
returns to his kennel, lies down and eyes his bowl. I watch him from the
kitchen. He looks like he is trying to psyche himself up to eat more, and after
a while he does, pushing himself to his feet, approaching his bowl again, a few
more bites, more rice spread on the floor, back to his kennel. Molly paces in
the kitchen, bumps the baby gate with her head. “Molly,” I say, and she tiptoes
away, lies on the floor, grumbles under her breath.
When I talk to the vet and tell her about his eating habits
and his more than normal disgruntled attitude and how he has started snapping
at me when I try to look in his mouth, she agrees there is something else
wrong. He should have been back to normal by now after his tooth extraction and
the antibiotics for the infected gum. It could be another tooth or perhaps, she
says, the infection has gone into the bone.
So we schedule him in for another vet visit, more sedation,
an x-ray that will hopefully tell us something, something repairable. In the
meantime there is pain medication, there is more chicken and other soft foods,
and there is space, lots of it, for a cranky dog and his sore mouth. Oh yeah,
and there’s that injured leg too..
Fresh snow falls on the first day of May. Storybook fat
flakes rush to the ground, flick coldly off my face and pepper the dogs’ backs,
white on black.
Murdoch and Molly dig through the sloppy snow from the last
storm at the trunks of trees we have not visited in some time. There has been
activity here, rabbits, birds, deer, something of interest. I stand on the
trail and wait for them, watch the snow fall against the dark backdrop of trees
from a heavy grey sky that looks more like rain than snow. In fact, the snow
smells like rain and I turn from where the dogs dig, breathe in the metallic
ozone-rich scent filling up the spaces between trees with the flurry of white.
I look up the height of the trees, begin to speak, moved to
tell the dogs, tell the forest, how beautiful it is, how real it is, this world
of snow and spring and green on brown on white. But I don’t get far in my
speech; a sweep of horizontal movement in this vertical landscape stops me.
A glimpse is all I am allowed, but I inhale that fleeting
moment, revel in it, the silent glide of an owl flickering into existence and
then out again. Brown feathers blending in to the surroundings, wings
outstretched impossibly wide. How does it fit between the trees?
I have not seen the owls in some time. Not since last summer
when the dogs and I, returning to our woods after a walk, stumbled upon the
unfolding drama of a horned owl swooping down for a juvenile robin learning how
to fly, the parents squawking in a flurry of snapping wings and outstretched
claws chasing it away.
The owls have been here though, their dulcet voices, felt as
much as heard, pulse regularly through the woods at dawn and dusk. They have
chosen not to be seen, which makes this moment caught in the corner of my eye
so magical, with the tumultuous white flakes filling the grey day and the
silent passage. They move like ghosts in the forest, a trick of the light, they
are there, floating past, but they make no sound, as though an afterimage of
something that came before.
I scrutinize the trees against which the owl disappeared so
quickly after its brief appearance. I blink and scan the vertical planes, how
exactly the owl’s colouring matches the bark, how the shading on each feather
stitches the bird seamlessly into the landscape, mimicking the distances and
depths, the contours of the trunks.
I hardly breathe as I search for more movement, begin to
question if I did indeed see the owl or perhaps I imagined it.
“Guys,” I say when the dogs meet me on the path. “That was awesome.
Did you see it?”But they are
distracted by more smells. We walk on in silence, they with their noses to the
ground, I looking up into the falling snow, searching the treetops for the
silent shape I have seen in the past sitting tall and still, watching
“Oooo,” I say when Murdoch’s lip quivers in annoyance and I
catch a fleeting glimpse of white. “Look at those teeth! So clean and shiny!”
In exaggerated slow motion he swings his head towards me
where I kneel beside him on the floor, me desperately wanting to wrap my arms
around him, he trying not to melt into a puddle on the floor.
“Sorry Murds,” I say. “I just really want to look in your
mouth.” But I won’t. It’s sore and he’s drugged and wobbly and, I imagine, just
wanting to curl up in his kennel, slide into a drunken sleep.
He stands in the entryway on sinking knees as though he has
just been dropped there, as though he had been happily enjoying himself
somewhere else and now, suddenly, he is here and is feeling a little lost, a
His day started fine enough, although he missed breakfast.
But there was a car ride, so that was awesome. But then there was the strange
kennel and the muzzle and the people he didn’t know and, later, a soupy brain, a
sore mouth, a missing tooth.
At the vet we found him lying on a comfy blanket in a large
kennel, his tongue poking from the front of his mouth as though he had slid it
out to taste something and forgot to put it back; his eyes glassy and unfocused
with big red droopy lids underneath. But there was a slight spark at seeing my
face and he stumbled to his feet, walked drunkenly beside me through the clinic
and out to the car.
We drove at a crawl through a burgeoning spring storm. Ice
clattered on the roof, gathered in a thick white layer on the road like frozen
sand and we wondered if we might not make it up the next hill. The car dug in,
clawed its way home, as Murdoch slid down slowly in the back seat, looked at me
as though wondering, “How did I get here?”
He sways sleepily in the entryway, looks much thinner than
he did that morning, more fragile, but he musters enough energy to growl a tiny
growl as I pull out some of his hair when I remove the tape and gauze from his
arm where the IV had been.
“Sorry,” I say again, holding the tape under his nose so he
can see what I did. He gives it a slow sniff and then, on feet two sizes too
big, he stumbles into his kennel, turns around and lies down; mouth buttoned
shut, eyes staring into space.
The vet showed us on a diagram which tooth she pulled, the
smaller of the two that flanked that pocket in his gum. The tooth was starting
to rot where the gum had worn away, exposing the root, and there was infection
underneath it. But his other teeth look good, the vet tells us. I am relieved.
In his kennel, Murdoch strains to hold up his head, his
eyelids droop halfway down his face and I resist the urge to crawl in beside
him. I leave him his space in the entryway where a fire glows cheerily orange in the woodstove and just outside the windows ice comes down in sheets.
In our tiny patch of boreal forest rabbits turn from white to brown, robins arrive promptly with military precision, nuthatches cling upside down to branches, hop gleefully from trunk to trunk, juncos swarm in packs of gray across the thawing ground, deer stroll, red squirrels leap from tree to tree, tails whirling, owls fill up the twilit hours with voices you feel in your chest, the first haze of buds appear on that tree, and that one, grouse explode from cover with heart-stopping clamour, tiny orange butterflies land on dried out grasses, somewhere bears plod, woodpeckers knock against trees and laugh at each other, ravens reel, a mosquito or two, water rushes, there is green under brown, sunlight and patches of snow.
Murdoch emerges from his kennel extra rumpled these days,
his eyebrows low and haphazard, his beard askew, the fur at his neck swirled in
not quite the right direction. He has had a rough few months.
“Sorry Murds,” I say for what feels like the millionth time
as he brightens slightly when I don my boots. “It is a quick out and back in
again.” He is getting better about that, but his instinct to pounce on a stick,
spin around on the spot, run like the wind through the trees and egg Molly into
a one-sided game of chase, still simmers just below the surface and I so
desperately want to say, “Bring me a stick Murdoch! Go, go, go! Catch this
ball! Run faster! Faster!”
But he injured his leg in February, a slip on the ice in
pursuit of a stick. He turned one way and his knee went the other. “Oh no!” I
sympathized as he glanced my way and then walked back to where I stood on the
bright, blankness of the snow-covered field. He wasn’t limping then, but he
walked instead of running, he knew he had injured himself, and then he stood
beside me, pressed his head against my leg as I lavished him with praise.
“You’re a good boy Murds,” hands petting his face, running the length of his
body to his back right leg. “I guess we’re going home now,” I said and then,
“Whoa! No Murds, just walking,” when he tried to leap sideways as though my
touch had somehow miraculously made it all better. I wish.
A week later, after not enough rest, when the weather warmed
and the snow became a thinning crust of white atop a soft plunge of two feet to
the forest floor below, Murdoch left the sturdy, packed trail and I winced and
cursed as I watched him flail across the snow, punching through every other
step, legs working too hard to buck and pull his body along. He returned to the
house limping and later, when he wouldn’t put weight on that leg, I felt sick
to my stomach as I imagined his carefree days of running and playing and just
being Murdoch coming to an end.
“Why did I take you out today?” I asked him that night as he
sat with his back legs askew and stared at me with his wide brown eyes. I would
take it back if I could.
But since then he has been on leash, outside for ten minutes
at the most and, while he is disgruntled about the whole thing, his leg is
“I wish we still had those leg braces Bear used,” I said to
Morgan, trying to imagine Murdoch wearing the little red “cast-away pants”. But
we gave those away after Bear no longer needed them.
So we wait, for now, because there is also the matter of
Murdoch’s teeth, the broken ones, the pocket in his gum and, we’re pretty sure,
a cavity in a molar, all leading up to a sore mouth, an impending dental
surgery, and a very rumpled Murdoch.
“Cleo?” I say as she walks into the room, stomping in the
no-nonsense way she does. “What are you doing to promote your book?”
She stops, snaps her head in my direction, green eyes alert
and piercing as though she is caught off guard, as though she had no idea I was
there when really, of course, she did. “Promote?” she says with her sharp gaze
before turning away and striding to the beanbag chair. “I have people for
Oh. Right. I guess that’s me.
“The least you could do is pose with it,” I say as Cleo’s
dainty white paws work to carve a comfortable well for herself in the chair.
There is the rustle of a million Styrofoam balls as she settles in and I hand
her the book.
“Fine,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I guess I have to do everything
Hardly. But thanks anyway Cleo.
And thanks to the kind souls out there who are helping to
spread the word about Cleo’s story. I love seeing her face pop up in different
places online and knowing her story is being shared.
I watch Murdoch from the door, stand to the side of the big
window at its center to cut the glare from the light in the kitchen behind me.
His black shape sits at the edge of the deck, hints of gold about him from the
outside light that encompasses him, his back is to the door. He stares out into
He would sit there for hours I think sometimes, especially
now, this time of year as the ice melts and streams run through the woods, past
the house carrying earthy scents of things long dormant beneath layers of snow.
Murdoch would like to just wander, be free to come and go as he pleases, while
I sit at home sick with worry.
He comes inside and then five minutes later he tells me he
is desperate to go out again, imploring brown eyes, excited toe-tapping,
stealing socks and bringing them to me.
“Do you need to pee?” I ask, even though I know he doesn’t.
But his ears perk up, his mouth snaps shut, his eyes sparkle and bore into
mine. “Yes. Yes I do,” he says and spins on the spot, trots towards the door,
throwing glances over his shoulder to make sure I am following.
I clip him to his line and he marches across the threshold
from the warmth of the house to the crisp snap of evening air, hints of snow
and decaying leaves. And then he sits at the edge of the deck staring into the
What does he smell, I wonder, his nose in the air, head
gently bobbing as he inhales the evening. And, as I always do, I wonder if he
is happy, if he imagines a different life for himself, one full of adventure,
living on the land, always on the move. There is a part of me that wants that
too. I imagine us together sometimes, just wandering the world, through
forests and over mountains, companions at large, travelers, explorers.
We would build fires at night to keep warm, find soft,
sheltered places to sleep, watch the stars and listen to the woods come alive.
We would be separate and together. We are similar like that, very much liking
our own space but appreciative of company too, being able to share individual
I stand at the door and watch Murdoch sitting on the deck,
his satiny black fur catching the light here and there, his edges blending into
the darkness beyond. Part of me wants to sit there with him, stare into the
night, smell the spring air on his fur and I wish, not for the first time, that
he could tell me what he is thinking.
A flash of red catches my eye when I pass the window on the
stairs. I turn to see one of the pileated woodpeckers that hang about our
woods, her black wings wrap around her like a great cloak and she clings to the
tree outside our front door, working steadily at the trunk of the large poplar.
White chips fly away to the ground.
I run down the rest of the stairs to the kitchen and then
down the final steps to the entryway, dash past the dogs, “Wait here,” I say,
and burst out the front door.
“Hey!” I say to her, quick and fast, hoping to startle her
from her task. Ten feet above my head she stops what she is doing, cocks her
head sideways and peers down at me with her round, glassy eye.
“You can’t live there,” I say, eyeing up the hole she has
started, a bright fresh wound on the side of the tree. “Pick another tree,” I
tell her. “Like that one over there.” And I point to another poplar not too far
away that already has a great hole in it, made a number of years ago by the
pileateds and every year since has been home to new broods of yellow-shafted
I know she will not live in a used hole, but I suggest it
anyway. The pileateds are amazing. I love to have the birds living right
outside our home but I do not want to sacrifice every tree to them. There are
others dotted about our property, older poplars with great caverns already
hacked out inside.
“Go use one of the other holes,” I say to her and clap my
hands loudly over my head. She continues to stare, her beak parted slightly as
though considering, and then returns to her task, ripping great strips of wood
from inside the tree.
I stomp my feet and cast about for something to throw. Pale
chunks of wood freshly plucked from the inside of the tree litter the dark,
weathered planks of the deck. I find a small grey stick, a twig really that has
fallen from this very tree, I pull it from the receding ice and toss it up
towards the bird. I don’t want to hit her, I don’t want to scare her away
completely I just want her to stop building her nest here, in this tree,
compromising its structure.
The twig bounces of the trunk a foot below the bird and she
takes no notice. I find another and try again, and another. The pileated
clearly does not see me as any kind of threat.
“Go!” I yell at her and clap my hands again and then turn
and open the door. “Come on guys,” I say to the dogs, “Chase her away!” Murdoch
and Molly pour out the door onto the deck. “Up there,” I say, pointing at the
bird. “Come on guys. Bark!”
Molly skips off the deck and is immediately consumed by the
task of finding a good fetching stick but Murdoch stands beside me. He is
excited because I am excited, but he does not see the bird. He stands rigid,
ready, and scans the forest immediately around the house.
“No, up there,” I say again. “Murds, up there.” And I wave
my hands over my head. “Go away.”
Murdoch does not look up he does not see the bird that has
paused again in her work to take in the dogs. ‘Yeah,’ I think, ‘See? Dogs, and
people, and there’s cats too.’ I think that just having the dogs there and me
clapping my hands, talking loudly would be enough for the bird to reconsider
this spot. But the dogs and I do not concern her.
As the bird returns to shaping a home from the tree trunk, I
cast about for more stuff to throw. I toss up another twig, and another, and
then a bigger stick. They all bounce harmlessly off the silvered bark. Murdoch
looks up then, he sees the bird, but he remains silent.
“Murds, come on,” I say. “Chase it away.” He watches it, but
doesn’t say a word. The bird has stopped again, hopped sideways around the
tree. Her eye focuses on us below.
I pick up a chunk of bark about the size of the palm of my
hand. I am sure it is a piece she has torn from the tree and tossed away. It is
heftier than the twigs and when I throw it, it makes a quiet ‘tock’ sound as it
ricochets off the trunk.
The bird cocks her head one more time and then, finally, she
leaves. She opens her great black wings, exposing the white beneath, and swoops
over our heads, away across the clearing where our clothes line runs from the
corner of the house to a towering tree.
I watch her go with some relief, even while I imagine her
planning her return, as the red crest on her head glows brightly in a flash of
sunlight before she disappears into the forest.
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
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
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
Chestnut rockets down the stairs to the kitchen and leaps on
to the easy chair sitting in the corner. He vaults over the armrest and
somersaults onto the seat, landing on his back squarely in the middle of a beam
of morning sunlight.
His amber eyes flash about the room, land on Molly as she
circumscribes a plodding path around the table, tennis ball held eagerly,
hopefully, in her mouth. As she moves past the chair, her long body swaying
purposefully, Chestnut flails wildly at her flank with his front paws as he
pushes himself forward on his back with his hind legs off the backrest of the
Molly skips forward and Chestnut pushes himself farther,
stretches out as far as he can and grabs at the thick fur of Molly’s backside
and then her tail. Molly swings around then, looks at the cat with piercing
eyes, stands in her permanent, no-nonsense, military stance and drops the ball.
It bounces twice and then rolls towards the chair.
Chestnut lies splayed on his back, front legs outstretched,
eyes locked on Molly. “I dare you,” he says. “To pick up that ball.” I watch
Molly process the conundrum. Her beloved ball has rolled within range of the
cat. If she goes for it, he will grab at her and she’s not allowed to
retaliate, although she doesn’t understand why. But she can’t leave the ball
there for just anyone to find, it’s hers and if she’s patient enough someone
will eventually throw it for her.
She tiptoes forward eyeing the ball, almost sliding on her
big lion-like front paws, as she ducks in to retrieve it from the bottom edge
of the chair. Chestnut strikes then, arching his back and stretching his legs,
claws splayed in another wild attempt to grab hold of some fur. Molly skips
sideways with the ball securely in her mouth and then lunges forward as though
to nose-butt Chestnut in the face; the cat retreats, pulling his paws to his
chest and half rolling away.
“Molly!” I say, a warning before she gets too rough.
“Fine,” she says and turns reluctantly from the cat, who
moves like lightning and takes a final swipe at her tail as Molly walks away.
She skips ahead and throws a glance over her shoulder, contemplates going back.
“Come on Molly,” I say, breaking into her train of the
thought with the magic words. “Bring your ball over here.”
Ears tall, eyes bright, Molly plods towards me, dropping the
ball too soon as usual, looks at me with anticipation, completely forgetting
about the annoying cat. Chestnut watches from his upside down position, eyes
round and wild, the sun glinting off his white belly, tail flicking menacingly.
It is not long before that movement catches his eye, and
Chestnut amuses himself for the rest of the morning, turning somersaults on the
chair in earnest pursuit of his tail.
It was almost 13 years ago now when Morgan, Bear and I left
our respective homes in southern Ontario and hit the road; wanderers with no
real destination in mind. We piled our camping things into my car, strapped two
canoes to the roof, stuffed Bear in the back seat and took off.
It was a summer full of adventure that tumbled into fall,
right to the edge of winter. Back roads traveled, rivers paddled, lakes
explored. Beaches became home for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. There were
campfires and dark night skies with endless stars, there were raging storms and
misread maps, there were fascinating people and interesting places.
So many moments define that summer, each a vivid memory that
could have happened yesterday, but there is one that I remember as the moment
when I felt like we had made it. It’s kind of plain, nothing flashy about it;
there were no beaches or sunsets or northern lights. It was an early overcast
summer morning and we sat in a park in the middle of a town I forget the name
of and cooked breakfast on our camping stove while the world came to life
To say “we had made it” is probably not the right sentiment.
We were essentially homeless, living out of my car, finding quiet places along
the road to pitch our tent each night, starting our days with giant bowls of
oatmeal to last through until late afternoon when we would awkwardly make
peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch with a Swiss Army Knife. But in that
moment, in the park with our oatmeal and tea I remember being filled with a
sense of peace and clarity.
We sat on a stone wall in the early morning mist and
late-summer damp and watched cars rush past on the road that arced around the
edge of the park, a good-sized green space in the middle of town with a creek
running through it. There was a nervous energy to the hustle and bustle of the
morning unfolding as people sped into their day, to work, a million things to
do, slurping coffee on the run. And here was Morgan and Bear and I together in
this bubble that encompassed the park, as though we had stepped out of time,
sipping tea and enjoying our breakfast. We were invisible sitting there in the
middle of this organized chaos, observers, completely unaffected by all of it.
It was the greatest moment.
The moment was short lived. It was quickly shattered
when Bear reappeared after a wander down to the creek. She skipped back to our
sides with a new light in her eye, an extra spring in her step. “Hi Beary!” we
said before the smell hit us and we swung quickly into, “Oh gawd!”, “What
the!?” and leapt away from her as she pranced closer.
After Bear had inhaled her breakfast, snarfing it down as
though she had not seen food in days, she followed her nose off across the
grass to investigate some trees and rocks and more grass in the oblong-shaped
park that stretched away from the road. We let her go on her own because she
was a good dog. She was three and a half and she listened well. We weren’t worried about her taking off.
What we hadn’t counted on was that she would decide in the spur of the moment
to roll in a pile of some other dog’s crap.
She hadn’t just rolled in it though, she had basked in it,
gloried in it. It was so ground into her fur it looked like someone had not
only spackled the side of her neck with brown paste, but had massaged it into
her fur. Her bright blue collar with the silver reflective strip was ruined. The once-gleaming fabric was so
defiled we decided to throw it out right there, removing it carefully from her
neck and, between pinched fingers and a lot of “eww, eww, eww”s, dropped it in
the garbage can.
“Why, Bear?” we asked as she beamed back at us. “What were
you thinking?” we wanted to know as we marched her back to the creek with a bar
of soap and washcloth rummaged from the car.
She was so happy, so proud of herself“Look what I found!” It was almost
heartbreaking to see how crestfallen she became when she realized what was
happening, an impromptu bath in the cold water.
“But I did that for you guys,” she seemed to say, a look of
mortification sliding on to her face.
The washcloth ended up in the garbage too and as Bear shook
off the water, along with her indignation, we packed our breakfast things in
silence and loaded everything into the car.
“Did you really think we were going to let you back in the
car like that?” we asked Bear as we held the door and invited her in. She leapt into the back seat as though the last fifteen minutes had never
happened, disappointment gone, hard feelings discarded, because this next
moment was going to be even better as we set our sights on the horizon.
The third drawer down of the dresser in the
corner of my bedroom was ajar. It did not look like a big enough space for a
cat to squeeze through, but as I put my face near the opening and peered into
the dark reaches of the drawer I could see movement, the flash of white fur
amongst t-shirts, the source of the mystery rustling that had roused me
from bed and the book I was reading.
“Cleo what are you doing?” I said into the shadows, snaking
my hands into the drawer to try and push shirts aside and make a space for her
to come out. It seemed so tight and cramped I had a passing claustrophobic
thought of her suffocating in there amongst the cotton and polyester.
“You can’t stay in there,” I said, thinking about the
restless night ahead, worrying about how she would get out again, the ongoing
rustling sounds of her arranging and rearranging a nest for herself.
The dresser, an old wooden beast of a thing with drawers
that stick, sliding grudgingly in or out only after a good shove or two, has
frequently been a favourite sleeping spot of both cats, but usually it is when
a drawer has been left generously open, its contents easily swirled into a
comfy bed. I am not sure what possessed Cleo to stuff herself through the
barely-there opening on this night but clearly she did not give a glimmer of
thought to how she would get out again.
“Um, I can’t open the drawer,” I said into the gap. I was
sure I would get her head stuck somehow between it and the drawer above, or on
the frame of the dresser itself, a 1x2 wooden crosspiece that spanned the width
of the drawer. “You’re going to have to crawl out.
“How did you get in there?” I asked. And as I shifted more
shirts I heard the soft scraping sound of fur against wood. “No, no, no, Cleo,
don’t do that,” I said, and caught a glimpse of a white leg disappearing as she
slithered over the back edge of the drawer and down into the drawer below.
I stood up straight and stared at the dresser. The fourth
drawer down was also open a bit which meant Cleo was now in the fifth drawer
and I imagined her sitting there sandwiched between the wooden back of the
dresser and the back of drawer four.
“Well, now you’re stuck,” I said.
There was silence from the dresser and I wondered what she
was doing in there, just sitting, contemplating. If she had been at all
distressed I would have heard about it, but she didn’t make a peep. I had a
half thought to just leave her, sure she could climb back out on her own the
way she went in, but I wasn’t going to wait around to find out at 2:00 in the
morning, woken from a deep sleep by the sound of an elephant rummaging about in my dresser.
But now that Cleo was two drawers below, I could pull out
drawer three as far as it would go and then remove it. I placed it on the floor
next to me and peered into the space it had occupied. Cleo stood at the back of
the dresser, front feet in the fourth drawer, back end in the fifth, neck
craned, pink nose twitching, “Well, isn’t this interesting,” she seemed
“Come on,” I said, reaching into the back of the dresser and
grabbing her under the armpits. I pulled her up into the exposed drawer where
she turned to liquid in my hands and I had to let go, reposition, and pull her
When I placed her on the floor she did a little happy skip
towards the drawer I had left there, “Ooo did you put this here for me?”
“No, Cleo, it’s bedtime,” I said and lifted the drawer up
and away, securing it back into its position in the dresser.
And with that, the nightly Cleo whirlwind was over. Curiosity
maybe not quite satisfied, but tempered for now, Cleo turned abruptly and
hopped down the stairs, loudly, leaving me to shake my head before crawling back into bed with my book and the
glow of the lamp and the quiet.
I stood frozen beside the kitchen counter with my mouth
hanging open, a gasp having just escaped. In one hand I held a bread knife, in
the other, nothing, but my fingers still curled in the shape of the bagel that
had been there seconds before.
Beside me Molly sat tall and regal, as she does in her
casual way, and watched Murdoch with some curiosity. He sat in front of me,
head down, jaws working in a frenzy as he gulped and chewed his way through the
bagel, swallowing great chunks, not letting even a crumb fall to the floor.
It was cinnamon raisin. I could still smell its sweetness in
the air as I tried to process exactly what happened. It wasn’t particularly
early in the morning, but I had stumbled down the stairs just moments before in
a blur after a not-very-restful night’s sleep and felt that my brain had not
quite awoken yet so I was still frozen in disbelief after Murdoch had polished
of the bagel and sat up straight again to stare at me expectantly as if I might
have something else for him.
“What the…?… I just…” I stammered in some explanation to
Morgan who sat at the table mere feet away and missed the whole thing, swinging
around in his chair at the sound of my shocked, sharp intake of breath. I was
caught somewhere between disbelief and a weird appreciation for how expertly
Murdoch had stripped me of my un-toasted breakfast, which I expressed with a
laugh as I said, “He just took my bagel right out of my hand. I don’t even know
what happened there.” I can’t deny I was impressed. I let my guard down; he saw
his moment and took it, in and out.
But obviously we couldn’t just let that go, so even if it
was a little delayed, even though it came after a brief chuckle shared between
us, Morgan and I put on our serious voices, “Bad boy Murdoch,” and sent the
I returned to the counter and pulled the last bagel out of
the bag, noting to myself that it wasn’t quite as nice as the one Murdoch had
just inhaled. “I’m glad that wasn’t the last bagel though,” I said as I sliced
this one open. “Then I would have been really mad.” But as it stood at that
moment, for some reason I found the whole thing more funny than maddening.
I should be annoyed with Murdoch’s pushiness that never
seems to stop no matter how many times we tell him to back off, make him sit a
mile away from the counter. And now Molly is the same, her tongue
‘accidentally’ brushing against fingers as you move from the counter to the
fridge to the stove. “Why is your nose in my hand?” we often ask of her.
But now that the dogs were downstairs in the entryway and
not flanking me as I slid my bagel into the toaster oven, I missed them. There
was no drool on the floor, no head jammed between my legs and the cupboards
beneath the counter, no paws to trip over. It was all just a little too
Their presence in the kitchen demands a certain amount of
vigilance on the part of Morgan and I. An alertness I did not possess that
morning when I allowed the bagel to cross that unspoken threshold, anything
below countertop level is fair game. I could still feel the emptiness of my
hand, the phantom weight of the vacated bagel. But in our unbalanced
human/canine world, Murdoch was just reacting, really, to an opportunity that
Good one Murds, I thought as the toaster oven dinged. I tip
my hat to you sir.
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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.
“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.
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.”
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.