Tareq slept fitfully that night, drifting in and out of semiconsciousness while Mhumhi curled close beside him. His swollen leg felt hot, and it jumped every time Mhumhi brushed it.
As dawn approached, Mhumhi got up to stand guard against what would doubtless be another tide of screamers. Tareq made a distressed sound and reached for him.
“I’ll be just outside,” Mhumhi promised him. “I’ll come back.”
He was not sure whether Tareq understood, or even if he knew that he had reached out in the first place. His eyes were half-lidded, his fingers curling weakly at the air.
Mhumhi stepped out of the alcove. The sky was gray, with just a few wisps of cloud. The sun was only a vague brightness far off under the horizon.
To his surprise, there was a bit of mist in the air. His breath puffed out of his jaws like steam, curling in front of him.
The rainy season was really coming. It had been so dry and hot for so long that Mhumhi had almost forgotten that there was a time of wet.
In the city, the seasons had rarely affected him; meat and water came all the same. But now he felt sort of excited, because if it was going to start raining frequently, it meant that he wouldn’t have to walk so far to slake his thirst.
Then again, more wet meant a higher chance of getting sick or infected. He cast an unwitting glance back towards the alcove.
A low rustle made him turn his attention back towards the den, and to his alarm he saw a thick shape hunching in the mist, shuffling forwards.
The fur on Mhumhi’s back rose, and he gave a trembling growl. The figure moved, upsetting the mist. It was a female screamer, crouching on her hands and knees, turning her head this way and that as though she were listening for something. When their eyes met she smiled.
Mhumhi was not comforted. He stepped towards her, stiff-legged, and angled his body between her and the den entrance. The screamer crawled backwards, her heavy teats slapping against her chest, reading his body language if nothing else.
Mhumhi’s ear turned- Hlolwa had twittered within the den.
“Just a screamer,” he called down, “just one.”
“Where there’s one, there will be more,” came her voice. “You shouldn’t have let it get so close.”
Mhumhi turned his ears back at this, annoyed, mostly because she was right. But was he not supposed to sleep?
He twittered at the screamer, snapping at it, and it backed up a bit more, still smiling, but in a confused way. Finally, as he advanced, it got up and started walking, though slowly, turning back frequently to extend a hand, as if perhaps they were playing a game.
Unfortunately for her, the charm of screamers had worn a bit thin for Mhumhi, and his temper was not helped by the howls of coyotes and jackals he was beginning to hear off in the distance. He kept her moving.
They came to the edge of the tires, and finally the screamer sped up a little, making low hooting noises, peering out into the mist. Mhumhi saw what she did- a brownish mass of forms, all clustered low and together. As they got closer he saw it was more screamers. They were all crouched, as the female had been, with their heads low, surrounding something. He heard wet sounds.
The female gave a louder hoot, and pushed towards them, scattering them, and stared at what was on the ground.
Mhumhi came up beside her and saw what it was, and gazed downwards as well.
What it was- or what was left, rather- was something small, with ribs exposed and belly missing, large head a bloody lump, and just one small, curled-up hand.
Mhumhi felt a thickness in his gut, though he was not as shocked as he once would have been. The female screamer, with her heavy teats, seemed confused, rocking a little as she gazed down at it. Then she turned away and walked on, hooting, tilting her head, searching.
The other screamers clustered forward again, mouths stained red. Mhumhi stood back and swallowed. He was not sure which was worse- letting the screamers keep eating the baby, or if he drove them off and took the meat for himself.
He looked over at the searching mother. She did not seem to recognize her infant like this. Perhaps it was better. Perhaps it was not.
By the time the sun had risen and burned away the mist, Mhumhi was in a very low mood. Even the fact that few screamers had come begging did not help. As the tires around him began to get warm, giving off their particular rubbery scent, he went back to the alcove.
Tareq was awake, and when he saw Mhumhi he gave a little cry. Mhumhi forced himself to wag his tail and went to him, giving him a nuzzle.
“How do you feel?”
Tareq didn’t say anything, just reached out weakly from where he was curled on his side. Mhumhi raised a paw and put it in his palm.
“You’re not in that hole anymore,” he said. “It’s all right, Tareq. You’re going to get better.”
“My leg hurts,” said Tareq.
“Ah- well, we can help that,” said Mhumhi, recalling what Hlolwa had explained to him the day before. “Give me a moment.”
He went outside and returned a few minutes later with a broken metal strut and a wooden chair leg.
“What’s that?” asked Tareq, eyeing the items from his prone position.
“It’s to help keep your leg straight,” said Mhumhi.
“Well, we’ve got to tie it-” Mhumhi began, then he pulled his lips back and went back outside. He returned again with a pair of dirty yellow socks in his mouth.
“We have to tie them to your leg,” he explained, after he had set the socks down. “You’ll have to help me.”
A mixture of emotions crossed Tareq’s face- confusion, pain, and sulkiness- but there was a bit of genuine interest there.
It took them quite a while to get his leg arranged. Mhumhi had to keep a firm grip on his patience, for Tareq stopped to whimper and pull away countless times. He reminded himself of how painful it must have been. Still, when they finally got the foot lined up correctly between the two items, secured with the dirty socks, his temper was fraying. The sun was getting high.
“You’re all fixed up now,” he said. “Don’t move that leg at all, do you hear? I’m going to get us some meat.”
At this Tareq turned his head to one side and scowled.
“Tareq! You must eat, and you will eat, even if I have to force you!”
Tareq made an inarticulate noise, though his emotion came through clearly. He turned his head back and glared at Mhumhi.
“Where are my puppies?”
“The bad dog is here, right? And she’s got the puppies? Where are they?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, catching on. “They’re still too little to come outside.”
“You said that a long time ago,” said Tareq. “I want to see them!”
“Maybe I can bring one out for you to see later,” said Mhumhi, though he suspected the odds of him getting permission to do that were slim to none.
“I want them now,” scowled Tareq. “They’re my puppies.”
Mhumhi found himself squirming a little.
“You said they were mine,” said Tareq, a bit of accusation entering his tone.
“Well, they’re too young,” Mhumhi snapped. “They can’t come out. And if you ever want to see them, you’d better listen to me and not talk back.”
Tareq flung himself against the wall of tires and said, “Go away!”
Mhumhi did, though he had a sinking suspicion that this wouldn’t be the last he heard of it. And Tareq was right. It was all his fault.
Right now, he had no desire to take Hlolwa’s puppies away from her, none at all. And he suspected she knew that, too.
He growled and scratched at the earth with his forepaw. But then, perhaps he didn’t need them anymore! After all… after all, he was going to carry out his stupid and selfish plan. And Tareq’s future wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Or at least not his problem.
He stalked back over to the den, feeling rather tormented, and called down, “I’m going to get some meat.”
Hlolwa did not reply. Mhumhi stalked back away and out over the trash, his paws slipping on the last traces of morning dew. His tail was tucked up under his belly.
He wandered for a time, nose to the ground, though his sniffing was halfhearted. He had not been lying to Hlolwa- he was intending to get something to eat, something he could take enough back to feed both her and Tareq with. He was just making a little side trip first.
He came to the pit where Tareq had lain captive and sniffed around the perimeter. The area was saturated with his scent, but he could also catch some of Vimbo’s, from the glands in his paws. And there were spots of dried blood, too, which puzzled Mhumhi until he realized that it must have been dripping off meat Vimbo had carried to Tareq. Hyenas couldn’t regurgitate.
Mhumhi traced the scent and the blood outwards, keeping his nose to the ground, more focused now that he had a trail to follow. A slight tremor passed through him when he came across a jackal urine-mark, but it was old, by several days at least. They must not have found this part of the dump worth reinvestigating.
Vimbo’s trail led him back to the seashore. Mhumhi only really noticed this when water suddenly rushed over his paws. He jumped back and looked up.
The white bird where wheeling, calling, over the gentle waves. The sea stretched out, a flat and endless expanse; broken only by floating pieces of trash. It glittered in the morning sunlight, flicking spots of light at him.
It occurred to Mhumhi, as he walked slowly along the trash-strewn sand, that the sea was something he knew very little about. He supposed it had to have been made by hulkers, like most everything else was, but that must have been quite an effort. And why? What purpose did a vast lake of salt water serve?
The birds fluttered above him as the wind picked up. He raised his muzzle and tracked their movements.
Mhumhi walked further down the sand, following the birds, the wind blowing his tail sideways, and came around a jutting pile of trash.
Here the birds were swooping low, a certain greediness to their cries. Mhumhi found what he expected: the hairy gray form of a hyena, squatting and gnawing on a bone.
Gnawing wasn’t really the right word- Vimbo was crunching down the length of it, as if it were no tougher than one of Lamya’s crackers.
It was like a gentle reminder of how badly things would go if Vimbo decided he wasn’t their ally anymore. Mhumhi let out a slow breath and wrinkled his nose. He had to trust him.
He gave a chattering greeting and stepped through the surf, tail wagging. Vimbo raised his head and dropped his bone, tonguing yellowish splinters out of his mouth.
They met each other politely, Mhumhi lifting a leg for Vimbo to sniff under, and Vimbo submitting to a great deal of licking. Then Mhumhi surveyed the place that Vimbo had made for himself.
For it was definitely a place- there were a number of old blankets and other soft things piled up, like a nest, and a great number of bones scattered all around. Mhumhi saw several hulker skulls, and the bones of their impossibly long hind legs.
There was a dog skull, too.
Mhumhi was startled by the sight of it. It looked much older than the others- they were not quite picked clean, and had little bits of blackened flesh clinging to them, but this one was pristine. The jawbone was underneath it, crooked, so that the skull had a sideways, motley grin.
Mhumhi felt a tightness in his chest. What dog did this skull come from? Had Vimbo killed one of the coyotes or jackals…? No, Mhumhi had not seen many skulls, but he did think that this one was much too large to belong to one of them. It almost could have belonged to he himself.
He did not put it all together until he saw the other dog skull. This one was tiny- it could have come from a puppy. And it did look round and childish, like a puppy’s, but almost too much so. The dome of the skull ballooned upwards over the squashed-looking jaws.
This skull looked clean, too, but not as clean as the other dog skull.
Mhumhi stepped forwards, aware of Vimbo watching him. The little skull seemed almost as though it had been set apart from the others, given a special place. A puppy’s skull…
“Mini,” he said, out loud.
Vimbo gave a little grunt.
Mhumhi stared into the skull’s eye sockets- Mini’s eye sockets. Forever empty now.
He wondered why he did not feel sadder. Perhaps it was just seeing the bone this way, clean and bearing her no resemblance, like just another hulker item tossed into the dump. Well, she was another hulker item, really.
He looked at the other skull, the large one. This must have belonged to Kulwe. But why did Vimbo have them…?
He was able to answer this question for himself as well when he turned around. The jutting pile of trash he had stepped around touched the lapping waves, and floating items were caught up against it. The bodies must have drifted here, too. And Vimbo had found them.
So, he did not have to tell Vimbo that Mini was dead.
He looked at Mini’s vacant, toothy skull again. She seemed to be laughing at him, even through death.
“Will you recover from this, Mini?” he asked the skull.
The skull said nothing. Now Mhumhi did feel a bit sick, and swallowed. It was so clean. Who had picked at it- the gulls, or the hyena?
Nobody’s corpse had walked away, that was clear.
The bones shifted- Vimbo was pawing through them, his ears focused downwards. He came up with a piece of meat in his jaws, and came and dropped it in front of Mhumhi.
The meat looked old, but Mhumhi still felt touched. He sniffed it cautiously, though.
It smelled like ordinary hulker meat. Mhumhi swallowed it in one bite.
Vimbo blinked, and then pawed the bones again. They fell away. Underneath them was a screamer corpse, mostly eaten, blending in well with the rest. The gulls circled hungrily lower.
Vimbo raised his head and snapped up at them.
They finished off the rest together, Vimbo occasionally giving a soft growl as he bit through the bones. Mhumhi could do it, too, but he couldn’t make it look quite so effortless and dangerous.
When they had had it down to the last scraps they moved away, licking their chops. Mhumhi, though his stomach felt better, was dissatisfied. That much meat would not be enough to feed Hlolwa and Tareq, not to mention him. He’d have to kill again. And on a half-full stomach.
He supposed, with a wryness, that he ought to kill one of the screamer children. It would be a waste of less meat, and what difference did it make whether he killed an adult or a child? Or a baby?
He was taken from these cynical thoughts by the yap-howl of a jackal. It sounded very close.
Vimbo’s head came up and he giggled.
“I hear it,” said Mhumhi. He went over to the jutting pile of trash to get a higher vantage point. Vimbo followed, trash scraping and sliding away under his heavier paws.
Mhumhi scanned the area and spotted five gray shapes approaching them rapidly. The one in the front had a tail sticking straight up. He recognized her- it was Telipa.
Mhumhi felt a bit nervous, and a bit angry; this was sure to be an interesting encounter.
He stayed up on top of the high pile, with Vimbo at his side, so when the coyote and the jackals finally arrived they were forced to stare up at them.
Telipa’s golden eyes got sharp, and she gave them an authoritative yap.
“Come down from there!”
“Why?” asked Mhumhi, and he sat down, trying to look nonchalant. “Do you want something?”
“This is our space!” said one of the jackals. “You and that- that thing need to leave!”
Vimbo giggled again, and all of them started. Mhumhi stifled a laugh.
“This is his space, actually,” he told them. “So you’d better talk to him about it. I’m just a visitor.”
Telipa flashed her teeth at him. He wondered when she’d gotten so aggressive.
“I have a message for you,” she said.
This made him drop his guard momentarily, and his eyes went wide and his tail quivered a little.
“From the red dog,” she said. “She wants to meet with you, and speak with you.”
Mhumhi’s eyes thinned at once.
“She wants to meet with me? Why?”
“She expected you earlier,” said Telipa, raising her pointed muzzle. “She didn’t expect to have to send someone looking.”
“Is she a puppy?” snapped Mhumhi. “Why doesn’t she come find me herself?”
“Are you stupid? You’re the one that betrayed her,” said Telipa.
“I tried to see her! Your pack wouldn’t let me!”
“You tried once, and not very hard.”
“She is a puppy!” Mhumhi snorted incredulously. “If she’s acting like this, I won’t meet with her. Tell her to find me, if she wants to bother. Tell her I’ve got-” He stopped. “Tell her if she still considers herself my sister, she will stop being stupid and come see me.”
Telipa’s whiskered lips drew back.
“Then you won’t see her again,” she said.