Uguisu: The Japanese nightingale
In spring, nature was at its most beautiful at dawn, when Amaterasu’s robe touched the hills and dyed them red, and the blooming cherry trees turned a vibrant pink. Hanging from the eaves of every Fujiwara castle were tendrils of purple wisteria, their blooms awakening to welcome the Sun Goddess. The white clouds above resembled boughs of cherry flowers.
When night approached, the birdsong gently shifted from cheerful to forlorn. The uguisu went to sleep in its pot-shaped nest, and the brown-feathered night thrush—recently returned from wintering in Tenjiku—took its place and claimed the night. Now and then, a deer would call and a fawn would answer back.
The day Hirotsugu was born, a young god wandered up and down the high-forested slopes of Mount Kasuga, tired from the day he’d spent blessing the fields and the future harvest. He would have gone home to Mount Kurama in Kibune, but something was amiss with the yōkai living on Kasuga and he’d come to investigate.
At twilight, he found a group of kodama and an old kappa gathered underneath the budding leaves of a giant plum tree, transfixed by its beautiful red blossoms. When he entered the clearing, they were trying to touch the blossoms, but as soon as a hand came close, the tree would raise its branches out of reach.
“Don’t touch it,” the god commanded. His voice was calm, but it came like the snap of a whip and took them out of their reverie. “It’s a ghost tree. It’s not really here.”
The kodama stumbled backward, frightened.
“When did it appear?” the young god asked.
“This morning, Inari-sama,” the kappa answered. “When the baby was born.”
“Baby?” Inari frowned. “Come closer, child, don’t be afraid. Which baby do you speak of?”
The kappa wobbled forward, rubbing his paws. He knelt on a bed of moss and meekly glanced at the god. He saw himself reflected in Inari’s golden eyes that looked at him affectionately.
“Go on,” the god said.
“My name is Snail, Kami-sama. I live in a pond in the palace gardens of the Fujiwara family. This morning as I was warming my shell in the sun, I heard screams from the building where the female humans slept. I knew the lord’s first wife was pregnant, so I assumed it was time for her to give birth. I also assumed the rest of the humans would be busy tending to her needs, so I snuck to the storehouse to steal myself a jar of cucumbers.”
The god smiled and sat back on his haunches. The wind ruffled his shining white fur and his fox ears perked up. “Why were you stealing from them, kappa? It’s dangerous for you to get close to humans.”
Snail dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry, Kami-sama. I couldn’t help it.”
“Then what happened?”
“The storage is close to the bedrooms, and I saw through the walls a great ball of blue light, like lightning,” Snail explained, flailing his skinny green arms. “Then the hyacinth bushes behind the bedrooms withered and a cryptomeria turned white.”
There were gasps and murmurs from the other yōkai. “Be quiet. Listen,” one of them shushed the others.
“And what did you do?” Inari asked.
“I ran away,” the kappa said. “I was too afraid to return to the pond so I came to the forest. And here I found this,” he said, pointing his webbed paw at the tree.
The large white fox stood and stretched. His seven tails swished from side to side. “I will investigate,” he said, and then he vanished.
I followed the kitsune god through the kagerō as he made his way toward the Fujiwara palace. I leaned forward in my seat to watch him closely.
Night had fallen and Tsukuyomi reigned in the sky. The child was alone in his crib, warmed by a round brass hibachi, with a dragon fighting a koi fish embossed around the exterior of the fire bowl. Inari entered the palace bedrooms and found the baby. He growled when he smelled the top of his head.
I narrowed my eyes and clenched the edge of my throne. The white bone fissured under my grip.
“What are you, little one?” the white fox asked. “Your smell is unfamiliar.”
The baby blinked sleepily at the kitsune. He cooed and reached out his little hand to grab the fox god’s nose. Inari flinched away in surprise, startling the child. He sniffed and scrunched his face as if he were about to cry.
I reached for my bone staff and waited tensely for Inari’s predatory gaze to soften.
“You can see me,” the god said, more to himself than to the baby. Moonlight pushed through the window’s blinds, setting Inari’s immortal eyes ablaze. He craned his neck and allowed the baby to touch his fur.
“How intriguing.” He nudged the baby’s small hands with his snout, producing another coo from him.
I thanked the fates. It was too early for murdering young gods. I leaned back on the throne, planted my elbows on the armrests, and continued to keep watch.
“I shall like to see you grow,” Inari said before departing. “Be blessed with happiness, dear child.”
I laughed for the second time in three thousand years, my shrieks echoing in the empty hall. I hit my staff on the floor and the plum tree became invisible.