Kutta begins to growl.
It took Mhumhi some time to separate Kutta away from the puppies, as Maha had got into a playful, cuddly mood and kept trying to tease the both of them into roughhousing with her. She even tickled Tareq, who giggled between whimpers and then ran to hide in the bathroom.
While Maha was trying to extricate him from underneath the sink, Mhumhi managed to get Kutta to slip outside with him, first outside the room, then all the way back down the hall. He did not want Maha to hear what he was going to tell her.
“What’s the matter, Mhumhi?” Kutta kept saying, unconsciously parroting Maha from earlier. Inside the little room, Mhumhi paced over the pile of paper, unsure of how he even wanted to begin. He glanced at Kutta. She looked weary, her eyelids drooping, but lucid. Now and again she would shiver a little from the cold.
Mhumhi went to stand against her, sharing his warmth, and licked the closed injury on her shoulder.
“How do you feel? I’m sorry for pulling you all the way out here.”
“I feel fine,” said Kutta, even as he felt a tremor go through her against himself. “I’m only tired. And worried. What are you so frightened of telling me?”
Mhumhi drew away from her a little. “I’m not frightened, exactly… Why do you say that?”
“You’ve seemed frightened,” said Kutta, her voice rasping. “You’ve seemed frightened ever since you came back with that strange meat two days ago. It was so strange, too… where did you find it?” She drew her ears back against her skull. “To be honest, I keep thinking about it. It was so strange and… and dark.”
Mhumhi licked his lips, and she took another step back from him.
“I’m frightened that you’re frightened, Mhumhi,” she said. “Where did it come from? Because I don’t think it was from a dispensary- Mhumhi, you’ve got to tell me, please, I’ve got to know what I ate-”
“All right!” Mhumhi said, twisting around to pace by the wall with his tail tucked. “All right! I didn’t get it from the dispensary. I- I got it from a hulker! A hulker hunt, in the long grass. I was there, and I- I-”
“A hulker?” said Kutta. “Oh.”
“Oh?!” exclaimed Mhumhi, turning back around. “What do you mean, oh?”
“I mean, yes, it’s awful,” Kutta said, rather hastily, glancing at him. “It is… but I thought you were going to say you’d killed another dog and eaten him- Mhumhi, I’m sorry.”
“You thought I’d- no! No! I didn’t even kill the hulker, Kutta, I was just there when they brought it down, and they were eating it, and I-”
“Hush, hush,” Kutta said hastily, and went to nuzzle against him. “You did what you had to do- the puppies had to eat- it’s all right. You didn’t harm anyone.”
Mhumhi let her soothe him a moment, then drew back away. He could not help but think that the fragile distinction between ‘dog’ and ‘hulker,’ even for Kutta, was much stronger when they talked about meat.
“He was still alive when they were eating him,” he found himself saying, the words all in a tumble. “And I- and he was still alive when I started eating him.”
Kutta didn’t say anything for a moment, staring at him for her yellow eyes, and then she finally said, “I suppose- I suppose it was painful…”
“I don’t know,” said Mhumhi. “He was crying out before they started tearing into him, but once they did he became very strange- very quiet-”
“Please,” said Kutta. “Mhumhi, I don’t want to hear any more, I don’t want to think about it.” She was swallowing convulsively, looking like she might be sick. “It was just the one time, and we really needed the meat. This time the meat came from- from a dispensary, right? Not from a hulker. It tasted like dispensary meat…”
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, resisting the urge to pace again. “That’s what I’ve got to tell you. I’ve got to…” A wave of anxiety swelled over him, and he turned and started gnawing on his own haunch.
“Stop that!” said Kutta, springing forward, and she pushed him down on his side. “Calm down, Mhumhi, calm down. This is a bad time- we’ve been struggling, and we’ve seen terrible things and had to do terrible things- but you are still my brother, Mhumhi, and you can tell me.”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, looking up at her scarred muzzle. He opened his mouth and started panting. “Yes, you’re right. But it’s not easy to say. I- well, first I should tell you that I went to look for the hulker. The adult hulker, to give the children to.”
Kutta backed away from him, looking stunned. “You did…? On your own? Mhumhi…”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mhumhi, rising to his feet again with some difficulty. “She won’t take them in. They’re as good as ours.”
“Oh,” said Kutta, glancing down at the floor. “Oh, I see.”
Mhumhi thought she didn’t look terribly disappointed. He scratched lightly at the papers with one paw, crumpling them.
“I’ve got to tell you what the hulker said to me, though, Kutta, while I was there. Listen…”
He began to speak, and found that it somehow got easier as he did, the words becoming dry and mechanical. Rather it was Kutta’s reactions that expressed how he ought to feel: first curiosity, then unease, then outright disgust and fear.
“No,” she said, after he told her Lamya’s comment on where all the hulkers had gone. “No… Mhumhi that’s awful, that doesn’t make any sense, why would they… no…”
“There’s more,” he said, and he told her about Lisica’s body being in the refrigerator.
“The red fox?” Kutta gasped. She trembled. “And you said there was a- a wire around her neck? Mhumhi, do you know what this means?”
“I suppose it means that the foxes haven’t really got a leader anymore,” he said. Kutta looked at him like he was mad.
“No, Mhumhi, it means that the hulker is the one who put out that wire that you were caught in!” She seemed hardly able to stop the snarl that bubbled up through her lips. “It’s because of her that you were caught- and Sacha-”
Mhumhi had not even thought of this, but Kutta was completely right. His dislike for Lamya began to solidify into hatred.
“It was her- it had to have been! Her and that awful domestic! She said something’s been stealing the dogs off her traps, too… I bet it’s been the hyenas, drawn to the smell of blood… like that time…”
“She as good as murdered Sacha,” snarled Kutta. “It’s her fault! I’ll tear that domestic apart the next time I see him!”
“Wait, Kutta,” said Mhumhi, for she was getting very worked up, panting and slobbering and pacing the length of the room. “I’d like to rip him up too- believe me- but he’s said he’ll help us. He’s offered to give us meat for the puppies. Children, he calls them.”
“He could become the meat, for all I care,” said Kutta, her yellow eyes shining evilly. Mhumhi swallowed.
She glanced at him, then seemed to deflate. “I’m sorry. I’ve just been… it does strange things to me, being sick and cooped up and hungry… And now you tell me this.”
“Sorry,” said Mhumhi. “Really.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Kutta said. “And anyway tomorrow I’ll be able to get outside again, if there’s a way that doesn’t involve getting wet. I can go with you- I can probably blend into the morning crowd at the dispensary, there’re bound to be lots of dholes. And you can meet that stupid domestic and take all his meat.”
Mhumhi had to laugh, his tongue lolling. “I guess I’ll have to. I’m afraid you’d kill him on sight.”
“I would!” said Kutta, and then she coughed. “It’d be better than sitting here.. waiting… Mhumhi, what are we going to do? I’m afraid that strange hulker will come back, or the hyenas, or the police… Did you check the house while you were aboveground?”
“No,” said Mhumhi. “I didn’t dare go near it- didn’t want anyone to recognize me. A culpeo saw Maha peeking up, but I think I led him off our track.”
“He saw her?”
“Yes, but I pretended to be police and told him to keep it secret- told him I’d give him hulker meat.” He wagged his tail, but Kutta pulled her lips back.
“Oh, Mhumhi, that wasn’t- when you don’t give him anything, what do you think he’s going to do? He’ll go to the police looking for you, won’t he? It’ll all get out!”
“Well, I-” Mhumhi was appalled to realize she had a point. “Well, what would you have done, then?”
“I don’t know… It must have all been lost anyway when someone spotted her, but to have you connected- Mhumhi, we need to hide somewhere else. Anywhere else. There’re things coming at us from all sides, and I’m frightened for the puppies.”
“But not for us?” Mhumhi asked, meaning it to sound light, but the way she looked at him seemed anything but.
“They’re our puppies now, Mhumhi, and we’ve got to protect them no matter what.”
Mhumhi was startled by the vehemence in her tone. “Kutta, I don’t think-” He paused. He had not explained to her fully the nature of the domestic dog’s ravings, nor the connections Lamya had made between kindness and the mass deaths of the hulkers. It had been too hard to wrap his own mind around.
“I don’t think we should die for them, that’s all,” Mhumhi said.
Kutta gave him a strange look. “Die for them? In what way? In what situation would we die for them? If we die, so do they. I expect you to live for them.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi. “Yes… I guess that’s easy enough.”
Kutta came over and licked his ear.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to move anywhere soon,” she said. “We’ve got to hope everything holds out for another day or two. We can regain our strength with more meat, look around, see how things stand. Then we can figure out… figure out how and where we’ll move them. Far away from here.”
Mhumhi felt a little seize in his heart at the thought of their home, now standing empty. And Bii and Kebero…
“All right,” he said. “A different part of the city, then. Maybe Zoo Park? We know it must be mostly emptied out now, and I hear there are lots of good dens and hiding places.”
“Maybe,” said Kutta. “It’s a good thought. Though a little close to police for my taste… Mhumhi, I was thinking more- have you ever thought about what might be outside the city?”
“Outside the city?” Mhumhi repeated blankly. “What’s out there?”
“Sand, I hear,” said Kutta. “But I’ve heard other things, too… I want to find out more about it.”
“What’s sand?” asked Mhumhi, and then, seeing he wasn’t going to get an answer, “Who will you ask about it? How do you even get outside the city? Does the city evenend?”
“Of course it ends, Mhumhi, it can’t just go on forever,” said Kutta. “And I don’t know who I’ll ask. But I aim to find out.”
Mhumhi was still trying to imagine what could be outside the city- what a not-city would even look like- but he was drawing a blank.
“Let’s go back to the puppies now,” said Kutta, licking his cheek again to draw him out of his thoughts. “Let’s keep that door shut tight as much as we can for now.”
“You’re right,” Mhumhi agreed, exiting the room and glancing furtively around the corner for any more lurking hyena-hulkers, but the hall was quiet and empty.
He and Kutta went back to the room and huddled down with the children that night, wrapped together in the fluffy comforter and the warmth of one anothers’ bodies. (Mhumhi had to again appreciate the hot water-bottle effect of bare hulker skin.)
The next day he and Kutta left for the big grate. Maha wanted to go with them at least part of the way, but Mhumhi urged her to stay, to keep the door shut, thinking fearfully of monsters emerging from the dark pipes.
“You’ve made her cross again,” Kutta said, once both of them had emerged cautiously from the manhole Maha had opened up the day before. “Shutting her up in that room’ll make sure she stews on it all day, too.”
“I don’t care,” said Mhumhi. “She’s safe.”
They parted ways soon after that, as they reached the end of the dusty, empty district near Wide Street. Kutta was going to brave the morning dispensary crowd, while Mhumhi thought he’d try to circle closer to their old home, at least to have a quick look at it, before going to find and meet Biscuit again to ask for more meat.
He managed to slip his way through to empty Food Strip Street, which smelled as thought it must have been less-empty of late- there were piss marks from what he surmised to be residents of Oldtown that had been evicted from their homes near Wide Street. Since they had been forbidden from going to the morning dispensary run, most of them seemed to be tucked in their homes, napping away the harsh morning sunlight. The few Mhumhi did see were not very familiar to him. He still stayed tucked into the shadows and alleys where he could.
He finally managed to sneak into the alley with the blue dumpsters, where wild-eyed Lamya had once attacked him and Bii. He spared another thought for that poor dead coyote as he skirted the rusty stain on the concrete that still remained. It had not rained in the city for some time.
He slipped around the corner, past two more streets, and then-
He crouched, in the shadows of a narrow alley. A few yards across from him stood his own familiar home, the little townhouse.
He saw at once that the door was hanging open and that someone had shat in the doorway. It almost made him rise up and go over at once, both in justified indignation and to read what the shit would tell him, but he controlled himself. That would not have been a wise move.
He quickly realized how unwise it would have been when he rose to his feet to begin walking away, for he spotted a high flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. There was a painted dog sitting on the roof of one of the townhouses in the same row. He had sat and extended his leg to lick his own genitals, but as Mhumhi watched he raised his head, licking his lips, and began scanning the street.
If that was not a sentry, Mhumhi was a fool. He possibly was a fool for getting so close anyway. He tried to make his retreat as silent and stealthy as he could, casting nervous glances at the roofs all around, but he could not spot any more watchers. It did not stop the fur on his back from rising and his tail tucking tightly underneath his belly. The police seemed to be very much still looking for them.
He cut a wide berth around their street, now twice as jumpy as before, heading for the school.
When he got close, however, he had to stop short. There were a pair of Sechuran foxes sitting on the roundabout, one yawning, one sniffing the metal curiously. Mhumhi stared at them from behind a dumpster across the street, heart pounding. What were they doing there? And how was he supposed to get near the school with then lounging about?
He had settled on the decision to try and bluff his way through as a member of the police again when a voice from behind him made him jump.
“Back for more meat, wild dog?”
He turned. Biscuit’s head and forepaws were visible over the top of another dumpster, and now he jumped out and went to crouch next to Mhumhi in the shadows. Mhumhi was a bit startled by the sudden closeness and sidled a bit closer to the alley wall.
“You see them?” Biscuit said, pointing his nose towards the pair of foxes. “They’ve been there since yesterday- not just those two, but others, wandering around the school in shifts.” He turned and fixed Mhumhi with a pale stare. “Do you know anything about them?”
“I’ve no idea,” Mhumhi said, a tad sharply. “It’s not as if I have any reason to want you in trouble. Like you said, I came here for meat for the puppies.”
Biscuit exhaled softly. “I thought I should check,” he said. “I thought the little dogs didn’t like the police, so I’ve no idea what they’re hoping to achieve by hanging around here.”
“Hoping for a mouthful of hot meat, probably,” said Mhumhi. “If they turn you in. I’m sure they’ve been feeling hungrier lately.”
“They won’t get any, if that’s true,” said Biscuit. “The police won’t arrest me if I keep my head down.”
“I thought they were going after all the domestics?”
“They are,” said Biscuit, a touch grimly, “but I have my own connections.” He did not elaborate, and Mhumhi had a feeling he wasn’t supposed to ask.
“So, the meat,” he said instead, scratching the sidewalk with one forepaw.
“There’s no meat,” said Biscuit. “Sorry. I don’t have any more stashed, and I haven’t been able to make it to the dispensary today. I doubt I’ll make the evening run either.”
Mhumhi put his ears back, wanting very much to snap, “Then what good are you?” He controlled himself.
“Fine. Then I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“I don’t know that I’ll be able to go to the dispensary tomorrow either,” said Biscuit.
“Then I won’t come back tomorrow,” said Mhumhi, not bothering to hide his irritation this time. “Should I bother coming back at all?”
“Calm down,” said Biscuit, peeping around the dumpster at the playground. “Don’t draw attention to us. I said I had no meat, but I’ve got some other food here that you can give to them. And a proposition.”
“A proposition?” Mhumhi turned around as Biscuit left his side to leap back into the dumpster behind them. He emerged with a cardboard box clutched in his teeth and dropped it on the ground with a loud smack.
Mhumhi flinched and peered over at the Sechuran foxes, but they had engaged one another in a playful wrestling match and had not appeared to notice.
Biscuit vanished and returned with a second box in his teeth as he leapt back out.
“Two should be all right for now,” he said, after he had laid the second next to the first. “This stuff is no good if you regurgitate it, so you’ll have to carry the box in your teeth.”
“If that’s true, I think I’ll only be able to carry one,” Mhumhi pointed out, coming over to sniff the box. It smelled a bit like the papery stuff Lamya had offered him, but with a much more interesting flavor.
“I can carry the other one, if you show me where to go,” said Biscuit. Mhumhi’s tail rose stiffly.
“I’ll just take the one.”
“I admire your protectiveness,” said Biscuit, “but you’re being foolish. If I know where the children are, I can provide you with more help. Others in our network could assist you. As long as you are helping humans, we are most certainly on the same side.”
“I wasn’t aware there were sides,” said Mhumhi, tone cool. “And if there are, I’m not on the side of someone who kills other dogs.”
Biscuit raised his head slowly. “I’ve never killed a dog.”
“No- but you’ve helped that hulker set snares, and you’ve let the dogs here walk into them unknowingly-”
“Were you caught by one?” said Biscuit. “I noticed the injury to your foot. I am sorry; it looks painful. I thought about telling you where the others were set, but you see, I don’t trust you not to warn the other dogs here. Lamya must eat meat occasionally, you know. This boxed food is not sufficient.”
Mhumhi had felt a snarl growing in him the longer Biscuit talked, and now he took a step towards him, quivering with rage.
“Lives have been lost for your stupid hulker’s health,” Mhumhi snapped. “Don’t youcare? Dogs who can think and feel-“
“Do you attack the dogs who hunt down humans in Big Park the same way, Mhumhi?” Biscuit was raising his lip slightly. “You didn’t seem to care when you mentioned it earlier- ‘a mouthful of hot meat.’ Doesn’t it bother you where that comes from?”
“Of course it does!” said Mhumhi, backing away a step, feeling his heart suddenly thudding. “But I haven’t murdered any hulkers-”
“And I haven’t murdered any dogs,” said Biscuit. “But I allow Lamya to exist, the same as you allow your police to do as they please.”
“It isn’t the same,” Mhumhi insisted, though he had begun to tuck his tail.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Biscuit said. “You are willing to accept my food, but no further help; does that assuage you of some guilt, somehow? If you take only food, those dead dogs will feel better, but if you let me know where the children are, you betray them?”
“That- that is- you’ve twisted it around,” said Mhumhi. “I don’t want you knowing where the puppies are because I don’t trust you!”
“And why is that? You have some reason to think I’ll hurt them?”
When Mhumhi was silent, he went on. “If you do not want me knowing where they are, that’s fine. Take one box. But like I said before, I have a proposition for you.”
“And what is that?” Mhumhi asked, somewhat grudgingly.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said Biscuit, “but I suspect that from the smell on you, you’ve been spending a lot of time in the sewers. You may not realize this, but it is a bad place to keep children. They can quickly get sick-”
“I’m not stupid, Biscuit,” Mhumhi said. “We don’t have a choice.”
“That is my proposition,” said Biscuit. “I know a safe place, where no other dogs should be able to get in, far from police. The children will be happy and healthy there.”
Mhumhi did not speak for a moment, startled. It was almost as if Biscuit had somehow been listening in on the conversation he had had the night before with Kutta.
“It is very secure,” Biscuit insisted. “I would have even moved Lamya there, but she is attached to our current home. It was going to be used by companions of mine, but with the recent police raids…” He paused, lowering his head. “They and their humans were caught trying to move in.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, not sure what the appropriate reaction to this would be. Biscuit seemed genuinely saddened by the memory. “That’s… very unfortunate. Were the dogs part of your family?”
“No,” said Biscuit. “A domestic dog’s family are his humans. But to lose those four humans… we have very few left, you see.”
“Well,” said Mhumhi, “in that case I don’t understand why you’d want me to move the puppies. Isn’t it risky?”
“I’ve learned,” said Biscuit. “It can be done much more safely, in the dead of night, by taking certain paths… There will always be some risk, of course, with humans out on the streets, but some chances you must take.”
Mhumhi cast a wary eye on him. For all his talk of wanting to protect the remaining hulkers, he certainly seemed very eager to get Maha and Tareq moved, Mhumhi suspected, somewhere where he could easily access them.
“You do not have to decide right away,” said Biscuit, perhaps sensing his wavering. “I can take you there tonight to look at the place, and see for yourself.”
“Yes,” said Biscuit. “If you meet me at the south end of Wide street after the moon has set, I’ll guide you there. We shouldn’t find any trouble at that time.”
Mhumhi thought it over carefully. The offer seemed valid- there did not seem to be any obvious suspicious signs- but he was still uneasy.
“Fine,” he said. “But I’ll be bringing my sister.”
Biscuit hesitated for only a fraction of a second. “Good. I want to meet her again anyway.”
No, thought Mhumhi, amused in spite of himself, you might not.