Kitsune: The red fox or the fox shapeshifting yōkai
October brought the first earthquake of autumn.
Hiro awoke shivering, missing the warmth of Ryū’s body. He yawned and turned onto his side, searching for the fire with half-lidded eyes. It had died not long ago. He stretched his limbs, indulging in the brief comfort of lazing around. For the first time since his arrival on Mount Kurama, he felt at ease. The fog over his mind had cleared. This place had turned out to be quite the little piece of heaven.
He smiled to himself as he brushed his fingers over the spot where Ryū usually slept. He was probably somewhere outside now, preparing breakfast. Hiro drank in the smell of his body that lingered on the winter coat he slept in.
Kami-sama had said Hiro was in love with Ryū.
Maybe he was.
He sighed. Who was he kidding with ‘maybe’?
With an earthquake, one heard it first and felt it after. The noise came from the heaving ground and the debris falling down the slopes, from the crack of timber as trees broke in half, and from the flapping wings of distressed birds taking flight. That day, when Mount Kurama shook its forests, the sound resembled a roaring dragon.
Ryū rushed into the hut and dragged Hiro out of bed. “We need to get out, now!” They stumbled outside just as the ground beneath them buckled and their home began to shake. They tried to run for the lake, but the earth shifted beneath their feet, slamming them to the ground.
Without thinking, Hiro immediately rolled over Ryū and covered him with his body. His eyes widened in horror as the quaking uprooted a nearby tree, and its thick trunk looked like it was going to crush them. Ryū screamed and covered his face.
Something snapped in Hiro. It tore out of him like a dark kagerō mist and made time stop. He raised his hands, and an energy left his palms and crashed into the tree trunk, reducing it to splinters. But the bits of wood didn’t fall to the ground—they just remained suspended in the air.
Hiro looked around, dazed by the frozen world. The clouds had stilled, and the birds were caught in mid-flight like insects stuck in a spiderweb. Everything had a dreamlike shine, covered in a strange silver mist.
Ryū’s face was hidden behind his hands and his body was curled in an attempt to protect himself from the falling tree. Hiro could smell his fear, and a low growl formed at the back of his throat in response.
He was waking, and it caught me off-guard. I rushed through the veil, reaching for him.
“Go back to sleep,” I said. “If you don’t, you will hurt him.”
He searched for my voice. “Where are you?” he asked.
“Here.” I touched his cheek with my palm. He sighed and leaned into the caress. “You’ve done well. The threat is gone. Now sleep,” I urged again. “It’s not your time yet.”
He lingered for a moment more, basking under my touch, and then slowly closed his eyes. “I did well,” he said with a smile.
Dust filled the air, and debris rained down around them.
Hiro tasted iron in his mouth from biting his tongue. He buried his face in Ryū’s neck and prayed to the gods to keep them safe. But then he remembered it was Kannazuki, and the gods weren’t there. Inari wouldn’t hear his call.
After a few minutes, all noise had subsided except the crying of the crows.
“Hiro,” Ryū whispered in the relative silence. “We’re all right now. It’s over.” Hiro shook his head and made an indistinct sound. Ryū caressed the back of his head. “I’m safe. You can let me go.”
Hiro gingerly looked up, and he saw the splinters surrounding them. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I thought we were about to be flattened.”
“Me too.” Hiro sighed and leaned his forehead on Ryū’s. “That was terrifying.”
“Mhmm,” Ryū agreed. “At least our house is still standing.”
Ryū’s nose was dusty, his clothes had been wrinkled, and his hair was full of dead leaves. He looked like a kodama minus the green skin.
“You’re so pretty,” Hiro blurted out.
Ryū stiffened and his mouth fell open. “What?”
Hiro felt his face burning up to his scalp. He stood quickly. “I should probably get some water from the lake,” he muttered.
“Wait!” Ryū grabbed his arm. But then he released him. “Sure. I’ll go check the hut’s damage.” He sounded a bit disappointed.
Hiro didn’t stop at the lake. He kept going, far away from hearing distance, pushing through the bushes and hiding behind a tree. He dropped onto the moss and leaned on the hard trunk, the bark scratching his back.
By his family’s standards, he would be ready for marriage and children when he turned seventeen. They had no doubt already found him a wife. Maybe several. He groaned in frustration. Even though it was several years away due to the exile, he wondered how he’d ever be able to do it, when all he thought about was Ryū.
A soft whine caught his attention. A cryptomeria had fallen over several young maples, fragmenting their branches and creating a gap in the forest canopy. An evergreen branch shifted, and a bushy red tail peeked from under the needles. Something was trapped underneath and trying to get itself free.
Hiro stood and approached carefully. He knelt and pushed the branch away, and a small fox snapped at his finger.
“Easy, easy, kitsune, I’m not going to hurt you,” he cooed. The beast had its front leg caught under the tree. Hiro maneuvered his hands under the heavy branch and raised it high enough for the fox to escape.
It dragged itself away, took a couple of steps, and then lost consciousness. Hiro waited for its soul to emerge so that he could set it free.
Everything was quiet now, the dust settling on the leaves. The fox’s soul remained steadfastly in its body. Since it still lived, Hiro picked it up and brought it home.
He found Ryū in the middle of cleaning up. He had taken the sleeping mat outside and deposited their meager belongings on it, and then used a tree branch to clean the inside of the hut.
Hiro stared at the gathered objects that made up their home. A pot, a ladle made from half a gourd, two stools, two cups carved from bamboo, the scythe and skinning knife they’d brought with them, and the packs. In one of the packs was the half-empty bag of rice they’d rationed judiciously.
He crouched and gently placed the fox on the mat. Its leg was badly injured, the bone smashed. Hiro had no knowledge of such things, but he didn’t think it could be fixed. This fox could never hunt again. Its life was lost.
“What do you have there?” Ryū asked, appearing behind him.
Hiro stood, revealing the young fox. “Found it near the lake. I’m worried that leg can’t be repaired.”
Ryū placed a hand on the beast’s head. He lifted its leg, and it lay limp and broken in his palm.
The fox opened its eyes and whined but was too weak to move. Hiro gazed toward the lake, wishing he could ask Inari-sama.
“Did you get the water?” Ryū asked.
“No, I forgot.”
“I’ll be right back.”
Ryū went to the lake, while Hiro rummaged through the packs to find the medicine pouch.
“The leg is going to get infected. Do you think we could give it anything?” he asked Ryū when he returned.
Ryū shook his head. “I’m not sure human medicine would work on foxes.” He knelt and placed the ladle under its snout.
It didn’t move. Its breathing was shallow, and it made a gurgling noise which didn’t sound at all promising. Ryū dipped his fingers in the ladle and dribbled several drops onto the red muzzle, and the fox slowly licked it.
“I will hold its head up. Can you help it drink?” Ryū asked Hiro. He moved behind the fox and placed a palm underneath its head, raising it a bit, and Hiro held the ladle close. They smiled at each other when the fox managed to lap at the water a couple of times.
Hiro peered over at the packs. “We don’t even have enough food to last the winter,” he said. “We won’t be able to feed it.”
“We can buy more food,” Ryū said, laying the fox’s head back on the mat. “I can make bamboo baskets and sell them in the city. Five large baskets would get us a month’s worth of rice.”
Hiro looked down at his hands. “I don’t know how to make a basket.”
“I can teach you. And you have your bow and arrows. You can catch us a bird or two, and I’ll sell them. Quail and pheasants sell for good prices.”
“Have you seen any quail or pheasants around?”
“I’ve seen ducks and geese.”
Hiro rubbed his hands on his knees. Ducks. That could work. Or maybe hares. “So, we keep the fox?” he asked.
“If she wants to stay with us.”
“Yes. It’s a girl,” Ryū said.
“How can you tell?”
Ryū patted the fox’s belly. “There’s no penis,” he said with a comically straight face.
Hiro snorted, embarrassed. “Right.”
“She’s very thin,” Ryū said, eyeing the wound with concern. “Might not have enough strength to heal.”
“What should we do?”
“Whatever we can, I suppose.”