With the sun now set and a magnificent full moon, glittering like winter frost, on the rise, the ghosts stirred in Lord Noritomo’s garden.
“Lord Yamada, is it not exactly as I have said?”
I kept my eyes on the ghosts. “It is exactly as you have said, Noritomo-sama. What you have not said is why it’s a problem. Could you enlighten me?
The question took Lord Noritomo off guard. Of course I understood why, in general, it was an undesirable thing to have a haunted garden, but if there was a specific reason why he didn’t want them there, that might make their reasons for being present more evident. The facts were already quite clear—at night, two ghosts, by appearance both female, entered through the north gate of Noritomo’s mansion and proceeded through the estate to the central garden. There they were joined by yet another ghost, similar in form and dress to the first two. No one had yet ascertained the origin of the third, though she did usually appear between two outbuildings on the western side of the compound. There in the garden, the first two ghosts would play a game of Go while the latecomer watched. They did not speak, but the click of the stones on the phantom board could be clearly heard. It was this sound, Noritomo informed me, that had alerted his servants to their presence in the first place.
“Lord Yamada, are you joking?” Noritomo said. “I was planning a moon-viewing party for this very night. The Crown Prince himself was planning to attend! It was humiliating, but I had no choice but to cancel. How can I bring noble guests to a garden full of ghosts? And what if this goes on? Servants talk, as you well know. I’ll get a reputation for being unlucky.”
I was forced to admit that he had a reasonable concern. For a courtier like Noritomo, reputation was everything. Whatever effects the ghosts did or did not intend, their very presence was, to say the least, indelicate. Yet there was, as always, more to the matter, but now I did not think I would learn what that something might be from Lord Noritomo himself.
“Forgive me,” I said, “but I must ask this—can you think of any reason these ghosts would have to wish you ill? Do you recognize any of them?”
For my own part I did not, nor did I expect to do so. Except for the fact that onibi hovered near them like phantom lanterns and their figures were somewhat translucent, they could have been any three young women of the nobility. Their kimonos were appropriate to the season and they wore their hair long, tied with ribbons to hang straight down their backs. For spirits, they made a rather fetching and elegant scene.
Noritomo gave me a sharp glance, but he consented to take a closer look. “They appear to be pretty young women,” he said finally, “and it’s true that I do have an interest in pretty young women. But I swear to you I have never seen any of them before, alive or otherwise. I know of no grudge they could possibly have against me.”
“Which might explain their lack of interest in anything beyond the garden.” I detected nothing furtive in Noritomo’s manner. If he was lying, he was a very good liar, even by the standards of a courtier.
“Lord Yamada, I have ghosts in my garden! Can you help me or not?”
I considered the matter in light of what my observations had told me. “I think so. If all else fails, the ghosts can be exorcised. I have a friend skilled in these matters, and I will summon him. Yet it won’t be easy—there’s a complication.”
“These are not human ghosts, Noritomo-sama. Unless I’m badly mistaken—and I am not—they are fox spirits.”
Noritomo gasped. “Lord Buddha protect me!”
“The Buddha is merciful. But while we’re waiting, I think I need to speak to your servants. The more I understand, the more chance I can render the Buddha some assistance on your behalf.”
Lord Noritomo’s mansion was a typical shingon style compound, with one central building housing the main hall and two separate wings joined to the central structure by covered walkways. These were left open now, it being early summer, but could be completely enclosed in winter. Lord Noritomo’s principal wife had passed away five years earlier, and he had yet to remarry. Her old apartments in the west wing were now occupied by Noritomo’s two young sons and their nurse, a stout woman of middle years named Mai. Apartments in the east wing not reserved for Lord Noritomo himself were assigned to his Master of the Wardrobe, an older man named Junko, and his daughter, Mariko. The balance of Noritomo’s personal attendants resided in several rooms in the east wing near their master, where they were always on call.
The following afternoon, Lord Noritomo informed me that he had business elsewhere in the Capital which would occupy him for some days, and I took the opportunity, with his permission, of examining the buildings and grounds and asking questions of his staff and servants. The nurse, Mai, seemed determined to speak whether I asked or not.
“It was little Toshi who spotted them first,” she said, almost before I could ask the question. I found her in the garden, keeping a close eye on the boys as they looked for frogs in the koi pond. Toshi was the elder, about eight years old. The youngest, Hiroi, was perhaps six.
“Is that so?” I asked the boy, and he looked up at me and nodded, looking very serious.
“I saw the pretty ladies,” he said.
“You were out of bed, weren’t you?” Mai asked.
He nodded. “I had to pee. When I went outside, I saw them in the garden. I was going to go talk to them, but Mai-san found me.”
“Frightened me half out of my wits!” she said. “What if you’d gone out there and they’d taken you away? The Master would have cut off poor Mai’s head.”
“They didn’t seem bad,” Toshi said, looking doubtful.
“They might not be so, but foxes don’t think the way humans do,” I said. “Ghost foxes, especially so. And they love to play tricks on humans. The wise man knows when to be careful.”
“You mind what Yamada-sama is telling you,” Mai said.
“Did you see them any other time, Mai-san?” I asked.
“Just that once, but now that I know they are out there, I can always tell. I hear the stones. Then one of them plays a flute, and they leave.”
I frowned. Lord Noritomo hadn’t mentioned a flute. “Which one plays? The one watching the game?”
“I don’t know. I never go out to see. The sound of the flute is faint but I can hear it plainly.”
“But the spirits never come any closer to the house?”
“No, and praise the gods for that. I would die of fright, I am sure,” Mai said.
“I’ll try not to let it come to that,” I said. “Do you know if Junko-san is around? I need to speak to him.”
“I believe he is on an errand for the Master. He should return soon.”
When Mai took her charges back into the mansion I lingered in the garden. Beyond the koi pond there was a stone lantern and grassy spot where the garden’s creator had placed a large flat stone, perfect for a small gathering of friends to place a Go board or a wine tray. There were no marks on the ground to indicate anyone had been there in some time, which was no more or less than I expected to see.
I considered the matter. I knew I would have to summon the priest Kenji; I had an obligation to my patron to protect his interests, and one way or another the ghosts would have to leave. Yet there was simply too much about the situation that struck me as strange, to say the least. Why would fox spirits come to a place with no—so far as I could ascertain—special lure or meaning for them, simply to play a game of Go? There were legends, of course, of farmers and such who were lured to spy on fox spirits at play, only to realize too late that the game, far from taking an hour or two, had taken hundreds of years and time had passed around them unnoticed. I knew this was nonsense, but that still left the question of why they were here, if not for mischief.
Two foxes enter by the northern gate. One does not.
The northern gate, whether for a compound or a city, was called the Demon’s Gate, because it was considered most vulnerable to entry by evil spirits. Evil or no, it made sense that the fox spirits would enter from that direction.
So where is the third fox spirit coming from?
Or, more to the point, what was different about her? She had appeared to be dressed the same as the first two ghosts. Other than the direction of her arrival and the fact that she arrived separately, she could have been one more seed in a pod with the other two. Perhaps it didn’t matter. I knew that it was possible that her apparent differences didn’t matter, but I didn’t believe it. I took note of the sun’s descent, sought out one of Lord Noritomo’s couriers, and sent a message to . After that I settled myself on the veranda to wait.
Kenji arrived just before sundown and was escorted to me by Mai-san, who immediately bowed and excused herself. Kenji yawned and scratched himself before sitting down near to me on the veranda. He looked, as he often did, a little worse for wear, though his head was freshly shaven, and judging from his relative lack of aroma, he had bathed recently.
“I hope my message didn’t interrupt anything,” I said.
He grunted. “Frankly, I welcomed the interruption. Sometimes a good time can be too good and too much. So. We have ghosts to deal with, yes?”
For a priest of the Eightfold Path, Kenji knew quite a bit about good times and overindulgence, so I accepted his judgment without inquiring any further.
“Yes. The ghosts will be arriving soon, if past behavior is any indication. I want you to watch with me.”
“Watch? Honestly, Lord Yamada... I’m starting to find your reluctance to exorcise a spirit at first opportunity somewhat frustrating.”
Whatever Kenji’s failings as a priest or a person, one could never doubt his faith, or rather his absolute certainty that he understood the way the world worked, in both its physical and spiritual aspects. While it was true that he expected to be well paid for an exorcism, that was not the heart of the matter. To Kenji, a ghost was a lost soul, and a fox spirit doubly so. Exorcising a spirit from the earthly plane so that it could return to the wheel of death and rebirth and continue its journey toward transcendence was an act of kindness, in his view. I was never so sure about that, or indeed much of anything else. I sometimes envied Kenji his certainties, since I had so few.
“Kenji-san, understanding is a blessing. You already have yours. I’m still searching for mine, and at the moment I’m more interested in why the spirits are here rather than where they will go. Exorcism will remain an option but not my first one.”
Kenji just shrugged. “As you wish. So. Aside from ghosts, what am I looking for?”
“Anything—about the ghosts themselves, I mean—that doesn’t make sense to you.”
We didn’t have to wait very long. As soon as the sun was well down and a glorious near-full moon was on the rise, the two fox spirits appeared from the direction of the north gate. They moved with stately grace to the flat rock and seated themselves. They didn’t set up the Go board, it was suddenly just there, and they began to play. The click of the stones on the board was clearly audible.
“They’re being fairly loud,” Kenji said. “I mean, one can make a great deal of noise playing Go. But one doesn’t have to.”
“So you’re saying that they want to be heard,” I said.
“Lord Yamada, as you well know, fox spirits, as with a living fox, are secretive creatures. Calling attention to themselves, unless they’re up to mischief, seems a bit odd.”
“And yet they’ve repeated their game here for weeks without, so far as I can tell, showing any interest in working harm to the people living here.”
“You mentioned three. I see only two.”
“It shouldn’t be long now.”
Nor was it. The third fox spirit appeared, walking between two of the outbuildings as it took a straight path to the game. In so doing, it passed relatively close to the veranda where Kenji and I sat, and I got a closer look than I had when Lord Noritomo and I had watched them from the bottom of the garden. I waited until the third spirit had joined the game as spectator.
“I need a closer look.” I stepped down from the veranda; Kenji followed close behind.
Kenji’s voice was a harsh whisper. “What if they see you?”
“Do you really think they don’t know we’re here?” I asked.
Kenji let out a breath. “It did seem unlikely.”
“I don’t expect them to bolt or attack unless we get too close for their comfort. It needn’t come to that. Yet.”
I advanced only as far as the pond, keeping it between me and the spirits. Looking across, what I had at first suspected was quite obvious, that their similarities went much farther than merely the way they were dressed. “They’re sisters,” I said.
Kenji frowned. “Lord Yamada, a fox is a shapeshifter, and so is a fox spirit. They can appear to be anything they want.”
“True, but when a fox is simply appearing to be human without impersonating a particular human, they have a preferred form that they take, and I’ve known that to be true since my first meeting with one. So why would these fox spirits appear to be sisters when no one here recognizes those sisters?”
“With all respect, we don’t yet know for certain what they are up to.”
“Also true. If their appearance is a subterfuge, I’m almost eager for the trick to be played, just to see the reasons behind this particular manifestation.”
“I would not be so keen,” Kenji said. “You may have rid yourself of your demon of drink, but your demon of curiosity has not lost a bit of its influence.”
It was true that my demon of drink, as Kenji had phrased it, was weakened and diminished, but I wasn’t convinced that I’d rid myself of it. I knew the time was coming when I would have to test myself against it once again. As for my “demon of curiosity,” it had kept me in this impermanent world at times when I couldn’t think of any other reason to continue, so I was inclined to grant it all the leeway it required. I was about to say as much when ghostly music interrupted me.
“Do you hear that?”
The sound was faint, but distinctive. After a moment, Kenji nodded. “A bamboo flute. Being played very softly.”
That alone was a curious thing. The music of the flute tended to have many sharp notes and piercing whistles. Yet this was so faint as to be difficult to hear and I couldn’t make out the precise tune, even though I did not believe that whoever was playing the flute was not very far away. I could see that Mai had been mistaken—none of the fox spirits was playing the instrument. The musician was nowhere in sight.
“The hour is late,” Kenji said. “Perhaps the person does not wish to disturb the house.”
“Or they only want to be heard by someone with keen hearing indeed. Look.”
It was clear that all three of the fox spirits heard the music. They interrupted their game to look toward the mansion—something they had not done at any other point that evening. One fox spirit then left the group. It was the latecomer, the spectator. She glided back toward the outbuildings and vanished from sight. In a moment or two, the Go board had disappeared, and the remaining fox spirits gracefully withdrew toward the north gate and faded from sight.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We quickly skirted the pond and followed in the direction the spectator fox spirit had gone. I didn’t really expect to catch up to her, but there had to be some significance to the direction, and unless she picked up her pace, there was at least a chance that I could see her go... where? It was strange that she did not arrive or depart with the others. The fox spirits, as I had already realized, were very similar to each other, and so I chose to concentrate on how they were different, and this one particular spirit was the most different of all.
We rounded the corner of the mansion and were heading toward the outbuildings when a faint sound caught my attention. It was the sound of a shoji screen being closed. I glanced back toward the mansion, but there were several doors there leading off the veranda, and there was no way to tell which one of them had just closed. We no longer heard any music.
“Odd....” Kenji said.
“What is?” I asked, picking up the pace to make up for my hesitation, but Kenji had already stopped.
I’d started to say “impossible,” but of course it wasn’t. A fox spirit could certainly vanish from sight if its need was great, but the others had seen no need to disappear before they reached the gate, even though they knew they were being watched. Yet, as I looked beyond the last outbuilding toward the nearly bowshot-length expanse of grassy earth that separated the last storehouse from the fence, I saw nothing.
Now Kenji and I both scratched our heads, though in his case it was probably because of a recent case of lice. “Where did she go?” I asked.
Kenji closed his eyes and held up a hand for silence. I kept still as he muttered under his breath; every now and then I could make out a word or two of a sutra. After a while, he fell silent and opened his eyes again.
“Well?” I asked.
“Faint... but certain. She didn’t go anywhere, Lord Yamada. She’s still here.”
I met Kenji at the mansion late the next afternoon. By now I realized that I needed to be a bit more thorough in my inquiries. Lord Noritomo had not yet returned, but as he had instructed, a servant girl named Asako met us in the central chamber. She appeared to be about eight years old and was a somber child, apparently taking her duties as our escort very seriously. As we followed her into the east wing of the mansion, I asked the first question I wanted answered, “Asako-chan, does anyone here play the bamboo flute?”
Her countenance brightened just a little. “Oh, yes, Yamada-sama. We have several very accomplished flute players. The Master, for one.”
I was not surprised. Noritomo was a courtier after all, and no courtier was considered accomplished without being able to play at least one musical instrument with passable skill. According to Asako, Noritomo was better than just “passable.”
The girl pondered. “There’s Lady Mai, of course. There’s Hideki, our Stablemaster—he’s quite good. I play... a little. But the best of all is Master Junko.”
“Lord Noritomo’s Master of the Wardrobe?”
“I have not spoken to him as of yet. I think I need to do so.”
“Master Junko left this morning on an errand, and we don’t expect him back before this afternoon. His daughter, Mariko, is here, of course.”
“Then I will speak to her first, if that is not inconvenient.”
Asako hesitated. “Lord Noritomo’s instructions were clear, but I must tell you that Mariko-san’s health is delicate, poor thing, and I know that she was not feeling well this morning.”
“I would hate to be a source of pain to the girl, but this may be important,” I said. “If she will see me, I promise to be as brief as possible.”
Asako bowed. “Of course. If you’ll wait here, gentlemen, I will see if she is in a fit state to receive visitors.”
Asako pattered down the corridor and disappeared around a corner, leaving Kenji and me alone. “What is your feeling?” I asked. “I know you’ve been trying to catch the scent, so to speak.”
“There’s something here,” Kenji said. “But it is faint.”
Kenji shrugged. “That is one thing that puzzles me. I’m not sensing any malice, anxiety or deception, any of which I would expect for an evil spirit in hiding, especially if it knew it was being hunted. What I sense I can only describe as an aura of melancholy. It is indeed strange.”
Asako soon returned. “This way, gentlemen.”
Kenji and I followed her to a room on a leftward corridor branching off the end of the main corridor. She kneeled beside the sliding screen that served as its door and moved it aside.
Like most of the gentry, Mariko slept almost nude on a long cushion covered with the layers of her voluminous kimono as the bed covering, and this she had gathered about her as she kneeled there. She had put on a kimono that would normally serve as an inner layer of a complete outfit and covered that with a red Chinese-style jacket to receive us. She appeared to be about fourteen, fairly thin, with long black hair tied back with a green ribbon. She was a pretty girl but obviously of delicate constitution, as Asako had indicated.
The room was small, as one would expect for an attendant of her station, so Kenji and I bowed a greeting and kneeled out in the corridor before the open door.
“Forgive this intrusion,” I said. “I am on an errand for Lord Noritomo, and I need to ask you a few questions. Were you aware that Lord Noritomo’s garden is being haunted?”
She bowed in return. “Lady Mai told me. I don’t know how I can assist in this matter, but I will try to answer your questions.”
“Thank you. My associate and I heard flute music out in the garden last night. Is it your father’s habit to practice in the evening?”
“I think he has done so, from time to time. I cannot say if he did so last evening. I’m afraid I was very tired and retired early.”
“Young lady,” Kenji said softly. “I think you are very weary still.”
She smiled then, faintly, and, like any well-bred woman, raised a sleeve of her kimono to cover her mouth. “I would say I am used to it, for even sleep does not help for long.”
“Yet it seems wise, so I will not detain you farther,” I said.
We took our leave then, and Asako bade us wait outside while she assisted Mariko with her bedclothes.
“Anything?” I asked Kenji. While I prided myself on my ability to both detect actual foxes and their illusory tricks, in Mariko’s case I simply wasn’t sure.
“There’s something about her, certainly, some sort of presence,” Kenji said, looking thoughtful. “I could say a fox, but if I were a follower of the Way of the Gods, I’d strongly suspect the presence of a kami of death.”
I kept my voice low. “Is it that serious? The girl will die?”
“It means only that her condition is very grave,” Kenji said. “She may die. But it is not a certainty.”
When Asako returned, she led us back to the veranda, where Lord Noritomo’s servants had prepared a meal for us. Asako was about to withdraw, but I stopped her.
“Has Mariko’s health always been delicate?”
“Yes,” Asako said. “But it’s a curious thing... for almost a year we thought she was getting better. She even started to assist her father in his duties, but over the last several days she has gotten steadily weaker. She is inside during the day, but she’s taken to sleeping in one of the storerooms at night.”
“Why?” I asked.
Kenji scowled. “I suspect that she’s worried that her condition is something that might spread to the rest of the household. Or worse, that she will die in the night and her corpse bring ritual impurity into her master’s house. Isn’t that right, Asako-chan?”
The girl nodded reluctantly. “It is very worrying, but there is no arguing with her on the matter. She always thinks of others. I....” Asako hesitated but then added, “I like her.”
“I will say a prayer for on her behalf,” Kenji said.
Asako bowed. “I would be in your debt, sir,” she said, and then she did withdraw.
When she was gone, I gave Kenji a hard glance. “Since what time have you been offering your services without payment?” I asked.
“Lord Yamada, I merely know the value of my skills. That does not mean I am incapable of the virtue of charity.”
“Not incapable but not eager, in my experience.”
Kenji glared at me. “You’re trying to distract me from the matter at hand, Lord Yamada. I know what you’re thinking, but the location of Mariko’s sleeping quarters could be a coincidence.”
“You could be right,” I said.
But he wasn’t. I knew that Mariko’s sleeping arrangements and the appearance of the fox spirit were no coincidence. What I didn’t know was precisely what it meant or what needed to be done about it. The situation was already delicate; a new level of uncertainty was not what I wanted. Yet I remained constantly amazed at my ability to acquire exactly what I did not want.
Junko arrived shortly after we had finished our mid-day meal. He was an older man, perhaps near Lord Noritomo’s age of fifty. His hair was almost completely gray, but he moved like a younger man, and his bearing was dignified. We met on the veranda near the rear of the mansion, and when I asked my first question, he was quick to answer.
“I often play the flute in the evenings, Lord Yamada, though I try not to disturb anyone. Since my wife died, it’s been one of my few joys, aside from Mariko.”
I knew what it was like, to lose someone you loved, and more, knew the risk of losing your only child as well. I shoved the thought down deep where I hoped I could not find it again, though I knew better. I got back to the business at hand.
“Pardon me if this a painful memory, but Lady Mai tells me that your wife died giving birth to Mariko. It may have nothing to do with current events, but I’ve learned that it’s best to understand as much as possible about the people affected by... a spiritual intrusion. Can you tell me what happened?”
Junko let out a slow breath. “After fourteen years, one would think the pain would fade, but no, I still feel it. My wife breathed her last just as Mariko cried for the first time. The birth was difficult, and my dear Momiji was always of delicate constitution, which I’m afraid Mariko has inherited. For a while I feared I had lost them both.”
“You must care for your daughter a great deal,” I said.
He met my gaze squarely. “More than anything, aside from my duty to my lord.”
“Well said. It is my understanding that your daughter sleeps outside her rooms, at times.” It was more than an understanding. Mariko had confirmed it, and Kenji and I had examined her sleeping quarters ourselves before Junko’s arrival.
He sighed. “We have to make allowances. As I said, her health is frail, and I agree with whatever relieves her worry.”
“Still, your music must give her some comfort. I imagine she can hear you; the storage room isn’t far from the veranda.”
“She hasn’t said,” Junko replied, “though I imagine she does, sometimes.”
“Thank you, Master Junko. I won’t take up any more of your time.”
“I hope you’ll be able to bring some reassurance to Lord Noritomo, though my personal view is that the foxes are no threat. If they wished to cause harm, they would certainly have done so before now.”
“I tend to agree. Yet I do not believe that is the answer Lord Noritomo expects or will accept.”
“I fear you are correct,” he said, then bowed and took his leave. I sat down on the edge of the veranda.
Kenji had remained silent through my conversation with Junko, and now he spoke. “What do you think, Lord Yamada?”
“I think he was honest with me, for the most part, but I also think he knows more than he said. I am also quite certain that he is afraid, though not of the foxes.”
“Why didn’t you challenge him?”
“Because I am just a man, and I can’t always tell when someone is being deceptive. But I think I know a way to find out. I will require your assistance.”
Kenji smiled. “If I am right to suspect the nature of my assistance, I must tell you now that it will require payment. I am your friend, but my charitable impulses, such as they are, do not extend to you.”
I smiled too. “That’s one thing I do appreciate about you, Kenji-san. Whatever your other failings—which, to be blunt, are many—you are an honest man.”
The moon was waning and not so glorious as it had been two nights before. Even so, I took a moment to appreciate it. I had found an inconspicuous place to rest near the veranda on the north side of the house, closest to the outbuildings. I would see the foxes when they first arrived and the third when she joined her sisters, but that was not why I was there. I waited, still and silent, as the night progressed. Finally I heard the whisper of a sliding screen. A dark shadow emerged from the mansion, crept across the veranda, and stepped down to the stone that led to the yard. He was raising the flute to his lips when I interrupted.
“That’s a rather unusual flute, Master Junko.” I rose from the shadows.
Junko froze there for a moment like a wooden statue, then slowly lowered the flute. He regained his composure quickly. “It belonged to my wife,” he said. “I used to play it for her when she was ill. It is a well-made instrument, but otherwise unremarkable.”
“I meant rather the effect that it has. You were playing for your wife when she passed, weren’t you?”
He frowned. “Yes. She found the music comforting. How did you know?”
“An educated guess. Or did you never pause to consider why the music affects that fox spirit in the way that it does?”
“Fox spirit? What has this to do with them? I play for my daughter now; it helps her sleep. I-I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Lord Yamada.”
I smiled. “Yes, you do. You’ve known for some time that Mariko is possessed by a fox spirit.”
Junko licked his lips. “I swear that I did not. If... if that is true, the creature must be exorcised at once!”
“Oh, there’s no need of that. The spirit left of its own accord. That’s it out there in the garden, watching its sisters’ game. I think the real problem is that it is eager to leave, and you can’t allow that to happen.”
I had seen the same look that I saw now in Master Junko’s eyes once before—in a raccoon-dog caught in a hunter’s snare. Up until now my suppositions had proven correct, but I was entering less predictable waters. It was time for Master Junko to supply what I was missing.
“Master Junko, matters simply cannot remain as they are, for both Lord Noritomo’s sake and Mariko’s as well. The time has come to tell me how this came about.”
Master Junko visibly slumped as if his age had suddenly caught up to him. He looked tired and beaten. “It started with my wife, Momiji. I discovered the nature of her condition quite by accident. I would have summoned a priest then and there, but she begged me not to. She said the fox spirit had saved her life, lending her its strength when she had contacted a fever when she was eighteen. She said she would have died.”
Master Junko seemed to be telling the truth as he understood it, but there was an aspect to such possessions that I don’t think he understood, then or now.
“What happened when Mariko was born?”
“I had often played the flute for Momiji, as I said. She was an excellent musician, but I was better. It was... strange. When she was in labor, she begged me to play for her, but as we got closer to the delivery, she begged me to stop. Her voice was so strange... I stopped playing just as Mariko was born, and in that instant—”
He nodded, for a moment unable to speak.
I spoke for him. “I don’t think it was Momiji who told you to stop playing. It was the fox spirit. Momiji had a powerful attachment to your music, and apparently so did the fox spirit, whether for its own sake or by the fact that she had subsumed part of Momiji’s identity. The fox spirit knew that Momiji was dying and that it was time to leave. That’s why it told you to stop.”
“I-I think I guessed as much, myself... later. At the time, I wasn’t thinking at all. My wife was dead, and Mariko was born blue! The attendants did what they knew to do, but she wasn’t breathing. I was nearly out of my mind, and I didn’t know what to do.”
“So you started playing again.”
He nodded. “As soon as I did, Mariko coughed, and then she began breathing. It was only later I realized that it was because I had called the spirit back, only now it was in Mariko. It kept her alive.”
“So you keep it trapped. It roams free for a bit when Mariko sleeps, but you call it back every night.”
“For fourteen years. I had to, Lord Yamada. I lost my wife. I can’t lose my daughter too!”
“You’re going to, unless you let that fox spirit go.”
“I just told you—”
“And I’m telling you that there’s more to the situation than you understand. In order to take possession, a fox spirit needs a host in a weakened physical and spiritual state. That was Momiji at one point in her life, and your daughter at her birth. If necessary, the fox spirit lends it strength to its host.”
“I know that, Lord Yamada! Did I not just say that Momiji survived her first illness because of the fox spirit?”
“And she died at her second illness for the same reason.”
For a moment Master Junko just stared at me. “I-I don’t understand.”
“When the fox spirit takes possession, the host is in a weakened state. Not dying, not fading—weakened. A temporary condition that, if the host survives, will pass. The host will grow stronger. Sooner or later, she will be stronger than the fox spirit possessing her. At that time the situation begins to reverse. The fox spirit will take strength from the host, as it did once with Momiji and is doing now with Mariko. It’s killing her.”
“Nonsense! If that were true, why is it trying to get away?”
“I didn’t say it meant to kill her, I’m saying that’s what’s happening. Fox spirits often possess humans. Sometimes for malicious reasons but, as often as not, out of curiosity or mischief and never for very long. Your music has bound this one, and it still does. Wasn’t Mariko, for a time, getting stronger?”
“It’s the presence of Mariko’s fox spirit that calls to her sisters; that’s why they come here. She wants to rejoin them now. For Mariko’s sake, you have to let her.”
Junko glanced at the garden. “The game is nearly done. I-I want to believe you, Lord Yamada, but this is the only thing I know to do. Please don’t try to stop me.”
No, you don’t want to believe me, because in so doing you accept your part in Momiji’s death. I suppose we will just have to let events run their course, I thought.
“I wouldn’t presume,” I said. “In fact, I would like to hear you play.”
Junko looked suspicious, but when he raised the flute to his lips again, I merely stood where I was, watching the fox spirits as the game ended. Junko played the notes very softly. I thought I had heard the tune before, but I wasn’t certain, even as close as I was to him now.
I saw the fox spirit turn away from her sisters and glide in our direction. It came to the within a few paces of the outbuilding where Mariko lay sleeping.
There it stopped. I don’t think any human being can read the emotions of a fox spirit with complete confidence, but I was almost sure that the creature was confused. I glanced back at the other two and was a little surprised to see that they had not yet departed. In fact, they now stood on either side of the stone, facing in our direction. They appeared agitated.
“She–she’s not obeying me!”
“What was that tune you were playing? I think I’ve heard it before.”
“’The Last Snow,’” he said. “It’s from Mutsu province... oh, why isn’t it working?!”
I just nodded. “I’ve been to Mutsu, years ago. The song is just an old folk tune, yes?”
Junko refused to be distracted. He lowered the flute. “Lord Yamada, what have you done?”
“My associate, Kenji, is watching over your daughter. As soon as the fox spirit left Mariko, Kenji placed a spirit ward on your sleeping daughter’s forehead, per my instructions. The fox spirit cannot return.”
Junko gasped and shoved the flute into his sash. He hadn’t taken two steps before I grabbed him from behind.
“You will not interfere,” I said, but he wasn’t listening.
“Let me go!”
I did let him go. In truth I didn’t have a lot of choice. He was surprisingly strong and burning with a fire of pure desperation.
“Kenji!” I shouted. “He’s coming!
I could have saved my breath, for in another moment Kenji came half-running, half-flying out the door, propelled by Master Junko. He fell hard just a few paces from me and he did not get up right away, but when he had his breath back he just shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Lord Yamada. I couldn’t hold him. He ripped my spirit ward off his daughter.”
“That’s all right, Kenji-san,” I said. “We did what we needed to do.”
“But the fox spirit will take her over again!”
“No, I don’t think so.” I held up Master Junko’s flute.
The fox spirit stood where it was, only now it glanced back toward its sisters, and I spoke to it directly.
“It’s time for you to rejoin your family. No one will compel you to stay.”
Master Junko threw open the door. “I lost—Lord Yamada! No!”
I snapped the flute in half across my knee. Junko’s scream drowned out the faint whistle and much louder crack of the flute coming apart. He dove toward me, nearly incoherent in rage. Kenji managed to trip him as he hurtled past, and Junko went sprawling, though he quickly scrambled back to his feet.
That small, quiet voice stopped him as suddenly as if he’d been smashed in the forehead by a mallet. Mariko leaned against the doorway, looking both pale and confused, but very much conscious, alive, and mobile.
In an instant, Master Junko had forgotten all about me and the fox spirits as well. I glanced back toward the north gate just in time to see them—all three of them—vanish. I did not think they would be returning. Master Junko held his daughter as if he was afraid she would turn to mist at any moment and blow away.
“Master Junko, I think your daughter would like to breathe now. Mariko-chan, how are you feeling?”
“Strange,” she said, as soon as her father loosened his grip a bit. “Almost like I’m missing something, though I can’t imagine what that would be.” She covered a yawn. “I think I will sleep in my room tonight,” she said. “It’s noisy out here.”
“I think that would be a good idea,” I said. “Master Junko, perhaps your daughter could use your assistance...?”
Master Junko looked like a criminal who’d just been granted pardon moments before his scheduled execution. I think he would have fallen at my feet then, if Mariko hadn’t needed him to lean against. She was a little shaky at first, but by the time they reached the veranda, she barely needed any help at all, except on the step up.
I watched them go with such envy in my heart that I thought it would overwhelm me. I tried to imagine what it would be like, to have a child who knew who you were and how much you loved them, and loved you in return. I could not, and I understood that, for my son’s sake, I would never know any of those things. At that moment I considered Master Junko the most blessed man in the world.
Kenji rubbed his shoulder, brushed himself off, and slowly got back to his feet. “You know, Lord Yamada, you might have been wrong. What if the girl had died?”
“That would have been unfortunate, but she was going to die anyway as things stood, and eventually Lord Noritomo would have been rid of the fox spirits without our assistance. This way, I knew there was at least a chance that Mariko was still strong enough to live on her own. I took that chance.”
“You do realize that, had Mariko died, Master Junko would have dedicated the rest of his life to seeing you dead also?”
“I took that chance as well.”
“Then your luck still holds. Now, about my fee—”
“Lord Noritomo will return tomorrow, I am told. We will settle the matter then. Though I think I shall be forced to part with at least some of my portion, considering an unfortunate result of my actions tonight.”
Kenji frowned. “Unfortunate...? Lord Yamada, the fox spirits are gone, I am quite sure the death kami is also gone, and Mariko is getting stronger by the minute!”
“Yes, and it would be appropriate of you to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all three. I said only that there was an unfortunate result, not that all results were unfortunate.”
“Your precision of speech does elude me at times. So. To what unfortunate result do you refer?”
“Remember when I was speaking of your certainties and how much I envy them? I still do envy them but a little less so at this moment, now that I have found a certainty of my own.”
Kenji scowled. “What is it?”
“I am certain,” I said, “that I owe Master Junko a new flute.”