Melampus, the Nativity Basset Hound: Part Two (of Three)

“Slow and steady wins the race,” Aesop wrote. So often had Melampus heard the words quoted in reference to himself that he’d adopted them as his personal motto. In the first weeks of his journey, he seemed, once again, to be proving the wisdom behind them.

The delightful bouquet beckoned due south; after a night of stumbling down private roads of varying qualities, Melampus found himself on a vast via publica aimed in that very direction. He avoided the gravel surface — he had no wish to be mashed under a quadrig driven by some idiot who’d modeled himself on Phaeton. But he found the shoulder easy enough to navigate. True, he had occasionally to brave a patch of thistles that planted themselves deep enough in his flesh to make him howl in frustration; but he always found a cool stream in which to wash them out. Best of all, human travelers had turned his path into a dumping-ground for their chicken bones and melon rinds.

All along, the scent — the incomparable perfume — kept Melampus in thrall. It was a positive force, a personality as dominating as any master’s or pack leader’s. Its presence blinded Melampus to the traders and pilgrims and soldiers, the oxen, the horses and donkeys and camels, the entire carnival of the road. Like a hand on a leash, it tugged him onward, along the breezy coast, growing stronger ever day.

One morning, just south of Tyre, Melampus rose with the sun. With a yawn and a stretch and a stifled groan, he struggled to his feet. In that moment, his nose began twitching like a lanced hare. It detected something, a change so enormous, it took half a minute for Melampus’ brain to register. The scent — the melange of oil and incense and sweet human milk — was gone. No, it wasn’t gone, but it had grown faint. In its place was a smell just as overwhelming but much more familiar. It was the smell of death.

Occasionally, by happy accident, Melampus’ hunting party had managed to corner an entire herd of deer or pack of boar. During the killing, blood had sprayed from the wounds in gouts; during the butchering, it had splashed from the carcasses in waves. Its odor lingered in the air for days afterward, and Melampus found it pleasant on the whole. But what he smelled now was different. It was the smell of carcasses left to rot in the sun, the smell of gassy bloat and swarming maggots. Melampus remembered it from the time a plague had struck down his master’s cattle, but this was worse still. It was death and neglect on a scale that beggared Melampus’ imagination.

Melampus retched. All the lovely bread and fatback thrown him the previous night by friendly caravaners came up right on the grass. It was all too much for him to bear. Not only was his fragrant inspiration deserting him in a strange land, apparently one wracked by war or pestilence, but now his stomach was empty again. His composure and modesty gone, Melampus sank onto his haunches and began to wail.

Melampus went on wailing till his lungs and larynx ached. He wailed until some late-rising glass merchants who’d camped nearby told him to shut it and threatened to give him something worth crying about if he kept it up. For all Melampus cared, they could have brained him. The connection he’d felt to the wonderful scent had verged on ecstasy; it had enlarged him, propelled him beyond the limits of his own feeble consciousness. With the scent fading fast, he was thrown back on himself. As long as he could cry out for it, try to call it back, he would not be completely desolate.

But presently, Melampus’ ears picked up a bark other than his own. It was sharp and staccato but solicitous. Realizing suddenly that his eyes were closed, he opened them and beheld before him a bitch. Short-haired and brindle-coated, she was somewhat larger than he. Judging by her brief snout and wide forehead, he guessed her sire or dam had been one of those hulking guard dogs kept by the army. But her wide, unblinking eyes were tender.

Suddenly, Melampus felt embarassed for carrying on so. Fighting the urge to tuck his tail between his legs and hide, he stood as tall as he could. The bitch advanced a couple of steps. “Are you okay?” She asked.

Mustering all his willpower, Melampus wagged his tail. “It’s a long story,” he said.

She drew near him and introduced herself: her name was Acantha. Melampus smelled her blood. When they sniffed each other, he saw the swelling. “Tell me later,” Acantha said.

After they uncoupled themselves, Melampus did tell his story. Acantha explained the death smell. “It’s coming from the Galilee, which my caravan just left. The grand pooh-bah decided to kill all the newborns. Humans aren’t like us — they don’t just let people bag up their puppies and drown them. Some of the Galileans decided to show their teeth, and generally, got spitted on swords for their troubles. Now you’ve got villages in ruins and people walking around glassy-eyed while their dead go unburied. Not fun unless you’ve a taste for carrion.”

“Did you also happen to smell…” Melampus began, but left the sentence unfinished.

“That sweet balsam and breast milk thing you told me about? Yeah, I smelled it, the whole time we were down there. It was nice.”

“But you…that is, you didn’t…?” Melampus was sputtering, a habit he despised.

“Go chasing after it? No, Melampus, I didn’t.” Acantha laughed. “Look, I’ve led the nomad life since I was out of the whelping box. I’ve been from Carthage to Capadocia, and I’ve smelled some very interesting things. But most of them turned out, on close inspection, to be pretty mundane — a nice gift for a society lady, a nice profit for a parfumier. All in all, I’d have to say nothing’s quite so exalted as steady work and a warm, dry bed.”

Melampus shut his mouth, afraid he’d start waiting again if he opened it.

Acantha pressed her cold nose against Melampus’ ear; he flinched. “Please don’t think I’m talking down to you,” she said. “I love that you’re a dreamer. Look at it this way — you followed this marvelous smell, and it led you to me. Maybe that’s what it was there for.” With her meaty forepaws, she pinned him playfully. “Come on, let’s be a pack of two. My master’ll love you.”

With a yelp, Melampus freed himself. Sniffing at the breeze, he caught his guiding scent. It was faint, but it was there — still to the south, and perhaps a bit to the west. He glanced at Acantha. Her tail was wagging, her eyes pleading. He searched for words to justify himself, but they fled him like frogs. Instead, his voice quivering, he screamed, “I don’t like brindles!” and bolted, wishing his ears could bear him aloft like Pegasus’ wings.


Okay, it looks like I won’t finish this thing till tomorrow. Sorry, gang.

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