The next day was a grey day, damp and muffled, with a constant, unrelenting drizzle. Mhumhi huddled together with Vimbo by the entrance to the tunnel, where it was at least somewhat dry, if hard and cold. He slept fitfully. It seemed he should have slept well, for all the night’s events had exhausted him, but though his aching body begged for it his mind could not rest.
For some reason what he kept thinking about was Maha, and how he wished she were still there, and how strange that was. How domesticated was he? He’d loved her so much… He would never have put her on a train with Hlolwa.
Perhaps that was why she had died.
Over and over his mind turned, until he had nothing but a useless jumble of sensory information: her hands on his chin, her strange hulker giggle, how she bit the heads off rats, how she’d hit him with a plank, how she’d begged him not to eat her.
Beside him, Vimbo gave a long sigh and stretched, before rolling onto this back, his forepaws crooked. Mhumhi glanced at his peaceful face, and then rose.
He went out into the muted sunlight, blinking as the rain coated his fur in a mist of fine droplets. There were dim figures moving about in the rain: screamers, picking through the garbage, but he did not pay them much attention. He no longer had any real reason to fear them. He had nothing left to protect.
He smelled flashes of the gray pack here and there: it seemed they had done a lot of ranging around the night before, perhaps all the way to the den. What had they thought when they had discovered it empty, had their plans thwarted? Maybe they had even spotted him and Vimbo, slumbering defenselessly in the tunnel. If so, they’d done nothing about it.
He didn’t see any of them now. They must have retreated back to their hiding-holes when the rain started up, back to the fluttering shanties and the concrete house that had once been Sekayi’s.
Mhumhi trotted up the side of a tall mound, shook himself, and then let out a mournful hoo-bark.
He pricked his ears, even though he knew it was nearly pointless, hoo-barked again, and then heard an answer. A soft whistle.
It was nearby. Mhumhi half-walked, half-slid down the mound and set off towards it, licking the moisture off his lips.
He spotted a metal barrel, half-buried under a kind of overhang composed of bits of broken chairs and rusty metal wire and drooping cardboard. Reddish paws were sticking out one end.
“Kutta,” he called.
The barrel wobbled a little, and then she poked her head out.
“Hello,” she said, in a rasping voice.
Mhumhi was startled. She was marked all over with rusty bloodstains, particularly her neck and muzzle. He could not tell how much of it was her own.
“What happened to-” he began, in a rush of concern, and then stopped.
Kutta wrinkled her lips. “Did something stupid.”
“And I don’t know why.” She sighed and lay her head back down. “Because you let her go, didn’t you?”
Mhumhi said nothing for a moment. The night before, in the dark, frenzied confusion of his fight with the gray pack, something had turned the tide for him. Someone had helped him. Kutta.
“Why?” was what finally came out. It felt awful even to ask, but he had to. Why- after everything that had gone wrong between them?
The look in Kutta’s eyes made him wish he’d never said it. “I might be angry enough to want to hurt you, Mhumhi,” she said. “But I’d never want you killed.”
Mhumhi looked down and away.
“What have you done with Tareq?”
The question brought on another stab to his heart. But not of guilt. He wasn’t guilty for that… yet.
“Hlolwa is going to take care of him,” he said. “She’s taking him with her puppies back to the city.”
Sheer disbelief did not cover the expression on Kutta’s face. She struggled to rise, rattling the metal barrel.
“Are you insane?”
“She’s not going to hurt him,” said Mhumhi. Kutta went slack-eared with incredulity.
“I mean it,” Mhumhi insisted. “I’ve gotten to know her. And I… I realized something, all of a sudden.”
“What did you realize? That she-”
Mhumhi cut her off before she could say something sarcastic. “That she hates to kill.”
Kutta snorted, settling back down on her elbows. “How d’you figure?”
“Because…” It would be too difficult to explain how in that moment- there in front of the train, with Hlolwa presenting him with Tareq- how all the fragments of what he’d seen and smelled came together in his head. A hundred opportunities- alone with Bii; she loathed the little fox so, and he only had three legs, and yet- alone with Tareq, and yet- She’d led Mhumhi to the pit, dragged the boy out of the floodwaters, taken him to the train herself. And Vimbo. He had killed her brother. And…
“She couldn’t even kill Sekayi,” he recalled aloud.
Kutta opened her mouth, then turned an ear back.
“At one point in our lives, not wanting to kill anyone wouldn’t have been an outstanding quality,” she said.
Mhumhi gave a smile, or maybe a grimace. “True, but here, in this place, it really is outstanding.”
Kutta didn’t refute him. “And you think that’s going to protect Tareq, back in the city?”
“I think it’s going to be enough,” said Mhumhi. “She has that garden to hide him in, and she has her loyal attendants. I think it’s as much protection as he could hope for.”
“He could hope to be with his family,” said Kutta, sharply.
“Not the way it is now,” Mhumhi said.
Kutta made a sour expression, and then gave a sour little whine.
“If you’d just let me have him…”
“With the gray pack? They wanted too much.”
“You cared more about those puppies than your own brother!”
“No,” said Mhumhi. “No, I didn’t. Hlolwa was right about them. They’re not organized. They’re not of one mind. And when the police eventually did find this place, I’m sure they would have abandoned him.”
“I wouldn’t have,” said Kutta. “You wouldn’t have… I think.”
He didn’t flinch; her hesitation was warranted. “We’re not enough.”
“No,” said Kutta. “You’re not enough. You had other plans without him.”
Mhumhi looked away, composed himself, and said, “Am I not allowed to take back some of what mother took from me?”
“She took nothing from you!”
“She took something from you, too,” said Mhumhi, looking back, matching her angry gaze. “You won’t admit it! Sacha knew, always, from the start, and she was right, and we never listened- and you-”
Abruptly Kutta got up and staggered out of the barrel, trembling a little under the soft rain. More bite marks peppered her haunches; she seemed hesitant to put weight on her left rear leg.
“I forgive her for everything,” she said. “She loved us. That’s all she ever did. She loved us.”
“I know she loved us,” said Mhumhi. “I- you know, I haven’t stopped loving her, Kutta. But I also can’t forgive everything, I think.”
“Yes, and how did she die?”
Kutta recoiled. “How can you say that about her? She’s our mother. She’s the reason we even know each other. She’s the reason we know Sacha and Kebero. She’s the reason we met Tareq and Maha!”
“So why do you care? Why- you were a puppy! We were all puppies! We don’t even remember anything before she took us!”
“Because I’m a painted dog, not a domestic,” said Mhumhi. “And you’re a dhole.”
Kutta shuddered at the word, licking her lips.
“There are things about myself that mother could never know,” said Mhumhi. “And she must have realized that. But she still used us.”
“I don’t care,” said Kutta, in a hollow way.
“I’m sorry,” said Mhumhi. “I do.”
There seemed to be nothing for them to say for a while. They both looked in opposite directions. Mhumhi felt a straining within himself, torn between wanting to comfort Kutta, to roll over and beg her to forget everything he’d just said, to lick her chin and be her brother again. The other part of him wanted to get up and walk away without looking back.
“I know she used us.”
That was Kutta. It caught Mhumhi by surprise, and he looked over at her. Her head was drooping, down towards the ground.
“How could I not know? She used me most of all… Sacha was too tough, but me… when you came, I needed her to still love me. I would have done anything for her.”
“I would have, too,” said Mhumhi. “That’s how it was…”
“But even you had a conscience,” said Kutta.
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean,” said Kutta, “you would have known what she did was wrong.”
“No, I didn’t-”
“I don’t mean about how she took us,” said Kutta. “I mean about how she took Maha and Tareq.”
Mhumhi furrowed his brow.
“She didn’t just find them,” said Kutta. “That was a lie, just like it was about us. Maha told you, didn’t she? About how she was living with Tareq and his mother?”
“Yes… Maha said his mother didn’t come back one day.” Even as he said the words, something sank in Mhumhi’s stomach.
“You realize,” said Kutta. “I saw her the day she left, you know, the last time. Mother wanted me to watch the door, from an alley. Then I went and told Mother she was outside. Then that hulker just… disappeared.”
“Oh, Mother…” whispered Mhumhi.
(“I saw her going towards Big Park,” Biscuit had said, a million years ago.)
“She didn’t tell me what she did,” said Kutta. “But it wasn’t like I was stupid. And it wasn’t like she tried to hide it, really. She took the children out of their home and into the sewer and she told me to take care of them. That was all.”
“Then she went to steal the gray wolf,” said Mhumhi.
“Her last theft,” said Kutta, with a forced laugh. “She must have been feeling confident after she got the two hulkers. She wanted the biggest prize for her little collection.”
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, drawing his ears back.
“What? Isn’t that how you wanted me to talk about her?” Kutta glared at him. “Isn’t that what you said you can’t forgive? But I… Why do I have to be angry? Why do I have to hate her? I don’t want… I don’t… She was my mother, Mhumhi. I needed her. I still need her.”
Mhumhi licked his lips. “I do too…”
“There’s no but,” said Mhumhi, miserably. “She shouldn’t be gone. None of them should be gone.”
Kutta looked at him, blinking from the rain, and gave a hoarse whimper. Mhumhi went forward and touched noses with her. They stood there, with that barest brush of contact, and cried together.
The rain got harder, and thunder growled somewhere above the gray clouds. Mhumhi and Kutta walked slowly together, side by side, not quite touching shoulders. He felt so sore, not just from the night before but from the hundred thousand steps he’d walked, the hundred thousand struggles he’d been through. He knew Kutta felt the same, as she limped next to him. And ahead of them there were even more, if they chose; maybe there wasn’t even a choice in the matter.
Mhumhi saw Vimbo pacing back and forth inside the entrance to the concrete tunnel before they got there. When he spotted them he gave a little cry and ran out, large paws slapping wet trash, and sniffed them over. He squealed at the sight of Kutta’s wounds and licked her sodden head.
“I’m fine, Vimbo,” said Kutta, with a kind of weary amusement, and nuzzled him and raised her leg for him to sniff without prompting.
They went back inside the tunnel and licked the rain from their fur. Vimbo licked Kutta’s wounds, and she spoke softly to him, in a kind of tired, nonsensical murmur.
Mhumhi lay down on the concrete, one paw crooked underneath himself, and looked out into the garbage-filled vista.
“Hey, Kutta,” he said. “What are you going to do?”
She looked at him, but her expression did not change. “I’m going to go back to the city and find Tareq.”
Mhumhi sighed, though her words weren’t really surprising.
“What?” said Kutta. “You don’t think your gentle Madame would let me have him back if I asked politely?”
Mhumhi thought for a moment.
Kutta tilted her head.
“She might even let you stay there and take care of him, so she doesn’t have to,” Mhumhi said, tone wry. “Wow, she’d really hate to hear me saying that, though.”
“Do you love her?” asked Kutta.
Mhumhi hesitated, uncurling his crooked paw.
“No? Not quite, I don’t think. Maybe if I knew her longer.”
Kutta yellow-stared at him, and he raised a lip a little and said, “I don’t want to mate with her.”
“I know that, really,” said Kutta, blinking. “Might have felt better if you did. If you were seduced by that rather than, you know…”
“Were you ever seduced by another dhole?” asked Mhumhi, tone flat. Kutta seemed very aware of his inclusion of the word ‘another.’
“No, I wasn’t. Never.”
“I guess I wonder,” said Mhumhi, “why you’re so adamant about that. Even Mother never told us we weren’t what we are.”
“I decide who I am,” said Kutta, tight-lipped. Mhumhi decided to let the matter go.
“I’m not going to go back to the city right away,” he said.
“I didn’t think you were going to go back at all.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t mean to never go back. But I want to go further out. I want to look for the place where the deer-goat came from.”
Kutta pricked up her ears. “So you believe what Telipa said after all? That it’s what we’re meant to eat?”
“I don’t think there’s anything we’re meant to eat, I think we just eat,” said Mhumhi. “I want to find somewhere…” It was hard to articulate his thoughts. “Look, all our problems come from running out of food. We find some, we gorge ourselves, we run out. It’s like the dogs in the city, eating all that free meat until there’s nothing left. And the screamers here. They bred so much while there was still food, and now they’re all starving to death.”
“You think you’re going to find an endless supply of deer out there?”
“I think I’m going to look at how they survive,” said Mhumhi. “Maybe there are other ways to do it. We’ve always been looking for different things and places, but maybe that’s why we never found what we were really looking for. Those deer-goats and the birds that are here, too- they aren’t starving.”
Kutta leaned into Vimbo, who snuffled against her wet fur. “If you find out, then what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe tell somebody. I mean, those dogs in the city, they only have so much time before…”
“I see. Mhumhi the savior.” She gave a rough, whuffing laugh. “Are you sure you’re not just running away again?”
“No,” said Mhumhi, and put his chin down on the concrete.
After a moment Kutta came to lay beside him. “Will you take Vimbo with you?”
“If he wants to go,” said Mhumhi, glancing at the hyena, who was licking himself now.
“Good,” said Kutta. “I’d feel better if he was there with you.” She licked his ears.
Mhumhi looked up at her. Suddenly everything felt close and painful.
“You could… you could come with me,” he whimpered.
“I could,” said Kutta, softly, “but my heart wouldn’t be in it. I can’t just go out there without knowing where I’m going.”
Mhumhi turned his eyes back downward, down towards the concrete.
“Will you… will you be safe, out here, by yourself? The gray pack…”
“They aren’t a problem,” said Kutta. “I didn’t cut all my ties last night. You’re right that they’re split up into factions. I still have friends who will look out for me.”
“That’s good,” said Mhumhi, in a very meek way. “You always had a hard time making friends.”
She nipped him lightly on the ear.
“And you always had a way of jumping into things without a plan. How are you going to even start?”
“I know where to start from,” said Mhumhi, raising his head. “I have to find Bii.”
“Bii?” Kutta gave a growling snort. “How could you trust anything he told you? Why would he even tell you anything?”
“He’ll want to tell me,” said Mhumhi. “I have some information he really, really, wants to know.”