With the death-smell filling his nostrils, and Acantha’s heartsick whine still filling his ears, Melampus found it urgent to distract himself. Now that the strange aroma had withdrawn to the very limits of his tracking powers, he discovered he was able, for the first time, to puzzle over its source.
Oils, incense, and milk: do the sum. A nursing human mother with refined tastes. Melampus remembered the new star his old master and his advisors had put so much stock in — could there be some connection? An ambitious queen with an heir gave context to the mass murder of children Acantha had warned him about. When humans fought one another for pack leadership, they respected few limits.
Perhaps that was his destiny, to become companion to a new Alpha, a female. He pictured himself standing beside this gray-eyed Pallas on her war chariot or barge, sniffing out her enemies. A rubdown from her graceful fingers would be his recompense, and it would suffice. He hoped the heir — the whelp — would not grow up to step on his paws.
And he hoped that Acantha would see him — from the crowd at the triumph, maybe — and forgive him; no, better, that she’d concede he and his nose had been right all along.
Melampus continued his march. The sun swelled and brightened, and the death smell dimmed — thanks, Melampus supposed, to the tardy work of gravediggers. But everywhere he saw signs of the late slaughter. Flies gathered in fat swarms, moaning like sated orgy guests. Villages looked sunken and half-toppled, like ancient urns. Sniffing and poking through them, Melampus thought he saw frantic eyes everywhere, accusing.
To avoid them, he reversed his schedule, sleeping by day and traveling by night. Then, early one cloud-choked evening, just as he was dragging himself, cursing, out of a sink hole, Melampus caught an unusually potent blast of his special fragrance, the muse of his nostrils. A residue several weeks old, it led southeast off the main road. Wherever his regal mistress-to-be might reign now, she had been here, almost at this very spot, only — his nose gulped at the air — a few weeks before.
From the start of his journey, Melampus had made a point of conserving his energy, but now he broke into a full run. As he panted and wheezed like Hephaistos’ own bellows, his little legs carried him off the main road, down a via rustica of packed earth, and, finally, onto a rock-strewn trail barely wide enough for two donkeys to pass side-by-side. Lacking moon or stars to guide his step, he cut his paws on sharp limestone. But on he ran, even as his mouth dried out and the sticky heat enfolded him like a shroud.
Then he heard a voice cackle: “Ha! You’re late! Much too late! Ha!”
Skidding to a halt, Melampus peered in every direction. The cackling rose almost to a squeal. Finally, Melampus’ eyes picked out a fat, black silhouette perched on a bare rock. It looked like a bird — probably a crow.
“Late for what, you ask? For anything you’d care to name, sir! For the feeding, certainly. But I don’t guess that’s your sweet spot — you’d make a sorry-looking hyena. If you’re looking for the party of three that camped here a few weeks back, then you’re just as sorry, big ears, because they’re long gone, across the western desert, and they took their magic light show and their perfumes of Araby with them!”
Melampus was so giddy, he forgave the slur on his ears. “But they were here, you say, these perfumes of Araby? And they belonged to a party of, um, royal personages?”
Cackling louder than ever, the bird spread and beat a pair of great, black wings. “Oh, the perfumes were here all right — attracted all sorts of looky-loos, including some very gaudily dressed orientals. If they’re the ones you’re looking for, you’d better turn that sniffer of yours east by nor’east on the double. But the fancy smellers weren’t royal, or even gentle. They were respectable — barely. They headed west.”
Melampus scratched behind his ear. Oriental magnates in one direction, sweet-scented humdrum people in the other, and the scent itself — stronger than he’d been able to smell it in weeks — in a third. He turned the problem over to his brain, but his brain led him back up the highway, to Acantha, or, failing that, all the way home to Master. Rendered abstract and formally split, the ideas of splendor and fragrance lost the power to drive him, at least the distances he had yet to go. All chases came to an end, after all. Some were successful, others weren’t.
Melampus drew a breath, filling his spent lungs. There it was again, his guiding bouquet, strong enough and near enough to carry a strong dose of its old glamour. Maybe, if he could immerse himself in it just a little while longer, bury his face in the spot where it had once resided, he’d be able to think straight again.
He asked the bird, who was hopping and flapping a jig, “Where did these perfumed, respectable folk stay?”
“Ha! Down this road just a piece, stubborn sausage! It’ll be the first building on your right — a bed and breakfast, very downmarket. If that star hadn’t appeared over it, it wouldn’t get any stars at all. Mind your step, though, sonny. The owner lost his hatchling in the late disturbance — very tender! Ruffle his feathers, and you might just become my palate cleanser! Ha!”
Without condescending to reply, Melampus hurled himself down the road. He surrendered to the ecstasy of the scent, to the oblivion of the chase — those last few miles where the tracks are fresh and the pellets still steaming. He thought of the star. It did have some relation to his scent, and to the place he was just now bearing down upon. His nose was true.
As Melampus caught side of the building — white stone, about as dingy as the bird had said — the scent washed over him. He would have sworn it lifted him up and carried him, like a mother, through the courtyard, around the back, and into the stable. Flopping into the straw, he had the sensation of getting a belly rub from the inside out. He remained just enough in the present moment to remark that his journey, which began in a stable, had ended in a stable. What symmetry.
Melampus was not quite present enough to stand and run when the landlord stormed into the stable, or even to understand why the man was carrying a spade. Melampus saw light, maybe a light equal to a star’s. Then the light faded into a warm, cozy blackness.
Scholars doubt any animals were present to greet Our Lord on the night he entered our world. Certainly, no basset hound was. An optimist might argue that Melampus missed the Mystery of the Manger only to gain a premature and very intimate understanding of the Mystery of the Cross. But what good would that have done him? By definition, animals come equipped with souls, but their souls are mortal. They live for a while, then they stop living.
Thanks to Melampus, the All-Father, basset hounds have always known this. Some say you can see that sad awareness stamped on their faces even today.