Before they could walk.
It was very easy to forget the sheer amount of trouble that Bii had caused, sometimes, when Mhumhi looked at him. A diminutive little fox who was a fraction of his weight, on three legs, no less. If he search deep enough inside himself he could even find an instinct that suggested that Bii, with his small size and hobbling movements, was nothing more than an opportunity for meat.
That part of himself, however, was hard to find; he had been raised among foxes, after all.
He still wondered what Bii’s motivation was this time, however, while he followed the fox across the dump, jumping over the piles, constricting his pace so that the limping fox could keep up. Bii frequently stopped and dug at the garbage, releasing some tiny insect or another buzzing into the air so he could snap it down.
He caught Mhumhi looking at him during one of these times, and licked his lips and said, “When your food comes in very small packages, you had better take any opportunity to eat it.”
Mhumhi found this statement oddly fitting, considering what he had been thinking a moment ago.
“Why bother to do this?” he asked, not for the first time. “What are you going to get out of it?”
Bii chuckled, his heavy ears hanging forward. “Get out of it? Why do you say that like it’s a bad thing? You going with me- aren’t you hoping to get something out of it?”
Mhumhi drew his own ears back. “That’s not what I meant. I’m worried for my family- for Tareq.”
“Well; you shouldn’t have anything to be concerned about with me, then,” said Bii. “I have no family whatsoever to worry about anymore.”
“Are you saying that’s our fault?” snapped Mhumhi.
Bii laughed again. “Of course it isn’t your fault. I’m not petty, and I appreciate that you haven’t harmed me, for all you had reason to.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi.
“Besides,” said Bii, “I’ve been very bored recently. I am the type of creature who likes to have an ear to the ground.”
“You said before that information was more valuable than meat,” said Mhumhi. “You think that’s still true here?”
“Of course it is,” said Bii. “The most important thing that anyone, dog or beast, can hope to have is information.”
He stopped atop a rubber tire. “Down in there.”
They had traveled far to get here, possibly over a mile- it was hard to tell on the uneven ground. And now Mhumhi looked and saw that the tire Bii was standing on was just the beginning of a virtual labyrinth of the things, some standing in tall stacks, others standing up on their sides, their gaping openings like a giant’s nostrils.
There were other things, too- large black and white plastic bags, stuffed full and ballooning outwards amongst the tires. Some of them seemed to have been ripped open, their cloth contents spilling out and scattered in the reddish dirt visible between the tires.
Bii flashed him a grin, his whiskers wrinkling upwards, and then began picking his way carefully through the tires, hopping from one to the next. Mhumhi did his best to follow him- it was harder to navigate through with his longer legs.
Bii stopped again in front of a tire standing on its side, and Mhumhi peered through it. There were more behind it, tilting gradually, so that they formed a dark tunnel angling downwards.
He heard a soft noise, and his ears pricked forward, and he stuck his head inside, straining his eyes in the darkness.
Something exploded out of the tunnel and hit him in the throat.
Mhumhi twisted and fell backwards, thrusting up with all four paws, dragging the heavy body away. The teeth twisted in his flesh, the hot breath and warm drool heating his skin, and he gave a choking gasp and managed to jerk himself away. The other dog attacked again immediately, bearing down in him, so that he was forced to use his own teeth, and he caught her by the ear, twisting her head to one side, until she held still.
Mhumhi let go and backed away, panting. Hlolwa watched him, blood trickling down the inside of the shell of her ear.
“I didn’t come here to hurt you,” he said, when he had caught his breath again. He noticed that Bii seemed to have entirely vanished.
Hlolwa said nothing. Her head was low, her lower lip showing traces of thick white foam, her tongue just protruding. Her pale eyes were dull, and her belly swung heavy with teats. But her tail was raised.
Mhumhi took another step back.
“You’ll need help,” he said, firmly.
He had thought that she would laugh, but she did not, merely parted her jaws with a sticky sound.
“If you come any closer, I’ll kill you.”
“Have you eaten?” asked Mhumhi. “Since-”
“Since when?” whispered Hlolwa.
Mhumhi swallowed. “I have meat for you,” he said. “You should take it. I know you’ll have a hard time hunting.”
“I know one place where there is easy prey,” said Hlolwa, in that same whisper.
Mhumhi’s chest tightened, and he turned his head to one side, composing himself.
“Let me see them.”
Now she laughed, a harsh whuff-whuff sound.
“I’ll bring their dead bodies up to you.”
“You heard me,” said Hlolwa, her voice working its way up towards a growl. “Dead. Dead. Why did I have them so early? All dead.”
“All-” Mhumhi’s voice caught in his throat. “No! How?”
“I left the city with Imbwa,” she said, “that is how. I ran across the desert, I fought the hyena, I stayed chained to a pole in the blazing sun. That is how.” She raised her head. “Now, will you leave me in peace, or will I have to kill you?”
Mhumhi looked down into the black tunnel, feeling dull horror settling within his breast.
“I’m sorry,” he said, stumbling backwards over the rubber lip of a tire. “I- we- yes, we’ll leave you alone from-”
“Mhumhi,” said Bii. His bat-eared shape had appeared again on some of the tires up above where Hlolwa was standing. “Can’t you see she’s lying?”
Hlolwa twisted her head up and gave a loud snarl. “What is this?”
“She’s trying to get you to leave,” continued Bii, paying her no attention. “Quite obvious. And anyway, I know she’s lying.” He twitched his ears. “I can hear them down there.”
Mhumhi sucked in a breath all at once, his eyes going wide, and said to Hlolwa, “Is that true?”
She said nothing, only glared at him, and he gave a breathy, delighted laugh. “So they’re not dead! Your puppies! They’re all right!”
He bounded a step forward, and Hlolwa crossed in front of him.
“Some of them,” she snapped. “Not all of them. I carried five bodies out of there.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, his tail lowering, “oh, I’m sorry… how many does that leave?”
“More than three,” said Bii, his fluffy tail twitching over the black rubber. Hlolwa’s eyes thinned.
“Six,” she said.
“Six!” exclaimed Mhumhi. For some reason the word buoyed him up. “Six puppies!”
Hlolwa started to growl and he hunkered low, licking her chin and twittering.
“Six puppies! May I see them? May I?”
Bii was laughing, but Mhumhi simply could not contain his exuberance. He whined and twittered and tried to work his way around Hlolwa towards her dark den. She snapped at him, narrowly missing his ear.
“You’ll never see them,” she said, body quivering. “They’re mine.”
Mhumhi’s waving tail slowed, and he recovered a bit of sense. He lowered his head and backed away, and the hard line of tension between Hlolwa’s shoulders eased.
“You lied about when they were coming,” he pointed out.
“I wanted you to think I would be running back to the city,” Hlolwa said. “I didn’t realize you were still touching noses with the little spy.”
She looked up at Bii, her gaze molten, and he gave her his impish grin.
“Did you think the coyotes would attack me after you left?” asked Mhumhi. “Was that what you were hoping, too?”
Hlolwa snorted softly.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to squat and whelp in the dirt around your fire pit.”
“If you’d told us-”
“I would be under guard now, wouldn’t I,” Hlolwa said. She stepped closer to him, and he jerked, stiffening, raising his head as she licked his chin and lips. The gesture felt eerie, for she was silent as she did so, with none of the ordinary painted dog chatter, but the physical aspect was enough to make his stomach heave and deliver meat to her.
She devoured it quickly, in a series of gulps, and then sniffed the ground when it was all gone.
“I can bring you more,” said Mhumhi, licking his lips. He wanted to back up more, but his rear legs were against a column of tires.
Hlolwa looked up at him. “Don’t bother. I’ll have moved my puppies and myself by the time you get back.”
“Come on,” said Mhumhi. “Let me help you. They’ll die if you move them now.”
Hlolwa opened her mouth, probably to say something along the lines of ‘good,’ but Bii spoke first.
“He’s right,” he said. “And where would you go, Madame? There are jackals and coyotes out there, screamers that grab anything they see- oh, and me. I might be keeping an eye on you.”
“You’d have a harder time if I took another leg,” said Hlolwa. “Perhaps I should take two.”
“Don’t bluff, it’s unseemly,” chuckled Bii. “Even with three legs, I can keep pace with you carrying a pup. And you won’t want to go far from them to kill me, Mother.”
The word seemed to strike Hlolwa, for she jerked a little.
“You know I won’t harm them,” Mhumhi pleaded. “I- I don’t even want to take them away from you, not really.”
“You lie,” said Hlolwa. “You and that fox. Are you still fool enough to trust him?” She looked up at Bii again. He’d put his chin on his forepaws, apparently quite confident in his own safety. “I’ll see my pups die first before…”
She trailed off. Her ear, notched and ripped where Mhumhi had bitten it, flicked.
“They couldn’t even walk,” she said. “Five pups, and they couldn’t even walk. I had to take them away before the bodies began to smell. And they couldn’t walk. They’ll be eaten by some- some hulker.”
“At least…” said Mhumhi, and then stopped. He had nothing reassuring to say.
“I won’t deny,” said Hlolwa, “that as the dead ones came out of me, one after another in the dark, I cried and begged for puppies who would walk.”
She paused, tilted her head slightly.
“But then, when I heard the first one squeak, I cried again, because I knew where they were being born.”
“What?” said Bii. “In a place where hulkers come to you and smile while you kill them? I should think that this is your kind of paradise.”
“I may smile when I kill you,” said Hlolwa.
“So- so I’ll leave, then,” said Mhumhi, rather quickly. His skin was prickling all over from her words. “But I’ll come back with meat. Please don’t move. I won’t touch the puppies.”
“You are not my benefactor, Mhumhi,” said Hlolwa, but her voice was calmer than it had been. She retreated back into the darkness of the tires.
After a moment Bii said, “This is very exciting.”
Mhumhi gave him a look. “Will you be all right here? She really can’t get you, can she?”
“I appreciate the concern,” said Bii. “I believe that in this terrain I can find enough bolt-holes where she can’t follow me. Anyway, she’s got more pressing concerns right now, down in there.”
“I wish I could see them,” said Mhumhi, drooping a bit.
“I’d like to see them as well,” said Bii. “But few mothers want anybody in the den when they’ve got newborns. We’d have to wait either way.”
Mhumhi was about to say that his mother had never minded them looking at her new puppies, until he recalled her unusual circumstances.
“Did you ever have any puppies, Bii?” he asked. “You sound familiar with it.”
“I had three small daughters,” said Bii.
Mhumhi thought he would have said more, but the fox just just lay there silently after that.
“Well, I’m going to get the meat,” he said, finally. “Be careful, Bii.”
“Same to you,” said the fox. “Stay clear of the gray pack. They seem hungry.”
“Everyone’s hungry,” said Mhumhi.
All the same he was wary as he traveled alone back to the fire pit. He did not think Telipa and her companions would actively seek to harm him, but. He had been though enough that he knew the value of caution.
He only really noticed as he traveled back that there were very few screamers near that end of the dump, probably because there was little that looked like food in the area. He only started seeing them again when he had been traveling a good while. They stood and watched him pass, some shambling a few steps closer, hesitated when he ignored them. A screamer male with jutting ribs and a drooping belly smiled and reached for him, but Mhumhi turned his head away.
He and Kutta had been out of meat, and when Bii told them about Hlolwa, they had made a swift decision.
His stomach turned. It had knelt in front of them. Patted Mhumhi’s head, before Kutta sprang upwards, locked her jaws on its throat.
And perhaps the really awful thing was that it had died without a sound, only giving a few kicks when Mhumhi tugged the skin on its belly away, devoured its stomach and its lungs. And then nothing but the eating. With death the screamer was mean, silent, guiltless, precious meat.
It had been so easy when they both had felt justified.
His own stomach constricted a little. They couldn’t even finish the whole screamer, not just the two of them, even when feeding Sekayi and Mini and Tareq. It would go bad before they stripped all the meat away. They didn’t know how to preserve it like Sekayi did.
It was a horrid irony.
He hoped Hlolwa would eat more than they had. Surely she would be hungrier, after what she’d been through.
He reached the fire pit and came back down into the little valley. Kutta greeted him at once, whining and licking his chin.
“How was it? Oh- you’ve been bit!”
“Just grazed,” said Mhumhi, pulling away as she sniffed his throat. “She took the meat. I’ll go and get more now.”
“No, rest a moment,” Kutta said sternly. “We’ve been running around all day, and your leg-”
“It doesn’t hurt any more,” Mhumhi said defensively. “I was able to use it just fine.”
“Rest anyway,” said Kutta.
“Mhumhi,” called Tareq, who was standing in the doorway to the concrete house. “Did you see the puppies?”
“No, but they were there,” said Mhumhi, wagging his tail. “Six puppies, Tareq!”
“Six puppies!” repeated Tareq, his eyes growing wide. “They all came out of her tummy?”
“Every one,” Mhumhi confirmed, deciding it would be tactful to omit the dead.
“All for you, Tareq,” said Kutta, but her eyes flicked to Mhumhi, and he thought she might have caught his small cringe.
“My puppies!” said Tareq. “Can I go see them? Can I hold ’em?”
“They’re too little, Tareq,” said Mhumhi. “We’ll have to wait a while.”
“But they’re mine!” said Tareq, twisting his toes around in the dirt.
“You don’t want them to get sick, do you, Tareq?” said Kutta, coming to Mhumhi’s rescue. “Like we did that one time?”
“No,” Tareq said at once, his eyes widening. “I don’t want it!”
“Then we have to be patient,” said Kutta. Tareq still looked a little frightened.
“If they get sick, will they die?” he asked.
“They won’t get sick if we let them be for now,” said Mhumhi.
“Let them be,” a voice grunted, from within the concrete house. “If we had any sense, we’d get rid of them and their brute of a mother while they were all weak.”
There was a creak and a rattle, and Mini pulled herself out through the concrete door. Mhumhi’s ears shot forward. She seemed to be standing up.
“Mini, what happened?”
“Hmph!” Mini raised her little chin. “My Sekayi made this for me! He’s a genius!”
She pulled herself further forward, her forepaws hitting the dirt. Mhumhi saw that she was strapped in to some sort of cloth and wire contraption, with her rear legs raised up so that she could pull herself forward on two shaky-looking wheels.
“He just finished it while you were away,” said Kutta, tail waving. “Apparently it was supposed to be a surprise for the little hind-dragger.”
“Excuse me,” said Mini, and pulled herself squeakily forward a couple more inches. “Do you see anything dragging? No, you do not, because my Sekayi is perfect.”
“It doesn’t do dirt very well,” Kutta said snidely, as Mini’s wheels bumped off of the concrete.
“I just have to build up my strength again,” said Mini. She was panting a little. “Then we’ll see how well it does anything.”
“I’ll build you a better one when I’ve got my strength back, Sister,” said Sekayi, limping out of the darkness. “But I am glad you can move around a little better.”
“Oh, Sekayi, it is perfect, and so are you,” whined Mini. Her spine twitched the way it did when her tail wanted to wag.
“It’s only a prototype,” said Sekayi, seeming modest, but Mhumhi saw that the corners of his eyes were crinkling.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” said Kutta. “Now we won’t have to drag the little thing around any more. She can drag herself.”
“I can drag myself over to bite your ankles,” grunted Mini, pushing away with her front paws, but it seemed Kutta had been right about the contraption’s abilities on dirt. The wheels creaked and barely moved.
“Come here,” said Sekayi, and he leaned down and scooped her up in his uninjured arm, wheels and all. “This doesn’t mean I don’t want you in my lap.”
“Good, because I wan’t planning on spending any less time there,” crooned Mini, licking his chin. Kutta tossed her head towards Mhumhi.
“They sound like lovers,” she said, in an irritated way. “It’s gotten unbearable since he brought that thing out.”
“At least she’s happier,” said Mhumhi. When he’d last left the fire pit, Mini had been barely eating her meat, still seeming miserable over Sekayi’s injuries. “And so is he. He likes to help.”
“I should say he does,” Kutta grunted. She gave the pair a furtive glance and drew closer to Mhumhi.
“Hlolwa really had six puppies? Isn’t that a small litter?”
“She said she lost some,” Mhumhi told her, voice lowered.
“I suppose it means there are fewer mouths to feed,” said Kutta, in what Mhumhi thought was a rather callous way. “How do we plan to separate her from them?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Mhumhi. “But we have time.”
Kutta favored him with a steady yellow gaze.
“Right,” she said. “Well, at least we know where she is, and that she can’t cause us any trouble.”
“Right,” Mhumhi echoed, squirming a little bit.
“Come and rest out of the heat a minute,” said Kutta, touching her nose to his forehead. “And drink some water, Mhumhi.”
He went with her and the rest of their little family back into the concrete house. Sekayi put Mini down on the ground and went to fill one of their bowls with water. Tareq sat down at the table and put his head in his arms.
“What’s the matter, Tareq?” Kutta asked him, nudging up alongside him.
“What if they get sick?” said Tareq, his voice muffled in his arms.
“The puppies? They’ll be all right. They’ve just got to grow bigger and stronger for a little while.”
“Imagine that,” said Mini, creaking derisively. “Six more painted dogs. How delightful. I do hope they take ofter their mother.”
“Mini,” Mhumhi said warningly.
“If you want those puppies, you’d better take them away early as you can,” said Mini. “Before their mother poisons their ears with her words. Best if you could get her teats to swell, let her nurse them.” She jerked her tiny muzzle towards Kutta.
“My teats showed no sign of swelling when our mother brought home puppies before,” said Kutta. “And I’d prefer you keep them out of the discussion.”
“What’s a teat?” asked Tareq.
“It’s the little buttons on your chest, Tareq,” Mhumhi told him. “When a mother has puppies, milk comes out of her teats.”
“We can wean the little brutes early if we have to,” Mini said. “Just get them away quick, of they’ll never be ours. And then we’ll have seven painted dogs against us! Not to mention the rest of that pack might appear any day now if they follow the trail of the gray pack. We’re caught a bit tight here, you know.”
“I’m aware,” said Mhumhi. “But I won’t risk them dying, Mini. They need to have their mother’s milk.”
“Apparently you’d risk us dying for that,” grunted Mini.
“Mhumhi’s right,” said Kutta. “I don’t want us to end up with dead pups.” She looked meaningfully over at Tareq.
Mhumhi gave a thin sigh.
He lay down on the cool concrete for a while, as the conversation turned to other things. Sekayi brought them water, then pulled Mini out of her contraption to go fiddle with it.
“Kutta,” he called. “Would you get something for me outside?”
Kutta got to her feet. “More meat?”
“No, I’m full from before,” Sekayi said, with a small smile. “The thing I want is a- it’s a piece of metal with a plastic handle. I left it behind the house.”
“All right,” said Kutta, whisking her tail, and she went outside.
“Do you think you can make one of those that would let her walk over the trash? Or the sand?” Mhumhi asked.
“I’d like to hope so,” said Sekayi. “But it won’t be easy. Right now I am trying to focus on the dirt.”
“I don’t plan to walk very far anyway,” said Mini. “I’m considering this my retirement.”
Sekayi smiled wider and stroked the top of her head.
“I forgot I need something else,” he said, pushing himself shakily to his feet.
Mhumhi got up as well. “I’ll-”
“No, no,” said Sekayi, waving a hand, “I didn’t leave it far away, I can get it.”
He hobbled out of the house. Mhumhi slowly sat back down on his haunches.
“You should’ve gone,” said Mini, but there was no real bite in her voice. She was looking at the doorway, which Sekayi had vanished though, with round eyes.
“I think it’s better for him if he’d doing something,” said Mhumhi. “He doesn’t like to feel helpless.”
“Well, he isn’t helpless!” snapped Mini, in almost a growl, though it didn’t seem directed towards Mhumhi. “Oh, I worry about him. He’ll end up getting hurt again, that stupid man. He’s too concerned about others.”
“I’ve never thought that was a fault,” said Mhumhi, half laughing.
“Before you came back with the screamer meat and blood on your faces, do you know what he did?” asked Mini. “He wept. He sat there and wept and would not speak to me or let me lick away his tears.”
“He did that before,” Mhumhi said softly, remembering. “But he didn’t even… he didn’t even have to hurt them this time.”
“I think that was why he wept,” said Mini. “Because he was going to eat it even though you were the ones killing it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, though…”
“Yes it does,” Mini said tersely. “Yes it does.”
Mhumhi looked away a moment. Tareq’s head was still in his arms on the table, though his eyes were just peeping out at them.
“I’ve been having a queer dream,” Mini said, in a softer voice. “I mean, it’s not really a dream, more something I imagine all the time, until it becomes a dream.”
“What about?” asked Mhumhi.
“About a human and a gray wolf,” said Mini. “About the first puppy they stole. Did you know? Domestics were wolves once, too.”
Mhumhi gave her a critical look.
“It was a LONG time ago,” she said, bristling her diminutive self. “But it’s true. We were wolves until humans stole us. When my man told me about it, I didn’t believe him either. But I couldn’t stop imagining it. Sneaking into a wolf’s den and stealing a puppy…”
“Why would a human want a wolf puppy?” Mhumhi interrupted.
“Oh, Mhumhi. Who doesn’t want a puppy? Don’t you collect them?”
“I do not,” Mhumhi said irritably. “I mean, I like puppies, but of my own-” He glanced at Tareq and hesitated.
“So like I said,” Mini continued. “The human went and stole a puppy. Maybe he killed the mother, too. Probably, in fact. He would’ve had to, to get away with it. And he stole that puppy and the puppy never knew. We were mute then, anyway.”
“Why are you talking about this now?” Mhumhi asked. “I mean, if it’s something you always dream about…”
“Because I used to hate it,” said Mini. “It used to keep me awake. That poor mother. That poor puppy. But now I think I can’t care about it anymore. I just can’t.”
“Can’t care?” said Mhumhi.
“Can’t,” said Mini. “No. I love Sekayi and I just… I’m so tired of being at odds with myself. He’s given me everything. I should be grateful I should be grateful to all of them. I wouldn’t want to change who I am.”
Mhumhi said nothing, and she gave a little sigh.
“I don’t care what you think,” she said. “I love Sekayi, even though he’s a fool. I just want to love and be loved until I die.”
She caught Mhumhi’s look and bristled. “Which shouldn’t be for a while.”
He had to laugh at that.
“I suppose you’re not the only one who feels that way.”
“I should think not,” said Mini, crossly. “Few deserve it as much as I do, though, in my opinion.”
“We all have our own opinions,” said Mhumhi.