“He shouldn’t be alive,” was Kutta’s comment, or all she kept mumbling to herself, over and over. “That little fox…”
Mhumhi put his head against her shoulder, steadying her as she swayed. It was dark again, and the dogs had come outside to sit around Sekayi’s little fire, which threw up sparks into the cloudy night sky.
“Good for him if he is,” said Mini, who was little more than a pair of shiny eyes peering out of a blanket on the ground. “He helped us, didn’t he?”
“He also let Biscuit out,” said Mhumhi.
“That’s according to Biscuit, who also said he died,” replied Mini. “Anyway, you can’t blame a little fellow for doing what he has to do to survive. It’s different for you big lot.”
Mhumhi gave a little snort.
“If Bii is alive, he must know where Kebero is,” said Kutta. “Our Kebero…”
Mhumhi was quiet for a moment, then he said, “He’s not ours anymore.”
Kutta flicked her eyes at him, and he tensed, but all she said was, “I still care about him. He’s our brother.”
“How many extra brothers have you got?” asked Mini.
“Kebero is grown now. Tareq’s the brother we have to worry about,” said Mhumhi, looking over at the dark entrance to the concrete building. Tareq had not wanted to move outside, so they had piled blankets over him and left him in the quiet.
“I can worry about both,” said Kutta.
“I worry about when Sekayi is going to get back,” said Mini. “Whether you two like it or not, he is bringing the little fox with him. I hope you can at least try to be civil.”
Kutta looked at her, slitty-eyed. “I hope you can act like an adult dog for just a minute when Sekayi’s back. You’re like a milky puppy over her mama’s teat-”
“And what a handsome, kind teat it is,” said Mini, and she raised her head so that the top of the blanket slid away from her ears. “You wild dogs don’t understand my kind of love.”
“Certainly not,” said Kutta. There was a delicate edge of disgust to her voice.
“I thought you said you were afraid of falling in love again, Mini,” said Mhumhi. “You told me so in the elevator when we were in the building with the yellow stripes.”
Mini lowered her head, so that only the tips of her black ears peeked out of her little nest.
“That was what I said, yes. Doesn’t change the way things are now.”
“Well,” said Mhumhi, glancing between her and Kutta, “Sekayi is very safe here… So you don’t have to be frightened for him.”
Mini said nothing. Kutta hesitated, then slid her forelegs forward to lie down, her shoulder against Mhumhi’s wrist. Mhumhi licked her ear, listening to the fire talk to itself, with the sound of waves even further in the background.
“None of them are ever safe,” said Mini.
“Who, the hulkers? I think that here-”
“Nobody you love is ever safe. You know that, Mhumhi. The minute you get complacent…” Mini’s blankets shivered.
“Stop talking like that,” said Kutta. “You make it worse.”
“I’m still afraid,” said Mini. “Mhumhi, I’m still afraid… I’m afraid of myself… Why did I grow to love him so quickly?”
Mhumhi left Kutta, who tensed, and went over to lick the top of Mini’s head. Her fur was dense and soft.
“It’s a lie, isn’t it,” she muttered, lowering her ears under his tongue. “They made me this way. What I feel isn’t…”
Mhumhi had no answers for her, so he just kept grooming her, trying to soothe her, picking bits of debris from her fur with his tongue. On the other side of the fire Kutta put her chin on the ground.
A crunching sound made her head pop straight back up, her ears pricked. Mhumhi raised his head as well.
“Is it Sekayi?”
Mhumhi didn’t have to answer. They could now make out his slender form, picking his way over the trash with a deliberateness that all screamers lacked. Mini gave a half-swallowed yap, then buried her face in her blanket.
Mhumhi looked for the slinking figure of a fox beside him, but saw none.
Sekayi was making a humming sound as he approached, a sort of lilting sound that Mhumhi thought might be cheerful. He was carrying some sort of bag on his shoulder, similar to what Maha had kept once. He hadn’t left with it.
“I’ve brought him,” he said, leaning down to put a hand on the ground so he could arrange himself cross-legged. He put the bag down beside him. Mhumhi’s nose twitched.
Bii’s head popped out of the bag, bat-ears springing free, making him jump back.
“Hello, hello,” he said, putting his little chin on the edge. Kutta gave a startled growl. From her blanket, Mini gave a quiet whuff of laughter.
“I’m very happy to see you’re not dead,” said Bii, rolling his head from side to side to look around at all of them. “Even the little domestic! And Sekayi tells me you’ve got a child…”
“Oh, shut up, Bii,” said Kutta, who had come around to stand by Mhumhi. “Don’t pretend to care. The only reason I haven’t taught you a lesson is because of Kebero.”
Bii focused his heavy ears in her direction.
“What about Kebero?”
She growled softly. Mhumhi nudged her with his shoulder.
“How did you escape from the cages?”
Bii gave one of his impish grins.
“Not easily. You shut the door on me, I’m afraid.”
“We couldn’t have helped you,” said Mhumhi. “You know that.”
Bii blinked. “I wouldn’t have expected it,” he said. “But I darted from the police- they were all distracted by trying to get the door open again- and wedged myself behind a rack of cages and hid. There was enough confusion that they didn’t notice me for a bit.”
Mhumhi recalled the incident when he had first met Lamya- Bii had squeezed behind something then too- a dumpster.
“They smelled me, but they were confused, because I wasn’t one of their original prisoners,” Bii continued. “Anyway, they had caught the maned wolf, and they were dragging him to the center of the room to interrogate him. I decided to creep a bit closer to keep an ear on them- that’s when I had a bit of luck. I found the key he’d dropped.”
“And that’s when you released Biscuit?” Kutta cut in.
Bii swung his large ears towards her. “Who is Biscuit?”
“The big domestic with the blue eyes,” said Mhumhi. “He said you freed him.”
“Oh, that one,” said Bii. “I never got his name.” His forehead wrinkled slightly, his ears tilting forward. “You met with him?”
“Briefly,” said Kutta. “He’s dead now.”
“Is he?” Bii’s lips wrinkled back, exposing the tips of his canines. “And how did that come about?”
Neither Mhumhi nor Kutta said anything, and after a moment Bii chuckled.
“I see. You two are a formidable pair.”
“You don’t seem very upset about it,” Mini pointed out.
“I must confess that I have never been close with any domestics,” said Bii, turning his button eyes her way, “and least of all, the one we are discussing.”
“Least of all? Then why did you let him out?” demanded Kutta.
“It’s ironic,” said Bii. “I briefly trusted him.” He shook his little head, his ears wagging back and forth. “I decided that my best bet for escaping would be to create a great deal of confusion. So I went up to the domestic at the end of a row and whispered to him that I’d unlock his cage and he could unlock the rest and overwhelm the guards with their numbers. The silly thing just started barking, and that got them all started. The guards started coming over. So the blue-eyed one called me- ‘Quickly, free me, you saw me speaking with those friends of yours-‘” Bii paused, blinked.
“I had, and so I did, and he took the key from me and ran around to where the hulkers were, and started unlocking their cages- the guards were chasing him by then, and me, but one of the hulkers had the key in its paw, and it was a lot quicker at unlocking, and soon there were a lot of them, making a whole din of noise. One of them got the door open, and I darted out. It wasn’t long before that domestic appeared behind me, with a bit of blood on his mouth.”
“‘Do you know where the painted dog and the others are going?’ was what he asked me, and I decided to keep things vague, not knowing what his angle was; but then while I was speaking he took a snap at me and caught me by my back leg.”
Mini gave a sharp yap at this. “He grabs at you quick, doesn’t he! I mean didn’t he.”
“Quick, yes,” said Bii, “but I coiled back around and caught his lip in my teeth as he was worrying me, and then I came away from what he had in his teeth and threw myself down a storm drain, all bloody, and landed hard. But the brute couldn’t reach me. I lay there and listened to him talk to himself- he was very mad, I think.”
“What did he say?” asked Mhumhi.
“A lot of garble,” said Bii, tilting his head, “this and that. He said, ‘She won’t come with me,’ quite a bit, and then, ‘they won’t hunt,’ and he kept muttering about death. Oh, and someone’s name- what was it-”
“Lamya?” Mhumhi suggested.
“Yes,” said Bii, blinking at him, “Yes, that was it, Lamya. He said, ‘They won’t get to hunt Lamya!’ He was almost shouting it, out at the street, or maybe at me; I don’t know. I didn’t really care. He went off then, and I stayed at the bottom of the storm drain where I had fallen.”
“He said you’d died when he met us,” said Kutta, staring down at him.
Bii twitched his nose at her, putting his chin on the edge of the bag again. “I might well have. I was in poor shape and in the sewer besides. I’m sure you know what that’s like.”
“In the sewer?” put in Mini, wrinkling her lips. “No, thank you.”
“You seem all right now,” said Mhumhi, ignoring her.
Bii bared his teeth in that needle-sharp grin again.
“I wonder if by now you’ve learned not to trust what I show you,” he said, and popped his head back into the bag. There was a shifting and a rustling, and it fell over on its side. Bii pushed the edge of it up with his head, his ears flattened, and slowly came out. He was limping.
He was limping because, Mhumhi realized, he only had a stump where his right rear leg had been.
“That domestic took a little bit of me with him,” said Bii, shivering and standing on three legs in the cool night air. “I hope you excuse me for not grieving for him.”
Kutta, who had been staring with her mouth slightly opened up until then, put her ears back and snorted.
“I don’t think there’s anyone left who will grieve for him.”
“A bad dog,” said Mini, rather slowly, “what a bad dog… Did he do it? Oh, he was a bad dog.”
“Did he do what, Mini?” asked Kutta, glancing back at her.
Sekayi, who had quietly been sitting cross-legged by the fire during the whole conversation, suddenly spoke up.
“I think it is sad if there is no one to mourn for him.”
They all swung their heads over to him, and after a moment Mhumhi said, “He killed our sister. And he did that to Mini.”
Sekayi pulled one knee up to rest his hands on it.
“I believe you,” he said. “Maybe he deserved to die. But I hope at least one person grieves for him.”
“What possibly-” Kutta growled. “Why?”
“I have spent many years alone here, in this place, you know,” said Sekayi. Mhumhi had seen a tremor go through him at Kutta’s growl, but he stayed in his relaxed position. “To think that someone could die, and that no one would care, and he would just be forgotten- that thought frightens me.”
“Well, if you ask me, there’s a dog we’d all rather forget,” said Mini.
Sekayi gave a small smile, and said nothing else. Mhumhi turned back to the others.
“Bii, how did you get here?”
“I knew about this place,” said Bii, who had laid down on his side. He licked his lips and swallowed. “Not exactly what it was, but that there was a safe place if you followed the sunset along the coastline… I heard about it from white-tails.”
“Were you spying on them, too?” asked Mhumhi. Bii laughed.
“I prefer not to answer that question… but I made it here, somehow. I was nearly dead. I thought I really was dead when one of those voiceless hulkers picked me up, but he brought me to this one.” Bii turned his nose towards Sekayi, and the bouda inclined his head slightly.
“It seems like your opinion on hulkers has changed,” said Mhumhi, tone cool.
Bii looked back at him. “Oh, yes, and many other things have changed… I’m sorry. I’m sorry to you all. I made the wrong decision, betraying you.”
Kutta gave a harsh laugh. “Yes, you’d have four more toes, wouldn’t you!”
“And more than that, perhaps,” said Bii, in a muted way.
For some reason that statement made Mhumhi swallow, and his heart gave a little patter.
“Bii,” he said, “by the way… Where is Kebero?”
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Kutta, her yellow eyes widening. “Where is he? Have you got him hidden away somewhere here? Or did you just leave him in the city?” Her tone had become quite sharp by the last statement.
Bii looked up at them, from his prone position on the ground, and gave an odd laugh.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” demanded Kutta, her whiskers bristling as she bared her teeth. “You were last with him!”
“We were supposed to meet after I freed you,” said Bii, “and when I could manage to walk, I went to the place… but he was not there. It was been a long time, so I thought maybe he had thought I had died. I told him about this place too, as a last resort… and I thought… maybe he came here…”
Bii trailed off, his eyes widening. Kutta snarled.
“You- you’re lying! You left him behind, didn’t you?”
Bii focused his gaze on her.
“Do you think I would not want him with me? That I would not go where he would? He was my son.”
“Your- he was our brother!”
“Barely,” said Bii, his voice rising slightly. “You barely cared for him. You put the well-being of those miserable hulker creatures over-” He seemed to stop himself, his ears drooping.
“I have no way of chastising you, when I failed him so badly myself… I made the wrong choices, every time.”
Mhumhi couldn’t help but feel a pang.
“Bii, he might still be alive. You could have missed him.”
“Yes,” said Bii, “and my leg could grow back, too, and meat could start raining from the sky. He was my Kebero. He would have been there. He was not able to come.”
“You don’t think he saw you for the dirty traitor you are and left you, then?” said Kutta.
“I cared for him more than anyone else he’d ever known,” said Bii, his bushy tail twitching on the ground.
“Oh yes? Says you!”
“Said he.” Bii’s button eyes were as black and empty as Vimbo’s. “To me. Many times.”
The fire snapped and crackled, the wood settling. Kutta was shaking.
“We spoke about grieving earlier,” said Bii, “and I grieve for him- but you, I wonder if you even bear the right to.”
Kutta seemed struck dumb. Mhumhi moved closer to her, touching her shoulder.
“Be quiet, Bii,” he said. “There are things you don’t know.”
“Of course there aren’t,” said Bii. He moved his single haunch forward and tucked his tail around himself. “I put the same statement back to you.”
There was little Mhumhi could say to that, and they all knew it. His heart sank, and he looked at Kutta. She was staring at the ground, her eyes glassy.
It was effectively the end of any talk for some time, as they all seemed to be left with their own unpleasant thoughts. Mhumhi gently pushed Kutta further away from Bii so they could lie down together, but she moved away from him, so that there were a few centimeters of space between them.
Sekayi stirred the fire, and Mhumhi stared at the flames. They were warm and gentle here, but he recalled the blaze that had devoured part of the city very well. The things that Sekayi put into it were all that sustained its light and life, and it would grab any fuel it touched, even him. So that it would not go out.
Sparks flew into the air as Sekayi withdrew his stick. He was starting to hum again, and he drummed one hand against his thigh.
“Tell me, Sister,” he said, addressing Mini, “do you sing?”
“Only on occasion,” said Mini, raising her head slightly. “People have never appreciated my voice for what it is.”
She looked at Mhumhi when she said this, but he wasn’t sure why.
“I sing a lot here, by myself,” said Sekayi. “I think the screamers like it, but they can’t sing back. Would you sing with me?”
“Well,” said Mini, shifting. Mhumhi thought she seemed a bit bashful. “If you start, I can pick it up. Probably.”
“Good, good,” said Sekayi, drumming on both his thighs now, and then he began to make a sound- something really unlike anything Mhumhi had heard before. He put his head up and tilted it, and even Kutta rolled her eyes to look at Sekayi.
He was saying words, though they were in hulker- or so Mhumhi thought, but they were said in a different sort of way, like the lilting sound Sekayi had made when he hummed. The only music Mhumhi had ever heard had been coming from the black room back at the safe place, but this was very different from that- rougher, brighter.
Mini put her ears back and tilted her nose up with a whine. A thin, high howl trembled out of her, growing steadily stronger. She stopped and put her ears up for a moment, listening to Sekayi, and then howled again.
Mhumhi listened to the pair of them, somewhat amazed. The howling didn’t really match the singing in anyway- in fact, it quite detracted from it- but Sekayi was smiling and Mini was panting a bit when they stopped.
“You have a wonderful voice,” Sekayi said, scratching behind Mini’s ears. She closed her eyes and pushed back against him.
There was a crunching sound to their left, and both Mhumhi and Kutta jumped up, on high alert, and on the ground every hair on Bii’s tail bristled outwards.
Tareq’s face slowly appeared in the firelight as he approached, emerging from the dark. He looked sleepy, his jaw slightly slack as he rubbed one eye.
“Are you singin’?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Sekayi. “Sorry if we woke you.”
Tareq put his hand down and gave a little smile.
“I like singin’,” he said, and as if to prove it, he started on a tune of his own, childish-sounding, the words in hulker. Mini cocked her head for a moment, then tilted her nose back to howl again, and Sekayi, smiling, joined them in a hesitant-sounding way.
Kutta shifted closer to Mhumhi, so that their shoulders touched, and they watched the three of them. Sekayi pulled Tareq into his lap and clapped his hands together, singing more softly as Tareq leaned drowsily back against his chest. Mini was alternating her howls with jealous-sounding yaps.
Mhumhi could just barely make out Bii’s eyes, gleaming through the fur on his tail, on the other side of the fire. Like them, he did not howl.