Bless these hounds

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(HOST) Today is Boxing Day – an English tradition having to do with charitable giving, thanking tradespeople and sporting events like fox hunting. Which brings us to commentator Philip Baruth. Recently, Philip was asked to bless a pack of fox hounds in Charlotte. And he did it at least, he thinks he did.

(BARUTH) One of the best things about being a writer is that people often ask you to fill in when they can’t find a minister, or a priest. This sounds like a joke maybe even a joke in poor taste but it isn’t. I’ve been asked to give sermons, and to offer the devotional to the Vermont House of Representatives twice. Why, I have no idea. But it’s always uplifting, in a vague, unpaid sort of way.

And so it was only a matter of time before I was asked to bless a pack of fox hounds. My friend Mary Lou rides with a hunt club in Charlotte, and she calls me up in a panic a few weeks back. The group’s regular minister can’t make it, and they’re facing the prospect of unblessed hounds. Which has never happened before, but everyone assumes it would be really bad.

So I agree, and Mary Lou sketches in the particulars. It turns out this club doesn’t hunt a real fox. Instead, Mary Lou’s husband John runs through the fields and the meadows, pretending to be a fox. How? I ask. And she tells me that sometimes he carries a water bottle full of fox urine, and squirts it at random. Other times he drags an old beach towel soaked in fox urine at the end of a long rope.

Which raises more questions than it answers, for me: How does John decide between the water bottle and the soaked towel, for instance? And, like, how do they convince the fox to donate in the first place?

But I don’t ask, because now that I’m the faux-minister for the event, there’s a certain dignity to be maintained. And I maintain it all the way out to the Bennet field, when all the riders and their horses gather around me in a really huge intimidating circle. The horses’s manes are tightly braided, and the riders are wearing red coats and long boots, and carrying little whips. Suddenly, it’s the fifteenth century, and I’m a peasant.

But still I’m ready to do my thing when the Mistress of the Hounds holds up her whip. “We have to let the dogs out first,” she explains. “Before I read?” I ask. And all eighteen hounds pour out of their kennels and begin baying and whining at the top of their lungs. And of course, no one can hear a word I say. But I shout out the two most crucial things I know about dogs:

1) Dogs are incapable of sin. They disobey and destroy without ever losing their God-given innocence. In this way they’re closer to angels than to men, and people who don’t like dogs probably don’t because they sense the hound’s seraphic superiority, and they just can’t handle it.

And 2) in spite of the fact that hounds can pick up a scent in concentrations one hundred million times lower than a human, they are incapable, for some reason, of telling the difference between an actual fox and Mary-Lou’s husband John.

And then I wish them all Godspeed, and they thunder off, horses and riders and hounds, leaving me alone in a field in Charlotte, not a minister, not a priest, just one more vaguely uplifted Vermont writer trying his best to avoid stepping in a trail of invisible fox urine that he knows must be around here somewhere.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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