So this is what it’s like to die?
I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly isn’t this slow humiliating descent into darkness. My body aches, bruised by the fists and feet of Penelope’s suitors and servants, joints painfully swollen by age.
Flies swarm around me, attracted by the stench of the manure pile beneath me, or perhaps sensing the death that is slowly creeping toward me. If I am honest, they don’t annoy me so much. My vision is cloudy at best, eyes misted over by the onset of time. I can barely see their dark flickering shapes and I haven’t the strength to dislodge them when they land. To try and maintain a little dignity, I make the odd attempt to flick my tail or ears but both the flies and I know my heart isn’t in it.
Two old men walk past, leading an ox and open wagon through the palace gates. I lift my head slightly in an effort to see them better, more out of habit than any great interest. I sniff the air, trying to gauge what is in the wagon. All I can smell is feces. My sense of smell, almost overcome by what lies beneath me, fails, and I silently curse my aging, traitorous senses. If I had to guess, I would say they are farmers, bringing produce for the palace kitchens, probably to feed the greedy, slovenly mouths of the suitors who buzz around Penelope much like the flies above my dying body.
The two old men spare me a glance. Although my eyes are not what they once were, I detect sympathy in their gazes. Perhaps they recognize me for who I am or who I once was. Or perhaps not. Maybe they just see an old dog dying on a steaming pile of manure.
Hours later, two other men pass by, dressed in finery that makes them anything but farm hands. I recognize their faces but I would know them regardless by their swagger. Two of Penelope’s suitors come to steal another man’s wife. I hate them with every ounce of my being. If I were even five years younger, I would launch myself at them and tear their arms and legs off with great bites of my powerful jaws. But I am not five years younger. I am old and incapable of doing anything but glare at them balefully.
Like the two older men earlier, they look in my direction. One of them says something I can’t quite catch to the other and they both laugh. The taller suitor reaches into a pouch at his side and pulls out an object that he throws in my direction. It lands off the manure pile, well out of paw reach. I suspect it is a piece of dried meat.
“Here,” he says, laughing. “Eat this. If you can.”
His companion joins in the laughter and they disappear through the palace gates knowing full well that I will not be able to reach the tasty morsel. I wouldn’t eat it in any case. I would much rather starve to death than receive salvation from the likes of them.
Directly overhead, the sun beats mercilessly down. Waves of heat wash over me and warms the manure pile even more. The pile of droppings from mules and oxen are a mixed blessing. For the last two nights, my bed of filth has kept me warm and soothed my aching joints. During the day, however, things are altogether different. The heat is stifling, unbearable, and even I, well accustomed to the most repulsive of scents, am sickened.
My tongue lolls slackly from my open mouth. It is almost too much effort to pant but I know that if I do not, I will die from the relentless heat. I am no longer hungry but would give almost anything for a bowl of cool water with which to quench my thirst. Perhaps even a tub that I could plunge my whole body into—something I would never have done as a young pup. All my life, I have avoided baths, but now I am driven almost crazy by the thought of indulging in something I once hated.
A bath would have an additional benefit. The fleas and ticks that infest my body would probably decide that my scrawny carcass isn’t worth the effort and depart for more luxurious quarters. I would not miss them. The flies I can tolerate, but the incessant biting of these degenerate little creatures is almost more than I can bear. If I had the strength, I would obliterate them with mighty paw strokes.
When I was younger, Penelope or Telemachus would sometimes gently comb them from my body while I lay before the fire in the great hall of Odysseus. Just the thought of such times sends a pleasurable tremor coursing through my body.
I daydream about what they would do if they knew I was lying here, dying and surrounded by filth and decay. Penelope would gather my head into her soft hands and gently kiss my forehead. Telemachus, my human brother, would hug me and rub salves into my open wounds. Together, they would ease my pain and comfort me like they have many times throughout my life.
But those times are long gone. Penelope is locked in her rooms in the palace of Ithaca, besieged by unwelcome suitors. Telemachus left the island months ago to seek out his father, my master, the great hero Odysseus. It is probably a futile quest. Odysseus has been gone for twenty years and, if the words of the palace staff are to be believed, long dead. But neither I nor Telemachus believe it, cannot bring ourselves to believe it. I have heard from the gods themselves that he lives, and whilst they like to play with the lives of mortals, I want to believe them. A man like Odysseus does not simply just die. He is destined for more than death.
It is he that keeps my soul harnessed to my body. The loyalty toward my master and a forlorn hope that he will return to me before I am claimed by death. All of my contemporaries have been in the grave for years already. Not me. It is this loyalty and hope that has kept me going for twenty years.
What I would give to see him one last time.
I awake only to discover that I have died. I am surrounded by gloomy silence. The landscape is devoid of features—or color for that matter. Mist washes over me, tendrils swirling together to form almost recognizable shapes and figures. I can hear whispered voices but from which direction they come, I’m not sure.
I know where I am of course. Hades. The Underworld. The halls of the dead. It makes sense that I am here and yet it does not. The last thing I remembered was lying dying on the manure pile outside the palace gates. Clearly, my body had given up its futile quest for life and so here I am.
But that doesn’t ring true. As far as I know, the Underworld is the place where the souls of the dead dwell. The human dead. The souls of other creatures do not find their rest here. Dogs certainly aren’t allowed in—at least I had never heard of any dogs being granted the privilege. I had heard the stories of the heroes who had ventured into the Underworld before their time: Aeneas, Cupid and Psyche, Heracles, Pirithous and Theseus. Not one of them mentioned encountering any dogs.
Perhaps I am going to be the first. But why single me out for this singular honor, if honor is indeed what it is? I have done nothing special. Like most dogs, I have devoted myself and my life to my master. I don’t believe that is so unusual.
A thought occurs to me: maybe I’m not in the Underworld after all. Perhaps I’m dreaming. As dreams go, it’s pretty bland. I console myself in the knowledge that it is still better than reality, where I have to face endless torment from fleas and ticks.
I choose a direction at random and start walking. I have no destination in mind and no goal. It is simply something to do. Padding along comfortably, it is then that I notice something unusual about my body. When I had last seen my own scrawny flesh, it looked nothing like this. My fur is healthy and clean. Clean! My muscles feel strong, nothing like the wasted bag of old bones I had been moments before. I am young again! What joy!
I take some time to experience the true thrill of youth, to leap and bound, and spring lightly. It is a heady sensation. The gods only know how long I do this for. It’s hard to keep track of time in this place but I don’t care—I’m too busy enjoying myself. After some time however, I gradually become aware that someone or something is watching me. Unbidden, my hackles and the fur on the back of my neck rise. A growl rumbles deep in my chest and emerges through barred teeth.
The mist clears and a boat materializes before me, bobbing calmly on a river as black as night. A figure stands on the boat, shrouded in a black cowl, taller than any human. He carries a long pole which he uses to halt his progress against the swift current.
A long finger emerges from the black sleeves and beckons toward me. I don’t move. I can’t move, frozen as I am in fear. I know who this is and I dare not approach.
The figure cocks his head at me as if considering. Then he whistles. It is the same two-tone whistle used by countless dog owners. Against my will, my traitorous tail wags and I take first one hesitant step forward and then another. Before I know it, I am standing on the shore next to the boat and the boatman.
“Pay your fare,” demands a sepulchral voice drifting out of the black cowl. A hand emerges again from the sleeve. This time I get a good look at it. It is twice as large as any human’s, but with six fingers. The flesh enclosing the bones appears to be rotting.
I don’t bother trying to respond. It’s not like I can speak and tell him I have no fare. I believe it is customary to pay a coin to cross the river Acheron—because this of course is what it is. One of the legendary rivers of the Underworld, it marks the boundary of Hades. The only way in or out is across the river and the only way to cross the river is in the boat controlled by Charon, the boatman.
To gain passage, relatives of the recently deceased have to place a coin in the mouths of the dead. I have seen this done many times before, but I have no coin myself. Just to be sure, I open my mouth to check. Sure enough, I feel nothing on my tongue.
Charon cocks his head again. He seems to be listening to something, but even I, with my magnificent hearing, can detect nothing.
“Very well,” he says, seeming to talk to himself. He indicates that I am to enter the boat and obediently, I do exactly that, even though every part of my body screams at me to flee. I have always struggled to resist going for a ride in any form of moving vehicle, be it chariot, cart or boat.
Charon says nothing as he poles us slowly across the river. The Acheron flows into another river, which I assume is the Styx. Unable to resist the impulse, I sit perched in the bow, my tongue wagging, sniffing the warm breeze. I detect nothing I recognize.
Eventually, we reach the far shore. I don’t have to be told to get out. I leap out as soon as I am able which is just as well because no sooner have I done so, Charon turns the boat and heads back the way he had come.
There is a darker line of shadow on the horizon before me, and with no better prospects, I make for it. As I get closer, I recognize it for what it is. A huge inky black gate made of some material I am not familiar with. Two huge doors are set within but it is not these objects that command my attention.
Sitting calmly before the doors is a creature the likes of which I have never seen before. It is a massive dog. It isn’t just size that marks it as unusual. This dog has three heads, a serpent’s tail, and a mane of snakes that weave angrily in and out of the coarse black hair that covers the rest of the creature. Each huge paw is tipped with long claws that bear no resemblance to my own. These claws look like they could shred tree trunks.
I know immediately who it is. Cerberus. The great guardian of the gates of Hell. It is his job to ensure that none of the denizens of this place ever leave.
One of the heads swivels in my direction. I meet the gaze of those blood red eyes with rising panic.
“Be calm, Argos,” says Cerberus in a voice like smoke and thunder. “You have nothing to fear from me.”
“Your appearance certainly belies that,” I say in my head. When I was younger, I had tried to speak but quickly realized that I didn’t possess the clever tongue or vocal apparatus possessed by humans. My habit then had been to reply to rhetorical questions in my own mind. You can imagine my surprise when Cerberus gives every appearance of not only hearing me, but understanding me, too.
The central head of the huge Hellhound nods. “I realize that I appear quite fearsome, but it is mostly for show. Those who dwell here must stay. I could hardly stop them if I had the appearance and abilities of say, a common dog.”
I swear to the gods that the speaking head seems to be smiling slightly. That’s if dogs can smile. I confess I have tried to smile many times, but all I have succeeded in doing is lolling my tongue.
“I don’t think I’d risk a confrontation with you,” I say.
“Really, Argos? I have heard tales of your bravery. I think there are many things you would risk. Especially for your master.” I notice that only one head speaks while the two heads flanking the central one move constantly, their baleful eyes seeking out any who would dare escape.
“You know of my master Odysseus then?” I ask.
The central head nods. “Of course. Odysseus is beloved of the gods—especially by the gray-eyed Goddess Athena. I have even heard my own master, Hades, speak highly of him. His deeds are legendary.”
“They are?” I ask, silently cursing myself for doubting this fact. Of course his deeds are legendary. The actions of my master could not be anything else. I just hadn’t heard of any of them. “So my master lives then?”
“It is not for me to say, Argos. I am sorry. Come closer. Do not be afraid.”
Tentatively, I do as Cerberus asks and trot toward him, stopping a few spear lengths away. My sense of perspective immediately changes and I sit down on my haunches in order to take in the enormity of it. The gate is taller than any structure I have ever seen. As for Cerberus, he towers over me, larger than any creature I have ever encountered. Larger even than a rhinoceros. A visitor to Ithaca once told Odysseus about a mythical creature called an elephant that he had seen in his travels. From his description, Cerberus must be at least equal in size.
As nervous as I am, curiosity gets the better of me. “Can I at least hear about these legendary deeds then?” I ask, wagging my tail hopefully.
“Perhaps another time,” says Cerberus. Eddies of smoke are slowly rising from his speaking mouth. “I have brought you here for another reason.”
“Other than the fact that I’m dead?” I ask.
“Are you?” counters Cerberus.
“Why else would I be here then?” I retort. A niggling doubt is starting to form. Maybe this is a dream after all.
“Let me ask you something, Argos. I have served my master, Hades, for millennia and will continue to do so for all of existence. Why do I do that?”
“For loyalty,” I say immediately. “For love.”
This time, Cerberus nods all three heads. “Indeed. I love my master. He is everything to me and he has repaid my loyalty countless times. I would do anything for him.”
“As would I for my master,” I say.
“And that is why you are here, Argos. You are an exceptional dog. You may not think so but I have watched you and I know. Your loyalty and your love for your master is exceptional. It compares even to my o
“So why am I here?” I ask, slightly confused.
“Because, I want to hear your story. I want to hear it told in your own words, to experience it from your perspective. I want to hear about everything you and Odysseus experienced together and what made your bond so strong. I want to know why you have waited twenty years for him. In short, I want to hear the story of your life.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because,” says Cerberus, “I want to know that I’m not the only one. That I’m not the only one whose loyalty exceeds all expectation and belief.”
“And why should I do this for you?” I venture.
“You might be surprised if I told you,” says Cerberus.
The words send a shiver running down my spine.