I had a cup of wine with Galileo once. He remains one of the greatest examples of human genius I’ve ever seen over my twenty-one centuries of life, and one of the bravest. Think of the giant, hairy stones he must have had to stand up to the Catholic Church back when they routinely toppled monarchs and killed people for the glory of their god (who let me buy him a shot of whiskey in Arizona once, by the way, and who did not feel particularly glorified by any murders, let alone the ones committed in his name). To look at the whole of Christendom and call bullshit on their geocentrism despite their threats took some iron guts. And he didn’t give a damn that nobody wanted to believe him at first. “I have math,” he told me over the rim of his cup. He gestured to it as he spoke. “And the numbers are like this fine vintage we are enjoying. Verifiable, observable, existing independent of us, and caring not one whit about human faith.”
Stellar guy, that Galileo! Ha! My puns remain execrable, alas.
Eventually the Church had to admit that Galileo was right—and admit also, long after his death, that his life and work had been a fulcrum on which the world pivoted. The flourishing of the sciences that used his methods brought many wonders to humanity. Many evils too.
I am beginning to wonder now if I might not also be such a fulcrum for good and evil, even if I have labored to remain anonymous. I have endeavored for much of my long life to keep myself out of histories, all the while putting more and more history behind me. For much of my two-thousand-plus years, I did not feel I was building to some grand climax or accomplishing anything but my continued survival, but recent events have caused me to reevaluate.
According to a nightmarish visit from the Morrigan, Ragnarok will begin in the next few days, and it won’t end well for anyone, because apocalypses tend not to include happy endings. Perhaps I can still do something to minimize the damage; no matter what I do, though, it cannot erase the fact that it wouldn’t be happening at all had I not slain the Norns and unchained the Norse pantheon from their destinies. I am almost entirely to blame, and the guilt is already a nine-ton albatross about my neck. I don’t think I’m going to get an easy gig afterward like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner did either. Telling your tale to random wedding guests is a pretty mild punishment for economy-size cockups.
It is fortunate that I have a friend able to shoulder such burdens and make me forget for a while that they are there.
Oberon said as he placed his paws against a bound tree in Tasmania prior to shifting home to Oregon. My Irish wolfhound was expecting a proper feast before I went off to battle gods and monsters and assorted demons from the world’s pantheons, and he’d challenged me to supply a meat bar for him, Orlaith, and Starbuck, our new Boston terrier, in the style of salad bar buffets. We’d adopted Starbuck during a stint of crime-fighting in Portland that Oberon pompously called “The Case of the Purloined Poodle.”
“The five meat categories will be represented,” I assured him.
“Of course. Didn’t you have a maxim about this?”
“Uh . . . I think you’re misquoting, Oberon. It’s supposed to be ‘to each according to his need.’ ”
Choosing to keep Oberon carefully insulated from double entendres has proven to be endlessly entertaining. “An excellent job too. It can’t possibly be interpreted to mean anything else but what you meant. Here we go.”
I shifted us home to our cabin near the McKenzie River in the Willamette National Forest, and Oberon immediately shouted mentally to the other hounds once we arrived.
Starbuck’s higher-pitched voice replied immediately with his limited vocabulary. he said.
Orlaith added, and both of them exploded through the doggie door to greet us, Orlaith trailing behind because she was very pregnant and close to delivering.
I had to spend a while getting slobbered on and trying to satisfy three dogs with only two hands while they demanded details on the meat and gravy bar. I confessed that I didn’t have sufficient information to provide details.
Oberon was incredulous.
“All the meats? Oberon, that’s impossible.”
“It is. At least in the time I have allotted to me. Maybe it could be a squad goal for later. But right now we have to limit ourselves to what we can pick up in Eugene. Is Earnest here?”
Earnest Goggins-Smythe was our live-in dogsitter, whom we’d been depending on rather heavily in the past few weeks, especially as Orlaith’s delivery approached. He had a standard poodle named Jack and a boxer named Algernon, or Algy for short, and they’d remained inside with him.
“I should probably say hi and make sure he’s okay with Jack and Algy participating in this smorgasbord. But after that, would you three like to come with me to Eugene to go shopping for the meats, so you can advise me on what to get?”
“Do you want to go or not?”
“Okay, give me a minute to talk to Earnest.” After confirming that Jack and Algy could participate in at least some cautious meaty debauchery, my hounds piled into the blue ’54 Chevy pickup I’d acquired during an escapade that Oberon had dubbed “The Squirrel on the Train.” Oberon looked out the back window at the truck bed.
“It’s more than enough, Oberon.”
“I’m not promising anything at this point beyond an assortment of meats and gravies. And maybe a story about a famous hound for the drive, since you’re way too pumped up right now.”
Orlaith’s ears perked up.
“More of a tiny hound—a beagle, in fact.”
“It was Bingo.”
“Exactly like the song. I can tell you the true story of the actual Bingo who inspired that song.”
Orlaith cocked her head at me as we pulled out onto the road. It was crowded in the cab—the hounds barely fit and Starbuck had to sit on my lap, all aquiver with excitement.
“Oh, but there were earlier versions of the song, which hint at some heroic deeds. And I know the details of that heroism.”
Oberon stopped looking at the truck bed and trying to imagine it filled with meat.
In the eighteenth century, just before the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, there was a cabbage farmer in the Southern Uplands of Scotland—that’s the region closest to the border with Britain. His name was Dúghlas Mac Támhais, the Gaelic form of Douglas McTavish. In addition to his hillside of cabbages and a hayfield, he had a barnyard with some animals in there—a dairy cow, a plow horse, and, most important, a henhouse. Because chickens—those humble descendants of dinosaurs—are so delicious, they needed protection from foxes. And because cabbages are likewise delicious to some animals, they needed protection from rabbits and the like. That was where Bingo came in: Half his job was to protect the farm, and the other half was to be adorable. Bingo was outstanding at both halves of his job.
But he worried about his human. Dúghlas, you see, had taken to drinking quite a bit of ale after tragedy struck: He lost his wife as she gave birth to their first child and then lost the child soon after to fever. He was heartbroken and descending into alcoholism, and Bingo worried that he’d never recover.
One night, as Dúghlas was scowling at a potato and cabbage pie he’d made for dinner—a dish called rumbledethumps—Bingo let loose with a tremendous racket outside, and Dúghlas assumed quite rightly that they had an unwelcome visitor. He was already pickled as he grabbed up his musket, which he kept loaded and primed in case of emergencies like this one.
There was a fox trying to get into the henhouse, and Bingo was chasing him off, headed toward the property of the neighboring farm. They had a stile over the fence, for they were good neighbors, and the fox actually used the stile and Bingo leapt after him. That was the first verse of the original song: “The farmer’s dog leapt over the stile, his name was little Bingo.” The second verse had to do with the farmer’s drinking habit, and that was immortalized because Dúghlas was inebriated to the point where he shouldn’t be attempting things like steep steps over a fence. He managed to climb up to the top okay, but coming down was disastrous. He slipped on the first step, fired the musket into the air with a convulsive jerk of the trigger, and wound up hitting his head on the bottom step pretty badly. He was unconscious and bleeding.