Tale of a Fox

by Kate MacLeod
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For the first time in four years of marriage, Asuka did not find her husband’s awkward manner and shy smiles endearing. She watched in annoyance as Masuyo got to his feet in a lurch, the movement too hurried to be graceful, and then entangled himself in his long sleeves. The bunkan sokutai she had so carefully fashioned for him was wrinkled, all of her long work wasted by his carelessness.

He would not last a day in Heian-kyo.

Asuka bit the inside of her cheek, willing the tears not to come as Masuyo paid his respects to her father and left. She remained seated where she had so carefully positioned herself earlier, to greet her husband in a rare daytime visit.

She had been glowing with happiness when she had received his message and had extended her invitation to come to call. It had seemed the perfect occasion to show off her new juni-hito, her robes of twelve layers. Each layer was a different color: scarlet, gold, reddish brown, shades of green. They perfectly reflected the colors of the maple leaves that covered the mountains behind her. She had chosen her spot well, the long robes carefully draped until she was like an autumn-colored mountain herself. She had even written a poem for the occasion but had never gotten the chance to recite it.

Masuyo, being Masuyo, had noticed none of her efforts. He had spoken of nothing but his own news. He had been accepted by the Onmyo. Soon he would go to Heian-kyo to join the order and continue his study of yin-yang magic.

And Asuka would be left behind in Nagano.

“And so I lose my son-in-law and heir,” her father said as he returned from seeing her husband out. “He will need a new father-in-law in Heian-kyo, one who can help him advance his career.”

“Perhaps not,” she said. “The Onmyo is different than other branches of Imperial service. Rank does not matter as much as skill, and Masuyo is a very skilled onmyoji. But even if he does marry again, I will always be his first wife. The other will just be a consort.”

“What good is that? It’s merely a title, first wife,” her father grumbled. “And you with no child; you are easy to leave behind. Four years of marriage and no child; you must be doing something wrong.”

Asuka bowed her head under his fierce gaze. “I’m only sixteen. There is still time for me to have a child.”

“Not if you’re in Nagano and your husband is in Heian-kyo.” He turned to leave but paused in the doorway, not quite looking back at her as he said, “You had best make good use of the time you have left before he leaves. I expect a grandchild.”

“Yes, father.” But he had already gone.

Asuka rose in one smooth motion, the many layers of her robes falling into perfect arrangement with no visible effort on her part, and walked along the garden to her room, the end of her long, black hair whispering along the floorboards behind her.

She went to a lacquered box in the corner and took out the first poem Masuyo had written for her, before they were married. Being a scholar he had written it in Chinese characters, which she could not read, but she knew the words by heart. She had cherished it for years. She had always imagined she could see his love glowing from the calligraphy. Now she wondered, was it a man’s love for a woman she saw, or a poet’s love for his own words?

Asuka put the poem away with a sigh then took out another. This one was written in a scrawl on rough brown paper. No perfume had adorned it, no sprig from a cherry tree. She had never answered it, for what lady would reply to such a coarse overture? But she had never thrown it away either. And if the stories about Nakamura Katashi were true, he might be her only hope now.

Asuka rubbed ink on her inkstone and began composing a reply four years in the waiting.

Nakamura Katashi came to call the very next day. Asuka arranged herself as carefully as she had the day before even though, not being her husband, all Katashi would see of her would be an outline on a screen. She did not mind being hidden, it was only proper, but she did wish that she could see him. She wanted to see his face, to examine his features. Even though he had pursued her as a marriage prospect she had never seen him. Would there be something vulpine in his eyes or in the shape of his nose or mouth? It was said he disdained make-up; through the screen all she could tell was that he had no hat. Such an odd man; surely the stories were true.

“Good morning, Lady Asuka,” he said as he settled himself before her screen.

“Good morning, Nakamura Katashi. Thank you for seeing me so quickly.”

“Punctuality is a virtue, one I’m sure you prize, my lady,” he said. She couldn’t tell if he was mocking her or not.

“My husband,” she said, “has received an appointment to the Onmyo.”

“So I’ve heard. He is well suited for such a career.” This time she was certain he was mocking her.

‘You do not think much of the Onmyo, do you, Nakamura Katashi?”

“Or your husband,” he added.

Asuka blinked at that blatant insult. This conversation was not going as planned. “They say the famous onmyoji Abe no Seimei had incredible powers.”

“So they say.”

“They say it is because his mother was a kitsune, a fox spirit,” Asuka went on. Hidden in the large sleeves of her juni-hito her hands clenched tight.

“I have heard that as well,” Katashi said. Asuka studied his shadow on her screen, the tone of his voice. Was he challenging her?

“I have heard the same about you, Nakamura Katashi,” she said, hands clenching tighter. If he took offense and left, there was nothing she could do to bring him back.

“Yes, I assumed you knew that. Who else would you wait four years to answer my letter?” Asuka almost chided him for the disgraceful state of his letter, the bad poetry and childish calligraphy, the poor attention to details like the quality of paper and ink. But she needed his help, so she held her tongue.

“Are the stories true? Was your mother a kitsune?” she asked instead.

“It’s a convenient story to attach to a motherless child, isn’t it? For something as unnatural as a mother leaving her husband and infant son, an unnatural explanation is best, it seems. But why don’t you ask me what you summoned me here to ask me?”

That answer did not satisfy her at all. It almost sounded as if he were saying he wasn’t a kitsune. “What I ask for can only be done by someone of great magic,” she said.

“So ask.” He was beginning to sound impatient, and Asuka accepted that this was as much of an answer as she was likely to get.

“My husband is to leave for Heian-kyo soon, but I do not wish him to go. I wish him to stay were with me in Nagano.”

“As a good Buddhist, shouldn’t you just let him go? Accept it as the transitory nature of life, like cherry blossoms. Beautiful while they last, which is measured in days. You were married in cherry blossom season. I know, I remember. You were quite lovely.”

That was impertinent, to imply he had actually seen her. “The one has nothing to do with the other,” Asuka said. “All I need to know is, can you make this happen?”

“It’s no small thing you ask,” he said.

“Yes, but can you do it? I don’t care how, as long as he stays with me.”

“It can be done,” he said. “But what would you give me in return?”

“Anything,” she said without hesitation. Despite her hopes, she had been afraid that he would deny being a kitsune or would refuse her request. She had not spared a thought about what she would do if he said yes.

To her great surprise he lifted her screen and passed under it. Asuka jumped and scrambled back across the floor, tangling herself in the layers of her juni-hito. She went sprawling with a most undignified thump. Katashi leaned over her, his eyes gleaming with impish delight. Now that she had seen him, she could never doubt the stories. He was all fox.

Katashi reached out and drew one finger down the side of her face then lifted it before his eyes and rubbed it against his thumb.

“I wonder, what do you really look like, under all this?” he said as white powder fell from his fingertips, dusting the silk of her robes.

“How can you ask such a thing?” she gasped, managing to untangle herself enough to sit up. “Unless that’s your payment? To see me without make-up?”

“Hardly,” he said, amusement dancing in his eyes. “But partly.”

“Will you do what I ask?”

“I will think on it,” he said, getting to his feet.

“When can I expect your answer?”

“Soon.”

On the whole, a most unsatisfactory interview.

Masuyo came to her room that night, and she did her best to follow her father’s advice. She had no other sisters; if her husband left her without children, her father would have no heirs.

“I checked the auguries for the most auspicious time for my departure,” Masuyo told her as he stumbled about her room collecting his things by the gray light of dawn. “I will be leaving at sunset by the south pass.”

Asuka bit her lip. She had not yet heard from Katashi, and now time was shorter than she had thought. Nothing she could say would make Masuyo delay an action that the auguries had already indicated, so she did not answer, merely shivered and burrowed deeper under her covers. It was cold, much colder than usual for so early in the autumn.

Fully dressed at last, Masuyo slid open the door between her room and the garden, but he did not step outside. Asuka turned and sat up. He was standing motionless with one hand on the doorframe.

“Were the auguries wrong?” she asked mischievously.

“I… don’t know. How can this be?”

Since he didn’t seem likely to explain anything, Asuka climbed out of her warm bed and crossed the room to stand behind him.

Her garden was buried in snow and more was falling, great thick flakes spiraling down from the star-filled sky in eerie silence.

Katashi had sent his answer.

Masuyo had been certain that such an early snow would quickly melt, but he was wrong. Each night brought a fresh layer of snow until soon the people of Nagano had to dig tunnels to get out of their homes.

Masuyo spent more time with Asuka than he had since the first few months of their marriage, but she soon grew tired of his visits. If he wasn’t complaining of how incompetent the few onmyoji in Nagano were – both in ridding the city of the clearly unnatural weather and in mentoring his further studies – he was composing poems about butterflies unable to escape their cocoons.

Asuka had not heard from Katashi since the snow had begun to fall, but every night when Masuyo wasn’t there she dreamed of him. The dreams were so vivid she woke expecting to find his warm body next to hers, or marks on her body, or at least her nightclothes to be in disarray. But there were no signs, so they must be dreams. And yet why didn’t the dreams come when Masuyo was there?

One evening Asuka offered to play the flute for Masuyo just to stop his endless complaining. He reclined, sipping warm sake to fight the chill, but she hardly noticed him, lost as she was in her own music.

“What song was that?” Masuyo asked when she had finished.

“It’s called the song of seasons,” she said.

“The song of the seasons? Why do you play it so slow? It sounds like a dirge. That will never bring on spring.”

“Who cares about spring?” Asuka asked, feeling petulant after his criticisms of her flute playing. “Don’t you think the snow is lovely when it falls from a clear sky?”

“That lovely snow is blocking all of the passes out of Nagano,” he said.

“And trapping you here with me,” she finished for him. He gaped at her in what she slowly realized was genuine shock.

“Asuka, my being stuck here is only the smallest part of it. No one can get out, but no one can get in either. That includes supply wagons. The snow fell before the harvest was brought in. Nagano is starving. You don’t see it spending every day within the confines of your mansion, but I do. And if we don’t get an early spring, many people will die.”

Asuka had never before felt trapped in her life, perhaps because she had never before had reason to want to leave the walls of her home aside from short trips in a carriage to the shrine on the mountaintop. Although she still dreamed of Katashi, he did not answer any of the letters she sent him. She tried staying awake all night in case they weren’t truly dreams but dozed off shortly before dawn, then dreamed. And in her dreams, she could never speak.

But she knew where Katashi lived. She passed his house in her carriage every time she visited the shrine. It was beyond the outskirts of the city at the edge of the forest, just off the road that went up the mountain to the shrine.

So on a night when Masuyo did not come, she dressed in her warmest juni-hito, slipped out of the house while her father and servants were sleeping, and started walking along the road that would eventually take her to Katashi.

Asuka had taken a pair of wooden sandals that belonged to one of the servants, the tallest pair of geta she could find. But they were designed for rain and mud, not snow so deep it was past her hips in some places.

“Oni soto, fuku wa uchi. Oni soto, fuku wa uchi,” she chanted under her breath as she trudged. Her father had said those words just that morning as he threw roasted soybeans out the door. “Demons out, luck in.” Had she imagined it, or had he shot her an accusing look as he had stepped back inside the house? No one in Nagano felt like celebrating Setsubun but like her father they were going through the motions. Whether she had imagined that look or not, Asuka was certain only she could get the demons out.

She had never been so cold. She could not feel her hands or feet or, more distressingly, her face. The wind kept changing directions, keeping her hair and clothes constantly twisting around her. At least the snow was not so deep outside of the city. She kept her head down – easier than trying to keep her hair out of her eyes – and kept putting one foot in front of the other. She continued chanting until the words were no more than meaningless syllables.

She was beginning to feel warm again, warm and sleepy, when the strap on one of her sandals broke and she went sprawling into the snow. When she finally managed to sit up and look around she was surprised by two things. First, she must have overshot Katashi’s house because she was deep in the woods now; second, she had fallen into the midst of the biggest skulk of foxes she had ever seen. There had to be nearly fifty of them; some white, some red, all gazing at her in complete unconcern.

“Kitsune?” she said, straightening her sodden robes and hair into some semblance of order. “Are you kitsune? Please, I need help. I’m lost.”

The foxes did not move. With a sigh, Asuka got back to her feet and turned to retrace her steps. Standing behind her was a statuesque woman with a face as pale and cold as the moon.

“You wish to find Katashi?” the woman asked. Her lips barely seemed to move when she spoke, but her voice was clear.

“Yes!” Asuka said.

“I can take you to him, but what will you do for me in return?”

“Anything!”

The woman laughed. “I see you’ve learned nothing about dealing with kitsune,” she said. Asuka’s cheeks burned.

“Pardon me for asking, but are you Katashi’s mother?” she asked.

“No. That one would not help you.”

“But you do know Katashi?”

The woman did not answer, but the barest hint of a smile touched her lips. “Come,” she said at last. “I will take you to Katashi.”

“And in return?” Asuka asked, hoping it wasn’t too late to be sensible.

“Don’t worry. What I have in mind will serve both our interests.”

Asuka was expecting more of an explanation, but she wasn’t going to get it. She took a step and nearly fell again before she remembered her broken sandal. She slipped her feet out of both of them, but when she looked up again the lady was once more a fox.

The fox jogged soundlessly over the snow and Asuka stumbled and ran and stumbled again trying to keep up. It seemed like they ran further than she had walked before. Then she tripped over a tree root and fell face-first into a snow drift. By the time she had struggled free of the soft snow the fox was nowhere to be seen.

Asuka flopped back into the snow, too exhausted to go on. Surely the kitsune would come back for her. She looked up at the tree towering over her, a plum tree. Was that snow on the ends of its branches, or was it already covered in white blossoms?

What happened next made so little sense that Asuka was sure she must be dreaming. How else could she explain a plum tree picking her up out of the snow and carrying her into Katashi’s house? The tree plunged her into a tub of steaming water. She had never been immersed in water before and she panicked, but she didn’t have the strength left to translate that panic into more than the weakest of motion in her limbs. The warmth of the water made her aware once more of how cold she was, down in her bones. She couldn’t stop shaking.

But gradually the bath warmed her all the way down and her shivers slowed then stopped. She was just beginning to enjoy soaking in the water when the plum tree plunged her head under the surface. She flailed and fought until the touch of cloth on her face startled her. He was just washing away her make-up.

He, for now the tree had become Katashi. And somewhere in the dream time she had lost her clothes. All twelve layers of them.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Warming you up. I know how you aristocrats feel about bathing, but it really is necessary. I suppose your husband told you it was an inauspicious day for getting wet?”

“No,” Asuka said. Her mind felt like it was still frozen, her thoughts came so slowly.

“It’s a shame there is nothing we can do about your teeth but wait for the stain to fade,” Katashi grumbled.

“You’re an aristocrat too,” Asuka said. “You may be of the lowest rank, but you’re still an aristocrat. You should have some standards.”

“Standards of beauty you mean?” he said. “Trying to take one moment in time and make it last forever? And that one moment is an illusion anyway? No, thank you. I can see an old woman making herself look young again, but why a young woman wishes to look like she’s already lost all her teeth is beyond me. But then, I have no desire to live in Heian-kyo.”

“Nor do I,” Asuka admitted, twisting the washcloth in her hands. “Not that I have a choice. But even if I did, I wouldn’t want to go. I’m too provincial; the city women would not accept me.”

“Would you mind telling me what you were doing freezing to death in my garden?”

“A kitsune in the woods led me here. A woman, not your mother.”

“Ah. And you were in the woods because…”

“Because you wouldn’t answer my letters. This unnatural winter needs to end. I’m sorry I ever entered into an agreement with you. There must be some way to negate it.”

“I like the winter,” Katashi said.

“The people are starving.”

“I find that amusing, actually. They live in a valley teeming with game and yet they are starving.”

“We’re Buddhists! We can’t hunt!” Asuka said.

“That’s not my problem,” he said. “You wanted your husband to remain in Nagano, and he remains in Nagano. You said you didn’t care how I did it.”

“I regret it. Didn’t I say I regret it? What will it take to make it end?” Asuka was shivering again. The water was growing cold.

“That would be up to me, wouldn’t it? And I choose not to end it. In future, be more careful in what you say when making bargains.”

“Never trust a fox,” Asuka mumbled under her breath. “Where are my clothes? I need to be home before anyone notices I’m gone. My reputation would not survive being found at your house.”

“Indeed,” he agreed. “But there is the little matter of your end of the bargain.”

“Haven’t I repaid you?” Asuka asked, still unsure whether she had dreamed his nightly visits.

“Do you think you have?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

Katashi flashed that smile once more. “Time to get out of the tub.”

“My clothes?”

“You aristocrats with your aversion to nudity. If you weren’t all so fat, it wouldn’t bother you so much,” Katashi grumbled. “I’ll make one last bargain with you. For the sake of your sensibilities, I’ll leave my clothes on.”

He reached out a hand to help her from the tub. Asuka took it. She had had long practice in letting her mind run while he body went through all the elegant motions of ritual, and what was this but another ritual? And her mind was running, for Katashi had just given up his secret. And she understood what the kitsune in the forest had meant, and how she could serve both their interests.

She made quite a sight wandering down the road from the shrine, bare feet caked in mud from puddles of melting snow, her knotted and snarled hair dragging over the ground behind her, her silk robes dirty and torn. But Asuka knew more than most about the power of presentation; her appearance was as carefully planned as it had been on her wedding day.

The first people to see her spread the word and by the time she reached her father’s house there was a crowd following with her. They asked frantic questions, but she ignored them all, walking with the practiced grace of a lifelong aristocrat. When her father and Masuyo came racing down the street to meet her she swooned. And for once her husband didn’t disappoint her but caught her and swooped her up into his arms, an image the crowd would remember when they later heard her tale.

Asuka laid abed for three days listening to the sound of the water drip, drip, dripping in her garden and not speaking to anyone. On the fourth day Masuyo came to call, bringing the other Nagano onmyoji with him, and Asuka knew it was time to talk.

“I was possessed,” she said, “by a fox spirit.”

The three onmyoji gasped. One produced a fresh scroll from the sleeve of his bunkan sokutai and sat down at her writing table to take notes.

“How did this happen?” Masuyo asked.

“It was because of Nakamura Katashi.”

“Ah!” the oldest onmyoji cried. “So he is a kitsune!”

“Yes, but he was not the kitsune who possessed me,” Asuka said. “It was the others.”

“The others?”

“There are many kitsune in the forest around Nagano,” Asuka said, remembering the skulk of foxes she had come upon. She didn’t really know if they had all been kitsune or just ordinary foxes, but her tale was taking on a life of is own. “But you shouldn’t be alarmed; they are there to help us.”

“But the snow…”

“Was the work of Nakamura Katashi,” Asuka said, truthfully enough. “The others were angry with him for that. That is why they possessed me. They sent me to his house to stop him.”

“Stop him? How?” Masuyo asked. He looked more concerned than suspicious. She had spent the night at another man’s house, but even her husband believed she had been possessed.

“I…” Asuka paused, overcome. She dropped her head, letting her hair slide over her face.

“You exposed him,” the oldest onmyoji said matter-of-factly. “You found his tail and exposed him for the fox he was.”

Asuka nodded glumly. “I believe that is what happened. My memories are muddled.”

“That is to be expected,” the onmyoji said, “When one is possessed by a fox.”

“Will she be all right?” Masuyo asked.

“She seems fine now.”

“You have broken the spell that held Nagano,” the note-taking onmyoji declared. “My lady, we are grateful.”

Asuka managed the correct, polite smile. Soon her husband would leave her, but the thought no longer troubled her. For although it was perhaps too soon for most women to tell, Asuka was sure she could already sense the little one growing within her.

And if in nine months she bore a child that had something distinctly vulpine in its features, who was to criticize her? She was the heroine of Nagano. And she had, after all, been possessed by a fox.

One Response to “Tale of a Fox”

  1. Helice says:

    Sneaky, tricky story! Loved it!

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