The hounds are howling. What else are they going to do? Just what they are born and bred to do. Howling like mad on the scent and on the job. My grandfather and I are sitting in his red pickup truck off a road in a valley in Asheville, North Carolina listening to the hounds chase a fox somewhere up in the mountains above us.
“Hear that?” he asks. “I hear hounds,” I say. My grandfather nods. “That’s Blue. He’s the lead dog. Wait. Listen. That’s Barney. He has a short excited yelp. You can tell the difference, right?”
I would love to tell him I can tell the difference. I sense that saying that would make him very excited. We would grow closer together. A bond would form. We are tight. But we would be tighter. But all I hear is random howling.
“All I hear is a lot of hounds howling,” I say. “It all runs together.” He nods. “There’s very few of us fox hunters left. We’re a dying breed. We’ll all be gone soon. You’ll see.” But we linger there. Maybe if I listen long enough, the howling will start to make sense.
This is his version of hunting foxes, which is nothing like what you imagine fox hunting might be with horses and bugles and pageantry as practiced in England. He sits in his truck and listens to the hounds chasing a fox around. He knows what’s happening by the sound and location.
It’s like listening to a baseball game on the radio, only with no color commentary, no score kept and no time limit. If you just had the random crack of a baseball bat issued from a distant-sounding AM radio station every now and again, that’s about how much information he has to go on. But he is entertained by this somehow and extrapolates great meaning and detail from it.
“They’re off the scent,” he says. I’m confused. “But they’re still barking,” I note. “That’s Rufus,” Grandaddy says by way of explanation. “He just barks to be barking. Pay no attention to his barking.” Oh. Rufus is all bark. Got it. In the fox hunting world, Rufus is a minor league player still in training. If he hangs around long enough, he’ll learn when to bark and when not to.
The dogs are kept in a strange kennel made out of wood that looks like it was built before the dawn of time. My grandfather takes them scraps from dinner with gravy poured over it. I can help with that. I cannot pet any of the dogs. Why not? “These are working dogs,” my granddaddy explains.” Not pets. I don’t want them so tame that they get distracted from the chase. They need to focus on their job. They shouldn’t walk up to any stranger and get themselves adopted.”
The only exception to the no-petting rule is Old Rex. You can pet him all you like because he is retired. I pet Old Rex as much as I possibly can every time I see him. He wanders around the yard. He’s just too old to hunt anymore. But my grandfather has a special attachment to him because he was a great fox hunting hound in his time. “What a great name,” I say to my dad. “Old Rex.”
My dad nods. “Yeah, it’s so great your grandaddy uses it over and over again. That’s about the fifth Old Rex.” That’s so, I guess. But I’m sure this Old Rex is the best of the bunch. His tail wags like mad when I pet him. Then he wanders away to investigate a fresh scent.
It’s dark. Around 9:30 p.m. as we sit listening to hounds in the distance. Every once in a while a new bark can be heard. “That’s a neighbor’s dog,” granddaddy explains. “He’s probably in a fence or something. They might get in a fight once in a while with a neighbor dog. That’s no good. Or someone might lure them in with poisoned food because they hate the barking. That happens. It’s a tough thing.” I scratch my head. Yeah. That’s pretty tough business for everyone. Especially the dog.
The next day we will drive up into the mountains where the dogs have been let loose. My grandfather parks the truck. He calls for the dogs. We wait. He calls again. There’s no sound. Birds, that’s it. Then maybe a faint rustle just a bit away. Then a dog pops out of the dense undergrowth. The cages in the back of the truck fill up fast. One dog doesn’t appear. My granddaddy stops calling. Drives away.
“What about Joe?” I ask. My grandfather is unconcerned. “Oh him. He knows the way home. He’ll be along directly.” And he’s right. A few hours after we get back, Joe comes walking up the giant hill behind the house on Wild Cherry Road looking a little tired and very hungry. My granddad gives him a quick pet and leads him back to the pen where the other dogs bark like mad. He gives him his meal, and then he walks back to the house.
I don’t quite get what’s happening here. The dogs have a job. But this doesn’t make sense. I live not far from a small town in a little neighborhood off a two-lane blacktop dotted with cow pastures along one side, but I am such a city boy when it comes to the dogs. Aren’t dogs pets? Isn’t their job to just be a dog? Our dog back in Salisbury never does a lick of work, and we love him like mad for it.
My grandfather has a different relationship with his dogs. There’s food and respect and work. But work is most important. He teaches them to hunt, and they punch the clock like any manual laborer. Find their way home again when the work is over or get picked up off the side of a mountain and crowd into the back of a pickup.
My grandfather is right about the fox hunters dying out. Towards the end of his long and glorious fox hunting career, there is precious little place for a dog to run around free chasing a fox. Some people pay to take their dogs out to great fenced-in reserves for fox hunting. A fox is let loose here, and the dogs can roam around the great expanse chasing him. But this seems homogenized and unrewarding to my grandfather. No way to hunt. It’s a shadow of the hunting experience he once had.
I have no idea if anyone goes fox hunting anymore in the way my grandfather once did. I imagine it’s impossible. Laws have been imposed against it. Every dog in the world has to be leashed or penned up at every moment. Homeowners wouldn’t put up with it.
Many moons and hound dogs after the fox hunt, I am living in New York City. I keep waking up early in my apartment around the same time every morning to the sound of a lone dog howling. I think about my grandfather. Then I wonder about the dog. Is someone leaving it behind at the start of an early workday? Am I hearing the mournful cry of a hound left alone?
After a few days of this, I realize the sound is early morning construction. A pneumatic hammer that sounds somehow like a hound to my warped ear. Maybe I want to hear something loud and clear and mournful and natural calling across the distance to me. Some sound that evokes my grandfather and makes me think of my childhood.
But there’s no fox hunting happening in Manhattan. The last Old Rex is dead and gone. All Rexes must pass. So, too, has my grandfather.
Back in the red truck in the valley, I listen with all my might. I want so hard to believe I can do this. “I think I hear Charlie. It’s Charlie. He’s leading the pack now. He’s on the scent, right?”
My grandfather frowns. “Charlie is quiet. He never barks. I don’t know what is wrong with that dog. But I’ve never heard him bark.”
“Oh,” I say. I can relate to a dog that won’t bark. I’m very quiet myself as a general principle. I sit back in the truck and make no noise at all for a very long time while the hounds howl in the hills. Eventually, my granddaddy starts the truck up, and we head for home. The pick-up bounces along the road, and the night air has an early October chill that I enjoy.
The phantom dog bark in Manhattan has disappeared. As a tradeoff, all of the hounds’ voices from that long ago fox hunt sound more distinct and packed with meaning in my memory than they ever did as I sat wanting so hard to sort them out in the red pickup truck in the valley. It’s all come clear at last.
Things that meant nothing mean everything now.