Tareq was holding out his small fists in a triumphant manner, and Mhumhi dutifully sniffed each one. He could smell Tareq’s sweat; even though it was early morning the air was already shimmering with heat over the hills of garbage.
“I don’t know,” he said, waving his tail. “Give me a hint.”
Tareq giggled, turning his head to rub his chin on his shoulder. “No hints! Which hand?”
“Let me try,” said Kutta, smiling up at him, nudging at Mhumhi. Mhumhi pushed her back.
“It’s my turn to guess,” he said. “Now… let me think…” He nosed each of Tareq’s fists again, pretending he couldn’t pick up the obvious scent of meat from the one on the left. “Is it…”
He trailed off, his skin prickling. It was very hard to pretend he wasn’t being watched- Hlolwa’s shuttered gaze was fixed on them from across the valley. He shifted his weight, licking his lips.
Tareq’s smile faded too, and he drew his hands closer to his chest, looking over at her.
“It’s this one!” cried Kutta, giving a little bound and touching one fist with her nose. Tareq stumbled backwards with surprise, his face creasing.
“Kutta,” Mhumhi admonished, as her tail tucked, and went to lick Tareq’s fists. “Was it right? Did she pick right, Tareq?”
“I dunno,” said Tareq, turning his shoulders away from all of them, as if to rid himself of that pervasive gaze. Kutta was glaring over at Hlolwa now, thought Mhumhi could not bring himself to do the same. It was just too uncomfortable; not only the sense that she was spying on something intimate, but the palpable feeling of her disgust.
“Where’s Dot?” asked Tareq. He raised his fist- not the one Kutta had picked- and put the small piece of meat in his mouth.
“She went with Sekayi and Mini,” said Mhumhi. “They’re out looking for food.”
Mhumhi gave a little sigh. Tareq had learned the fox’s name alarmingly quickly, and it was hard to miss the longing looks he kept giving him. It was hard to explain that Bii was not the sort of dog that would want to be petted.
“He must be out looking for food too.”
“Where’s the ‘yena?”
Mhumhi sighed again, and this time Kutta rescued him, wagging her tail. “Tareq, don’t you want to play the hand game again? Or do you want to play tug-of-war?”
Tareq considered this seriously for a moment, but then he turned his eyes on Hlolwa again. His fingers hovered near his mouth. “No, I don’t wanna.”
“Then let’s drink some water,” Kutta persisted. “It’s hot now, aren’t you thirsty?” She gently mouthed his hand and pulled it towards the little plastic bottle Sekayi had filled for them earlier. Tareq picked it up, gazing at the small flecks of detritus floating around in the bottle’s transparent interior, and then took a sloppy drink.
Kutta turned on Mhumhi. “Go tell her to stop staring at us.”
“Tell her-? She’s just looking…”
Kutta’s eyes got sharper and yellower. ‘You’re frightened of her!”
“I’m not,” Mhumhi insisted, though his haunches were sinking. Of course he was frightened of her. How could he not be?
“Go,” said Kutta. “She’s chained up, you coward.”
Mhumhi raised his lip and tried not to slink as he crossed the valley. He had a realistic idea of how well Hlolwa would take a command, and he would be no good for enforcing it, and just end up looking like a fool.
A long time ago he could remember not minding at all when he looked like a fool, but he had had his sisters and mother to protect him then.
He tried to keep his tail up as he approached Hlolwa, but the effect was certainly mitigated by his indirect gaze. Nearby, Kulwe snored on his pillow, his wounded leg stinking in the heat. Perhaps he ought to be moved out of the direct sunlight- but Mhumhi certainly wasn’t going to expend the effort.
Hlolwa had not so much as blinked upon his approach, lying still with her forepaws stretched straight out like a regal statue. The sunlight highlighted the thin skin around her notched ear in pale red.
When Mhumhi opened his mouth to speak, she cut him off.
“We need more water.”
Mhumhi looked at the small bowl Sekayi had left them, and indeed, it was dry. He also saw how the dirt was scuffed all around it; it was barely within straining range for her. Behind her she had made an effort to constrain her toilet to one small area, but it still stank, and doubtless felt too close, at just a chain’s length away. Her companion had let his runny feces stain the pillow he was lying on.
“You’ll get more when the others return.” He flinched a little as she turned her head towards him. The area around her neck where the chain sat looked raw.
“Then why have you come over?” asked Hlolwa, as if his only purpose would be to take orders from her. His forelegs tensed.
“Stop staring at our puppy.”
Predictably, she laughed at him. Kulwe raised his head at the noise.
“Your puppy,” she repeated.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, nearly growling. She showed him her molars.
“Are you ashamed?”
She crossed her forepaws, her eyes nearly slits. “You are ashamed to have us watch you treat that creature as though it were a dog.”
“He is a dog,” snapped Mhumhi, “he’s our brother, and he’s our puppy.”
“Oh, yes,” said Hlolwa, as Kulwe recoiled, his lips drawing back in revulsion. “Just as that dhole is your sister. How easy it must be for you. Anyone can become a part of this family.”
“Not you,” growled Mhumhi. She whuffed with laughter.
“Of course not I. Not a member of your own kind; that would be ridiculous.”
Mhumhi shifted his weight and glanced away.
“If it disturbs you to have me look at your creature, I will avert my eyes,” she said. “Now you must leave so that Kulwe can sleep.”
He bristled at the dismissal, but as usual he couldn’t think of a good response. He began to retreat back around the fire pit and nearly ran into Tareq.
Tareq was walking towards the painted dogs, frowning, water bottle still swinging from one hand. Kutta trotted around his other side.
“Tareq, dear, wait-”
“Those bad dogs,” said Tareq, raising his free hand to point. “Mhumhi, those’re bad dogs.”
“Yes, they are,” said Mhumhi, glad for the petty feeling of satisfaction the words gave him. Hlolwa slowly closed her eyes.
“They’re always chasin’ us,” Tareq said, shaking the water bottle so that it sloshed loudly. “You gonna kill them?”
Mhumhi was a little stunned by the statement, but Kutta came close and pressed her side against Tareq’s legs.
“If we have to. If they try to hurt you, we will.” She passed a look to Mhumhi. He felt slightly wounded.
Tareq twisted his lips, his brow furrowing.
“But they’re tied up.”
“Yes, they are, so they can’t get you,” said Kutta.
“But that one’s not tied up.”
“He’s hurt, Tareq,” said Mhumhi. “He can’t walk.”
“He hurt his leg?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Somebody bit his leg?”
“Yes, Tareq, somebody bit his leg.”
Tareq shook the water bottle again, frowning.
“Did you bite his leg?”
Mhumhi licked his lips. “No, it wasn’t me.”
Tareq looked over at Hlolwa. “Did you bite his leg?”
Mhumhi saw her eyes snap open and was between her and Tareq in the next second, but all she did was rise to her feet and show her teeth.
“Don’t let it address her again,” spat Kulwe, cycling his forepaws on his cushion, strangely reminiscent of Mini.
Kutta sent him an open-mouthed snarl, for Tareq had crouched down next to her, his eyes wide and teary. “Tareq, it’s all right, the bad dogs can’t get you-”
“She said they get mad,” sniffled Tareq, putting one cheek into her fur. “When you talk they get mad at you.”
“Who said that? Who said they get mad?”
Tareq gave a prolonged sniff. “Maha said they get mad when you talk to them. An’ she was right. They got mad and bit me n’ Dot n’ they bit her too…” His words became garbled, and his small shoulders shook with another sob. Mhumhi turned around and licked his salty tears and snot off his face.
“It’s all right, it doesn’t matter if they get mad, you can still talk…”
“Did you say they bit you and Dot?” asked Kutta, coming around and pushing Mhumhi aside. Her tone was urgent. “These dogs attacked you and Dot, Tareq?”
Tareq put one hand on the ground and wiped his face with the back of his other one.
Mhumhi glanced at Hlolwa, but her expression was entirely inscrutable.
“Wasn’t these ones,” said Tareq, his lip quivering. “It was the other police dogs. An’ I said ‘Go away,’ and then they came down and bit me ‘n Dot and were mean and then the ‘yena came over and yelled at them and bit them-”
“The hyena came after the dogs attacked you?” Mhumhi said. “He didn’t go after Dot?”
Kutta gave him a startled look, but Tareq shook his head.
“He was biting the bad dogs and Dot took me in the house! An’ they were yelling and grouching a lot outside but Dot wouldn’t let me go and I almost peed.”
“It would have been okay to pee then,” Kutta reassured him, though she was still looking strangely at Mhumhi.
“No,” said Tareq, scowling through his tears. Mhumhi wasn’t sure if it was about the peeing or something else.
He turned to address Hlolwa. “You said the two dogs you sent out were scouts. Why did they attack Tareq?”
“It was foolish of them,” said Hlolwa. She had begun to lie down again, positioning her haunches sideways so that she could lean to one side.
“Foolish?” ” repeated Kutta. “Even here, you can’t stop from attacking every hulker you see, can you?”
Hlolwa drew her lips back slightly.
“Do you think we could possibly attack every hulker here?” she asked. “We are not mindless. We killed what we had to eat. These hulkers give us no trouble, they are quiet- we leave them well enough alone when we do not need them.”
“That’s not what you do in the city,” said Kutta.
“In the city it is best to have one’s meat where it is easily accessible,” said Hlolwa, and lowered her head to lick one forepaw.
“You never even needed that meat,” said Mhumhi. “You’re a liar.”
“We needed it,” said Hlolwa. Her tone had dropped in temperature again. “The dispensaries give enough meat for one dog to survive day to day, just barely. But survival is not our aim. For our bellies to be round and full, for our police to grow fit and strong, for our mothers to have no stillbirths… For the time that is to come, we need to be the strongest and the most numerous.”
“The time that is to come,” said Mhumhi. “You mean, when the meat runs out.”
Hlolwa said nothing.
“How can you do it?” said Kutta. She took a step back, and then another. “I don’t understand. You see that the hulkers can speak like we do, think like we do… how can you do it?”
Hlolwa turned her head slowly to address her.
“Because we have not deluded ourselves into thinking that the hulkers are like us.”
“Deluded?” Mhumhi put his ears back. “Isn’t that you? Isn’t that-” He broke off for a moment. “I know why your scouts attacked Tareq. Not for food. Because he spoke to them. That’s always it, isn’t it. You hate hearing them speak. It’s like Mini said- you’re afraid.”
For a moment Hlolwa stayed completely still, and Mhumhi felt a touch of satisfaction. Then she rose to her feet. Her chain jangled. He could not resist the urge to step back.
“Do you know what hulkers really are?” she asked. She had opened her eyes wider, and they were amber, translucent, like dark honey. “They are monsters.”
“Does he look like a monster to you?” Mhumhi demanded, jerking his head towards Tareq.
“Yes,” said Hlolwa. “A furless, fleshy, lumbering monster; a grasping freak with a flat muzzle. And it speaks with our voice. It speaks with our voice, Mhumhi.”
“It’s not our voice,” said Mhumhi.
“No? Who does it belong to, then? Should we give up speaking?”
“They had it first!”
Hlolwa’s eyes widened. “First, second, I don’t care! They shamble around, eating meat, killing dogs, speaking words like we do. You have never seen anything eat so much, destroy so much as these. They eat your puppies and then beg you to spare their life. They are like devils.”
“Devils?” Mhumhi had not heard the term before.
“The domestics worship them.” Hlolwa’s gaze had gone flat again with disdain. “Show a bit of power, and those fools follow.”
“And you think you’re better than them?” Kutta put in. “Because you kill them instead?”
“Hulkers are not innocent children,” said Hlolwa. “Or do you not realize it? They kill dogs. They kill them with any manner that is contrivable. I know that the ones living in the city were rather we were all dead, so that they could breed freely upon the city’s streets again. Do you realize, Mhumhi?” She turned her head towards him. “Do you realize how much you have been protected? I suppose you cannot.”
She was wrong. Mhumhi had turned his nose away, for he was thinking of Lamya, who had gleefully predicted the dogs starving to death, killing one another; he thought of Mini’s man, who had tried to destroy a building full of painted dogs.
“You know it too,” said Hlolwa. “The meat is running out. And when it does, we will have to kill living things in order to survive. And when it comes to that, we will kill the things that look least like us.”
“But they are like us,” said Kutta.
“Then breed with them,” said Hlolwa. “If they are so like you. Bear their puppies.”
“It’s only that,” Mhumhi said. He felt a cold anger of his own creeping up on him. “That is your criterion? Breeding? I thought the ones you love most are the ones you cannot breed with.”
“Certainly that is true for you,” said Hlolwa.
“Oh, come on, Mhumhi, let’s take Tareq back to the house,” said Kutta, turning away in disgust. “He’s getting upset.”
Mhumhi looked at Tareq. He was still sitting on the ground, one finger in his mouth, drawing swirls in the dirt with another.
“Before you leave, I have one more question,” said Hlolwa.
Mhumhi suspected very strongly that he did not hear it, but he didn’t have the willpower to ignore her and walk away. “Ask.”
“Are you or are you not going to kill us?”
He let his breath out through his nose. “We’ll kill you if we have to.”
“And when will you know that? Do you plan to keep us captive indefinitely?”
“Do you want to die?” Mhumhi demanded. “Is that what it is?”
Hlolwa laughed, a low sound.
“I do not want to die.”
“Then stop asking questions.”
She flicked her eyes up at him, mocking. She knew how feeble his threats were.
“You certainly don’t want to die,” said Kutta, prowling around Mhumhi’s other side. “You never even tried to escape. Are you really that much of a coward?”
Hlolwa lowered her gaze, almost demurely. Mhumhi felt his skin prickling. Kulwe was staring over at them, hard.
“What do you plan to do?” Mhumhi asked. “Are you just going to sit here- be our prisoner? Or do you have some plan- some ambush?”
“I could have used an ambush much earlier than this,” said Hlolwa. “I don’t have a choice but to play the prisoner. It is as your red dog says. I am a coward who does not want to die.”
“Madame,” said Kulwe, almost nervously.
“Do you know this, Mhumhi?” asked Hlolwa, baring her teeth at him. “The importance of breeding. It is so you can have more dogs. And I am carrying more dogs inside of me. I cannot let myself get killed.”