Stella and Artois

In the summer of 2008 we got Stella the Wonder Dog from Pet Rescue in Toronto. She was a really well-trained seven year old mix of Boxer and Rhodesian Ridgeback with a beautiful temperament. Stella loves people and animals alike. Even people who don’t like dogs are won over by Stella’s magical charm.

We speculate that she was a sort of domestic guard dog in a past life, or maybe it’s instinct that causes her to be always on duty when others are around. She guards the house when we are sleeping, herds all the children when we are camping. I expect she enjoys her alone time.

However, it wasn’t long until we thought she might like some animal company (besides Kitty Cat who hates everybody) so the following summer we started looking at the Pet Rescue listings again, thinking another dog just like Stella but younger might do the trick. Or a Pug for her to play with, she seems so fond of the small dogs, even the ones that bite her nose. But Stella had other plans.

One day as she and Mike set out for an escarpment run Stella unearthed a tiny little kitten under a bush and wouldn’t leave it. “Come on,” says Mike, “we’re here for a run.” And off they go. But on the way back Stella goes back to the bush and this time she wont leave without the little kitten. Having seen a coyote on the trail, Mike supposes that this is the last of an abandoned litter that has already fed the coyote, so he pops it into a Tim’s tray and brings it home with Stella, the proud new mom, beaming at his side.

Artois was a beautifully striped grey and white tabby with markings that made him look like he was wearing Egyptian eye makeup. Stella brought him home, licked him clean from head to toe, pushed him over to her food and water, litter trained him (!?) and then curled up around him on her cushion. I guess that’s how some families grow. Kitty Cat, however, was not so thrilled.

Kitty would park herself in front of the food whenever Artois wandered near it. Stella, being defensive but gentle would edge her way between the two cats, never meeting Kitty’s gaze but with a body language that said “I know you’re the boss Kitty, but don’t make me do it,” and eventually Kitty would wander off with as much incensed dignity as she could muster.

Stella and Artois were inseparable to the point that we had to take Artois with us when we went to Montreal, to the cottage, out to visit friends. Stella would herd her protege at each location, making sure he didn’t leave the yard or campground. We laughed a lot watching him learn to climb trees; he would fling himself up about two feet and cling to the bark waiting for Stella to wander over sniffing for his whereabouts and then launch himself claws-first onto her back. Wrestling ensued…

Soon, Artois was more comfortable roaming on his own and Stella let him, and he began to throw up in the car so we stopped taking him. He was on his own against the fierce Kitty Cat, erstwhile terror of Glenlake night life.

One night, sitting in the living room watching a movie, with Artois sitting upright beside me, Miss Kitty sauntered by and paused in front of Artois. Her expression said “Boy I really hate that you have come into my space, and made friends with that dog that hogs all the attention. I hate that you’re young and cute and I am getting old and cranky, but I just want you to know that I am still the boss here.” But Artois just sat there with his big wide-eyed gaze, unfazed. Faster than any of us could react Miss Kitty whipped out her down-but-not-out right hook and raked his face three times in succession with her claws. Artois’ head buffeted and bounced back with each blow and still he just sat there, unfazed. It was over before the scream left my mouth, before Stella could do more than just stand up. He just sat there looking at her with those big innocent eyes. Miss Kitty eventually walked off. It was hard to tell what she was thinking then…

Artois grew older and made friends all over the street both feline and human. He learned to stand on the ledge of the screen door across the street and ring the doorbell for treats. He learned to ring the Christmas bell on the doorknob at our house when he wanted out. I think it is safe to say he was a neighbourhood favourite.

After opening the cafe in Dec of 2009, I seldom saw the cats as a result of a new and unexpected schedule. By the summertime, when I closed up for a break, I hardly recognized Artois. He was much bigger, with faded markings and was less affectionate than previously. At least with me. I was sad at the realization that I had missed half of his first year of life. And yet another half a year went by until one day not too long ago Mike said, “I haven’t seen Artois in a few days,” and we wondered if he’d found greener pastures. But would Artois really leave Stella?

After a few days Mike said “I think Artois is in the apartment next door,” but I assured him that they had a cat who looked like Artois, who sat in that window facing ours all the time. Stella’s behaviour was hard to interpret. At the end of the week Mike reiterated his notion that Artois was next door so I asked Betty who lives downstairs there, “Don’t those people have a cat that looks just like Artois?”

“Those people moved out!” said Betty.

“What?! Betty, get the key, call the landlord, it must be Artois!”

The next morning Betty knocked at my door with tears in her eyes. She was holding Artois, who had not only been trapped in the appartment for a week, the window had fallen on his paw, which was split open and shaped like a pancake with a dent in it the size of a window frame. His leg was extra long.

I put Artois onto Stella’s big cushion and put a small dish of water there. I poured a whole bag of cat treats onto it and Stella sniffed around at the stinky cat. As he ate the food I saw sparkles in it and it looked as though broken glass were falling from his fur. But no, it was tears. Big round tears were running down Artois’s face as he ate. On either side of his nose a crusty black trough channeled them, probably the crust of a weeks worth of crying. Who knew that cats had tears? His eyes were not the big wide-eyed innocent ones they used to be.

Mike took Artois the vet who bandaged the foot. A week later the vet said that his foot was dead and that it would spread and kill him. The vet said that for $2000 he could amputate the leg before it spreads or for $200 he could put him down. Mike brought the cat home.

Two grand I didn’t have. Two hundred is the sort of thing one can juggle; pay some bill or other another time. But, because of the cafe, I am in debt to neighbours, neighbours who sorely need $200 for their own cats, their own kids, mortgages, you name it. What a dilemma.

Amid speculation that this was all the fault of Miss Kitty Cat, that she had lured him over to the empty apartment, found a way in, said “hey look Artois, you can see our house from here!” and then slammed the window on his foot, Julie said “If you’re going to put him down, why not wait till he looks like he needs it? Right now he looks ok.”

It’s true, I thought. It’s one thing to put a creature out of its misery, it’s another to put it out of an anticipated misery. So we waited. And Artois slept with me. And he couldn’t get enough attention or affection. And as the bandage got stinky and left soggy footprints on my sheets, I thought I should cut it off, but Stella wouldn’t let me. Every time I went near him with the scissors, Stella would come over and nudge him out of my lap. Eventually Artois got the stinky bandage off by himself.

And underneath was a foot. One that looked just like his other foot. And the leg wasn’t any longer. And though he favoured it, he was soon walking and then running on it. And though the fur looks green, which is hopefully my imagination, his claws seem to grab on when I pick him up.

He seems to be getting his big wide-eyed stare back and even the affectionate nature that left him six months ago. In fact, it looks like he is not only surviving, but thriving.

The lengths that some creatures go to for a bit of attention…

Something’s missing. Could we please put it back?

The joy of learning is missing from our world. You hear new parents talk about it, for about five minutes. You hear teachers talk about it being the reason they went into teaching. But then the goals change. It’s not about learning, it’s about memorizing. It’s not about enjoying the outing, it’s about getting there on time.

Watching five-year old Ivan is like a Calvin and Hobbes come to life. “Ah!” He says, slapping himself on the head, “I’m going to send an email to myself!” and before our laughter subsides he screams “Hey!’ as he springs back from the lap top, face agog, “I just got an email from myself!”

That learning of cause-and-effect is so magical in the moment, so joyous and valuable. As we grow, try to fit in, we go around pretending that we already know everything, each cause-and-effect learning like a failure instead of a success. The joy of learning – about things, about life, about each other – is missing.

Could we please put it back?

Beware the Wildebeast

Nobody wants the Wildebeast. We all have one, you and I, different though they may be. His Wildebeast would run if it could, run long and hard in circles so big they would feel like straight lines. He would feel his claws – back and front – biting into the ground, propelling himself forward, maybe snatching at a passing branch – or rabbit – with his jaws. You know the beast I mean.

And hers would HOWL. Howl at the moon and howl at injustice and howl in hunger for a greater reach, greater scope, a challenge worthy of the effort. She would stand so tall, looking for more, peeling back the tops of trees for a glimpse of what lies ahead; limitless possibilities.

But now, we see glimpses of them only, fretting at the cages we’ve built for ourselves.