Familiarity and comfort.
Mhumhi and Kutta had retreated out of the harsh sunlight back into the cool interior of the concrete building. Tareq went with them, one hand on Mhumhi’s back, very wide-eyed.
“Are there gonna be puppies?” he demanded.
“We don’t know,” said Kutta, and added for Mhumhi’s benefit, “She’s probably lying.”
“How much does it matter if she is?” replied Mhumhi, in a dull way. Kutta gave a grunt and scuffed her paw on the floor.
“I don’t know! It shouldn’t, should it?”
“If she is lying, what does she think we’ll do?” said Mhumhi. He laid himself down on the cold concrete with a thump.
“I don’t want to even bother trying to get into her head,” said Kutta. “We should treat it like she never said anything.”
“Will you like the puppies more than me?” asked Tareq.
Mhumhi swung around to look at him, startled by the question. He was scowling, his forehead wrinkled.
“Tareq,” said Kutta, almost sternly. “Those would not be our puppies. You are our puppy.”
Tareq screwed up his face and put two fingers in his mouth.
“Your big sister is right,” said Mhumhi. “What are you so worried about?”
Tareq said nothing, just squirmed a little, gnawing on his fingers.
“You think we’ll like them more because they look more like us than you do?”
“Mhumhi!” said Kutta, aghast, but Tareq gave a jerky nod.
Mhumhi pulled himself to his feet and walked over to him. “Come down here.”
Obediently Tareq squatted down, his fingers still in his mouth, so that he was eye level with Mhumhi. Mhumhi draped a paw over his shoulder and licked one of his ears so that he squirmed and pressed it against his shoulder.
He had formerly prepared a few words to reassure him with, but when he thought them over again they weren’t very convincing. So he merely kept bathing Tareq, grooming the lank, dirty hair that grew from the top of his head. Eventually Tareq put an arm over his shoulder and pushed against him in a lopsided embrace.
“Do you need some more water?” Mhumhi asked, eventually.
Tareq shook his head, keeping his face pressed in Mhumhi’s fur.
“He left the bottle outside,” said Kutta. She was sitting behind them, watching quietly.
“We’ll get it later,” said Mhumhi. He gently pulled himself out of Tareq’s grip. “Go and eat something. Sekayi will be back soon.”
“Okay,” said Tareq, looking much brighter, and used a nearby chair to lever himself back up to his feet. He wandered off in the direction of the small refrigerator.
Mhumhi watched him go, his tail waving slowly, and jumped when Kutta’s voice came in his ear.
“You have become a gigantic pushover.”
He lowered his head and let out a little huff through his nose, but didn’t argue with her. She had crept up alongside him, and now she nipped him teasingly on the ear.
“You’ve gotten much more mature, though, so I can’t complain.”
“I’ve always been mature,” said Mhumhi, without much enthusiasm. “What will we do if Hlolwa has her puppies…?”
“That’s at least some months off, or she’d be showing more,” Kutta said. “I would hope that we’d reach a solution before then… one way or another.”
Her last words were faintly ominous. Mhumhi swallowed.
“If we kill them…”
“To be honest, I’ve been hoping Vimbo would come in the night and do it for us,” said Kutta.
The nearly casual way she said this made Mhumhi step sideways away from her.
“I don’t think he’d do that! They’re injured and tied up…”
“That would make it easier,” said Kutta. Her tone had run cold, but then it cracked a little. “Mhumhi, we can’t let them go. If they find their way back to the city, they’ll bring the entire police force back here. They’ll kill us all, and all those screamers… There won’t be anything left in this place!”
Mhumhi had to shudder; the possibility had not escaped him. “But they don’t know how to get to the city from here, do they?”
“All they have to do is go along the coastline, or the rest of the way down that tunnel,” said Kutta. “We can’t take that risk. We just can’t. All this time we’ve spent trying to make it safe for Tareq to live somewhere- and look, haven’t you ever thought that getting rid of her would be a good thing?”
“In what way?” said Mhumhi. He felt strangely weary.
“Well, it was like Henli said… it would throw the police all out of order. That can’t be a bad thing. You know how they view other kinds of dogs.”
“However they view them,” said Mhumhi, “the police are probably the only ones keeping all the dogs in the city from tearing each other apart. You know this. What would going to the dispensary be like without them?”
Kutta shifted her weight and looked down at the floor.
“I just don’t know what else we can do, Mhumhi.”
Mhumhi said nothing, because he had no better idea to offer either.
“It’s empty,” called Tareq. He was in the far corner of the room, staring at the white interior of the fridge. “Where’s the meat?”
Mhumhi walked over to him, glad for the distraction. His back leg was starting to twinge a little.
“We must have eaten it all,” he said. “When Sekayi comes back, he’ll bring you some more.”
“When is he coming back?” asked Tareq.
“I’m not sure,” said Mhumhi. “Maybe later in the afternoon. Let’s be patient.”
“I’m thirsty,” complained Tareq. His thumb had found its way back into his mouth.
“I’ll go get your water bottle,” said Kutta, rising to her feet.
“No, I’ll go,” said Mhumhi, quickly. He bore a strange urge to get back into the sunlight again.
Kutta didn’t argue with him, though her tail twitched, and he went back to the doorway, blinking in the light. The bottle was lying on its side where Tareq had dropped it, a few feet in front of Hlolwa’s nose. Mhumhi licked his lips. At least she looked like she was sleeping now. Kulwe was panting on his cushion beside her, his jaws slack and his eyelids fluttering.
Mhumhi took a step forward, and then his nose twitched.
“Oh!” came a little yap, from behind a small trash pile. Hlolwa’s eyes open, and Kulwe’s throat worked convulsively. Mhumhi curled his tail between his legs and stepped around to see Mini lying on top of Sekayi’s bag.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Oh, that’s nice,” said Mini, yawning, her pink tongue curling.
“You know what I mean,” said Mhumhi. “Where’s Sekayi?” It didn’t seem normal for the bouda to just leave her like this, stranded.
“We were almost back when he said he’d forgot something,” said Mini. “I could smell you lot nearby, so I told him he could just set me down with the eggs. Course, it took you ages to come back out.”
Mhumhi sniffed at the bag; it did indeed smell like eggs, and he could feel their lumpy hardness underneath the cloth. “Why didn’t you just bark for us?”
“Well, it’s hard to bark with those ones making eyes at you,” muttered Mini.
“I’ve never known you to have a hard time barking in any circumstance,” said Mhumhi.
“Well, I thought you’d pop back out, seeing as no one was watching those two,” said Mini, and sneezed with aggravation. “And Sekayi is taking his time, too! Hmph! Should’ve gone with him.”
“Well, bark for Kutta and Tareq,” said Mhumhi. “I’m going to go find Sekayi.”
“What? Why, what’s your hurry?”
Mhumhi was already stepping away and up the hill, and at Mini’s words he paused and glanced back.
“I don’t know how safe it is for him to be wandering around alone. Someone should be with him…”
Mini’s button eyes widened. “Oh! Yes! There might be more painted dogs! Hurry up and find him, Mhumhi!”
In truth Mhumhi’s concern had been more fixated on a certain hyena- which was why he had felt Sekayi was safer with Mini present than without- but she was right about that, too, even as increasingly unlikely as it seemed. He gave a wag of acknowledgement and left her yapping furiously behind him. He caught a flash of Hlolwa’s irritated gaze as he leapt out of the valley and felt a certain sense of satisfaction.
He picked up Sekayi’s scent, faint as it was, and traced it back towards the concrete tunnel, where it ran lengthwise against the edge of the dump. That was slightly odd- he wondered what it was, really, that Sekayi could have forgotten. As he approached the tall concrete wall he noticed something else odd: a little door, separate from the entrance to the train station. It was slightly ajar.
He could smell that Sekayi had gone through it- he’d been sweating quite a bit. Mhumhi nosed a dollop of it thoughtfully where it had landed on a crumpled bit of newspaper. Then he pawed the door open a little wider, scraping it against the unwilling trash, and slipped through.
The coolness of the concrete was a relief, and his nose opened up a bit from the sudden lack of smells. The room beyond was not large, apparently enclosed away from the train station and tunnels, and well-lit with florescent lights. A rack of dangling silver hooks ran along the ceiling, dipping low in the center, and Mhumhi shivered, gazing upwards. It looked to be part of the same conveyor belt that would have carried meat all the way from the safe place.
That put him uneasily in mind of what Hlolwa had told him, of hulkers carrying the bodies of dead jackals down into the darkness, and it made him wonder if that line would soon jerk and shudder to a start, or if it already had- no. He swallowed and pawed at an ear, trying to clear his mind.
Sekayi was at the other end of the room, in a corner. He had not appeared to notice Mhumhi coming in. He was laying some objects out, onto a metal table, chewing a thumbnail. Mhumhi could smell his sweat, and- His nostrils flared. The whole set of tunnels smelled faintly of blood and meat, of course, a stench that would surely never go away, but it seemed far more omnipresent in this room.
Behind Sekayi was sort of a cloth screen, and in front of him was a strange sort of metal clamp apparatus. It was very tall. Sekayi pulled the clamp part down low, almost touching the floor.
He stopped and rubbed his hands together for a moment. Mhumhi stared. He was not wholly sure why he had not called out yet, but the bouda’s whole odd manner was setting him on edge.
Sekayi opened a small door that Mhumhi had not noticed before, and whistled, the sound cutting clear and sharp through the heavy air. Mhumhi flattened his ears. There was movement beyond the door, and cool air flowed through- it must have led into the main tunnel.
“Come here,” Sekayi called. He put his hand into his pocket and drew something out- a speckled egg.
There came the slap of hulker footsteps and a screamer poked its head through the door, a male, reaching for the egg with an eager little hoot. Sekayi drew his hand back and closed the door quickly- Mhumhi could hear more movement beyond it.
The screamer took the egg from Sekayi’s unresisting hand and put it in his mouth, shell and all, crunching with apparent bliss. Sekayi reached up and stroked his hair for a moment, then put an arm around his shoulders and gently eased him downwards.
The screamer went down on his knees quite pliantly, one hand on his mouth to keep the egg inside, the other bracing himself on the floor. Sekayi took a shuddering breath and picked something up from the table.
Mhumhi watched, unmoving, transfixed.
Sekayi was patting the screamer’s head again, scratching his scalp. The screamer looked up at him briefly, smiled, then went back to picking eggshell off of his lips. Sekayi turned to the side a little so that Mhumhi could see what was in his hand. A heavy-looking metal rod. He scratched the screamer’s hair again, then gripped it firmly. He raised the rod with his other hand.
Mhumhi could not help it; he flinched and shut his eyes. There came a loud thock.
When he opened his eyes again the screamer had crumpled to the ground, and a moment later the metal rod slipped out of Sekayi’s hand with a loud clatter.
There seemed to be a silent moment, as Sekayi opened and closed his dark eyes, then he suddenly seemed to spark with frenetic energy. Mhumhi was startled by it. He grabbed the screamer’s feet and swung him around, dragging him against the floor, mindless of how his face scraped along, and put them in the clamp. Then he raised it, so that the screamer was suddenly hanging by his feet. His body was limp, swaying. Sekayi took a flat, thin piece of metal from the table and drew it across the screamer’s throat. A startling amount of blood gushed forth, even as Sekayi jumped back. Mhumhi saw it swirling sluggishly around a drain set in the concrete floor.
Sekayi wiped his forehead with his arm, still holding the metal in one hand, so that blood dripped from the tip in front of his face.
Mhumhi realized, in a slow and feeble way, exactly what he was witnessing, especially when Sekayi continued to cut away at the hanging corpse, removing the feet and hands, the head, opening the body cavity. He had gathered, implicitly, where the meat in the refrigerator came from. But he had not meditated on the horror of the reality, of the sight of the bouda carving away at the body that looked just like him.
It was disturbing, the carving. That Mhumhi registered as he watched, especially comparing it- inevitably- to the way that the police had slaughtered the hulker in the long grass. It was not so much that the precise cuts Sekayi was making with his bit of metal were so very different from the way the painted dogs had torn the hulker apart with their teeth. It was the opposite. He recalled his frightful vision, so long ago, of a hulker hunching over the corpse of a dog, tearing through the stomach with her teeth. Well, here was Sekayi, doing it in the hulker way, cut after methodical cut, pulling out armfuls of stinking viscera that slopped messily on the floor.
Without head, hands, feet, or skin, it was remarkable how comfortable Mhumhi suddenly got with the screamer again. It was now merely meat.
“Sekayi,” he called, finally.
Sekayi twitched and turned around. He was wide-eyed, so much so that Mhumhi could actually see the very edges of his white sclerae.
“It’s all right,” said Mhumhi, feeling a twitch of nostalgia for their first meeting. “I was just wondering how much longer you think you’ll need.”
Sekayi was quiet for a moment, and a tumult of emotions suddenly passed across his leathery face.
“Not long,” he said, and then turned back around, his shoulders set, and applied his knife to the corpse again. Mhumhi heard his breath hitch, and he lapsed into a sob.
Mhumhi was caught off-guard by this, and took a hesitant step forwards. He could hear Sekayi continuing to cry, through his arm stayed steady as he made his cuts. He pulled out one lung with a snapping sound and dropped it on the ground. Then the other, then the heart.
Mhumhi went up closer, until his claws nearly touched the pool of blood Sekayi as standing in. He bent down to sniff it for a moment.
“Eat anything you like,” said Sekayi. His voice rasped. “It’s good not to waste it. The things on the ground, I mean. So much goes bad before I can eat it… I’m glad to share.”
Mhumhi looked up to see him standing there, the thin metal dangling from one bloodied hand, tears staining his cheeks.
“I didn’t want you to see this,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
Mhumhi felt the words he’d left unsaid: because it obviously doesn’t bother you. He felt like squirming.
“You didn’t let it suffer,” he pointed out.
“No,” said Sekayi, in a kind of a gasp. “No- I hope not- I pray not. I tell myself, they are starving in there. Look how skinny this one is. They are starving to death because they have eaten all the food. What am I to do?”
He laid the metal on the table, wiped his eyes with his arm, smearing blood on his cheeks and forehead in the process.
“I’m a real monster,” he said. “A hyena. I’m surprised these eyes can cry.”
“Sekayi,” said Mhumhi. He had tucked his tail, looking across the pool of blood at the bouda. “You have to… you have to eat. They are not hulker- human.”
“They were once,” whispered Sekayi. He was staring somewhere over top of Mhumhi’s head. “I could have died. I could have died instead.”
“If you had died,” said Mhumhi, “I would be dead too. Mini, Kutta, Tareq- all dead.”
Sekayi flicked his eyes downwards, and after a moment a watery smile appeared on his face.
“It will take a little more time,” he said. “I need to hang this, and cut up the other.”
In response, Sekayi drew away the cloth screen. Mhumhi was startled to see a flayed screamer corpse, identical to the one Sekayi had just prepared, hanging in two halves from hooks in the ceiling.
“It is better if it ages,” explained Sekayi. “Before you freeze it, or anything. It tastes better.”
Mhumhi did not argue, merely sat and watched as Sekayi took the older meat down, hung the newer meat up, made the old corpse into smaller and smaller pieces. He knelt and scooped most of the viscera into a large bucket and put it outside the door.
“What happens to that?” asked Mhumhi, as Sekayi shut the door again.
“They are starving,” said Sekayi, and gave a small smile.
Mhumhi said nothing more, and Sekayi turned on a hose and washed the floor and then himself, drenching his clothing and his bloodied torso. The red concrete swirled and spun clear again.
Sekayi, dripping, shut off the hose, pushed the meat hanging on the hooks back behind the screen, and loaded the cut-up pieces into another bucket. Mhumhi thought on how practiced all the motions seemed.
“I’ll get the rest later,” said Sekayi. His dense hair was already springing free from where it had plastered against the sides of his head, and water droplets were winking from between the tight curls and sodden frizz. “Will you walk back with me?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, a little taken aback by the question, but then again Sekayi still seemed terribly shaken. He passed by Mhumhi, clutching the handle of the heavy bucket in both hands, and went to the door, fumbling for the light switch. Mhumhi followed him out, and they left the slaughter room in darkness.
Sekayi still smelled of blood, but it was less prominent in the sudden, overpowering stench of the garbage dump. They both squinted, more from the wave of heat than the brightness. Sekayi’s shoulders already looked nearly dry.
“It’s strange,” said Sekayi, gazing upwards. “I’ve done this terrible thing so many times, but the world hasn’t changed at all.”
Mhumhi gave a soft whuff of laughter, in spite of himself. “I know what you mean.”
Sekayi glanced down at him, with a little smile, and then set the bucket on the ground.
“May I pat your head?”
Mhumhi considered this for a moment, and more out of appreciation for being asked than anything else said, “All right.”
Sekayi reached down and stroked him between the ears. Mhumhi closed his eyes.
“The hulkers that used to be here,” Sekayi murmured, “when they left… I wanted to stay behind. They wanted me to stay behind, too, but they did not say it. I was the only bouda. I thought alone was better. For a while.”
“I’ve never been alone in my entire life,” said Mhumhi, opening his eyes. “What is it like?”
“Quiet,” said Sekayi, and then he shook his head. “But loud. I shouted, I talked to the air. I talked to the screamers. Thank goodness for them- they kept me from going mad. I would hold on to them, pretend they were human. I thought about sleeping with the females- but that would be vile, wrong.”
“Sleeping with them?” asked Mhumhi, tilting his head.
Sekayi shook his. “I did not. I told myself I would retain humanity. I don’t know what that means. I got hungry and I killed them anyways.”
“They don’t suffer,” said Mhumhi, his head dipping away from Sekayi’s touch.
“The first ones did,” said Sekayi. He went very quiet. Mhumhi looked up and saw that he was weeping again. He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes.
“It’s the hyena in me,” he said. “A human would have died, starved. The hyena made me eat.”
“Then the hyena loves you,” said Mhumhi. “And I thank it, because it saved my life, too.”
“The human did that,” muttered Sekayi, from behind his hands.
“How do you tell the difference?”
Sekayi put his hands down and laughed. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either,” said Mhumhi, but quietly. He licked Sekayi’s hand.
Sekayi reached out and scratched him behind the ear, then said, “Should we go back?”
“Yes, Tareq is hungry,” said Mhumhi. That brought a spark of light back to Sekayi’s eyes.
“He is always hungry. That’s good; it means he’s growing.”
“I hope he grows fast,” said Mhumhi, and Sekayi’s smile faded a bit.
“I hope his family lives long.”
Mhumhi made no response, and rose from his haunches to follow alongside Sekayi as he hiked back in the direction of their little camp. A thought had come unbidden to him, a thought about Tareq’s lifespan, and Hlolwa’s puppies.