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.