Dream of running in the grass.
Mhumhi’s thought, as he continued to follow Jabulile and the hyena through the misty red dispensary, was how much easier things would be if he could just live off flies and cockroaches like Bii did. Maggots might become flies, but they didn’t turn into hulkers as far as he knew, and they couldn’t talk like dogs. At least he hoped they couldn’t.
He tried to keep his mind on the mysterious life cycles of insects as they passed another row of dangling dead hyenas. These ones had fur on them, and they were being jerked along the rail in a slight curve into another dark chamber. Presumably to have their skin pulled off. Mhumhi’s own fur prickled unpleasantly. At least they were already dead. At least they were animalistic hyenas and not dogs. At least-
He was trying very hard not to think about that hulker hand.
“Dog,” called Jabulile, pausing and turning on his heel to look back at him. “You all right? You’re lagging.”
Mhumhi wrinkled his brow as he looked up to him. “I’m fine. Is the exit close?”
“Not far now,” said Jabulile, stretching his arms up over his head. “Hey, Vimbo, get back over here.”
The hyena had drifted away to sniff at a disused conveyer belt, but now he slunk back to Jabulile, ears pressed flat and mouth open. Mhumhi was no expert on hyena behavior, but he certainly smelled frightened. It was making the overbearing stench of the place worse. Mhumhi himself was still drooling with unease. Only Jabulile seemed unaffected- he had his arms crossed behind his head now, and was giving a little smile.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Mhumhi asked, eyeing him.
“Doesn’t what bother me?” Jabulile glanced down at him. “The meatmaking? I’ve seen dead things before-”
“You were one of them once,” interrupted Mhumhi. “And now you eat them.”
“Oh,” said Jabulile, and his smile faded away, just like that. “Oh.” He looked away for a moment, scratching his chin.
“Sometimes I do think about it,” he admitted, fingers brushing the fur on Vimbo’s head. “Like, what if I’m eating someone I was buddies with, back then? Or like, my brother?” Now he rubbed his chin again, fingers scratching at the fine stubble underneath it, eyes wide. “I’ve thought about like… My mother never did become a bouda. Aunty did, but she didn’t, and after she had me I did. I dunno what happened to my mother. When I’m eating, I’ve thought about like what if…” He swallowed.
“But aunty tells me not to think about it, cause we’re not hyenas anymore and it’s all different. They’re just-” He screwed up his face, reminding Mhumhi a little of Maha. “A vessel.”
“So you say,” said Mhumhi, turning away to glance at the hanging line of bodies again. Jabulile gave that sharp little laugh of his.
“I don’t say it! She does! And I hate it, dog, I hate her. I hate this whole stupid place. It’s all lies. We’re eating our mothers and brothers ‘cause they don’t end up looking like us. It’s fucked up!”
He shook his head vigorously, and Mhumhi could hear him grinding his teeth.
“I want to get out of here- I’ve wanted to for a long time.”
“I dunno! Somewhere that it makes sense, dog. Somewhere it doesn’t scare me to think about stuff too hard. These hyenas…” He glanced at the slowly-moving row of them. “Aunty told you she couldn’t remember being one, but I can.”
“You can?” Mhumhi was startled. “What was it-” He stopped himself mid-sentence, thinking of the horrible kennel he’d woken up in.
“Well, not really details and stuff,” Jabulile admitted, rubbing his chin again. “But like, I have dreams about it, yeah? Running on all fours, with my clan.”
“Yeah, you know, the whole group… I know I had one brother…” He furrowed his brow. “It’s like, in the dream I’m running, dog, and everyone’s around me, and I can hear and smell everything. I know it’s what things must’ve been like… No thinking, no nothing, just running.”
Mhumhi looked at his eyes, which were shining a little, and thought of those hyenas he had seen pacing alone in their tiny stalls, mouths open and eyes half-mad.
“It sounds like a nice dream,” he said, tone neutral.
“I wish we did turn back,” said Jabulile, looking down at Vimbo. His voice was wistful. “It’d feel better not to think… Hey, dog, in the world outside, have you got a clan?”
“I… I have a family,” Mhumhi said slowly. As fragmented as it was now.
“Yeah? Do you run with them?”
Mhumhi gave him an odd look, but his face was bright and hopeful again.
“I… suppose we do run. Sometimes.”
“And you let those two kids run with you?”
“No,” said Mhumhi. “It’d be too dangerous for them.”
“Oh,” said Jabulile, and he looked thoughtful for a moment. “So it’s dangerous out there, huh?”
“For a hul- a human.”
“I guess it would be. But- there’re some left out there, right?”
“Yes. They need dogs to help them survive, though.”
“Yeah,” Jabulile said, dreamily. “Up at the surface there’s… there’s more stuff, right? Like trees… grass…”
“Don’t go near the grass,” said Mhumhi abruptly. “No- the grass is a badplace.”
“What’s the matter with grass? I’ve never seen any…”
“It’s bad,” Mhumhi repeated firmly. “And there’s not much of it. Most of the surface world is like this. Concrete and metal. Safer than grass.”
“I don’t want to be safe,” muttered Jabulile, but Mhumhi did not hear him. He was getting distracted by a sudden increase in noise- not the dull, regular noises of machinery but organic noises. Hyena noises.
“Are there live hyenas down here?”
“Yeah,” said Jabulile, touching Vimbo’s head again, for the hyena was pressing back against his legs. “The ones they’re gonna slaughter, they keep ‘em here. The exit is right near them.”
“Right near them?” They turned a corner, and the steam that had been clouding the air started to clear. Mhumhi saw that the hooks on the jerking rail line were hanging clean and empty here. The whoops and gibbering of frightened hyenas grew louder.
“Because that’s where they let them out,” said Jabulile. “When they decide they want to put some in the city. There’s a tunnel. That’s where you can go.”
Mhumhi swung his head around to give him a dead-eyed stare. “Through a tunnel filled with hyenas?”
“I mean, it shouldn’t be filled with them right now!” Jabulile rolled his eyes. “They only go through it when someone lets them out! They just let a whole bunch of them out earlier, but…”
Vimbo interrupted him by backing into him, fouling his legs so that he nearly tripped, laughing fearfully. Jabulile swore and grabbed a hanging chain to balance himself.
“Damn it, Vimbo, you stupid coward!”
Mhumhi saw what had frightened the hyena- the pen was now visible in front of them. It was a sort of chickenwire box, packed with struggling hyenas, almost comically so, except when you looked at the way their eyes were white with fear where their faces were smashed up against the side. Mhumhi could smell fresh blood and old infection coming from them; dried shit was matted into their fur.
“How- how long do they keep them like that?” he cried, reeling back.
“Normally not long,” said Jabulile, who was looking over at them with a sort of flat-eyed look and a half smile; Mhumhi realized it was the same as when he had sat on the pile of corpses. “They kill ‘em quick. But lately they keep the ones they’re gonna release in there for longer, so they get hungrier and meaner.”
He stopped to nudge Vimbo with his foot- the hyena had flattened himself, dragging his rump, and was uttering little grunts and whines.
“I shouldn’t even have taken you,” Jabulile said, poking at him a bit harder.
“Where’s the exit?” said Mhumhi. He was quite ready to leave the place.
“Back behind them,” said Jabulile, pointing. Mhumhi saw that there was a sort of chute made of more chicken wire behind the pen, leading to a flat wooden panel. Another, similar panel blocked the hyenas from getting into the chute through a hole in the pen. Mhumhi eyed it nervously- it looked flimsy, and he could see the hyenas chewing on the edges of it even now.
The top of the pen was hooked closed with a sort of elastic- clearly the hyenas were lifted inside. Mhumhi had a brief fantasy of opening it and letting the poor creatures out, but that would obviously be a poorly thought-out choice. They’d be much more hungry than grateful.
“How will I get into the tunnel?” he asked, returning his attention to the wire chute. “You’re not expecting me to go in there with them, are you?”
“No, no,” Jabulile said, waving his hands like his aunt. “I think I can pull it away enough for us to get inside.”
Mhumhi had started to pace a bit, but now he paused. “Us?”
“Oh.” Jabulile flicked his eyes away for a moment. “I was going to ask you…”
Mhumhi raised his tail stiffly. “You cannot go to the surface with me!”
Jabulile’s eyes widened. “What do you mean? I was only going to ask if I could-“
Mhumhi raised a lip at him. “It’s dangerous! Don’t you realize it? You’ll die!”
“I won’t die!” exclaimed Jabulile. “Look, I’m not like those kids- I’m an adult! I know how to take care of myself! So please- please let me join your clan!”
Mhumhi was floored. He stared at Jabulile, who was the picture of earnestness, even clasping his hands in front of himself.
“I can pull my weight- I can help you find food- and I know stuff, too, I can even operate stuff for you- I’ll be useful. Please let me join you!”
“No,” said Mhumhi.
“Why not? It won’t cost you anything!”
“No!” Mhumhi was beginning to growl. “You stupid- you have no idea what you’re asking!”
“I won’t drag you down!” Jabulile reached a hand out to him, like he was going to touch his head as he had done with Vimbo. “We could be like brothers! I could run with the dogs-”
Mhumhi jerked away.
“You fool,” he said. “Why do you think it’s dangerous for humans? You will be eaten alive!”
Jabulile took a step forward. “I don’t care how dangerous it is-“
“Are you not listening to me?” Mhumhi snarled. “They will hunt you down and eat your flesh, human! Dogs eat humans! Dogs eat humans!”
Jabulile stopped, hand outstretched, as though he still wanted to pet him.
“But,” he said, “but, you have those two human children- you call them your brother and sister-”
“I have eaten a human’s heart,” growled Mhumhi, “and I would not hesitate to eat yours, little one.”
Jabulile said nothing, only put down his hand. Beads of sweat were starting to emerge around his face. He looked as frightened as he had the first time Mhumhi had seen him in the bathroom. Mhumhi felt he had no choice but to keep pressing his point.
“Understand this: on the surface, you are only meat. It is not some paradise with grass and trees and happy dogs that run. That place only exists in your head. Stay there!”
Jabulile swallowed and inclined his head. Mhumhi found that he was shaking a little, and turned away, looking past the straining, pleading hyenas at the wire chute. He needed so badly to leave this dreadful place.
“I don’t care what you say!” Jabulile was abruptly striding towards him, and Mhumhi whirled around. “If you won’t take me into your clan, that’s fine!”
“You-” Mhumhi sprang out of the way, and Jabulile broke into a run and grabbed the wire chute, gritting his teeth with effort as he bent it towards him and away from the wall. The hyenas grunted and gibbered more intensely, straining at the edges of their prison, like they were one being with multiple limbs and heads and dirty flesh.
“I’m going to the surface!” Jabulile wiped his face, and Mhumhi realized there were tears there. “And you, dog- you can stay here, and become meat!”
Mhumhi growled, raising his lips again, but he hesitated to do anything, seeing Jabulile’s tears still falling. The boy wiped his face again with his upper arm, still wrestling with the wire, and called, “Vimbo! Come on!”
The hyena looked towards him, raising his ears slightly, and Jabulile bent down, still sniffling, the back of his neck dark and exposed.
Mhumhi felt a kind of jolt in his chest at the sight.
“Stand up!” he cried, but it was too late, for Vimbo ran past him and sprang upon Jabulile’s back, fastening his jaws around his neck.
Jabulile gave a shriek and the hyenas in the cage screamed too, writhing in their prison, dark eyes shining with the smell of blood. Mhumhi ran forward and drove his teeth into Vimbo’s hind leg, his mouth filling with coarse fur. The hyena squealed and whirled back around, kicking himself free, and darted to crouch near the opposite wall. Mhumhi coughed.
“Jabulile, get up!”
Jabulile did not move. Mhumhi shuddered a moment and then walked around to try to gauge the wound on his neck. There were four raw-looking puncture marks, and blood was seeping out of them still.
“Get away from me,” he suddenly gasped, making Mhumhi jump.
“Hurry up, get up,” Mhumhi urged him, trying to nose his shoulder, but Jabulile flinched away on the ground.
“You attacked me,” he moaned.
“It wasn’t me!” snapped Mhumhi. “Get up, you fool, or-”
Jabulile suddenly surged forward and grabbed him around the neck. Mhumhi thrashed and squealed with surprise as Jabulile dragged him backwards, on his knees, tightening the pressure.
Mhumhi struggled, feeling a flash of real fear as his windpipe closed under those strong hulker hands. He braced his paws against Jabulile’s chest and shoved, his jaws open and useless around the crook of his elbow. Jabulile hung on, panting and leaking blood.
Vimbo gave a whoop and darted towards the two of them, his short tail raised, and Jabulile’s grip slackened as he gasped. Mhumhi twisted free, panting, finding himself standing alongside the hyena.
Jabulile pressed back against the chicken wire, eyes bulging with fear. Mhumhi coughed, feeling his own rage and his sore throat, and then turned aside. There was a gap big enough for him to squeeze through now, but the wood panel was still in place. He limped forward and applied his teeth to it, tugging backwards. Behind him Vimbo gave soft grunts and paced in front of Jabulile.
The wood splintered against Mhumhi’s teeth, but the panel finally gave way and clattered forward. Cold air spilled out of the dark opening behind it.
Jabulile gave a little cry and Mhumhi turned back around with a growl.
“You beast,” the boy was sobbing, “you monster, you animal- I hate you-”
Mhumhi stalked towards him and he fell silent, pressing back against the wire, perilously close to where hyena faces were pressing curiously forward with noses and teeth mashed into the cross-hatching. Mhumhi put one paw on Jabulile’s thigh- he gave a sob- and then Mhumhi tore open his pocket and picked up the white card there in his teeth.
There was nothing left to do, and Mhumhi sprang away, back to the dark opening and the blessedly cool air, squeezing through the gap in the wire while the hyenas behind him gibbered and moaned. Mhumhi ran, the card clutched in his teeth, glad for the increasing darkness.
He had found himself thinking of the teeth in Sacha’s head again, he could not help it, those damnable hyenas-
The whole tunnel stank of them, and Mhumhi slowed. His leg was starting to act up again, and he dropped the white card with a clatter to turn back and lick at it.
A hyena’s whoop suddenly echoed through the tunnel. Mhumhi’s heart pounded. Vimbo!
He left the card where it was and broke into a run again, or tried to, but his leg had chosen a cursed time to suddenly get stiff and painful. He limped forward on three legs, panting, as clattering footsteps approached behind him.
He heard Vimbo stop a little ways away and grunt.
“Get back,” Mhumhi snarled. “Go back and eat your master- I don’t care anymore-”
Vimbo took another step forward. In the dim light Mhumhi could not make out much more than the dim lumpy shape of him and the shine of the teeth in his open mouth.
“Go back,” he spat, fruitlessly, for the hyena just stood there. They passed a tense moment, and then Mhumhi turned to limp another step further away. Vimbo took a step after him.
“I said go back!”
He saw the form of the hyena crouch at his words, which echoed in the round tunnel. He tool another step away, then another, as the hyena did not move.
He made it several feet down the long tunnel before he heard the hyena start to move again, but it was slow and cautious, and Mhumhi focused on grimly moving forward. He was certain that the moment his guard was down he’d have the hyena’s teeth in him; Vimbo’s docile nature was merely a weak mask for a monster.
He finally emerged from the tunnel into a larger open space, pitch black, with crumbling concrete under his feet. It was very cold, and of course reeked powerfully of hyena. He stumbled about for a minute and felt what seemed to be piles of debris all around. He could hear a dull noise, like a rushing sound, overhead.
Quite abruptly he realized where he was. It was inside the subway, near where he and Kutta had once climbed over a pile of broken concrete to get to a pipe that led to the puppies’ room. He had noticed the other opening before, but he’d hardly even thought about it, except that Kutta had said their mother was frightened of it.
How, wondered Mhumhi, had his mother ever known?
He heard scratching noises and a soft snuffling; Vimbo had emerged to join him. With a soft growl Mhumhi felt around carefully, searching for the pipe; if memory served him it was slightly too small for a hyena to get into.
This thought was triumphant, but apparently a folly, for when Mhumhi squeezed inside Vimbo followed, apparently just small enough.
By the time Mhumhi slip out of the opposite end of the pipe and into the dim light of the reservoir, he was less worried about Vimbo killing him and more worried about him sticking to him like a flea- the hyena had spent half the time crawling after him and whimpering, and the other half gently licking his backside. He was not sure if that had been friendly or a taste test. The hyena’s round-eared head popped out of the pipe, his black eyes blinking. Mhumhi started limping up the spiraling walkway, feeling disgusted, and then stopped.
Something was trotting down the walkway towards him, not a hyena, thankfully, but a dog, lean and lanky and just out of puppyhood- a Simien wolf, by the look of that razor-thin muzzle. The wolf was wagging its tail and whining, and a few feet from Mhumhi it broke into a run.
Mhumhi was frozen for a moment, and then the wolf was licking his face, and he sucked in a breath.