Kij Johnson

Fox magic

Winner of the 1994 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short story of the year.

Diaries are kept by men: strong brush strokes on smooth rice paper, gathered into sheaves and tied with ribbon and placed in a lacquered box. I know this, for I have seen one such diary. It's said that there are also noble ladies who keep diaries, in the capital, or on their journeys in the provinces. These diaries (it is said) are often filled with grief, for a woman's life is filled with sadness and waiting.

Men and women write their various diaries: I shall see if a fox-maiden cannot also write one.

I saw him and loved him, my master Kaya no Yoshifuji. I say this and it is short and sharp and without elegance, like a bark; and yet I have no idea how else to start. I am only a fox; I have no elegancies of language. I need to start before that, I think.

I was raised with a single sibling, a male, by my mother and grandfather in the narrow space beneath Yoshifuji's storehouse, in the kitchen garden. The storeroom's floor above our heads was of smoothed boxwood planks; there was dry, powdery dirt between our toes. We had dug a hole by one of the corner supports, a small scrape hardly big enough for the four of us.

It was summer. We sneaked out of the garden and ran in the woods behind Yoshifuji's house, looking for mice and birds and rabbits. But they were clever, and we were hungry all the time. It was easier to steal food, so we crouched in the shadow of the storehouse, and we watched everything that went on in the garden, waiting.

The cook, a huge man with eyes lost in rolls of fat, came out some days and pulled roots from the dirt. Sometimes he would drop one, and I would wait until his back was turned, and run out, exposed to the world, and snatch it. Often the cook came to the storehouse. We eased farther back, listened to the latch open, and the man's heavy footsteps over our heads, one board creaking; and then the sounds of his leaving, the latch being secured and sounds of his footsteps scuffing up the walk to the house.

One day we listened, and there were the noises, just as there should be, but—The latch was not twisted shut. I looked at my brother, who crouched beside me. We said nothing, for we were just foxes, but we knew what we wanted. No one was in the garden. We crawled out, and ducked in the open storehouse door. There were the foods, just as we had smelled them: a hanging pheasant and dried fish, pickled radishes, sake and vinegar. We knocked over jars and chewed open boxes and ate and ate.

The shout at the door took us completely by surprise. The cook was back: he was cursing at us, at the damage we'd done. I spun around, but there was nowhere to hide; I backed into a corner and bared my teeth. The cook slammed the door shut, and this time we heard the latch.

Panicked, I scrabbled at the walls, at the tiny cracks in the floor through which I could smell my patch of dirt. I cracked my claw; I smelled the thread of fresh blood.

There were voices outside the door again, and the door was suddenly thrown wide. The cook was howling, yelling with rage. A woman stood behind him, in rich robes, with a huge red fan concealing her face. I'd seen her before: I knew she was the mistress of the house, Shikibu. She tilted the fan slightly to stare in at us: light through the fan colored her skin, but she was very beautiful. I growled; she screamed and jumped back. "Foxes!"

The third person looking in was Kaya no Yoshifuji. He was in hunting dress, blue and gray, with silver medallions woven into the pattern of his outer robe. In one hand he held a short bow; arrows stuck over one shoulder from a quiver on his back. His hair was oiled and arranged in a loop over his head. His eyes were deepest black; his voice when he spoke was low and humorous. "Hush, both of you! You're making it worse."

"Oh, Husband!" the woman cried. She was shaking. "They're evil spirits. We must destroy them!"

"They're only animals—foxes, young foxes. Quiet, you're frightening them."

Her fingers knotted on the fan's sticks, "No! Foxes are all evil—everyone knows this. They will destroy our house. Kill them—please!"

"Go." Yoshifuji made a gesture at the cook staring open-mouthed at Shikibu. The man ran up the path and into the house. My lord turned to Shikibu. "You mustn't stay out here where everyone can see you. You're being foolish. I won't kill them; if we just give them a chance, they'll run off on their own." Yoshifuji turned his back on her. "Please go inside."

She looked in at us again. I felt my ears flatten again, my back prickle with lifting hairs. "I'll leave, husband, because you order it. Please come to me later?"

Shikibu left us. Yoshifuji knelt in the dirt of the garden for a long moment with his hand over his eyes. "Ah, well, little foxes, so it goes, neh?—

'Foxes half-seen in the darkness;

I have courted knowing less of my lady.' "

I recognize now that what he said was a poem, even though I wasn't sure what a poem was. It is a human thing; I don't know how well a fox will ever understand it.

He stood and brushed at his knees. "I'll be back in a bit. It would be wise to be gone before then." He paused a minute. "Run, little foxes. Be free while you can."

I couldn't stop watching him as he walked up to the house. It wasn't until my brother bit me on the shoulder and barked that I followed him through the door and down into our hole.

 

I learned to cry that night. Crouched together in the scrape, my family listened in silence. After a time, Grandfather laid his muzzle against mine. "You have magic in you, Granddaughter: that is why you can cry."

"All foxes have magic, Grandfather," I said. "They don't all cry."

"Not this magic," he said.

 

After that I crept often to the house's formal gardens. The carefully shaped trees were cover to me as I approached the house itself, which was of cedar and blackened wood, with great eaves. In the shadow of a half-moon bridge I leapt a narrow stream; I slid past an ornamental rock covered with lichens and into a small willow tree that slumped down to brush the short grasses that grew near the house. I crouched there, lost in the green and silver leaves , and watched. Or I hid in a patch of glossy-leaved rhododendron. Or under the floor of the house itself; there were many places for a fox to conceal herself.

I watched whenever I could, longing for glimpses of my lord or the sound of his voice; but he was often gone, hunting with his friends, or traveling in the course of his duties. There were times, even, when he stayed out all night, and returned just before dawn with a foreign scent clinging to his clothes and a strange woman's fan or comb in his hand. It was his right, and his responsibility, to live a man's life—I understood that.

Still, I felt a little sorry for his wife. Her rooms were the innermost of the north wing, with layers of shoji screens and bamboo blinds and curtains-of-state between us, but it was the seventh month, and she left as many of these open as she decently could, and sometimes I saw her, almost lost in the shadows of the dark-eaved house. She had a handful of women: they played children's games with tops and hoops; they practiced their calligraphy; they wrote poems; they called out the plaited-palm carriages and went to the monastery and listened to the sutras being read. It seemed clear that all these things were merely to fill her time until Yoshifuji came to her. Her life was full of twilight and waiting; but I envied her, for the moments he did spend with her.

And then Shikibu left, to visit her father's family in the capital. She took her women and many servants, including the fat cook. The house was very still and empty. Yoshifuji was home even less often; but when he was home, he was almost always alone. He spent a lot of time writing, taking great care with his brushwork. Most evenings at twilight, he walked through the formal garden, and into the woods, to follow a sharp-smelling cedar path that led between two shrines. I paced his walks in the woods, and tried to see his expressions in the dimness.

There was one night when I crouched under the willow. My lord sat alone in a room with the screen walls pushed back. I think he was just looking at the garden in the moonlight; maybe he was drinking sake as well. His face was lit by the red coals of a brazier, and by the reflected blue light of the full moon. My heart hurt, a sad heavy weight in my breast. Tears matted my cheek fur.

A shadow slid past the ornamental rock and settled next to me. Grandfather touched his nose to the tears, and to my ribs, which belled out without flesh to soften them.

"You will die," he said. "Without food, you will waste away."

"I don't care. I love this man."

He was silent for a while. "Nevertheless," he finally said.

"Grandfather. We are foxes, and we have magic. Can we bring him to us?"

"Is this what you want?"

"Yes. Or I will die."

"If you want this, we will do what we must," Grandfather said, and left me.

 

The magic was hard to make; we worked a long time on it. I am a fox, but my grandfather and mother made me a maiden, too. My hair was as black and smooth as water over slate; it fell past my layered silk robes. One night I looked at myself in a puddle of water, and my face was as round and pale as the moon, which delighted me.

My grandfather made me a small white ball, which glowed in the shadows. I looked at him curiously.

"For playing," he said. "You're a maiden; you can't just wrestle with your brother any more. Besides, a ball like that is traditional for a fox-maiden."

"I don't like playing with a ball."

"You don't know yet if you do or not. Put it in your sleeve. You will want it sooner or later. It will pass the time."

"We made the space beneath the storehouse a many-roomed house, with floors and beams worn to a glow from servants' constant rubbing; and trunks and lacquered boxes filled with silk robes and tortoiseshell combs, porcelain bowls and silver chopsticks, Michinoka paper and bamboo-handled brushes and cakes of ink, a ceremonial tea set glazed to look like pebbles seen underwater. No, we did not make these things, exactly: it was still just bare dirt and a dry little hole. But we made it seem as if it were so. I can't explain.

We filled the house with many beautiful things; and then we made a garden around the place filled with stones and ponds and thick bushes. It would have been a fox's dream, had I still been a fox. We placed a sun, a moon, stars, just like the real ones. We made many servants, all quick and quiet and clever.

And we made my family human. My brother became small and exquisite, with narrow poet's hands. We made my mother slender with a single streak of silver in the black hair that fell to her knees. And Grandfather was very handsome. He wore russet robes with small medallions on each sleeve; when I bent close to see what they represented, he snorted and pulled away. "Foxglove," he said.

I sat in a billow of skirts and sleeves behind a red-and-green curtain-of-state. I had a fan painted with a poem I didn't understand in one hand; I kept staring with wonder at the way the fan snapped! open, and then shut, and at the quick gestures of my human fingers that made this happen. My family was arranged around me: my mother behind the curtain with me, Brother and Grandfather decently on the other side. Mother had a flea; I saw fox-her lift a hind leg and scratch behind one ear, and, like a reflection on water over a passing fish, I saw woman-her raise one long hand and discreetly ease herself.

"Mother," I said, shocked. "What if he sees both?"

She looked ashamed, and Grandfather asked what was going on. I explained, and he laughed. "He won't. He is a man; he'll see what he wants to see. Are you happy, Granddaughter?"

"It is all beautiful, I think. But my lord does not love me."

"Yet." Grandfather cackled. "I'm enjoying this. It's too long since I got into mischief—not since I was a kit, and my brothers and I used to lure travellers into the marshes with foxfire in our tails."

I heard Brother snort. I longed to see his expression, but the curtain separated us. Grandfather said: "Be respectful, Grandson. Be as human as you can, for your sister's sake."

Brother's voice sounded sad when he replied. "Why can't she be happy as a fox? We played and ran and I thought we were happy."

"Because she loves a man," Mother said. "We are doing this for her."

"I know," Brother said. "I will try to be a good brother to her—and a good son and grandson to yourselves—but I'm sad."

"This man will help us all," Grandfather said. "He will be a good provider, and perhaps he will find you a good position in the government somewhere."

"I will try to be dutiful and satisfy all your expectations," my brother said. He didn't sound dutiful, only melancholy.

"Well," said Grandfather. "Granddaughter, are you ready for the next step?"

"Grandfather, I will do anything."

"Then go tonight. Walk in the woods, and when Yoshifuji comes out, let things happen as they may."

 

I left the beautiful house—which meant I crawled out of our dusty little hole—in the company of several ladies-in-waiting. There was a fox-path that appeared to lead through gardens and over a stream to the cedar forest-path, but it was really just passage through some thick weeds behind the storehouse. We moved down to the cedar path and walked there in the twilight.

He came; my fox-eyes saw him before he saw me. He was in house-dress, simple silk robes without elaborate dyed patterns. He wore no hat, but his queue was arranged just as it should be. His face was sad—missing his wife, I imagined, as well he might, she was so pretty and gentle. What was I doing, stealing him like this? Now she would wait in her dark halls forever, with no one to break the dim monotony of her life. I wondered if I should just shed this maiden's body and ease back into the ferns that fringed the path.

But I am a fox, whatever else I have become: I steeled myself easily, and said aloud, "I would rather she were alone than me."

Perhaps he heard me, or saw the ladies-in-waiting, who were dressed in bright colors that glowed even in the gathering dark. At any rate, he walked toward us. My women squeaked and averted their faces, hiding behind their fans. They were magical, so of course they did just as they ought; I, who was only mortal (and a fox), stared bare-faced, with no maidenly reticence. He met my eyes. I have given that hunting stare; I know it well. I responded as the animal I am. I turned to run.

He was beside me before I could gather my skirts, and laid his hand on my sleeve. "Wait!"

I felt trapped like a mouse in his killing gaze. My women fluttered up, making meaningless noises of concern. "Please let me go," I said.

"No. A pretty thing like you?" I remembered my fan, and brought it up to hide my face: he caught my wrist to prevent me. The touch of his skin against mine made me dizzy. "Who are you?"

"Nobody," I stammered. Of all the things we had remembered, all the unfamiliar things we had been so clever about—the tea set, the stones in the gardens—we had given ourselves no names! But he seemed to accept this.

"I am Kaya no Yoshifuji. Why are you here, walking in my woods, with no men to protect you?"

I groped, thinking desperately. "It is a—a contest. We write poems to the dusk, my women and I." The ladies nodded and chirruped in agreement.

"Do you live near here?" he asked.

"Oh, yes. Just on the other side of the woods, my lord."

He nodded; fox magic made him accept this, even though the woods are a day's hard travel deep, and he has made this journey himself. "Still, it's very unsafe, and it's really too dark for you to walk home. Would you and your ladies honor me by coming as guests to my house, to wait there until your relatives can be sent for?"

I thought of those rooms, and thought suddenly of Shikibu, drifting aimlessly, waiting as she so often did for Yoshifuji. She would be a ghost there, even in her absence. I shrank back. "No, I couldn't possibly!"

He looked relieved; perhaps he felt her, as well. "Then where do you live? I'll go home with you."

"That would be very nice," I said with relief. "I live over there."

Maybe he would have seen the falseness that first time when he stepped from the true path onto the fox-path; but he was looking at me, his head bent to try to see past the fan I had managed to raise. It was hard walking in my many robes, but he mistook my inexperience for blindness in the dark, and he was very solicitous.

The fox-path was long and wandering. We walked along it until we saw lights. "Home," I said, and took his hand and led him the last few steps. He was lost in the magic then, and din't notice that he had to enter my beautiful house by lying belly-down in the dirt and wriggling under the storehouse. I stood on the veranda, and servants clustered around, shielding me from his gaze and exclaiming.

"You are the daughter of this house?" Yoshifuji asked.

"I am," I said.

He looked around, at the many torches and stone lanterns that lit the garden, and the quality of the bamboo blinds edged with braid and tied up with red and black ribbons. "Your family must be a fine one."

He followed me into my reception room, where servants had set up a curtain-of-state; they would preserve my womanly modesty here, even after I had committed the solecism of allowing a man to see me walk, and to see my face unshielded. I sank to the mat behind the panels of fabric.

My lord still stood. "Perhaps I should go, having seen you home," he said.

"Oh, please wait! My family will wish to thank you for your kindness. Please sit." I heard servants bring a mat for him.

A door slid open with a snap, by which I knew it must be one of us foxes, as the servants were all perfectly silent when they moved around the house. My brother's voice spoke. "I have only just heard of your presence in our house. Forgive me that my sister was your only welcome."

I think Yoshifuji gestured, but I couldn't see this. After a moment, my brother went on, "I am the grandson of Miyoshi no Kiyoyuki, and in his name I welcome you." (I sighed with relief. Someone had remembered!) "Please accept our hospitality for the night."

"Thank you. I am Kaya no Yoshifuji."

"There will be food brought to you. Let me inform my grandfather; he is in seclusion tonight, but he will be deeply honored by your presence when his taboo has been lifted and he can socialize again. Please excuse me, so that I can arrange to have a message sent to him." The screen snapped shut, and I heard my brother's narrow fox feet pad away from us.

He did not come back that night. Nor did my mother or my grandfather appear. Our only company was my women, silent and efficient. We talked and Yoshifuji teased a little. After a bit, I dropped my fan in such a way that one of the panels of the curtain-of-state was pushed aside, and I could watch his face in the dim light of a single oil lamp.

My women brought my lord a little lacquered tray with dried fish and seaweed and quail eggs arranged on it, and a heaping pot of white rice, and a little cracked-glaze teapot with green-leaf tea brewing in it. There were also carved ivory chopsticks and a small shallow bowl for the rice and then the tea. I sniffed the air, and I smelled perfume and these delicate little foods; and at the same time I smelled the single dead mouse my brother had been able to catch and save. My lord lifted bits of the mouse with scraps of straw held between his fingers, and drank rainwater from a dead leaf, and thought nothing of it.

We talked and talked. He said:

" 'A mountain seen through shredding clouds;

a pretty woman glimpsed through a gap of the curtains.'

"I would be glad of a clearer view."

I knew the appropriate response was another poem, but I had no idea what to say. The silence was stretching; if I said nothing, he would know something was strange, and he would look around and see that he was not in this house, but crouched in the dirt, hung with cobwebs—"Please sit beside me," I said.

This was forward of me, but I could think of no other way to distract him; at any rate, it worked, for he barely blinked, just stood and moved behind the curtains with me.

A woman of rank is hardly ever alone, so my ladies-in-waiting were present; but they slept, discreet little piles of robes in the darkness. One even snored, a tiny undignified sound. I was grateful for that snore; it must make the women seem real, and our privacy seem absolutely convincing to my lord.

I hid my face with my fan, which he took away from me; with my sleeve, which he gently brushed aside; with my hands, which he captured in his own and kissed.

From there things progressed. I had mated before, with my brother, but I think we were too young for it to take, for I had no cubs. Mating with a man was not so different from that—though cleaner and more polite—and yet I found it completely different. Yoshifuji was very handsome, even with his hair in disarray and his robes kilted aside; I wept at his beauty, at the touch of his hand on my human breast, at the feel of him in my fingers, at the heavenly shower of his consummation. He brushed at my tears with a fingertip, and I sobbed more helplessly, and hid my face in my hair.

"What's wrong, my love?" he whispered.

"How she will mourn," I said to myself.

"Who?" he asked.

"Your wife," I said.

He shrugged. "It is you I love."

And that's how I knew that the fox magic had taken him.

 

Dawn came, and Yoshifuji did not leave, as he would have had I been a mere flirt; he stayed beside me, and played with my hair as my women rearranged my dress and scented my robes.

One of the shojis slid open, and my grandfather stood there, in his red-orange robes. I squeaked with embarrassment—the evidence of our earlier occupation was clear around us, and even the curtain around the bed-platform was in considerable disorder, its panels flipped out of our way in the night—but Grandfather said nothing of this.

"Ah, you're the lad," he said. "I'm Miyoshi no Kiyoyuki. Good to meet you."

Yoshifuji bowed. "I am—"

"I know who you are; my grandson came to tell me about you last night, but I was in seclusion. Please forgive me for there being no one but my granddaughter to entertain you."

My lord bowed his head. "Your granddaughter is a woman of rare beauty and intelligence."

"Yes, well," Grandfather said. "I hope you mean that."

"I do," said Yoshifuji. "And your home, so elegant—"

"Well. You were always meant to come here, and now you must stay."

"It will be the delight and honor of my life," my lord said.

"Come drink with me," my grandfather said. "We have a lot to arrange."

Light-headed with happiness, I watched Yoshifuji and my grandfather leave the room. When my love returned, it was settled: we were to be married.

 

We slept together the three nights it takes to formalize a marriage and ate the third-night cakes, and drank sake together in the presence of a priest. I saw the wedding as my lord saw it: our bright robes and the priest's long hands gesturing at us, my family watching, wisteria in my mother's hair; but when I cried, the wedding blurred into patches of color over the truth of the thing: four foxes and a dirty madman crouched in the filth and dust and darkness. I loved Yoshifuji: didn't I want the best for him? Could this be better than his lovely house and his beautiful waiting wife?

No. I didn't care what was best for him. I wanted what I wanted. I am only a fox, after all.

 

We settled easily into a life together. At first Yoshifuji spent every night and most of each day with me. We mated often: most often when he quoted poetry to me. What else was I to do? When we were not pillowed together, he lounged in my rooms, twiddling with the soft-bristled brushes and ink. He sat many times writing quickly on a lacquered lap-desk, the ink black and shiny, wet slate in the snow. I looked over his shoulder once, and read, in large, strong characters:

"The bowl's dark glaze reflects the sky:

Which color is the bowl? Blue or black?"

"What does that mean?" I asked, and then I realized: poetry again. He looked at me strangely, and I blushed and blurted, "What are you writing, all the time?"

"I keep a diary," he said. "I always have. My wife…" his voice trailed off. I held my breath, for I knew he hadn't meant me. After a moment, he shook his head and laughed. "I had a thought, but it escaped me. Perhaps it will come again."

"Come to bed," I whispered, and he left that thought, and did not return to it.

After a time, Yoshifuji began to leave me alone more, to be with Grandfather and Brother. I sighed, but I knew it was appropriate: men will seek out the company of men. The fox magic was such that my lord had responsibilities as he had in his other life. There was a constant stream of people in our house, with messages and problems; there were even envoys from Edo. He had many contacts. He found a position in the neighborhood for my brother as a secretary for an official of some sort.

This sounds so strange, even to me: we were foxes, what kind of work could we do? And there really was no job for Brother, and no messengers, no reports to be sent to Edo. It was all just dreams. But our family felt benefits from this influential life Yoshifuji lived, as if it had been real and we had been human: hunting was better than it had been, and the weather was good. I can't explain. Fox magic.

One day, my husband was hunting with Grandfather. I drifted through my rooms, looking for things to do. I played with my fan and tucked it into my sleeve; when I reached for it, I found instead the small white ball my grandfather had given me. I was looking at it when my brother ran in.

"Sister!" he said, out of breath. "Something terrible is happening up at the house."

"What? What?" I said, knowing he meant my husband's other house, terrified that somehow Yoshifuji had slipped from the magical world we had made for him back into the real world and found his way home.

"They're searching everywhere for him. They have the servants out everywhere. You have to see." He pulled at my sleeve, dragging me outside.

I held back. "Is she there?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so. It's just all the servants, and his son—"

"He had a son ?" I said, and let myself be taken out.

It was hard easing out of the woman's shape to become just fox again: I felt as if I had stumbled on a stone and wrenched my muscles falling. I crouched in the dirt under the storehouse with my brother, watching all the activity.

There was a boy with Yoshifuji's features: how could I have missed him all those days I had watched my husband? He was still young, but he gave orders with an assurance that seemed very familiar. Servants ran in all directions. A priest walked in the gardens, calling the Buddha's Name and reading sutras for Yoshifuji's return. I saw the priest's feet slow as he passed us, and I tensed; but he didn't stop. I had to laugh: the mighty Buddha, confounded by mere foxes? We watched all this for a time, but no one looked under the storehouse. No doubt it seemed too humble a place to find a man.

When I slipped back into my woman's body, I made a discovery.

 

Mther shrieked when I told her. "Pregnant?"

"I could feel it. When I made myself a woman again, I could feel it, a little male."

"A son! Oh, such news! You will bring such honor to the house!"

"How can it? I am a fox. My child will be a fox. He will see, and leave me."

Mother laughed at me. "You have lived all this time with a man, and you have not learned the first thing yet. He will see a son, because that is what he wants. He will be so happy! I'm going to go tell your grandfather. A son!"

 

It was just as she said. Yoshifuji was thrilled. I grew heavy with the child; after a time I could hardly lift myself to walk from room to room. My husband's responsibilities kept him often away; though he spent every spare moment with me, I found myself often bored. I took out the little white ball from time to time and amused myself by tossing it in the air and catching it, and when it rolled from my grasp, my women retrieved it for me.

My delivery of my child was easy, comparatively painless as these things go. Yoshifuji rushed in to the room as soon as Mother would allow him, and brushed through the curtain-of-state to my side.

"My son, let me see him!" he said. "You marvellous wife of mine!"

I gestured for the nurse to show my husband the child. He peeled away the tight cloths. "What a child! Wife, you are extraordinary. A beautiful healthy boy."

I said nothing, seeing for a moment the shadow of a man in filthy, ragged robes crouching in the dark to kiss a fox kit on its closed eyes.

 

Time was strange in the fox-world. Years passed for us, and for Yoshifuji; our son grew rapidly, until he hunted birds with toy arrows and began to ride a fat gold-and-black spotted pony. Years passed, but they were only days in the outer world. My brother, who brought us much of our food, said that my husband's other wife had returned.

"What is she like now?" I asked. I watched my son practice his brush strokes, tilting his head to see the shine of the fresh ink over the matte black of dried ink from earlier lessons; all our magic, and paper was still too scarce to allow a child to destroy more than the absolute minimum number of sheets.

"Sad," Brother said. "What do you expect?"

I shook my head, then remembered he couldn't see me; I was behind my curtain-of-state. As always. "I hoped she would feel better in time."

"How can she?" he said. "It is years you have had Yoshifuji beside you; but out there, he's only been missing for a few days."

I dropped my ball and it rolled across the floor. "How can that be?"

Brother's sigh was impatient. "When were you out last, Sister?"

"I don't know. Before the boy was born, anyway."

"Why not?" He sounded shocked. "Why aren't you going out? Are you sick? I know you were nursing, but the kit's weaned."

"I like to be here when my husband is around."

"We used to play, Sister, just you and me. Remember? We would run in the woods, and at night we'd hunt mice in the formal garden, and play Pounce In The Shadows. What happened to you?"

"Nothing," I said, but I lied when I said this. So much had happened to me, how could I start?

"Then come outside with me. Now." Brother jumped up and knocked the curtain over. I looked up at him, too shocked to hide my face with my sleeve. He caught my hand, and pulled me to my feet. My son looked up at us; I gestured to his nurse, who picked him up and took him from the room.

"Very well," I said. "We'll be foxes together."

This time, crawling out of my woman's form was excruciating, as if it were my own skin I was pulling off. I hunched over until the sense of loss eased, my brother's muzzle pressed against mine. When I felt a little better, I lifted my head and left the space under the storehouse.

It was early evening: the moon was nearly full, and the stars were washed out with its brightness in the east, and the dying colors in the west. We travelled across the formal garden, moving in the trees' short shadows. When I leapt across the stream, beside the half-moon bridge, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the moving water, and it startled me enough that I stumbled when I landed and rolled into a ball.

Brother stopped and nosed at me. "What's wrong?" he whispered, but I shook my head, the gesture coming uneasily to my fox's body. I did not tell him that I had seen a woman in my reflection.

There were already lights in the house: torches set along the verandas, and braziers and lamps in the rooms despite the night's summer heat. Many of the sliding walls were open: I watched moths fly in and die in the house's many flames.

The north suite of rooms, Shikibu's rooms, were dimly lit. I crept up almost to the veranda and looked in. I couldn't see her, but I saw her sleeve, half exposed under her curtain-of-state. A priest knelt in front of the curtain, chanting the sutras. The night's breeze pushed aside one of the curtains; before one of her women could pull it back in place, I saw Shikibu, listless and sad in the gloom.

The house's main rooms were full of light. My husband's other son stood with two older men in travelling clothes. They looked like brothers to Shikibu. They had brought a tree-trunk segment as tall as a man, and they clustered around it, with a Buddhist priest and many servants crowded in the garden watching. Everyone was dressed strangely; in mourning, I realized. It surprised me—no one was dead—until I realized it must be my lord they were mourning. I found that funny, but something hurt quite incredibly in my chest at the thought.

The boy chipped at the trunk with a chisel and mallet.

"What can they be doing?" my brother whispered. "How eccentric humans are."

"I don't like this, whatever it is," I said.

"Hah. Come up closer. Let's see at least what it is they're doing." My brother crawled forward on his belly.

"Brother!" I hissed, but he didn't turn around; so I followed him.

The boy in the hall passed the chisel and mallet to one of Shikibu's brothers.

"Finished, Tadasada?" the man said.

I squinted at the wood: close like this, I could see that it had been carved with an image of some sort, but I couldn't tell what the carving was. The priest stepped forward, with two assistants who threw incense on the braziers in the room. Everyone else in the room lay down on their stomachs and began to pray softly. The priest fell forward and began chanting in a loud voice.

He was praying to the Eleven-Headed Kannon (when I squinted, the carving made sense this time: there was the cluster of heads, and the arms and the crossed legs). When he called this god my fur rose on my shoulders until my skin prickled with the strain. "I hate this," I hissed at my brother; he just nuzzled me and went back to listening.

There was no reason to worry. I remembered the priest who had called on Buddha and walked past us anyway. How could this one fare better? His voice went on and on, asking to know where Yoshifuji's dead body lay. The incense snaked from the braziers and out onto the still air of the garden. One tendril seemed to move toward us, like a smoke-snake questing. The tiniest breeze lifted its tip, so like a snake's head that my courage broke and I bolted, my heart so hot and heavy with panic that I could hardly see the garden I ran through.

I ran under the storehouse and rushed back into my woman's shape and stood there, shivering. "Husband?" I called. "Husband? Where are you?"

I ran through the rooms and hallways, careless of being seen by the men of the household, calling my husband's name. I was on one of the verandas when Yoshifuji emerged quickly from a brightly-lit room, dropping the blinds behind him.

"Wife?" he said. His face was wrinkled with a frown. "I have emissaries. We could hear you all over—"

"Husband!" I panted. "I am so sorry—I know this is most unseemly—it's just that—I was so afraid..."

His face softened, and he moved forward quickly to hold me. "What happened? The child? It's all right now, whatever it is, I'm here."

I swallowed, tried to control my breathing. "No, not our son, he's fine." What could I tell him? "A snake of smoke, and it was looking for you. I—must have had a bad dream. I woke up, and I was all alone, and I felt so afraid."

"Alone? Where were your women?"

"They were there. I just meant—lonely for you." I threw myself against him, my arms tight around his neck and sobbed against his cheek. He held me and made soothing noises. After a while, he loosened my hands and passed me to one of my women, who stood waiting in the shadows.

"Better?"

I sniffed.

He took my hands. "I'll take care of this little bit of business, and then I'll come and sit with you, all night if you like."

"Yes," I said. "Hurry."

 

5 waited in my rooms. I sat in the near-dark, and tossed my ball, and cried with the horror of that snake of smoke, and longing for Yoshifuji. My son was sleeping, but my nurse carried him in to me, and I watched him, curled up in a nest of quilts. "See, my husband must love me," I said to myself. "Here is the evidence: no Buddha can take this away. No Buddha can threaten his love for me." Then I would think of the snake of smoke and I would jump up and pace and stare out at our pretty fox-gardens again. And Yoshifuji did not come.

But the Eleven-Headed Kannon came. He came as an old man with only one head, and holding a stick; but I knew it was he: he was not made of fox magic, in a place where everything and everyone was. He smelled of the priest's incense. Who else could he be? He walked across the gardens stepping through the carefully placed trees, and our rocks, and the ornamental lake; and he left a path in his wake, like a man raising mud when he fords a stream. The magic tore and shredded where he walked, leaving bare dirt and the shadow of the storehouse overhead. The magic eddied and sealed the break a few steps behind him; but he carried the gash of reality with him, like a Court train.

He walked straight through all our creatings, toward the house.

"No," I shrieked and ran out onto the veranda. "Leave him here!"

The man walked forward. I ran to the room where my husband was, burst in to where he sat with an emissary from the capital and his secretary. "Husband! Run!"

"Wife?—" he said, but I felt the veranda beside me shiver and dissolve. I fell to my knees. Yoshifuji jumped up, his sword sheath in his hands. I clawed at the Kannon's robe as he passed me, locked my hands in his sword belt, until he was pulling me forward with him. He did not even slow.

"What are you—" my husband bellowed, as the man prodded him with the stick in his hand. Yoshifuji jumped backward, and pulled his sword free.

I screamed. The sword shivered into a handful of dirty straw. My husband looked at it in disgust and threw it on the ground. The man prodded him again, and Yoshifuji moved backward, through the house.

"Leave him, please leave him, they mean nothing to him, I love him—" I begged and prayed as the man dragged me through our house, out into the gardens. My hands bled from the hard edge of the belt. If nothing else around us was real, I knew this was, this hot blood in my palms. Yoshifuji kept turning back, trying to help me; but the man just jabbed at him again, and forced him stumbling forward.

The belt leather was slick with blood; my fingers slipped and I fell behind the man, in the dirt below the storehouse, beside one of the support posts. The Kannon gave my husband one more jab, and he crawled out from our home, and stood upright in his kitchen garden. I crawled after him, but I knew it was too late already. I lay by the storehouse in my robes, blood on my hands, my long hair trailing on the ground.

It was still dusk there; the thirteenth evening after Yoshifuji had come to me; his thirteenth year in my fox-world. Nearly everyone was in the garden huddled in little clumps and talking among themselves. Yoshifuji was two things in my eyes, like something seen and distorted through water: handsome in his dress robes, a little dusty now, still carrying an empty sword sheath; and covered with filth, casual robes stained and torn, holding a little wormeaten stick: a man who had lived in the dirt with foxes.

The boy was the first to see my husband looking around him.

"Father!" he shouted, and ran to Yoshifuji. "Is this you?"

"Son?" my husband said hesitantly. "Tadasada?" I saw memory coming back to him; but the fox magic was strong enough to shape his understanding of things. "How have you not grown more while I was gone?"

The boy threw his arms around the man. "Oh, Father, what has happened to you? You look so old!"

Yoshifuji pushed the boy away. "It doesn't matter; I am only here to send your mother back to her family. She is back, I presume? I was so desperate after your mother left to visit her relatives, and she was gone so long. But I met someone, a wonderful woman, and married her, and we have had a lovely little boy. He's growing much handsomer than you, I must admit. He's my heir, you know. You're no longer my first son, Tadasada: I love his mother so."

The boy looked up at a darkened room of the house. I saw a form there, robes shifting softly, and I realized it was Shikibu, watching, too aware of the proprieties to come down to greet her husband in front of so many people. The boy straightened. "Where is this son of yours?"

"Why, over there," my husband said, pointing at the storehouse.

They saw me then. "A fox!" one man shouted, and they all took up the cry: "A fox! A fox!" Men ran toward me and the storehouse, carrying sticks and torches.

"Husband!" I screamed. "Stop them!"

He hesitated, obviously confused. "Wife?" he asked unsteadily.

"A fox!" the people yelled.

"Please stay with me!" I cried, and held out my arms to him. He stepped toward me; the boy threw himself into Yoshifuji's arms, overbalancing him.

I looked up at the house again, in the instant before the men caught up to me, and, for the first time, I saw her face clearly, where she stood on the veranda. I saw tears on her face, and I knew that she, alone of everyone here (save my lord) saw me for a woman.

 

They chased us, the men. They stuck their torches down so they could see under the storehouse floor, and poked around with their sticks, and my family fled in all directions: even my son, who was only half-grown. They followed me until I threw off even the seeming of my woman's body in blind panic. The pain drove me out of consciousness, but my fox's body ran anyway, on its bloody pads.

I came back to my woman's shape much later, when I was sick from the fear that had choked me. My house was empty, save for the servants, who brought me clean robes and food.

I have waited since then. My family has not returned. My grandfather was old; I don't know if he could have lived through the heart-bursting panic of the chase. My mother, my brother, and my son are all gone. I hope they are together, but I fear they are scattered.

Yoshifuji wept for many days; I heard him, when I crawled through the darkness to his door, calling my name and the name of our son. The household summoned priests and a yin-yang diviner to purge my husband of his "enchantment," but they say its hold has been strong. Recently, I heard him say that he is over his sickness, but I don't know what to believe; it didn't seem like a sickness to me, and he does not sound over it.

Without my family, it's hard to maintain the house and the servants. The garden is already gone, faded like mist. The house dissolves room by room; I don't leave my wing much, not wanting to know how far it has gone, this melting of my home. My servants are fewer now, and they are even more silent than they were before. I have thought of leaving, stripping off the humanness one more time and running in the woods again; but I know I can't. I am no longer simply a fox.

But I am not simply a woman, either. I know it is a woman's role to wait, always lost in the shadows, patient for her lord. I know the old tales would have me wait until my death, after such a thing as this. But I have waited so long already, alone, tossing my ball, puzzling over Yoshifuji's diary. I am so tired of this.

I have a plan, if a simple one. It was summer, the thirteen days he spent with me. Now it is winter: the first snow has fallen today, a cold cloud as deep as my wooden clogs. I know him so well; he will come out into the garden tonight, to write about the snow and the moon. And I will roll my white ball across his path. If he still misses me, he will see it for what it is, and find me, and we will be happy: no false lives this time, no waiting in the darkness, no magic but that which will keep us either human or fox together, according to our choice. And if he truly is content there, with Shikibu and the boy, it will only seem another piece of the snow.

I think he will see the ball.

I have just thought of something:

Fox magic:
Priests, you can cure him of everything
but love.

I think this is a poem.

 

Return ]

© 1993 Kij Johnson

Asimov's, December 1993
Axxon 60
(Spanish anthology), 1994
Emblemes 6: Extrême-Orient
(French anthology), ed. Greg Silhol, Editions de l'Oxymore, 2002
Tales for the Long Rains,
Scorpius Digital, 2001
Sturgeon Awards anthology, ed. James Gunn (forthcoming)

Winner of the 1994 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short story of the year
Honorable mention, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventh Annual Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, St. Martin's Press, 1994