Tongues of strangers.
They got the cart and the children moved to the shade under the lip of the roof of a low building squatting between the water treatment plant’s pools. Of course, they had to share the space with dozens of other dogs, coyotes, jackals, and dholes, lying down or sitting up, scratching themselves, grooming each other. The air was full of soft yelps, whines, and growls.
Mhumhi felt that they were still getting their share of stares and blunt curiosity, but for the moment the mood of the amassed dogs seemed more weary than anything else, and more prone to staring out at the burning city. The fire was still going, though it seemed to be expanding in other directions now, away from the plant. Hot wind would still occasionally blow smoke and ash their way, igniting everybody into explosive bursts of coughing. Mini tore apart more pieces of cloth instructed Kutta and Mhumhi to get them wet and place them over the mouths and noses of Maha and Tareq.
Mhumhi knew they were all due for a rest, particularly poor Vimbo, who had outright laid down and gone sound asleep with his big head lolling on his paws. But he still felt the time ticking away. It was not just his own sense of urgency- at any moment the winds could shift and push the fire back their way again, and even if the pools of water would protect this area from being burned it wouldn’t stop the fire from surrounding them, shutting them in, along with all of the other dogs.
He was pacing a tiny circuit, stalking the few steps it took to go back and forth in front of their tiny little space. Kutta rose from where she had been lying down and pushed against him a little to stop him.
“You’re worrying me,” she said, licking his ear. “You should go lie down while you can.”
“I have too much energy,” said Mhumhi, which was sort of the truth- he was extremely tired, yes, but still filled with a kind of frenetic desire to move.
“You’re panting and you’re limping again,” Kutta pointed out.
“I’m not limp-” started Mhumhi, and then realized that he was holding his back leg, with its old pink scar, off the ground where he stood.
Kutta nuzzled at him, pushing him more and more insistently until he lowered his quivering hindquarters into a seated position.
“Listen to me,” she said. “You and I- we must try to stay as calm and gentle as we can. For the puppies and for ourselves. I’m afraid we won’t be able to rest much after this.”
Mhumhi digested this, and found that it made him more uneasy- the ‘after this’ Kutta was alluding to was their journey to that unknown, the ‘outside-of-the-city’ that was bewildering blank whiteness to him. After this…
“Oi, painted dog!”
He jumped back to his feet, and Kutta gave a squeaking growl- so much for calm and gentle. They were being approached by a pack of dogs- little dogs- more Mini’s size, threading through the startled legs of coyotes and jackals alike. Mhumhi swallowed. It was a pack of bush dogs.
“Are you police?” said the leader, adding in a shrill squeal for good measure. The rest of them fanned out, their tiny ears cocked and their little bears’-faces deadly serious.
Mhumhi hesitated, lower jaw hanging open, and looked at Kutta. She seemed similarly rattled, gazing at the lead female’s face.
“Are you police or not?” the bush dog demanded, her small black eyes narrowing.
“We- no,” Kutta stammered, giving her tail one or two anxious wags. “We’re refugees like the rest of you-”
“Refugees!” squealed the bush dog, to similar vocalizations of anger among her compatriots. “This is our territory! I was going to ask you if it was the police ordering all these foul squatters here- but if you’re not, then you can clear out with the rest of them!”
“But- but-” Kutta tucked her tail. “We’re not with them-”
“I could care less!”
“The city is on fire!” Mhumhi put in, raising his tail, but quickly lowered it again when the bush dog turned her glare on him.
“Days and days of these filthy scavengers creeping in, drinking our water and pissing on our dirt- now all this! I want you out!”
“What’s going on?” piped up Mini, putting her head over the side of the cart, where she had been napping in Tareq’s lap. “What’s the fight about?”
The bush dog said nothing, leveling her ferocious stare at the little domestic, who was about equal to her size. Mini seemed unperturbed, and hopped down with her tail wagging slowly.
“Hey, little dog,” she said, “there’s no need to get the fur on your back up- it’s not as if you’re going to run out of water, is it?” She stopped, nearly nose to nose with the quivering bush dog. “I know all these big fellows probably make you nervous, but I can assure-”
The bush dog suddenly jumped on her, grabbing the back of her neck so she shrieked. The others moved in with savage squeals, and in an instant Mini was on her back, yelping and crying, as they took vicious mouthfuls of her thick fur.
“Stop that!” cried Mhumhi, aiming a snap at the squirming fray. A bush dog whirled and fastened itself to his chin, so that he jerked back with a yelp. Two more of them detached themselves from Mini and went for his ankles, fastening their sharp teeth to him, dragging his legs in two different directions.
Kutta snarled and grabbed one of them around the fat middle with her jaws, yanking it back. It whirled around in her grip and snapped furiously at her face.
Vimbo woke up with a grunt, raising his heavy head, and some of the bush dogs turned furious, fearful gazes towards them, and Tareq was peeking over the edge of the cart at the whole mess, and the coyotes and jackals around them were yapping and wagging their tails at what must have seemed hugely funny.
Mhumhi did not share their humor- he could see that if Vimbo joined the fight it was going to get very bad, so he did the only thing he could think of. He flattened his ears, dropped to his belly, and whined loudly.
The bush dog still worrying his leg hesitated, and the others looked at him. Mhumhi crawled over to where their leader was still harrying Mini and licked at her chin and mouth, whining, beating his tail against the ground.
The leader grunted and gave kind of a garbled statement of protest, but Mhumhi kept licking at her, subtly pushing her mouth off and away from Mini as he continued to prostrate himself. Kutta stopped fighting with her bush dog attacker and stared at him, panting, as all the others were.
The leader bush dog backed up a few stuttering steps, moving her head from side to side to try and get away from his ministrations, but he kept after her, rolling half on his side to paw at her, his big pads nearly the size of her whole head.
“Stop it!” she sputtered, finally jumping away. “What are you-”
She hesitated, for Mhumhi had flattened himself against the ground with his most puppyish expression in place. The other bush dogs seemed drawn over, and were sniffing curiously at him.
Belatedly Kutta seemed to take a page from his book and lay down as well, putting her chin on the ground, though she kept her ears pricked. Vimbo put his head back down too, and Mini, who had twisted to her feet upon release, sank back downwards.
Confusion flickered in the lead bush dog’s small eyes as she stared at Mhumhi.
“What are you trying to pull…? Aren’t you police?”
“I’m not,” whined Mhumhi, “I promise, we’re only looking for water to drink and a place to rest, then we’ll leave… then we’ll leave.”
The bush dog hesitated, her jaw slightly open. Her packmates all turned their eyes on her.
“Well,” she said, blinking rapidly, “as long as you understand who’s territory this is.”
Mhumhi wagged his tail and started to creep closer again, but she backed up hastily.
“That goes for the rest of you!” she added with more authority, glaring around at the crowd. “When this fire clears up, you clear up!”
There was yapping and howling at this, and many of the dogs also submitted their own wagging, whimpering poses, and she seemed satisfied, and raised her short tail to lead her pack back and away from the lot of them.
Mhumhi raised his head slightly to watch them retreat, all in a line, snaking through the crowd. Mini jumped back to her feet, looking none the worse for wear.
“That was something, wild dog,” she said, and turned to lick at her mussed fur in an aggrieved way. He wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not.
“Something,” said Kutta. Mhumhi looked over and found her sitting up and staring out at the water of the long pool nearby.
He suspected he knew what she was feeling, for all her stiff, inscrutable body language, and wavered for a moment, wondering if he should try to go comfort her.
No, he decided, no, she would not want him too. Right?
In his head he felt like slinking, tucking his tail, a guilty dog.
The next moment his vision was filled by a black nose, as a coyote thrust herself t him, sniffing and wagging her tail, quite in his personal space. He went stiff with surprise, still laying down there in the dirt, but she seemed nothing but friendly.
“Barely more than a puppy, aren’t you?” she said, grinning and flashing her fangs at him. “What a strange group the lot of you are! Are you lost? Did you get separated from your parents?”
Other dogs were pressing closer along with her, even around Vimbo- Mhumhi saw one side-striped jackal crawl close enough to sniff at Vimbo’s short tail, then leap away when the hyena whirled around.
Mhumhi’s pride, little of it that there was, felt mildly slighted by the coyote’s questions, but it would be stupid to show it now. He wagged his tail and whined rather than answering, licking her narrow chin.
The coyote’s chest heaved, and much to his surprise she lowered her head and regurgitated a small mass of meat.
“Eat that,” she said, licking her chops, and Mhumhi, more by instinct than anything else, snatched the meat and backed away, swallowing it in one gulp. The warmth of it sent a powerful tingle into his gut, flaring up the dormant processes of digestion and hunger. He should have saved it for the children, he realized, with a dim guilt.
“You’re starving,” the coyote said pityingly. Another coyote stepped up beside her and hacked up more meat.
“That, for you,” he said. “And the little dog.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, staring at the meat. Mini’s bulging eyes passed across all of them, and then she sprang upon the meat with a little growl of hunger.
“Why…” Mhumhi began, then stopped himself, afraid that voicing his confusion would take away the strange generosity they had received. The male coyote met his gaze for a moment.
“You’re pups, aren’t you? I don’t have to save the meat for mine anymore.”
Mhumhi, startled, couldn’t stop himself from looking back at the burning city, and the coyote laughed.
“Longer ago than that, it was, but I’m sure some have burned today.”
That did not make Mhumhi feel one bit better. He looked sidelong down at Mini, but she was still devouring her meat, bristling protectively over top of it.
“We know all about being hungry,” said the female coyote. “Our dispensary failed at Zoo Park- yours did too, right? A bunch of us have been wandering around the city, trying to get meat at any dispensary we can. You can join us if you like…” She paused, looking around Mhumhi at the cart.
“The hulkers are part of our pack,” Mhumhi said forcefully. “Not meat.”
“Oh, of course not,” said the coyote, drawing her lips back in a little grimace. “I can’t stand killing things! You know some dogs live off of rats? How can they do it? They’re much too cute.”
Mhumhi was a bit boggled. “Well, they must do what they have to to survive…”
“Ugh, I guess. I hope the dispensaries start working again soon, I’m so tired of all this.” She lowered her head with a little sigh, then looked up at him with her golden eyes.
“My name is Telipa- what’s yours, pup?”
“Mhumhi,” said Mhumhi.
“And the others? They’re part of your- err- pack?” She peered around him again, eyes darting over the domestic, the dhole, the hyena, and the hulkers.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi. “It isn’t conventional, but-”
Telipa’s loud, whuffing laugh startled him. “Not conventional! No, not at all! Isn’t that a hyena?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, putting his ears back, “but he’s a very gentle fellow-”
“No doubt! No doubt!” She drew back her black lips, smiling broadly. “You’re the sweetest painted dog I’ve met, you know that? They usually just come out and tell us all to leave wherever we’re staying.”
“Well, I’m not police,” Mhumhi felt compelled to remind her again. She did not appear to hear him, for she was looking around him- there was a group of dholes moving forward through the crowd, tails wagging, looking at Kutta.
“Hi, red girl!” whistled one. “Are you hungry?”
Kutta, Mhumhi was a bit pained to see, had not fully recovered from her stiff silence from earlier, and now looked at the dholes with an expression of nervous misery. He hesitated, then left Telipa, walking with his head low, and stood next to her. The dholes stopped short.
“What’s with you, spotty?” one called. Mhumhi was surprised to realize that he actually recognized them, in a misty way- they were the same band of males that had once gotten him and his sisters out of trouble underneath the concrete bridge in Oldtown. They seemed to be two or three less in number now, though, and a great deal more haggard-looking.
“Don’t bother her,” he said, trying to sound more stern than aggressive. The lead dhole, Rakshasa was his name, rolled his eyes towards his followers.
“Bother her! We were going to feed her!”
“Yes!” yipped another. “What’s a lovely red girl doing with a matted spotted pelt like you, anyway?”
Kutta gave a sudden growl, and as a unit they all started and put their ears back.
“That spotted pelt,” she said, “is my little brother, and I will tear you a new breathing hole if you insult him again.”
There was a sort of silence for a moment- the dholes’ eyes very wide- and then Rakshasa stepped forward again, wagging his tail in an appeasing way.
“Hey, hey, we didn’t mean to offend. We’re used to the bad kind of painted dogs, right? We give ‘em lip out of habit. Clearly your bro isn’t one of them.”
Kutta merely looked at him with her chin thrust high and her eyes narrowed, quiet different from how cowed she’d been before. The male dholes were now all a-whimper, wagging and bouncing on their forepaws.
“We’d just like to give you a meal! No muss, no fuss,” said Rakshasa, looking lively himself, his eyes bright. “Red dogs are rare, right? We’ve gotta help each other out when we can.” His eyes lingered on Mhumhi for a moment. “There’s only so much meat in this city.”
This did not seem to be received well by the crowd, and Mhumhi saw many coyotes and jackals that had been sitting on their haunches stand up again, bristling. Telipa’s golden eyes were flashing.
Kutta parted her lips slightly, just showing the white tips of her canines.
“If you want to preserve the red dogs only,” she said, “then don’t give the meat to me. I am not a red dog like you.”
Mhumhi tensed at this, but the dholes seemed much more confused than insulted, muttering amongst one another. Rakshasa had his lips wrinkled in a queer way, as if he’d just tasted something unpalatable.
“All right,” he wheedled, “come on. We’ve said the wrong things, that’s clear.”
Kutta opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Mhumhi broke in and said, “Kutta, take the meat. We don’t know when our next meal will be.”
Her yellow eyes flashed up in annoyance at this. But before she could say anything, a golden jackal ran up, tail wagging, and hacked up a pile of meat.
“I give this to the red dog- or not red dog- but I give it!” he cried, wagging so hard and so nervously he looked as if he might urinate on himself at any moment. Kutta looked surprised, but the way she slowly inclined her head seemed calculated.
She ate the meat, right there in front of the dholes. The other dogs around them were starting to bark their derision at the insult, a forest of wagging gray tails.
Mhumhi was not sure that this was the best idea, as many of the dholes had gone stiff-legged, and looked nervously at his sister, who was licking her chops. The dholes appeared to have a very short emergency conference, then one stepped forward.
“Whatever you call yourself,” he said, raising his tail, “you are a dhole. And this is for you.”
He coughed up another mound of meat. A few others joined him and added contributions to the pile, though not Rakshasa, who still had that bad-taste look on his face.
“It would be better for you if you went with us,” he said to Kutta.
“It would be best for you if you’d leave,” she replied, setting off another round of delighted yapping from the onlookers. One of Rakshasa’s brothers stepped forward, showing his teeth, but Rakshasa stopped him with a look.
“If you want us to, we will,” he said, and with a swing of his brushy tail led his draggled pack away.
The coyotes and jackals yipped and howled their glee, and several more came forward and spat up more meat, until there was quite a considerable mass of it sitting there before them.
“Has everybody lost puppies?” Mhumhi asked Telipa, quite overwhelmed by it all. “Why are they all giving us so much…?”
“I don’t really know,” Telipa admitted ” though- well- a lot of us had hard times with our pups when we had to move. But I think it’s just because you lot look like you’ve had a hard time of it, and honestly speaking that makes me feel better about myself.”
Mhumhi looked at her askance, and she burst into that loud laugh again, falling into a play-bow.
“Oh, and it’s fun! It’s all fun!” She sprang to her feet again. “And those dholes, boy, your sister sent them off with their tails ‘tween their legs! Good riddance!”
“What’s the matter with them, exactly?” asked Mhumhi.
“They don’t like to mix,” said Telipa. “Everybody else- we’ve adapted, more or less, and I suppose it’s easier when you can have puppies together like coyotes and golden jackals can. And there are lots of us all together, too. But the dholes- there aren’t many of them left. I expect that’s why they’re so concerned with your sister.”
“Well,” said Mhumhi, feeling a rare surge of anger, “the next time they go sniffing around her, I’ll-”
“Take my advice,” Telipa interrupted, a wry look about her, “let your sister handle herself. She seems quite capable.”
Mhumhi looked over at Kutta, who was now perusing the pile of meat for the choice bits, and had to admit that she had indeed quite handled the situation. He gave Telipa a wag of acknowledgement and went back to his sister.
“This is quite a lot,” she observed, as he came close. “We might be able to get enough to the children so that they can hold out for another full day.”
“I suppose,” said Mhumhi, licking his lips.
“And you eat too,” Kutta added. “And Mini’s trying to convince Vimbo…”
She broke off and they both observed Mini, who was speaking encouragingly in hulker to the hyena, who was sniffing the meat rather warily, his short tail raised over his back.
“I don’t think he’s happy about it being regurgitated,” she said, turning her head back towards them. “He looked pretty shocked about it, actually.”
“What’s more natural than regurgitation?” Kutta said, a trace of her former irritation still lingering in her tone. “Tell him to stop acting like a milky puppy and eat his solids.”
This statement made Mini sneeze in consternation, but she did turn back to Vimbo and speak in a slightly firmer tone. The hyena turned his black eyes to her, then took a mouthful of meat.
“Let’s feed the children,” said Kutta, tone much softer, tail whisking.
They went back to the cart, scattering sniffing smaller dogs, and found Tareq halfway out already.
“I’m hungry!” he proclaimed, and then lost his grip and tumbled backwards onto the dirt. Mhumhi and Kutta ran to him, but he seemed unharmed, and grabbed a handful of Kutta’s short fur to tow himself back up. Kutta winced.
“There is meat,” she said, bathing his elbow. “So come with us, but slowly, and-”
She broke off. Telipa was approaching, her tail wagging and her back somewhat arched.
“I’ve never seen a hulker up close,” she said, apologetically. “Oh- it’s sort of cute and ugly, isn’t it?”
Tareq looked at her, then held out his hand. The fur on her back rose even more, but she kept her tail wagging, and stretched out to sniff at it, flinching at first, then becoming more enthusiastic, rearing up to sniff his face. Tareq gave a little giggle as her whiskers tickled him.
“It’s quiet cute,” she said, falling back down, then licked her chops. “Quite…”
Mhumhi not liking the increased intensity in her golden eyes, slotted himself in between the two, pushing Tareq a step sideways.
“Go eat your meat,” he told him.
“I like this dog,” Tareq protested, but Kutta took his hand gently in her mouth and led him forward.
“It talks,” Telipa commented. Her eyes were somewhat unfocused now. “How odd. I had heard that they did, but…” She licked her chops again. “Strange creatures, aren’t they? Not like dogs…”
“They are very much like dogs,” Mhumhi said, making her give him a startled look. She did not know the half of what he was referring to.
“Well,” she said, moving her pointed ears forward and back, “it’s very cute, and I think it’s ridiculous that some dogs would, er, try to eat them. Just ridiculous.”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, eyeing the way her eyes lingered on Tareq’s back as he toddled towards the meat pile. “I agree.”
“Hey, Mhumhi,” said Mini, who was sitting in the shade underneath Vimbo’s legs. Mhumhi was somewhat glad to excuse himself from Telipa and go over to her.
“What is it?”
“Eat up,” said Mini. “I think we’d better go after this. The wind is starting to change.”
Mhumhi looked back over at the flickering orange engulfing the city buildings and saw that it did indeed appear to be shifting its path, slowly, glutted with the destruction it had already caused. It matched the hunger flaring up in his belly over the pile of meat.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s time to get out of here.”