Matthew is reading ahead of me in “The Odyssey.” He came to me this past weekend and said, “Hey dad, read this. It’s really sad.” It’s a passage in which Odysseus, disguised as a beggar and back on his home island of Ithaca after 20 years, walks with his loyal swineherd Eumaeus, who doesn’t know that he’s really in the company of the great Odysseus. They come upon an old dog lying in a pile of dung:
Now, as they talked on, a dog that lay there
lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears…
It was Argos, long-enduring Odysseus’ dog
he trained as a puppy once, but little joy he got
since all too soon he shipped to sacred Troy.
In the old days young hunters loved to set him
coursing after wild goats and deer and hares.
But now with his master gone he lay there, castaway,
on piles of dung from mules and cattle, heaps collecting
out before the gates till Odysseus’ serving-men
could cart it off to manure the king’s estates.
Infested with ticks, half-dead from neglect,
here lay the old hound Argos.
But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by
he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped,
though he had no strength left to drag himself an inch
toward his master. Odysseus glanced to the side
and flicked away a tear, hiding it from Eumaeus,
diverting his friend in a hasty, offhand way:
“Strange, Eumaeus, look, a dog like this,
lying here on a dung-hill…
what handsome lines! But I can’t say for sure
if he had the running speed to match his looks
or he was only the sort that gentry spoil at table,
show-dogs masters pamper for their points.”
You told the stranger, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd,
“Here, it’s all too true, here’s the dog of a man
who died in foreign parts. But if he had now
the form and flair he had in his glory days —
as Odysseus left him, sailing off to Troy —
you’d be amazed to see such speed, such strength.
No quarry he chased in the deepest, darkest woods
could slip this hound. A champion tracker too!
Ah, but he’s run out of luck now, poor fellow…
his master’s dead and gone, so far from home,
and the heartless women tend to him not at all…”
With that he entered the well-constructed palace,
strode through the halls and joined the proud suitors.
But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos’ eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away.
There I was, standing in the kitchen reading this, and tears leapt to my eyes. The poor old dog, once great and strong, now lice-ridden and broken and on the verge of death, recognized his master, then breathed his last.
This poem, I swear. Is there anything in life that’s not also in “The Odyssey”?
Tomorrow we leave Roscoe, our dog, in the capable hands of our house-sitters for a month. He’ll be in his own house, but his people won’t be with him. Roscoe doesn’t handle it well when we’re gone for just a long weekend and leave him with my parents. I’ve never had a dog that was so emotionally connected to me. I don’t even like dogs! But I love Roscoe to death. During the hurricane, when our family bedded down on mattresses in the den so we could get some breeze off the screen porch (the power was off, and it was hot), Roscoe patrolled around us, making sure anything that would bring us harm would not pass.
It’s only a month, but still, I’m going to miss that little friend of mine.