Time passed horribly slowly.
Mhumhi supposed it was worse when every second was loaded with tension, every look exchanged was tight, every word careful. He and Kutta did not trust the Madame; he had no idea to what degree she thought of them. Her eyes and her heart stayed shuttered.
But they could not hope to chain her up again. Not without Sekayi’s help. Mhumhi almost wondered if it had all been a calculation, on her part, but then again even she couldn’t be infallible all the time.
Therefore they let her stay loose, and tried to stay alert moment by dragging moment, keeping someone near Tareq at all times. When she vanished- which she sometimes did, for hours at a time, even- it was agonizing. They had no means to restrict her movements, no way of knowing if she’d discovered how to plot the route back to the city on her own. Even so Mhumhi found himself hoping she’d just vanish.
She always came back, of course.
Sekayi was recovering, or at least he had woken up, his tongue too thick and swollen to talk. He lay on the garbage helplessly for a day- they could not convince Dot to try and move him- until Mhumhi and Kutta dared to chance moving him out of the sweating sun, back into the shadow of the concrete building. They dragged him by the scraps that remained of his ragged shirt, and then when that gave out, his shoulders. Finally he managed to roll himself over and crawl, swollen tongue lolling mutely out of his mouth like an obscene parody of a dog.
His injured face made it difficult to eat, so Mhumhi regurgitated meat for him, softening it. He did the same for Kulwe, though it irked him. The painted dog could barely lift his own head anymore. The smell coming from his leg was truly rancid, the blackened, oozing bite wound painful even to look at. Mhumhi thought he might know why Hlolwa kept vanishing.
To be honest, though, the one he was most concerned about was Mini. They had finally brought her to see Sekayi that night, after she had barked herself hoarse, and the sight of him lying there wounded had upset her more, and her body had done that horrible seizing thing it had done at the safe place. After that she had talked little and eaten even less, and lay dully on the ground with the tip of her tongue protruding from her mouth. She would not tell them when she had to urinate or defecate anymore, and invariably they found her sitting in it. She did not seem to care.
Sekayi tried to pat her with his uninjured arm now arm and then. Mhumhi could make out little of his expression on his ruined face.
It was hard to bear being with them- the concrete building had an oppressive atmosphere, even though it was cooler than the outside. So Mhumhi was somewhat relieved when Kutta came inside, yawning, and asked him to look after Tareq for a while.
He may have jumped to his feet a bit too eagerly, for she eyed him, but made no comment of it.
“Bring him some meat,” she said.
“I already have some in my belly,” was his reply. “Have you eaten?”
Kutta grunted softly. The meat in the refrigerator, which Sekayi had only just restocked, was already dwindling away. Soon they would have to go after the meat he had left hanging and prepared in the tunnel. And after that… He hoped Sekayi would get better soon.
“He’s been flighty today,” said Kutta, and Mhumhi blinked before he remembered they were talking about Tareq. “You might have to sprint after him. Make sure he drinks some water.”
“Has she been…?” Mhumhi began.
“Haven’t seen her,” Kutta said brusquely. “That other one keeps crying.”
Mhumhi made a neutral sound, as there was not much more he could say to that. Kutta brushed by him towards the refrigerator.
He went outside, breathed in the shock of hot air. The sun had been burning lately, and the sky was as brilliantly blue and cloudless as it had been the first day they had come here. Mhumhi looked over the hills, the debris, the refuse, and had that tepid thought again that this might be where they spent the rest of their lives.
Well; he had been worse places, to be honest.
Tareq was nowhere in sight, as Kutta had warned him. Mhumhi put his nose in the air and caught wind of him. He made a wide berth around Kulwe, who was groaning in the dirt.
He caught up to Tareq within the space of a few hills, an impressive distance for the boy’s ungainly legs, and stopped short. Tareq was standing a few feet away with his back to Mhumhi. He was watching Hlolwa, who stood atop the hill in front of him.
Mhumhi tensed, not sure which angle he should approach the situation from. Hlolwa was looking down at Tareq with her back slightly hunched, but she was not baring her teeth or growling, nor had she slicked back her ears in a manner that suggested a stalk.
Tareq knelt down and picked something up from the ground: a compact, heavy-looking black object that had glinting metal jaws.
Hlolwa watched him, and then her eyes suddenly flicked to Mhumhi behind him.
Mhumhi had no time to react this because in a wild motion Tareq suddenly hurled the object at Hlolwa. It sailed over her head, making her flinch. He picked up something else- half of a shattered porcelain dish- and this one hit her in the side. She made a sharp sound.
“Stop it, Tareq!” shouted Mhumhi, and he ran around in front of him.
Tareq stumbled backwards at his sudden appearance, and his face began wrinkling at once.
“Wh-” Mhumhi couldn’t help but look back at Hlolwa. She had sat down, and was turning pointedly to lick her side.
“She’s a bad dog!” said Tareq, scowling down at him. “She’s bad!”
“But you can’t…” started Mhumhi, and then his mind fumbled over his own words. Can’t what? Throw objects at a dog that threatened to kill and eat you? React with anger when the same dog appears again and again?
He could think of no valid protest to Tareq’s action.
“I was hoping someone would come along,” said Hlolwa, and she got to her feet again, evidently deciding that their little theater show was over. “It was making it very difficult for me to pass by.”
“I hate you,” said Tareq, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
“It’s all right,” Mhumhi told him. “I’m here now. You don’t have to…” He trailed off, unsure of what he could really say.
Tareq seemed to pick up on his confusion, for he scowled, jammed his fingers under the waistband of his pants, and began stomping and kicking his way back through the trash towards the concrete building. Mhumhi followed slowly, aware of the prickle of Hlolwa’s gaze on his back.
“Mhumhi,” she said, and he stopped, and slowly turned.
“I need your help with something,” said Hlolwa.
She sounded exceptionally calm as she said it, nothing like shame or pride appearing in her gaze. It put him on edge.
“With what?” he said, looking back just in time to see Tareq disappearing into the doorway.
“With Kulwe,” said Hlolwa. “I need you to hold him while I tear off his leg.”
That got his attention again in a hurry. “While you what?!”
“I warned you,” Hlolwa said, patiently. “It might have to happen if the infection gets too bad. Well, it is very bad. Perhaps too late. But removing his leg is the only thing I can think to do for him.”
Little emotion entered her voice, even as Mhumhi’s gut squirmed and recoiled. He looked at Kulwe, all the way across the fire pit: he was lying on his side and panting rapidly, eyes shut, oblivious to them.
“Does he know?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” said Hlolwa.
Mhumhi supposed she was right, but it still felt like a brutal declaration to him. He swallowed, lowering his head.
“Have you… have you done this before?”
“No,” said Hlolwa.
“Then… maybe it would be better just to leave…”
Her eyes bored into his, and he swallowed again, looked at the dark doorway helplessly, as if he could conjure it to swallow him back up and get away from this place.
“All right,” he said, though the words hurt to get out. “It will be quick, won’t it?”
“I’d like it to be,” said Hlolwa. She stepped closer to him, and he felt a judder of nerves pass through him.
“Hold him, you said?”
“By the scruff,” said Hlolwa. “Put all your weight on him, if you must. It will be better for him if you can keep him still.”
It did seem like she knew what she was talking about, despite her claiming never to have done this before. Still, she had the sort of tone that led one to make that assumption. He wondered, suddenly, if she ever got terrified, and whether or not it would slip through the cracks of that stony veneer.
Hlolwa had gotten a little ahead of him, and half-turned around to look back at him. He hastened to catch up. He was not used to running with someone who’s pace was as long as his.
They came around Kulwe, and Mhumhi realized what Hlolwa had actually meant when she’d said it didn’t matter if he knew what they were going to do or not. When he opened his eyes his pupils were dilated, and when he moved his jaws to speak the words came out slurred and incomprehensible.
“It’s going to be all right,” said Mhumhi, stupidly; he felt he should say something. Kulwe looked at him and repeated the same nonsense phrase, and then shuddered and moaned.
“Take hold of him,” said Hlolwa. She was dipping her head over Kulwe’s horrid leg. Mhumhi did not know how she could do it with that smell. He took Kulwe’s scruff gently in his mouth. The flesh was raging hot, swollen even. Kulwe whined and pulled away from his grip.
“Harder,” snapped Hlolwa. “Distract him with the pain.”
Mhumhi gave a shiver and bit down harder, putting one foreleg over Kulwe’s chest. The dog squealed and thrashed, his back arching slightly, his forepaws circling in the air. Mhumhi tried to bear down on him, but it was hard- he was so hot, and he stank, and even now more urine was pouring out of him, soaking the fetid-smelling dirt beneath him. Mhumhi had a horrible feeling then, as he watched Hlolwa open her mouth.
Kulwe screamed, an earth-shattering scream, and it even went on when he ran out of sound, just a shrill whistle of air from his jaws. Hlolwa had taken his haunch and was wrenching it from side to side. Kulwe cracked, the noise sharp, and Mhumhi was dragged forward along with him from the force of her tugging. Wet red blood, hot ruined flesh, slabs of muscle and lines of tendons, sharp jagged white bone- that was his leg.
There was a terrible amount of blood. It was going everywhere. Kulwe shuddered and suddenly felt boneless in Mhumhi’s grip.
Mhumhi slowly let go of his scruff. Hlolwa was still tearing away at his hip, pulling out fragments of bone and muscle. Kulwe’s eye was still open, staring upwards at the blueness.
“Ah,” said Hlolwa. She took a step back, her face covered in blood. “Ah. I see.”
Then she heaved, her stomach contracting upwards, and vomited next to Kulwe’s corpse.
Mhumhi looked away. As usual, he could think of nothing better to do. The hot sun beat down on them, making the shining wet blood inside Kulwe’s wound sparkle.
Hlolwa got up, seeming unsteady for just a moment.
“Almost had it,” she said.
Mhumhi realized she was talking about Kulwe’s leg, which was still attached to him by a few strings of flesh.
“Maybe it’s better that he still has it now,” he said, and she looked at him with something close to scorn.
“What did you do with the bodies?”
“What? What bodies?”
She stepped away from him, staring pointedly at the hilly skyline. “The bodies of the other painted dogs.”
He noticed, with her upright and illuminated like this, how thick her belly was becoming.
“Sekayi took them,” he said. “I think he put them in the sea.”
He was taken aback that she did not know; then again, it was more startling that she would admit her ignorance to him.
“The big pool of salty water.”
“Ah,” said Hlolwa. She looked down at Kulwe for a moment, then nosed his back. She looked away again.
“We’d better take him there,” she said, “before your little devil sees this and starts screaming.”
Mhumhi had thought of that himself, and in fact he wondered why no one had come out of the concrete house to see what was going on.
“It’s a long way to drag him,” he said.
“Take the leg,” she said.
He found himself taking the leg, which separated easily from its former owner, and followed her slowly. She dragged Kulwe’s body backwards in a pattern- one-two-three hard jerks, then a pause to catch her breath. Then she would start anew. He realized belatedly that he was the one leading her and not the other way around; he knew where the sea was.
It did take them a long time together. They did not speak. Hlolwa’s muscles were bunched around her shoulders and neck as she tugged, and she was panting hard before their paws touched the glass and bottle-strewn sand.
The waves brushed Kulwe’s fur, swirling it over the sand. Mhumhi stepped out into shoulder-deep water and dropped his leg.
“Help me push him in,” said Hlolwa, between breaths.
Mhumhi went back and pulled on one of Kulwe’s forelegs as she pushed with her nose under his back, and gradually his body started sinking into the water.
Mhumhi kept pulling him forward, nearly paddling with his forelegs, until he realized Hlolwa was no longer with him. She was taking sloshing steps out of the water, and she stopped to shake herself before padding out onto the sand.
“Hey!” cried Mhumhi, dropping what was left of Kulwe. A loud cry made him look up: white birds were circling overhead, some swooping low over the blood they had left on the sand.
He splashed out of the water, shaking himself once and then again. Hlolwa was already padding away down the beach, leaving broad wet pawprints.
“Where are you going?” he demanded, trotting to catch up with her. He had to shake himself again, and found himself on the receiving end of another scornful look. She did not reply.
“Where do you go?” he demanded, crossing in front of her.
Hlolwa gave him a hooded look, and then sat down.
“I appreciate the help,” she said.
“Do you,” he said, bristling. It sounded like a dismissal.
“I didn’t expect you to agree so quickly,” she added, which made him bristle even more. It had not sounded like a compliment.
“There was no reason for me to refuse,” he said. “I thought it would help him.”
“He’s been helped,” said Hlolwa, looking out across the waves. She paused. “If I were smarter, I would have tried to do this much sooner. He was already dying.”
Mhumhi scuffed at the sand, his fur going down.
“For what it’s worth,” he said, “I don’t think you could have saved him either way.”
Hlolwa looked at him and drew her lips away from her canines in a cold smile.
“For what it’s worth,” she repeated. Mhumhi tensed, for there had been a glimmer of real hatred behind the statement- but he did not bristle. She had weakened just then.
He eyed her belly.
“How soon will they come?”
“Take them out now,” said Hlolwa, and he glared at her.
“I don’t want to hurt them!”
“Do you think that comforts me?”
“It should,” he snapped. “If you were a decent-”
“I am not a decent,” said Hlolwa. “I thought you realized this. I don’t follow your love-everything-just-alike philosophy.”
Mhumhi did not know what the word philosophy meant, so he just ignored it. “It isn’t like anybody deserves to live more than anybody else!”
“No,” mused Hlolwa, “you’re right. The thing is, I don’t care. I’m selfish. I want to live. I want the ones I love to live- but for my sake, you understand?”
He was taken aback; she had sounded almost honest for a moment.
“You wouldn’t die for anybody, you mean.”
Hlolwa mused for a moment.
“If it was important enough, I might,” she said. “I could be persuaded to die for my pups. Not now, of course; I don’t even know them yet.”
Mhumhi felt a twinge of irritation.
“If you don’t even love them yet, why do you care if we take them?”
“Because I want them,” said Hlolwa. Her eyes were cool upon him for a moment, and then she started walking again. It took him a second to catch up.
“Want them? You-”
He stopped again. Oh, oh, he understood. He understood terribly. He looked back out into the sea, where Kulwe’s body had vanished- the last living member of Hlolwa’s pack, as far as she knew.
She looked back at him for a moment where he had stopped in his tracks, her heavy belly swaying from side to side, and seemed almost amused. She opened her jaws to say something, but was interrupted but a loud, keening whoop.
Mhumhi went sharply to attention, his ears pricked, and Hlolwa spun around, belying her weight. The sound was unmistakeable, and it sounded close by- along the beach somewhere.
Abruptly Hlolwa turned around and began walking in the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?” Mhumhi asked, bounding one way and then the next, torn- that fleeting noise already felt like it had faded.
“If I meet the hyena,” said Hlolwa, still moving, “there will be a fight. I will probably not win it.”
“I’ll stop him from attacking you,” said Mhumhi.
“That is not my concern,” said Hlolwa. She turned around a mound of trash and vanished from sight.
Mhumhi took two steps after her, his heart beating rapidly, and then whirled around in a spray of sand and dashed towards where he had heard Vimbo’s voice.