His hulker’s heart.
When Mhumhi scratched on the door in the concrete hallway later that evening, he was met by a surprisingly enthusiastic greeting.
“Mhumhi!” he heard, as Maha yanked the door open. From behind her Kutta burst out, whining, licking Mhumhi on the chin and wagging, clearly very hungry. Even Tareq was up, toddling towards him with his hands outstretched, his mouth forming a crooked, gap-toothed smile.
“Have you got meat?” Kutta whined, still licking at him. Mhumhi was rather relieved to see that she looked much better than she had in the morning, but it was hard to keep the meat down with her going at him so enthusiastically.
“I’ll give it to you inside,” he managed to get out, and she relented very reluctantly.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Maha said to him, reaching to stroke his neck, and Tareq followed suit. Mhumhi tolerated it best he could, pushing through the lot of them to get inside.
He gave up the meat in the middle of the comforter. It looked much cleaner for having taken a turn inside of his stomach, and either way Kutta didn’t seem to care much from the way she attacked it with gusto, tail wagging. Mhumhi had to push her out of the way to let Maha and Tareq grab handfuls, though he found himself not wanting to watch them eat it. He felt that sick feeling rising in him again.
“Is there more?” asked Maha, having already made her portion vanished. Tareq gave an affirmative whimper, sucking on two of his fingers.
“There’s no more,” said Mhumhi. There had been at least a whole portion and a half in the domestic’s stash, but it did not go very far divided by four. Kutta gave a sigh and flopped back down onto the comforter.
“We’ve got to find a way to get more,” she said, blinking her yellow eyes. “I’ll go with you next time, Mhumhi, I’m feeling better today.”
Mhumhi went over to lick beside her exposed ear. “Don’t push yourself. I’ve got to talk to you about something…”
“What?” she asked, but he pressed his jaws together and flicked his eyes towards Maha and Tareq.
Kutta put her ears forward curiously, but laid her chin back down on the soft comforter. Maha, who was wiping Tareq’s chin with her covering, was eyeing them.
“Mhumhi, I think I found more rats,” she said. “Will you come with me and help me catch them?”
Mhumhi wrinkled his lips again- he had not found his last encounter with the creatures particularly pleasant- but then again. rats might be better than any other sort of meat right now.
“All right,” he said, giving Kutta one last lick. “Is it far away?”
“No, no, it’s just down the corridor…”
Tareq gave a little whine and reached his hands out to her, but she pushed them away. “Not now, Tareq. You stay here with big sister Kutta, all right?”
Tareq’s eyes seemed to moisten. “Mean dog,” he said. Mhumhi noticed Kutta’s tail tucking even in her prone position.
“Let’s go, Mhumhi,” Maha said, rather hastily, backing towards the door. Mhumhi found he was inclined to agree with the sentiment.
Maha led him down the corridor to the little room he and Kutta had sheltered in the day before, with its pile of papers. He trotted forward and nosed around in them.
“I don’t smell or hear any in here,” he said.
“That’s good, cause you would have scared them all away just now,” Maha said wryly. She pointed up towards the empty shelves near the low ceiling. “I think there’re some holes near the pipes up there. I hear them moving around, and you can see where the paper’s been chewed on…”
Mhumhi could now see a few ragged edges in the pile, though he was feeling a tad sore from her admonishment.
“How will you catch them up there?”
“I have some old traps,” said Maha, and she reached into her bag and drew something small and square out of it. “Only thing is that I don’t have bait for them… but I figure if I put it right next to the hole…”
“And how will you get up to the hole?” Mhumhi asked, rearing up against the wall to try and see over the shelves. “There’s no rungs here.”
Maha put the trap in her teeth and used both hands to pull herself up onto the lowest shelf, her flat feet kicking. Mhumhi backed out of the way, watching the operation nervously.
Maha mumbled something unintelligible around the trap in her mouth, reaching up to the next shelf. Mhumhi’s ears pricked- he’d heard the soft sound of tiny feet skittering behind the wall.
“I think you’re right- I can hear them back there!”
“I told you!” Maha said, spitting the trap in her free hand. She tried to reach around the top shelf but suddenly wobbled dangerously.
“Maha!” Mhumhi cried, but it was too late. There was a loud crack and the shelf underneath her split and she fell down backwards.
Scraps of paper were flying- she’d landed in the middle of the pile. Mhumhi scrambled to her side, whining. She was lying there with her eyes shut and her face screwed up, but Mhumhi did not smell blood.
“Hush, you’re all right,” he said, licking at her coarse hair- she was lucky it was so thick; it must have protected her head. He could feel a pump forming with his tongue but nothing else.
“Ow,” said Maha, in a shuddery way, and sniffed.
“You’re just fine,” Mhumhi said, pressing his muzzle against her warm cheek. “But no more climbing shelves.”
“I have to get rats for Tareq,” Maha protested. At that moment the trap, which had landed somewhere to their right, snapped loudly and spun itself in the air. Mhumhi jumped about a foot.
Maha sat up, giggling. Mhumhi put his ears back and used his shoulder to push her back over. She fell back laughing and squirming into the pile of papers.
Mhumhi looked at her for a moment, tongue hanging out in an unbidden smile. Then his eyes flicked to her stomach, her hairless skin exposed as her covering rode up, and his mouth closed. It reminded him of the glimpse he had seen of Lamya’s stomach, of the cord around it- of her words about hulkers, about dogs, about meat- of the strange, fanatical raving of the pale-eyed domestic.
Maha’s giggles slowed. “What’s the matter, Mhumhi?”
“Nothing,” he said, looking at her uncertainly, this deformed, hairless creature lying down in front of him.
Are you waiting for all of us to die, Maha?
“Mhumhi,” she said, reaching her hand out, and he went forward and let her scratch under his chin.
“Puppy,” he said. “Do you ever think about what it would be like if there were lots more hulkers?”
“Huh?” She rolled over on her side to look at him, rustling. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, if instead of lots of dogs and a few hulkers, there were a lot of hulkers and a few dogs.”
“But hulkers are dogs,” said Maha, blinking at him.
“Maha, do you know the word ‘human’?”
At once Maha made a face.
“Tareq’s mama taught me that word, and my first dog mama said it sometimes… But I don’t like it. Tareq’s mama tried to make me use it all the time.”
“Why do you think that is?” asked Mhumhi, and he crept down to lie beside her. She put one arm over his back, running her fingers through the thick fur around his neck.
“I dunno… She thought hulkers were better than other dogs, I s’pose. But I think every kind of dog sort of thinks that anyway, right?”
Mhumhi was rather surprised by the shrewdness of her insight. “I guess you’re right.”
“Tareq’s mama said that too,” Maha said, pulling her lips down and looking away from Mhumhi, so he could see the whiteness on one side of her eye. “Something like… there used to be a lot more hulkers. If that was true, maybe it would be nice… maybe the police’d stop killing and eating us, if there were a lot of us.”
“Maybe,” said Mhumhi, perhaps too darkly, for she turned back to look at him again.
“What’s the matter? You seem like you’ve been upset since you got back.”
“I’m only tired,” said Mhumhi. “And as soon as I get back, a silly puppy wanted to take me out to catch rats, and I haven’t seen a single one-”
“You said you heard them!” said Maha, kicking a flurry of papers at him, and he bounded out of the way and fell automatically into a play-bow.
Maha seemed to recognize the pose, for she pushed herself up with one foreleg, teeth bared in that impish hulker grin. Mhumhi went at her in a bound and knocked her back over, so she fell on her back, squirming and giggling again, pushing at his chin and chest as he mock-bit at her.
He found his play suddenly becoming more halfhearted, for it had made him think of Kebero, still missing. Maha seemed to sense his growing unhappiness and fell still against him.
“Mhumhi, look,” she said, rustling around a bit in the papers. “Look, there’s a picture of a dog here, see?”
She drew out a crumpled piece underneath her blunt claws. It was the same picture Mhumhi had seen the night before, or an identical copy: a smiling dog, blank-eyed, with strange dark scribbles all around it.
“Do you know what it says?” Maha asked, tracing a finger over the black lines.
“What it… says?”
“Tareq’s mama said that paper talks if you know how to understand it,” said Maha. “It’s these things around the picture. She was trying to teach me.”
“Paper talks, does it,” said Mhumhi, humoring her.
“I’m serious! It’s a silent language. You hear it in your head.” She saw the look he was giving her and gave him a shove. “Like I said, Tareq’s mama was teaching me, so I used to know when papers said ‘dog.’ Like this one- it’s got to say it on her somewhere…” She furrowed her brow and ran her finger side-to-side along the paper, hunting. Mhumhi found himself entirely bewildered.
“Puppy, I hate to say this, but I think some hulkers are just-”
“Here it is!” said Maha, stabbing her finger down. “When you look at that it says ‘dog!’”
Mhumhi couldn’t stop himself from looking, trying to focus on the blurry lines and hear the magical head-voice, but all he felt was slightly dizzy.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said.
“You don’t hear anything, you’ve got to- it’s like the lines are a picture like this one, even though they don’t look like it. You’ve just got to see a dog where there isn’t one.”
Mhumhi looked at Maha for a moment, her earnest wide eyes and all. He pawed at the pile of papers.
“I see a dog there.”
Maha looked at what his paw was on: a glossy picture of a hulker’s head.
“Of course that’s a dog,” she said, sounding exasperated. “But you’ve got to look at the word, Mhumhi, and see one, not a picture. If it’s a picture it’s not really talking to you.”
“I hope not,” said Mhumhi, leaning down to sniff gingerly at the hulker image. It really was lifelike, flattened as it was. “Why are the hulkers in the pictures always so pale?”
“I don’t know, I guess they got faded,” said Maha, putting her fingers over the face and wrinkling it slightly, so that it looked confused. “They’re all old. No one makes pictures anymore.”
Makes them, Mhumhi thought. So someone did make them. His thoughts veered uncomfortably back to his conversation with Lamya, and he shook himself.
“Let’s go back to Kutta and Tareq now. I don’t think we’ll catch any rats here, they’re too clever for us.”
Maha pushed her lips together and out. “If I find a ladder…”
“No more ladders,” Mhumhi said, very firmly. He went to the door, then paused. Maha was not following him.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh,” said Maha. She was looking down, rifling through the papers. “I thought maybe I could find a picture of a hyena, but there aren’t any.”
“A hyena?” asked Mhumhi, feeling sour at the word. “Well, good.”
“I wonder why,” said Maha. For a moment there was a tremor in her voice, then she looked up at him.
“What, what now?”
“Will I turn into a hyena?”
He put his ears back, especially at her expression, at the vague horror in the suggestion, and went back over to her and licked her cheeks and forehead.
“You won’t. Don’t be silly.”
“I had- I had a dream last night,” she said. “About the hyena hulker. Chasing me. Except that when I looked down my- my arms were getting all hairy- and every time I wanted to scream I laughed-”
“That’s just a dream,” Mhumhi said, moving his head so that hers was tucked between his neck and shoulder. “Hulkers don’t turn into hyenas. I mean, if they do, they’ve got to be a different sort, right? They’re not dogs.”
“Am I really a dog?”
“Of course you’re a dog,” said Mhumhi. “Well, you’re only a little puppy. But you’ll grow up into a nice big dog one day. If your arms ever start getting hairy, it’ll just be because you’ve been eating a lot of good meat.”
“In my dream,” said Maha, her voice muffled in his fur, “I wished I turned into a painted dog instead of a hyena. Then I could go out in the city and run with you.”
“That would be fun,” said Mhumhi, imagining it: himself and his little-sister puppy, playing in the sunshine and on the warm asphalt, without the ever-lingering stench of sewage.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Maha asked.
“No,” said Mhumhi, wagging his tail a little. “I’ll tell everyone- everyone I know about it.”
Maha tugged on his ear for that until he gently mouthed her hand.
“I’ll tell you my secret, but you can’t tell anyone,” she said, pulling her lips very far down.
“Fine,” said Mhumhi. “You’re very mean to me, you know.”
She ignored the statement. “You know when I said Tareq’s mama used to say there were lots of hulkers? A million million of them? I always wondered where they went. Where they were hiding.”
“Maha-” Mhumhi began, drawing away, his tail lowering.
“Shh! Let me finish! Tareq’s mama would they all ran away, or they all had a secret city, under this one, and they’d come back. But I think that’s dumb. We’ve been all around these sewers and there’s no secret anything. So I used to think- it was stupid, but we saw that hyena hulker, didn’t we?” She swallowed, her eyes flickering. “I used to think that all the hulkers turned into dogs. I mean, four-legged dogs.”
Mhumhi thought of the dispensary and the plastic-wrapped packages, emerging between rubber lips from the cold, darkened interior. Of the dangling hulker and the way his mind had thought: Meat.
“I don’t think that’s such a bad idea,” he said. “You might be right. It’s what makes the most sense, isn’t it?”
“Right?” said Maha, her white-sided eyes lighting up. “Else where’d they go? They didn’t go anywhere, right? They’re all just dogs!”
“Right,” said Mhumhi. “They’re all still here.” He felt the hulker’s heart beating inside of him again. “They never left.”
“Yeah,” said Maha, and her face split into a broad grin. “So I want to be a painted dog like you, Mhumhi, when I grow up. Then we can go outside, okay?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Mhumhi. Maha’s face fell.
“Well, to be honest, you’re a little smelly-”
“You’re so mean!” she said, but she was laughing too, and she got up and started to chase him. He bounded down the hallway in front of her, wagging his tail and glancing back. His heart was pounding.
He felt strangely divided still, his happiness and a new, aching sadness to add to the sickening things he had learned that day. And yet- and yet- He thought of Lamya, of the way she had spoken, the way she had bared her teeth at him. What had Biscuit said about her? That she had been trying to upset him. She certainly seemed to take pleasure in it. No, no, perhaps Lamya was a so-called human, but she was nothing like his dear Maha, who was a dog, a dog in every sense of the word.