Three brothers, three sisters.
“Hulker puppies,” Mhumhi was still repeating, bewildered, a few minutes later. Kutta had got off of him and told him sternly to wait by the door while she tried to coax the frightened female hulker back towards them. From the dark room, there still came coughing, which Mhumhi supposed must be the other one.
“Come here,” Kutta kept saying, approaching the hulker with her tail wagging gently, “No one will hurt you.”
But every time she got too close, the little hulker would run further away.
“Don’t go too far, Kutta!” Mhumhi called after her, feeling anxious for her. Kutta turned back to glare at him.
“Hush! You’re frightening her more!”
Disgruntled, Mhumhi got up and looked into the darkened room. The coughing came again. He took a big sniff of air, but it told him next to nothing about whatever lay inside. Either it was the heavy reek of sewer muck or the hulkers’ own strange scentlessness preventing him from getting a lock on identifying them with his nose.
He stepped into the room, nosing around, feeling far more confident after his adventure chasing the little female. If it was a hulker puppy, it was really not so frightening at all.
Near the door he spotted a light switch like the one Kutta had hit in the tunnels and reared to hit it with his nose. Harsh electric light filled the room. Mhumhi blinked, and saw the second hulker, blinking as well.
It was lying in a nest of blankets, so that only the funny-shaped head protruded, and it was looking at him. It looked smaller than the other hulker, and less frightened. It sat up, coughing. Its movements were shaky and childish and it gave a kind of bleat.
Mhumhi felt that twitch again, as if a light switch had been snapped on in his head. He was salivating. If he could only bear it back down to the ground- it looked so weak, he could just tear out the belly without bothering with the throat-
He was panting and drooling now. He tried to close his jaws and swallow. Kutta had said not to harm them- so he would not- but oh, how could she stand it!
The hulker was crawling towards him, and now it got up on its hind legs. Mhumhi shut his eyes painfully, unable even to look at the thing. It was bleating at him again, and he turned his ears back, trying not to hear it.
“Hello!” the hulker bleated.
He opened his eyes and put his ears forward. It was standing a few feet away from him, mouth open in what was almost a dog smile, paws curled near its chin. Again it spoke.
Its voice was eerie-sounding, not quite right, not quite dog. He backed up a few steps, feeling frightened, though-
It also reminded him a little bit of his mother’s voice.
“Dog!” the little hulker bleated again, and took a tottering step towards him. Mhumhi’s jaws opened of their own accord before he could stop himself, and he made an arrested lunge, jerking back halfway. The hulker stumbled back and let out a bleating fearful cry.
Mhumhi backed away further, shaking from his own forced self-control, and bumped into something behind himself that clattered and fell over loudly. The hulker gave out another startled wail. Mhumhi jumped forward and pulled himself back again with a yowl of frustration.
“You go away!” said the hulker, and Mhumhi felt another chill at the sheer weirdness of hearing it speak. It was retreating back to its little nest of blankets now, coughing and crying.
Mhumhi, panting, thought that going away was probably a good idea, and ran to the door and bumped into Kutta.
“Watch out, Mhumhi,” she said, nudging him with her shoulder, and then spotted the crying hulker. “What happened to him?!”
“I didn’t do anything!” said Mhumhi, running to the opposite corner of the room with his tail tucked. “I never touched him!”
Kutta trotted over to the crying hulker, which had curled up again, and licked its naked forehead.
“Don’t cry,” she said, pawing at it. “We’ve brought you food, don’t cry!”
Mhumhi got a distinct sinking feeling when he heard these words, but was distracted at once by the reappearance of the other hulker, the larger one, in the doorway. Apparently Kutta had convinced it to come back after all, though was glaring at Mhumhi. Mhumhi felt his own lips wrinkling back.
“Stop that,” said Kutta, spotting him. “Try to be nice, Mhumhi. They’re only puppies.”
“They’re not puppies,” Mhumhi muttered, but Kutta advanced on him, tail wagging, and started licking his chin.
But he was too late; she had already unceremoniously jammed her nose into the corner of his mouth and up came more meat. Mhumhi tried to snatch some back up at once but Kutta shouldered him aside and picked up the lot, tail wagging.
Mhumhi paced back and forth in his little corner as she walked over to the coughing hulker and dropped it in front of him. He stopped crying at once and picked up the meat in his little fists.
“That’s my meat,” Mhumhi growled.
“Learn to share, Mhumhi,” said Kutta. “I’ve been doing it since Mother left, now you can pick up some of the slack.”
The mention of their mother gave Mhumhi pause, and with a nervous glance to the other hulker that was still standing in the doorway, he trotted closer to Kutta.
“Did you say that… that Mother was taking care of these?”
“Yes,” said Kutta. “She showed them to me a little while… a little while before she left.”
“You mean Mother and you were keeping secrets from us?” Mhumhi demanded. “For how long?”
“I don’t know how long Mother was taking care of them! All I know is that she needed help, so she asked me to come down… She told me not to tell you or Sacha, so I didn’t, but…”
“But what?” Mhumhi felt strange and miserable, thinking of his mother down here in the sewers with this horrible secret. He had just told Bii that his mother had never associated with any hulkers, and yet…
“I need help,” Kutta said. “I can’t take care of them alone anymore. The little one got sick.”
Mhumhi glanced at the little one. It was still eating the meat, its fists sticky and black as it put them in its mouth.
“So leave them,” he said. “They’re not dogs.”
“Don’t say that,” hissed Kutta, shooting a glance at the older one. “They are, Mother was right, they just look different. They can talk, and they’ve got names-”
“You named them?”
“They already had the names! Look, the little one is Tareq, and the big one is Maha. You should say hello.”
Mhumhi felt that this didn’t even warrant a response; he just gave her a look.
“Come on, Mhumhi,” said Kutta, sounding a bit desperate. “Help me. They’re Mother’s children too… like Kebero… they’re our brother and sister.”
At the statement Mhumhi gave a low growl.
“If you and Mother were keeping this secret together,” he said, “do you also know why she left?”
Kutta stepped back from him, then looked away.
“I… no, I don’t. She just disappeared, Mhumhi. I think she must have gone looking for food or something… we were struggling to feed them so much then. I-”
She stared at Mhumhi then, her yellow eyes fearful.
“I’m afraid she might be gone.”
Mhumhi tore away from her gaze with a kind of frantic whine.
“We don’t know! We don’t know that! What if she’s really left, like Sacha said? What then? She obviously doesn’t care- she’s always just wanted puppies- any kind-” He looked angrily over at the standing hulker, which was still watching them. “Any kind she could steal.”
“She didn’t steal us,” said the hulker.
Mhumhi jerked back with surprise, but the hulker was still talking.
“And you’re not my brother. And she’s not my sister.”
Mhumhi could only growl softly, unsure really how to respond to this, but Kutta said, “Don’t say that, Maha. We’re here to take care of you.”
“He doesn’t want to take care of us,” said the hulker- Maha- twisting her mealy lips downwards. “And you don’t either. I know you’re planning something. You want to get rid of us! Are you going to eat us?”
Mhumhi barked out a laugh. “Us eat them!” He glanced at Kutta, then addressed Maha directly.
“You’d eat a dog, if you had the chance, wouldn’t you- little hulker?”
Maha seemed to tremble, and she pressed her lips together. “I- I am a dog!”
Mhumhi laughed again, at the bizarre little creature, hairless and shaking. “How did you trick my mother into taking care of you?”
Maha made a pained little noise, and Kutta said, “Mhumhi, be quiet. You think our mother- our mother- wouldn’t want to take care of them?”
Mhumhi found himself regrettably unable to argue with this. He changed the subject. “You only brought me down here so you could give them my meat!”
“I brought you down here because I thought I could trust you,” Kutta said. “I thought you’d understand. I thought you’d behave better than Sacha would, anyway. I guess I was wrong.”
“That’s not fair,” Mhumhi said, tucking his tail, and Kutta continued.
“And I’ve been telling Tareq and Maha about the two of you for forever, too, and I told them all about how Sacha was the cross one but you were the sweet kind one, you know, and how you were the most fun to play with…”
“Come on, Kutta,” Mhumhi whined.
“You haven’t even met them, you just started going at them from the start, and all because you had one bad experience with a hulker. And now you think you know everything about them!”
“I don’t think that,” said Mhumhi. “I only thought- I-”
“And you’re still willing to listen to that nasty old fox over our mother!”
“I thought you liked Bii!”
“Oh, he’s all right,” Kutta said, and then made her voice fiercer. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. These little ones haven’t done anything. And you just had to-”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, “all right, shut up. Stop it. I’ll help you. But no more meat. I’ll give meat to Kebero, so you give all your meat to these things.”
“Then let me have Bii’s portion, since there’s two of them!”
“Fine!” growled Mhumhi, who was starting to pace again. “I can’t believe we’ve got even more puppies to take care of now!”
“We’ve had these,” Kutta said. “It was just only me and Mother that were taking care of them. You never had to help.”
Mhumhi wanted to raise his lip again, but she sounded so tired, and her words sparked a grudging little feeling of guilt in him.
“I’ll help now,” he said, though he had kind of a bad feeling in his stomach about the whole thing.
Kutta wagged her tail and came up to wash one of his ears.
“Good boy, Mhumhi,” she said. “Come on, come meet them, I know you’ll get to like them.”
Mhumhi kept quiet about what he thought of that, but he let her tug on his ear and draw him towards Maha.
“Now this is Maha,” she told him. “She’s the older one. She can find food for them sometimes down here, but she needs as much help as we can give her. Mother was giving them milk-”
“Mother was what?” Mhumhi interrupted.
“Hush. She was giving them milk, but obviously she can’t anymore. That’s when Tareq started getting sick, after she left. I think we’ve got to try giving them some fruit if we can get any.”
“You’re crazy,” said Mhumhi, “absolutely… What are we supposed to trade for fruit? We’re already running out of meat for everyone…”
“I have a way of getting some extra meat, but you’re right,” Kutta admitted. She glanced at Maha. “We’ll talk more about it later. Now, go say hello.”
Mhumhi wrinkled his nose at her, then went over to Maha. For a moment they gazed at one another, her from up high with her white-ringed eyes, him from below with his dark ones.
“Why don’t you get down on all fours, like a proper dog?” he asked.
“A dog can stand on two legs if she wants,” said Maha, clenching her little paws.
“If you want to greet me like an older brother,” Mhumhi began, and she interrupted, “You’re not my brother!”
“Maha,” said Kutta, “listen to what Mhumhi says.”
Maha pulled her lips down, blinking, and then squatted down, touching her knuckles to the ground. Mhumhi lowered his head and stepped over to gingerly sniff at her, nosing that thick hair of hers.
“Where are your ears, anyway?”
“They’re right here,” said Maha, taking her paw to pull her hair back. The movement startled him and he flinched away. She made a strange sound then. Tareq, behind them, made it too, putting his sticky little paws up to his mouth.
“What was that?” he asked suspiciously.
“I’m laughing at you,” she said.
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, rotating his ears forward and back, and then added, “Don’t.”
Maha stuck her lips out at him, and he shuddered. “Don’t do that either.”
“Mhumhi, leave her alone,” said Kutta. “Stop being such a puppy.”
“Stop being such a puppy,” said Maha, and she made that odd laughing sound again, though this time Mhumhi could pick up the derision in it. He laid his ears back.
“You haven’t greeted me- you haven’t sniffed, or anything.”
“I don’t need to sniff,” said Maha, and Kutta said, “Mhumhi, the hulkers can’t really smell anything.”
“They can’t-? Well, I suppose they can’t, since they’e got no noses.”
Maha made a more bubbly version of her laugh. “My nose is right here!” She pointed to a protuberance on her flat face Mhumhi hadn’t taken notice of before, since it was the same color as her bare skin.
“Kutta,” he whined. It was getting too strange for him. She nudged him with her shoulder, then went over to Maha.
“Go and greet your brother properly.”
Maha glanced at her, then crouch-crawled over to Mhumhi, who stiffened. The movement was so unnatural. Having her close reminded his mind of the frailty of her bare skin, as well; of the pulse he could hear beating in her neck. He licked his lips.
Maha put one of her front paws out to him and he jerked away.
“Let’s not touch,” he said. “That’s enough.”
“Fine,” said Kutta. “Say hello to Tareq, and then we’d better leave. Sacha will probably be looking for us when we get back.”
Mhumhi spared a thought for poor Sacha- though he was also rather jealous, with her being in the blissful state of ignorance he’d been in just an hour ago.
He let Kutta lead him over to little Tareq, whom he dutifully sniffed as the little hulker lay and coughed and giggled. Again he backed away when Tareq reached out to touch him.
Kutta seemed willing to accept this. “All right, Mhumhi. Let’s get back. And- you two-” She turned to where the two hulkers had come together, huddling in the nest of blankets. “I’ll be back tonight with some more meat. Maha, you must eat some too.”
“I’m not hungry,” muttered Maha. Mhumhi focused his ears at her.
“If someone gives you meat, you eat it,” he growled. “If you get too weak, I’ll eat you myself.”
Maha made a sort of disgruntled noise, though he was pleased to see her draw up closer against Tareq at his words. Kutta shot him a look but did not say anything until they had left the room to travel back down the narrow concrete tunnel.
“You really are beginning to sound more like Sacha.”
“I am not,” said Mhumhi sulkily, then switched his tail. Her words reminded him of something.
“By the way, she’s getting suspicious about you disappearing so much.”
“She thinks you’ve got a sweetheart, or something.”
Kutta laughed. “Oh, she does, does she? That’s funny.”
“It is funny,” said Mhumhi, and jumped away when she turned back to nip at him.
“If she thinks that, that’s good,” she said, resuming her trot and wagging her tail. “It gives me an excuse.”
Mhumhi, loping behind, lowered his tail. “She is worried about you, though.”
“I mean, she’s worried that you’ll leave.”
“Well, why wouldn’t she be,” said Kutta, not looking back this time. “She’s worried there’ll be less meat for Keb, and that she might have to give some up once in a while.”
“Don’t say that, Kutta,” said Mhumhi, putting his ears back. “You know that’s not true.”
Kutta was quiet for a moment, then she said, “I know. I’m just very… I just get very tired of her sometimes. Don’t you?”
Mhumhi couldn’t say he did, so instead he squeezed up beside his sister and nuzzled at her neck.
“I’ll help you now, Kutta. You won’t have to come down here alone anymore, right?”
Kutta smiled at him. “I knew you’d come around. You’re my favorite little brother, you know.”
“Because I’ve got the biggest stomach.”
Kutta laughed. “Yes, exactly!”
Mhumhi fell back behind her, noting the new spring in her step. He wished he could share it, but the thought of the two hideous hulker puppies that were now awaiting him in that cold concrete room weighed heavily on his mind.