Chapter 1: Smoke
It was late in the afternoon. The rain outside came down in a steady fall. Two children played with balls and toys while the nursemaid did her needlework. Outside of the room they could hear feet going back and forth, preparing for the feast which would take place later on that evening. But for the children cooped up in the room to keep them out of the way and safe, the day had become tedious. Suddenly, the boy tugged on his sister’s hair, which got their nursemaid’s attention.
“Yukiko! Leave Tama-chan alone!” she said, swooping up and cuddling the young girl. “There, there, it’s alright little flower. I won’t let him trouble you any more.”
“But I’m bored, Sasayuri-sama,” the boy said, his dark eyes shining in definance. “It’s been raining all day and she took my top!”
“If you cannot play nicely, Yukiko-chan, you will have to take a nap. You know that tonight is the festival. Your uncle and your elder sister will be here, and if you want to be able to attend, you must behave yourself today.”
He idly twirled his top, pouting, then sighed. “Would you tell us a story, then?” he asked.
“Story!” said his sister.
The nursemaid look longingly at her sewing, then sighed. “Alright. I’ll tell a story, but after that you must let me get back to my needlework.”
The boy nodded his agreement.
“And no more making your sister cry.”
“I promise, Sasayuri-sama,” he said.
"All right then. A long, long time ago, a Kitsune met a Tanuki."
"A Kitsune like me?" Yukiko asked.
Sasayuri nodded. “But older, like your older sister Kyoko.” Tana slipped out of the nursemaid’s lap.
"'Hey, Tanuki!' the fox said. 'I know you and I are the best two in all the world for transforming into other people and things. But who of us is better at it?'" Sasayuki continued. "'Why, that's easy,' said the Tanuki. 'It's me, of course!'
"'O yeah?' the fox said. 'Prove it!' So they decided to have a contest.
"The Kitsune knew that the Tanuki had an interesting habit. Whenever he would see an image of Jizo-sama, the Bodhisattva who especially watches over children and travelers, he would get hungry. So the Kitsune, running to a place where he knew the Tanuki would be passing, went and turned himself into a statue of Jizo. When the Tanuki passed by, he saw the image, and said, 'Hmmm...I'm hungry. Time to eat.'
"The Tanuki sat down, took out some rice balls. He offered one to Jizo-sama and bowed his head. When he looked up, the rice ball was gone. He got confused, wondering if he had even put it there. So he put out another one, bowed his head, prayed 'Namu Amida Butsu,' and raised his head right away. The rice ball was also gone! He put out a third rice ball, but this time, he lifted his head before the prayer was through.
"What he saw was this: the statue of Jizo-sama was standing there with a half-eaten rice ball in its hand. The Tanuki yelled 'Hey!' and grabbed the arm. Suddenly, the statue turned back into the Kitsune's usual form. The fox smiled up at the Tanuki and said, 'Now it's your turn.'”
"The Tanuki was unhappy about how the Kitsune tricked him, and so he thought a moment. 'About noon tomorrow, I'm going to change into the lord from the castle and come by this road. Be sure to be here and watch.'
"The Kitsune was there waiting the next day, waiting to see. Finally the procession reached his hiding place. First, there came the sweepers yelling 'Down! Everybody down!' Next came a long line of samurai, and then finally, the palanquin in which the lord was riding. It was all very impressive and majestic. The fox was amazed at his friend's skill, and ran over to the lord's basket.
"'Tanuki-sama! Tanuki-sama!' he called, 'You have beaten me. This is amazing.' But this was not a transformation by the Tanuki at all; it was the real thing. One of the samurai carrying a staff came over to the Kitsune. The Kitsune was beaten indeed, and severely."
"Hey, the Tanuki cheated!" said Yukiko.
"And the Kitsune made a joke out of holy things." said Sasayuri. “Perhaps you should think about why Inari-Sama would allow this to happen to one of her foxes. Perhaps Jizo was being compassionate, letting the Kitsune learn a lesson that would teach him something he needed to learn?”
“Maybe,” Yukiko said. He looked at his sister who had fallen asleep.
Exerpted from the Tale of the Last Feast
It was a lovely Idaho afternoon, sunny, and only a little hot. The two of them sat in a corner of a walled-in garden near the Boise foothills, an older oriental man and a petite red-haired woman relaxing over the remnants of their lunch.
The two of them sat in a sun and shadow dappled garden, amid tall fir swaying in the wind and sun drenched water, sparkling in the sunlight. Tiger lilies bobbed in interesting drifts, while birds sang from the branches of fruit trees. Sounds of water tinkling mixed with the sound of wind in the branches. The table they sat at caught the vista of the garden at a particularly good angle, the rocks and vegetation echoing the mountains beyond. It was easy, here at the edge of the city, to forget all the traffic and busy movement in the street beyond his garden wall.
He was dressed in beige, a color that blended into the landscape well. The woman wore a loose skirt of red and blue and simple white peasant blouse and wore her longish hair pulled back into a pony tail. She nibbled on one last cookie. “I guess we should get back to work soon,” she said, sighing.
He sat back in his chair, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, ignoring her comment. “I love this weather. So much nicer in June here than where I grew up,” he said. There was a soft gentleness to his voice. “Of course, we didn’t need to have sprinklers to keep the garden green, either. It rained from June until August.”
“Which is worse, Mr. Hayashi? Wildfire smoke from July to September or rain from June to August?” she asked him.
He smiled, reaching across the small table as he picked up the teapot. Although his smile was pleasant, and the merriment touched his black-in-black eyes, there was something about his smile, she thought. There was something predatory, she decided, a trait she had noticed the first time they had met, and even now, months after their first meeting, she still found it a bit disturbing at times.
“I would rather take the smoke, Sasayuri-san,” he said, knowing full well that was not her name. “The rain was a sure thing. The smoke, eh, it’s not a certain thing.” He refilled his own cup, sipped. “Smoke is so ephemeral, like a veil. Like fog. We had a lot of fog where I grew up. It made the world a strange, sometimes magical place. It reminded me, over and over, that the world you look at is a more complex place than you think,”he said as he poured her a cup of tea
The young woman picked up and sipped her tea. “I am beginning to realize that,” she said softly.
“Ready to get back to work?” he asked.
She nodded, taking her plate, and stood up.
The world indeed is a complex place, and you humans can’t begin to fathom how much. The full world, the true world, is hidden from your eyes by the gift of Shinkiro, the mirage. It is a gift from the Kami, to allow your people to grow in safety and wisdom without realizing in full what hides behind the shadows, or what actually shines in the light.
Sometimes, the world is better that way. Some of us, though, are not given that gift, and we see things more as they really are.
Today, knowing what I know, thinking about the phone call I received before lunch, I watch my secretary move into the kitchen of the house before me. She does not see the nine tails whipping behind me as I walk, nor the mask I carry to be the kindly writer she thinks she works for. She does not hear the kon-kon of my call when I am concentrating, nor seen my reflection in the water. How ironic it is that her family name is that of the trickster fox. There are times I wonder idly if my secretary is descended from the Kitsune of old Europe. Although I can feel that she has the talent to see into the veil of the mirage, none has yet woken the gift. I pray it will not be me. I remember Yuri-sama’s haunted eyes, that brave miko who tried so hard, and I know for humans it is a curse.
The shadows undulate around her as she walks. I see them, like the faint smoke she was talking about, swirl around her ankles. Threads of potential, in red and black move out of haze like the shadows of spiderwebs, hovering over her skin. They are only potential, not yet reality. Some days they lay closer to her skin than others. I am not sure what role she has to play, why she was called into my life, but here she is. This minute, the shadows hover much closer than I like, even though they link us together in some way I have yet to fully discover. I am not yet sure if the light does. It is hard for me to see, without the help of a spirit fox the chords of bright light that wrap my life as well. My life is too sullied, and unfinished deeds wrap around my ankles, not shadows, but deeply embedded. How many years has it been since this thread first pulled into life, sank beneath the surface and anchored to my soul?
Too many to count.
It seems to have been my karma to be tangled up into this since before I was born. I have heard my mother whisper about portents, my older sister tell tales of star dragons scattering light the moment I was born. Kitsune-bi, foxfire, glowed around my mother as she struggled to bring me to life in the dark woodlands.
Because of the omens, because I was eldest son to an ancient line of foxes, first of my generation, my parents flew across the midnight sky to Kyoto to take me to the Fushimi Inari Taisha, the oldest shrine of Inari, chief kami of all the Kitsune.
There are times of the day, where the walls of Shinkiro are raised high to protect the mortal from those who share a world that is not quite theirs. No priest with his purification wand raised over me when I was presented, but my father presided and washed us clean in the Kitsune way, and the clapping of tail to ground to catch Inari’s attention.
There at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the kami manifests through a mirror. It is apt channel, for the Kami are good at reflecting back our own foibles and weaknesses, letting us see what is wrong. In this case, the Kami was as true to her word as always. Manifesting as a beautiful fox woman, she lifted me out of my father’s hands sniffed me all over, lifted me to the heavens to show me off to the August Deities who reside there, and then, turning back to my father, said, “This child is going to be and cause a lot of trouble. Keep him safe. I have a job for him to do.”
My father, accepting me back in his arms, looked me in the eyes, licked my nose, and beamed. To a wild kitsune’s ear, that was the best blessing of all. My relatives all patted him on the back and wished him many congratulations. Knowing what I know now, I wish they had bit Inari instead.
After passing out pink rice and mochi cakes to all my aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, he decided to name me Sachio. Hayashi Sachio, fortunate child of the forest. I wish.