I was a dutiful son in the coming months, following Father close, listening to his teaching as autumn blended into winter and then spring. But my foot was on the ground, always searching for a certain human presence stepping on the interconnecting threads of life beneath the mountain.
On the day I spotted the first snowbells, I sensed that presence in the glen. I ran as fast as my four legs would take me. I could not appear and disappear at will like my father. He had told me the power would come once I received my fifth tail. It took a hundred years for a kitsune to grow a new tail. It would take half a millenium for five tails, so, till then, I ran like the wind.
Once I reached the glen, I hid behind a tree. I would have climbed and hid in the branches, but spring was still young and there were no leaves to conceal me.
There he was, staring at the old gnarly cedar, assessing the ground surrounding it. He was wearing a mofuku kimono, the black kind worn by humans for funerals and mourning. His cheeks glistened with tiny crystals. Were those frozen tears?
I shifted into the image of the boy with the fox mask. I willed my human hair to be long, reaching over my shoulders, blazing red as the color of my fur coat. I created the illusion I was wearing a mofuku kimono as well. It was fitting, because this would always be the glen where I would mourn my mother.
I didn’t think I’d see you back here again,” I said.
He jumped, dropping a scroll in the snow. It landed close to the house of the tiny yōkai. He poked his head out of the door and looked up at the human. It was funny to realize the yōkai’s body was a miniature version of a human. He was even clad in a colorful yellow and blue kimono with a pattern of pink cherry flowers. I wondered why I didn’t see the resemblance until then.
The boy didn’t react to Biko-san’s presence. The yōkai shook his little first at me, warning me not to dare ruin his house again. He called me ‘beansprout’ twice, then hid inside his rock. I watched the boy carelessly reach for the scroll, his fingers brushing the stone. He couldn’t see nor hear Biko-san.
The boy straightened and wiped the frozen tears off his face with the back of his hand. “I wanted to come back earlier, but… I couldn’t.”
I did not know what was or wasn’t polite to ask a human, so I asked what I wanted to know. “Who died?”
He grimaced. “My father. He had been ill for some time. That is why I couldn’t come back. I had to take care of my family.”
Had I been rude asking this? The subject was visibly distressing him, so I changed it. “What do you have there?” I nodded at the scroll.
“Oh, this! It’s a picture I drew for the shrine.” He unrolled the washi paper and showed me a black brushstroke painting of a five tailed kitsune holding a key in its mouth, sitting proud on a pedestal carved in stone. “Do you think the Inari god will like it?”
I was impressed. “You wouldn’t know until you finish it,” I said. “You should add more tails. The Inari god has nine tails.”
He gave me an odd look. My mind was playing tricks on me because I had the impression he had eyed me as if searching for a tail or fluffy ears. I discarded the thought, blaming paranoia.
“Would you help me build it?” he asked, blushing and unable to meet my eyes.
“I’ll provide the moral support.”
I sensed he wanted to ask something else. “What is it?”
“Well… Um…I’ve been wondering since I first met you.” His gaze was so intense it threatened to melt the mask off my face. “You haven’t told me your name yet.”
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. “Kogitsune,” I said. Little Fox.
“Kokaji,” he said. “Yoroshiku.” Please treat me kindly.
“How old are you?” He puffed his chest and straightened his shoulders adding, “I am thirteen.”
I had no idea how old I was in human years. My mother had lived five times longer than the average fox, my father’s immortality stretching her life span. “What a coincidence. I am thirteen as well,” I lied.
“Soon we will be men,” he said, his face shining.
“When I am a man I will have arms as thick as branches, as any swordsmith should.”
Adorable. In a thousand years I will be a god, but I didn’t say that out loud.
“Why do you hide yourself behind the mask?”
Because you would run for the hills if you knew you were talking to a kitsune. I didn’t say that either. “Do you have a problem with my mask?”
“No, I think it’s beautiful. I just…”
“Just want to see your eyes when I speak to you.”
It felt as if a fire blazing coal had hit me in the chest. I looked at him. “Maybe one day you will.”
He looked at his hands, face turning red. “I would like that.”
Kokaji had found a white boulder on the way to the glen and thought it would be perfect for carving the kitsune. I helped him roll it up the hill. One of the worst decisions of my life. It took us all afternoon because we kept slipping in the sluice and the boulder would roll back down the slope. At the end of the day, we were exhausted.
We sat on a fallen tree, recovering our breath and watching the sun disappear over the naked branches, when Kokaji’s stomach grumbled. Embarrassed, he laughed and took out a cotton scarf from his sleeve. He opened the scarf to reveal two white balls. He gave me the larger one.
I stared at it in confusion, turning it around.
“It’s a rice ball,” he said. “You eat it like this. See?” He ate like an ayakashi, a third of the ball vanishing in one bite, getting rice all over his kimono. I gingerly took a bite myself. Ugh, so bland. I watched with a frown at how Kokaji devoured his ball, so I took another bite, larger this time, sure I was missing something. Gooey sweetness dripped on my tongue. It spread in my mouth, tingling my throat and falling into bursts of tiny sparks in my stomach. It warmed me from inside out. It was the best thing I have ever tasted.
“What is this?” I asked amazed.
“Sweet red bean paste,” he mumbled with his mouth full. He gulped, then added proudly, thumping his chest with his fist. “I made it myself. Do you like it?”
“I love it!”
It became a custom between us whenever we met in the glen. Before doing any work on the shrine, we would share two balls of rice filled with red bean paste. Then we would drink water directly from the lake. He would hold his hands cupped together for me to drink from them and he would drink from mine. I have asked my father to bless the water to make sure Kokaji wouldn’t get any sickness. I came to know that blessed water was nourishing for the humans, and it kept my friend energized until twilight.
Kokaji was a talented boy. He knew how to work with a chisel and a hammer, and when I asked who had taught him, he said it was his father who had been a mason. He showed me his father’s tools and told me how he would use them to first make the head, then the body, and lastly the nine tails of the kitsune. I asked him about the key.
“Why is the kitsune holding a key in its mouth?”
He thought about it. “Father said the Inari god is the one who blesses our crops. Whenever the crops are abundant, we thank him. So the key is the key to the granaries.”
The Inari god blesses nature. It comes from his connection to the golden threads of life that must always be kept in balance. “So if the crops are bad, do you curse the Inari god?”
Kokaji shrugged. “If the crops are bad, they are bad. Father said we can’t always take from the earth. We must let it breathe as well.”
I looked away, hiding a goofy smile.
We grew very close during the summer. We would forget completely about the shrine for days, spending the time skinny dipping in the lake or chasing each other in the glen. Sometimes I noticed him looking at me with rapt fascination when he thought I wasn’t paying attention. I played his game and never told him I knew about his lingering gaze. What he didn’t realize was that I was looking back.
Every day before he left, he told me the tales of famous swords. Of the Three-foot Sword possessed by the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. Of Kusanagi, The Grass Slasher, owned by Yamato Takeru-no-mikoto and in whose metal lived a spirit that calmed storms. Of the spiritual sword that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang owned that warded off evil spirits and demons.
“Do you think it would ward off an ayakashi?” I asked.
“Probably. But I wouldn’t want to hurt an ayakashi with that sword.”
“Why is that?” I asked confused.
“Because,” he took my hand in his, “an ayakashi helped me meet you.”
Father frowned on our friendship, but he said I had my free will, and my lessons to learn, so he didn’t keep me from seeing him.
As the first day of autumn came, the weather was still warm, the sun high in the sky. The shrine was almost ready, just the tails and the key missing. We had set it under the cover of the branches of the gnarly cedar.
When his chisel finally stopped ringing at the end of the day, he announced his dilemma. “I think we will be finished tomorrow.”
“I think so too.”
“But, I wonder. Should the kitsune have nine tails or only one?”
“The Inari god has nine tails,” I repeated what I had said to him in spring.
“Hmmm… Should we write our names on the shrine?” He crouched and touched a corner of the lower base. “Maybe here?”
I gave him a puzzled look. “Write?”
“Yes. Which kanji do you use for yours?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
His face lit and his eyes blazed. “I will teach you!” Before I could stop him, he had grabbed my hand and was pulling me after him to the lake. I fondly thought about a year ago when the places had been reversed.
Kokaji picked a stick and cleared a patch of wet earth near two pink lily pads. “This is how I write my name,” he said laying gentle strokes in the mud. “Three strokes for ‘small’.” It was simple and sweet. “Seventeen strokes for ‘forge’ and another seven for ‘melting’.” The last two symbols were elegant and more complicated than the first. They gave the name strength and meaning and a certain vibe that prophesied of a wondrous future.
“It looks beautiful,” I said.
“Thank you! Now yours.” He placed the stick in my hand and closed my fingers around it. Gently, he covered my hand with his and guided me. “You can use the kanji for small to spell ‘ko’ just like me,” he said while slowly moving my hand as the stick formed the same first symbol from Kokaji’s name in the damp ground. My cheeks were growing warm from his closeness. “And you can spell ‘gitsune’ with the character for ‘kitsune’.”
“Kitsune?” I asked alarmed.
“Mhmmm,” he murmured, placing his chin on my right shoulder and a hand around my waist. “Kitsune.”
My heart pummelled in my chest. Nine strokes to write fox. Twelve strokes to write Kogitsune. The symbol for ‘small’ to share between us.
“We should write both our names tomorrow on the shrine,” I ventured.
“We should,” he said, not letting me go.
A flock of geese disturbed the silence as they passed above us.
We made plans to throw a party the next day to celebrate the completion of the shrine with rice balls and drinks. Kokaji said he knew the place where his mother hid the sake and that he would try to pilfer some for our celebration.
I slept in my old den that night, giddy to be there in the morning to greet Kokaji. I threaded my paws on the golden strings, all morning searching for him to step on the edge of the mountain so I could feel him. Around noon I grew worried, and extended my reach beyond, to the human villages. I saw him crying under a plum tree, a woman arguing with him, a bottle of sake broken on the ground.
I was a tornado running down the mountain. I drew up my divinity and all the knowledge gained from Father, and shifted into a flock of red birds speeding like an arrow through the sky. In no time I settled in the plum tree. I was a dozen pairs of eyes and a dozen pairs of ears, and what I saw and heard broke my heart.
“You are a fool, Kokaji. There are no boys living in the mountain.”
“But, Okasan!” Mother. She was his mother. “Please listen. He is my friend. I have to see him.”
“That is a yōkai. Promise me, Kokaji, promise me you will never see him again. He will curse you. He will curse our entire family.”
“He is not a yōkai!”
“Have you seen his eyes? What color are they?”
Kokaji froze, his mouth open. His gaze turned to the mountain where it lingered. “I don’t care,” he hissed. “He is my friend.”
His mother fell to her knees. “Kokaji, you are everything I have. If I lose you too, I’m going to die.” She took his hands in hers. “Swear to me you will never see him again.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks. Her small body convulsed with her sobs. “Swear to me, please!”
Tell her. Tell her how I saved your life. Tell her how we ran down the slopes and swam in the lake. Tell her how you carved the Inari shrine and I stayed next to you watching your hands caress the stone. Tell her how we shared the rice balls. Tell her. Fight for our friendship. Please. Our names have not been written yet in stone for eternity. Don’t leave me now.
Kokaji sighed and clasped his head in his hands.
I waited, clinging to his every breath. My heart thumped in my chest, dreading the passage of time. I wished for that instant to stand still. I wished for that moment to be frozen for eternity, because what would come next would be a road to perdition. To my perdition. Kokaji spoke and his words chipped my heart as his hands chipped the stone to form the kitsune. “I swear. But…”
I did not stay to hear the rest.