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.