Mhumhi stood perfectly still as a puppy tentatively placed a stubby paw on the end of his nose. The action, which had appeared very solemn and deliberate, was ruined a moment later when one of the puppy’s littermates blundered into him, knocking him over.
Mhumhi wagged his tail and licked the puppy’s exposed belly while it squirmed to get back onto its feet. A third puppy came over in a series of halting bounds and banged into the side of his face.
Tareq giggled. He was sitting with his back against the tires, his legs stretched out in front o him. Another puppy was in his arms, clutched tight against his chest, squeaking. Mhumhi caught Tareq’s eye and he slowly relaxed his grip.
The fifth and final puppy was the female with the folded ears, and she was sitting up on one of the tires, looking sleepy. Tareq reached out and stroked her little head, making her blink.
Mhumhi nosed through the pile of puppy-chaos that was now in front of him, all waving limbs and squeaks, trying to maintain some order. Hlolwa had left him to watch them, citing a need to stretch her legs, and he was trying his hardest. It had gotten slightly more difficult than it had been the last time he’d watched them. They had gotten a lot better at walking and biting each other.
Hlolwa had not specifically mandated that Tareq was not allowed to touch the puppies, and Mhumhi needed a helper anyway. Still, he was very prepared to snatch them away from him should they hear Hlolwa on her way back.
But Tareq was being very sweet to them, and listening to him for once, so Mhumhi figured it would be all right in the end.
“When will they talk?” Tareq asked him, putting the puppy up to his face to give it another cuddle. The puppy twitched and yawned.
“I don’t really know,” Mhumhi admitted. Kebero had started talking once he had reached a certain size, but Mhumhi was not sure exactly how old he’d been. “Not for a while, I think.”
“I’m Tareq,” said Tareq, holding up the puppy. “Ta-req.” He giggled- the puppy had squirmed to lick his fingers.
Mhumhi’s three puppies were distracted by a piece of paper blowing in the wind, their heads all jerking up in tandem. He couldn’t help but wonder if he should tell Tareq that he wouldn’t be around to see the puppies when they started talking. At least if Hlolwa could get aboard the train.
Part of him, watching Tareq pet and coo at the puppy, still wanted to keep one for him. Just one. A playmate. A friend.
Tareq would have other playmates, he reminded himself, trying to quash the pricking feeling in his chest.
A soft hoot made his head jerk up. Two screamers were approaching the tires. Mhumhi raised his tail and angled himself in front of the puppies with a loud twitter.
Tareq snatched the female with the folded ears and put her with the other one in his lap, squeezing his arms and his uninjured leg around them. His eyes were wide.
The screamers came closer, weaving from side to side, blinking in a disoriented way. Mhumhi went towards them, stiff-legged, and uttered a growl. The screamers hesitated.
They were looking at the puppies. One was smiling. It was entirely possible that they only wanted to cuddle them, as Tareq was doing; it was the screamer norm. But Mhumhi could also see every rib outlined in their chests over top of their rounded, sagging bellies.
He growled again, showing his teeth. One of the screamers stumbled backwards, hooting and cringing. The other wavered, peering at the puppies, blinking its black eyes.
Mhumhi lunged forward a few steps, making it flinch. Behind him Tareq uttered a soft noise, a frightened noise. Mhumhi swallowed and glanced back. He was watching. The puppies were in a little huddle, their own button-bright eyes curious. They were watching. Learning.
The screamer stepped forward, extending a hand. Mhumhi was frozen for a moment with indecision.
There came a loud whoop, and the screamer jerked, and with a shrill scream turned and ran away, bumping shoulders with its similarly fleeing companion. Over the top of the next hill bounded Vimbo, his mouth open and grinning.
Relief trickled through Mhumhi like cool water, and he lowered his tail, and went to comfort Tareq.
“It’s all right,” he said, as he licked his face. Tareq had teared up. “Nobody had to get hurt.”
“Would they bite the puppies?” asked Tareq. “They bit the little dog.”
“We just have to keep them away,” said Mhumhi, nosing under his chin.
“If they don’t go away, are you gonna kill them?”
“They’ll go away.” Mhumhi kept his tone very firm. “They aren’t very brave.”
Behind him Vimbo whooped as he loped closer. His tail was raised, his lips drawn back, his mane bristling. He came to a stop a foot or so away from the puppies, his nose twitching.
Mhumhi’s stomach clenched, and he left Tareq’s side and walked slowly over to the hyena.
The puppies were looking at him curiously, and one approached, tottering, little tail swinging from side to side. Vimbo put his head down and grunted, but just then Mhumhi managed to drift casually in between the two of them.
Vimbo jumped back a little as Mhumhi pushed his chest with his shoulder, then ducked under his belly to look at the puppy. Then he simply muscled Mhumhi aside so he could go sniff it.
Mhumhi was knocked down by the force of it, but then sprang to his feet. His heart was thudding rapidly. Vimbo sniffed the puppy, opening and closing his jaws, as the puppy sniffed him back. It squeaked. Vimbo’s nose worked faster and faster, his eyes widening, seeming to grow more and more excited.
He pushed the puppy with his nose. It rolled over sideways, belly-up, as it did when someone wanted to wash it. Vimbo’s eyes seemed to widen even more, and with a flick of his head he snatched the puppy by the hips and dragged it backwards across the ground.
In the next second Mhumhi snapped his jaws across Vimbo’s nose, so that he squealed and let go. Tareq cried out a second later.
“No! No! Bad ‘yena!”
The puppy was kicking to right itself again, whining. Vimbo looked at it, and this time Mhumhi recognized the predatory gleam in his eyes.
“Vimbo, no,” he said, surprised at his own calmness, and again pushed the hyena backwards. Vimbo went this time, though his eyes lingered on the helpless puppy, and he licked his lips.
Mhumhi found that, worryingly enough, he could relate. His own actions when he’d first met Maha and Tareq had been similarly appalling.
Then again, he’d had Kutta there to talk him out of it. As for Vimbo…
“Tareq,” he called, lighting on a sudden idea. “Can you speak to Vimbo for me? In hulker?”
“No, Tareq, he just doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know what puppies are. I need you to tell him, all right?”
Tareq furrowed his brow and pulled his face to its most scrunchiest, but nodded.
“Say that these are puppies and we have to be gentle with them.”
Tareq blinked rapidly a moment, face still wrinkled, and then said a few halting words. Vimbo’s head shot up and he looked over at him.
“I forgot some of the words,” Tareq confided to Mhumhi.
“That’s all right, just do your best…” Mhumhi was getting more nervous, as Vimbo looked back at the puppies. If they couldn’t get through to him.
Vimbo lowered his head, with an open-mouthed squeal, and then went towards the puppy. Mhumhi gave an involuntary jerk, but then stopped himself. Vimbo had turned sideways and raised his leg.
“He’s gonna pee!” cried Tareq.
“No,” said Mhumhi, half in a laugh, as Vimbo moved into a kind of half-squat to try to get low enough for the puppy to sniff him. “No, it’s all right, Tareq, that’s how he says hello.”
He went over and licked the hyena’s ears, to apologize for biting him on the nose once again.
Vimbo gave a kind of grunt-sigh, then moved away to lie on the ground in the midst of a jumble of tires a little ways away. He stayed there and watched the puppies wander around and play for the rest of the morning, and he was still there when Hlolwa returned, her belly round with meat.
She smelled him at once and stopped short, her eyes widened. Mhumhi hastened over to her and licked her chin, wagging and twittering.
“It’s all right,” he said, in his sweetest whine. “He won’t touch them. It’s all right.”
Hlolwa gave him a warning twitter of her own, moving away, and shot a glare at Vimbo.
“I do not accept other kinds as readily as you do, Mhumhi.” She swung her head around towards Tareq, who thankfully was not touching any puppies. In fact, his hands were squashed behind his back.
“He scared away some screamers for us,” said Mhumhi. “They’re more frightened of him than us.”
Hlolwa absorbed this with thinning eyes, but she was soon distracted. Her puppies had caught the scent of their mother, and now they came over in a squeaking, stumbling herd. She greeted them with a few harried licks on their muzzles and then steadied herself as they reared up and started to nurse.
“Quit staring,” she snapped, after a few moments. “If you want meat, get it now, before I go to sleep.”
Mhumhi put his ears back and gave her a guilty smile, then went and licked the corners of her mouth. The meat landed on the ground in front of her. One of the puppies stopped nursing and fell back on its haunches to look at it.
Mhumhi tried to grab a piece but Hlolwa shoved his face away.
“Wait a moment,” she snapped.
The puppy sniffed the meat, then put a paw out to touch it, then finally to a piece in its mouth. Then dropped it. It did not seem quite sure of what to do with it.
“Leave them a little,” Hlolwa told Mhumhi, and there was a warm note to her voice now he hadn’t heard before.
“Already?” he couldn’t help but say. “They’re eating meat already?”
“I wouldn’t say eating,” said Hlolwa, and indeed, while another puppy had now started nosing at the meat, it then suddenly flopped down on its stomach next to it and closed its eyes.
“I’m hungry too,” called Tareq, and Mhumhi took a piece for him.
They ate- all except for Vimbo, who merely lay and watched them with his chin on his paws. Mhumhi felt both better and worse to have him there. Hlolwa was certainly not pleased about it. As soon as the puppies stopped nursing and began yawning in a milky way, she herded them roughly down into the den.
“The sun is high,” she told Mhumhi. “Did you not mean to speak to the red dog today?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi. He looked over at Tareq. He had not told him anything of his plans yet.
“Then go,” said Hlolwa. “Take the animal with you.”
He was not about to argue with her, and anyway Vimbo followed him easily enough. Mhumhi could guess as to the reason he’d showed up in the first place.
“I can’t practice writing with you just now,” he tried to explain, as they trotted together out of the tire stacks. “I have to see Kutta first. Maybe afterwards…”
Of course it was useless, as Vimbo’s gait stayed enthusiastic as he loped behind Mhumhi. He should have gotten Tareq to try to explain to him. Then again, he did not want to tell Tareq any more than he had to. Not yet.
Vimbo seemed to get the idea, anyway, when they did not go by the beach, and instead went to the little valley they had met Kutta in the day before. His head dropped low and he flagged behind.
By the time they got to the valley Mhumhi was feeling glum himself. He found himself second-guessing his stupid little plan more and more. It was probably only because Tareq had sweetened and Hlolwa was being relatively peaceable, but still…
He tried to steel himself, as he hoo-barked and heard the answering whistle. Hlolwa had been right, after all. Not everyone stayed with their family forever.
And anyway, he thought, as he saw Kutta approaching, flanked by five members of the gray pack, he wasn’t the first one to go.
Kutta wagged her tail, and he wagged his, tentatively, and they greeted. Vimbo came and greeted too, but then he turned around and lay with his back to the pair of him.
“What’s wrong with him?” Kutta wondered aloud.
“I wouldn’t let him eat Hlolwa’s puppies.”
That made her laugh. “Shame! The poor thing, no wonder.”
The gray dogs, which had moved closer as the two of them spoke, did not laugh with her. They were staring nervously at Vimbo, bunching close behind Kutta’s larger form.
“Oh, don’t worry, Mhumhi’s not serious,” she said, noticing their discomfort. Mhumhi elected not to correct her.
“Did you speak to them about my idea?”
One of the gray dogs came out from behind Kutta- a coyote. Telipa. “She spoke to us.”
Mhumhi found he did not care for the way she was looking at him. “And?”
“And we agreed, of course,” said Telipa, raising her pointed muzzle. “But we have some questions of our own we want answered first.”
Mhumhi looked back at Kutta, but her expression was guarded, her ears half back. The other gray dogs fanned out behind her. One of them was a large male golden jackal; Mhumhi thought he had a shaggy, ill-favored look about him.
“What questions, then?” This could be nothing good.
“About the female painted dog,” said Telipa. “Kutta tells me she’s just had her puppies. Is this true?”
“More or less,” said Mhumhi, shooting another look Kutta’s way.
“And she’s the boss of the police,” said Telipa.
“So?” Mhumhi looked down at her, his forelegs very stiff, and she licked her lips.
“So.. it seems that we shouldn’t just let her move around freely…”
“Do you think she’s hiding other police nearby?”
“No, but there’s a chance that other members of her pack will come back from the safe place,” Kutta put in. “The ones they thought were dead.”
“Were there enough of them to threaten your pack?” said Mhumhi, keeping his eyes on Telipa.
“We don’t want a fight,” she said, bristling.
“What do you want to do, then? Kill Hlolwa?”
Telipa merely looked uncomfortable, and her associates eyed her. Perhaps this line of questioning was not going as she had planned.
“We haven’t decided what we’re going to do about her yet,” she said. “That depends on you, and what you’re planning.”
“Are you planning,” said Kutta, “to help her get back to the city, Mhumhi?”
Mhumhi kept his voice very even. “Why would I?”
“Because you’ve changed loyalties,” said Telipa, very bluntly. “Painted pelts go to painted pelts, I suppose.”
Mhumhi didn’t like her holier-than-thou tone. “Just like gray goes with gray.”
“Stop that,” said Kutta, as Telipa’s whiskers bristled. “Mhumhi, you need to tell us what you’re going to do. If you’re not staying with me and Tareq, where are you going? And what will she do?”
“Why do you care so much?”
“Because we can’t just keep avoiding each other forever!”
“Why not? Isn’t this dump big enough for all of us?”
Kutta gave him a look, one that told him she knew he was being intentionally obstinate. It made him feel nostalgic.
“Where are you going to go, Mhumhi?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “But you are right, I’m not going to stay here. Hlolwa might go with me, or she might stay. That’s her decision. But I expect she’ll stay, with those little puppies.”
Kutta seemed to relax a little, but one of the other gray dogs, a female side-striped jackal, stepped forward.
“Just how long has it been since those puppies were born?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mhumhi. “It was a few days before the rains started.”
“It was more than just that,” Kutta cut in. “It was right after the gray pack arrived here!”
The gray dogs all exchanged looks.
“They’re old enough to walk, aren’t they?” said the side-striped jackal. “Who’s to say she can’t move them?”
“They can barely walk,” Mhumhi argued. “They’re not like your little puppies. They have more growing to do.”
More looks exchanged. Then: “Let us go see them.”
Mhumhi couldn’t help but bristle. “Why?”
“Why not?” Telipa challenged him. “We won’t hurt puppies. Kutta knows that. We won’t even hurt hulkers. We only want to see them.”
“Their mother is protective,” said Mhumhi.
“She let the hyena see them, didn’t she?”
Mhumhi was hoping Kutta would step in, but she merely watched him, her eyes clear and patient.
“I’ll have to ask her,” he said. Of course he couldn’t; there was no way she’d agree. He just had to stall them.
“We don’t actually need your permission, you know,” said the ill-favored golden jackal from the back.
Everybody seemed to get tense for a moment. The stares turned hard. Vimbo put his head up and looked back towards them.
Then Telipa said, “It’s alright. Let her know we’ll be coming in the next day or so. She’s a new mother, it must be difficult for her.” She gave her tail a wag, a shadow of the cheery coyote Mhumhi had once met in the water treatment plant. “We can see them when we go to collect the hulker puppy.”
“Fine,” said Mhumhi, who could see no way out of it. “I’ll speak to her.”
The members of the gray pack all yapped in a pleased way. “It can still be all right,” said Telipa, wagging. “Those puppies- it all depends on how they grow up, doesn’t it?”
This cryptic remark stuck in Mhumhi’s head for a while, even after the members of the gray pack had left, and he found it made him more nervous than anything. Kutta hadn’t even looked at him when she turned to follow the others. He found himself wishing that she had come alone.
Vimbo raised himself back up and followed Mhumhi, even though Mhumhi said, “Sorry Vimbo, we can’t write today,” and tried to make it clear that they were not going to the beach. He came and brushed shoulders with Mhumhi, rubbing his head along his neck, and then yawned hugely.
They got back to the tire stacks before the sun was even very low. The meeting had not taken long. Hlolwa was lying half out of the den, firmly blocking the entrance with her body, and Tareq had dozed off nearby, slumping with his splinted leg stretched stiffly out in front of him.
Mhumhi was not eager to wake either of them up, but as he and Vimbo got closer, Hlolwa’s eyes opened and she bared her teeth.
Vimbo got the idea; he stopped and went to his spot amongst the tires, a safe distance away. Mhumhi slowly padded forward again.
“Will she take the hulker?” asked Hlolwa. She hadn’t bothered to raise her head, just looked up at him with half-lidded eyes and snakelike calm.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi. She seemed to pick up something in his tone, for she asked, “But that wasn’t all, was it?”
“No,” Mhumhi was forced to admit. “No… the gray pack wants to come see your puppies, Hlolwa.”
He had cringed internally as he spoke, expecting her wrath, but she merely blinked slowly.
“I think,” said Mhumhi, heavily, “I think we should try to leave before tomorrow. That way…”
“The puppies aren’t ready,” Hlolwa interrupted him. “And the gray pack would be stupid if they didn’t have someone watching our borders. No, it will be fine. Let them come and see my puppies.” She widened her lips in that sideways grin. “It will be a good lesson for all of us.”