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My first glimpse of the world was of a wide open sky covered in white clouds, on a spring morning when the seams of winter’s cloak still lingered on the threshold between seasons. I squinted at the fuzzy shapes blending within themselves, dancing in and out of my sight. It was all new and confusing.
I sneezed and jumped, startled when a puff of white smoke lifted from my snout. Cocking my head, I blew air out of my nose again. Steam rose from my nostrils to disappear in the shadows of our shelter. I giggled.
I was born on the mountain where the first Inari shrine was built, in simpler times, when humans were scarce and Amaterasu-sama’s sixty-sixth descendant was crowned emperor among them. My mother’s den was a hollow in a gnarly cedar tree, a snug bowl cushioned with moss which I shared with my sisters.
The first smell I remember was the musky scent of Mother’s fur coat. Her tail was wrapped around my back. She sensed me moving and called for me, raising a leg and revealing her belly. I nuzzled her, instinctively searching for milk, and yipped in triumph when I found the source of my nourishment. Warm and sweet was the liquid filling my belly and I knew for the first time what it meant to be content.
The silence permeating the den, combined with the pleasure of a full belly and the warmth of my mother’s body summoned the alluring embrace of drowsiness, and I slept. I was tired and dazed by the weight of all I learned that first day. Exhausted from the wonder of being alive.
The second day of my life I spent exploring, while Mother was out hunting. My sisters–whose eyes had not yet opened– huddled from the cold, snuggled together in a tight knot. I would have stayed with them if not for the outside sounds demanding exploration.
I climbed out of the hollow in the tree and fell snout first into a puddle. The snow dripping from the branches had gathered in a hole in the ground, not too deep, but enough to drench my coat. I yelped and scurried out, splashing around and tripping over a round rock. The rock rolled and fell on one side at my feet. A creature the size of my paw poked its head out of a crevice in the upturned stone and waggled its fist at me.
“Careful where you’re stepping, you beansprout!” It mumbled and growled as it pushed the rock back to where it had been, grunting from the effort. “Annoying children, waking up the entire glen at the crack of dawn,” it muttered, wiping its forehead with its paw. I noticed how different its paws were from mine, and how different its body. It stood on its hind legs and had no trace of fur whatsoever. I smelled it, my nose twitching, a sweet yummy tang in my nostrils.
“Well?” the creature asked, paws on its hips. “Aren’t you going to apologize?”
I flapped my ears and padded backwards, my tail between my legs.
“I…” was the first word I ever said. I did not know what an apology was.
My back hit something solid, but soft and warm, like Mother. The tiny creature bulged its eyes as it looked up, and up, and up. I turned my head to see what it was. It wasn’t Mother.
“Is my son bothering you, Biko-san?”
“Not at all, Inari-sama,” the thing squeaked, prostrating on the ground, face plastered in the snow.
“Son, apologize to our yōkai friend for ruining his sleep and messing up his home. You have been rude to him. You need to say, ‘I’m sorry, Biko-san.’”
He had called me son to let me know who he was, but I had known him the moment our eyes had met. My heart knew the word for who he was, my soul knew his imprint. Otousan. Father. No words were needed to be learned. I knew him as I knew I was alive. My heart thrummed, recognizing my sire.
He was magnificent, my father. I thought the wide open sky to be the most awe inspiring thing I had seen in my short life, but now, with him at my side I knew that I had been wrong. His aura took my breath away as it expanded almost like that of the great august goddess in the sky. It made the glen hold its breath. Even now, centuries later my father’s godly presence still strikes me speechless.
“Otousan,” I whispered.
“Apologize first, Kogitsune, then come and meet me properly.”
The yōkai had his face turned to me, but his features were blank and I could not discern his emotions. I would find out later that I was staring at a white mask with black slits and a spiraling circle painted in red where the mouth and nose should have been.
“I’m sorry, Biko-san,” I said, bowing my head.
“All is forgiven, little god.”
My father smiled and inclined his head at the yōkai. Then he turned and moved slowly away. “Follow me,” he said. I padded after him, splashing in the melting snow as I hurried and jumped, trying to keep up.
I couldn’t see any resemblance between us at all. He had nine bushy tails which swayed from side to side as he moved, whereas I had only one. His white coat gleamed, reflecting the light from above, whereas mine was reddish like a stain. And he was huge, a giant next to me, ten times larger than my mother.
We stopped on the shore of a lake, in a patch of white and purple flowers. He sat and I followed. We were close to the den, just on the other side of a line of cedars. The lake was a mirror that reflected our image. I lowered my head, looking at myself, taking in the snout, the ears, the small fangs. A spindly-legged skimmer ran across the surface in short bursts, ruining our reflection.
It was so quiet. It would always be like that around him. Behind me the glen breathed again, birds chirping, animals scurrying up and down the trees, and the drip-drip of the melting snow joining in a song. The stillness had now clasped the lake and the reeds surrounding it. Sound seemed to fade where my father stood, as if time slowed down, and the mountain bowed to him and kept silent in reverence.
I looked over my shoulder. Something magical happened where Father stepped. White irises bloomed under his paw prints, and he had left a trail of them from our den to the lake.
“Hajimemashite, Kogitsune.” It’s the first time we meet, Kogitsune. He looked down at me, his golden eyes shining with his divinity.
We said nothing more that day, but spent the moments contemplating the lake in a silence while our hearts spoke and got acquainted. We would spend many hours in mutual contemplation over the years.
When the ripples cleared and the lake returned to glass, I saw our resemblance. It was the eyes we shared, the golden eyes of divinity. The eyes of immortality. Little did I know how different I was from my sisters.
In the beginning, when I lived on my mother’s milk alone, Father would come every day to see me. He acknowledged my sisters too, but it was a different sort of attention he gave them. It was the kind a god bestows upon his wards and not the kind a father gives his children. I was the only one he brought to the lake.
I feared my sisters would be jealous of me for gathering all my father’s love, but they saw their existence differently than I. As the months passed, their concerns were more related to shelter and food, while I sought knowledge of the universe’s intrinsicness. They never learned how to speak but communicated to me in barks and chirps, and I understood them.
It saddens me that I lost many of my memories of my mother and my sisters. Time is different for a fox and a kitsune. Looking back it feels their lives passed in the blink of an eye, as long as it took for a feather to fall from a tree, while my life crawled like an old snail.
At the lake, Father taught me of the world. He told me of the gods Izanagi and Izanami that created Japan. He told me of the goddess Amaterasu, the sun in the sky that brought the day. He told me of the yōkai, spirits living in the mountains, in the water, in the snow, and in the trees. The lake rippled with their images, Father’s way of teaching me his magic of illusion. Amaterasu stood tall and white of skin like bone, with shining eyes and onyx hair, sunrays erupting from her head. Izanagi and Izanami were as old as the world, their white hair brushing their heels.
“All spirits are called yōkai and we are yōkai too,” Father said one day, “but some yōkai take on a second name which distinguishes them from the others.”
He named the vengeful spirits of the dead the ayakashi. I had to stay away from them, for they were dangerous even to the young son of the Inari god. Those that lived in trees were called kodama. Tengu, the black birds with huge noses and Kappa the river monsters.
Even my kind had a different name among the yōkai. I was a kitsune, a shape shifting spirit that mastered the skill of illusion and could transform at will.
One day Father told me of the humans.
“You should stay away from them, Kogitsune. Humans are not to be trusted.”
“Yes, Otousan,” I said.
The hardest lesson I learned in those early years was the difference between death and immortality. During those days I spent my time solely with Father, wandering up and down the mountain, him leaving a trail of irises behind, as we checked if all was well with the spirits. I had grown larger, living on a diet of blessed offerings received from the creatures of the mountain, and I was beginning to feel the golden threads of life interconnecting deep in the ground beneath my feet. But I was still very much a beansprout, young and innocent.
It was summer, when the foliage of the trees turned a vibrant green. One morning, a kodama living in an old oak called out to my father, “Kami-sama, a word.” He whispered something in my Father’s ear.
God-sama. That’s how the spirits called my father and showed their respect. With one little honorific meant for the highest of gods. Sama. He thanked the tree spirit and said to me, “Today, my son, you will learn about death.”
He took me to the glen where the cedar tree with the hollow stood proud among its brethren. I had not been there for more than a year. My heart skipped a beat as I ran gleefully to it, calling for Mother. I found her sleeping and I nudged her with my snout to wake her up. She was cold and still, an eerie peace settled around her. There were green lights floating in the den, fireflies living their last hours.
“She is gone,” Father said. I did not know what he meant. I gazed at him in confusion. “Foxes have shorter lives than we do. She is with the mountain now. And when she is ready, she will return.”
“Will I see her again?”
He shook his head. “Not in this life. The lessons you had to learn together have reached an end.”
I stared at the red coat so much like my own. “I would like to stay with her. For a while. If I may.”
Father nodded. “I give you two months to mourn. Then you will return to me.” When I looked at him, he was gone, disappearing in thin air.
I fell asleep next to her cold body, wishing I could warm her as she had done when I was a cub. When I woke up, I found myself alone. The fireflies lay dead. I wondered what it would be like to have such a short lifespan and not know about the passage of seasons.
Not all of Mother had vanished though. The musky smell of her fur lingered in the den, reminding me of the times I nuzzled her tail to get my nose warm. It was the first of only three times in my life I’ve cried, as there was not one, but two lessons I had to learn. With the knowledge of death came the knowledge of sorrow.
I slept in the hollow till the end of my mourning. I was slow with my farewells. I mourned as it is proper to mourn a Mother, and when I was ready, I left the den.
With my mind in the clouds, I stumbled on a rock, bringing on myself the wrath of one tiny, familiar and very angry yōkai. It was a different rock this time, larger, more colorful, with symbols scratched on the outside. He opened a round stone door carved in the center of the rock, and settling his masked face on me, he started shouting. “You again! Are you blind and cannot see you’re stepping on people’s houses? You ruined my gift!”
“I’m sorry, Biko-san, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, bowing to him. “I’m sorry.”
He pushed an acorn in my face. “Look at this. It’s ruined now. How can I give this to my beloved?”
I blinked at the acorn, confused of what he meant. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with it,” I mumbled pathetically.
“Tz,” he clicked his tongue. “Look closer, you stupid beansprout.”
I squinted and could see a faint symbol on one side of the acorn. Just before finishing the last stroke, the line had gone askew.
“What is it?”
“It’s a kanji. I was writing love on the acorn, and now it is ruined.”
“I can help you find another acorn,” I offered, wishing to appease him.
“Another acorn?” he cried aghast. “I have spent the last century searching for this acorn. Look at it. It was perfect. It was gorgeous. It was going to be the best gift in the world. And you ruined it.”
“I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. How can I make amends?” I wailed.
“You can’t,” he said with finality, closing the door to his rock house in my face.
Dejected, I went in search of my father. I took one of the less worn paths up the mountain and met the strangest sight. A large spider waited at the end of the path, using its hairy feet to roll a silver thread. It had the face of a wrinkled human woman with long black hair falling around her face.
“Come to me,” she sang, red eyes focused on a human child who was holding the other end of the silver thread.
I took a sharp breath. Ayakashi. She was dangerous even for me. I hid in the bushes eyeing her and the human. “Come to Okasan, little baby. I will keep you warm. I will keep you safe.” The human ambled toward her, lost in the hypnotic power of her thread. The closer he got, the larger she opened her mouth. She had rows of sharp teeth like a leech. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth, foaming with saliva. The dirt hissed where slime dribbled out of her mouth.
Centuries later, I told myself I would have done it for anyone. I did not wish to learn another lesson of death so soon. I shapeshifted into a human child, with red hair and a fox mask covering my golden eyes. I was a shapeshifter after all by the grace of the Inari god, my father. I ran for the boy, willing my sharp kitsune claws to grow over my human nails, and I used them to break the thread in one swipe.
The human blinked in confusion. That’s when I took his hand and dragged him in the opposite direction.
“No!” she howled, storming after us, dust rising in her wake. “He is mine to eat. Give him to me. Give him to me.” Her echoing wails made the hairs stand on the back of my neck. The boy stumbled and fell, and I had to yank him up and shove him in front of me. I pushed his frail shoulder too hard, not knowing my own strength.
“Ouch, why did you do that?” he whined.
“Look behind us, stupid! Run or we’ll both be eaten alive,” I cried.
One look at the ayakashi and he dashed, screaming down the hill so fast I found it hard to follow him on two legs. He was wearing wooden sandals which clanked in the dirt. I was barefoot and feeling every nerve of the mountain in my body. A smile broke on my human face, and the grin hurt my cheekbones. I sped up, reaching him. “Throw away those sandals. They are too loud.” He let them drop off of his feet without a comment.
At an intersection I took his hand and pulled him after me, on a path I knew which led to the lake. “Can you swim?”
“No…” he said with wide eyes.
“It doesn’t matter, it’s not deep.” We jumped in the water hand in hand, and hid under the water lilies. “Hold your breath.”
I pushed him down, just as the ayakashi appeared at the edge of the lake, holding his sandals in her mouth. She spit them in the water and wailed. “Where are you? Where are you?”
I held him tight in my arms, keeping him from exposing our hiding place. I didn’t know if a kitsune could actually be eaten by an ayakashi, but I had no intention of finding out.
The water faded the sounds but my sensitive ears picked up her growl and the scurrying of her legs on the grass as she withdrew, cursing the son of the Inari god.
I broke the surface of the water with a lily pad on my head to make sure the coast was clear. When I was certain we were safe, I pulled the boy up. He spluttered and heaved, coughing his lungs out as if he had guzzled the entire lake. I patted him on the back. “Are you alright?” I whispered.
His clothes were wet and clinging to his skinny body, and his short hair was sticking out at the ends. “That was close,” he hissed.
“No kidding,” I whispered. “What were you doing alone by yourself on the mountain? Aren’t you afraid of the yōkai?”
“I was…” He took a deep breath. “I was searching for the god Inari.”
My eyebrows must have jumped off of my forehead. Luckily the mask covering half my face hid my surprise. “What do you need him for?”
“I want him to bless me,” he said.
“I don’t think the Inari god blesses humans.” Then, I added in whispered conspiracy, “I don’t think he likes humans that much.”
“But he must. I need his help.”
“Because I want to become the greatest swordsmith who ever lived.”
He said it with such a passion he left me speechless. I scratched my head. “What’s a swordsmith?”
“Someone who makes swords.”
I tilted my head. “What’s a sword?”
He looked at me as if I was the daftest person he had ever met. “It’s a sharp metal blade you use in a sword fight.”
“Because men get into sword fights and we need a sword to protect ourselves.”
“So you are a man?”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“Because I feel that you kind of are.” He paddled with his palms to the shore, and after checking one last time if the ayakashi was truly gone, he climbed out on the grass. A water snake got startled and slithered away in the reeds. “What was that?” he asked.
“Just a snake,” I said, shaking the water from my head like a fox.
“Oh, ha ha, just a snake.” He collapsed exhausted among the withered flowers adorning the paling grass. It wouldn’t take long until the colors of autumn would rule over the lake. The weather was getting colder.
A yellow flower brushed his cheek. He pushed it away but it kept finding its way back. I chuckled.
I cleared my voice. “You should dry your clothes, or you will get sick.”
“What I should do is find the Inari god.”
No humans ever found the Inari god. If I told him the truth, he would leave dejected and never return, and I wanted to see him again and speak more about swords. I had an idea.
“Listen, the Inari god does not show himself to everyone. You have to earn his attention.”
He perked up. “How do I do that?”
“See the glen on the other side of the trees? There is an old gnarly cedar there which he visits from time to time. Build a shrine for him close to the tree, and I am sure you will meet him one day.”
“But how do I build it?”
I grinned. “You will think of something.”
The lake became silent and I knew Father was with us. “You should go before it gets too dark. You don’t want to meet another ayakashi, do you?”
I watched him disappear in the distance. He turned a couple of times to wave at me. I waved back, unable to hide my smile. He was barefoot, his sandals deserted in the lake. I took them and hid them behind my back.
“What are you doing, Kogitsune?” My father’s voice was cold and made me shiver in my human clothes. I dispelled the illusion, returning to my real self.
“Making a new friend, Father.”
He grunted. “He will disappoint you. Humans are fickle. They can’t be trusted.”
“Then I will learn the lesson of disappointment. Don’t worry about me, Father. I am old enough. I can handle myself.”
“Perhaps.” He eyed the wooden sandals. Silence seeped into my heart. He wasn’t pleased. “What was he doing all alone on the mountain?”
“Searching for you. He wants to become the greatest swordsmith that ever lived.”
“Of course he does.” He sighed. “And he’s now going to build me a shrine for it. Kogitsune, we don’t bless humans with exceptional powers. The skill is either in them, or not.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t need to know that, does he?”
I sensed my father’s searching gaze on me. “Are you lonely? Is that why you are doing this?”
I said nothing.
I was a dutiful son in the coming months, following Father close, listening to his teaching as autumn blended into winter and then spring. But my foot was on the ground, always searching for a certain human presence stepping on the interconnecting threads of life beneath the mountain.
On the day I spotted the first snowbells, I sensed that presence in the glen. I ran as fast as my four legs would take me. I could not appear and disappear at will like my father. He had told me the power would come once I received my fifth tail. It took a hundred years for a kitsune to grow a new tail. It would take half a millenium for five tails, so, till then, I ran like the wind.
Once I reached the glen, I hid behind a tree. I would have climbed and hid in the branches, but spring was still young and there were no leaves to conceal me.
There he was, staring at the old gnarly cedar, assessing the ground surrounding it. He was wearing a mofuku kimono, the black kind worn by humans for funerals and mourning. His cheeks glistened with tiny crystals. Were those frozen tears?
I shifted into the image of the boy with the fox mask. I willed my human hair to be long, reaching over my shoulders, blazing red as the color of my fur coat. I created the illusion I was wearing a mofuku kimono as well. It was fitting, because this would always be the glen where I would mourn my mother.
“I didn’t think I’d see you back here again,” I said.
He jumped, dropping a scroll in the snow. It landed close to the house of the tiny yōkai. He poked his head out of the door and looked up at the human. It was funny to realize the yōkai’s body was a miniature version of a human. He was even clad in a colorful yellow and blue kimono with a pattern of pink cherry flowers. I wondered why I didn’t see the resemblance until then.
The boy didn’t react to Biko-san’s presence. The yōkai shook his little first at me, warning me not to dare ruin his house again. He called me ‘beansprout’ twice, then hid inside his rock. I watched the boy carelessly reach for the scroll, his fingers brushing the stone. He couldn’t see nor hear Biko-san.
The boy straightened and wiped the frozen tears off his face with the back of his hand. “I wanted to come back earlier, but… I couldn’t.”
I did not know what was or wasn’t polite to ask a human, so I asked what I wanted to know. “Who died?”
He grimaced. “My father. He had been ill for some time. That is why I couldn’t come back. I had to take care of my family.”
Had I been rude asking this? The subject was visibly distressing him, so I changed it. “What do you have there?” I nodded at the scroll.
“Oh, this! It’s a picture I drew for the shrine.” He unrolled the washi paper and showed me a black brushstroke painting of a five tailed kitsune holding a key in its mouth, sitting proud on a pedestal carved in stone. “Do you think the Inari god will like it?”
I was impressed. “You wouldn’t know until you finish it,” I said. “You should add more tails. The Inari god has nine tails.”
He gave me an odd look. My mind was playing tricks on me because I had the impression he had eyed me as if searching for a tail or fluffy ears. I discarded the thought, blaming paranoia.
“Would you help me build it?” he asked, blushing and unable to meet my eyes.
“I’ll provide the moral support.”
I sensed he wanted to ask something else. “What is it?”
“Well… Um…I’ve been wondering since I first met you.” His gaze was so intense it threatened to melt the mask off my face. “You haven’t told me your name yet.”
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. “Kogitsune,” I said. Little Fox.
“Kokaji,” he said. “Yoroshiku.” Please treat me kindly.
“How old are you?” He puffed his chest and straightened his shoulders adding, “I am thirteen.”
I had no idea how old I was in human years. My mother had lived five times longer than the average fox, my father’s immortality stretching her life span. “What a coincidence. I am thirteen as well,” I lied.
“Soon we will be men,” he said, his face shining.
“When I am a man I will have arms as thick as branches, as any swordsmith should.”
Adorable. In a thousand years I will be a god, but I didn’t say that out loud.
“Why do you hide yourself behind the mask?”
Because you would run for the hills if you knew you were talking to a kitsune. I didn’t say that either. “Do you have a problem with my mask?”
“No, I think it’s beautiful. I just…”
“Just want to see your eyes when I speak to you.”
It felt as if a fire blazing coal had hit me in the chest. I looked at him. “Maybe one day you will.”
He looked at his hands, face turning red. “I would like that.”
Kokaji had found a white boulder on the way to the glen and thought it would be perfect for carving the kitsune. I helped him roll it up the hill. One of the worst decisions of my life. It took us all afternoon because we kept slipping in the sluice and the boulder would roll back down the slope. At the end of the day, we were exhausted.
We sat on a fallen tree, recovering our breath and watching the sun disappear over the naked branches, when Kokaji’s stomach grumbled. Embarrassed, he laughed and took out a cotton scarf from his sleeve. He opened the scarf to reveal two white balls. He gave me the larger one.
I stared at it in confusion, turning it around.
“It’s a rice ball,” he said. “You eat it like this. See?” He ate like an ayakashi, a third of the ball vanishing in one bite, getting rice all over his kimono. I gingerly took a bite myself. Ugh, so bland. I watched with a frown at how Kokaji devoured his ball, so I took another bite, larger this time, sure I was missing something. Gooey sweetness dripped on my tongue. It spread in my mouth, tingling my throat and falling into bursts of tiny sparks in my stomach. It warmed me from inside out. It was the best thing I have ever tasted.
“What is this?” I asked amazed.
“Sweet red bean paste,” he mumbled with his mouth full. He gulped, then added proudly, thumping his chest with his fist. “I made it myself. Do you like it?”
“I love it!”
It became a custom between us whenever we met in the glen. Before doing any work on the shrine, we would share two balls of rice filled with red bean paste. Then we would drink water directly from the lake. He would hold his hands cupped together for me to drink from them and he would drink from mine. I have asked my father to bless the water to make sure Kokaji wouldn’t get any sickness. I came to know that blessed water was nourishing for the humans, and it kept my friend energized until twilight.
Kokaji was a talented boy. He knew how to work with a chisel and a hammer, and when I asked who had taught him, he said it was his father who had been a mason. He showed me his father’s tools and told me how he would use them to first make the head, then the body, and lastly the nine tails of the kitsune. I asked him about the key.
“Why is the kitsune holding a key in its mouth?”
He thought about it. “Father said the Inari god is the one who blesses our crops. Whenever the crops are abundant, we thank him. So the key is the key to the granaries.”
The Inari god blesses nature. It comes from his connection to the golden threads of life that must always be kept in balance. “So if the crops are bad, do you curse the Inari god?”
Kokaji shrugged. “If the crops are bad, they are bad. Father said we can’t always take from the earth. We must let it breathe as well.”
I looked away, hiding a goofy smile.
We grew very close during the summer. We would forget completely about the shrine for days, spending the time skinny dipping in the lake or chasing each other in the glen. Sometimes I noticed him looking at me with rapt fascination when he thought I wasn’t paying attention. I played his game and never told him I knew about his lingering gaze. What he didn’t realize was that I was looking back.
Every day before he left, he told me the tales of famous swords. Of the Three-foot Sword possessed by the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. Of Kusanagi, The Grass Slasher, owned by Yamato Takeru-no-mikoto and in whose metal lived a spirit that brought storms. Of the spiritual sword that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang owned that warded off evil spirits and demons.
“Do you think it would ward off an ayakashi?” I asked.
“Probably. But I wouldn’t want to hurt an ayakashi with that sword.”
“Why is that?” I asked confused.
“Because,” he took my hand in his, “an ayakashi helped me meet you.”
Father frowned on our friendship, but he said I had my free will, and my lessons to learn, so he didn’t keep me from seeing him.
As the first day of autumn came, the weather was still warm, the sun high in the sky. The shrine was almost ready, just the tails and the key missing. We had set it under the cover of the branches of the gnarly cedar.
When his chisel finally stopped ringing at the end of the day, he announced his dilemma. “I think we will be finished tomorrow.”
“I think so too.”
“But, I wonder. Should the kitsune have nine tails or only one?”
“The Inari god has nine tails,” I repeated what I had said to him in spring.
“Hmmm… Should we write our names on the shrine?” He crouched and touched a corner of the lower base. “Maybe here?”
I gave him a puzzled look. “Write?”
“Yes. Which kanji do you use for yours?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
His face lit and his eyes blazed. “I will teach you!” Before I could stop him, he had grabbed my hand and was pulling me after him to the lake. I fondly thought about a year ago when the places had been reversed.
Kokaji picked a stick and cleared a patch of wet earth near two pink lily pads. “This is how I write my name,” he said laying gentle strokes in the mud. “Three strokes for ‘small’.” It was simple and sweet. “Seventeen strokes for ‘forge’ and another seven for ‘melting’.” The last two symbols were elegant and more complicated than the first. They gave the name strength and meaning and a certain vibe that prophesied of a wondrous future.
“It looks beautiful,” I said.
“Thank you! Now yours.” He placed the stick in my hand and closed my fingers around it. Gently, he covered my hand with his and guided me. “You can use the kanji for small to spell ‘ko’ just like me,” he said while slowly moving my hand as the stick formed the same first symbol from Kokaji’s name in the damp ground. My cheeks were growing warm from his closeness. “And you can spell ‘gitsune’ with the character for ‘kitsune’.”
“Kitsune?” I asked alarmed.
“Mhmmm,” he murmured, placing his chin on my right shoulder and a hand around my waist. “Kitsune.”
My heart pummelled in my chest. Nine strokes to write fox. Twelve strokes to write Kogitsune. The symbol for ‘small’ to share between us.
“We should write both our names tomorrow on the shrine,” I ventured.
“We should,” he said, not letting me go.
A flock of geese disturbed the silence as they passed above us.
We made plans to throw a party the next day to celebrate the completion of the shrine with rice balls and drinks. Kokaji said he knew the place where his mother hid the sake and that he would try to pilfer some for our celebration.
I slept in my old den that night, giddy to be there in the morning to greet Kokaji. I threaded my paws on the golden strings, all morning searching for him to step on the edge of the mountain so I could feel him. Around noon I grew worried, and extended my reach beyond, to the human villages. I saw him crying under a plum tree, a woman arguing with him, a bottle of sake broken on the ground.
I was a tornado running down the mountain. I drew up my divinity and all the knowledge gained from Father, and shifted into a flock of red birds speeding like an arrow through the sky. In no time I settled in the plum tree. I was a dozen pairs of eyes and a dozen pairs of ears, and what I saw and heard broke my heart.
“You are a fool, Kokaji. There are no boys living in the mountain.”
“But, Okasan!” Mother. She was his mother. “Please listen. He is my friend. I have to see him.”
“That is a yōkai. Promise me, Kokaji, promise me you will never see him again. He will curse you. He will curse our entire family.”
“He is not a yōkai!”
“Have you seen his eyes? What color are they?”
Kokaji froze, his mouth open. His gaze turned to the mountain where it lingered. “I don’t care,” he hissed. “He is my friend.”
His mother fell to her knees. “Kokaji, you are everything I have. If I lose you too, I’m going to die.” She took his hands in hers. “Swear to me you will never see him again.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks. Her small body convulsed with her sobs. “Swear to me, please!”
Tell her. Tell her how I saved your life. Tell her how we ran down the slopes and swam in the lake. Tell her how you carved the Inari shrine and I stayed next to you watching your hands caress the stone. Tell her how we shared the rice balls. Tell her. Fight for our friendship. Please. Our names have not been written yet in stone for eternity. Don’t leave me now.
Kokaji sighed and clasped his head in his hands.
I waited, clinging to his every breath. My heart thumped in my chest, dreading the passage of time. I wished for that instant to stand still. I wished for that moment to be frozen for eternity, because what would come next would be a road to perdition. To my perdition. Kokaji spoke and his words chipped my heart as his hands chipped the stone to form the kitsune. “I swear. But…”
I did not stay to hear the rest.
Humans. Such disappointing creatures. Father had known and he had warned me.
I swarmed the glen from above, a dozen eyes blazing with golden fire. I landed near the shrine and I shifted into my human form. I wore the funeral kimono. I reached inside the hollow. My hands touched the wooden sandals Kokaji had left behind and I yanked them out. I burned with fury.
The golden threads vibrated within me and I sucked their power like a dying beast. It consumed me, that power, erupting from my hands, my soles, my eyes, my mouth until there was nothing left but the kitsune. I was wildfire. The sandals burned green in my hands like an incense stick.
It took a kitsune a hundred years to earn another tail. I was supposed to learn slowly and come into my own at leisure, but the departure of the last fleck of ash purged my being and I roared, the wildfire scourging from within.
I gained a tail that day, faster than any kitsune before me, but lost everything else that was important to me.
I woke up in a burnt field devoid of trees and vegetation, black soot clinging to my fur. I was larger, more powerful. Holier. I had two tails where there had been only one. And in return the glen was gone, sacrificed for a tail.
Father glowered down at me, his disapproval shining in his eyes. “You have lost control, and if not for Biko-san you would have burned down the entire mountain. What do you have to say for yourself?”
My head was heavy and my body powerless. I lay limp at his feet, nose in the soot. The charred statue of the Inari shrine was all that had remained.
“Is Biko-san… alive?” My throat was parched, I barely spoke.
“He is slumbering. He was a spirit of the earth, the essence living in the grass and in the flowers. He was the one the flowers turned to for kindness. Until the green returns, he will be asleep.”
“I see.” My eyelids dropped. “I am sorry.” I plummeted in a void of despair. All I ever gave to Biko-san were my apologies.
“Sleep. I will shield you,” my father said. He added, bitterness in his voice, “The second tail is the hardest to gain. It grows from heartbreak. You are too young for this lesson, my son, but you are now a true kitsune. There is a miracle in every curse as there is beauty in what is broken. Mend the pieces, seal them with gold and embrace a new self once you wake.”
A decade passed before the grass returned and the cedar saplings were brave enough to seek the sun. Ten years in which I prayed for Biko-san’s return. Ten years in which I refused to utter the human’s name.
I stayed away from humans. If my paths crossed with one, I would turn the opposite way. If I felt them on the mountain, I would break my connection to the threads. If I heard them, I would turn my ears to the birds. It was easier to avoid them during those times. They weren’t as many as there are today.
My annoyance came when some humans found the unfinished Inari shrine. They began pilgrimages searching for the god Inari, leaving gifts, food, incense sticks, candles. Once a woman left a baby in a basket. It wailed from dawn to dusk and I feared it would attract a hungry ayakashi, but Father was there first. He knew a lonely old woman on the other side of the mountain and he brought the basket to her.
As the years passed, the shrine grew popular. I wanted to destroy it, imagining the yōkai would be supportive of my wish, but their reaction was paradoxical. They loved the offerings and were growing fat on them. When sake was offered, they turned the moment into a celebration, gathering high and low from all the corners of the mountain with little wooden bowls to share the drink like brothers. I shook my head in disbelief.
As I was becoming more accustomed to the presence of humans on the mountain, the world made me curse my lack of resolve in destroying the shrine.
One day, in spring, close to Biko-san’s tenth dormant year, Kokaji returned.
I sensed him in my soul. His feet landed on the golden threads and they vibrated, calling for me with every step he took closer to the glen. I stayed on top of the mountain, impassive. Every day he came, and every day I denied myself the urge to see him. Fifty-six days he came, every morning present at the shrine. There was talk among the yōkai that a human was finishing the Inari shrine, armed with a chisel and a hammer and a great deal of patience.
On the fifty-sixth day he left me a gift.
As soon as his presence disappeared from the mountain, I went to see what it was. A package wrapped in silk, leaned at the base of the shrine of a kitsune with nine tails and a golden metal key in its sharp-toothed mouth. I picked open the wrapping with my teeth and unfolded the silks. The contents dropped at my paws, a pair of wooden sandals and a rice ball. I stared at them, breath strangled in my throat.
Mindless, I took them to the lake. I sat and ate the rice ball, eyes closed, my chest in pain, as the sweetness of the bean paste warmed my belly. I lingered by the glassy surface watching the frogs sing with my head on my paws, droopy eyes chasing the golden glow of Amaterasu-sama’s disk leaving the sky.
Within, I rumbled. The walls that had been sheltering me began to crack, and a tiny bead of light as small as a firefly pushed in. I found myself walking down the mountain on two legs, with a full moon at my back. My shadow on the ground was of a young man with long hair and a long sleeved kimono swaying in the wind. I wore the sandals.
There are many kinds of love. There is the love one feels for his sire for breathing life into his bones. There is the love for brothers, and there is the love for friends. And then is the love that brings the heaviest of heartaches.
I found his house. He had moved at the edge of the village, surrounded by cherry trees and with a stream burbling nearby. It was a two-storied house, with the living quarters at ground level and the silkworm cultivation on the upper floor. It had a thick thatched roof and a floor made of wooden planks covered in tatami mats.
I passed through the wall like all yōkai could, and found myself in the cooking area, sandals scraping on a dirt floor near a glowing fireplace and a stove for cooking rice. Shoji screens divided the house in two other areas, one for welcoming guests and another one for sleeping.
I found him sprawled on a futon, a dark kimono laying over his prone body like a blanket. I did not see any other human in the house so I concluded he lived alone.
I crouched and brushed the hair off of his brow. His skin was warm, damp with perspiration. I caressed his cheek, liking how his beard scratched my palm. He was a man now.
A katana rested by his side, his right hand on the hilt. I recognized the symbols etched on the blade. Kokaji. Little swordsmith.
I watched him sleep the entire night, entranced by the small sounds he made as he slept. In the morning before sunrise, I passed through the forge on my way out, marveling at the array of exquisite katana swords and beautiful hilts. I touched the sharp blades, noticing the workmanship. He had indeed become the best.
A horse neighed as I stepped outside the forge. I blended with the nearest cherry tree, casting an illusion over me, becoming invisible to the human eye.
There was a commotion outside, four men in expensive traveling clothes calling for Kokaji Munechika to come out.
“Is Munechika at home?”
“May I ask who is calling my name?”
I draped myself on the trunk of the cherry tree and listened to his voice. Another thing about him that had changed. Gruff, strong. Husky.
Kokaji came into my vision. He was a head taller than the other men. His hands fumbled with the knot on his head. I watched his broad back. His arms were as thick as branches, as the arms of a swordsmith should be. My insides tensed.
“I am a messenger from Emperor Ichijō. His Imperial Majesty received a mysterious oracle tonight and wants to have Munechika forge a special sword. Accept the task and hasten to make it.”
Kokaji bent at the waist in respect, offering the deepest apologies. “I would accept his order with utmost honor. However, I am afraid to say that unfortunately I could not possibly forge it, because I do not have a smithing partner.”
“A renowned smith like yourself does not have a smithing partner?”
“I feel ashamed, but that is correct. Such special swords need a partner to be forged successfully, one whose skills are as superb as mine. There is no one like that in my forge.”
“I understand what you mean, but as long as His Imperial Majesty received a divine message, you should be free from concern and rely on the divine blessings. Just accept his order right away.”
Kokaji lowered his head. “Very well. I will rely on the hope that miracles will happen.” He straightened, tired eyes on the pine covered peak my father loved to roam. “I accept the honor his Majesty bestowed upon me.”
On my way up the mountain, the world was purple with twilight. I reached the lake and shifted to my real self. Movement on the other side caught my attention. I saw an ugly yōkai heading for the glen. Its arms were vines which dragged on the ground, its bulky body a bulbous mushroom’s foot, its head the shape of a lumpy boulder. Mismatched eyes, broken teeth and a long nose curving toward its lipless mouth stood on a face made of stone.
“Hello,” I said falling into step with it.
“Ha-ll-ooo, Kami-sama,” it gurgled.
“Why are you visiting this place? Are you looking for something?”
It turned to me, blinking those mismatched eyes, the left smaller than the right. “My huuuus-baaaand. Soooon.”
Its wide mouth grinned, eyes shining with happiness. Wiggling worms and maggots were stuck between the teeth. “Bi-kooooo. Tonight.”
I ran to my father and told him the news. A hundred yōkai gathered for Biko-san’s rebirth, joy erupting in the glen. Some humans had brought sake to the shrine, so it was cause for double celebration.
I dreaded our meeting, for my hot shame blistered my chest. The fog had dispelled from my memories and I remembered what the tiny yōkai had done to save the mountain. How he had embraced me, fighting fury with love, growing to my size to enfold me in his arms so we could burn together. Only a seed was left of him when the wildfire died out.
The seed had grown into a purple chrysanthemum and on the flower there was a cocoon. The swamp yōkai–who, to my shock, had been Biko-san’s wife–sang to it. It sounded like a mix between an oozing marsh and a swarm of buzzing flies. A mud yōkai close to me said it was as if Amaterasu herself was blessing us with her lovely voice. I had never met Amaterasu, always watching her shine in the sky, but I had my doubts she sounded anything like that.
When the moonlight touched the cocoon, it broke in half and a naked Biko-san emerged to the cheers and hoots of those who had come to see him. He wore no mask and I could see his face for the first time. Light green eyes like young grass in spring, nose a tiny bump, and a permanent pout on his small mouth. His ears were pointed upwards and had silver rings in them. He was clinging an acorn to his chest, his limbs wrapped around the top, struggling not to drop it.
“Yuri, my beauty!” he called. “You came for me!”
“Bi-koooo-saaan,” Yuri growled, green liquid falling down her cheeks. She scooped him in her vine-made hands and he gave her the acorn. The kanji for love had been scratched on one side. Ai.
I would have run like a coward if not for my father’s stern gaze that kept me rooted to the spot and saved me from dishonor. I went to the couple, head bowed.
“Biko-san, Yuri-san, I…”
“Kami-sama,” Biko-san said. “All is forgiven.”
I dropped my head on my paws and, in front of a hundred yōkai, I cried for the second time in my life.
Kokaji returned to the mountain the next day with a basket of offerings for the Inari god. He dropped to his knees and prayed for hours.
“I have been given a tremendously difficult challenge, and though it pains me to ask you, I need help to complete such a difficult task. Inari God, would you send me a miracle? Please.”
I stood behind him, listening to him begging the heavens.
“Long time,” I said at last.
His shoulders tensed and he slowly raised his head.
“I heard you need to make a sword.”
Kokaji straightened but did not turn his head to look at me. “You heard correct.”
“Someone once told me about the virtues of the Three-foot Sword possessed by the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, who could govern the enemies in all directions without leaving the capital city. Is this the type of sword you have to make?”
“Kogitsune,” he whispered. His breath faltered and his shoulders quivered.
“Don’t. We are not friends anymore. You threw me to the crows, prey for the long nosed tengu to carve at my heart. But I will grant you this blessing because last night I learned about forgiveness. Go home. Consecrate the forge in the name of the Inari god. And I will come to help you.”
I left before he could speak again.
Kokaji had a restless night, tossing and turning on the futon, moaning in his sleep. Nightmares chased him, and I wondered if they had the face of guilt. He spent half the night in the forge, consecrating it. He tied a seven-fold sacred rope around the platform to purify it. The drawings of a kitsune were placed at the four corners of the platform. Incense sticks burned the entire night.
At daybreak I dropped a stone into the iron pot. It rang with an awful sound, startling Kokaji as he woke with a cry.
“It’s time,” I said. But he wouldn’t move. Couldn’t move. He stared at me with his mouth agape. I knew why. I had dispelled the illusion of the fox mask. I had a better mask. I glared at him with my cold, immortal, golden eyes.
I thought, See me for who I am and cower. Run from the kitsune monster like a coward.
“Kogitsune! At last! Your eyes…” His own eyes threatened to spill as a whirlpool of emotions shifted on his face. Happiness. Shame. Hope. Guilt.
“The forge awaits,” I said. I left him alone to dress.
It had been a mistake. Being so near Kokaji when he was awake stirred wounds I had tried to bury deep within my soul. I forced my hands to remain at my sides and refrain from reaching out to touch him. In truth, I wanted to run into his arms and hold him close. I missed him so much.
My first youthful disillusion.
“Where is the iron for the blade of the imperial sword?”
Wordlessly, Kokaji extended his hand to a blade resting on two pegs on the forge’s southern wall. His fingers trembled and his breathing was scattered with sobs.
“Show me how you hammer the metal,” I ordered.
The chin-chin-chin of the hammer falling on the blade echoed throughout heaven and earth, vibrating in my core. I picked up a hammer and blew my breath on it as Father had done to bless the lake. It glowed with golden light, and when I laid it down on the fiery metal, golden sparks burst at the impact.
We worked side by side, heads bowed together. From time to time I would feel him watching me, wanting to talk, but I faked disinterest in talking about anything except the sword.
When he threw the finished blade into a barrel of cold water, the steam rising from the sizzling sword reminded me of the white cloud of smoke I snorted on that first day of my life. Reminded me of Mother.
“When did your Mother pass away?” I asked Kokaji. I had not said many words to him beyond the odd order to show me how to help him.
His eyes were sad as he answered. “The day before I returned to the Inari shrine.”
There was something I did not understand. “Why did you return to the shrine? Why did you finish the kitsune?”
“I always meant to finish the shrine. I had promised my mother I would stay away from you…”
“I know that!” I growled, my voice echoing.
“… only as long as she was alive. After that, nothing bound me to the promise I made to her.”
I was on the edge of losing my control. I clung with one finger to a cliff, a bottomless darkness below ready to engulf me. I turned away and took a deep breath.
“Kogitsune. Every day I thought of you. Every day. I spent the last ten years dreaming about us swimming naked in the lake. I spent my free time drawing you. Please, don’t shut me out, now that I can finally speak to you. Now that I can see your face. Your beautiful golden eyes. Please.”
The darkness grabbed at me but I used all my will to cling to that cliff.
He touched my arm and slowly turned me to face him. His cheeks were wet with tears.
“Please, don’t turn away from me. I have missed you so much. It doesn’t matter what you are. You could be an ayakashi for all I care. I beg you.”
My eyelids fluttered. A sigh broke from my throat. “Kokaji.”
He pulled me tightly to his chest in a crushing embrace, forehead to forehead, whispering my name over and over again. “Kokaji,” I said again, my lips trembling.
He kissed me.
I froze, unfamiliar with this electric feeling that started in my toes and shot up my spine. His lips were soft on mine. His hands were in my hair. His breath mixed with my breath. Our bodies heated, and we clung to each other, teeth scraping, lips bruising, desperate twin souls seeking comfort. Seeking home.
“I missed you too,” I sobbed for the last time in my life.
Kokaji was gentle when he lifted me in his powerful arms and took me to his bed. My pulse galloped in my veins when he undressed me.
“Godly,” he said staring down at me. “So beautiful. Always beautiful.”
I opened my arms, accepting him.
In the morning I washed myself in the stream close to the house. My milky skin had been touched by his strong arms, leaving soft bruises on my waist and a pink blush that crept from my chest, up my throat and in my cheeks. I smiled and my chest was warm. We had been addicted to each other last night, neither wanting to stop.
I washed my face, then watched the water rush over the rocks scattered on the riverbed, lost in a happy daze. My eyes dropped on an acorn stuck in the pebbles. I picked it up.
I willed a claw to grow on my finger. I remembered the lines of a kanji I’ve seen not long ago and scratched them on the acorn. The sun shined on my back when I walked naked inside the house. I kissed my lover on the cheek and placed my gift on his pillow.
Ai, the kanji said. Love. My vow I would return.
I passed by the forge for one last glimpse at the sacred blade we hammered together. Kogitsune-maru we named it. As my fingers touched the sharp blade I saw its future. It would become a sword of power to be passed down from emperor to emperor. From regents to royal heirs. In seven hundred years a powerful shōgun will be buried with it. I saw Japan never being the same again and Kogitsune-maru will be there to shape the future.
I said my farewell to the sword. The emperor’s man would come for it soon.
As the sun came in through the window it lit our names. They had been branded on the hot iron and painted in gold. Kokaji’s on the front, mine on the back, together bound in blessed metal, never to be broken, always to be remembered.
As they should have been etched in stone ten years ago.
And Little Fox.
This is a retelling of Kokaji, a Noh Theatre play from Japan, about a famous swordsmith helped by the Inari God to forge a special sword for Emperor Ichijo (980-1011) which will be called “Kogitsune-maru”.
©All Rights Reserved Xia Xia Lake