Our brothers and sisters.
There had been another hulker in the room, and she jumped up when they all piled in with the straining Mhumhi caught in the center of it all, and jabbered away in the hulker language. Several of them replied to her at once, waving their hands around; meanwhile Mhumhi tried to catch his breath and shut his eyes.
Someone put their hand on his back and he growled, raising his head to try to look over his shoulder. It had been the young male, who was now hastily retreating.
The other hulkers were still yammering away, getting quite loud and forceful sounding, and several fingers kept pointing towards him. The hulker who had muzzled him seemed quite put out and kept making violent slashing motions with her hand. The other female sat down and put both hands against her forehead. It seemed an ultimatum had been reached.
The room got quiet, and Mhumhi realized that all of them were sort of subtly stepping away from him. He looked up and met the gaze of the female that was sitting down. She was still supporting her head in her hands, and looked very weary.
“Can you understand me?” she asked.
He stared at her.
She turned her head and said something, flicking her hand, and the babble began again. Mhumhi’s brain suddenly caught up with him, and he jerked forward involuntarily.
“Yes! Yes, I under-”
He had to stop, choking, for his movement had made the hulkers on either side of him pull taut with their poles.
The seated hulker’s eyes were very wide, and the room had gone quite silent again. The other female asked something sharp-sounding.
The seated one replied slowly. Mhumhi was breathing heavily, watching the exchange, his chest heaving. He spoke again.
“Why have you done this? Where are Maha and Tareq? How long have you been able to-”
The seated hulker drew back in alarm, and Mhumhi felt the loops around his neck tightening again, and he whined.
“Let me speak!”
The standing female made a sharp motion, and the pressure on his neck eased. The seated one swallowed, looking a bit lost.
“You- really- understand?”
“Of course I do,” he said, feeling anger rising up in him. She was speaking Dog- albeit a heavily accented version. “Can you not understand me?”
She blinked and swallowed again. “I… understand you.”
“Then tell me where Maha and Tareq are!”
She opened her mouth, but the other one asked another unintelligible question, and she turned her head to reply.
“No! Speak to me! Tell me where they are! They are my brother and sister- puppies! Tell me where they are!”
He gave a frustrated thrash, and the pole-bearers shouted and pulled him tight. Both females put their hands out and started jabbering away. Mhumhi hung half-suspended by his neck, panting, while they argued.
After a moment they let him down and gave him some slack, and he nearly collapsed, his legs sliding every which way on the linoleum.
The seated hulker was speaking again, stilted and halting.
“We want to- put you in a cage for a moment- then we can take off the catch poles.”
“You’ve already got this thing on my face,” Mhumhi pointed out. “But fine.”
She licked her lips- he hoped it was out of nervousness and not hunger- and said something to the others. They pulled him towards one of the empty cages, pushing him backwards towards it. One catch pole came off, then the next, and then they quickly slammed the door.
Mhumhi could have saved them the trouble. He was too tired and sore to want to even attempt another escape. He sat on the wire floor of the cage and panted, ears back.
The hulkers were now crowding around, even the young male, though none of them seemed to want to get too close. He shut his eyes against their gazes, feeling his skin start to crawl.
It was reminiscent of Tareq, so Mhumhi opened his eyes again. But it was only the talking female, who was fumbling with something plastic in her hands. She pressed a button on it and nothing happened.
“Dog,” she said again.
“My name is Mhumhi,” Mhumhi felt the need to point out.
“Oh,” said the female, blinking.
“Do you have a name?” he asked, unable to quite curb the sarcasm in his tone. She didn’t seem to pick it up.
“Yes… yes, I have one. My name is Danai. And you’re- Mhumhi?”
“Where are my brother and sister?” said Mhumhi, coming close to the front of the cage so that they all moved back. “Danai?”
Much to his annoyance, Danai furrowed her brow and stopped to translate all this to the others before speaking again.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. There are no other dogs here.”
Mhumhi sighed through his nose. “They are human. Small children. They were taken here in a black car!”
“The children- oh!” She glanced back and said something to the others; Mhumhi circled in frustration inside the little cage.
“The children are fine,” said Danai, after a moment. “They have been taken to a safe place-”
“Let me see them!” Mhumhi came forward and scratched at the bars in the front of the cage.
“Why do you want to see them?”
“Because they are my brother and sister!” Mhumhi wanted to slam himself against the door in frustration, but he held back. He looked down at the door lock- it was a simple bolt that needed to be lifted and pulled.
The hulkers had been conferring again, and Denai turned back.
“Do you consider all humans your brothers and sisters, Mhumhi?”
Mhumhi was taken aback by the stupidity of the question.
“Then why these two?”
“Because they are part of my family,” said Mhumhi. Ah, now he understood what her issue was. “They were adopted by my mother.”
“I see,” said Denai. “And your mother… raised the two children?”
“Part of the time,” said Mhumhi, feeling grudging even to admit it, as if it made his claim more shaky.
Denai went and translated all this, causing excited flutters all throughout his audience.
“Is this common?” Denai asked, turning back to him. “Do many dogs adopt human children?”
He was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable, and he looked down before answering.
“No.” He hesitated. “Not if they aren’t domestic.”
“What is a domestic?”
He half thought the question might be a joke, but when he looked up at her, her eyes were quite wide and serious.
“It is… it’s a type of dog.”
“Are you a domestic?”
“I am not a domestic. I’m a painted dog.”
“What’s the difference?”
Mhumhi favored her with a five-second stare before answering. “The looks.”
She seemed to get that he was getting weary of that line of questioning. “Can you tell me more about what life is like inside the city, Mhumhi?”
He laid back his ears.
“Give me back my brother and sister, and I’ll tell you anything you want.”
She pulled her lips down, just like Maha would, and said something to the other female. At once the other shook her head and made a slicing motion.
“Did she say no?” Mhumhi demanded. “Did she say I couldn’t have them?”
Denai looked startled. “Can you understand our-“
“Can I have them or not?”
Denai swallowed. “They’re being well-taken care of… Can’t you understand how important it is that they’re with their own kind?”
Mhumhi growled at this statement, recalling Lamya.
“I am their kind, not you. You keep monsters here! What are you doing with my brother and sister?!” He glared at the door lock.
“Monsters… you mean…” Denai seemed to struggle with the word a moment, and glanced down at the plastic thing in her hand. “Hyenas?”
“Those creatures eat dogs,” growled Mhumhi. “And you- so do you humans.Are you humans, even?”
“I…” Denai hesitated, her lips parted. She appeared, Mhumhi thought, not to be as offended by the question as Lamya would have been.
“The hyenas are kept locked up here,” she said. “I’m sorry that some have gotten out into the city; I know they are dangerous.”
“Dangerous,” repeated Mhumhi, pacing in circles again. “You didn’t answer me. Are you human?”
Now Denai’s eyes tightened a bit around the corners.
“We are human.”
“And the hyenas?” Mhumhi asked. “Are they human, too?”
One of the other hulkers was prodding at Denai, jabbering questions, but she did not answer and kept staring at Mhumhi.
“What do you know about the hyenas…? No, they are not human, though I suppose-” Her brow wrinkled. “I suppose you could call them our brothers and sisters, as well.”
“Monsters,” Mhumhi said flatly.
“Not monsters- just animals,” said Denai. “Like you.”
Mhumhi was stunned, and he showed her his teeth again. “I’m not an animal! I’m a dog!”
“Oh- I didn’t mean to offend,” said Denai, seeming earnest. “I’m sorry. You’re right, you are no mere animal.” She glanced briefly at the other hulkers, but to Mhumhi’s surprise did not translate for them. “You are clearly intelligent.”
Mhumhi did not know whether he ought to take this as a compliment or an insult, so he stayed silent.
“Wait a moment,” Denai told him, and she gave him a very small smile. “I’m going to ask them if you may see your siblings.”
Again he was startled, and stared up at her as she rose from her crouch to start talking to the others in a very animated way. At once the other female started shaking her head.
They argued for quite some time, with many gestures, and the other hulkers kept chiming in. The only one who did not was the younger male- instead he crouched in front of the cage and stared at Mhumhi.
“Hello,” he said, his voice rough.
Mhumhi stared at him a moment. If he could speak Dog, why had he not said anything in the bathroom? He decided to ignore him and turned his face away.
“Hello,” said the boy again, and again. “Hello!”
Mhumhi maintained his stiff posture. After a few more tries the boy withdrew, his eyelids lowered.
Denai seemed to have reached a pivotal point, rapping her knuckles on the steel table as she spoke. The other female was scowling as she replied.
Denai turned and leaned down to Mhumhi, bracing her hands on her thighs. “They’ve agreed to let you see the children!”
Mhumhi didn’t want to wag his tail and give them the satisfaction, but it wagged on its own anyway.
“Now? Will you take me now?”
“Yes,” said Denai. “Apparently they have been… er… calling for you, anyway…”
Mhumhi felt a flash of anger at this. Of course they had! Maha especially… He remembered how she had cried when she’d been dragged away from him. The thought made him angrier.
He stepped forward and unlocked his cage with two jabs of his paw, sticking his claws through the bars.
“Then take me there right-”
The hulkers jumped back at this; several screamed. One grabbed a catch pole from the wall. Mhumhi tensed, but made himself sit back down.
Denai looked startled too, but she had also raised her hand to smother a giggle. It sounded like an ordinary hulker giggle like Maha’s, not a hyena’s.
“Will you mind having something around your neck while we go, Mhumhi?”
“Fine,” he said, quite willing to agree to about anything at this point. “Only let’s go!”
Denai said something to the other hulkers. The one holding the pole put it back down, and another picked something up and handed it to her.
“May I… put this on you?” Denai asked him, rather formally, and held it up. It was, as far as Mhumhi could tell, two pieces of cloth connected by a metal buckle.
“All right,” said Mhumhi, trying to cover his unease about it all, and pushed the cage door open. He was expecting the gasps this time, and ignored them while he stepped out and sat down again, lowering his head for her.
She leaned down close, and he tried not to look at her, tensing when her hands touched his neck. He could tell she was trying to be delicate, but he still felt a sort of repugnance at the contact, unwanted as it was. The collar closed around his neck, feeling as heavy and unnatural as the muzzle that still sat over his jaws.
“Now,” said Denai, rising back to her feet, holding the end of the leash in one hand. “We can go.”