The good ones.
Mhumhi lay on his side in the garbage.
The sun was high, bearing down on him, the heat intensifying the smell- and even worse than the smell of hulker refuse was the smell of his own filth that he could not get away from. The strength had gone out of him, and he could only manage to drag himself a few inches at a time before invariably his aching stomach heaved again and he collapsed.
He saw two white birds circling high above him. It made him recall the flock that had gathered around the corpse of the dead screamer, how they had sat on the bones and picked at the eyes and fingers. How funny it would be, he had to think to himself, if after all this agony about eating others and right and wrong and mind and mindlessness… how funny it would be if he was eaten by uncaring animals.
His throat burned, and he tried to swallow. His tongue was thick and dry in his mouth. He recalled what Mini had said about staying hydrated. Well, no one was getting water now. It was so hot…
One of his ears flicked; he had heard the crunching sound of someone approaching through the garbage. He raised his head a little, wavering. It was a screamer, skin shining darkly with sweat, eyes thinned to slits in the brightness.
Mhumhi growled. It was a sad little growl, and the screamer did not seem perturbed by it. It was smiling at him, moving steadily towards him over the hills of trash, like it had a purpose.
Mhumhi thought he might know what that purpose was, and he struggled to get up, pushing his front half up on trembling forepaws. The screamer stumbled and moved forward more quickly, reaching from him. He snarled, snapped, and fell back, clattering into a pile of tin bottle caps.
The screamer reached down and patted his neck. Mhumhi panted dryly, made dizzy from his own movement, staring with one eye up into the blue sky. His tongue hung out of his jaws and stuck to the bottle caps.
The screamer leaned over him, blotting out his vision with darkness, and put its arms around his chest. Mhumhi shifted, a weak movement. His stomach stabbed with pain. The screamer lifted him. The blue sky whirled overhead.
He was so dizzied that he could not think for a moment, but when he came back to himself his head and forepaws were bouncing over the screamer’s shoulder as it carried him, fingers clutching tight into his fur. The hills of trash bobbed up and down as they receded behind him. A bottle cap was still stuck to his protruding tongue.
He could hear the sea, waves in time with each step the screamer took. The trash seemed to be undulating too, rolling beneath them, every little last bit of what the hulkers had left behind for them.
Mhumhi lost himself for a while, and then woke up on something soft.
For some reason, his first thought was of the time he had woken up in the hall of hyenas, caged in the bouda’s lair, and he shivered with his eyes closed. His body certainly ached enough, his head and his stomach… The cool breeze drifting by made his dry nose feel raw.
There was a snapping, crackling sound nearby. Mhumhi’s ears flicked. The breeze brought the smell of smoke to his nose.
He opened his eyes and saw a wall of flame.
Mhumhi jerked to his feet, or tried to, and got tangled in the blanket he had been lying on, and fell back over.
“Don’t get up,” said a voice. “You’ll be sick again.”
Mhumhi, heart pounding, gazed upwards and tried to take stock of the situation. He was looking at a dark ceiling, not a sky. It seemed very smoky and his eyes stung. The fire continued to snap and whine beside him, and he felt its heat on one side. He felt braised.
He raised his head more slowly this time. There was the fire, but it was a small one, safely nestled in a little pit situated just outside the doorway. Of the building he was in. He seemed to be in a building. On a blanket. Someone was there with him. No…
His paper-dry nose twitched. He turned his head. There were more blankets nearby, and dark lumps on each of them, and… oh, he smelled Kutta, and wasn’t that Tareq, curled up on his side with his little hands tucked under his chin?
“Kutta?” he said. His voice was a thin gasp.
“She must sleep,” came the voice again. He turned back towards the fire. Near the door, in a darkened corner, there was a chair. Sitting in it was a thin hulker form- no, a bouda, for he recognized Sekayi now.
“It’s all right.” Sekayi leaned forward a little in the chair. “She will make it. And so will you. And the little boy.”
Mhumhi looked back at Kutta, saw her dim outline rising and falling as she breathed.
“You helped us…?”
“You asked me to,” said Sekayi.
“And I thought you’d run off on us,” piped up a smaller voice. Mhumhi noticed for the first time a dark furry lump in Sekayi’s lap.
“No…” said Mhumhi. It was all he could manage for the moment.
Sekayi stroked the top of Mini’s head.
“The white-tails helped me once,” he said. “Of course I would help you. We are all brothers at heart.”
“And sisters,” yapped Mini, and Sekayi smiled a little.
“What…” began Mhumhi. He licked his lips, or tried to, with his sore tongue. “What made you think I was a white tail?”
Sekayi let out a little laugh, almost like Maha’s giggle.
“You did not kill me,” he said. “You asked me for help. Would a police dog do that?”
“No,” said Mini, twisting her head back to look up at him. He ruffled her ears.
“But you are… you are a bouda,” said Mhumhi. “How do you know what a white-tail is?”
“I could ask you how you know what a bouda is,” said Sekayi, his smile thinning a little. “But I know what a white-tail is because I was once out in the city. I left the other bouda.”
“Left the bouda…?”
“I wanted to see the world for myself,” said Sekayi. “I was stupid. Once you go out, it is very hard to get in… And I don’t know if the outside world was really worth it.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, filling the brief silence. Sekayi had hung his head.
“I am sorry,” he said. “But you can see I am an incomplete bouda. Not really human. Even if it is superficial. But the dogs up here… for good or bad, they saw me as human.”
“You are human,” urged Mini.
“I was nearly killed,” said Sekayi. “Many times. First I was lucky, because the domestics found me and hid me. But they wanted to know who I was, who my parents were. When they found out I was a bouda, it went badly.”
Mhumhi recalled Biscuit’s words. Tainted. Dirty blood.
“I got away,” said Sekayi. “I hid from the domestics and the police. Or so I thought… But I didn’t know that one domestic was a white-tail, secretly. She and her companions found me. And…” Sekayi paused, and put out an arm in a sweeping gesture, indicating everyone in the room. “It was just like this, all different dogs, and humans, like a miracle.”
Mhumhi looked at the sad masses of Kutta and Tareq.
“How did you get here?”
“The white-tails helped me,” said Sekayi. His chair creaked as he leaned back into it. “They were trying to smuggle humans out of the city. They knew that if you walked out of the city, along the coast, there was a place with a little food… Well, I don’t think they knew it was a dump.” He laughed. “But humans could live here.”
“There were others,” said Sekayi. “That was years ago. They went into the sea.”
“They went into the sea?”
“Oh, no,” said Sekayi, waving a hand, “not like that; they made boats, and they floated away. I don’t know if they got anywhere. I stayed.”
“Why did you stay?”
Sekayi glanced at the fire.
“To help anyone else who might show up. We thought there would be many.”
Mhumhi felt a little pang.
“Why did they float out onto the sea?”
“They were following the birds,” said Sekayi. “Every year the birds go somewhere, and we thought, it has to be somewhere with food. Every year I think about following them. But no one came back.”
“Well,” said Mini, putting one paw on his arm, “I’m glad you stayed, personally.”
“It’s good to see dogs again,” said Sekayi, scratching behind her ears. “I’m happy I could help you. I feel like I’ve repaid my debt to the white-tails.”
Mhumhi shifted a little on his blanket.
“You said a female domestic was who helped you. Do you remember her name?”
“Of course,” said Sekayi. “She was a nice girl. Her name was Flash.”
Mhumhi put his head back down. Sekayi seemed to pick up on his lowered mood.
“I’m going to find more things to burn,” he said, and raised his arms above his head, stretching. “It gets cold here at night.”
“Don’t go,” protested Mini, wriggling in his lap. He lifted her up into his arms as he got up and placed her gently back on the chair.
“I’ll be back soon.”
He edged around the fire, out into the night air. Mini watched him go, her pop-eyes wide.
“Ah, Mhumhi,” she said, after a moment. “He’s such a good man. I think I’m in love.”
They stayed in the little concrete building for days. Sekayi cared for them all. Mhumhi was startled by his unflagging patience, even with two vomiting dogs and their sobbing, self-soiling human puppy perpetually making a mess of his blankets. He washed the ancient cloth in seawater and gave them back daily, stiff and salty but clean. He rubbed damp rags over their crusted fur, gently wiped Tareq’s raw skin. He urged them to drink water every hour.
“It will pass,” he kept saying. “I’ve seen it before. It will pass.”
Mhumhi was jealous of Mini, who was not sick in the slightest, and watched them with her nose wrinkled from atop the chair.
“Come down here,” he said, watching her as he lay on his side. “Breath some of my breath.”
“No thanks, smelly,” Mini replied. “I prefer to hang on to my food.”
“You drank the water too,” said Kutta, who had braced herself on her forepaws, swaying. “I don’t understand how you’re not…”
She paused and gave a heave, spitting up a little water.
“I don’t think it was the water that made you sick,” Mini said.
“It was the eggs,” said Sekayi. He was sitting with Tareq’s head on his knees, wiping his sweaty forehead with a rag. “You ate them, didn’t you? They can make you badly sick. You have to cook them before you eat them.”
Kutta, shivering, licked her lips and looked at Mhumhi.
“That’s just our luck.”
Mhumhi was inclined to agree.
It took two days for Mhumhi to feel ready to try eating again, which was just as well, because there was little food to eat, though Sekayi shared his willingly. He had eggs, which Mhumhi could no longer stomach even if they were cooked, and he also had a little meat that he stored in a tiny, perpetually-humming refrigerator.
It tasted like dispensary meat to Mhumhi, when he first tried a little. He did not yet have the nerve to ask where it came from.
Now that he was a bit stronger- though still a bit wobbly, like a newborn puppy- he followed Sekayi around the outside of the building for short periods while the bouda looked for fuel for the fire or other objects in the trash. He discovered something peculiar during these excursions. Sekayi was frequently approached by screamers carrying objects in their hands, holding them out like an offering.
The first time Mhumhi observed this, a male screamer came trudging up the hill with an old sneaker clutched against his chest.
“What’ve you got?” Sekayi called, slapping one knee, which quite startled Mhumhi. He’d been looking for a route to avoid the screamer.
The screamer looked up and smiled and ran towards Sekayi, stumbling. He handed him the shoe.
“Wow, that’s very good,” said Sekayi, and he took the shoe as though it were made of meat. “Good job, good boy.”
The screamer hooted and threw his arms around Sekayi.
“Yes, good, yes,” said Sekayi, in a patient way, and he patted the screamer’s head and extracted himself. “Now go on, go on your way.”
The screamer hesitated, hovering, and looked at Mhumhi for a second. Sekayi made a clicking sound with his tongue.
“No, you go on.”
The screamer jumped like it had been stung and ran loudly off through the trash.
“They have been trying to pet you and the others the whole time,” said Sekayi, addressing Mhumhi. “I am doing my best to keep them away, but you see how they are…”
“What was all that?” said Mhumhi, staring up at him. “Why did it give you that?”
“Oh,” said Sekayi, “I have some of them trained, just a little bit. They bring me anything they think I will like. At first I gave them food to reward them, but all they really want is affection. They’ll do anything for a hug.” He shook his head a little. “Well, they are all very sweet.”
“You’ve trained them? But…” Mhumhi was not sure how to phrase the discomfort he felt. Sekayi gave him a sidelong glance.
“They look like humans,” he said, “and they often act like children… but they are a different animal. It’s best to think of them that way.”
“Do you know how they got like that?” asked Mhumhi.
“I can guess,” said Sekayi. “I don’t want to know more about them than I have to.”
This statement struck Mhumhi. Slowly he said, “The meat in the refrigerator…”
“Some of it comes from birds,” said Sekayi. His round dark eyes were devoid of emotion, just like Vimbo’s.
Mhumhi said nothing more on the topic. He had little grounds to judge from. Anyway, the meat was what they needed now. His family’s survival depended entirely on Sekayi.
“The screamer that picked me up took me to you because it thought I was interesting, didn’t it?” he said.
Sekayi let out a loud shout of laughter, startling two white birds into flight nearby.
“Yes, it did! I was coming back to get you- I was very surprised to see her carrying you!”
“They tried to pick up Mini, too,” said Mhumhi, “and they were following us… If we had gone with them sooner, we would have been much better off.”
“Ah, but who would have thought to follow them,” said Sekayi, still smiling. “They’re only screamers.”
They went back to the concrete building after that, walking slowly side by side. Sekayi put his armful of flammable material- including the old sneaker- in a pile near the door. Kutta limped out to greet them, panting.
“Come do something with this little creature,” she said. “It’s insufferable.”
Indeed, Mini had set off yapping as soon as they were within hearing range. Sekayi went inside and picked her up on the chair.
“What are you barking for, Sister?”
Mini whined, squirming, and he put her against his chest and patted her. Mhumhi felt a little disturbed, because he had used the same voice on the screamer, but there was nothing but adoration in Mini’s eyes as she licked his chin.
“Domestics,” muttered Kutta, coming closer to Mhumhi. She licked one of his ears. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Yes,” he said. “Have you eaten?”
“Not yet,” said Kutta. “My stomach feels like it’s going up and down in an elevator.”
“Drink some water,” Mhumhi urged, nudging her towards one of the metal bowls Sekayi had set out.
“I’ve drunk. I’m fine,” said Kutta, resisting him. “Tareq, though…”
They both looked at him. He was curled up on his blanket, his thumb in his mouth. Mhumhi could tell from his irregular breathing that he was not asleep, but he still looked listless and sweaty.
“He is getting better,” he said.
“Slowly,” said Kutta. “More slowly than us…”
“He’s just a puppy. He’ll bounce back.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Kutta. “No, you’re probably right.” She lay down slowly, with a sigh. “And so is Mini… that is a good hulker. I mean bouda.”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, though the hum of the refrigerator in the background caught his ear. Sekayi was still cuddling Mini, who was pressed up against his chest in utter bliss.
“I will make you something,” he was saying to her, “so you can pull yourself around a little. I think it could be done.”
“Just carry me,” said Mini, lovingly. He chuckled.
“You’ll be happy if you can move yourself again. I won’t have to pick you up every time you need to go outside.”
“I don’t mind,” said Mini, and he grinned and kissed the top of her head.
“Unbelievable,” muttered Kutta.
“What’s the matter?” said Mhumhi coming over to nudge at her shoulder with his nose. “Are you jealous?”
Kutta turned an irritated ear back towards him. “She’s forgotten all about Vimbo.”
That shut Mhumhi up. He had spared little thought for the hyena himself over the past two days, haze of sickness as they had been.
“All that talk about not having him change, keeping him safe,” Kutta continued, “and now look- she’s found a better one, and she just doesn’t care.”
“Just because she likes Sekayi doesn’t mean she forgot about Vimbo,” said Mhumhi. “And Vimbo left us, too, so…”
“Vimbo leaves all the time, but he always comes back,” said Kutta. “I bet she won’t care if he does.”
Mhumhi could not say much to that. He supposed they’d have to wait and see.
He hoped Vimbo would have worked out whatever anger he held towards Sekayi if he did come back. The thought had occurred to him that perhaps they had met before, in the bouda’s lair, but that had seemed unlikely. Sekayi had been away for many years, and Vimbo was a young hyena. It had to be a resentment he bore against all bouda in general for what they had done to their own kind.
“When everyone is better, there’s someone you should meet,” Sekayi was saying, which snapped Mhumhi straight back to the present.
“A friend of mine who also came here recently,” said Sekayi. He put Mini back down on the chair, to her desultory whines. “He’s stayed away since he doesn’t want to catch the sickness from you. He might be able to tell you more about what’s been happening in the city since you’ve been gone.”
Mhumhi hesitated. They had given Sekayi a highly abridged version of their journey, omitting most of the things about the safe place, and particularly the struggle between the bouda and the police.
“What kind of friend?”
“A dog,” said Sekayi. “Or I guess you would call him a little fox. His name is Bii.”