Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lap Dog, Wild Dog

Sorrow for the families of the slaughtered in Connecticut and anger at the political factions that enable such outrages have left me feeling that perpetual mourning might be the sole appropriate undertaking for these sorry times. 

But while I mourn I must live, and life is made up of a hundred routines--walking the dogs, feeding the hens, writing posts.  Oblivious to newscasts, Bisou has crammed herself under my right elbow as I sit by the woodstove with the computer on my lap, and is causing many typos.  I might as well write about her.

A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bisou is technically a lap dog.  Her 17th century ancestors were known as "Spaniels Gentle" and "Comfort Spaniels" by the mistresses of Charles II.  In the damp English winters these ladies (some of whom were, by royal edict, the first allowed to play female roles on the stage) warmed their hands on the little dogs' exceptionally silky fur.  In the damp English summers, they used the dogs to lure away the fleas that infested their wigs.

History, however, doesn't say anything about these dogs when they were outdoors.  Maybe this was because, whenever a Spaniel Gentle was let out the door, it vanished.

That's what Bisou does whenever I let her out.  In an instant, by the time I've closed the door, she is nowhere to be seen.  Especially now, in stick season, when the ground is covered in russet leaves, she vanishes into the wilderness.  This sets off my frantic calling  (Are the dreaded fisher cats diurnal?  Are the bears in hibernation yet?)  But because she is after all a Spaniel Gentle, from somewhere beyond the horizon there comes a rustling and a crackling and pretty soon a small red torpedo lands panting at my feet.  "Yes?  You wanted me?"

And then she's off again, into the next county, scarfing up deer poop, baying after squirrels, on and on until the sun starts to set and the evening chill sets in and I say "Bisou, inside!" and she flings herself into the warmth. 

Then my work begins, because she is wreathed in a potpourri of dead oak leaves, burrs of various sizes, and sticks that have wound themselves around her soft belly fur and are stabbing her nether regions, though they don't seem to have slowed her down any.  Did I mention the ticks?  She brings in whole families of those, who are attracted to her warm little body and must be picked out, exclaimed over, and drowned by me.

After the combing comes dinner, at which she behaves like a tiger, and after that comes the great transformation.  Once she's had her run and her belly is full, she becomes a Comfort Spaniel--though the comfort in question here is hers, not mine.  If my lap is not available, because there is a book or a computer on it, she jams herself as close to me as she can, under my elbow (hence the typos)and sleeps.

She sleeps like a stone until I stand up, when she immediately moves over onto the spot I've just vacated, to suck up every last degree of warmth.  And when I return to the sofa or chair she pretends that she is dead, and I have to lift her eighteen-pound corpse out of the way. 

If I am gone more than a couple of minutes, though, she rises out of her stupor and comes looking for me.  If I'm in the kitchen, she waits while I cook.  If I'm in the bathroom, she bides by the door.  If I meditate, she sits motionless until I'm done.  Inside the house, whenever her little red form is not in sight, I know to check the bedroom closet.  She often follows me in there when I go to fetch a sweater, and gets locked in when I walk out.

She is the ultimate nap dog.  If I lie on my back, she stretches out on my abdomen, her ears splayed out fetchingly, her muzzle towards my face.  If I lie on my side, she curls up neatly against my stomach, under the blanket, groaning ecstatically. 

But as she sleeps the wild dog takes over, and she kicks out her legs and stretches her body and lashes out again with all her might, as if she were running full tilt across the woods to catch and kill some critter.  I absorb her kicks, and wonder that the same small dog can be so utterly wild outdoors, so cuddly and cozy indoors.  And as I fall asleep I think how people too, you and I, can be so loving one moment, so deadly the next, so magnanimous, so petty, so unpredictable and mysterious. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Prodigal Hen

In the context of my darn near idyllic existence in this blessed place, Thursday was a bad day. 

It was the day after the great chicken house cleanout and, not surprisingly, the day when my CFS took its revenge.  Who did I think I was, disrespecting the nasty entity that inhabits my protoplasm by making a strenuous muscular effort for two and a half hours straight? 

The worst part was having to send an e-mail to my book group telling them I wouldn't be attending their meeting that night.  I often have to cancel things at the last minute, and I hate to do it.  I feel bad for the hostess, who's been carefully counting plates and forks and chicken legs.  I feel bad for the fun I'll be missing.  And I'm haunted by the fear that if I keep not showing up for stuff people will forget me and I'll end up alone and pathetic.

As if all this weren't tragic enough, when I went to the chicken house to lock the hens in for the night I saw that there were only eight of them.  One of the New Hampshire Reds--a young, rusty-red beauty, was missing.  Earlier that afternoon several hens had gotten out of their yard and I'd chased them back in, but I hadn't done a head count.  And now one of them was out there alone in the dark, within easy reach of the coyotes, foxes, fisher cats, raccoons and porcupines that haunt our woods.

There is nothing more helpless than a chicken in the dark.  After the sun goes down, you can pluck chickens off their roosts as if they were ripe peaches.  No hen that has spent the night outside the shed has ever lived to tell the tale. 

After a bad CFS day, I often put myself to sleep by remembering all the good things that nevertheless have happened in the last twelve hours.  I think grateful thoughts for zucchini bread at breakfast, a supportive spouse at noon, Wolfie and Bisou by the fire in the evening...The list is usually surprisingly long, and works much better than chamomile.  But on Thursday night, I couldn't find a single grateful angle to the vanished hen episode.

The next morning I went out to give breakfast to the survivors.  They looked rather crestfallen, and not just because the temperature was in the teens.  Chickens are emotional beings, and I was sure that they were missing their sister.

But when I looked out towards the woods there she was, the lost New Hampshire Red, trotting alongside the fence, trying desperately to get back into the yard.  I don't know what the carnivores in the woods had been thinking, letting such a plump young morsel get away.  All I can figure is that it was too cold to hunt.

When you have just nine chickens and one of them goes missing, you feel it deeply.  But when she is returned to you unharmed, you know without a doubt that the universe is smiling upon you.