A thousand more steps.
The three of them- the two dogs and the hyena- stayed together for a few more days, resting, gathering their strength. A kind of hazy peace had fallen over the garbage dump, muffled as it was by the near-constant mist. The screamers lumbered about, hooting and seeking. Mhumhi and Kutta ate the ones that were dying or already dead. Vimbo vanished and returned on his own, licking his bloody chops.
They saw members of the gray pack, and at one point Kutta even spoke softly to a trio of side-striped jackals. There was no further aggression between them, though the jackals looked across at Mhumhi with a certain hatefulness in their eyes.
It was a reminder that things would not last. Wrapped in the comforting mist, Mhumhi had almost been able to pretend that things would be all right; that they could eke something out here, together, that nothing bad had happened between he and Kutta.
It was a fragile lie. Kutta herself was quiet and withdrawn, though not unfriendly. When the screamers begged from them, she had taken to feeding them, wagging her tail and licking their faces while they cooed over her with slavish affection. Mhumhi disapproved, because it meant they had a cadre of the things following them around constantly, but he didn’t say anything. He’d taken Tareq from her, after all.
She began to sleep with them curled around her, too, which made him more nervous, and he did speak up about this; but Kutta merely whisked her tail and said, “They comfort me.”
They found Bii- or rather, Vimbo found Bii, while pawing apart a raggedy old bird’s nest. Mhumhi had a very, very brief conversation with him. The last he saw of the old fox was his back end, hobbling swiftly on three legs towards the concrete tunnel.
Mhumhi dearly hoped that he would find what he was looking for.
He was stalling, and he knew it; the information he had needed was in his grasp and there was no reason to delay leaving. Vimbo was impatient as well, ranging constantly, sometimes disappearing for hours, the only sign of him his low, incessant whoops.
Mhumhi wondered, for what must have been the thousandth time, how much Vimbo understood of what was going on. Did he guess that they were going to leave? Did he want to leave? Or was he merely preparing for another long absence of his own?
He spoke to the hyena frequently now, the way Kutta spoke to her screamers. Vimbo would listen, and sometimes scrape in the trash with his paws, like he was trying to respond.
Kutta woke Mhumhi up very early one cool morning. The sky was gray and sunless, and the white birds were just beginning to rouse in their colony nearby in a sleepy babble.
“It’s time for you to go, Mhumhi,” she said.
Mhumhi blinked up at her. She was surrounded by screamers, one tugging on her ear and cooing. An infant clutched her left foreleg. Behind her, two more were pressing their faces together, their arms wrapped around one another.
It took him a little while to process the words coupled with the strange sight.
“I told the gray pack that you would be leaving soon,” said Kutta, and nudged away the screamer that was pulling on her ear. “They’re getting anxious, Mhumhi. They don’t trust you. Some of them are getting unfriendly. It could get bad if you don’t leave.”
Mhumhi rubbed his muzzle with a paw.
“Probably,” said Kutta. “Probably within the next hour. I just spoke to a jackal.”
Mhumhi swallowed, then got up. Several of the screamers hooted and backed away.
“Wandering around near the birds,” said Kutta. “I’ll go with you.” At Mhumhi’s look, she clarified. “To get him.”
Mhumhi lowered his head and wagged his tail once.
They trotted together over the hills and mounds towards the ocean. The screamers trailed after them, fanning out to squat and pick at things. Mhumhi saw the shapes of dogs with pointed ears in the distance, winking in and out of the mist.
The birds wheeled around and scolded them as they approached their nests. Mhumhi picked up the heavy scent of hyena right away; Vimbo had smeared his own sticky excretions on several jutting bits of metal. When they came over the hills they spotted him in the surf, splashing in the shallow water, circling around and around.
“What’s he doing?” asked Kutta, but Mhumhi had spotted it: a little baby bird, a grayish, ugly-looking thing, was fluttering weakly at the surface of the water as Vimbo chased it.
He went down to the sand at a lope and splashed into the water beside Vimbo. The hyena grunted and splashed down a big paw, sending the baby bird spinning helplessly in the current, peeping and fluttering.
Mhumhi took the warm, wet little thing in his mouth and backed out of the water. Vimbo grunted.
Kutta trotted over, sniffed the little bird, which was crying and struggling in Mhumhi’s grasp, and then scanned the sky.
“I see them,” she said, and Mhumhi looked up: there were, indeed, two birds which were flying more erratically, and crying out more loudly, than the rest of the others. One swooped down low towards Mhumhi, filling his ears with raucous shrieks. He flinched.
Kutta led the way, keeping an eye on the wheeling birds, and pointed out the empty nest with her nose. Mhumhi went and laid the wet, flapping chick back into it.
They stepped back. The chick flapped and struggled, blundering forwards out of the nest. The two birds above still soared and shouted.
“Why don’t they go down to it?” asked Kutta. Her tail was drooping.
“They must still be frightened of us,” said Mhumhi. “Come on, let’s go away from here. They’ll calm down.”
They retreated further, though Kutta kept glancing behind her shoulder, and around a bank of garbage. Vimbo sloshed through the surf after them. Mhumhi wondered what he’d been planning to do with the baby bird.
After a while the birds’ cries faded away behind them, and they came to a stretch of beach that was nearly unmarred by garbage, with only a few bits of plastic and paper embedded in the sand. Small pieces of broken glass gleamed like jewels.
Kutta slowed down.
“I’d better not go too much further,” she said. Mhumhi looked back. Her cadre of screamers, which had backed away from the birds, were closing in again.
“Kutta, really, will you be all right alone?”
“They won’t hurt me,” said Kutta. “You give them a little affection, and they’re yours forever, Mhumhi.”
“Not if they get hungry enough,” Mhumhi pointed out.
“You could say the same about us,” Kutta said. “Don’t be a hypocrite.”
“I’ll take your life over theirs all the same,” said Mhumhi, disgruntled, and she licked his ears.
“I’ll be just fine. If I keep feeding these ones, they’ll keep the others away. The gray pack has started to do the same thing. They really like the screamers, you know. Never had a problem with them.”
“You just wait.”
“They’re not our enemy, Mhumhi,” said Kutta. “You know they’re just what they are. I think they’re almost… helpless.”
“Who, the screamers or the gray pack?”
Kutta gave him a firm nudge with her shoulder. “The screamers. They need someone to take care of them. They’re like puppies.”
Mhumhi gave a thin snort through his nose.
“I’m a little tired of puppies, myself.”
“I know,” said Kutta. “That’s why you’re leaving.”
There was a brief, uncomfortable silence. Vimbo splashed over to them, up out of the water, and shook himself. He came to brush up against Mhumhi, leaning against him and groaning.
“Alright, alright, we’re going,” said Mhumhi, staggering sideways. Vimbo hooked a paw over his back and tugged on his ear.
“He’s in a good mood,” Kutta observed. “I guess he’s excited about leaving.”
“I don’t think he has any idea,” said Mhumhi, and ducked out from under Vimbo’s hold. Vimbo tried to paw at him again. “Vimbo, stop it, this is serious.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” said Kutta, wagging her tail a little. “Come on, Mhumhi, lighten up.”
Mhumhi gave her a look, but she was trotting ahead now, her tail high. “Bii said you had to follow the beach, right?”
“Follow the beach, cross to the sandbar, then to a river, down through a crevasse,” Mhumhi said. “Then we should find more deer-goats. I hope.”
“It sounds exciting,” said Kutta. Her tail fluffed out and waved like a flag in the wind. “Do you want to race?”
“Let’s race,” said Kutta, and she took off running, her legs pumping as fast as they could go. Vimbo took off after her, his heavier paws throwing up sand. Mhumhi, caught by surprise, was third.
Not for long, though. He dug his paws through the coarse sand and picked up speed, flashing by the hooting, confused screamers, coming up on Vimbo’s bunching hindquarters. The hyena gave a giggle and shied left, his paws kicking up water, and Mhumhi sped past him, aiming for his sprightly, springing sister. She turned back to look at him, grinning, her tongue hanging out sideways.
His heart beat loudly in his ears and he smiled back, though there was a kind of painful constriction in his chest, and then he caught her up, shoulder to shoulder- she was really running now, her breath coming in harsh pants, mingling with his own, her lower canines flashing with each jerk of her head.
He overtook her, galloping, tearing through the sand. Sparkling seawater winked by on his left, flooded with color from the rising sun. The wind rushed in his ears.
He ran and ran, legs moving tirelessly, and when he finally slowed down and looked back he was running alone.
He stopped. The waves washed over the long line of his pawprints, already erasing them. The vast sun shimmered over the horizon, lighting the clouds with delicate colors.
After a while he heard someone coming, and pricked up his ears. Around an outcropping of trash came Vimbo, grunting with each stride. At the sight of Mhumhi he came to a sandy stop, panting hard.
Mhumhi realized that he was panting himself. He looked to his right. The trash level was lower here, crumpling downwards. It seemed they were nearing the edge of the dump.
Vimbo came beside him and flopped down with a groan.
“No, no,” Mhumhi said, coming down to nudge his shoulder. “Not yet. We’ve still got a ways to go, my friend.”
Vimbo groaned again and rolled over, laying a paw across his face, but when Mhumhi started to walk away he put his head up, and then got himself up with a heavy sigh. He caught up with Mhumhi and shook, spraying him with sand.
“Thanks,” said Mhumhi, and then shook himself. They carried on at a slow lope, following the shoreline.
Mhumhi thought that as the piles got smaller, the dump would end, but it lingered for a long time, curving slightly away from the shoreline, leaving patches of bare dirt and sand. After they had moved for a time they saw more birds, though these were black, and very large, flying in slow circles. Some had landed, and Mhumhi saw that these had long, cruel-looking beaks and small eyes. He and Vimbo gave them a wide berth.
The sun was high by the time the dump finally seemed to give up; it curved away from the shoreline for good, disintegrating into clumps of trash that got smaller and smaller, until there were individual scattered bottles and bits of paper every few feet, but no more hills.
No more hills made of garbage, anyway. He could now see hills made of earth, off in the distance; wrinkled and reddish. Yellowy plants dotted the slopes.
Mhumhi but his head down and sniffed: the sandy soil smelled acrid, and the wind felt drier. The seawater was bluer and clearer here.
Vimbo licked his lips and looked at him. Mhumhi licked his own lips. He’d forgotten to get a drink before they had left, and now there was no telling when they would find fresh water again. He was not quite thirsty yet, but… They had better find the river Bii had mentioned today.
Hopefully it really existed.
They kept moving. The scattered trash lingered long after the dump ended, though here and there there were also scrubby plants poking up out of the sand, and small flies that whined as they flew. Mhumhi spotted the animal Tareq had called a lizard once, darting on top of a rock and stopping to lick its own eye.
Eventually they reached a place where the ocean made an abrupt turn, sweeping forward and bulging out into a vast bay. The water was shallow and calm, the sand paler. Mhumhi saw black and white birds swimming around, ducking their heads underneath the water.
The bay was very large, and it might have taken them several hours to go all the way around it. But from the spit of land they were standing on was its narrowest point, and Mhumhi could see an exposed sandbar sticking out in the center.
“Come on, Vimbo,” he said, whisking his tail against the hyena’s side, and walked into the water.
Soon it was too deep to walk, and he had to swim, pumping his legs to keep his head above the water. Vimbo paced on the shore a few times before leaping after him with a tremendous splash.
Swimming the strait was much shorter than walking around, but it was still a fairly long distance across to the sandbar, which was just a flat pale line in the distance. Mhumhi could already feel a tired ache building up in his muscles as he thrust his legs forward. The water was cold, and not so calm as it had appeared from the shore: currents tugged at him from underneath.
Vimbo gave a little whine from behind him, where he was swimming noisily. Mhumhi would have liked to say something to reassure him, but he was having to concentrate hard on not getting water in his mouth as it was.
It had not occurred to him how much more energy it took to swim than walk. His legs soon felt like deadweight, a thousand pounds of effort to keep cycling them up and down. Seawater slopped over his tongue. The distant line seemed no closer.
A wave suddenly rocked him up and down. Mhumhi’s stomach rolled with it. Another wave came, briefly closing over his head, so that he reemerged gasping and splashing. Behind him Vimbo made a garbled sound.
Was the sandbar any closer…? Mhumhi’s eyelids felt strangely heavy. The waves were pushing him sideways towards the bay. He wished they had some of the boats Sekayi had talked about. The boats that had carried all of the hulkers down the shoreline, following the white birds…
He was underwater again, and this time he spun a little. Shafts of sunlight sparked down through the bluish gloom, and he saw strange darting shapes.
A pressure closed in on his neck and he reemerged from the cold, silent world, coughing and sputtering in the air. Vimbo had grabbed the back of his head and pulled him upwards.
No breath to spare for thanks: they swam, shoulder to shoulder, scraping each other occasionally with their legs. The waves teased them, pushing them, rolling them, sneaking over top of them. Mhumhi felt like a machine: just swim, breathe, swim.
When his paws finally brushed sand it came as a shock, and he actually stumbled and fell sideways. Vimbo caught him again before he was swept away by the current. Together they staggered forward onto the shallow plain, covered by only a foot or so of water. Mhumhi’s body felt incredibly heavy, his legs barely holding him. When they finally reached the sandbar it was he who collapsed, as Vimbo stood over him and panted.
He fell into an exhausted stupor for a while, staring at the gently-moving water. How could Bii have made it this far, with his tiny size and only three legs? It was impossible. He had to have been lying. It was all one final trick to punish them…
Vimbo, who had wandered off a little ways, came back with something small in his mouth. He dropped it into the sand beside Mhumhi.
Mhumhi forced himself to raise his heavy head to sniff the little object. When he did, he burst out in a near-hysterical whuff of laughter.
The little object Vimbo had found was an old scat, hardened and salt-encrusted. And it belonged to Bii. The fox had not lied.
Mhumhi got to his feet, slowly, achingly, as Vimbo lowered his head and grunted.
“Can’t stop here, the tide will come in,” Mhumhi said, more to remind himself, and looked out, down the long thin line of the sandbar. It reconnected with the land some ways away, and there he could see it: the wide, discolored mouth of the river, and around it, rising higher the further from the beach they were, two tall cliffs on either side.
“We’re going there,” he told Vimbo. “That’s the place we’ve been looking for.”
Vimbo blinked at him, then swung his head outwards to look. He gave a low grunt. The sun was lower, the shadows longer, and the river in the ravine fading into blackness.
“We can make it,” Mhumhi said to Vimbo.
As if in answer, there came a low, vibrating noise, shuddering through the air into Mhumhi’s ears: a distant roar, like the one they had heard from the safe place.