BY LINDA GOULD
Copyright is held by the author.
YUKIHIRO HATED foxes.
A scraggy old male, its pelt matted and bespattered, had once eaten Yukihiro’s lunch while he bathed under a nearby waterfall. Enraged at the audacity of the sickly animal, Yukihiro threw a rock to scare it off, but the fox limped off with the food, leaving Yukihiro hungry for the first time in his 25 years. Never again would he allow such a lowly creature to cause him pain.
He bought a dog and trained it to hunt foxes. The two spent hours every week walking through the forests and meadows of Yukihiro’s vast estate in search of their quarry. The pair were so successful that Yukihiro, now a middle-aged wealthy man, had a room in his home dedicated to storing fox pelts.
One day, they came across a den at the foot of a small mountain. Inside slept three fox kits, large enough to provide him with pristine pelts but small enough that he and his dog took care of them easily. Yukihiro skinned them on site, then tossed the meat to his dog, who attacked the carcasses with gusto.
That evening, the setting sun burned through heavy black clouds. The sky turned a sickly green. Lightning raged across the craggy mountain ridge surrounding the town, and thunder pounded Yukihiro’s house walls like wadaiko drummers at a summer festival.
Yukihiro wasn’t surprised by a knock at the door as he and his son Taro sat at dinner. The Kyoto-Tokyo road ran along the edge of his property. It was a lonely stretch of road, and every time a storm raged, travellers were drawn by the lights of his home to seek refuge. He was no innkeeper, though, and refused them admission to his home, instead allowing them to shelter in his barn until the storm passed.
He was surprised, therefore, when his housekeeper interrupted his meal.
“Excuse me, sir . . .”
“What is it?” Yukihiro didn’t bother to stop shovelling rice into his mouth.
“There’s a lady at the door, sir.”
“Well, send her to the barn, like always!”
“I think you might want to see her, sir. She’s a lady.”
Yukihiro’s chopsticks paused mid-air. He laughed. “What do you know of ladies?” Bits of rice flew from his mouth and dropped to the table like washed-out confetti. His housekeeper bowed her head.
“You’re right, sir. I have never met a true lady. But, the woman at the door is like no one I’ve ever seen before. And her voice is like music.”
Yukihiro turned to his son, laughing even harder, “What do you say, Taro? Shall we invite in this woman who has enchanted our servant with her musical voice?”
Before Taro could answer, Yukihiro told the housekeeper, “Show her in.”
The woman glided into the room, a paragon of upper-class grace and nobility. Her scarlet kimono — which Yukihiro suspected must have cost its owner more than his estate earned in a year — swished against the tatami like a whispered endearment. The woman’s face was an iridescent oval framed by raven-black hair, blemished only by a few tendrils that slashed across her milky white complexion like ink strokes against pristine paper.
Taro expected his father to greet their guest, but the older man stayed rooted to his chair, mouth agape, staring at the woman as she approached their table. Taro stood.
“Welcome to our humble home,” he bowed deeply. “I am Takahashi Taro, and this is my . . .”
“Takahashi Yukihiro,” his father interrupted. He stepped between his son and the beautiful guest. “This is my estate.”
“Oh kind sir, thank you, thank you for opening your warm home to me on this wicked night.”
“It’s the least I can do. Sit down, sit down here by the fire. What are you doing out on this wicked night?”
“My name is Fushimi Kuzune. I’m from Kyoto. I’m on my way to Tokyo to attend a funeral ceremony at Toyokawa Inari Temple. The storm came up so suddenly. Then, my escorts were killed by lightning in this storm.” She lowered her head. Her hands, cupped in her lap, trembled. She raised her eyes, glowing from the firelight, to Yukihiro’s. Warmth and gratitude filled her voice. “I was all alone and saw one light in all the darkness. I was so frightened, but the light led me here.”
“Well, you are safe now.” Yukihiro took her hand in his and patted it. He called to the housekeeper, “Stoke the fire and bring a bowl of soup for the lady. Hurry!”
Taro rested a fox pelt across Kuzune’s shoulders. “Your escorts were killed? How is it, then, that you were not killed by the lightning?”
“My escorts had found three animal carcasses on the side of the road. They said it was fresh enough to eat!” Kuzune shuddered. “I couldn’t stop them, but I certainly wasn’t going to partake, so I stayed in my palanquin.”
“Ah, those must have been the three fox kits I killed today,” Yukihiro explained. “There they are over there, hanging on the wall drying.” He poured a glass of sake for Kuzune. “To be honest, I thought my dog had eaten them. Anyway, lucky me that it has brought you to my house tonight.”
Kuzune removed the fox pelt from her shoulders and set it on her lap, stroking the soft fur. When she looked again at Yukihiro, her eyes were moist. “I am so grateful to you for inviting me inside. I would have perished out there on a night like this.”
“Well, you are safe now. Rest here tonight. I will personally escort you to the temple tomorrow.” With that, Yukihiro poured a glass of sake and, overjoyed with having a new person to talk to, set out to charm his guest with stories of his life. As often as he could, he included his expertise at fox hunting.
“But aren’t you afraid?” Kuzune asked after a humorous story about a fox and a pumpkin.
“Afraid? Afraid of what?”
“Killing foxes. And killing them for sport.”
“Why would I be afraid?”
“Well . . .” She seemed unsure of herself for the first time. “Foxes are messengers for Inari Ookami, the god of agriculture. And you said your wealth comes from farming.”
Yukihiro’s laughter competed with the thunder outside.
“You can walk for hours in either direction before reaching the edge of my land. I have been hunting since I was a young man and have prospered. I have nothing to be afraid of.”
Kuzune turned from Yukihiro to speak with Taro. Yukihiro stared at the erotic drape of Kuzune’s scarlet kimono that outlined the nape of her milky neck like lipstick on a mouth begging to be kissed. Desire surged within him.
“Tell me,” she asked Taro, “When your father hunts, do you stay here, comfortable and safe in your home, or do you hunt with him?”
“I am not a hunt —”
Yukihiro laughed. “Him hunt? He doesn’t have the nerve. Throws up at the sight of blood.” He poured another round of sake.
“That’s not exactly true. I threw up — excuse me for the vulgarity of this topic — once when my father took me with him. I learned I don’t like killing animals. Yes,” he reacted to Kuzune’s surprise, “I know how strange that is, especially in light of my father’s passion. So, I haven’t been since.”
“Not that I need him. My hound and I are a perfect team.”
“Oh, I love dogs. Where is yours?”
“He’s probably in the barn. Come,” he stood and held out his hand to Kuzune. “Let me show you the room where I store my fox pelts. You’ll see how beautiful they are. Taro! Go outside and see if there are any travellers in the barn. See to it that they have water and blankets. It’s cold tonight. And bring the dog in if he’s out there.”
Confused by his father’s sudden concern for travellers, Taro called for the dog and made his way to the door as his father guided their guest to the fox pelt room. He heard the pelt room door open and Kuzune say, “Oh! There are so many!”
The house was quiet when Taro returned 10 minutes later. There was no sign of his father or Kuzune. The dog, who had followed Taro back to the house, settled in front of the fire. Taro headed to the pelt room and slid open the door.
Kuzune was bent at the waist. Her hair had come unpinned and hid her face. Her kimono hung open, exposing a shoulder, and draped across her back, a scarlet streak painted against the auburn backdrop of fox fur. Taro saw only his father’s hands, which clawed at Kuzune’s back. The couple’s moans were hungry, almost violent in the throes of their passion.
Before he could close the door on the couple, Taro’s shocked gasp sliced through the room.
Kuzune lifted her head. His father’s hands fell limp.
They released their embrace. Yukihiro dropped onto the bed of fox pelts, his neck ripped apart, his head attached by a thread.
Kuzune turned to Taro. Blood smeared her chin, and fangs drew back into her mouth, but bits of his father’s flesh clung to her lips. She spit it away.
Taro heard a growl behind him.
“You . . . ,” she took a step toward Taro, whose legs ignored his command to run. “. . . were not there today when this monster murdered my children in their home, a place where they should have been safe!” As she took another step toward Taro, her mouth morphed into a snout, red hair sprouted along the sides of her face, and her vengeful eyes flashed.
“But you!” She pointed to the dog and instantly transformed into a sleek fox whose pelt would have been the prize of Yukihiro’s collection.
She rushed at the hound, who leaped to meet her charge. The two tussled among the fox pelts, then raced out the door.
They ran across sodden fields toward the mountain where the kits had been killed that morning. Taro followed, calling for the hound to stop, but his father had trained the dog for just this situation, and it was gaining ground. Just as the hound leaped to take down his prey, the fox stopped and turned to Taro. It transformed again into Kuzune. She held out her arm. The dog sunk its teeth into her flesh.
“Remember,” she said, then turned herself and the hound to stone.
Taro did as he was told. He built a memorial that told of his father’s hubris. To this day, the stone figures of Kuzune and the leaping hound stand as a reminder to all that foxes are sacred to the god Inari and must be respected.
Linda Gould is an American and long-time resident of Japan. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in media outlets around the world. Gould is the editor of White Enso, an online journal of creative work inspired by Japan, and host of “Kaidankai,” a podcast of supernatural stories.