Friday, November 30, 2012

Kinuyo and the Kitsune

It had been three days since Kinuyo’s mother had gone out to buy some eggs from Mrs. Yamamoto, a friend from across the town.  She hadn’t returned.

Her mother left in the early evening.  Kinuyo chopped the green onions and heated the rice; she fried the fish and boiled the tea.  Then she waited until the tea grew cold and the sky became dark.  The late autumn wind sent a shiver through her thin shawl.  From somewhere deep in the streets, someone cried out, someone scampered like a rat over the road.  Leaves rustled.  A lone dog howled.

And still her mother didn’t returned.

The second day, Kinuyo swept the house and mended a tear in her mother’s slippers.  She bought soba from a small shop nearby for dinner.

“Maybe some trouble on the street kept her from coming home last night,” she told a scruffy orange dog sniffing the maple tree in front of their house.  “Perhaps there was a scuffle between the imperial troops an accused and a Shougitai spy.  I’d say a robber, but,” Kinuyo smiled briefly, “they don’t seem to be good at catching them.”

The dog gazed out into street.  It barked once, then went back to sniffing.

(Continue after the Break) 

Kinuyo sighed.  The thought of robbers forced unpleasant reality into her mind.  Perhaps her mother had spent the night at her friend’s house.  Perhaps, instead of coming home, she had stopped by the jail to visit Kinuyo’s brother.  Or perhaps, she had spent the whole day haggling with a peddler for a cheap price on old kimonos.  Perhaps… but perhaps was fading away, fainter and fainter, like the sun in the sky, painting underbellies of clouds a murky black.

Kinuyo knew a girl who'd lost her father and two brothers in the battle of Ueno Hill, just a few months back.  They'd left early one morning in their polished samurai armor, with their swords at their hips.  They hadn't come back.  Now the girl's mother sat at the front of the house, spinning silk at her wheel, as though nothing had happened.

Quietly, Kinuyo blew out her lantern and went to bed.  She left the soba out for her mother.  But the next morning, when she found the noodles cold and untouched, Kinuyo knew she had to act.

The orange dog slept curled up next to the tree.  When Kinuyo slid the door open, its pointed ears perked, and it wagged its matted tail.  Kinuyo tossed it the rest of the soba.  The dog greedily guzzled the meal and licked Kinuyo’s fingers.

“You were a good friend yesterday.”  She patted its rough fur.  “You kept me from loneliness.  If times were better, maybe we could keep you.”
Kinuyo straightened.  “I must find my mother now.  Go chase squirrels and play.  After all,” she added wryly, “it's said that the streets of Edo belong to you.”

The dog barked happily.  It obeyed Kinuyo's instructions and began to run….

* * *

A girl of about twelve stood in the middle of the street.  She wore a beautiful white kimono the color a crane’s feathers and richly garnished with embroidery, but her thick black hair hung raggedly over her shoulders.  She seemed odd, just standing in the dusty street, as people trudged around her: another day’s work while the sun was warm.

“Hello,” Kinuyo said.  “Are you lost?”

Her first thought was that the girl might be a daughter of a lower samurai.  But most of Tokugawa’s retainers had left two months ago, pulling carts filled with goods behind them.  A merchant’s daughter then?

The girl tilted her head and studied Kinuyo with bright black eyes.  Slowly, a wide grin seeped across her narrow, pretty face.

“I’m not lost.”  The girl's voice was clear and surprisingly forceful.  “I like to saunter the streets of Tokyo on my own.”

“Few people call the city as Tokyo.”  Kinuyo spoke lightly, but the girl’s open manner disturbed her. “Besides, you shouldn’t be alone.  There’s no one left to govern Edo, and the streets are no longer safe.”  

“That's why I like it.”

The girl smiled again, showing her teeth this time.  Quickly, she turned on her heal and ran off.  Her legs stuck out through flaps of her kimono, her hair streamed out around her shoulders like stems of wild grass.

Not one person turned to look.  Only Kinuyo shook her head.  What had happened to the soul of Edo that people now allowed young girls to behave in such an exposed and reckless manner?

She remembered when she was young, when the city still flowed with life and she squealed to catch a glimpse of a samurai with his two swords at his hip.  Her father had always admired the samurai and taught her to respect the Tokugawa family, the city’s protectors. Sometimes, as he sketched scenes of Edo for the woodblock carver, Kinuyo would sit beside him and he would tell a story of the compassionate daimyo and their loyal retainers.

Kinuyo smiled, remembering the smell of paper and ink that had followed her father.  She liked looking at his prints, especially the ones he made before she was born.  Back when the samurai respected the Shogun, and foreigners kept their dirty feet off their land.  Those pictures seemed brighter somehow.

But she loved all the prints he made, and in the shop that sold them, she flitted from picture to picture, trying to decide which she liked best.  Her father shook his head.  Once he told her that she reminded him of a butterfly in the spring, fluttering from flower to flower with no notion they would wilt.

“That's all very well for now,” he said, “but when grow older you must learn to restrain your joy and sorrow both and bear with life with a calm and patient soul.  Remember, little Kinu, only a pomegranate gapes his mouth and shows the contents of his heart.”

Kinuyo’s throat pricked.  She brushed the memory aside.  It did no good to reminisce; it would not help Kinuyo find her mother.  She walked toward Mrs. Yamamoto’s house.  Perhaps her mother was still there, ill or with a twisted leg.  If not there, Kinuyo could check at the doctors… or with the police….

“You said the streets weren’t safe.  So why are you still on them?”

It was that same strange girl again, leering at Kinuyo from the gutter.

Kinuyo decided the girl must be out of her head and walked away quickly, trying to avoid her.  But like a dog or a drunken man, the girl followed her.

“It’s not just robbers and murders running about with no one doing anything to stop them.”  The girl hopped on one foot.  “You have to watch out for the police as well.  You never know when they might walk up to you in broad daylight and arrest someone you love for conspiring against the Emperor and his new government.”

Kinuyo put her head down and sped up.

“Just like how they arrested your brother.”

She stopped.

The girl laughed.  “Got him for distributing political cartoons.  Sent him to jail for criticizing the new government.  Poor Kinuyo; murderers flocking into the city and no strong men left to protect you.”

“Who are you?” Kinuyo asked softly.  Her insides had gone very cold, and her heart thudded painfully.

The girl’s grin faded.  “I know where your mother is."

The shock of those words pushed all air from Kinuyo’s lungs.

“Do you want to know?  I’ll tell you.”

Kinuyo couldn’t move.  She managed to jerk her body to the side as the girl came up to her, mild as a fawn, and whispered in her ear.

“She’s beneath the ground, dead and buried.  Just like your father.”

In a flash of anger, Kinuyo raised her hand.

But the girl was off and running, cackling over her shoulder, “They’re all gone, your entire family!  You’re alone now, completely alone!”

“Wait!” Kinuyo yelled, but the girl darted between some buildings and was gone.  The last thing Kinuyo saw was a moving streak of red against the white of her kimono.  A tail!

“Kitsune!” Kinuyo sucked in her breath.

A fox-spirit.  Kinuyo had heard fairy tales from her childhood: how kitsune could take the shape of a human, how they tricked men and possessed the bodies of women.  But those tales were always set in the countryside, where foxes roamed freely.  Did they now make their home in Edo, too?

The people on the street moved past her, not looking, not asking.  Kinuyo stared at the buildings where the fox-girl disappeared.  A chill crept over her.  Slowly, she took a step forward.  Then another, willing her body to move.

Her hand was shaking.

* * *

A withered tree stood in front of Mrs. Yamamoto’s house, its few leaves already starting to wilt and crack.  The sight of the familiar wooden house with blue roof titles reassured her.  Kinuyo knocked on the door: a quick, nervous rap, rap.

“Yes, yes.  I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Mrs. Yamamoto’s voice was soft as old leather.  Kinuyo let out her breath.  What had she expected after all?  Did she think she’d hear the voice of that strange kitsune-girl in her place?

The seconds stretched like an afternoon shadow as Kinuyo stood, waiting for Mrs. Yamamoto to open the door.  It was quiet outside--unnaturally so.  Not the chirp of a bird, nor the rustle of the breeze.  Fear bubbled through her vague and insistent, like the steady ache of a nerve.

“Mrs. Yamamoto?”  Kinuyo knocked again.

Rap...  Rap...  The sound was dull and distorted.  The gap between each rap was long enough for a withered leaf to glide to the ground.

“She's not there anymore.”

Kinuyo turned.  The girl leaned against the tree, her face pointed and serious.

“Kitsune,” Kinuyo said, with all the boldness she could muster.  “Why do you mock me?  What have I done to deserve this?”  Her words fell flat from her mouth into the autumn sunshine, and the fox-girl ignored them.

“I was lying before.  Your mother didn’t die.  But she came close it.”  The girl rocked on her heals.  “Not long after she left this place, she met a group of robbers.  Rough men.  They struck her over the head; the eggs she bought earlier dropped and cracked on the street.  The robbers stole the few copper coins she kept on her and left your poor mother cold and bleeding, for crows to pick at and dogs to lick.”

Kinuyo folded her hands.  They were shaking again, more violently than before, and her legs shook and her innards quivered.  She was sure she was going to pitch forward at any moment.  With all her strength, she held herself erect.

The girl tilted her head, black hair falling across her face.  “You’re a hard-hearted one,” she declared.  “To listen and say nothing.”

“It’s a lie.”

“It’s not a lie,” the girl replied indignantly.  “I found her.  She would have died if I hadn’t taken her in.  But I won’t care for her anymore--it’s tiresome and now you’ve called me a liar.  So, I think I’ll just let her die.”

Warm tears formed at the edges of Kinuyo’s eyes.  She curled her fists and blinked quickly.  The tears didn’t drop, but neither did they leave her.  Kinuyo felt as though everything she loved had been ripped from her, and she stood powerless to stop it.

“I can bring you to her.”  The fox-girl was suddenly close.

Kinuyo opened her mouth, but didn’t know what she could say.  Without thinking, she glanced back at Mrs. Yamamoto’s house.

The girl laughed, a melodious sound that sent cold sweat down Kinuyo’s back.

“I’m not waiting for that old lady.  And I’m not waiting for you either.”

Her hair flew out, the girl began to run.

“Wait!” yelled Kinuyo.

And suddenly she was chasing the fox through the streets of Edo.  Yes, it was a fox; she was certain now.  Its red tail bounced out as the girl ran.  It was quick.  Kinuyo sucked in her breath and fired her legs, but the fox only seemed to get further ahead.

Around her, the streets began to change.  Wooden stores erupted into stone castles or boxes made of red brick.  Men walked past her in pants and jackets, women wore dresses with ballooning fabric at the back end.  Criss-crossing lines of iron stretched the road.  Suddenly, there came a shriek.  A demonic black machine rumbled past, fast as a horse--no, faster--spewing the air with smoke.

“In here.”

Coughing, Kinuyo darted after the fox into a red building.  Inside, it was cold and dark; the windows let in neither light nor heat.  Kinuyo could only just see enough to see the figure of a woman in a faded kimono sprawled on the floor.

“Mother!” Kinuyo ran to her.

Her mother’s soft skin was bruised and her hair was matted with dried blood.  She didn’t seem to be breathing, yet her body was warm.  It felt like a deep enchantment, one that Kinuyo couldn’t break.
The kitsune-girl perched in the corner.  “You were born the year the black ships came, weren't you?”

“My mother,” Kinuyo said.  “What have you done?  Please, wake her up.”

The girl shook her head, her mouth twisting in amusement.  “Poor Kinuyo.  To live in an age of change and chaos.  But you’re deluding yourself.”

Anger swelled in Kinuyo’s chest, anger and confusion, the whole world swirled hysterically in her mind.  “If you won’t help me, then leave me alone!” she yelled.  “Stop tormenting me!”

The girl laughed softly.  Its eyes were beady and bright.

“Little Kinu didn’t cry when her father died,” it sang in a low voice.

“Leave me alone!”

The fox swayed, its skin glowing autumn red.

“Little Kinu didn’t cry when her father died.
And when her brother was thrown in jail
she didn’t make a sound.
She holds on to an age that isn’t hers,
grieving with a face of glass.”
Kinuyo pressed her hands against her ears, but it did stop the song from penetrating.  The fox shone brighter and brighter, its human forming melting away like snow.  Now only the animal remained, its round black eyes boring into her.

“Little Kinu will not open her mouth
for fear she will become a pomegranate.
How hard it must be for poor, poor Kinu,
to hold on tightest to what she never had.
How does she keep from going mad?”

The song pulled Kinuyo's hands away from her ears; her arms dropped limp to her side.  Her chest was exposed.  In the clarity of the moment, Kinuyo knew the fox meant to enter her body and possess her, but there was nothing she could do.  She lifted her chin and tried to blink back the tears that formed in her eyes.  One escaped and rolled down the side of her face.  For a moment, a spark of sympathy showed in the fox's eyes.  Then it rushed at her.

From somewhere that seemed very far away, Kinuyo heard an earthy growl.

The fox stopped.  The hair on its back stood up and it hissed.  Suddenly, a blur of orange matted fur bolted past her, and the fox was running, running away.  The illusion melted, sunlight entered the room, and the walls became solid wood.  Her mother took a breath.

Kinuyo pitched forward, a puppet whose strings had been cut.  All her strength vanished, and she felt blood rising to her head, her heart pumping inside her stomach.  Distantly she heard barking, but she couldn't comprehend what it meant.  Her senses were muddled and confused.

Like the day paper fortunes rained from the sky, and a crowd of masked men danced feverishly in the street, chanting, "Ee ja nai ka, Ee ja nai ka."

Ain't it the truth?
The gods will descend on Japan
and rocks will fall on the foreigners' homes.
What the hell?
Ain't it great?

That same day her brother cursed through his teeth as he dragged in their drunken father in through the door, a knife wound splitting the walls of his stomach.  Blood pooled on top the tatami mats.  Her father's eyes roved the ceiling, and froth gathered at his gasping lips.

Kinuyo stepped outside and shut the door.  Emotions steamed her chest, rising like wail of her mother's voice.  Kinuyo tilted her face to the heavens, a plea on her lips.  Lips that didn't move.  As her father lay dying, Kinuyo sat at the door with her mouth sewn shut.

She didn't utter a sound.

* * *

The orange dog had chased the fox away, and now it spent several minutes barking in triumph.  Once satisfied, it loped over to the kind girl who fed it noodles, ready to lick her fingers and receive a well-deserved pat of the head.  But she bent forward in a heap, her hands covering her face.  Her body writhed as she sobbed and sobbed.

Puzzled, the dog gently nuzzled her.

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