Once a foxhound began to have second thoughts about chasing the fox. This unaccustomed feeling was little more than a minor nuisance at first, not much more than just another phantom shape darting through the morning fog like any of those that had for years led the foxhound and its baying kennelmates across miles of damp and risky ground. Such vague uneasiness was hard to distinguish, either, from a woozy spell that might come over the hound at the end of a long chase and then pass without further effect. A little rest, typically, and all would be right with the world again. Except that it wasn’t anymore. This strange new sensation did not fade as expected. Instead, it lasted a bit longer after each hunt: a rankling disquiet that came and went of its own, like a fox pacing defiantly just outside the kennel fence. Despite all the satisfactions enjoyed in past hunts and all the praise still earned from the master of hounds, the passion for running a fox to ground was beginning to fade as this strange, unwelcome state of mind deepened. Once so compelling it seemed the very reason for being born a foxhound, rushing pell-mell across field and stream in pursuit of the prey was now taking on the dogtrot of custom or of merely going through the motions so as not to draw the attention of its keepers. The foxhound was at a loss to understand why its life was taking this unexpected turn, and that inability only added to a disorienting and deepening malaise. Particularly as none of the other foxhounds it ran with seemed troubled in the least by this queasy feeling rising within. On the contrary, their eyes narrowed with disbelief when it mentioned its bafflement. Some even to cold slits of suspicion. What caused this flagging commitment to ridding the world of foxes, they wanted to know. The critters were as shifty and dangerous as ever, were they not? Their sly nature would never change, and any slacking off in pursuing them, any hesitation to join in pulling a fox from its lair and tearing it limb from limb, was a sign of weakness that would surely be noted beyond the kennel. And the next time the hunting horns sounded, what then? The foxhound was reminded in no uncertain terms that not only its own wellbeing but the wellbeing of all its breed depended upon flawless teamwork in the cornering of foxes. How long would foxhounds be housed and fed, did it suppose, if they didn’t prove themselves worthy of that sought-after pat on the head for their unfailing dedication? Had they deserved the rewards of their domestication or not? One pace slower or one chorus of barking compliance less and questions about their trustworthiness would surely arise. And once that happened, where would any of them be? Think of the pack, the foxhound was urged. And if that wasn’t enough, think of itself. Without the hunt, what separated a foxhound from a fox ultimately? Answer that! The foxhound realized it had no ready response to these questions, particularly the last one, which carried the weight of a direct command to give an accounting of itself. What did separate a foxhound from a fox? In truth, mistaking the fox for a small dog or the dog for a larger fox might conceivably happen. But there must be ways to differentiate them under the skin. Qualities that made plain any foxhound’s superiority to foxes. In its state of mounting frustration, however, the foxhound wasn’t sure it could name these defining qualities with the confidence it once had enjoyed. In what ways was it more than just an oversized version of a fox? There remained that old assurance of being “man’s best friend,” thankfully. That ought to count for something after thousands of years of dogs heeling to a master’s every wish. Something must have rubbed off during all that time. And what of the foxhound’s sense of discipline: the steady answering of every test of its intelligence and its devotion to task? These had to count in the larger view as being worthy of admiration, more so at least than a fox’s brute instinct and cunning. If not, if it and the fox were merely on a par, coequals facing one another across a divide between self-discipline and utter wildness, what reason was there for striving so diligently to overcome the savage state? Sacrifice must have its demonstrable proofs and rewards, mustn’t it? Yet these longed-for reassurances of worth might not turn out to be as telling as a hound would wish. And the more this one wrestled with the questions before it, the more its failure to answer any of them haunted the wait between hunts. At first the lack of certainty troubled only its morning hours, fading as these gave way to the traditional safeguards of daily life within the kennel fence. But that release from anxiety grew shorter and shorter, until even the pleasures of a bone to gnaw or a full bowl at mealtime could not quiet the doubts that threatened to push the foxhound to total distraction. There were even times now when it would fall victim to sudden blackouts and come to with its nose against the inside of the fence, trembling in alarm. Would it soon be in danger of losing control of its life altogether and spending the rest of it harried by self-distrust? Perhaps tempted in a fit of madness to burrow under the fence and be off, abandoning everything that had given it stability and direction? And all the while, the question of what separated the foxhound from a fox refused to let up. The dividing line between it and this feral creature rose into view only to fade away again, then reappear somewhere else and vanish just as completely, like hedgerows on the landscape of dreams. Until the only release the foxhound felt offered any hope was the total destruction of this menace to its sense of being and self-worth. So it seized on what suddenly seemed obvious: every fox for miles around must die! Die! From that day forward, not a hunt took place without the foxhound’s pushing itself into the lead, running as if possessed and determined to be the first to overtake the prey. No obstacle could slow it and no distance induce it to give up the chase. With the stakes being its life or the fox’s (nothing less than the loss of a meaning to its very existence or the salvaging of it through unfaltering resolve), was it any wonder that when it finally brought a fox to bay, no mercy held the foxhound back? Not the slightest hesitation at ridding its world, once and for all, of this tormenting reminder of the untamed life.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans