Cave Canem*

July 12, 2013

*The title is Latin, which you probably will only recognize if, like me, you flunked Latin in both high school and college, or if you’ve read James Thurber’s “The Dog That Bit People”.

Almost every character in Greek mythology has a story. Some have elaborate family histories that can be traced all the way back to the Greek version of the beginning of the universe, while others seem to come out of nowhere, and mainly serve to explain the origin of narcissus flowers, echoes, or condoms. Even Odysseus’s dog, Argos, has a story: he is so faithful he waits twenty years for his master, and is the first to recognize him on his return, even though Odysseus is in disguise. There’s another dog in Greek mythology who I think served just as faithfully, and for much longer, but his only reward is that Hercules drags him around. Even his origins are never adequately explained. This is an attempt to correct that.

Hear me, mortals. The other gods meddle in your lives, pit you against each other in silly wars, abuse you, or ignore you. I am not like them. All of you will come before me, so there is no need for me to hasten your arrivals, or to toy with you during your short lives. I am lord of all things. When I took Demeter’s daughter for my wife even Zeus, who calls himself father of gods and men, did not interfere. It is only with my permission that she is allowed to leave. The other gods are powerless before me, for I know the value of all things, I hold all wealth, and yet I know that even we gods are not truly immortal. I am merely the one who stands at the final gate beyond which there is nothing. This is why they shun me, and I have no place on Olympus. I rule alone. And yet I choose sometimes to walk among you, mortals. My kingdom, though it is more vast than any other, is like a dark mirror held up to yours. Sometimes it amuses me to come into the light.

One day, in summer, with my wife absent, I rose from my throne, passed the Furies, bode Charon carry me across the river Styx as he made his way to the far shore. Only those who have been properly buried may be taken over on their first arrival. The others, those whose bodies are never recovered, must wait a hundred years. They reached out to me, begging as I passed by. I could end their suffering, but it’s not my concern. I climbed upward and emerged into forest, beyond which lay the city of Cumae. I felt something like happiness when I saw it was a festival day, with street performers, jugglers, tumblers, stalls and shops selling banners and ribbons. It amuses me how mortals mark time, and how they sometimes celebrate its passing.

Amongst the other festival events was a man standing before a shabby tent. “One drachm to see something you’ve never seen before,” he cried. For most I believe this was a high price. Either he had something truly wonderful to see or was a fool who would soon lose all his money and be run out of town. I pressed a coin into his hand and he lifted the heavy fabric aside for me to enter. The heat was oppressive inside the tent. The festival sounds were muted. I became aware of a whimpering, and found, on a pile of filthy straw, a dog, a bitch with a litter of pups still suckling. This was something I’d seen before, something most had seen before. But in the middle of the tent was a box with more straw. A whining came from it. Inside was another pup. Aphrodite holds sway over fertility, while Hera claims hold over motherhood. When they bicker over territory these mistakes happen. The lives of such creatures are usually short and unhappy. This doesn’t matter to me. But something about this creature, this pitiful, eyeless thing, its three mouths searching for its mother, still wet from birth, with an already limited world further reduced by the confines of a box of straw in which it scooted back and forth, made me turn. The negotiations with the tent’s owner were quick. I could have offered him a hundred times as much, but avarice is easily manipulated, and the small amount I handed over allowed him to imagine himself wealthy. I lifted the pup from the box, cradled it, and in an instant we were on a mossy bank of the lake Avernus. The pup moved weakly. I couldn’t carry it back to my kingdom—the distance was too great. But I didn’t want it to enter the usual way either. Not just yet. I held it close and looked at the trees overhead. I, greatest of all the gods, held this tiny fragile thing. I knew it would, like all who pass over, become something else. Now weak it would be powerful. Now starved it would be sated. Now in pain it would never be hurt again. I could end its suffering. And yet I delayed, holding it close against me. Then it was done.

My kingdom has always had many guards, and few desire to enter before their appointed time anyway. And yet this dog takes pride in patrolling the borders and confronting the uninvited few who come to pester me with petty demands. I need no protection, but when I walk he accompanies me. In the spring sometimes I sleep, and when I wake Cerberus is always there.

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