Somehow it ended up that Mhumhi was always the one bringing meat to Hlolwa. Bii was disinclined to leave his post watching over her, and Kutta did not want to leave the rest of the group unattended, so there was no one to show her the way to Hlolwa’s den. Mhumhi supposed he could have just done it in absentia via liberal scent-marking, but he also got the feeling Kutta would prefer having the painted dog out of sight and out of mind as much as possible.
Apparently that was not quite what she had been thinking of, for she drew him aside one morning a few days after Hlolwa had whelped. Mhumhi had been getting ready to get meat from their latest kill to give to her.
She caught up with him a little ways from the fire pit, whistling for his attention and raising her brushy tail. He wagged and lowered his head to greet her.
“What’s the matter?”
“I just wanted to talk with you a minute,” she said, and though her tail was high, now she licked her lips.
“Something you don’t want the others hearing?” Mhumhi said dryly.
“Oh, it really doesn’t matter,” Kutta said. “I just… I want to hear it from your own mouth.”
“Hear what?” Mhumhi tilted his head, though he was getting a sinking feeling.
Kutta raised her head to meet his brown eyes with her yellow ones.
“You’re not… interested in forming a pack with Hlolwa and her puppies, are you?”
Mhumhi gave a startled whuff of laughter.
“What makes you think that? She hates me!”
“Maybe so,” said Kutta. Her lips, which had been taut, relaxed slightly. “Still, she hates you less than everyone else because of what she thinks you are.”
“And what does she think I am?” Mhumhi asked, wagging his tail a little.
“A painted dog, like her,” said Kutta. “But you’re not.”
“Well.” Mhumhi’s brow furrowed. “I mean, I am a painted dog.”
Kutta turned her ears back for a second.
“But you’re not really. You’re part of our family. Like me. I’m not a dhole. You’re not a painted dog. We’re brother and sister.”
“Of course we’re brother sister,” said Mhumhi. “But- I am actually a painted dog, you know.”
He had said it in a lighthearted way, but Kutta’s eyes grew sharp, and she drew away from him.
“So- you do think you belong with her?”
“What? No, no, I belong with you!” Mhumhi wagged his tail under his belly. “I’m your brother and I just happen to be a painted dog. Not a painted dog like her- but it’s just what I am, that’s all. How- how long have you been worried about this?”
Kutta raised her nose slightly and kept her head fixed. “You spend a lot of time alone with her.”
“Kutta, I have to. She needs food for the puppies.”
“The puppies,” Kutta said. “What will we do when they’re weaned? Kill her?”
“Do we have to discuss this right now?” Mhumhi snapped.
“Why does it bother you so much?”
“Because it’d be killing someone!”
“You didn’t care about killing Biscuit!”
“He had just killed Maha!”
“And she,” growled Kutta, “would do the same, in an instant, in a heartbeat- if she thought she could get away with it. She nearly killed Sekayi. Do we have to wait for her to finish the job before you’ll put a tooth in her?”
“I… I just don’t want to kill someone for no reason. Is that so terrible?” Mhumhi put his ears back. “Are we so terrible that I have to justify that?”
Kutta was silent for a moment, then she looked to the side.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“How could you think I’d leave you?” Mhumhi said, wagging a bit again. He stepped forward and bathed Kutta’s muzzle. “How could I? Why would I?”
Kutta turned away from his licking.
“Because you still call yourself a painted dog,” she said. “And you’d have a future with other painted dogs.”
“Future?” Mhumhi laughed. “You mean, have puppies with her? I’ll pass.”
“I don’t mean just that,” said Kutta. “But… I suppose I’m just frightened. About our future. For Tareq.”
“That’s why I want the puppies, Kutta.”
“It’s a weak solution, and you know it,” said Kutta. “They may not survive, not out here… And then, what if they do? If they survive, and live a little longer than we do, they still won’t outlive Tareq.”
“But then they can find someone else for him,” argued Mhumhi. “Or at least he won’t be all alone for a little while longer. It’s the best we can do, isn’t it?”
Kutta let out a slow breath through her nose.
“Besides,” added Mhumhi, “just think about it. Puppies! Like Kebero again.”
Kutta gave him another sharp look, and he winced.
“Maybe not exactly like Kebero, but…”
“I can’t help but wonder about you, Mhumhi,” said Kutta.
“Well, I guess you can do that,” said Mhumhi. He felt a bit disgruntled. “I’m trying to do what’s best for Tareq. If you have any better ideas…”
“I don’t,” said Kutta. “Just don’t spend too much time away from us, please, Mhumhi.”
“I don’t plan to,” said Mhumhi, waving his tail like a flag as she walked away. He couldn’t help but have the snide thought that she wasn’t making it much easier.
He trotted to where they had made their kill. They had kept the corpses a careful distance from the fire pit to keep Tareq from seeing them. Without Sekayi curing the meat, they had to make a kill every two or three days. Mhumhi had nearly gotten numb to the killing now. It helped that it was so terribly easy.
He breached the crest of the last hill before their kill and stopped short. It seemed he had not been the first to approach it today. Besides the usual circling column of white birds, he could see two side-striped jackals up to their necks in the corpse. One tugged at an inner thigh, while the other gnawed on an exposed, white rib. Nearby, a few screamers hovered, looking curiously at the birds.
Mhumhi put his ears forward and gave a sharp twitter, dashing down the hill. The jackals yapped and sprang away in opposite directions.
“I thought you wouldn’t eat hulkers!” he called after them.
One of the jackals turned around and said, in half a sneer, “It was already dead, wasn’t it?”
They ran away, and Mhumhi was left to mull over the fact that Kutta was right. The staunch morals of the grey horde seemed to be eroding rapidly in the face of real hunger. It was a frightening thought. They were too little to properly bring down an adult screamer, he felt, but they could certainly have a shot at killing the little ones. The one’s Tareq’s age.
He’d have to report back to Kutta about this, but it could wait until he’d gotten Hlolwa her meat.
He went to the corpse and bent his head down, then hesitated. Not all the scavengers had left the area. One of the screamers was still lurking around close by, and when he saw Mhumhi he put his hands out in a begging gesture.
Mhumhi recognized him- he’d seen this skinny male again and again in the area over the past few days. Perhaps he was having trouble competing for food with the other screamers. Mhumhi was almost tempted to give him some meat- but then, that would be horrid.
More horrid to let him eat his own kind than to let him starve? his mind challenged himself. He quickly shuttled that thought away and began eating. The jackals had not left him much. Their teeth marks were present all over the bones. There must have been more than two before.
The amount he managed to accrue was not as satisfactory as he would have liked, but he had to get something to Hlolwa. He set off, belly clenching. They’d have to make a new kill even sooner.
By the time he reached the pile of tires, he found himself wishing for the umpteenth time that Hlolwa could be closer to the fire pit. It would be nearly impossible to move her now, though. The puppies couldn’t even come out of the den- he hadn’t seen a hair of one yet. He did sometimes hear their faint squeaks, though, far down in the darkness. Hlolwa seemed eager to deny him even that small sign of life, for she would bare her teeth at him when he pricked his ears.
She was not outside the den now when he approached, so he twittered for her, rotating his ears around.
“She hasn’t been out all morning,” said Bii, and Mhumhi looked to his left to find the fox’s small head protruding from where he was lying inside a tire. His ears, which had been flattened, pricked up; a dramatic effect. “Usually she at least comes out to have her daily shit.”
Mhumhi wrinkled his brow and took a hesitant step closer to the entrance to the den. “Hlolwa? Aren’t you hungry?”
There was no answer. Bii gave a little sigh.
“She must be getting fatigued, staying down there all the time. I told her I’d watch the puppies for her if she needed to stretch her legs.”
“And she didn’t take you up on that? Really?”
Bii bared his teeth in an impish grin.
There came a painted dog’s twitter, and suddenly Hlolwa emerged from the den, shaking dirt off of her back.
“There you are,” said Mhumhi, a bit relieved, but also a bit disappointed. He had almost been ready to go down into the den and look for her- which meant he might have seen the puppies.
Hlolwa looked at him in her hooded way, almost as though she could see what he’d been thinking.
“You have the meat?”
“What have you been up to, Madame?” interrupted Bii. “We were terribly worried when you didn’t answer.”
Hlolwa looked drier than Mhumhi had ever seen her.
“It was never my intent to worry you,” she said.
“Don’t listen to him,” Mhumhi advised, waving his tail. “Are the puppies all right?”
“Do you have the meat?” Hlolwa repeated.
Mhumhi ducked his head and let her lick his chin. She was always very adamant about reminding him that they were not companions. It made him think back to Kutta’s earlier accusations with even more irritation.
The meat came up, and she ate it quickly, in savage bites, and sniffed the ground when she had finished.
“I need more,” she said, and licked his chin again.
“There’s not much-” he started, but then a little more meat came up, and she snapped it down before it even hit the ground.
“There’s not much left,” he said, licking his lips. “Well, not any, really. We need to get more.”
“You could get more now,” Hlolwa said. “I need more. There are screamers in this area.”
Mhumhi scuffed the dirt with his paws a little. He’d never killed a screamer without Kutta’s help.
“She has a point,” said Bii. “You won’t have to walk so far on a full belly that way, either. And I could eat the maggots.”
Hlolwa turned and gave him a magnanimously disgusted look, and he waved his fluffy tail at her.
“Oh,” said Mhumhi. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. The kills have been attracting jackals and coyotes lately. If I kill close by, they might find the den.”
Hlolwa raised her lip, but it seemed to be at the concept, not him.
“They’re eating the kills?” said Bii, his whiskers twitching. “I thought you said they wanted nothing to do with hulker meat.”
“Things seem to have changed,” said Mhumhi. Hlolwa gave a low laugh.
“Haven’t they? The dead eat the dead.”
“She means those gray ones,” said Bii.
“They’re not dead,” said Mhumhi, looking at Hlolwa in a doubtful way. “Are you all right…?”
“I listened for their heartbeats, Mhumhi,” said Hlolwa. “They were dead when we left them there. And then they got up and walked back here.”
“I told you,” said Mhumhi, “the hulkers have a machine that-“
“You don’t come back from being dead,” said Hlolwa. “I should know. We should have properly disposed of their bodies.”
She lapsed into silence, staring back into her den, brooding. Mhumhi exchanged a look with Bii; the latter was grinning again.
“You really should be spending less time in the dark,” he said to Hlolwa. “Stay up here in the sunlight a while and let Mhumhi speak to you. It’ll do your mind good.”
“You want a chance to sneak to my puppies,” said Hlolwa. “If I catch you down there, fox, there will be no more sunlight for you.”
“Not a moment goes by without you threatening to kill me,” Bii observed.
“Sometimes I don’t blame her,” Mhumhi said, and then shot a sidelong glance at Hlolwa. He thought she might have looked the tiniest bit amused.
“If you must take anything, make it my ears,” said Bii. “Then I won’t have to listen to this sort of talk any longer.”
Mhumhi opened his jaws a little, smiling, but Hlolwa rose to her feet and, without another word, disappeared back into the den.
“And there she goes,” said Bii.
“Is she really all right?” Mhumhi sidled a bit closer to the entrance, sniffing. It smelled strongly of Hlolwa’s urine.
“Keep your nose out of there, unless you want it bloodied,” Bii advised him. “I believe she is a bit stressed out. I don’t think she’s had puppies before.”
“Really?” Mhumhi tilted his head. “Is it hard?”
“Apparently.” Bii put his chin back on the edge of the tire. “I’ve seen them when they come out. It is an awful bloody mess.”
“Bloody?” Mhumhi put his ears back. “Why would it be bloody?”
“If you think about it,” Bii said, “a mother and her puppy are part of the same being until the puppy is born. It’s almost as if it gets torn apart from her. That’s where the blood comes from.”
Mhumhi found this a much more unpleasant depiction of birth than his mother had told him about. He swallowed.
“Well- do you think she’s hurting, or something?”
“I don’t doubt she is, but how much of it is physical, I couldn’t say,” said Bii. “Don’t waste your time worrying, though. She’ll only throw it back in your face. Better get back to your hulker boy, now.”
Mhumhi felt that the last sentence sounded more loaded than it should have, but he let it slide. He had learned that the best way to respond to Bii’s needling was to not rise to his bait.
“I’ll go, then,” he told Bii. “Will you still be all right?”
“Certainly,” said Bii. “I know my way around well now. You take care, young dog. Watch out for those grey ones.”
Mhumhi raised his tail in response and began the long walk back to the concrete house.
On the way he heard the birds begin calling, and raised his head to look up at them. They were hovering above him, circling high in the heated morning air. It disturbed him that they had come to associate him with food.
He passed a few screamers on his way and got the normal hungry looks and smiles. He stopped when he saw a female screamer clutching a small infant; he couldn’t help but think of the coyotes and jackals. But what could he really do about it?
The female screamer put one hand out, pressing her infant to her shoulder with the other, and hooted softly at him.
Mhumhi turned away and kept walking. She followed him for a little while, still hooting, and then seemed to fade away. He didn’t look back.
He saw several birds hopping around on the ground when he was nearly back at the fire pit, but that was not so strange. He was also very near their last kill. Mhumhi’s nose twitched. Perhaps there were still a few scraps of meat left… and he could always try to chew some marrow out of the bones.
A hoot made him jump, and he looked back in irritation. The mother with her babe was back, but she wasn’t looking at him this time. She was raising up on her toes, shielding her eyes, and then she hooted again moved forward at a lurching run.
Mhumhi had only ever seen screamers move quickly when food was involved. He followed her, catching up easily, and then overtook her. He could hear what she must have heard: crunching, sucking noises. Somebody was eating meat.
He slowed. There, sitting hunched against a rusted stove, was a skinny male screamer. In fact, it was the one Mhumhi kept seeing in the area. It had something black in its hands and was tearing pieces out of it with its teeth.
Mhumhi blinked. His nose twitched again. That black thing…
The screamer shifted its grip. A leg flopped down. Mhumhi looked at it.
The screamer was eating Mini.
The realization hit him like a juggernaut. He jerked, then sprang towards the screamer. It looked up from its meal, gave him that vague screamer smile, as if nothing at all was wrong. Then his teeth hit its throat and it choked as he severed its jugular.
The screamer fell sideways as Mhumhi withdrew, blood still coming from its neck in weak spurts. His tongue was filled with the coppery taste of it. Underneath the bony arm, her head resting on jutting naked ribs, lay Mini.
Mhumhi caught her rump and dragged her backwards, out of the dead screamer’s grip. Her head bobbed bonelessly over the uneven ground.
“Mini,” he called. She had faked death so many times before. “Mini!”
She did not move. He took a shuddering breath, then turned her over with his nose.
Her body cavity had been opened up in a ragged line, her black fur curling into the depression and slicked with blood. Organs were missing. Flesh was missing.
“Mini,” Mhumhi said again, helplessly. How was she supposed to come back from this?
He stared over at the screamer he had just killed. The one that had been eating her. How? Why? How could it-?
He had never seen one act aggressively. Not towards dogs.
But then, he had seen one eating something dead before. That small cow, the first day they’d arrived at the dump. They were capable of killing. He should have realized this.
He looked blankly back at Mini’s corpse. From behind him, the female screamer hooted, holding her hand out.
Mhumhi whirled around with a snarl, and she gave a little scream and scrambled away over the trash, clutching her infant.
Mhumhi was panting. He looked back at Mini, then away, blinking. Her opened body was a horrible sight. She was so silent, as well, so still…
Really dead, he forced himself to think. Gone. No hulker contraption would revive her this time.
It was so sudden and shocking that he found himself reeling. How had a screamer gotten the chance to kill Mini? How had a screamer gotten away with that? Kutta was-
Mhumhi’s heart seized, and he turned and ran in the direction of the fire pit.
Then he came back, picked up Mini’s body in his jaws, shuddering a little at the touch of her cold flesh. No screamer would finish her off.