Once a foxhound began to have second thoughts about chasing the fox. This unaccustomed feeling was hardly more than a distraction at first, not much different from just another phantom stirring in the fog like any of those that had for years drawn the foxhound and its kennelmates racing across damp and risky ground for the merest chance of a bone-warming kill as reward. Such vague uneasiness was hard to distinguish either from the spell of light-headedness that might come over the hound at the end of a long run and then pass without further effect. A brief nap, and all was quickly right 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 defiant will, as if pacing in broad daylight just outside the kennel fence. Despite all the satisfactions enjoyed in the past and all the praise still earned from the master of the hounds, the passion for running a fox to ground was beginning to pale as this strange new state of mind deepened. Once so compelling it seemed the very reason for being born a foxhound, charging pell-mell over field and stream in pursuit of the fugitive scent of the prey was now taking on the dog-trot of routine or of merely going through the motions so as not to fall behind. The hound was at a loss to understand why its life was taking this turn, and that inability only added to a growing, disorienting malaise. Particularly as none of its companions seemed troubled in the least by this queasy feeling spreading within it. Their eyes narrowed with disbelief when it mentioned its bafflement—many eyes even to sharp slits of suspicion. What caused this flagging determination to rid the world of foxes, the others wanted to know? The things were as crafty and dangerous as ever, were they not? Their feral nature would never change, and any slacking off in their pursuit, any hesitation to join in pulling a fox from its lair and tearing it limb from limb, was a sign of weakness that would doubtless be noticed beyond the kennel. And the next time a call to the hunt sounded, what then? The foxhound was reminded in no uncertain terms that not only did its own wellbeing but the wellbeing of all depended upon unflagging teamwork in the chasing down and killing of foxes. How long would foxhounds be housed and fed, did it suppose, if they didn’t prove themselves worthy of that sought-for pat on the head for their tireless dedication? Had they deserved the rewards of their domestication or not? One pace slower or one chorus of baying allegiance less and questions about their trustworthiness would surely arise. And once that occurred, 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 the fox in the end? Answer that! The foxhound realized it had no ready response to these questions, particularly the last, which carried the weight of a direct challenge to give an accounting of itself. What did separate it from the fox? In truth, there wasn’t much to tell them apart physically, and mistaking the fox for a small hound or the hound for a larger fox might easily happen. But there must be ways to distinguish them under the skin. Qualities that made plain the foxhound’s superiority to the fox. In its state of mounting distraction, however, the hound wasn’t sure it could name these deciding qualities with the confidence it once had felt. In what ways was it more than just a larger breed of fox? There was that old assurance of being “man’s best friend,” of course. That ought to count for something after thousands of years of heeling to humanity’s every wish. Something must have rubbed off during all that time. Something. And what of the hound’s discipline, the steady answering of every test of its intelligence and its devotion to task? These had to count in the larger scheme of life as being worthy of admiration, more so at least than a fox’s brute instinct and cunning ways. If not, if it and the fox were merely on a par, co-equals facing one another across a divide between self-control and utter wildness, what reason was there for striving to overcome the savage state? Sacrifice must have its demonstrable proofs and returns. Yet these reassuring distinctions might not be as evident 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 vexed the wait between hunts. At first the lack of certainty troubled only its early hours, fading as these gave way to the traditional rewards of life within the fence. But that release from anxiety grew shorter by the day, until even the pleasures of a bone to gnaw at or a full bowl on the floor could not quiet the doubts that threatened to pursue the foxhound to distraction. There were even times when it would fall victim to sudden blackouts and come to with its nose against 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 worry over what separated a foxhound from a fox refused to let up. The line between it and this wild creature, like hedgerows on the landscape of dreams, rose into view only to fade away again, then reappear somewhere further on and vanish just as completely. Until the only release the foxhound felt offered any hope was the utter destruction of this menace to its sense of definition and worth. And so it seized on what seemed suddenly obvious: every fox for miles around must die. From that day forward, not a hunt took place but the foxhound pushed itself into the lead, running as if possessed and determined to be 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 meaning to its very existence or the salvaging of it through grim resolve, was it any wonder that when it finally brought the fox to bay, no mercy held it back? Not the slightest hesitation at ridding its world, once and for all, of this tormenting reminder of the untamed life.
Copyright © 2010 by Geoffrey Grosshans