A proposition for the Madame.
“Has anybody seen that little fox with the ridiculous ears?” asked Mini.
She was a black mass in Sekayi’s lap once again, indolent and indignant. Sekayi periodically scratched her chin and smiled. He had lit the fire and was sitting by it with a pan, letting the flames heat the metal so the meat within hissed and popped with liquid.
Mhumhi looked up from where he had been playing with Tareq, a game that involved digging a hole in the garbage as fast as the puppy could fill it up again. Tareq tossed a heavy battery against one of his forelegs and he winced.
“I don’t really mind if he keeps himself scarce,” was Kutta’s comment. She was sitting atop a garbage pile a few meters away, her ears rotating and her nose twitching. A few white birds were circling high overhead.
“I think it’s suspicious,” said Mini, rather primly. “Where’s he got to be out here other than with us? There’s nothing else interesting, is there?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Mhumhi, and she turned and gave him a malevolent look around Sekayi’s back. Mhumhi wagged his tail. She had been a bit sharp with him ever since he had returned with Sekayi and the meat. Mhumhi found himself more amused than anything else over her jealousy.
“You don’t know about that? Then what do you know?”
“Have you seen this place?” asked Mhumhi, rotating his muzzle to indicate the expanse of the dump. “There’re all sorts of things to find here. Bii’s probably found a nest of bugs to dig up, or something. Hey, Mini, have you ever eaten a bug?”
He received offended silence to this, and wagged his tail harder.
There was a clatter, and they all looked back over at Kutta. She was scrambling over a rapidly tipping pile of metal shingles, and now she jumped, snapping her jaws at the air. A white bird spiraled higher upwards, scolding, as she came down hard.
“Wow, wow,” said Tareq, sounding confused but appreciative as Kutta stumbled and slid further down. “You gonna get it?”
“Almost,” said Kutta, licking her lips, still gazing upwards.
“What are you going to do if you do get it?” asked Mhumhi. “Kill it?”
“No- no, we have enough meat, there’s no need,” said Kutta, drawing her ears back and blinking rapidly, as if shaken out of a trance. “No- I only want to, you know, see if I can catch one.”
“I’m sure the birds appreciate that.”
“Well, they’re just animals,” said Kutta, her brush-tail bristling.
Mhumhi’s heart sank a little, and he looked back across the fire. Hlolwa’s half-lidded eyes were on them again.
Nobody said anything for a moment, and then Mhumhi let out a little sigh through his nose. Hlowa’s eyes flicked at him, amused and sardonic. She seemed to take care to remind them of her presence as soon as they started to really forget about it- as soon as they started to feel slightly comfortable again.
“Shh,” said Tareq, frowning, but to Mhumhi’s relief Hlolwa took no action.
Sekayi pulled the meat off the fire, prodding it with a stick as it made crackling sounds of protest in the pan. It had gone gray, like the meat the bouda had once given him, Mhumhi observed. He was not sure why they seemed to prefer it that way- it was harder to chew and the flavor was wholly different.
“Mhumhi, over here a moment,” called Mini, poking out around Sekayi’s back again.
Mhumhi’s tail twitched, but he gave Tareq a light nip on the ear. “Fill that hole for when I come back.”
Tareq put a hand on the side of his head and made a face at him. Mhumhi stepped close beside Sekayi.
“I wanted to call you over,” said Sekayi. His voice was low, and he did not look up from the meat as he poked at it. “That other painted dog- Kulwe, I think…?”
“Yes,” said Mini. She was casting unfriendly pop-eyed glances at Mhumhi, which he did his best to ignore.
“He’s lying in his own filth,” said Sekayi. “If I can, I want to wash that pillow a little- maybe wipe him as well, if he would permit it…”
“He’d eat your hands,” Mhumhi said. “But I think we can get him off the pillow. Back on it, I don’t know.”
Sekayi flexed his hand and smiled. “Well, perhaps he will want to go on it. I would think he would want to feel cleaner.”
“Hm! Then just dump him within reach of his Madame,” said Mini, with a sniff. “She can lick the shit off of him, if she wants; no doubt he’d love that.”
“Mini,” said Sekayi, lightly tapping her nose. Mini sneezed unapologetically.
“I think that’s fine,” said Mhumhi. “She is right, you know, they’d probably be happiest with that.”
“I wanted to change his bandages, too, but I suppose that’s going to be impossible,” said Sekayi, casting his eyes downwards.
“Let her pull them off of him,” said Mhumhi. “Wounds heal faster with tongues to lick them.”
“You would know better than me,” said Sekayi. “If you think you can pull out the pillow…”
“I can,” said Mhumhi, and turned his nose towards Kulwe, who at a few feet away had certainly been privy to the whole conversation. He had raised his head slightly and fixed his eyes on Sekayi.
Mhumhi did not like that very much (and neither did Mini from the tiny growl she let out) and he went over at once and tugged on a corner of the pillow. The resounding jerk made Kulwe tense and flinch.
“Well, I’ll have to drag you off,” he said, trying to instill a little bravado into his waving tail. “Sorry if I bump your wounds.”
Kulwe made no sound, though his displeasure was evident in his silently straining muscles. His rear leg, which Sekayi had tightly bandaged, shivered uselessly.
Mhumhi went around and took him by the scruff, and not particularly gently. Kulwe made a thin, high noise as he began to tug him backwards. Mhumhi was startled by the amount of heat emanating from the skin in his teeth. He almost certainly had a bad fever.
Mhumhi pulled him down and away from the pillow, as Sekayi went around and pulled on the other side. Sekayi himself looked mightily unhappy, gazing down at the shuddering, panting dog, and Mhumhi continued to drag him backwards towards Hlolwa. For a moment he opened his mouth, as if her were going to speak, but a swift yap from Mini stopped him.
“Be careful, Mhumhi!” called Kutta, bounding closer. Mhumhi dropped Kulwe’s scruff and whirled around. Directly behind him, stretching her chain taut, stood Hlolwa.
“I cannot reach him. Bring him closer.”
The order rankled, but Mhumhi bent down and took up Kulwe’s neck again, ignoring Kutta’s worried whine. Hlolwa paced back and forth and then, as Mhumhi jerked him closer, lunged forward and caught the loose skin on Kulwe’s hip in her teeth. The dog gave a surprised squeal, and Mhumhi stiffened in alarm. But she seemed to be only yanking him closer, tugging backwards with startling strength, so that his haunches were nearly touching her stake.
“This is close enough,” she said, dropping him. “Leave.”
Kutta made a low sound, but Mhumhi did as she said and retreated, stepping backwards towards the fire. Hlolwa put her teeth into the bandages and ripped, ignoring her companion’s whimpers.
“I have a proposition for you,” said Mhumhi, feeling the fire heating up his rear.
That seemed to catch everybody off-guard, even Sekayi, who turned back with the filthy pillowcase dangling from one hand.
Hlolwa spat out a piece of bandage, tonguing the roof of her mouth distastefully. The smell of infection from Kulwe’s leg was evident even from a distance.
“What proposition, then?”
“You claimed you were going to have puppies,” said Mhumhi.
“Claimed, yes.” She tilted her head at him, mocking.
“Then you’ll stay here until you have them,” said Mhumhi. “And then you may leave.”
He could tell Hlolwa had not been expecting this, for she raised a paw, and glanced down at Kulwe.
“A strange proposition,” she said.
“Yes, it is,” agreed Kutta; Mhumhi could sense her yellow gaze on his back. “We didn’t talk about this, Mhumhi.”
“We’re talking about it now,” said Mhumhi.
Hlolwa sat back on her haunches. “I will not give birth for some time yet, you know.”
“That’s fine,” said Mhumhi. “Kulwe won’t be able to walk for some time either, and I assume you won’t leave without him.”
“That all depends,” said Hlolwa.
“On whether he walks again at all.”
Kulwe, lying in the dirt at Hlolwa’s feet, gave a small tremor and shut his eyes.
“I would think his poor health is obvious,” she said. “I have wondered whether it might not be better to bite the leg off entirely.”
“Is it so bad?” asked Kutta, stepping closer, her nose twitching. Hlolwa ignored her.
“Furthermore, I am not sure you understand my own situation, Mhumhi. You say I may leave after I have had my pups. I cannot do that. Have you not thought that far ahead? How can I move once my litter is in tow? It will take weeks, months…”
“I did think ahead,” said Mhumhi. “I said you could leave. I didn’t say anything about them.”
Kulwe opened his eyes wide and gave a snarl. The hair on Hlolwa’s back rose.
“That’s it, then,” she said, her tone still even. “That’s what you want.”
“We won’t let them come to any harm,” said Mhumhi. “And they’ll be safe here, well-fed. You’ve no reason to-”
“You take after your mother after all,” said Hlolwa. “How I wish my mother had had the foresight to have her throat torn out.”
Mhumhi gave an involuntary growl, but his head jerked roughly to the side. Kutta had grabbed him by the ear.
“What are you thinking?” she demanded. “Have you gone mad? Taking her puppies! Mhumhi, we’re not-”
“Sekayi told us,” Mhumhi snapped, shaking his head- his ear felt like it was nearly torn. “Sekayi told us that Tareq would be left all alone after we’re gone. Do you want that?”
Kutta’s jaw went slack momentarily. “No- no, but… Mhumhi, this isn’t right.”
“How would we know,” said Mhumhi. “We’re here, aren’t we? And anyway, she wanted to kill our puppies. And you. I’m treating her kindly!”
“I’d like to kill you as well, Mhumhi,” said Hlolwa, slitting her eyes. “I reject your proposition.”
“You don’t have a choice,” he said. “You’ll stay chained up until you can’t leave.”
“Mhumhi!” cried Kutta.
“Or should we kill her?” asked Mhumhi, turning slightly towards her. “Isn’t that what you were saying before?”
“It’s different now!”
“How is it different?”
Kutta rumbled, her head low and her eyes fixed upon him. “You should have spoken to me about this before you said anything.”
“Calm down, ear-hair,” yapped Mini. “I think he’s got a point. Frankly speaking, it’s probably the kindest option we can offer her.”
“Kind!” exclaimed Kutta, shuddering.
“Very kind,” said Mini. “Why, do you think all puppies have to stay with their mothers? How young do you think I was when I was taken away, hmm?”
Hlolwa spoke up again. “We are not domestic.”
“Your pups will be,” said Mini, baring her teeth in a sharp little grin. “Poor you.”
“You propose that you will raise my puppies? On what?” Hlolwa gave a soft growl. “I would rather see them dead than infected with your attitude.”
“What attitude?” demanded Kutta, whirling around quite suddenly. “That we don’t view hulkers as meat? That we don’t hunt them for sport? You’d rather have your puppies die?”
“Yes,” said Hlolwa. “I would.”
Kutta stared at her, hard, as if she were searching for something, then she said, “Maybe I’ve changed my mind. Maybe we should take them. She’s a monster.”
“Don’t speak that way about the Madame,” said Kulwe, trying to raise his head. Hlolwa rested one of her paws on his side, and he turned his nose upwards to her.
“Where does the meat we’ve been eating come from?”
“What?” asked Mhumhi.
“I said.” Hlolwa’s gaze glittered like broken glass. “Where does the meat we’ve been eating come from?”
Mhumhi knew that if he did not answer her right away, he would damn himself and everyone else; but he could not help but glance back at Tareq, who was sitting by the hole they had dug together, his round face filled with vague worry.
“I see,” said Hlolwa, and Mhumhi knew his chance had passed.
“You want my puppies to grow up alongside this hulker,” she continued. “I see your strategy perfectly well. And it will work. They will not grow up hating him. They will not want to eat their brother. But what then?”
“What then?” Kutta echoed.
“What will they eat?” Hlolwa cast her gaze around at the expanse of the dump around them.
“Meat,” said Mhumhi, helplessly.
“No,” said Hlolwa, “they will starve. You will let them starve, for kindness. You think I am a monster, because I want to kill hulkers? Perhaps it’s true. But I will kill them, and I would have my puppies taste their blood, because then they will live. That is the only way they will survive.”
“These hulkers in the dump,” said Mhumhi, a little desperately, “you don’t understand. They’re different. They’re not intelligent like the others. They don’t-”
“Ah, yes,” said Hlolwa. “We’d noticed. How lucky for you. Then you should tell that little creature.” She turned her nose towards Tareq. “Tell him what sort of meat he has been eating. If they are so different.”
Tareq shrank back at her look, and reached for Kutta’s hind leg. “Red dog…”
Uncharacteristically, Kutta did not turn back towards him. She had cast her eyes downwards. Mhumhi noticed that Mini was also very quiet, licking her lips over by the fire. They knew, he realized. Perhaps they had known all along. There was only one place where all the meat could have come from.
“Another question,” Hlolwa added. “Tell me, if there were creatures who could not speak, and just happened to look just like yourselves, would you eat them?”
“Shut up,” snapped Mhumhi, skulking away from her, his tail tucked. “The next time you talk, I’ll have your throat.”
Hlolwa tilted her head, mocking again. He felt compelled to add, “And if you want to kill your puppies, you’ll have to wait until after you have them here.”
He stalked back towards the door to the concrete house, feeling thoroughly miserable, longing for its cool interior. He paused when he realized that Kutta was not following him- when he glanced back, she was staring at him, and then looked away, and turned to let Tareq put his arms around her neck. Mini was by the fire, her eyes shut. And Sekayi-
Sekayi had gone, Mhumhi realized. He hoped that the bouda had left in time to miss most of the latter half of the conversation.
“I hope you kill me now,” Hlolwa called out to him. “Pull the pups out of my belly… It’s preferable…”
He shut his eyes and went into the concrete house and lay down in the middle of the the cold, hard floor.
He lay there for a long time. He heard the others start to shift around again, on the outside- the soft voices of Tareq and Kutta, the whines of Kulwe, no doubt under his Madame’s ministrations. There was no further discussion of Mhumhi’s proposition.
He heard his heartbeat thudding where he had one ear flattened against the concrete, and wondered when he had become such a loathsome creature.
He must have fallen asleep for a little while, for when he came to it was dark, and there were others in the concrete house with him. Not very near to him, though- he could see what must have been Tareq and Kutta huddled together in one corner, breathing softly. He raised his head, but hesitated. He did not go over to them.
He saw that Mini was there, on Sekayi’s chair, her eyes gleaming a little. Awake, and looking at him, but silent. He felt that he did not want to speak to her very much at the moment, whether or not she had agreed with him. He got up slowly, trying to be noiseless, and walked into the next room where the refrigerator hummed softly.
He knew how to open it, but he did not. He sat in front of the thing. He was hungry, but…
The fridge hummed, and from within there was a soft ch-chunk noise of ice settling.
Mhumhi took in a slow breath, then dug his claws into the dirty rubber that formed the seal around the door, pawing it open. The light flickered on inside, illuminating him, and he glanced back behind himself almost guiltily. No one stirred in the other room.
He turned back, eyed the fresh meat stacked precariously on the metal racks within, then selected an egg from one of the shelves inside the door. It swung shut as he withdrew his head, leaving him in darkness again.
He dropped the egg on the floor and heard it crack. He put his nose on it and drew his lips back. The smell of it made his stomach turn. It was boiled, too, and the shell clung stubbornly onto the smooth white flesh within. He rolled it on the concrete with his nose, making it crackle.
From outside there came a howl, and Mhumhi froze.
Through the doorway he saw the Mini’s ears prick up over the wood panel on the back of the chair. The silhouette of his sister crossed the space.
“What was that?” he heard her ask.
“It’s human,” whispered Mini, her voice quivering. “Sekayi hasn’t come back yet-”
There came another noise, and not a human nose- the low hoo-bark of a painted dog.
“Sekayi!” cried Mini, and she burst into furious yapping. The chair rocked back and forth. Kutta’s form darted low for the door, and Mhumhi ran to catch up with her. She gave him a quick glance as Tareq let out a little whimper.
“Have the police…?”
“Hurry,” said Mhumhi, jerking his head, and they ran out together.
The moon was half-full, and by that an the bright starlight they saw blood running over the dirt around the vacant fire pit, down from the side where they had held the painted dogs captive. And there was Sekayi, lying facedown, and unmoving.
“Sek-!” began Mhumhi, starting forward, his heart thudding with horror, but Kutta stopped him with her shoulder.
He realized what she meant. Kulwe was lying beside Hlolwa’s stake, panting. From the stake itself lay the chain- in a limp pile on the ground.
Mhumhi noticed this in a split second, and tensed himself- what would it lead to, a frantic search, or bloodshed, or murder, or all three? But then a dark shape stood up behind Sekayi’s body. Hlolwa herself.
“What have you done?” cried Kutta.
Hlolwa looked at them. There was blood on her muzzle, and her eyes were wide. Mhumhi sensed something off about her demeanor.
“He freed me,” she said.
“Sekayi-!” said Kutta, shutting her eyes.
Mhumhi’s heart sank. Kind-hearted Sekayi… Of course. Of course.
He ran forward, heedless of Kutta’s whistled warning, and sniffed Sekayi’s body. Hlolwa stood stock-still behind it.
“I attacked him,” she said.
Mhumhi looked up at her. Her eyes were very wide, and they reflected moonlight, gleaming nearly green.
“He spoke to me. He told me to run away.”
“Madame,” whimpered Kulwe, from the ground. “Run… run…”
Hlolwa sat down. Mhumhi was sharply reminded of the moment when she had seen Imbwa’s body- her eyes had the same dull cast.
“I hate this place,” she said.