The new family portrait.
Kebero had grown a great deal since Mhumhi had last seen him as an uncoordinated little puppy. Now he was long and lanky, his muzzle thin and sharp, his eyes smiling, his coat colored a proud, solid red.
“I smelled you!” he cried, stepping back so he could bounce on his forefeet. “I knew it was you, Mhumhi, it’s been so long! I’ll bet you didn’t even recognize me- I’ve got so big- Bii calls me a monster- and everyone will be so glad to have you back-!”
“Wait, Kebero,” said Mhumhi, more than a little taken aback, as he did not remember the puppy being this extraordinarily talkative. “When you say everyone-”
Kebero interrupted him by bumping into his shoulder and crying out, “Oh no, Mhumhi, watch out, there’s a hyena behind you!”
Mhumhi turned and saw that Vimbo had gotten himself halfway out of the pipe, his forelegs braced against the wall, but seemed to be having difficulty extracting his haunches. He paused in his wriggling and jerking to look wide-eyed at Mhumhi.
“Ignore him for the moment,” Mhumhi said.
“Ignore him? But it’s a hyena!”
Mhumhi looked back at Kebero, who was baring his little fangs, and wondered when he had had the chance to become so familiar and mistrustful of hyenas. A feeling of unease started to grip him.
“Listen,” he said, giving one of Kebero’s ears a swift lick, “the two of us are enough to drive him off if he gets aggressive, so don’t worry. But I suppose we could start moving away.”
“Oh, we could drive him off, you and I,” said Kebero, looking up at him and wagging his tail, seeming to like the idea very much. Mhumhi gave him a lick on his other ear.
“Tell me what’s been going on while I’ve been away,” he said, starting off on the spiraling concrete path, and Kebero eagerly fell in step beside him. Behind them Vimbo gave a petulant little whine, claws scratching at the concrete, but he was still stuck.
“Well, Bii and I ran away way back when,” said Kebero, rubbing up against him to lick at his chin a little. “Because he said the police were going over to our house and it didn’t feel right. And then we stayed in the sewers for forever. It was so wet and smelly and boring! But Bii says I’m the best rat-catcher he’s ever seen, so.”
“You’ll have to show me what you can do,” said Mhumhi, watching as Kebero raised his tail proudly. “But tell me, are you still staying with Bii now? What has he told you?”
“Yes, I’m staying with him, but I don’t know what you mean, really,” said Kebero, and he tilted his head to both sides. “I mean, he’s told me lots of things- like which bugs to eat and which to leave alone-”
“No, no,” said Mhumhi, and then glanced back. Vimbo had finally pulled himself free, and with a loud whoop he ran up the path towards him. At once Kebero whirled around, teeth bared and trembling with fear. Mhumhi brushed his tail over his back to soothe him as he stepped forward.
“Get back, Vimbo!”
The hyena stopped at once, lowering his tail. Kebero shot him a startled look.
“What did you call him…?”
“It’s his name,” said Mhumhi, keeping his eyes trained on Vimbo, who had begun to cringe down again, his tail flat against his rump.
“How has he got a name?” Kebero demanded, looking between the two of them. Something accusatory began to creep into his tone. “How do you knowhis name?”
“Someone told it to me,” said Mhumhi. He relaxed a little; Vimbo was not showing one whit of aggression at the moment. “It’s all right, Kebero, he’s not as dangerous as the others- he’s tamed.”
“Tamed?” said Kebero. “What’s that even mean?”
“I’ll explain later,” said Mhumhi. “We can keep walking now, just don’t let him get too close.”
“I- I don’t want to turn my back on him,” said Kebero, quivering a little.
Mhumhi had an uneasy thought of what had happened when Jabulile had exposed the back of his neck to the hyena.
“He can’t very well surprise us,” he said, and gave Kebero a gentle nudge with his nose. “Come on, let’s go.”
Kebero gave a yawning whine, but turned, shooting suspicious glances back at the hyena. Vimbo did not move, and Mhumhi gave him a hard, warning stare before turning himself. Their pace went a little quicker, trotting up the path as they went higher and higher above the reservoir. As Mhumhi had predicted, Vimbo started following them again after a few moments, keeping his distance.
“I don’t like this,” said Kebero. “They’re monsters. Kutta said that they killed and ate Sacha-”
“They’re only animals,” Mhumhi said, before the full weight of what Kebero had said hit him. He stopped in his tracks. “You’ve met with Kutta?!”
“Oh, don’t stop walking,” said Kebero urgently, looking back over his shoulder, and Mhumhi made himself get moving again. “Yes, Bii found her and helped her get underground and we were all able to meet up again.” He couldn’t seem to stop a little wag of his tail at this statement. “And oh, oh, they’re going to be so surprised you’re back, Mhumhi! And so happy!”
“I’ll bet not as happy as Kutta was to see you,” said Mhumhi, mouthing playfully at his ear. He couldn’t help it. Kutta!
“No, no,” said Kebero, squirming out of his reach. “You don’t understand. Kutta told us you were dead.”
“Yes,” said Kebero, and for a moment his head dipped low, and he looked up at Mhumhi with his ears drawn back. “She said you got caught by the hulkers- you and the two little puppies- and that you all must have been eaten by them!”
“Oh, no,” Mhumhi stammered, his heart sinking. Kutta must have had such an awful time of it after he’d been gone…
“But you’re not dead and you’re not eaten!” said Kebero, raising his head again. “And I told her so! I told her, I told her I could smell you out, and there you were, Mhumhi!” His tail wagged furiously. “And you know what- and you know what- if you’re alive, well, maybe Mother and Sacha-”
“Kebero,” said Mhumhi.
“Well, you never know,” Kebero said peevishly, but his tail stopped wagging.
They went on in silence for a moment, listening to Vimbo’s heavier footsteps following behind them. After a little while Kebero spoke up again.
“Mhumhi, where have you been? You smell so strange…”
Mhumhi hesitated a moment. “It might be better if I explain it when everyone’s there.”
“All right,” said Kebero, but he sounded unhappy.
They went all the way up to the top, where the iron railing was, and then down the narrow hallway. Mhumhi felt a rush of relief when he saw the familiar door- perhaps the little room had never really been home, exactly, but it had been a safe place, a place for the puppies and a place to heal from wounds-
The door was hanging open a bit and what he could smell behind it made his heart beat faster. Beside him Kebero stopped and glanced back at Vimbo, who was near the beginning of the hallway, sniffing curiously at the walls.
“Well-” Suddenly Kebero gave a little wriggle. “Well, I’m going to go in first, then you come in when I call.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, and Kebero darted around the door and inside.
“I’m back!” Mhumhi heard him shout. “And I’ve got a surprise!”
Mhumhi smiled a little and sat down, keeping an eye on Vimbo, who had now reared to better investigate whatever it was he was sniffing.
“What sort of surprise?” a small voice said, in response to Kebero. Mhumhi recognized it as Bii’s. “If you’re referring to you running off alone while we were sleeping, I’m afraid it wasn’t a very good one.”
“No, it’s not that,” said Kebero, sounding somewhat deflated. “It’s outside the door- it’s big-”
“Don’t tell me you’ve brought a hyena back with you,” said another voice, sounding wry, and Mhumhi couldn’t hold back an explosive wag of his tail. Kutta!
“Uh,” said Kebero.
“Wait a moment, you haven’t, have you? Kebero-”
“Well, I didn’t bring it on purpose, it just sort of followed-”
“Not much of an improvement on the surprise,” said Bii.
“It isn’t part of the surprise-“
“Kebero, really, are you telling the truth? Is there a hyena outside the door?” Mhumhi heard Kutta start sniffing loudly.
“There is, but that’s not the main point. Forget the hyena!”
“Oh, alright, we’ll forget the hyena,” said Bii, in an extremely dry manner.
“Wait a minute,” said Kutta, and Mhumhi heard a quaver enter her voice. “Wait a minute- Kebero- I smell-”
Mhumhi couldn’t contain himself anymore- he got up and sprang around the door, rushing into the room.
He was met with momentary chaos; Bii gave a shrill yap, arching his back and puffing to twice his size, and Kebero stumbled over his own feet and fell on his side on the old comforter. Mhumhi looked around, wagging his tail, as they recovered.
But then he had that moment to yelp, for there was a sharp pain in his tail, and he turned and realized that Kutta had been standing behind the door. She was trembling and baring her teeth.
“Kutta,” said Mhumhi, laying his ears back, and pushed against her stiff chest with his head, and then licked her chin- she was still shaking- and whined loudly.
“You-” said Kutta, and then she stopped for a moment, seeming to struggle, as Mhumhi bathed her chin and cheeks. “I thought you’d died!”
Mhumhi said nothing, only nuzzled her, and all of a sudden she gave a loud whine and pounced on him, pushing him over, rubbing him frantically with her head and whining and gasping and crying.
Mhumhi hooked one paw over his sister’s shoulder, holding her close as she shook and whimpered, feeling the terror and anguish she must have felt when she watched the car drive away with her three siblings trapped inside, and she couldn’t keep up with it- and then she would have been alone, all alone, in the dark with the moaning of hyenas-
He was suddenly horribly glad that Bii had found her, because he did not know what she would have possibly done otherwise.
After a little while Kutta pressed her head into his neck and lay still, and Kebero came over, whining, and snuggled up against the two of them. Mhumhi’s heart hurt a little in a bittersweet way. It was just like old times, when they had cuddled all together all in the big bed, breathing comfortingly against one another, hearts beating- but the hard little knot against Mhumhi’s back that had been Sacha was no longer there.
There was a rustle and Mhumhi rolled slightly to see that Bii was walking over, his fur mostly down, though his tail still looked a little puffy.
“I’m glad you’re all right, Mhumhi,” he said, baring his teeth in that grin of his. “I told Kutta she shouldn’t give up on you so easily. “
Mhumhi felt Kutta stiffen a little against him. He recalled, suddenly, the nature of their last meeting with Bii.
“Yes, I’m all right,” he said, rolling all the way over so that Kutta and Kebero lay at his back. “Will you report that to your little friends as well?”
Bii blinked his button eyes.
“I won’t be telling anyone anything,” he said.
“I don’t see how we could possibly trust you,” said Mhumhi, raising his head. “You admitted yourself that you were a spy.”
Behind him he felt Kebero spring to his feet. “Bii’s not a spy!”
“It’s all right, Kebero,” said Bii, looking over at him and flicking his overlarge ears. “I was spying on this family. But no longer.”
“No longer?” questioned Mhumhi, shifting a little on his elbows. He wondered why Kutta was choosing to be so quiet behind him.
“Well,” said Bii, “the organization I was giving the information to no longer exists. The alliance of foxes is dissolved; not that it matters, since so many of them are dead now.”
“They’re- they’re dead?” asked Mhumhi, putting his ears back. “What do you mean?”
“Hyenas,” said Bii. “A great many of them appeared all of a sudden, that same night you were trying to move all the children. It was a complete disaster- they killed all the foxes they could get their teeth around, and so many were out that very night…”
Mhumhi’s heart sank, thinking of how terribly easy it would have been for the hyenas, with their prey so small and massed together.
“How did you get away?” he asked. Bii did not answer him. He was looking behind Mhumhi, and his fur was slowly puffing out again.
Mhumhi turned and looked, and gave a frustrated little growl.
The hyena was peeping his large head around the door, looking nearly sheepish, his mouth slightly open and one paw raised. Kutta sprang up with a snarl.
She rushed the door at once, and Vimbo flattened his ears with a squeak and retracted himself. Kutta reared up and put her weight on the door, swinging it closed until it clicked securely.
“Now look at the mess we’re in!” she cried, for on the other side of the door they could hear Vimbo giving out little squeals as his shadow paced back and forth. “That thing isn’t going to leave! Kebero, really, I can’t believe you led it here!”
Kebero tucked his tail and gave a little whine, and Mhumhi felt the need to get to his feet and speak up.
“It’s all right, Kutta, I know that hyena. He’s-”
Kutta turned sharply to eye him, and Mhumhi felt a jolt. Perhaps he was not out of hot water with her just yet.
“You… know him? That hyena? You know that hyena?”
“Well… yes, sort of. His name is Vimbo, and he-” Mhumhi hesitated, and in the brief silence the sound of Vimbo scratching on the door became very loud.
“Maybe I’d better explain the whole thing…”
“I think so,” said Bii, and Kutta gave a little grunt of assent.
“Only,” she said, turning her head, “don’t tell me how the puppies- don’t tell me what happened to them. I’m not ready to hear it right now.”
“The puppies…” Mhumhi paused to work out what she meant, and then gave a little wag. “Kutta, no, the puppies- they’re still alive. They’re fine!”
“What?” Her head swung up and she gazed at him with her eyes wide. “You’re lying! They’re-” Her mouth opened slightly, her tail wagged, and she smiled. “They’re alive!”
“Yes!” exclaimed Mhumhi, giving a little bounce with his front paws over her delight. “They’re alive, they’re alive!”
Kebero wagged his tail and gave a little yap, clearly wanting to join in, but Kutta sobered up quickly.
“If they’re alive- where are they?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, and his gaze fell on the ground.
“Mhumhi. Where are the puppies?”
He had not wanted to think of it, much less speak of it, but he could not deny her.
“I had to leave them behind.”
She said nothing, but even without looking at her he could feel the force of her yellow stare.
“I couldn’t take them with me,” said Mhumhi, miserably, “or no- I was more tricked…”
That wasn’t really true, though, he’d already agreed to leave them behind before Jabulile had told him the door was locked. Mhumhi felt a little sick over his own actions.
Kutta was still staring at him, looking stricken, and he swallowed and licked his lips.
“I’d better explain from the beginning…”
He told them all of it then, from their capture in the car to waking up in the hyena kennel, to when they had caught him with nets and poles and to when the human Danai had first spoken to him, of the bouda and of the meat, of Jabulile’s escape plan and of his betrayal and of Vimbo’s attack.
“And,” he said, “I found where that tunnel led… into the subway, right across from where the little pipe was. So that’s why there were hyenas in there- that’s how they get up into the city.”
He paused here, because it was more or less all he had to say, and sat back on his haunches, swallowing nervously again. It had been a long tale, though he had tried to keep it as brief as he could; there was much he could not explain without stumbling into yawning gaps of knowledge. Kebero was lying down, his ears flattened- Mhumhi’s description of the hyena meat dispensary had particularly distressed him. Bii was standing to one side, and there was no telling what he thought. His little black eyes were unfathomable.
Kutta still stood before Mhumhi, her yellow gaze calculating, and now she raised her tail a little.
“We must go back there and rescue the puppies, Mhumhi.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, and then, “I know.” He sighed, closing his eyes. “But it won’t be easy, and I don’t know that they’re be so lenient with me this time- you weren’t there, Kutta, it’s really impossible- they’ve got nets and catch-poles and darts that make you sleep-”
“And hyenas,” whined Kebero, glancing back to the door. Vimbo had not let up his scratching the entire time.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, and he flicked his eyes nervously at Kutta. “And… and there’s the fact that, if we bring them back here…”
He didn’t have to say it, but Kutta cast her eyes on him.
“We’ll be putting them in more danger, you think,” she said. “We can’t feed them, we can’t bring them aboveground, and they might get sick again. I know, Mhumhi. And it isn’t as if I don’t believe you about the hulkers there treating them well.”
Mhumhi met her gaze, and after a moment she looked away.
For a moment he felt a trifle angry, for what she wanted to put them through was dangerous and foolish. But he let it fade, because it would have been hypocritical to argue with Kutta: he wanted Maha and Tareq back too. A more selfish desire he could not imagine, but there it was: his need was for his brother and sister, the puppies close to his heart, and he would have to have them back, and the terrible thing was that he was willing to compromise for it- his health, their lives. He wanted them back.
He wondered, briefly, if this was what his mother had felt like.
“I’m with you,” he said, “but I just don’t see how we’d even get close to them.”
“I have an idea,” said Kutta, and her eyes took on a little spark. “We can certainly use all this information, Mhumhi. But let’s not go over it right now. I know you want to know what’s been going on while you’ve been gone…”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, flicking his ears. What was she thinking, exactly? But there was no point trying to press her right now; he could see she was in a mood.
“Well,” said Kutta, “Bii described it right- the hyenas flooded into Oldtown the night you were taken, and it was awful, a massacre. I was trying to track that car you’d been in, and while the sun rose I kept seeing bodies- hyenas, everywhere, just eating and eating.” She shuddered.
“Didn’t any of them come after you?” He stepped a little closer to her, worried, his eyes roving her body for any sign of a wound.
“Some of them chased me a bit, but they give up quickly,” said Kutta. “Except for that one.” She gave an irritated look at the door, where the sound of Vimbo squealing and scratching still emanated from the other side.
“If he keeps that up, we may end up with more than one hyena to deal with,” commented Bii. “He’ll draw someone’s attention sooner or later.”
“Then maybe we ought to go outside and shut him up,” said Kutta. Kebero gave a little whimper.
“I don’t think we could kill him easily,” said Mhumhi. “He’s not like the others, Kutta, he’s well fed and strong, even if he is tame.”
“We have to do something,” said Kutta, waving her tail stiffly, but she allowed the matter to drop for the moment. “Either way, I tracked that car down to a sort of tunnel, but there was a big gate over it that I couldn’t get through. I bit at it and pushed it and everything, but though it rattled, I couldn’t…” She sighed, remembering. “I didn’t know what to do then. I felt like- I felt like I was alone in the whole world, Mhumhi, it was awful. I sat in front of that gate the whole day…”
“What!” exclaimed Mhumhi. “Out in the open? By yourself?!”
Kutta’s eyes flashed. “My only family left in the whole world had gone that way- I wasn’t going to leave! If that gate ever opened again, I was going to- I was going to run inside and kill everything I could get my teeth into- I swore that to myself- because I felt so sure of it, Mhumhi, I felt so sure that you all were dead!”
She stopped and shuddered a little. Mhumhi found himself speechless, his tail tucked underneath his belly.
“I found her there,” said Bii, after a moment. “When they first attacked I was able to throw myself down a storm drain in time, and hide with Keb and some others, but when it had calmed down a bit on the surface I went looking for you two. If you had made it, I wanted to reunite again- there was no point to the whole stupid business of killing the hulkers, you see, now that we had a new enemy. Although,” and he cocked his head, “now you tell me that these hyenas and the hulkers can be one and the same, which makes me wonder.”
“Maha and Tareq are not like them,” Mhumhi snapped, stiffening.
“I don’t believe it matters right now anyway,” said Bii. “As I said, I was able to find Kutta, and I convinced her to leave. It was not easy.” He gave Kutta a sort of stern glance, and she bristled. “But I mentioned Kebero…”
“I wanted to see you so badly, Kutta,” piped up Kebero, raising his head. “And Mhumhi and everyone!”
“Yes, and so your sister went back for you,” said Bii, looking over at him fondly. “I’m pleased that she did, for I don’t know how much longer she would have lasted out there. You see, after the hyenas came the painted dogs.”
“The police, you mean,” said Mhumhi, raising his ears.
“Yes, someone had told them, apparently, and they came out in force to try to get rid of the hyenas. I think there’s been a great deal of fighting aboveground ever since, though it’s only been about two days. I’ve no idea what the status is now, but I don’t hold out much hope for the dumb beasts against the whole police force. Even if they are big.” Bii gave a delicate little laugh. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the lot of them were all dead, and the last hyena in the city is the one scratching at our door.”
They all paused to listen to Vimbo’s relentless assault upon the door for a moment.
“Well,” said Mhumhi, “I do believe you could be right, but the trouble is that there are a lot more where they came from. And their masters, too. Their masters aren’t dumb beasts at all.”
“But,” said Kutta, “but, if all the police came out- I mean, they’re only hulkers, Mhumhi, and as unpleasant as it is, we know what police do to hulkers…”
She trailed off. Mhumhi glanced at her.
“These aren’t the kind of hulkers that live in this city,” he said.
Kebero spoke up.
“So then- who do you think would win, Mhumhi, if they went head to head? The police or those hulkers?”
“I…” Mhumhi hesitated. For that, he had no answer.
Behind the door, Vimbo paused in his scratching and gave a low whoop.
“cuddled all together all in the big bed,” all together all
“I don’t know that they’re be so lenient with me this time” they’ll
Never a moment’s peace…