It was a damp and miserable night up on the tires, since the den and the alcove were still flooded, but the one upside was that the screamers did not appear. They, too, must have been hunkering down under shelter, or- Mhumhi thought that this might be more likely- enough of their weaker fellows had succumbed to the flood that they had been able to satisfy their hunger.
He wondered at what point such thoughts, which should have appalled him, had started to become matter-of-fact.
From muted conversations with both Hlolwa and Tareq he had pieced together that the day before Hlolwa had been sleeping in the den when it started raining. The puppies, never having seen it before, had wandered out, and when the rain got heavy some had been swept away by the time Hlolwa woke up and emerged, frantic, to try and gather them all up again. That was when Tareq had got his hands on the puppy with the folded ears.
Mhumhi was also able to infer- though neither party mentioned this directly- that Hlolwa had dragged Tareq up out of the flooding alcove herself.
Vimbo had stayed with them during the night as well, and it was to the sound of his low groans and whoops that Mhumhi woke up the next morning, as the sunlight began to cut through the haze. It was still drizzling intermittently, and Vimbo’s breath puffed out like steam as he called into the sunrise, but most of the water had receded during the night.
“Why is it doing that?”
That was Hlolwa, looking groggy and displeased. Next to her, the five little heads of her brood were poking up out of a tire, looking considerably more bright-eyed.
Mhumhi, further down beside Tareq, wagged his tail a little.
“I don’t know. He just does it, sometimes.”
Hlolwa made a noise of deep irritation and turned to start licking the ears of her puppies. Mhumhi detangled himself from Tareq and jumped down to the ground to have a long, luxuriant stretch. His back was stiff and creaking from the uncomfortable night.
Tareq was awake, too, his eyes half-open as he watched Mhumhi. He had been withdrawn and weepy during the night, and his face was still puffy, but Mhumhi thought that this was actually an improvement over the last few days. A crying Tareq he was used to.
Vimbo ceased his utterances and brushed up against Mhumhi, who wagged his tail against his back and licked his face. He was glad Vimbo had stayed. All the coming and going the hyena had done had made him uneasy.
“Mhumhi,” called Tareq, reaching out a hand, and Mhumhi went back over to him and nuzzled it. Vimbo went too, and sniffed the boy’s face, and accepted a scratch on the chin.
“How is your leg?” Mhumhi asked, as Vimbo stepped back.
“I dunno,” said Tareq, blinking slowly. “I’m hungry.”
“Well, that shouldn’t be hard to fix,” said Mhumhi. Tareq’s face creased slightly.
Vimbo had kept backing up, craning his neck, and now his tail rose. From the tire stacks above them came the deep rumble of Hlolwa’s growl- Vimbo was looking at her puppies.
Mhumhi quickly jumped down and stood in front of him, pushing him back with his shoulder. Vimbo went pliantly enough, though his eyes were trained upwards.
“You should take it away from here,” Hlolwa rumbled.
“Fine,” said Mhumhi. He would have liked to say that Vimbo wouldn’t harm the puppies, but in all honesty it was not something he could be totally sure of. Who knew what the hyena thought? “We’ll go find some meat and bring it back.”
Hlolwa gave another rolling growl, like thunder, but settled herself back down on the tires.
“You’re leaving?” Tareq said plaintively. “Even the yena?”
“We’ll be back later,” said Mhumhi, pushing Vimbo further. “Get some sleep.”
Tareq cast a dubious glance upwards in Hlolwa’s direction.
“Thank you for leaving me a snack,” came her voice, making him jump.
Mhumhi laughed, albeit nervously. “That’s a joke, Tareq.”
He pushed Vimbo forwards, resisting the urge to keep glancing back over his shoulder.
The rain had not improved the scent of the dump. There was now a putrid air to the place, as things formerly desiccated came back to a kind of life. Vimbo wrinkled his nose frequently, flicking his damp ears. Mhumhi shared the sentiment. It was a gray, miserable morning. The few screamers they saw were huddled together in niches and alcoves, keeping still.
Mhumhi went back to the corpse of the screamer he’d killed two days ago, but as expected it had been mostly picked clean. What little blackened flesh was left over the bones stank from the rain.
Vimbo went to the tattered ribcage and snapped off a bone for himself, chewing it thoughtfully. Mhumhi sniffed around the area. Screamers had been here, yes, but also members of the grey pack. They had left scat in several places. Wormy scat, too, which Mhumhi wrinkled his nose over. Not something he wanted coming back to the puppies.
There had been outbreaks of parasites quite frequently in the city, particularly in the more run-down and crowded districts like Oldtown, and it was always unpleasant. Puppies were usually the worst affected. But Mhumhi had seen this sort of worm before- had some, in fact, at one point, and considered it irritating but mostly harmless. Mostly.
He turned and kicked some trash over the scat with his rear paws, all the same. If the screamers picked it up and ate it, everyone was going to have worms within the next week.
He nudged Vimbo away from the bones and they wandered together out towards the beach. They would have to make a kill at some point today, but Mhumhi had not the heart for it at the moment, not seeing the screamers so miserable-looking from the rain. And he preferred to kill them when they were alone, too.
Vimbo, at least, perked up when they reached the trash-strewn sand, and hopped a few paces forward, and drew a line in the sand with his nose.
Mhumhi hesitated, then smiled a little and copied him. Line for line. He still didn’t know what they were saying with those marks in the sand. What could they say? He recalled how Maha had described reading- as hearing a voice in your mind- and shivered. Would he look at those marks one day and hear Vimbo’s disembodied voice echoing around in his skull?
After a little while they ran out of clear sand on their little patch of beach- Vimbo’s marks and Mhumhi’s imitations were quite large. Vimbo suddenly sat down in the middle of it all with a loud grunt.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mhumhi. Vimbo merely blinked at him, then turned his head away, out towards the empty ocean.
Mhumhi looked too. There were no birds today, so the view was nothing but grey clouds and greenish waves. Something dark was seeping from parts of the dump into the water, blackening it in ragged stripes. It, too, stank.
A sharp whistle made Mhumhi start, and he turned around. A familiar reddish figure was standing at the top of a tall hill some ways away.
Mhumhi’s chest tightened, but he answered with his own hoo-bark.
Kutta came towards them, trotting slowly. He saw that she had three jackals trailing behind her, but at a long distance, flick-flicking their tails. Mhumhi stood up straight and kept his head high as Kutta came towards him, ears flat and tail wagging.
She greeted him meekly, licking his muzzle and cheeks, and he responded stiffly. Vimbo gave a squeal-grunt and lifted his leg for her; she gave him a polite sniff.
“What do you want?” asked Mhumhi, as Vimbo put his leg down.
Kutta looked at him, then winced- Vimbo, trying to complete his greeting, had thrust his nose under her belly, raising her back legs. She kicked his head lightly away.
“I just wanted to speak to you again,” she said.
Kutta gave a thin sigh through her nose. “Is Tareq all right?”
“And the puppies?”
“They’re fine too.”
“I’m-” He caught himself. “And you?”
“I’m not hurt, but I’ve been better.”
“Then, the same for me.”
They were both quiet a moment. Vimbo gave a snuffling grunt, his head passing back and forth between the two of them.
“Have you been eating well?” Kutta asked. “By yourself?”
“Vimbo helps me sometimes,” said Mhumhi. “But otherwise, I’ve been able to make kills just fine on my own.” He noted how the words made her flinch a little.
“I’m glad,” she said. “The gray pack doesn’t like to kill screamers-”
“But we’ve had to. I was able to help them with that.”
“They should be able to help themselves,” said Mhumhi.
“I don’t want them to,” said Kutta. “They don’t need to learn how to kill, do they? I can help them.”
“And what if you’re not there?”
She whisked her tail. “We’re looking for… alternative sources of food, Mhumhi.”
“Ah. Like that… that goat-creature?” He hadn’t thought about it at all since he’d seen it.
“Telipa says it’s called a deer,” said Kutta. “She says it’s what we used to eat.”
“What do you mean, what we used to eat? Before what?”
“Before the hulkers changed us,” said Kutta. “Before we had minds and everything. We used to chase and eat deer.”
“How does Telipa know that?” Mhumhi asked, his eyes thinning.
“Oh, I don’t know, Mhumhi, but it’s a nice thought, isn’t it? If we could just find more of those things we wouldn’t have to…”
“What?” Mhumhi asked. “Kill?”
Kutta’s head lowered slightly. “If it’s what we used to eat…”
“What, does that make it not alive?”
Kutta looked away.
“It just doesn’t look like anything that’s ever talked to us, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi lowered his tail a little, looking at her careworn face.
“I wouldn’t mind chasing it again,” he acknowledged.
Kutta’s tail gave a small wag.
She looked at him, and he shut his mouth. “No, never mind.”
“Say what you’re thinking Mhumhi,” she said, and when he didn’t speak right away, added, “Please. I want to hear it.”
He noticed that the three jackals had drifted closer, their sharp-pointed ears turned in their direction.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I only wonder if we’re fooling ourselves. The screamers… when you kill them, they’re not afraid, and they die right away. With that thing- well, it was terrified, wasn’t it? And we were going to hurt it a lot, weren’t we?”
“You’re right,” said Kutta. “No, you’re right. We are fooling ourselves.”
Mhumhi had gone silent, though. He found himself thinking back to the safe place, and the conversation he had had with O. O had wanted him to kill her and he had refused. Because she had wanted it! Because she wasn’t afraid! Because it felt unnatural!
“We were meant to be killers,” he said to Kutta, numbly. “Why’d the hulkers ruin it for us? If we couldn’t think, it’d be easier to survive.”
“Oh, Mhumhi,” said Kutta, and she came forward and licked his ears. He closed his eyes and nuzzled into her neck, feeling her stiffen a little, but then she came forward and put her head over his.
They stayed like that a moment, close and warm.
“Mhumhi,” she said, her eye blinking against his skin, “you know, I don’t think… I mean, you did something good yesterday. You went to save those puppies, didn’t you?”
Mhumhi listened to her thumping heart. “They’ll grow up to be killers, too.”
“So what?” countered Kutta. “What doesn’t, then? Mhumhi, we’ve always been benefiting off of dead things, even if we didn’t know it. But you went and saved those little lives, didn’t you? I’m proud of you.”
He drew away from her.
“Yes,” she said. “I- I was wrong. I’m glad you saved them. I don’t know, really, what all this running away and hiding has done to me, but I am glad you saved them.” Her eyes searched his for a moment. “And Tareq.”
Mhumhi lowered his head and said nothing.
“Do you think-” Kutta hesitated. “Will he want to see me again?”
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi. “Well- I know. He will. He just might not admit it.”
Kutta whuffed, though it was shaky. “That’s true. It’s Tareq.”
Mhumhi wagged his tail slowly, then looked beyond her at the slender figures of the jackals, still listening and waiting.
“They would never hurt Tareq, would they?”
“Oh- no,” said Kutta, glancing back. “No, they wouldn’t. They don’t even want to hurt the screamers if they don’t have to, Mhumhi.”
“You think they would help protect him?”
This caused her to hesitate, and she stared at him.
“What are you thinking of, Mhumhi?”
“Only that there are a lot of them,” Mhumhi said, “and that they can have puppies.”
“Oh,” said Kutta. “Oh! I see what you mean. If we get them to take to Tareq-”
“Than he has a future,” Mhumhi confirmed. “At least a hope of one. With you, and that big pack of theirs.”
Kutta’s eyes flashed.
“With me, and the pack? Mhumhi-”
“With you,” Mhumhi said. There was no point in denying it. “Not me.”
Kutta drew back away from him, and not just physically; he could see the shock in her eyes.
“I want to leave this place,” said Mhumhi. “I can’t take him with me. And you won’t want to go where I’m going.”
Kutta stared at him, and he had to struggle not to break her gaze. “So,” she said, finally. “It is her.”
“It’s not her.”
“Then what is it? Tareq? Me?” Kutta snorted angrily. “It’s her!”
“It’s not her!” snapped Mhumhi. “It wasn’t ever her! I just want-”
“What? What do you want?” Kutta’s tail bristled straight up. “What are you going to look for, then? Without your family? What?”
“I didn’t say I’d never come back!”
They both flinched from the loudness of his voice, and Vimbo, lying on the ground nearby, gave a little giggle.
“I do mean to come back,” Mhumhi said, more quietly. “I just… if this is a safe place to leave him… there are things I want to look for.”
“You haven’t told me what things.”
“It’s hard to explain, Kutta.”
“Yes,” said Kutta, tone low. “Because obviously you haven’t found them with us.”
He didn’t know what to say to that.
“Will you come see Tareq?”
“I have to,” said Kutta, and implicit in her voice: Because you’re abandoning him.
“Vimbo can help move him to the gray pack,” said Mhumhi, trying not to cringe.
“Wait a day,” said Kutta, glancing back at the jackals again. “I’d better speak to them. I don’t want to deceive them. Don’t know what their plans are, beyond here.”
She hesitated, then added, “But at least two of them are already pregnant.”
“Well,” said Mhumhi, and then stopped himself from saying, “good.”
“I’ll come find you tomorrow,” said Kutta. She spoke tonelessly. “Then we can move him, if it turns out to be fine.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, swallowing. Her eyes seemed to have frosted over, and she stared at a spot above his shoulder.
“I’m going back now,” said Kutta.
“Wait, I-” started Mhumhi, but the words stuck in his throat. He wanted to apologize. But for what? He wanted to be angry. But for what?
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kutta acknowledged his words with a slow wave of her tail, and left him with Vimbo.
After a little while the hyena got up and nudged up against him, giving a little groan. Mhumhi leaned into him.
“You do it, don’t you, Vimbo?” he asked. “Leave and then come back?”
Vimbo yawned, curling his lips away from his teeth.
They had a job to do; they couldn’t just stand there. Mhumhi forced himself to turn and walk away. The rest of the day was numb. He killed. He ate. He brought back meat for Tareq and Hlolwa; Vimbo disappeared somewhere with a large hank in his own mouth.
Hlolwa’s puppies were down on the ground, squeaking and staggering, little potbellied things with tiny ears. They sniffed the meat he had regurgitated for their mother, seeming bewildered. The female with the folded ears stuck out her tongue to taste it, then sat abruptly back on her haunches.
“Not yet,” Hlolwa scolded, licking her head.
Behind her, still on the tires, Tareq was silently eating his own handfuls, licking the blood from his palms. He looked conflicted, in his own small way; Mhumhi wondered what moral dilemmas were working their way around in his head. It was disturbing to think that he was still a puppy. What would Tareq’s version of right and wrong be by the time he grew up?
“What’s the matter with you?” Hlolwa asked him, quite abruptly. Mhumhi jolted.
“Nothing… what do you mean?”
“You look like a walking corpse,” she told him, offering him her sideways grin. “You do like to spend time being unhappy, don’t you.”
Mhumhi twitched a lip at her, then forced himself to let it go. “How soon will the puppies be ready to leave?”
That got her more serious, and she looked down at them. “A few more days. Just a few.”
Mhumhi looked at them too, stumbling around on their stub legs. One was sniffing his leg, its tiny tail raised like a flag. He licked it on its soft little head, eliciting a growl from Hlolwa, but not a terribly threatening one.
“If we let Vimbo help us, they’ll be safer,” he said.
Hlolwa gave him a long look. “Oh yes, the hyena. Did you bite your tongue, Mhumhi?”
“It would help to have at least three of us,” Mhumhi insisted. “In case we have to carry some. And to keep any from wandering. We only have to go as far as the train, but once we get inside those tunnels-”
“The train?” Hlolwa interrupted. “You said there’s a train here?”
Mhumhi recalled how the painted dogs had used the trolley in Oldtown- Hlolwa would be familiar with such things. “Yes, and if you can figure out how to operate it, it should take you the rest of the way to the city. But the tunnel is filled with screamers.”
Her eyes became dark at the thought.
“What about that red dog of yours- wouldn’t she help?”
The suggestion surprised him. “Kutta? I haven’t… I don’t think so.”
“Ah, I see,” said Hlolwa. “She’s still not a part of this little plan. And what of those gray ones? Should we expect a bit of resistance? That why you want the hyena?”
“They don’t know about it and I don’t intend to tell them until you’re gone,” Mhumhi said firmly. “Kutta… the same for her.”
“So you think my puppies are in danger from your dear sister, then.”
“No! Not exactly… I just don’t know if she’d approve of me helping you… She’s worried about him.” He jerked his head back towards Tareq.
“A valid worry.” Hlolwa pulled up her lips. “I am not now suddenly your ally, you know. Once you put me on the train, I don’t need that creature any more.”
“So you’ve said.”
“So I mean,” said Hlolwa, bristling a little, and Mhumhi allowed himself a soft laugh.
“That’s fine. Tareq and Kutta- I’m splitting from them.”
He enjoyed how much the statement caught her off-guard, if nothing else.
“Splitting? From your orphan pack? That is…” She tilted her head. “Oddly disappointing.”
“Disappointing? Isn’t that what you said I should do all along?”
“When I find a zealous idiot, it’s more fun to see him stick to his convictions,” said Hlolwa.
“Well, thank you.”
“Would you care to share why you are breaking all your bonds, little idiot?”
Mhumhi exposed a fang to her. “It’s personal.”
“Yes, obviously. Hm.” Her pale eyes gleamed a moment. “So, Mhumhi- does that mean that you plan to go back to the city with me?”
Mhumhi froze for a moment, then looked somewhere behind her, fixing his eyes on the wall of tires.
“I think I’ll go back and get more meat from the kill, before it all gets scavenged away.”
“You’d better decide soon, Mhumhi,” Hlolwa told him, and she lay down, lips drawn away in a cold smile.