Melampus, the Nativity Basset Hound: Part One

Melampus, the Nativity Basset Hound: Part One December 25, 2012

Historians trace the basset hound back to the pack raised by St. Hubert of Liège, who was an avid huntsman. But even forefathers have forefathers. If you’re willing to put your trust in folklore, then the breed’s remotest ancestor — what Wotan was to the Germanic tribes and Oghuz Khan to the Turks — was a dog named Melampus who lived on an estate some distance outside the city of Antioch more than six centuries before the pious Frank or any of his dogs saw the light of day.

Either by divine design or freak genetic occurrence, Melampus possessed all the traits that would so distinguish his decendants. He had stumpy legs and fat, walrus feet. His ears dragged on the ground and tended to beat his muzzle into any water bowl. His howl, it was said, could call shades back from the abode of Hades.

Melampus invested all his vanity in his nose. It was a shrewd investment, because his nose, by any standards, was an engine of astonishing power and sensitivity. Days after a fox or a stag had decamped, his nose could fasten onto its scent, and track it a dozen leagues or more. As a pursuer, Melampus wasn’t fast, but he was tireless and patient and methodical, and it was thanks mainly to his nose and his work habits that his master’s family dined so often on fresh game. The master witheld neither credit nor reward; whenever Melampus led him to a kill, he feasted that night on scraps of boar or venison.

One night, Melampus awoke to the sound of men shouting. Directly had he dragged himself from his bed in the stable but he saw two glowing orbs, suspended in the darkness. He started and got out a strangled, quizzical whine before he realized they were the eyes of Iphigeneia, the master’s cat.

“Back to bed with you, mighty hunter,” she told him. “This doesn’t concern you, and besides, the horses are already acting up. Your brass-gong bark will make them riot.”

Melampus’ relationship with horses had always been a strained one. He heard them snorting in their stalls; Bucephalus, the stud, the one who’d price his own skatos above gold, was already drumming his hooves. Eyeing a quiet corner, Melampus asked, “So what nocturnal alarms concern horses and men but not hounds?”

Iphigeneia streched, thrusting her hindquarters toward the ceiling “Astrology, politics. Some new star has turned up in the sky, and the soothsayers are calling it the portend of a great leader — you know, the next Cyrus or Alexander or Hannibal Barca.”

Melampus imagined Bucephalus going down in a cascade of arrows shot by the bowmen of some rampaging warlord. The thought made him smile, until he remembered his good master, who would surely be mounted atop him, would go down, too. “Well,” he said. “There’ll always be work for the likes of you and me, right?”

“For me, sugar, always,” Iphigeneia purred. “If this new leader’s from the right parts, I might even end up worshipped. You I’m not so sure about. If he — or she — comes from the wrong parts, you might become somebody’s dinner.”

Melampus licked thoughtfully at his nether regions. All the way from the courtyard, he could hear his master and his friends speculating on this new leader’s character. When it came to signs and omens, Melampus remembered, Master was a regular enthusiast; he’d be reading entrails for a week to come. Well, sooner or later, he could probably sneak some of the entrails, but at least for the moment, there was fat chance of his getting any sleep.

Just then, Melampus caught a whiff of something floating on the breath of Notus, the south wind. Though he considered himself a connoisseur of scent, this was like nothing he’d ever smelled in town or country. It stirred certain memories of sweet oil and incense, but it also carried a tang of something he could swear was human breast milk.

The smell overwhelmed Melampus, blotting out his irritation over lost sleep and his anxiety over his place under this new regime, whatever it might be. From observing his master, and his master’s wife, and their friends, in their cups, he had some understanding of wine and its effects. For a moment he wondered whether his new inner lightness resembled them. No, he realized. When men drank wine, they lost their focus — they slurred and babbled and let their roasted joints fall from the table into the waiting mouths of dogs like himself. What Melampus felt was, very much on the contrary, an intense focusing, a clarity of mission, like the kind he experienced when he led a hunting party straight into a fox den.

“I’m going after it,” he said aloud.

Iphigeneia, hunkered down in her warm bed of straw, stirred a little and opened an eye. “After what?” She hissed.

“After that — that magnificent aroma. Can’t you smell it?” As soon as the question was out of his mouth, he realized how silly it was. Iphigenia had not been blessed with such a nose as his. Night vision and jumping were her specialties. “It’s the most mysterious and compelling smell I’ve ever smelled,” he said. “And I’m going to find where and what it’s coming from.”

Iphegeneia flicked her tail. “And what about your master? I thought loyalty was the calling card of your species.”

Melampus dropped his head. It was a fair question. Though he found Master’s wife both hysterical and vulgar — her face powder made him sneeze — Master himself was a good master. A cheery man with a boy’s open face, he kept his rubbing hand ever ready for Melampus’ ears and belly. He would surely miss Melampus in his absence, maybe even blame himself. But that commanding new scent put words in his mouth that sliced through those concerns like Alexander’s sword through the Gordian knot.

“All my life, I’ve served my master,” he said. “But what I’ve followed is my nose. I owe my livelihood to it as much as to him. Now, for what reason I can’t make out, it’s picked up something that won’t release it. This thing, which smells like nothing else in the world, has enslaved my nose. That means, in effect, it’s enslaved me.”

Iphigeneia began to say something about specious reasoning and free will, but Melampus cut her off with a short bark. “If you can somehow convey to Master how sorry I am, I’d be much obliged.” And with that, he squeezed himself through a hole in the stable wall and trotted off, ears and belly dragging.


I hope to have the second and final part up tomorrow. Yeah, you’re right: it’s bad form to post Christmas-related stuff after Christmas, but the season does last 12 days. Besides, the idea only hit me around midnight last night.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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