by Michael Kingswood
The wolves were howling on Cornell Street, again. But this time it wasn’t a false alarm.
That fact was not immediately apparent to Humbert, though. When the ululating howl that started with a single voice but quickly got picked up by, apparently, an entire pack roused him from sleep, his first thought after pushing himself up onto his haunches from where he had been lying in his cozy little den was to hiss and bare his hunter’s teeth at the effrontery of the damn canines.
Twice this month they’d raised a ruckus. And twice it had turned out to be nothing but a member of the pack who managed to get loose.
Stupid creature couldn’t even think enough to keep quiet until it had fully made its getaway. No, it had to start yipping and yowling, and it was quickly caught and penned again.
But this time, the sound was different, and Humbert’s initial chagrin faded to curiosity as he fully took in the rising canine chorus, and then he felt the first stirrings of alarm.
Pushing himself up onto all fours, he ignored the soft swishes of Matilda’s form as she, more slowly, came to consciousness behind him. He left their comfy bed of furs behind and padded over toward the entrance to their little den. His claws dug into the soft loam of their floor as he went, his night eyes easily picking out the trio of low lounging cushions spread out to the left, the imprints of his and Matilda’s previous relaxations still visible, so often had they been used.
The den entrance was closed off by a hanging cut of fur from a deer he’d taken on a hunting trip with three other guys from work. Not often a clerk like him actually got to dip his claws into live flesh, so he had felt good about actually taking a prize. And he always felt a surge of pride when he saw it, hung up for all the town to see.
But now as he approached the doorway, an acrid and unwelcome—but from the howling of the wolves unfortunately not unexpected—scent reached his nostrils, and he hissed again, his ears coming erect and the hair on his back standing straight up.
Nudging the hanging fur aside with his snort, he looked out, and the yellow-orange flickering from off to the left confirmed what he already feared.
“Matilda!” he said, loudly, and he heard her shedding their furs and moving up behind him.
“What is – ” she stopped as she smelled the wood smoke, and the silence carried her sudden fear more strongly than words could have.
Humbert envisioned her belly, already grown large from the young ones within it. She was not a cripple, but she could not move nearly as quickly or with the dexterity that she once had. And she was still a week or more from birthing.
On the other side of the street, Humbert’s neighbors were also pointing snouts out past their doorways, one and all turning toward the growing conflagration.
The town was nestled in a wooded hollow, the dens nestled between and within the tree trunks, or up in limbs where some of the more dextrous and height-loving of the town’s citizens had created their homes. The street was packed earth, solid enough to allow good footing but loose enough that it was still comfortable to walk.
But now the flames were rising up on the trunks of trees just a few hundred running strides away, and to Humbert’s eyes the distance between the limbs of one tree and the next was not nearly enough to stop the spread, if the fire brigades failed to contain it.
As if on cue, a mighty engine charged down the street. Several of the neighbors off to Humbert’s right squealed and vaulted away from the huge red hunk of metal. The wolves’ howls grew louder as the duo of canines, locked in a cage at the front of the engine, bellowed up at an image of the moon cast onto a platform above them from a light held by one of the human chattel.
Others of the man-apes were pumping their legs behind the warning howlers on circular contraptions that worked in unison to turn the great wheels that propelled the thing down the street. Behind them, the engine’s captain crouched on his platform, eyes narrowed to slits and fur slicked back from the wind as he watched his bearers, paw at the ready to touch the zapper that would render punishment to any of the man-apes who dared not pump its legs fast enough.
Behind him came the water drum, huge and red painted, and festooned with pumps and hoses, with more of the chattel waiting in a cage at the back under the careful eyes of their squad overseers.
The engine was massive, dwarfing all of the dens on Cornell street, and as it zoomed past Humbert’s spirits rose.
All around, on neighboring streets, he heard other warning howlers draw near as they howled their engines forward.
With that much ape-power and water arriving on the scene, surely the fire would be extinguished quickly.
As Humbert looked back to the left, the flames leapt from one tree to the next, and an entire limb fell, landing directly across the street ahead of the engine. He cringed as he saw people pinned beneath the branch, the lucky ones dying beneath its weight.
But the unlucky ones screamed as the embers caught their fur ablaze.
The engine skidded to a halt, barely avoiding collision with the still-burning branch, and the squad overseers began chivvying their man-apes about their duties. The hulking brutes moved quickly, but even to Humbert’s untrained eye, he could tell his initial optimism was misplaced.
There was no way that engine could contain the blaze down his block. No way at all.
And if that was the case on Cornell Street…
He turned to the right, where Matilda’s usually lithe brown and black form, now beautifully bulging, stood next to him. Her eyes were narrowed, their nearly-black irises contracting at the brightness of the flames.
“We have to leave,” he said.
Matilda’s eyes met his, and she nodded. She was no fool.
Humbert stepped out into the street, and cringed slightly; even from this distance the heat from the blaze was noticeable. And getting more intense by the second.
He found himself transfixed by the deadly beauty of the event, and for a moment could not look away from the scene.
The man-apes were working hard. Some of them manned the pump handles on the sides of the water tank. Some rolled hoses out and used them to direct water at the growing inferno. Surely they must have wanted to flee; to save themselves. But none did.
No doubt their squad overseers saw to that.
All the same, the gallantry of their effort, obviously futile as it was doomed to be, touched something in Humbert for a moment.
Then Matilda slid past, her flank rubbing against his, and he looked away from the chattel toward his love as she swayed past him. Asian females had always does it for him, especially Thai females. And Matilda was the most beautiful Thai female he had ever known, or heard of. Even with the bulge in her belly—especially with it—she was a sight to see, and if this wasn’t a life or death situation…
He licked his lips and gave himself a shake.
Head in the game, buddy.
He spared a glance over his shoulder at the deer fur hanging limply in his doorway, and a moment of regret tugged at him. That fur would go up with the rest of the neighborhood. His prized keepsake.
But his man-ape housekeeper wasn’t scheduled until Wednesday, and anyway he could always get another pelt. His most important treasure—his Matilda—was already several running paces ahead of him, bounding as best her heavy-with-children body could do away from the inferno.
It was past time to go.
Humbert hurried after her, quickly catching up as the growing throng of fleeing neighbors made running, or doing anything more than a fast walk, impossible.
* * * * *
They weren’t going to make it.
The press of people fleeing the blaze had only gotten worse as Humbert and Matilda fled the blaze, and now the crowd was pressed in almost flank to flank. Even the most nimble and quick person could not have pressed his way through the throng.
And the flames were racing closer by the second.
Humbert had glanced back once, some minutes earlier, only to see the valiant engine that had charged down the street to fight the blaze completely overwhelmed. Its crew tried to retreat—and to blazes with the man-ape chattel and the warning howlers…literally—but another limb had fallen between the fleeing crowd and the brave firefighters.
He had cringed in sympathy at the horror of that kind of end. If it were him, he would hope the Captain would end him by claw rather than having to face the flames.
But then, he was just a clerk. Not a brave defender of the citizenry.
Regardless, he had put his back to the now larger and closer, despite all attempts to flee it, blaze, and pushed forward against the growing crowd.
But now, with the crowd’s advance slowing even further, he glanced back over his shoulder and wondered if the firefighters’ fate would soon be his and Matilda’s. That was looking more and more likely with each second.
She was growing fearful as well; he could see it in her eyes. In the way she craned her lithe neck to look behind them every few steps. The way her hair flared up and her tail stiffened.
They had to find another way out of here.
Humbert slowed, letting the pressing crowd stream past himself, and looked to the left and right, scenting the air and scanning the surroundings for something—anything—that might present a different option.
Fortunately Matilda was far more observant than he. She stopped as soon as he did, flicking her tongue across her teeth in a questioning manner for a second before her eyes widened in understanding. Then she too began to look. In a heartbeat, she had it. Nudging her front shoulder into his, she bobbed her head to the right.
He narrowed his eyes as he looked over there and saw a gap between two dens. It looked to go all the way to the rear between them, and no one else looked to be taking it.
Matilda looked back at him, and he nodded wordlessly.
Let’s do it.
She bounded forward, or rather shoved forward, and he followed.
She would have earned anything from a hiss to a snarl to an actual claw in protest as she shouldered her way past the various fleeing people, except that she was obviously bearing young ones. And even in these dire circumstances, that bit of protocol still held, Humbert was grateful to see.
Or at least, it did for now.
How much longer, though?
It didn’t matter, they were at the gap, and Matilda held up to let him lead the way now that they were past the throng of people.
That was women’s lib for you. Fine to take the lead until danger rears its head. Then it’s run to the man for protection.
Humbert flicked his tongue teasingly at her, and Matilda gave a little playful hiss in response. Then he plowed forward into the gap.
It was dark, despite the glow from the fires lighting the forest canopy above. It was also tight. But it could have been worse. In some of the other neighborhoods, where the man-ape caretakers were less rigorous, there might be litter strewn all over the gap between dens. But no danger of that here, with the quality of people living in this area of town.
Because of the lack of rubbish, they quickly got past the two dens, and emerged between the trees in their rear.
There was a span of three or four running paces between these dens and the back of the dens in the next street over. In that gap, there were tree roots, undergrowth and bushes, and a carpeting of fallen leaves from years past that were mostly decomposed into new soil.
But only a couple of other people. They rushed past Humbert and Matilda as they emerged from between the dens, hardly sparing a backwards glance at them as they ran away from the blaze toward safety.
For a moment, Humbert just stood there, perplexed. Looking to the right, the flames were continuing to leap from tree to tree, and he could see entire dens ablaze just a few tens of running strides away now. To the left, overgrown space between tree trunks. But basically no other people but the two of them.
How come no one else was here? Were the rest of his neighbors really that lulled that they could only follow the pack? That was something he could have expected from canines….or man-apes… But from his own people?
He recalled hearing a lecture a while back, about how this generation was getting soft. How people had let their dominance of the man-apes and canines convince them that troubles were over forever, and that it would only be pleasure and indulgence from here to eternity. And that that mindset would spell the ruin of their entire culture and way of life.
Humbert had scoffed at the old curmudgeon’s words then.
He wasn’t doing that now.
But he was also thankful that the rest of the people around here were, apparently, blind. That meant he could get his Matilda and their young to safety.
“Let’s go,” he said, and turned away from the blaze.
They sped through the woods between streets. Although if he was being honest with himself, they weren’t really making good time at all. But compared with the pace they had been making in the throng of people on Cornell Street, it felt like they were flying.
“How are you doing, Mat?” he said over his shoulder, and he heard his mate hiss at him.
“Wish you weren’t holding me up, Bert.”
He purred slightly at the teasing tone in her voice, and moved a little bit quicker.
Behind them, the heat of the flames was receding, and he began to become optimistic again. They were going to get out of this, just fine.
That’s when the light and the heat erupted in front of them.
Humbert drew up short, and Matilda came to a halt beside him.
He didn’t look at her, but he knew her eyes were wide and her jaw slack with shock and horror, same as his.
Another fire. This one in front of them. And not just one. Glancing left and right, he saw others, their glows spaced so that they had to be burning at the ends of the town’s various streets.
The people who were streaming away from the fires behind were going to be cooked by them.
But worse, the crowds would compress, stop. And then panic.
Blood would run in the streets, before the survivors inevitably burned.
As Humbert looked all around, he saw more fires starting up everywhere. There had to be a way out….but he couldn’t see one. His entire town was going to go up in flames, and him and his mate with it, unless he found a place to run to, but…
The crowds on the two streets to either side began making loud, panicked sounds, and Humbert’s heart sank. It was starting already. It was only a matter of time –
Panic became anger, and then the sounds of fighting began to erupt from all around. Then screams of anguish.
He cast about again. There had to be something. Anything!
His eyes came to rest of a tree trunk nearby. Between an upturned root and the ground beneath it was… a hole.
Shelter. Some animal’s lair.
Revulsion welled up with him. He would not crawl into the dirt like some…some…peon! He would –
He would suck up his pride and do it, or he would die, and Matilda and their young with him.
He looked at her, then pointed with his nose toward the hole.
She saw it, and stiffened. He could see the same thought process he had just gone through, and shook his head vehemently.
“It’s this or death,” he said.
The look on her face for a second said she would prefer death. Then she assented, and gave a little nod.
He led her toward the hole, and their only hope of survival.
* * * * *
Even without the firestorm above them, the night would have been a torment. Cramming into that tiny, dirty, vermin-lair. It was so… So undignified.
But the heat blasting down the hole into the depth of the lair put the lie to any notion that they would have been better off up above.
For a time, it felt like it wasn’t going to matter that they were down in the hole. It grew so hot Humbert thought they were going to roast alive. Breathing became difficult. Not because of smoke, though there was some of that. But every breath seemed like a strain, and it felt like he could never get enough in. Whatever it was in the air that calmed that need to breathe seemed to not be present, or to not be there enough to satiate his desire.
His head swam and his eyes grew dim, and he thought sure he was passing on to whatever Bast had for them in the next life.
Then he was blinking at light streaming down the hole.
Normal, wholesome sunlight. Not the hellish glow that had pummeled him into submission and unconsciousness in the night.
He stretched, and found he could barely move. The hole was tiny, but it seemed like it had compressed somehow while he had been out. His muscles ached and his coat was filthy and he probably looked even worse than he felt.
He had to get out of there. And get a bath. And a backrub from a man-ape servant. And then –
Humbert got his thoughts under control, forcing the reality of his new situation to the forefront of his mind. No, first he needed to see what the situation was, then he needed to make sure Matilda was going to be fine.
And speaking of Mat –
He looked behind himself, further back in the cave, and saw the glowing eyes of his mate as she looked back up at him. Or rather, at the lighted opening of the hole; she just happened to be looking at it through him.
“About time you woke up,” she said, and he shrugged.
“I will be after a good, long cleaning,” Matilda said.
Humbert couldn’t argue with that.
Turning away from her, he crawled his way to the edge of the hole and stuck his head out.
The hollow where the town had stood was a wasteland. Burned tree trunks, bereft of limbs and still smoking as they smoldered in the morning breeze, were all that he could see, everywhere he looked. The sky was grey, whether because of clouds or from the aggregated smoke of all the devastation he could not have guessed, but it dimmed the sunlight enough that the early summer day that should have been warm was instead cool.
Except for the smoldering trees.
The tree that his hole stood above was no different, though it looked like somehow only the trees’ upper portion had been scorched. It actually still kept a few of its lower limbs, though they were leafless and blackened.
Thinking for a moment, Humbert said a quick prayer to Bast; if the tree had gone up completely, he and Matilda probably would not have survived, considering the proximity of the tree’s root to the opening of their hole.
As he pushed himself fully out, he shuddered at the thought.
Then he was free, and he bounded a couple steps away to allow Matilda to follow him out. He looked himself over as he waited for her, and cringed. His fur was matted and muddy and streaked with soot and…
He was just a mess.
Part of his mind thought of the kind of shake that canines do to rid their fur of water or muck. Disgust with himself made him shove that thought away. Did he have no dignity left?
No. Though it cost him his life, he would not behave in such a manner.
You weren’t thinking that when you climbed in that hole last night, the voice said back.
Inwardly, he sliced his claws across the voice’s throat, and it died an agonized, gurgling death.
For a moment.
Then it started muttering to him again.
He scowled darkly.
Matilda had by now extricated herself and was looking around, no less upset than he felt.
“Bert, what are we going to do?” she asked.
He had no good response. So he just said, “Get out of here and find a new place, I guess.”
That was lame and he knew it. And from the look she gave him she knew it and knew he knew it. But really…what else was there?
Matilda just looked at him for a long several seconds that stretched to nearly a minute. Then she curled her back in a long, drawn out shrug. “Do you have any idea where?”
He didn’t, actually. But thinking it over real quick –
“My parents are over in Nipville, only about ten miles north.”
Matilda’s eyes narrowed. “You want to live. With your mother.” He tone held levels of meaning. Disgust at the entire notion, and the degradation that moving in with your parents entails. Scorn at the entire thought of it. Disappointment in him for even bringing it up. But most, beneath it all, utter terror at having to spend more than an hour with her mother in law.
He could understand that. Her mother was no picnic, either. But she was half a world away, outside Bangkok. They weren’t dropping in on her any time soon.
Humbert gave a half-hiss of reprimand. “Not forever. Just until we make a better plan. And do you have any better ideas?”
Matilda glowered for a moment, then shrugged.
He didn’t think she did.
He led the way in the direction he thought was north; the sun was just barely visible through the gloom above, but he still wasn’t entirely certain. He set a pace that was easy to maintain, but would also hopefully cover the distance before it got dark again.
They’d only gone a couple hundred paces before they had to stop, to avoid sicking up.
It used to be a street between dens. Now it was just another burned out area between charred remains of trees. Except for the pile of burned corpses.
The stench of burning hair and flesh warned them about it before they got into view, but even that couldn’t prepare Humbert for what he saw when he came up the little rise and beheld the scene.
There had to be a couple hundred of them. Dead people, sprawled everywhere. Some were completely burned to charcoal. Some only partway. But none lived, and of the ones whose faces were visible all wore expressions of horror and agony.
Down in the hole Humbert had prayed that the people would find easier deaths than burning. And surely some had.
But so many others….
He turned away, and found Matilda had already done the same. But their eyes met, and she could see an all-consuming grief in hers that mirrored his own, amplified it until he felt he could not go on.
But he had to. So he did.
He led her away from the charnel pit and toward where the first fires had originated, going several hundred walking paces before turning north again.
Mounting the rise once again, he found what had used to be a street, but this time it was clear. For the most part.
He distinctly did not look in the direction of the mass of dead bodies as they crossed.
All the same, when he reached the rise on the other side of the former street, he looked down, and saw another body.
Humbert was about to turn away again when the body’s head twitched.
This one wasn’t dead.
Surprise froze him in place for a moment, then he was bounding down to sit beside the stricken person.
He recognized the person as he drew close. A cop he’d gotten to know in the pub from time to time. Name was Sylvester. Humbert had always been impressed with him: he was big and strong, black and white and tall. Witty, with an easy manner that always seemed to charm the ladies.
Now he was burned black on his rear third, and his coat was horribly dirty and matted everywhere else. His left eye was white and pussy, and he had scratch marks across his face, like he’d been in a grand fight.
When Humbert came to a stop beside him, Sylvester lifted his head feebly, then blinked in recognition.
“Syl,” Humbert said, by way of greeting. He felt like he should have said something more, but he had no idea what.
“You look like hell,” Sylvester said, and Humbert couldn’t help but snorting out a little laugh.
Sylvester tried a laugh of his own, but only managed a coughing fit that led to a painful groan—and somehow passing a little bit of hairball? How did he manage that?
“Not…much time,” Sylvester said, and Humbert shook his head.
“Don’t talk like that, Syl. We’ll find some help and they’ll lick you right into shape, no problem.”
Even as he said that, he felt Matilda’s gaze of, “What the hell do you think you’re saying?”, and he cast her a warning, “Be quiet” look.
Still, Sylvester snorted again. “I know when I’m done,” he said. Then he coughed some more. And somehow even more hair came out. He drew a deep breath, then raised his head so he could look Humbert directly in the eyes.
“It was the humans.”
Humbert blinked. “What?”
Sylvester nodded. “Been…working a case… Some of them talking with the canines. Plotting escape. Rebellion.” His words were cut off by another round of coughing.
Humbert looked away from Sylvester toward Matilda. She looked as puzzled as he felt. The man-apes had always been the people’s willing, sometimes eager, servants. Tending their every need with nary a complaint. In fact, they seemed to relish serving the people. Especially with backrubs.
But if what Sylvester said was true, that had all been a lie. A duplicitous deception, to lull people into complacency, so the man-apes could usurp their rightful place as rulers.
Which was, of course, inconceivable.
He looked back at Sylvester, and found the cop’s expression pained, but completely lucid and serious.
“You doubt me. Don’t.” He moved his leg, and Humbert saw a canister in the dirt beneath, depressed where Sylvester had apparently been trying, weakly, to dig a hole in order to bury or protect it. “Evidence is all here,” the cop said. He nudged the canister toward Humbert with his nose.
“Get it…to someone…” Another round of coughing interrupted again. But this time it went on and on, but the coughs also grew weaker with each racking exhalation until finally, they subsided into a long, drawn-out exhalation that ended in a rasping gurgle.
Then Sylvester lay still. Gone to his eternal reward.
Humbert hung his head in renewed sorrow.
* * * * *
Humbert looked out at the setting sun as it touched the top of the hill across the valley from his parents’ den. The sunset was redder than usual. Redder than he had ever seen it; it seemed to turn the entire sky to blood.
Fitting, considering what had happened.
He sat on his haunches, batting the little canister Sylvester had given him between his forepaws, but kept his eyes on the sunset.
The color of blood. Very fitting indeed.
Movement from behind announced another’s presence, and then his father came to sit beside him to his right. Dad was as lean and powerful as he ever had been, but he had grey in his coat now, and in his whiskers. His eyes were as sharp, as piercing, as ever though. And when he looked at Humbert, he felt them peering into his soul.
“Your mother’s got Matilda situated,” Dad said. “She thinks she might be heading for labor in the next few days.”
“What? Is she – “
Dad made a reassuring gesture with his paws. “She’ll be fine. Natural result of stress. Or so your mother says.” He paused, then shrugged slightly. “It’s women’s business. They know what they’re about. Best not poke your head in.”
Humbert opened his mouth to object, but realized he had no retort that could upset the plain and simple truth of what Dad had said. So instead he looked back at the canister and batted it with his paw again.
Dad waited another couple seconds, then said, “Heard from the Prosecutor’s office. They’ll be sending people over for that in the morning.”
Another pause. “If it shows what your friend says it shows, you know what that means, don’t you son?”
Humbert raised his head to meet his father’s gaze. Then he lifted his paw. He felt his claws emerging, unbidden.
Dad glanced downward and, seeing the claws, nodded. His expression became approving.
Humbert held his father’s gaze for a few seconds, then he lowered his paw back to the ground. He turned to look back at the sunset, and how it had made the sky bleed.
And he knew there would be more blood flowing, soon.
He looked forward to it.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: