Round and rounder.
Bii’s trail was not hard to follow, in part thanks to the puppy he had stolen. Little drops of urine marked the ground in places where it must have been dragged. In one or two places he also found drops of blood. Bii was hurrying.
But he was a three-legged fox carrying a pup half his weight. Mhumhi caught up to him easily.
He found the fox halfway backed into a rotten-looking cabinet, trying to squeeze himself and his burden into the space where there had once been a drawer. Mhumhi closed the gap in three strides and dragged the fox out by one of his oversized ears.
Bii let go of the pup and yipped, showing his teeth, and Mhumhi jerked his head and swung the fox hard against the ground.
“What do you think you’re doing, Bii?”
Bii’s eyes were slitted, his tongue hanging out, dazed from the impact. His front leg twitched, and suddenly he jerked up and tried to run. Mhumhi caught him by the tail and dragged him roughly back.
“This is it,” he spat, “you’ve done it. This is the last time. I’m not letting you betray us again.”
Bii moved a paw up where he was lying, his little claws digging sideways into the ground.
“You… are going to kill me?” he said. His voice sounded weary.
“Why did you take that puppy, Bii?” Mhumhi demanded, pacing back and forth in front of him. “How could you even think-”
“Why?” Bii drew up his lip, whiskers wrinkling. “Because I’m owed a puppy. You owe me a son. She owes me three daughters. Now I’m taking one back.”
Mhumhi’s tail trembled. “Nobody owes you anything! Are you trying to kill it, then?”
“No,” said Bii, his voice thin. “No…”
“It’s not weaned! It’ll die out here, if the screamers don’t eat it!”
“I know that,” said Bii. His forepaws flexed against the dirt. “I know that. I know that. I wanted…”
He shut his eyes.
“I knew that if I waited much longer I couldn’t carry it. And if she wanted to leave…”
“So you’d rather let it die?” Mhumhi demanded. “Than to not take it?”
“As if you’ve never made such a choice,” Bii spat, his eyes flying open. “Or have you forgotten about your brother again?”
“I didn’t drag Kebero out into the garbage,” said Mhumhi. “That was you, Bii.”
Bii gave a thin whuff, and shut his eyes again.
“Take it back,” he said. “Go on. No harm done… just a little adventure.”
“Just a little adventure,” Mhumhi repeated, and leaned forward to loom over him. “Your last one, Bii.”
“It is, isn’t it,” said Bii. “All right. Go on.”
Mhumhi drew his lips away from his teeth, and lunged forward with a snarl, catching him by his back. The taste of Bii’s fur filled his mouth, the fox hanging limp, ears bumping the ground. He shook him once, felt something grind, felt his own stomach twist. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the puppy, a dark smudge, peering up with half-open eyes.
When he had not moved for a little while Bii said, “Come on.”
His voice was weak. Mhumhi’s jaw slackened. Bii made a hissing sound.
“Come on, Mhumhi,” he said. “Don’t show mercy now. You’re a killer, aren’t you? I deserve it. Look what I’ve done. I was going to kill this pup out of my own pride and selfishness. So come on. End me.”
Mhumhi couldn’t speak, with Bii in his mouth; he was also afraid to put him down. He gave him another halfhearted shake.
“Kill me, you brute,” Bii spat, sounding out of breath. “Kill me! It isn’t hard, and your breath smells like blood! Do what has to be done! I warn you, if I live, I’ll come back-”
Mhumhi growled, and Bii laughed.
“You know how to stop that, don’t you? Come on. Come on. What have I got left? What have I got left to do?”
He squirmed a little, in Mhumhi’s still jaws, his tail rotating slowly.
“Come on. It’s so easy for you. It’s easy. Please.”
Mhumhi dropped him, and he fell bonelessly to the ground. His eyes fluttered.
“Why…” Bii was saying, but Mhumhi was backing away, his tail tucked, his ears back. It’s easy for you. Killer.
Bii rolled to his side and put his head up.
“Damn that conscience of yours,” he said, very softly.
Mhumhi went and picked up the puppy, holding it gently behind the head. It did not make a sound, but he could feel its heart beating rapidly through his teeth.
“Wait,” said Bii.
Mhumhi ignored him, turning around. Bii struggled to his feet and hobbled over to him.
“Wait, please, wait, let me-”
He reached up his nose, as if to touch one of the puppy’s dangling paws, and Mhumhi jerked his head away.
Bii ducked his head. “I have to tell you something. Please wait. I’ll go away afterwards.”
Mhumhi hesitated, one paw raised.
“It’s- it’s two things,” admitted Bii. “Or- no, I’ll only tell you one. Only one.” His button-black eyes flickered, retaining some of their old hardness. “Pick one.”
Mhumhi put the puppy gently down on the ground. “One of what?”
“The two things I could tell you,” said Bii. “One is about somewhere else. Somewhere I’ve been to, where I’ve seen strange animals you could eat, strange plants. I could tell you where it is.”
Mhumhi’s throat worked. “And… the other one?”
Bii caught his eye, with a shadow of his familiar impish grin. “It’s about your mother. Something I know you don’t know.”
Mhumhi drew in a breath, then slowly let it out.
“The first one.”
“I’m not surprised,” Bii said, almost cruelly. “Your decisions have always smacked of wanderlust, of the desire to leave family behind.”
“That’s not true,” Mhumhi snapped. “You know that’s not-”
“I’ll tell you how to get there,” said Bii. “It’s a long way away from the dump. I found it traveling along the shoreline.”
“Why didn’t you stay there?” Mhumhi asked, eyeing him. Bii chuckled.
“The insects and the carrion-eaters live here, my friend, and that is what I feed off of. Now, to get there-”
“Don’t tell me,” Mhumhi said, cutting him off. “I’ve changed my mind.”
“You can’t change your mind,” Bii said, blinking. “You chose, so I won’t tell you anything but that.”
“I changed my mind about hearing anything from you,” said Mhumhi, turning around. He picked up the puppy again and started walking.
Mhumhi ignored him, and after a moment he heard the fox’s hobbling pace slow.
“Flash,” he called, “that was her name- your mother. Before they stripped it from her and made her a pariah. The hulkers called her Flash.”
Mhumhi hesitated, looked back. Bii was sitting down, his one good haunch folded under his body.
“That’s all,” he said. “The puppy is hungry. Take her back.”
Mhumhi took a good look at him, because he had a feeling that Bii had been lying yet again- about coming back. He wouldn’t be coming back.
Then Mhumhi went away, back out across the trash, carrying the puppy. Flash, whispered a voice, not Bii’s, in his head. The name was familiar. Flash.
He put the puppy down and retched.
He was not sure where the sudden nausea came from, but it took him hard, so that his legs trembled and his stomach heaved as he fought to retain his food. For a moment he was afraid he’d got the egg sickness again, but no, that couldn’t be. This was not an illness. This was panic.
He’d killed that bird, after all. And he’d killed all of those screamers. All of them. Easy, Bii had said, and he was right. It had become very easy. It would have been easy to kill Bii, too.
And… and… he knew that the screamer he had killed- the screamer beside Sekayi… he knew who he had killed. Struck down, without a moment’s hesitation.
And he had just ignored it. Shut his eyes and ears, like a new puppy. It was that that frightened him the most: he had ignored it! He could ignore it! Killing and killing and killing again, a hundred throats torn out, a thousand viscera spread on the ground by his teeth; he could do it! The ability was inside him!
Mhumhi whined, feeling helpless. He had to use it. He had to use that ability, that thing he had mocked the gray pack over just earlier; he had to do it if he wanted to survive. And it was easy! It would be easy even if he didn’t have to do it!
He whined again, and there came an answering whine, very small. Mhumhi raised his eyes and looked at the little puppy on the ground.
He had not really given it more than a glance before. It was a tiny thing, so little and round; almost all black, with folded ears and peering little eyes. It looked hardly able to sit up yet, its big head bobbing.
Mhumhi went over and licked its head, accidentally too hard; it tumbled over. He licked it again, warming its chilled skin with his tongue, cleaning its genital area and belly. The puppy blinked, fat and helpless.
He wondered what thoughts it had, with its limited senses, about everything that had just happened. And just then he felt a little of what Hlolwa must have felt, about protecting this little puppy from the truth- the truth that your meat was something that could smile and cry and love.
His heart almost broke, thinking of what would happen when she grew up and learned about the world. Wouldn’t it be better, as O had said, for her not to know anything at all?
That part of him that accepted the killing so easily, so naturally; that was the part that did not know anything, like this innocent puppy.
He picked her up again, his head and tail drooping, and went back to the tire stacks.
Hlolwa was waiting for him there- he could see her rangy form pacing anxiously on the horizon, and as soon as she spotted him she ran pell-mell towards him.
Mhumhi put the puppy down and got out of the way; Hlolwa was twittering, half in aggression and half in relief, dancing around the little puppy, licking her, with more fervor in her actions than Mhumhi had ever seen.
She stopped her ministrations only long enough to ask, “The fox?”
“He won’t be coming back.”
Hlolwa’s eyes thinned, and then she picked up her daughter by the haunches and took her back down into the den.
Mhumhi went to lie down near the entrance, his head on his paws, and blinked at the darkening sky. Soon the screamers would begin to appear, stirring as the day’s heat diminished, searching vainly for any scrap of food. He spared a thought that Bii might not be able to get away from them, at his slow speed, and was not sure how he felt about that. It probably didn’t matter.
His ear flicked- he could just barely hear Hlolwa’s voice, coming from within the den. It actually made him grin. He would never have imagined her talking to her puppies like that, not Hlolwa, but she was most certainly cooing at them.
Mhumhi imagined the six of them down there, the five little ones and their mother, all warm and curled up tight. He heaved a great sigh, his grin fading.
His ears pricked again: this time it was not Hlolwa, but a screamer’s hoot. He got to his feet.
They came in ones and twos, slow and cautious, stopping short at his growls. He kept a clear perimeter, pacing around the den. They watched him, some trying to creep closer, some holding their hands out, some hooting quietly. He had never fed these; but even with their limited intelligence they had an idea of what a guard meant, and they were terribly hungry. More came every day, to stare at him with black eyes.
The screamers were not Mhumhi’s only trouble that night, though, because as the sky turned orange he heard yet another sound: howls. Coyotes and jackals, dozens of them, raising their voices up. This was no simple point of contact like he had heard before- this was a real concert. Mhumhi shuddered. There was a note of warning in the shrillness of it.
The screamers turned and looked too, and he was surprised to see some of them shamble off towards the noise. But most of them stayed.
It was a long night, full of noise and eyes.
He was dozing off, curled up at the entrance to the den, when Hlolwa woke him. The sun had risen, the second wave of screamers had come and gone, and the dump was heating up and beginning to shimmer.
“Have you eaten?” asked Hlolwa.
“A little,” said Mhumhi, blinking. She was standing close, and he had half an impulse to greet her in the painted dog manner, just to see what she would do. Or just to make himself feel less lonely; he wasn’t sure.
Hlolwa eyed him, as if she could sense his thoughts, and Mhumhi said hastily, “Are you hungry? I could-”
“No need,” she said, with typical bluntness. “You’ve made a kill recently?”
“And will there be meat left on it?”
“I- think so,” said Mhumhi, turning an ear back. “If the gray pack hasn’t found it yet…”
“It should do,” said Hlolwa. “I am going for a walk. You stay by the den.”
Mhumhi blinked. “You’re…”
“Going,” she confirmed. “You had better not leave here until I return. I won’t be more than a few hours.”
“A few-! But what about the puppies?”
“That is why you will stay here,” she said, slowly, as though he were an idiot.
“But what if they get hungry?”
She gave him a heavy-lidded look. “They won’t. Will you be able to manage yourself?”
“I…” Mhumhi was still rather stunned by the whole thing. He got to his feet. “I think so.”
“Then I’m leaving,” said Hlolwa, very abruptly, and broke into a full-stride run.
Mhumhi watched her dash off- at top speed, no less- and stretched in a bemused way. He supposed that staying in the den so much would get exhausting, but for her to leave her puppies with him…
He paused, tilted his head. The puppies, yes? Down in the den? He was allowed to see them now… wasn’t he? Had that been implied?
He stole a nervous glance backwards; Hlolwa was already out of sight.
She had dug quite a den, for having so little time to prepare, Mhumhi thought, when he went down through the tire. Below the shelter of rubber she had dug even further through the sandy soil, making a shallow, shaded depression. Just a bit of light came through the gaps between the tires above, just enough for Mhumhi to quiver at the sight of the puppies.
They were all sleeping, in a pile, and oh… Soft round bellies, little noses; one had her mouth half open, her ears twitching in her sleep. Mhumhi had to lie down, or risk jumping headlong into the pile. There was the little female that he had rescued- she was the one with her mouth open. Was she dreaming about what had happened? He noticed that she was the only one left that still had folded ears- the others had them pricked already, little round things. Everything about them was round, really.
One of the puppies rolled over and slowly opened its little eyes; they were unfocused, and slightly milky. It raised its head in a wobbly way and squeaked.
Mhumhi raised his own head. The puppy squeaked again, a kind of hiccup of sound that shook its little belly. The one beside him opened its eyes as well.
Mhumhi realized he was in a situation where he had no earthly idea what to do. Now the two puppies were sort of paddling towards him, in a very little, very determined way. The others were all waking up and squeaking, too.
The first puppy went against Mhumhi’s belly and stopped. He felt it rooting about for a moment, imagined its tiny sense of confusion at the lack of teats. The other one bumped against it, then found his belly as well. The rest were on their way.
The squeaking and paddling went on against him for quite a bit of time- Mhumhi felt compelled to lie down on his side, as some of the puppies were actually climbing on top of him, but then the noise and movement seemed to die down all at once. Mhumhi raised his head, astonished. They had all fallen asleep again, as though someone had snapped off a light.
It was perhaps unfortunate that that was how Hlolwa found him, especially since he had fallen asleep with them. He jerked guiltily when she came scraping through the tire, sending a puppy tumbling off his shoulder in a tiny barrage of squeaks.
Hlolwa gave him a long look- very inscrutable and nerve-wracking- and said, “Come outside.”
He tucked his tail and went after her, blinking in the sunlight. She couldn’t have been gone very long- certainly not a few hours, maybe not even one hour. He wondered what had made her come back.
Hlolwa was pacing, uncharacteristically, and she did not meet his eyes right away when he emerged and shook the dirt off of himself.
“I think they’re hungry,” he offered; this did earn him a look.
“There wasn’t enough meat,” she said. “I made a fresh kill. Follow my marks, and you should be able to find it.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, a little surprised. “All right- I’ll go tomorrow.”
“Better go tonight,” said Hlolwa, tone flat. “They’ll eat it all. Fill your belly now.”
This surprised him a little, but he ducked his head and wagged his tail. Hlolwa went back down into the den. He almost thought she seemed nervous.
Perhaps she didn’t find killing hulkers as palatable as she had in the past.
That was a slightly foolish thought, though, Mhumhi told himself, as he sniffed along her marks. For one, screamers were different, and if she had killed talking hulkers so well before she shouldn’t bother caring about them; for another, it would be bad for both of them if she balked at the idea now.
He was so preoccupied with sniffing that he barely noticed was until his paws nearly slipped over a metal edge. He jerked to a stop, watching a few bottle caps and bits of paper go tumbling down; it was a sheer cliff of compressed plastic, falling off into a kind of pit.
“Mhumhi?” called a voice, from below. “Mhumhi?”
He stared down, heart seizing, and found himself looking into Tareq’s eyes.