When the messenger arrived at my Kamakura estate, I knew he wasn’t human, and that meant trouble. I read the letter three times, as if repetition would lead to better understanding. Foolish of me, as Lady Kuzunoha’s direct nature would not allow for misinterpretation:
“I have been summoned to serve as Guardian of the Inari Shrine. This will require my absence from Shinoda Forest for half a year, possibly longer. As you may not be aware, I have a daughter now, Kimiko. This is a dangerous time for one of her age, and to leave her with neither protection nor guidance for so long is out of the question. I regret I must presume upon our old friendship to ask if you would be willing to assume that role until my return....”
There was more, but this was the core of it. “I didn’t know Lady Kuzunoha had a daughter.”
My wife, as was her habit, took the news with serenity. “Foxes like to keep their secrets,” Tagako-hime said.
I frowned. “You knew Lady Kuzunoha was a fox?”
My lady did me the courtesy of not laughing. “Foxes are the traditional messengers and guardians of Inari. In addition, I’ve known Lady Kuzunoha almost as long as you have. When I served at the Ise Shrine she was a frequent visitor. As with Master Kenji, she is very pious... in her own way.”
My day had started well enough. Warm enough for a fall morning, the momiji leaves were starting to show their red and yellow autumn colors. And yet again I was being reminded of all the things I did not know, either about people or the world itself. It was at once exciting and frightening. The first because understanding I still had much to learn reminded me that my life’s journey was nowhere near complete. The latter because I well knew the dangers of ignorance.
“Lady Kuzunoha is a fox, and thus so is Kimiko,” I said. “If we take her in, there are risks involved, and I have you and our daughters and my son to consider. What must I do?” I immediately felt foolish as Tagako-hime deftly clarified the situation.
“Beloved, your son is away, as he often is lately, and I will see to our daughters. Lady Kuzunoha considers you her friend, a word I know she does not use lightly. A friend has asked for your help. You will do what you know is right.”
The messenger was waiting. I went to my studio to compose my reply.
Kenji, to my annoyance, found the entire situation rather amusing when we spoke that afternoon at his temple. In his role as abbot, he considered this “counselling” me. I found that annoying as well. “You’ve often complained of boredom in your new status as a provincial daimyo, Yamada-sama. I think perhaps those days of tedium may be at an end.”
“I fail to see the humor in this,” I said.
“Then, with all due deference, you’re not trying. Clearly this is some aspect of your karma manifesting itself. That it would do so in the form of a young fox vixen I find intriguing, to say the least.”
“I am not responsible for the way your mind turns, Kenji-san. I am, however, responsible for the safety of the people on my estates, as well as that of Kimiko-chan when she is under my care. I trust you do understand my concerns?”
“For my own part she has nothing to fear, and thus neither have you. Lady Kuzunoha is a dangerous creature, but there’s no harm in her save for those who seek to do harm to her or those she cares for. I suspect we will find Kimiko the same.”
“Lady Kuzunoha hinted that Kimiko’s age may be an issue. By which I understand she is now a nogitsune, a wild, uncultured fox. If true it’s not a shortcoming on Kimiko’s part, but rather a matter of age and experience. That could complicate matters.”
Kenji looked thoughtful. “I daresay. We both know the nature of Lady Kuzunoha’s home, which is as dangerous as she is and rough and wild besides... Did it never occur to you that Kimiko’s mother may have a dual purpose, the second of which is to expose the girl to gentler influences than those present in Shinoda Forest?”
“Gentler? Kenji-san, are you not acquainted with my daughters at all?”
Kenji grinned. “Now you’re trying. Still, if it will allay your concerns, I will make it a point to be present when the girl arrives. If there’s any hint of malice or evil intent, I should be able to sense it.”
“With all due respect to Lady Kuzunoha, I would appreciate your assistance.”
Couriers brought word on the third day after my discussion with Abbot Kenji. Kimiko would be arriving at my estate the following afternoon. Tagako-hime had of course already arranged for an appropriate room, or at least one appropriate for a human girl, with clothes chest, writing desk, plus assorted other items of a more feminine nature that I barely understood. My own preparations consisted of sending for Kenji at his temple. By the next day we were as prepared as one could be, not really knowing what to expect.
Kimiko arrived early that afternoon, in an ox-drawn carriage suitable for a young lady of high birth. It was all illusion, of course. The attendants and guards and the ox were all foxes, though of course they appeared perfectly human save for the ox. It was only my trained senses that let me discern their true nature, betrayed in the sudden appearance of a paw where a hand should be, quickly hidden up a sleeve. That, and the fact I expected nothing else. The cart itself was nothing but shaped mist and foxfire. Even so, the illusion was quite powerful. I had no doubt that anyone else—aside from a trained priest like Kenji—seeing the carriage and escort passing by would be absolutely convinced of its reality.
“Well done, indeed,” Kenji whispered, echoing my own thought.
When Kimiko descended from the carriage, it was quite a different matter. As Lady Kuzunoha herself had once explained to me, her human form was real, not illusion, but rather a sort of mask concealing her true nature. When Kimiko politely kneeled before us, I did see a human girl of about sixteen with long black hair down her back tied with a red silk ribbon, and no fox at all. Tagako-hime took the girl’s hands and raised her up, and it was only then I got a good look at Kimiko’s face.
So much like her mother.
“You are welcome here,” I said, and Kimiko blushed.
“My mother thanks you for your kindness. I will try not to be a burden to you,” she said.
I was full of questions, which of course Tagako-hime suspected as she used this chance to spirit Kimiko away with my daughters Kaoru, Rie, and Raishi close behind. I heard excited chatter and some giggling before they disappeared into the house.
“Well?” I asked Kenji.
“No ill intent, yet... interesting,” was all he said at first.
“I trust you have more of an impression than that.”
He grinned. “Oh, several. What’s interesting is, whoever her father may have been, he was no fox. The girl is at least partly human, I’m sure of it, only....”
“Only you would expect her to be at least half human, and she isn’t?”
He frowned. “Yes, how did you... oh. Then you think you know who the father is. So do I.”
“Unless we’re both badly mistaken, it’s Lord Yasuna.”
Lady Kuzunoha had been Lord Yasuna’s wife before her true nature had been revealed, forcing their separation. Yet Lord Yasuna himself was half-fox, a fact I was certain he remained ignorant of to this day. It was now clear they had been together on at least one more occasion since their separation, and the result was now becoming acquainted with my wife and daughters.
“Whether that was wise on either of their parts is their business, not mine,” I said. “Yet the consequences still reach me.”
“Quite a lovely consequence. She’s as beautiful as her mother,” Kenji said. “In her human form.”
“I hope you’re simply pointing out the obvious, you old letch,” I said.
He just sighed. “Time has since taken what my priestly training could not. One of my many failures, Lord Yamada.”
Despite our new addition, all was peaceful for the first several days. Tagako-hime especially, I noticed, seemed as taken with the girl as my daughters were. As they were far better suited to the task, I was more than happy to leave the matter of “gentling” Kuzunoha’s daughter in their capable hands. It was not as if I had nothing else to do, with overseeing the training of our mounted archers in my son’s absence and settling the endless disputes among the villages in my domain.
Unfortunately, Kimiko-chan had other plans. About two weeks after Kimiko’s arrival, Tagako-hime came to me.
“There’s something I think you should know,” she said. “A few days ago Kimiko came to me and said she needed to get outside for a while. I thought at first she simply wanted to spend time in the garden. No. She meant as a fox.”
I took a moment to reflect. “Well, I suppose it’s natural that she might find her human form... constricting.”
“I considered that as well. She did ask, and as there are no hunters on our estate I didn’t see the harm. Now she says she feels more comfortable in the abandoned temple. She wants to stay there for the time being.”
There had been a temple on the estate long before I acquired it, but that temple had long ago fallen into ruin and the location was deemed “unlucky.” Kenji’s temple was built on a more fortunate site, or at least we hoped this was the case.
Perfectly suitable den for a wild fox, I thought. Arguably less so for a young woman, even one almost but not entirely fox.
“What do our daughters think of all this?”
“As for Rie, Kaoru, and Raishi, they think it’s a marvelous idea. I had to dissuade them from joining her.”
I was not at all surprised. “That is out of the question. As for Kimiko, I want to refuse, yet I am unsure if that is the proper course. As a fox, Kimiko knows her business better than I do, and nowhere in Lady Kuzunoha’s letter did she ask me to train her daughter to be human.”
“She is a fox,” Tagako-hime said firmly. “As she is part human, I hope we can have some influence still, but nothing will or should change her true nature. Perhaps allowing her to make her own decisions—and her own mistakes—is a reasonable course.”
It was still against my better judgment, but I saw nothing but unreasonable alternatives. “So be it.”
Two weeks later I received word of an outbreak of a strange plague in four of the villages in my jurisdiction. Kenji took it upon himself to visit them all. While he had always been pious, in his fashion, his selfless dedication to the people under his care would have been remarkable a few short years prior. Now, I was not surprised in the least. Responsibility changes a person, as I knew as well as anyone.
Upon his return, Kenji sent me a message requesting a meeting. He asked me to come to his temple, and I tried not to read anything ominous in the fact.
While my escort waited outside, I found Kenji in the temple lecture hall, alone, looking over a map spread out on small table.
“Lord Yamada, thank you for coming. While I believe the sickness did not follow me, for your family’s sake I thought it might be safer to meet here. Feel free to keep your distance if you think it best.”
“Is the disease so virulent?” I asked.
“Buddha be praised, no one has died yet,” he said, “but that’s only a matter of time if we do not eliminate the cause. I have seldom seen worse, yet at the same time I sensed nothing at any of the villages. A god of pestilence, a vengeful spirit, or even some variety of curse would have shown some sign of its presence.”
That was strange indeed. While Kenji had no small ability as a healer, his true talent was in perceiving, identifying, and eliminating the causes of disease and other misfortunes. It did speak well of him that he volunteered his services in this matter, but in truth there was no one else as qualified. If he sensed nothing, then a resolution might prove more difficult than I had imagined.
Nor, considering Kenji’s information, did we have the luxury of time.
“While I take you at your word that this pestilence, whatever it is, has not followed you, as a precaution I will send word to Tagako-hime that I will be away until this matter is concluded.”
“She will not be pleased,” Kenji said.
“No, but she and my daughters will be safe, which is more important. For now, show me what you’re looking at.”
“Here you can see the borders of your estates clearly marked. And here,” he said, pointing to four black pebbles arranged in a rough square, “are the positions of the four stricken villages. I was trying to see if there was anything connecting the outbreaks. Routes of travel, that sort of thing.”
Kenji sighed. “And nothing. Of course there is trade and travel—and bickering—among them, but that’s true of every village in your jurisdiction and beyond, including those communities which have been spared. So far the contagion is confined to these four, with no apparent cause.”
“While it is fortunate it hasn’t spread, the fact that it hasn’t is very strange... Oh.”
I saw it then. Something Kenji, surprisingly, had overlooked.
“The old temple,” I said. “Kimiko has taken up residence there.”
He took another look at the map, and then shook his head. “I must be getting blind as well as old. It’s in the center, isn’t it? Almost equally distant from all four.”
“No doubt why it was built there in the first place. A strategic placement, if not a fortunate one.”
“Likely something aside from Kimiko-chan has taken up residence in the ruins. Something malevolent,” Kenji said. “I should have burned the place to the ground.”
At that moment I agreed with him, and I strongly hoped that the malevolence in residence Kenji suspected was not Kimiko herself, a possibility Kenji had tactfully omitted. Still, I had no choice but to consider the possibility.
“What shall we do?” Kenji asked.
“What we must,” I said. “If we leave now, we can reach the old temple before nightfall.”
Closely followed by the two Yamada clan archers who made up my escort, Kenji and I set a brisk pace to the ruined temple. It was a long path which gave us time to talk. This was not always a situation to be desired.
“Lord Yamada, why does Kimiko live out here? Even if you didn’t feel comfortable letting Lady Kuzunoha’s daughter into your house, surely you could provide better accommodations?”
“My comfort had nothing to do with it. Kimiko lives here because it is where she feels comfortable. As I said before, Kimiko is a nogitsune, a wild fox. The least experienced and cultured, but also the lowest rank in the fox hierarchy.”
Kenji frowned. “As I understand the matter, Lady Kuzunoha is a zenko, which is a very high rank indeed among foxes. So why isn’t her daughter of higher rank?”
“I do not pretend to understand everything, but I do know fox hierarchy doesn’t work that way. Her birth matters little to anyone aside from Lady Kuzunoha herself. It is only with time and wisdom acquired that Kimiko will advance in rank... if she survives. Simply being young and ignorant is a difficult and dangerous time for someone like Kimiko-chan, as Kuzunoha-sama hinted.”
“In that way humans and foxes are not so different. Lord Yamada, what will we do if Kimiko is the source of the contagion?”
I had been asking myself the same question since I looked at Kenji’s map. If Kimiko was at fault and the act was malicious, would I, in order to protect the villagers under my care, be forced to deal with her and thus make a mortal enemy of someone as powerful as Lady Kuzunoha? Someone I still considered a friend? I wasn’t as sure of the answer as I wanted to be, but I still had a faint hope, and I clung to it tightly.
“I have met the girl. While it is certainly within her power as a nogitsune to spread illness, I don’t believe she would do such a thing, even as a trick,” I said.
Kenji looked grim. “I hope, for her sake, you are right, Yamada-sama. But we must make certain.”
The old temple came into sight. It was an eerie, shadowed place, even in daylight. The upswept corners of the roof always left the interior in shadow despite the missing roof tiles and the sagging lintel. I sent one archer to guard the rear of the building while the other kept close to us.
“Kimiko-chan? I need to speak with you.”
She emerged onto the veranda almost immediately. She was in her human form as a winsome young girl, but I knew that was mostly to humor us. She kneeled. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” she asked formally.
I nodded at Kenji, who asked, “Kimiko-chan, several families near here have fallen ill. Do you know anything about it?”
While Kimiko, like any fox or indeed anyone, was capable of lying, it sounded like truth when she replied, “While I understand why you might think so, I do not. I’ve been here all the time, playing with my new doggy.”
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. “A dog? Where did you find a dog?”
She smiled. “He found me. Apparently we were sharing the temple.”
“Please show us.”
Kimiko led us inside, toward the rear of the main hall where the cobwebs were thickest. “He stays here most of the time.”
Something moved in the shadows. “Kenji—”
“I think I know,” he said. There was a paper ward in his hand. We both saw what looked like a bundle of hair in the corner. It was definitely not a dog.
I pointed. “Kimiko-chan, that thing is a keukegen. It is a pestilent spirit that spreads disease and bad luck.”
She looked surprised. “Really? My mother has mentioned them but I’d never seen one. I thought he smelled funny for a dog.”
The creature growled much like a dog and gathered itself as if to spring. Kenji had apparently anticipated this and leaped forward with startling agility for his age and slapped the ward onto what appeared to be no more than a mass of hair.
The creature yowled, but the ward held it firmly in place as Kenji began the rite of exorcism and my archer kept a keen eye on it, bow drawn. I noted a single tear on Kimiko’s otherwise stoic face, and I kept a close watch on her but she did not interfere.
When the rite was concluded, Kimiko-chan bowed again. “I have learned something today. I apologize for whatever trouble my ignorance may have caused.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said. “But if any more creatures aside from yourself take up residence here, I would appreciate you letting us know.”
When all was done, Kenji and I were back on the same path.
“Do you think she’ll ever learn better?” he asked.
“Likely,” I said. “She has time. The real question is, will we?”
It was just over a month following the incident at the old temple when my fellow vassal and neighbor, Lord Daiki, came to see me in person quite unexpectedly, and he was not in the best humor. I listened to everything he had to say and took a deep breath.
“I’ve heard your accusation, Lord Daiki. What I haven’t heard is evidence.”
Everything I said was accurate but perhaps not as diplomatic as it should have been, given his agitated condition. Lord Daiki was a hot-tempered blowhard of a type I knew well. Despite my personal opinion of the man, it was in our mutual interest to maintain good relations. Our overlord, Minamoto no Yoshiie, insisted upon it.
“Lord Yamada, my men followed the creature to your western barrier, where it disappeared; it must have entered your lands from there. What more evidence do you need?”
Actually, if I didn’t already suspect the answer, I would have required a great deal more. As it was, I felt a surge of melancholy, fondly if foolishly remembering my time as the impoverished heir to a disgraced clan, with no responsibilities other than the temporary sort. Those days were long gone, and a feud with my neighbor certainly wouldn’t bring them back, nor did I wish for either event except in moments of weakness.
“Lord Daiki, please understand—I consider a threat to you and your own the same as a threat to myself. If there is such a beast hiding on my estates, you may be assured I will find it. However, since your son was involved, I must ask if he had any explanation for what occurred? Did he see this thing you mentioned?”
For the first time Lord Daiki looked more uncomfortable than simply belligerent. “I think so, but I’m afraid Hideo made little sense. He kept calling it a ‘she.’ Such as ‘where is she?’ and ‘where did she go?’”
I felt a chill. “What did your men see?” I asked.
“It was too dark to be sure, but it was nothing human. A wild beast of some sort, as I said, and right on my son’s veranda.”
“That is a serious matter. Rest assured I will take whatever action is necessary to protect us both.”
Immediately after Lord Daiki’s departure, I sent a message to Kenji with specific instructions, after which he was to meet me at the ruined temple we both knew well. The sun had not quite set when I arrived with my inevitable escort. Kenji appeared soon after.
“Well?” I asked.
“I sent my two best acolytes. They’ll be finished before nightfall. Now then, what’s all this about?”
“You’ll see.” I approached the ruins, with Kenji close behind. “Come out, Kimiko-chan. I know you’re in there.”
First there was only a pair of bright amber-yellow eyes visible, then a young fox vixen crept cautiously into view, a fox with two tails. I wasn’t totally surprised at the number of tails. After all, she was Lady Kuzunoha’s daughter, but this was the first time I had ever seen Kimiko in her true form. In another moment it wasn’t a fox but a very pretty girl kneeling before us. I sighed. So much like her mother.
“You visited Lord Daiki’s son last night, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Lord Yamada,” she said. “But—”
At least she didn’t bother to deny it. “No excuses. I promised your mother I’d shelter you on the condition you stay out of trouble. How is this ‘staying out of trouble’?”
She glanced down. “I honestly didn’t see any harm. I saw him once when I was out hunting. He seemed lonely. I understood, since I’d lost my doggie.”
I shuddered. “Let’s not revisit that incident. I understand if you were feeling lonely, but I’d hoped for better judgment. So. Are you in love with Hideo? Tell the truth or I’ll have Kenji-san compel it from you.”
She looked down. “He was fun, and I liked him, but no. In truth I was bored.”
That was a relief. Love always complicated things. Kimiko’s mother and I, separately, had both learned that lesson.
“Kenji-san has placed spirit wards at Hideo’s home. If you go there again, he will not see a beguiling girl. He will see a fox. With two tails. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly,” she said.
Still a hint of defiance, despite everything. As expected. After all, she was Lady Kuzunoha’s daughter. I had the answer to that, too.
“Kimiko-chan, don’t force me to write your mother.”
She lowered her gaze. “It seems I must apologize again, and I do. You may not believe this, Yamada-sama, but I really am trying.”
Late fall turned to winter. I went on several occasions to the old temple during the harsher months to assure myself that Kimiko’s den there was as comfortable as possible and that she wanted for nothing. As she still refused to move back to the main house, there was little else I could do. Fortunately there were no more incidents, or at least nothing to cause me concern.
That, in its own contrary way, caused me a great deal of concern. All winter I felt as if I was simply waiting for Kimiko to appear, smiling, in the center of some new complication, likely something terrible, something that I would not be able to fix with a simple exorcism or conceal with one of Kenji’s inexhaustible supply of wards. Yet winter proceeded inevitably to spring in relative peace as the snow melted away.
The sakura were now in blossom. Tagako-hime invited Kimiko to our traditional flower-viewing party, the annual hanami, and she agreed to come.
I knew Kimiko was humoring us by accepting. On the other hand, she knew she was still on shaky ground after the incidents with Lord Daiki’s son and the plague monster, so her acceptance could be seen as more diplomatic than heartfelt. Still, I was more grateful for it than I cared to admit.
If any of these considerations weighed on Tagako-hime’s mind, she didn’t show it. She efficiently ordered and oversaw preparations as if nothing at all was unusual. I was just hoping for a quiet afternoon. I did not think I would get it.
We had three very fine cherry trees in full bloom; it was a sunny, warm spring day. Conditions could not have been more perfect, a situation which made me all the more uneasy.
Kenji arrived first, dressed in clean robes with his head freshly shaven. Tagako-hime brought out our daughters, Rie, Kaoru, and Raishi, dressed in their spring kimonos, perfectly groomed and on their best behavior. Kimiko arrived soon after, looking hesitant, but Tagako-hime and my daughters greeted her warmly and we took our places beneath the blossoming sakura.
“They’re very lovely,” Kimiko said, and that was all anyone said for a while.
Most eyes were on the pink sakura, but I simply couldn’t concentrate. I was on edge, though there seemed no reason to be. Kimiko sat demurely between Tagako-hime and my daughters, and occasionally Tagako-hime or one of the girls would lean over and whisper to Kimiko, who more than once had to cover a giggle with her fan. Everyone seemed in good spirits, and I had to admit that even Kimiko’s kimono was perfectly appropriate for the season. It reminded me of one I had seen before, and she was every bit the image of a proper young lady.
I’m missing something. What is it?
I glanced at Kenji, but he was no help. A servant finally brought saké and tea to mark the end of the hanami as the afternoon faded. Kimiko took her leave soon after... and nothing happened.
Later, when we were alone, Tagako-hime touched my shoulder. “Anata, you look puzzled. Is something troubling you?”
“Kimiko behaved herself. Nothing untoward happened, or has happened since the snows.”
“And this surprises you?”
“Well... yes. She is a nogitsune, after all,” I said.
“Whatever else she may be, she is also a young woman. She’s been through a great deal.”
“That is certainly true, though I don’t believe either of us know the whole story.”
Tagako-hime smiled then. “Oh, some of us may know more than others. By the way, I think Kimiko-chan will be ready to abandon her den and come back to us before long. Perhaps only as a courtesy, but still for the best.”
It was only then that I remembered where I had seen Kimiko’s kimono before. It was one our eldest, Rie, had worn the year before.
“You’ve been to see Kimiko, haven’t you?”
“Several times,” she said. “As have you. We did promise to look after the child, and I and your daughters were merely doing our part.”
“But—” I started to protest when Tagako-hime pressed a finger to my lips.
“There are many things you know, Beloved,” she said. “And there are some things which I know. One of them is simply this—not everything in the world is a puzzle to be neatly solved. Some require listening, forbearance, and patience.”
I looked at her. “You’ve been counselling Kimiko all this time, haven’t you? Something I should have been doing.”
My wife demurred. “Counselling implies talking, and I doubt she was ready for that. Mostly I listened and set an example. You helped keep her out of trouble in your own way.”
I could only marvel. “Listening, forbearance, and patience? I imagine I am also one who requires the services of all three.”
She just smiled again. “Kimiko was right—the sakura were especially lovely this year, don’t you think?”
As was often the case where Takago-hime was concerned, I could but agree.