My sister has been missing three days when the fox appears.
My ona returns with his small group of men, my sister not among them. They walk exhausted and slumped, long beards catching heavy snowflakes. They shiver under their bearskins, and his eyes are dark and empty, crying of loss. A day and a half of searching through a gathering storm, and he still can’t find his eldest daughter. My totto, my mother, wails, and her own sister, belly swollen with a coming child, gathers her close.
The snow swallowed my sister, Ona says. She lost herself in the storm.
I try to imagine it. My sister losing her way. Such things don’t happen to Aimi. Her feet are sure of their path; her eyes find their way where others would not. She knows the woods, the same ones I fear; the snow couldn’t have changed such knowledge.
The eyes of the other villagers follow my ona, then rest on me, where I stand half-hidden behind our family’s hut. Some of the young men are still nursing wounded pride, from my sister denying them all her hand in marriage. A few of them frown at me, and their parents shoo them away. The adults are not angry, but they do stare. They’ve known me my entire life, and for that reason, some are curious, suspicious. They think a girl will always know where her sister hides. But I don’t know. I should know.
The wind is ice-cold, bearing snowflakes from far away. I catch a scent in it, a smell I fail to name or truly recognize. It makes me think of my Aimi. It’s sharp and bitter and warm at once, and it’s gone before I can blink. When I turn towards the woods, I almost think I’ve imagined it. As I slide a toe across the border of the tree line, my stomach flutters like spirits are dancing in it, pounding their feet. Ask after what I fear, and I can’t tell you. There’s no sense to it, nothing I can control, nothing I can soothe. No fearlessness in my soul.
I touch the trunk of the closest tree. The storm is swirling, regaining its vigor. Tendrils of cold slip through my bearskin, and my feet sense the coming ache of standing in the snow too long.
“Aimi?” I whisper.
The wind calls, but no one else. The tree trunk shimmers a coating of ice in the cold light of the winter-white sun. Where has my sister gone? Why would she leave me the way she did?
I beat the trunk with a snow-rotten stick. Shivers of ice fly in my face, stick to my hair. And there, screaming at a tree that refuses to speak, a flash of red catches my eye.
The fox is staring, blinking ice-white eyes rimmed with black. Its ears and paws are tipped with fur so dark it seems like bits and pieces of it are disappearing into the shadows of the woods. Thin and waifish; the snow drifts seem to swallow it up. The red that caught my eye amongst all the white is its foot, limp and blood-crusted, from a fight with another animal or a wayward arrow from one of the hunting parties; it’s difficult to tell.
Nine separate tails drape the snow behind it.
I sink into the snow, fingers aching with the cold.
“Kitsune,” I breathe. A fox spirit. I reach out a hand.
My sister has always reminded me of a fox, for the way the woods embrace her, for the long shape of her face and the quickness of her eyes. For the strangeness of her eyes. One all blue like the darkest river water; the other black, like someone sprinkled flecks of obsidian into it, so unusual for our people. Not a trace of my parents resides in her features; none of me. She is ours but doesn’t look it. She could be a kitsune, although she laughed the once I asked.
It growls, showing ivory teeth. When it backs out of the snowdrift, I can see that it is male, and my hand drops. If it isn’t Aimi, it could be dangerous. Benevolent spirit or demon, there’s no way for me to tell.
The full of the storm is upon us, numbing my ears and ripping at my dark hair. The air is crisp, smelling only of the blizzard. I cast a glance towards the village. Our cluster of thatched homes will be buried by the time the moon rises. My ona will be in the home of the village head, discussing my sister and the village’s need to hunt game through the snows. My totto will be with her sister through the night, expecting the child to come. I will be alone in the house with a fox spirit outside, and that frightens me.
I run home, but the kitsune doesn’t follow; simply watches with too-bright eyes. I stoke the fire pit near the front of the hut, crack the door to watch for movement, and, when there is none, crawl within the hanging mats of Aimi’s bed.
After a time, I sleep.
When I was young, not yet past eight years, my sister took me far into the woods. My memories of that time are a child’s memories, still ethereal and strange but real as any other. I accepted the strangeness then the way one accepts the sunrise or the rain.
It was early spring, some stubborn bits of snow still refusing to melt. The mountains in the distance seemed frozen and fresh. Many of the men had prayed for a good catch and safe hunt to Kim-un Kamuy, god of bears and mountains, and left in search of deer and bears still sleepy from hibernation. Our totto was cleaning early caught salmon, preparing the meat to be boiled and dried. Aimi was always watching, waiting for opportunities, and when our totto’s back was turned, she fled with me into the new growth of the forest.
I enjoyed it for a while. The spirits within the trees frightened me when my sister wasn’t by my side, but with Aimi I was free to explore. I couldn’t explain the safety she brought; all I knew was the freedom of it. My sister always knew where the forest treasures were. A tree that leaked honey, or berries that bloomed early. Maybe we would catch salamanders by the smaller fork of the river. But Aimi ran on, face set with determination. I’d never seen her that way, and it kept me silent as I struggled to keep pace with her longer legs. She refused to release my hand.
We went farther out than allowed, and I was hopelessly lost. Finally frightened enough, I began to whine.
“Hush,” she told me, expression brightening, “I want to show you something.”
The woods broke very suddenly with her words, and a meadow stretched out before us. I turned back, blinking in the sunlight, and the outline of the mountains burst against the horizon. I was too young to realize that they should have been before us instead of behind us and were too far away for our little legs to have crossed.
An old fox greeted us at the edge, three-tailed and red like fire. I was so small that her snout reached my neck, smelling of the cloying musk of foxes, thick and odd, like dirty metal gripped in my hand. She came to Aimi like one of the village dogs, completely unafraid, and kissed her cheek.
There were others in the clearing. A gathering of many different colors. The clouds were drizzling, a warm, springtime rain, the sun shining through. I could taste the smell of rain and wet grass on my tongue. And something different, bitter and sweet all at once. I knew the stories, the fate of those uninvited to kitsune weddings, and I tugged on Aimi’s arm, fearing a fox’s teeth in my throat.
“It’s fine. I’m invited,” she said, releasing my hand. “Trust me.”
I plopped down among the grasses, a nervous ball of little limbs, watching my sister mill about with the fox spirits. The bride and groom were gorgeous in their human form, their features much sharper than my sister’s. They were naked in the clearing once they lost their fur, but I knew we were far enough away from home that no one was going to find us. Not all the kitsune changed, but those that did gave me soft, curious looks and did not pay me any mind.
Once wed, the couple retreated to a hut in the border of the clearing, its walls woven so tightly with bamboo that I didn’t notice it until they disappeared into its shadows. I wanted to follow, to see what magic had created it, but I couldn’t gather my courage.
My sister took me home late that evening, humming to herself. She swung our hands between us, and I felt a part of something that was too strong and bright to ever break.
“Don’t ever tell anyone,” she said, bumping me with her hip.
I kept my promise, but curled now within my sister’s bed, I remember a kitsune pup my sister had spoken to those years ago, white-furred with bits of black on his ears and paws.
I wake to the howling of the storm outside, the wet pad of snowflakes against the hut, and a distinctively animal whine at the door. I loosen the shutters of a window, peeking over the edge. The fox is balled against the door, shivering under the blinding snow. Pity closes my throat, dampening my fear. When I unlatch the door, he looks at me warily, head low, eyes raised, unsure if I’m to be trusted. I open it further, feeling the heat from the hut rushing out and the smell of something odd and magical rushing in. I am overwhelmed with the expectation that my sister will be standing here, instead of this furry little creature. It passes quickly but seems to lodge a sliver of itself in my heart.
“Come in,” I say.
He hesitates then scampers past, standing opposite the fire, peering around, ears perked. His tails twist within one another as he wags them nervously. It’s the oddest sight, beautiful and unreal. I sit and offer a strip of bear meat balanced in my palm. He sniffs, dips his head and takes a step, limping on his injured back leg. His eyes stay on my face, unnervingly wise, before taking the treat delicately from my hand and flopping down at my feet.
I maneuver my way to his back foot, but he doesn’t seem to mind when I brush his tails aside. How he is so tame, even being a spirit, is beyond me. When I lay my hand on his leg, above the wound, his eyes flicker back and stay on me, but he rests his head on his paws. I dress the small wound with honey to keep out infection and bandage it with strips of cured salmon skins.
With nothing else to do, I sit and drink in the sight of a spirit warming himself by my fire. His musky dirt scent, strangely attractive, fills the hut.
I want to fetch Ona from the meeting house, but I don’t know if he’ll approve of a kitsune in our home, especially after Aimi’s disappearance. He might take it as a bad omen. Totto was always more tolerant when Aimi and I brought back injured creatures, but even she might be suspicious. And I wouldn’t know how to get her from her sister’s house without spilling the secret. Others would kill the spirit in a heartbeat, both to drive away demons and for the meat.
The fox is watching me over his shoulder, eyes sharp, as if he senses my thoughts. I wish he would change to a form I can speak to, but I doubt he remembers me from all those years ago.
On the other hand, why else would he come to me?
“Aimi?” I ask again, “Do you know Aimi, my sapo, my sister, did she send you?”
He blinks and whimpers, head on his paws, unhelpful. The door to the hut works open, my totto’s feet against the threshold, and the fox is gone before I can speak, disappearing within the curtains of Aimi’s bed. I am stunned, hands half held out, mouth open. Door shut, Totto stares at me, something hard in her dark eyes. I feel like a chastised child, although I’ve done nothing but allow a mild-mannered spirit into our home.
“Opere...” she says, her voice cracking under a strain I don’t understand. “Where is it?”
“Totto...?” I ask, certain she couldn’t have seen the spirit in the storm, not from her sister’s hut.
“Huci-Resunotek saw you take a kitsune into this home. Where is it?”
I lower my eyes. The old grandmother sees everything. I should have known. But how she told my totto so quickly is beyond me. “Totto, he’s kind and tame.”
“How do you know anything about such matters?”
Her tone lets me know it isn’t a question, and I bite my tongue, thinking of the sunshower wedding Aimi led me to all those years ago. All I know is they never sought revenge on us. Suddenly, I think I must check the clearing of the wedding, even in the winter. The bamboo hut. Where else would Aimi run when upset? But I doubt I could find it on my own. I doubt I can step in the woods on my own.
Totto is checking the individual bed curtains, ripping at them with a vengeance. She finds the little fox and snatches at his tails, dragging him out, his nails making hard scratches in the dirt-packed floor.
She grabs his muzzle with her other hand, stronger than I would have imagined her soft round body to be, and snarls, “What have you done with my Aimi, fiend?”
“Totto! Totto, he’s hurt!” I grab her arm, but she shrugs me off, and I land backwards trying to help. The kitsune does not bite or scratch but spits a necklace at my totto’s feet, a long chord with a glass ball on the end, dragged from Aimi’s things. My totto’s hand slips from his tails, her shoulders hunching as she stares at the piece of jewelry. The kitsune whines and nudges it with his nose, backing towards the door pointedly.
My heart flutters, a mixture of excitement and fear. “He knows where Aimi is.”
My totto shakes her head, gathering the necklace into her fingers. “I should have known. She’s all me.”
I get to my feet, touching her shoulder. I’ve never seen her like this, cruel to a living thing. In my fifteen years, I’ve never seen her so sad.
“Totto?” I whisper, frightened to ask for an explanation.
She takes my hands and hugs me. Her embrace is all-encompassing, and I feel the strength in her arms needed to wrestle that fox from the bed. She smells warm and comforting, like fire smoke, and I lean back, wondering at her.
“You’re all of your ona, do you know that?” she asks, more to herself than to me. “Aimi is all me. I can’t believe I let this happen.”
I see the kitsune over her shoulder, his eyes low-lidded, knowing. He understands her words, even when I don’t. I think of Aimi and her fox face, the way she loves the woods. The way my totto never slides a foot past the border of the trees but always gazed longingly after us when we ran in. I thought I got my fear of the forest from her, but she wasn’t afraid at all.
Aimi is all me.
“Totto,” I ask, knowing how horrible this will sound if I’m wrong, “are you...like him?”
Her breath is more of a shudder, and I know I’ve stumbled across her secret. I hug her tighter, trying to imagine it. It’s difficult to believe, but she’s always been magical in my eyes, for no reason I can explain. She doesn’t look like a kitsune, like the others I saw in the meadow that day, but perhaps all her years as a human have dulled the wildness in her. The softness of her has hidden all the sharp angles and features. Maybe she has given it all to Aimi.
“Does Ona know?” I ask.
She sighs, and her voice cracks as she speaks, “I think he suspects, but he won’t give voice to it. Opere, he must never know. You must never tell him. If you tell him, I must leave.”
I feel cold in the warmth of the hut, at the thought of my totto leaving. But there’s something I know for certain, “You should tell him. He loves you too much to make you leave.”
She sounds exhausted, “Opere...”
“Tell him. I’m going to find Aimi.” I say, pulling away. My totto’s eyes are red-rimmed with worry and hurt, but I smile. “We’ll be back.”
“No, I will go. I still know the woods better than you.”
The kitsune barks, shakes his head. Points his snout towards me, as if only I am allowed. As if Aimi only asked for me. Somewhere inside my soul, I feel warm.
Totto turns to the fox at the door. The creature has averted his eyes, having the decency to be timid. No other animal would think to do such a thing.
“Take your form.” Totto says, her voice no longer quite so harsh.
The kitsune blinks, but his bones pop, pure fur retreating into his skin until there is a tall, startlingly naked young man crouching by the door. His eyes are the oddest color blue, his skin pale, hair black as his ears had been, face lovely. His expression is sad, eyes shimmering in the firelight.
“You had better keep her safe,” my totto says, and I don’t know whether she’s speaking of me or Aimi.
He nods, a strange movement, more used to being an animal than a man. His voice is lilted and gorgeous. “I love her.”
“I know,” my totto says, eyes softening. “Now get out.”
I stare as he shifts back into the shape he’s most comfortable with, watching me expectantly. My sister is in love with a kitsune. I’m not surprised, although I feel as if I should be.
I wrap myself in my bearskin and another for Aimi, kissing my totto’s cheek.
“We’ll come home,” I swear again. “Promise to tell Ona.”
“Be careful. Be safe,” she says, and doesn’t promise.
I shut the door behind me. The kitsune is sitting at the wood’s edge, and I crunch through the snow towards him, stopping beside the trunk of a tree.
“She’s loved you for a long time, hasn’t she?”
He whines and bobs his head. His thick fur whips every different way in the storm’s wind.
“I don’t know why she left. Why now, of all times?”
He knows what I’m saying, every word of it, but his eyes only shimmer and blink. I think I’ll know the answer soon enough.
He limps away, and I stop suddenly. It occurs to me finally that I will be hunting for Aimi in the woods, at night, in a storm, without her there. I’ve never been in the woods without my sister. Maybe this is what I was afraid of all long—that my sister would disappear into the trees and never come back. At least when I was in the woods with her, I knew that wherever she went I would not be left behind.
Be brave. I tell myself. I’m in the company of a kitsune. I’m strong enough for this.
The spirits in the wood are kind, if they show their faces at all through the harsh snow. I breathe, try to find the shape of the mountains through the snow, and when that fails, follow the spirit blindly into the storm.
I think of Aimi to keep my thoughts even, unafraid. I try to understand.
At seventeen, she is past old enough to have taken a husband, yet she refused every young man who tried for her heart. She never gave reasons, not even something as simple as disliking the boy.
Three days ago, our ona was trying to reason with her for an explanation, and his gentle prodding upset her. I remember her crying and rising to leave. She asked me to walk with her, but I only tried to coax her into staying. The hurt in her eyes then won’t leave me now.
With the kitsune leading me through the snow, I understand what she was frightened to tell us, but why she suddenly thought she had to leave, I can’t imagine. Maybe if I’d just walked with her, she’d have told me, and she’d be safe with us at home.
Maybe if I’d walked with her, she would have trusted me with her secret.
I remember the trek to the kitsune meadow taking hours in the warm easy travel of springtime, but it seems such a short time now. I keep my head down against the cold, watching the limping paw prints before me as a guide. Every few minutes, the kitsune turns his head to check on me. I wish I could read the emotions in his eyes.
I am shivering even under the extra bearskin I brought for Aimi, but soon the woods spread open before us. The meadow is unfamiliar with so much snow, but the storm has eased, leaving a silence so deep it makes noise of its own. A shining cold sun peeks over the trees, shimmering against the crystals of snow, but another storm is brooding on the horizon, embracing the mountains. If anything, it looks to be worse than the last. I wonder how many days it will rage and if Aimi and I will return home before it falls.
The hut looks the same as in my memories, green in the whiteness, smoke drifting from the hole in its snow-covered roof. It hasn’t lost any of the mystery it possessed in my childhood. I’m ashamed it took me so long to realize that this is the first place my sister would run.
The kitsune trots across the frozen meadow, quicker than before, leaving me to stumble along behind. He pauses before the hut, feet planted in the snow, expectant. I lay my hand on the wooden door, almost touching my head to it, breathing in as deeply as I can. The cold air stabs my lungs, but the scent of the hut is strange and familiar at once. Bitter and warm, like the earlier ache that settled in my chest.
It feels right somehow, but I’m suddenly nervous. What will my sister say? I can’t imagine returning home without her.
The kitsune glances between me and the door, nudging my knee with his head. When I crack it open, he slides inside.
My sister’s voice drifts out. “Did you find her?”
“Aimi?” I ask, forgetting my nerves and pushing away the door.
It’s darker in the hut than I would have imagined, the warmth of the fire tingling my cheeks. Nothing so magical or mysterious that I can see, besides the bamboo forest woven into the walls. And the aroma of a home that crashes over me, much stronger than anything the wind carried my way. There are reed mats stretched across the floor, dry and crackling under my feet. I can make out the silhouette of a bed stretched along one wall and the form of my sister sitting curled by the fire.
Her voice is scratchy, hardly a croak. “Opere...?”
My heart pounds with relief, my throat wanting to cry, and I shut the door to hurry to her side. The fire gives off some heat, but still I cuddle beside her and wrap her in the bearskin to share warmth. If only to be closer. Her breath is cool on my face, and her one blue eye shimmers in the darkness, brighter than the other. The tattoos around her lips, marking her womanhood, seem nothing more than a shadow in the lack of light. She laces an arm around me, head on my shoulder.
The only noise beside the cracking fire is the kitsune’s panting, his breath hot and dog-like. He lays with his chin on her leg, watching her face with tender eyes. Orange firelight leaps and dances over his coat, casting strange shadows.
We are quiet for countless minutes, holding each other close. Eventually, when the new blizzard has begun to howl around the hut’s walls, she speaks. “You followed him here? Through that storm?”
“You went in to the woods without me.”
I’m embarrassed, and a little proud. “Of course, I worried for you. I missed you.”
Her hands grip my shoulders tighter. “I’m so sorry.”
“No need.” I say, shaking my head, then smile against her neck, feeling like teasing her, giddy with relief. “You’re in love.”
“We are one,” she says, and her voice cracks at my intake of breath. “Months ago. I wanted you to be there, for the wedding, but I was afraid...”
Maybe I should feel betrayed, for her secrecy, for marrying a creature so unusual and wild, but I feel something warm fill me, knowing how happy she must be with him. I snuggle closer, letting her know she’s forgiven. “That’s silly, to be scared.”
“I know,” she mumbles, but still, there is relief in her voice.
“I’m sorry too, Aimi. For not coming with you when you asked. I knew you wanted to talk to me, but I didn’t come—”
She touches my cheek, sighing contently. “It’s all right, as long as you’re here now.”
We’re still for a few moments more, before I ask, “Why did you leave all of a sudden? Aimi, I don’t understand—”
“I didn’t want to,” she says, stopping me, stroking her husband’s ear. He whines and licks her hand. “I wanted to stay home, I did. But I didn’t know how... I didn’t know how to tell you...”
She works my hand under her garments, pressing against the warm skin of her belly. It feels soft and flat, no different than any other day, but the gesture speaks for itself.
“Oh!” I gasp, an inexplicable amount of joy filling me. “No wonder you’re moody.”
“Opere!” She’s trying to sound affronted, but there’s too much surprise in her voice. I giggle, and the kitsune yips. If a fox could laugh, this is what it would sound like. My giggle turns into a full laugh. Aimi pinches me, but her lips are forming a shaky smile. I squeeze her neck and wrestle with her gently. She rests her cheek against my shoulder and doesn’t speak again.
The kitsune’s eyes are closed, his head lying on my sister’s leg, face pressed into her stomach. I think of home. “Aimi, Totto is a kitsune too.”
She lets out a harsh breath, touching her chest in surprise.
“We want you home. We’re going to make Ona understand.”
There is silence in the little bamboo hut, until I feel hot tears on my neck that are not mine.
“You know we love you,” I say.
“I know,” she whispers, “but the village...”
I grimace, knowing the rest of the place we call home will not take so kindly to a kitsune and their child, even if they are bonded through marriage. But our totto did it, and I won’t let my sister run away forever, even if only our little family will know the truth.
“Can you be brave, for me?” I ask.
“I don’t think it’s that simple.”
“It’s the best way to start, isn’t it?”
She takes a breath. “I... I’m not going back to the village, Opere.”
All the air leaves my lungs, and I pull away just enough to see her face. It’s streaked with tears, but her eyes have that same, strange determination. I refuse to believe it. “Aimi, we can find a way—”
She shakes her head. “I don’t think Totto is going to tell Ona.”
“She will,” I say with absoluteness.
Aimi looks at me out of the corners of her eyes. “Did she really say that?”
I open my mouth to answer, but no sound comes out. I remember the expression our Totto wore, when I asked her to promise. How she didn’t promise.
Aimi reads the answer in my eyes, and the smile she gives me holds no happiness. “Secrets like this can’t keep themselves.”
“Totto is just one kitsune, and she gained the trust of everyone around her. She never went into the woods, and that’s giving up what she was. I can’t bear that. And neither can he.” She spreads her fingers in her husband’s coat.
Fox eyes blink at me, and I look down at him. His face, even so much like a dog’s, is sad, apologetic. He’s hurting for his wife, for the new sister he’s only just now begun to know. He licks my hand, and the realization of why I’m here crashes over me like a spring waterfall, isolating and cold. Pressing down on my shoulders, making it difficult to breathe.
I finally understand what she means. There’s no home left for her in our little village.
I am here to say goodbye.
And if I do, I may never see her again.
I raise my head to find her gazing into my eyes, begging me to understand. When I don’t speak, she cries. Aloud, this time; not silent, gentle tears. Covering her face with her hand. Fear makes a raw wound inside me. More acute and deep than any unease the woods inspire; immediate as a broken limb.
Her hands in mine, I lean my forehead against hers, eyes closed. There are new things I refuse to believe in. That all the years our parents have been together, that all the love they’ve shared and given to us, can be shattered by something so small as our totto’s other skin. That this is the end of our family.
That I will let my sister walk away, into these woods, without me.
“What if I stay?” I whisper.
Aimi sniffles, eyes flickering to mine. “What?”
I hold her gaze long enough to know the words I say are right and true and I can’t simply walk away from what is here in this little hut. That it is something strong, bright, and unbreakable. “I’m not letting you run away. I’m not. Even if you never come back, what if I stay?”
Awe has written itself across my sister’s face, and it’s a time before she finds words. “You can’t just run away too—”
Her husband whines, rolling to his feet. I wince as I hear his bones popping, but he doesn’t appear to be in pain as he wraps a blanket around his now-human self. His eyes have many of the same emotions as my sister’s, and he leans against her to whisper in her ear. They share a long look I don’t understand.
“My cousin,” he says, tripping over the words in a tongue he’s not used to. “She is not far outside. If you’d like to stay out the storm here, she can carry a message. To your mother. So she understands.”
We both look to Aimi, him calm and expecting, me fearful that she won’t want me here. She never takes her eyes from me, weighing her thoughts with everything she knows.
“You’re going to have your own life very soon, and I won’t let you give that up to stay with me. But until then—” She touches my cheek softly. “I’d love to have my sister here.”
I watch a small but genuine smile curl her cheeks, and I wrap my arms around her neck.
She turns to the bright expression on her husband’s face. “Will your cousin go now?”
“Yes. I’ll tell her.”
He leans over to kiss her in a way that’s familiar. Tender and sweet, not too far from the kisses my ona gives my totto.
When he’s in his fox skin once more, he slips out the front door, into the howling snowflake-laden wind. Aimi and I watch him go without speaking, without feeling the need to. Contentment has settled over me, tinged with sadness for our parents and the hardship that may follow once this storm has blown itself out. Wherever she goes, I’ll be right there for her and the little child she carries, until I’m ready to begin my own life.
I take her hand and hold it tight, listening to the snow and the howl of a fox outside, breathing in the smell of home.