“I know how to operate a train,” said Hlolwa, after she had taken the puppy from Mhumhi and fussed over it a bit. “You don’t?”
He wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not, so he stayed quiet. After a few moments, she rewarded him with a sidelong grin.
“What was that racket outside?”
“Gray dogs.” Mhumhi gave a thin sigh through his nose. “I think I lost them-” he didn’t think they’d follow his trail past the starving screamers- “but you’d better hurry and start the train.”
Hlolwa tilted her head, her pale eyes calculating. “How many? Were they aggressive?”
“Too many, and yes. I don’t know if they saw the puppy, but-”
“Any chance they’d follow your trail the other way? To the den?”
Mhumhi took in a short breath, something clenching in his chest, then said, “Even if they did, they wouldn’t hurt Tareq. And they’re frightened of Vimbo.”
Hlolwa’s eyes thinned, and then she inclined her head to lick the back of her final, shivering puppy, nudging it towards the pile of its dozing littermates. The female with the folded ears was licking her lips in her sleep, eyelids twitching.
“You said you didn’t know how to operate the train?” Hlolwa asked, quite suddenly. “How did you get it to move before?”
“Mini- the little domestic- she knew how,” said Mhumhi, wondering at the question. It seemed to satisfy Hlolwa, for she hopped down from the train cab.
“Rest a while and lick your wounds,” she said, coming to lick his face herself. “I’ll close the cab door to protect you. They shouldn’t be able to get in.”
Mhumhi, who had slumped a little, leaning into her touch, opened his eyes.
“What do you mean? What about you?”
“I have an errand,” she said. “Something I forgot to take care of.”
Her expression had become so crafty all of the sudden that Mhumhi grew suspicious. It was reminiscent of Bii.
“What are you up to? You can’t just leave your puppies-”
“You’re right,” said Hlolwa, cutting him off. “But I’m leaving them in the care of my very capable, trusted subordinate.” She favored him with a smile, seeing his expression. “I won’t be long. Guard them for me, will you?”
“Hlolwa!” He jumped forward, but she had already darted out of reach, tail wagging, mouth grinning.
“You know how to lift up the door handle, don’t you, Mhumhi?” she said. “I have to hurry away now.”
He chattered angrily in her direction, but she merely whisked her tail and sped off, towards the darkened, rain-smelling entrance.
Of course Mhumhi could not follow her- a soft squeak from behind him was enough to stop that notion in its tracks- but he did pace angrily, back and forth, in front of the opened door. He could not fathom what she was about to do, only that it was probably unpleasant, probably something he would not like, else why would she do it in such a treacherous way?
He shivered, wondering about Vimbo and Tareq; shivered harder when he dared think about Kutta. For a tiny moment he seriously considered closing the cab door and chasing after her.
He turned and leapt back into the cab, clawing at the handle so that the door hissed shut, growling low in his throat. The puppies twitched; two opened their eyes and looked up at him.
Mhumhi went and licked at them, rather harder than he probably should have, because by the end of it all of them were awake and squeaking and squirming, turning their noses this way and that at the unfamiliar surroundings. The female with the folded ears whined and bumped at his leg, her tongue flicking out at a scratch Mhumhi had accrued there.
Mhumhi gave a long sigh, then flopped down, his bony hip striking the metal quite hard. At once the puppies piled on to him, as was their way, wagging and whining and licking at him, their tiny tongues soothing his wounds. It surprised him. Were they drawn to the smell of blood, like little flies? No… that wasn’t it.
After a while they all fell back asleep, in their puppy manner, snuggled up against his belly and on top of his side. Mhumhi was pinned down to the floor by their warmth. He drowsily licked the behind of the one nearest to him, wondering what was taking Hlolwa so long.
He realized he had fallen asleep when he began to wake up, slowly, by degrees. At first he felt happy, feeling how warm he was, all the little bodies and heartbeats pressing against him; a fuzzy, drowsy, dazed sort of happiness. There was a sound, too, that made him happy… He could hear it faintly… A dhole’s whistle.
His consciousness reemerged, and abruptly he jerked his head up, ignoring a disturbed little whine. Yes, there it was again: the whistle. Unmistakably Kutta’s whistle.
Mhumhi trembled a little, waking up the puppies. It was in the back of his throat to answer with a hoo-bark, but that was his tiredness showing. The last time that they had met, they had tried to kill each other. Mhumhi knew this, and he even acknowledged his darkest thought of all: if he had not killed Telipa then, he would have killed his sister.
If she was even still his sister. No, she undoubtably was not. His links to his former family had all been severed.
Kutta’s whistle came again. It was faint, but it was somewhere in the concrete tunnel; it might even be getting closer. The sound echoed so oddly that it was difficult to tell. What was she doing here, and who was she calling for? Not him?
Another whistle came, and Mhumhi gave a tiny whine. The puppies whimpered too, sensing his distress, clambering over top of him, licking him again, their sharp nails and little tongues now irritating. He got to his feet, shedding them like fleas. Kutta whistled again.
He was at the door, rocking back and forth with indecision, when she gave a last whistle. This one was abruptly cut off.
“Ku-” He swallowed her name, biting the door handle, dragging it back. Cool, unpleasantly-scented air rushed into the train, briefly overwhelming him; the puppies whined and yelped from the sensory overload, cringing, burying their heads underneath each other’s bellies.
When Mhumhi was finally able to sort through the scents, he realized he could not smell Kutta. But he could smell Hlolwa. Her nails were click-clicking towards him across the concrete.
A terrible thought occurred to him, and he jumped down, and stalked over to meet her, tail raised.
“You finished your errand?”
If she heard the challenge in his voice, she didn’t react. “Yes, I did. I think you’ll like it.”
“Will I like it?” He was growling now. Hlolwa jerked her head, indicating something behind herself.
“You can go see for yourself, if that’s what you-”
He lunged towards her, snarling. “What did you do to her?! I’ll-”
She jumped sideways, avoiding him; he had time to register the shock in her eyes before a new sound vibrated through the concrete: the low, ominous whoop of a hyena.
He was surprised, so he stood still, in the meantime Hlolwa recovered and shook herself.
“I brought it for you,” she said, her voice more guarded now. “Have a look.”
Vimbo’s steps were slow and scraping as he approached, his lips wrinkled away from his teeth as he panted. He was carrying a heavy burden: Tareq was straddling his back, clinging to handfuls of his coarse fur.
Mhumhi’s body went electric with surprise, every limb wanting to point in an opposite direction. “Tareq! What-”
“You weren’t planning to come,” said Hlolwa, half-sneering. “Obviously. You were before, but you changed your mind, didn’t you?”
He turned to look at her, still bewildered. Tareq piped up, his voice strained:
“Are we going back to the city?”
“We are,” said Hlolwa. “All of us.”
Mhumhi rocked, visibly, back and forth on his ankles. “What?”
“I want you to come back to the city with us,” said Hlolwa. “If I must tolerate the hulker for that to happen, it is acceptable enough.”
Mhumhi found he could only speak in questions. “Why?”
“Because you helped me. Because you saved my puppies. Because I like you.” Hlolwa snorted. “Because even I understand what you gave up.”
Mhumhi licked his lips, lowering both his head and his tail, and didn’t speak for a moment.
“I don’t want to go back with you,” Tareq said to Hlolwa, the scowl evident in his voice.
“I come with my puppies,” Hlolwa shot back. “Or did you never want to play with them again?”
This made Tareq squirm.
Mhumhi gave a strangled little laugh. “I… I can’t believe this.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” Her eyes seemed nearly transparent as she turned back to look at him. “You’ve always thought of me as despicable, haven’t you?”
“That’s not true,” said Mhumhi at once, but he already felt ashamed. “That’s not true… you’re a good mother.”
“I was thinking about going with you before- before all that happened with Kutta, anyway, but not because-” He hesitated. “Not necessarily out of affection. I thought if I went with you- you, the Madame- maybe I could talk to you. Convince you of… a few things. A few changes.”
“Convince me that some lives are worth sparing?” Hlolwa looked amused now. “I am not stupid, Mhumhi. And like I told you before, I am also not a monster. Maybe I want to be convinced. Maybe I have been convinced. And maybe…”
She seemed to squirm for a bit, shifting her weight from one paw to the other. Mhumhi felt that if he prompted her, she’d never say what she was about to say.
“Maybe I don’t like seeing the changes in you. You were such a sweet little creature when I first met you in the garden.”
Vimbo abruptly gave a loud snort; both Mhumhi and Hlolwa looked sharply over at him. The hyena was licking the inside of one paw, apparently not paying them any attention.
“The point is,” said Hlolwa, refocusing her gaze back to Mhumhi, “nothing is really immutable. I’ll take in the hulker if I have to.”
Mhumhi suddenly thought of other words she had said once: You’d better decide who you want to protect.
“And what about him?” he asked, turning his nose towards Vimbo. “Will you take him, too?”
Hlolwa hesitated for only a fraction of a second. “Yes.”
Mhumhi looked between all of them, and said, “Let’s get Tareq into the train.”
Hlolwa inclined her head, her expression staying the same, but he was certain she was pleased by the eager way she jumped into the train cab. Her puppies greeted her with a happy frenzy of affection. Mhumhi went around and nudged Vimbo forward.
“We’re really going back?” asked Tareq, his eyes round. “Back to the wet place?”
“Back to the city, but not the sewer,” Mhumhi told him. “You’ll never have to go into that sewer ever again. You’ll live in a garden, with fruit to eat every day- isn’t that right?” He cast a look over at Hlolwa, who responded with a slow blink.
Vimbo came up against the edge of the cab, and stopped. Mhumhi jumped over him to help Hlolwa drag Tareq inside by his shirt. The puppies whined and leapt over him, making him giggle.
“There you are,” said Mhumhi, and he turned and licked Tareq’s face, then leapt back out of the cab, beside Vimbo.
Hlolwa came up to the edge. “Get him inside; I don’t want to wait any longer. The gray pack was hunting out there.”
“It’ll be two crowded with all of us there,” said Mhumhi, in a neutral way. “We’ll go to the other cab, in the back.”
Hlolwa gazed at him for a moment, then said, “You still don’t mean to go, do you?”
“Mhumhi?” Tareq sat up, his arms full of puppies.
“I mean to go,” said Mhumhi, but Hlolwa gave a low laugh.
“I told you I was not a fool. Why? You think I’ll take care of your hulker puppy without you?”
Mhumhi pondered the wisdom of his next statement, then said, “Yes.”
It evoked a sudden snarl from her, and she made like he was going to jump out of the cab at him before subsiding.
“Well, you’re wrong.”
“You told me that you weren’t a monster. Maybe I want to test it.”
“Test it! Are you planning to come back and check on me?”
“Maybe,” said Mhumhi. “Look, I won’t take Vimbo back to the city. He won’t survive. Maybe you can protect Tareq- he can’t even move, and he’s easy to recognize, but Vimbo… He gets out, he’s just another hyena who can’t talk. I know what you’ve been doing with them.”
Hlolwa stood there, her eyes slitted.
“I also have… some errands I want to finish,” Mhumhi acknowledged.
“I know what they are,” said Hlolwa. “You should give them up.”
When he did not respond, she paced a little in the tiny doorway, and added, “You don’t only have ties here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I heard enough from that little fox,” she told him. “About the Simien wolf. You think that he’s dead, don’t you? But I wonder.”
“Kebero?” said Mhumhi, in a surprised breath. “How would you know?”
“Because I was having him arrested before I went after you,” said Hlolwa, her voice oily with condescension. “He’s probably still locked in a kennel. Why don’t you come to find out?”
Mhumhi breathed for one, two, three, beats. Then he reached for the door handle.
“Stop!” cried Hlolwa, thrusting herself forward. “What are you doing?”
“You could be lying,” said Mhumhi. “And either way, I won’t change my mind.”
“I’m not going to take care of your pet!” spat Hlolwa. “The minute you leave, I’ll tear out his throat!”
“Mhumhi!” cried Tareq. His white-sided eyes were wide with betrayal. “Mhumhi, help me!”
“She won’t really hurt you. She’s lying.”
“Will you test it?” growled Hlolwa, who was trembling a little.
“Yes!” snapped Mhumhi. “I’m going to think better of you. And I can’t become a part of your pack. I’m sorry.”
Slowly Hlolwa’s hackles came back down, her eyes darkening.
“They won’t understand.”
It took Mhumhi a moment to understand what she meant. He looked over at the puppies, cuddled around Tareq.
“I’m sorry to all of them, too,” he said. “Especially you, Tareq. I’m sorry. I’ve never been a good enough brother.”
Tareq turned his head away, wordless.
“That’s it,” said Hlolwa. Her tone was flat. “Then we’ll be going.”
“I hope you get there safe,” said Mhumhi, stepping backwards. Vimbo glanced at him and imitated the motion.
Something sardonic came back into Hlolwa’s gaze. “Well, at least we won’t get hungry on the way.”
“I love you, Tareq,” said Mhumhi, ignoring her. A week ago he would have called it a lie, but now… “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I want you to have-”
She was shutting the door. He dashed to see though the last open sliver.
“-a better life. I want you to have a better life!”
He stared at the closed metal wall in front of him, his words echoing against the tunnel. Vimbo gave a little grunt and nudged at him; the train was shivering, humming, coming to life. They backed away.
The train began moving forward almost silently, and with such speed that it was quickly only a silver aftermirage on the insides of Mhumhi’s eyelids as he blinked. The tunnel let out a great gasp of displaced air, slicking their ears back with coldness.
Mhumhi let himself sag against the solid, smelly warmth of Vimbo, shutting his eyes. After a moment the hyena’s moist nose brushed his ear.
“I guess I’ll have to learn to read,” said Mhumhi, to no one in particular.