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"The Fox Woman is a magnificent book, powerfully and profoundly moving, in its moods and atmosphere, utterly magical, a genuine and unique work of high art. And all of this expressed through language that is elegant, economical, graceful. The Fox Woman immediately sets the author in the front rank of today's novelists." —Lloyd Alexander
"If you want lush prose, romantic settings, and a poetry-of-the-soul book, run—do not walk—to get this. God, I wish I had written it!" —Jane Yolen
"Kij Johnson reminds us that the magic (and strength) of Fantasy is seeing ourselves in the mirror of the Other. Never has that mirror shimmered more seductively. Look." —Terry Bisson
"Lush, vivid, and charming, The Fox Woman is a beautifully written and poignant fable unlike any other fantasy I have ever read." —Kevin J. Anderson
"I enjoyed presenting to Kij Johnson the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for her short story 'The Fox Woman,' but I enjoyed even more reading the novel she has created around the Japanese myth of the fox who falls in love with a nobleman and becomes a woman. It is wise, witty, and wonderful." —James Gunn
1. KITSUNE'S DIARY
There were four of us.
Grandfather was an old fox, of perhaps eight or nine years. Gray ran along his narrow jaw and in a broad streak from his black nose to between his black-tipped ears; it frosted his pelt so that he seemed almost outlined in gray light. His joints stiffened on cold wet days, and he liked to doze in the spring sunlight when he could. He was missing a toe on one of his front paws. When I was little and first realized he didn't have the same toes I had, I asked him why, and he told me a tanuki-badger bit it off, but I think he was teasing. He was like that.
Mother was simple, even for a fox. My brother and I watched her sometimes catch and lose a mouse a half-dozen times before she remembered to bite it while she still had her paws on it. We were amazed sometimes that she had survived long enough to bear us.
Fortunately, the place where we lived was thick with mice and chipmunks and other small prey. The grasses around our home were too long and dense for hawks, and the few humans who lived nearby chased off anything larger. Our only competition was a family of cats led by a black-and-white spotted female. They lived in a deserted outbuilding near the people, but they hunted in our range, and ignored us rigidly. The cats chased and lost mice, too. I think this was intentional for them, but who can understand cats? Even as a woman I have never understood them.
My brother and I had been born the winter before, down in the still air of the den. At first there were four kits, Ithink. One died early, before we saw daylight; she smelled sick and then she was gone. Another died when we were barely old enough to suck the juices from meat our grandfather brought us. That kit was the boldest of us; one night when he was still much too young he followed our grandfather out hunting and never came back.
Halfway to adulthood, my remaining brother was a gawky thing of long legs and oversized ears. His fur had not yet filled into its rusty adult coat, so his brush and neck-ruff were thin and spiky, dun-colored. I suppose I looked the same, but taller at the shoulder, heavier-boned. It was easy for me to pin him, and he usually ended the play by baring his belly to me. He was quiet, my brother.
I did not see all this back then. They were my family: why should I think of them? If anything. I associated them with their smells. Grandfather was bright and dusty, like damp leaves fallen underfoot. Mother was drying mud. Brother was tree bark and woodsmoke.
Words, words, words. There were no words then, just sensation: smell, sight, experience, day and night, as flat and complex as a brocade held too close to the eyes for focus, or a rainstorm full in the face. All details, no pattern. I have words now, maybe too many. I try to describe the fabric to you, but words will not make you wet or shelter you from the rain.
We lived in a tangle of tunnels and rooms hollowed out of packed dirt. Everything was wide—too wide, said Grandfather, who never did anything to change it—and worn smooth, and it smelled of a hundred generations of foxes. Our sleeping chamber was nearly at the bottom, lined with dead leaves and shed hair. We could all sleep together in it, but Grandfather no longer slept well, and he liked to lie nearer the entrance, where he could crawl out and stretch his legs when he needed.
The den was pitch-dark. Surrounded by the smells of my family and burrow, I lay inside on spring days: dozed and waited for the crisp scents of dusk. Filtered through the fur of my brother's haunch, I smelled the air outside, sweet and sharp.
Nights we went out.
Mother and Grandfather hunted, sometimes together but often alone, one leaving the other to watch as we kits played near the den. Mother never had anything to spare, but Grandfather usually returned dragging a soft-boned kiji-pheasant or a half-eaten hare, which he threw down for us to bicker over. We caught things on our own, as well: fledglings fallen from their nests, mice, voles. We learned to stamp for worms, and to catch birds, and to cache our kills for leaner days. I played with and ate the blue-black beetles that came my way, felt the smooth knotting of my joints operating, wrestled with my brother for the experience of hunting. I was learning to be a fox.
Our burrow was dug under a structure that was flat and black over our heads, supported by a forest of tree-thick pillars, each resting on a rock. When I was old enough to be curious about this, I jumped up into the structure.
I saw and smelled a cavern supported by pillars and roofed with dead grasses a tree's height over my head. The floor under my toes was of boxwood planks, smooth and cool and flat. Through a crack in the floor I heard my brother barking at my grandfather—impatient little noises. I scratched at the crack. Paws padded below. A nose snuffled upward.
"I'm walking on you?" I couldn't understand this.
"Where are you?"
I didn't know what to say. This floor I stood on was the roof over the burrow, I knew—there was my brother, after all—how could it be else?
A scrambling noise behind me.
"It is a building," Grandfather said, and he stretched and walked across to me. "A house. Humans make them." Brother clambered up after him.
I looked around. There were no walls, just empty screen frames and lattices. Beyond them I saw other buildings, roofed and walled and raised on posts, with covered walkways that led from one to the next. "This is a den," I said, realizing it. "The big buildings are chambers, and the little ones that lead from place to place are like tunnels. Or trails."
Brother sniffed at a pillar's base and lifted his leg against it. "How did they make this place?"
"And why?" I demanded. "If it's a burrow, it's open to everything. How can it be safe?"
"They were humans, they feared nothing. But it was not like this, back then. It was closed in with walls they could slide away or remove."
"How did they do that?" Brother asked.
"How did they do any of this?" I sniffed a lintel rubbed shiny by passing feet. Even now I smelled the shadows of people, ghosts in my nose.
Grandfather made a face, as if he'd eaten something bitter. "Magic."
"Humans don't have magic," I said scornfully. "Magic is spring turning to summer, day and night."
"There are a lot of sorts of magic, little bug-eater. More than you can know."
"What kind is this, then?" Brother asked.
"They have clever paws," he said. "They change things with them."
I inspected my own paws, cinnamon-colored with black-edged toes and ragged claws. Not clever, not magical. "But how?"
He bared his teeth: not hostile yet, but tired of the topic. "Give it a rest, Granddaughter."
Brother was marking every pillar, sharp little squirts of urine. I should check his marks, I knew. And Grandfather? He was temperamental at all times and smelled irritable now, like a high wind filled with dust, still a long way away. I should leave Grandfather alone, I knew. But how could I?
"I just want to know how their paws are clever—" I stopped when he took a step toward me. "Well, then, what other magics are there?"
"None that concern you," he said dampingly. "The people will never be back."
"But people live across the garden from us, past the wall—"
Brother came to sit next to us, lolling his tongue. "This is like that, isn't it? Where they live—those are dens, too, aren't they?"
"Mere servants' quarters," Grandfather snorted. "Wretched drafty barns. They bring their stock in to sleep under the same roof."
"I don't understand. Servants?" I said, but he continued without listening.
"This—" he looked around us, at the empty neglected buildings and walkways "—is where the master and mistress lived. They were sweet-smelling, sweet as flowers out of season. Her hair was black as my feet and fell clear to the ground when she stood. Not a knot or tangle in it. They wore fabrics like spiderwebs. Gossamer. Their lives were a thousand kinds of magic. Poetry, calligraphy, moon-viewing, archery games in the wisteria courtyard—"
Poetry? Moon-viewing? How could I imagine what these things were?
Brother asked: "The fabric was made of spiderweb?"
"No, it was as if it were spiderweb."
My brother pressed his ears back against his skull. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Not to you. It is as though you see me and smell pine, as though eyes and nose fail to agree. Which is real? Am I your grandfather, or am I a pine?"
My brother whined and backed away.
"You're—" I said, and stopped. Thinking like this made me afraid, made me want to run or bite, to break the tension inside.
"Just because you do not understand a thing does not mean it's not real," Grandfather finally said.
"How do you know all this?" I asked.
"They were here," he said irritably. "I saw them. Noise all the time, bustle. We had to watch ourselves, not to be caught, or they would kill us."
"They don't sound so dangerous," I interrupted, bold because of my fright. "Even the humans on the other side of the wall are not dangerous if you stay out of their way, and they are much more active than this `master' and `mistress.'"
He grabbed me by the ruff and forced me down. I yelped. "What do you know, little milk-sucker? They are the most dangerous of all—more dangerous than bears."
I abased myself until his grip loosened and I squirmed free.
"If this was their den," Brother asked, "where are they now?"
"Gone," Grandfather said. "There's nothing left here. Come down."
Brother moved to the edge. "Why would they leave this place?"
"Who knows?" he said irritably. "I was not much older than you when they left."
A breeze ruffled my fur. I shivered. "What if they return? Their den is right over ours."
"They will never come back." Grandfather dropped heavily to the ground.
I had this dream, back when I was no more than a fox. In the waking world I never looked at the sky—why would I? There was no prey there—but in this dream I did look. A star hung, dim as marsh gas, in the red-black glow of the sky; in the east, the moon rose over a mountain, and the moon and the star were the same size.
I stood on the mountain I had just watched the moon rise over, and the path was cold under my toes. I stepped forward, but my way was barred by a fox made of moonlight that smelled of nothing.
"Make a wish, little sister," the fox said.
I thought. "To eat well and sleep safe."
He—she?—laughed at me. "Never mind, then."
"Wait!" I said, but the fox turned to a flower and vanished, and I woke, my family's smells in my nostrils. I did not know what it meant—didn't even think, then, that a dream might have a meaning. But I also did not forget it.
Now I wonder: do all foxes dream like this? I only know I did.
The house (and our den) was in a huge space enclosed by tumbledown fences made of bamboo and hinoki-cedar latticework. I was careful when I asked questions about the human constructions around us because Grandfather cuffed me down if I showed too much interest; but he took me hunting once, and I managed to learn that the space had been gardens. People had torn up the plants and paths and streams of the place and replaced them with new paths and plants, and rerouted the stream.
"But why?" I asked my grandfather.
"Because they could do it," he snapped, and I knew to let it be.
The sweet-water brook led from the topmost corner of the enclosure, under the raised floor of one of the deserted buildings, and through three little lakes, one after the other. Mandarin ducks nested in the building over the stream, and chased us away when we tried to explore or (more often) to eat their feckless ducklings. A trail strode across the lakes' tops, lifted above the water on structures.
"What is it?" I asked Grandfather, when I saw the first one.
I stepped onto it, and felt the same cool smoothness under my toes I'd felt in the house. Huge murky shapes moved in the weed-clogged water below me.
"Fish," Grandfather told me. "Eat them if you find them on the shore, but you cannot go in after them—like hunting a shadow."
The rest of the garden was trees and long-dead grasses pushed aside by new growth. An overgrown path led down from the main house past the lakes and to a collapsed gate at the foot of the garden; other small paths trailed off one way and another. They all seemed to go nowhere and then suddenly stop; if it had not been for the large stones the humans laid flat on the ground in ragged lines, I would have thought they were not trails at all.
One dusk it was cold and raining. I woke up before the others and left the den, and sat at the edge of the overhang, looking across the clearing around the house to the rain-heavy grasses beyond. The air smelled cold, like molds and wet dust. I snapped at the puffs of fog my breath made before I got bored.
A female rabbit, wood pigeon-gray, hunched over a clump of grass at the edge of our clearing. They never came this close to our den. I think the rain must have washed down our smell, and the rabbit must have been half-grown (and possibly simple, like Mother), not to know that foxes lived here. Even in the rain, the sweet smell of freshly cropped grass drifted down the slight breeze to me.
It wasn't that I was hungry yet: I had not even thought of food before I dropped to my belly and inched forward. It was the fox-blood. What else could I do? I was so close I could smell the rabbit's sweet-musky fur, and see its whiskers quiver as it nibbled.
Its head came up. It fixed me with a dark eye. I held still, staring back with the fixing-gaze, the gaze that holds an animal to be killed. Killer: prey. And then a rain droplet gathered in the fold of my eyelid, tickling. So I blinked.
And the rabbit was gone. In a single leap it was lengths away from me; a second, and it was lost in the weeds. Water sprayed up from its path. I chased it through thick mats of grass just in time to see it dive under a tall black stone in a clearing. I dug frantically at the hole it had vanished into. I was soaked to the skin and shivering before I gave up.
The rock was riddled with little openings and fissures. Tiny pools had gathered in the pockmarks; mosquito larvae hung on the pools' many surfaces. There were no trees for paces all around, just dirt, white sand and the rock, all alone.
It was full dark by the time I got back to the shelter of the den. My family was awake. Grandfather stood looking out from under the building. Mother sat with a hind leg held rigid to bite at a flea. Brother played with a curved stick, bouncing at one end so that the other popped up and caught him from behind. I told them about the rabbit, the dark stone.
"It is hopeless chasing a rabbit near that," Grandfather said.
"Why?" I licked my paw to warm it.
"They have a safe warren there. Deep, buried under that rock, so you can't dig after them. Your only hope is to catch them away from it."
"It is a moon-rock." It was my mother. I sniffed at her: she never said things to us, nothing that made sense, anyway. "It lived on the moon until it fell off and landed here, but it remembers rabbits. That is why they are safe. Because a rabbit lives on the moon, and it protects them."
"What's she talking about?" my brother asked.
Grandfather hunched a shoulder irritably, as if to say, "Do not ask me."
"God," Mother answered. "The rabbit-god lives on the moon and watches them."
My brother snarled and snapped at the ground, nervous at a thing he could not fight, could not even find. A cold wind ruffled my wet fur. Life was a practical thing to us foxes: what could a god be? I'd never smelled one.
She answered without my speaking. "What do rabbits see when they die? Their god. Tanuki-badgers have them. Mice. Oxen. Men. Birds, no. Cats—no one can tell—"
I could not help the hairs rising along my spine, my ears flattened against my skull. "Do foxes?"
"There is no such thing as gods." Grandfather made our mother drop in submission, and that was the end of that. But it took me all night to get warm.
Beyond the fence there was a mountain to one side and behind us, covered with pine trees and ivy-hung cypress. As my brother and I learned to hunt, we followed the deer paths and caught baby rabbits, and once ate part of a dead fawn some other animal had killed. There was a long outcropping of dull red stone and a path of pounded dirt along the ridge that smelled of people, though we never saw any.
Past the ruined gate and fence at the bottom of the gardens were rice fields. People were always fussing over them: making little rows of dirt, and pouring manure mixed with water onto the slick earth. One day they redirected the stream where it exited the garden, so that it flowed through the fields, to make them a mesh of small shallow lakes. Gnats and mosquitoes bred and rose in clouds. I watched uguisu-nightingales and enamel-bright dragonflies chase the insects; this made more sense to me than the incomprehensible acts of the humans. Prey: catch. I caught a dragonfly once: it was sharp, hot, prickly on my tongue.
On the other side from the mountain, beyond a fence made of pine strips woven together, was a big pounded-dirt area surrounded by clumps of structures smaller and closer to the ground than those on our side of the fence. This was where the other people, the "servants," lived. I occasionally saw them: more often I smelled them, along with woodsmoke and feces and fowl and big animals, oxen. Human smells. Sometimes at night, greasy-scented yellow light flickered through the lattices of their buildings, inconstant as foxfire, the glow of marsh gas at night. My brother and I crept along the fringe of the open dirt area to hide under a glossy-leafed bush that brushed the house's wall. There was a constant low-pitched babble inside, a rippling noise like water or birds chattering.
"What is that noise?" my brother breathed. "The humans make it?"
"It's like barking."
"No; they're all there, in the room, face-to-face. Why would they need to bark like that?" he asked.
"Maybe they are like dogs and bark for boredom?" Foolish to ask: he knew no more than I. "Let's crawl under the floorboards, maybe we can hear more."
My brother hunched his back and lowered his ears. "Grandfather says they're dangerous."
"We're fast and clever."
I scoffed: "He's old. Maybe things scare him that we don't need to be afraid of."
"But he's so wise—"
"But he's not here, and I'm stronger and bigger than you, and I say we can do it."
My brother shook his head, as if clearing his Face of clinging webs. "No. No." He turned and ran.
I eased into the crawl space, but learned nothing; and when I came back later, Grandfather smelled the house and the humans on me. and cuffed me down. Maybe he was old, but he was still the head of our family.
After that I learned to stay upwind of the house.
This was our lives. My brother and I got better at hunting. I explored the garden and the woods and fields beyond with the others and alone. I learned many useful smells: rabbit droppings, egg yolk from hatchings, the scent-marks of tanuki-badgers and wolves (though we never saw any of them—they lived deeper in the forest, and, Grandfather said, only came down when the food was not good there). I killed and ate one of the black-and-white cat's kittens; a gamy mouthful of fur and half-digested mouse, it did not seem worth the effort, so I avoided them after that. My brother was stung by a wasp when he was up in the deserted house over our heads renewing his marks; he was sick for a day and a night.
I watched the humans when I could get away with it, but with less interest than I felt toward the ducks in the stream, or the rabbits that fed near the moon-rock. These were at least edible, relevant to a fox. The houses and verandas, sheds, fences and gardens of the residence—all the things the humans had built—meant little to my brother and me: they were as unchanging as the standing rocks in the woods.
I looked at everything, smelled everything, marked everything. I did not think much, back then. The season warmed, and I grew. I was still a Fox. Nothing changed.
2. SHIKUJO'S PILLOW BOOK
The News Year's appointments:
My husband did badly in the New Year's appointments, and when the court was finished with making up its rolls, no position had been found for him—not even the ignominy of a provincial governorship. This was quite surprising, of course: his family is excellent and highly regarded by the retired emperor (if not the current one). One can only imagine that he antagonized some important figure in court. Knowing my husband, such a thing might well happen—not for the political motives so popular these days, but from sheer carelessness. I think it even more likely that his current unhappiness has much to do with it. When two men of equal quality are proposed for the same job, why would it be given to the individual who appears more likely to cast aside the miseries of the world and flee to a life of contemplation in a monastery? And his unhappiness has been obvious enough to his wife and household: my husband has little artifice and I expect it is nearly as obvious to his peers and superiors at court.
Or it might be a random matter. It is not unheard-of for a worthy man to be denied a position due to a simple oversight.
Far more unusual was my husband's response. Other men would have stayed in the capital and campaigned for a good position in the autumn appointments or even next year's; instead he decided to go to the estate his father left him, off in the mountains of Hida province. He did not insist that I (or our son) attend him, though of course it was the proper thing to do. But on that spring night when he told me of this, I said nothing. Our son asleep on the mats between us, I watched the first cherries blooming, their blossoms glowing cold and pale as snow in the moonlight.
"Are you upset?" he asked me.
A good wife is never upset, never unsettled, and I was, in truth, both. And a good husband never corners his wife in this fashion, forcing her to decide between what is correct and what is true. "Of course not," I said.
His unhappiness affects us all.
3. KITSUNE'S DIARY
It was the time when the humans move the rice plants from the seeding beds to the flooded fields. I heard them down past the ruined gate and fence, sloshing through the belly-deep (for me) water and making their barking noises back and forth. The air was cool and heavy with humidity. Everything smelled new, fresh—wet dirt and wild cherry blossoms. My mother and brother were asleep in the den; my grandfather beside me, I lay beside one of the pillars, belly-down to the clammy dirt. A mosquito bit my nose. I snapped at the sharp itch of it.
"Listen!" My grandfather came to his feet, ears pricked forward, toward the fields.
"What?" The humans' barking was suddenly louder and higher-pitched, but that could be anything. It happened every day.
"Horses. Oxen. Carts," my grandfather said.
I had no idea what a horse was. I saw nothing, just the trees and lakes and grasses of the garden stretching to the broken gate. I strained to hear past the white hiss of the mist. An animal, then several, thundered up the dirt path on the other side of the fence. Their hooves hit heavy as oxen, but in the delicate rhythm of trotting deer. Carts rumbled. The sounds settled across from the gate. People barked some more.
"What does it mean?" I asked.
"The worst thing possible," my grandfather said. "Humans."
"But there are already people here."
"Stay here." He vanished in the thick grass.
Behind me, Brother popped his head from the den's entrance. "What—"
"Stay here," I snarled, in the best imitation I had of my grandfather's authority, and followed him. I caught up as we threaded between the lakes. He bared his teeth and flattened his ears at me in disapproval. I was afraid, but I flattened my ears back at him and continued.
Two huge shaggy hinoki-cedars, their branches bent to the ground, flanked the tumbled gate. We bellied into one of them, and crawled forward to watch.
The horse turned out to be pretty much what it sounded like: ox and deer. It smelled like sweat and grass, and was the yellow-orange of persimmons. Other horses trotted up, and the men sitting on their backs barked at the peasants in the muddy rice fields. But I could not stop looking at the yellow horse and its rider.
The man was dressed in textures I had never seen before. The people who lived in the cookhouse wore simple clothes in flower-colors of indigo and white. They shed them like skins when they liked, and hung them in the sun and wind. But these robes—pale purple hammered silk that looked like the skin of frost over water, and an oiled cotton cloak colored gray-green, with a knot of dried grass sewn to the center of its back—these were utterly new.
"The master of this house." Grandfather smelled old, defeated. "They have returned. We are lost."
He snarled silence.
Two oxen pulling a small closed carriage drew up behind the horsemen. Walking men chattered. Carts and carriages rumbled to a stop on the path.
The man—the master, Grandfather'd said—had turned toward us. His narrow eyes gleamed black, dark as a tsumi-hawk's. He was looking at the ruined gate. At us.
I recognized that look; I'd given it myself, to prey. This is where we would die. There would be shouts and then the feel of cold metal, arrows dropping us as surely as they dropped the golden eagle we'd once found dying in the garden.
And then his face turned, and he looked somewhere else.
"What—" I said again, but this time in wonder.
"Come." My grandfather backed out of the pile. He was more careful, going back to the den.
4. SHIKUJO'S PILLOW BOOK
One wrote this:
One wrote this on first seeing the home she left all those years ago:
Is the garden lost or merely hidden by the year's thick grasses?
And this question only delays the next: which would one prefer? This should be a simple enough question to answer: I am sure that civilization must always be preferable to barbarity.
5. THE NOTEBOOK OF KAYA NO YOSHIFUJI
The trip from the capital to the country place has taken two reeks. It is slow traveling with my wife and all her servants (and mine, too, if it comes to that)—we travel only a few miles a day, at a deliberate walking pace, and stop well before dark at a convenient temple or a farmhouse. Some days we do not travel at all, if there is a tabu, or if my wife or one of her more valued attendants feels indisposed.
It is easier for me: I ride my pretty Kiku, Chrysanthemum. Her gait is good for a yellow horse (which are notoriously inconstant), smooth and fluid. Her saddle is built up in such a way that only a sack of rice could fall when she walks, so the fact that I am not a good rider does not matter.
I know I should have taken a carriage. Someone not a misfit would have ridden in an ox-carriage for the endless hours of this trip: as my wife has to, as my son has to. While a gentleman may know how to ride (it comes in handy on occasion), very few "gentlemen" would prefer the jolting, exposed ride they get on a horse's back, given a long journey without urgency like this one.
My son, Tadamaro, who is eight and curious about everything, has pushed aside the bamboo blind that serves as the front of his carriage; now he leans out on the carriage's kite's-tail shafts staring at everything around him, careless of the rain that soaks his robes. He has never been to the country, so all of it—the rutted, muddy road; the half-hidden farmhouses and shrines; the wildness of the world itself—is new to him. Every so often, his nurse's hands appear and pull at his robe. I cannot hear her, but remembering my own nurse when I was small, I can imagine what she says to him.
My wife's carriage is quiet. She undoubtedly sits on a tiny cushion, in a space packed full of ladies-in-waiting. Like salted fish in a barrel, if one can say such a thing of women so delicate and cultured. Air comes in through the weave of the palm fronds that wall the carriage and through a small grille set in the front. The sights through the grille are all she sees on this trip: the ears and backs of the oxen, the backs of the drivers' heads as they walk alongside with their long switches looped in their hands, the dirt path and the endless reeking rice fields. I imagine all trips look pretty much the same to women.
Still, women are used to sitting in the dark and thinking their thoughts. I do not know if all this bothers her. I do not know if she even tries to look out the grille.
But it would bother me, so I ride Kiku and look around me, and try not to think too much about leaving the capital. What can they do to me, if I am seen riding as if I were a servant or a messenger? I left the capital in disgrace anyway. Well, then: I am unconventional, and now I am self-exiled; here in the country no one of any importance can possibly care about my behavior.
I say this, but it is not true. There was no position for me, but that is more an embarrassment than a disgrace. The situation is fairly common in a government with fewer positions than candidates. Most men failing to receive a position in the New Year's appointments wail and clutch at their artfully disordered robes at the shame of it all, while their friends commiserate and cast doubts on the propriety of the selection process. The failed candidates then redouble their efforts to be appointed next time. And by the next year, the scandal (if such it can be considered, when it is both common and boring) is forgotten, replaced by old Lady Plum-blossom's fling with a guardsman half her age, or the doubts regarding the father of the lovely Lady Cherry's baby.
I could have stayed, but I was miserable anyway. Perhaps I am trying to match my inner misery with my outside circumstances: at any rate, I seem resolved to make things as bad as they can possibly be. I had not expected my wife and son to enter into this self-imposed exile.
We are in the Tani valley, deep in Hida province—which is to say, in the heart of nowhere. Under a heavy silver sky, clouds cling to the slopes around us, shredding like thin silk on the jagged tops of the pines. The mountains that lift to the silver sky are brilliant as lacquer, the greens all bright as snake skins, mingling with foaming banks of pink and white spirea and yellow yamabuki and the subtler pink of wild cherries. Smoke ropes upward in the thick tendrils that form in cool humid air. It trails from the local peasants' houses and the nearby shrines: Inari Shrine; Amida Shrine. When my wife and I lived here before, I walked the forested paths and visited all these places. It has been a long time, but I still remember the shapes of the mountains, even half-hidden by mists as they are.
On one side, the road presses against a rocky outcropping; rice fields crowd up on the other, with the narrow river at the valley's far side. The fields are flooded ankle-deep at this time of year, and they smell of manure and young green things. Peasants poke the mud under the water with pointed sticks. Others cluster around the weir that blocks the river; they seem to be removing some mysterious tangle of branch and vine that has clogged it.
These are my fields. Every year rice has come to me from this place. It paid for our house in the capital, for the gifts to the ministers that were to fuel my political career, for my fans and papers and inks and robes, for my wife's needs, for my horse. When I lived here, I did not even know what grew in these fields.
I have not been back to this house in seven? eight? years—since before Tadamaro was born. Shikujo and I moved here when we were first married, even though her father assumed that (like other wives) she'd continue living at home and that I would visit her there. But she insisted we live together in a home of our own. Sometimes it surprises me that she did this: it is the only time she has ever done anything unconventional. The rest of the time she has been perfectly regular in her actions. Like her poems, her life has always been elegant but lacking spark. Still, she has a beauty I will never attain, bareheaded in the rain like a peasant.
The rocks to our left fall away, are replaced by a fence of split bamboo. Even astride Kiku, I cannot see over the small thatched roof that caps the fence, although I can see through the places where the fence has fallen away, into a garden as overgrown as a forest. Where the formal gate to the grounds should stand, there is instead a collapsed jumble of peeled boxwood logs.
My major domo, Hito, shouts at the peasants who stand in the fields chattering, watching us with (one presumes) curiosity (but who can tell what peasants think?). A small man with a dun-colored face as crumpled as dirty hemp shuffles forward and bows. His bare feet and the hem of his short robe are caked with mud and ordure.
Hito yells at the peasant: "How can you have let this place decay like this? Look at this gate. What are we to do? You were charged with its care!" He rattles on and on, high-pitched and angry, more for my benefit than to any purpose—all estates fall into disrepair in their masters' absence; it is the fields that must not be neglected. The peasant's voice rumbles beneath, anxious and placating. My horse shifts under me, as weary of traveling as I am. My thighs ache, and the joints of my hips, and my back. Everything.
"Enough," I say. I take Kiku through the humbled (but still standing) entrance that leads to the stable yard, leaving my servants to scramble after me.
The packed-earth yard is clotted with clumps of last year's leaves rotting into the puddled ground. Disturbed by something I cannot see, a pair of jackdaws flies up, squawking, from the ragged thatch of the buildings fringing the yard. This place has been neglected. It should be brushed smooth; all the thatch needs to be retrimmed to a blunt edge. The yard smells musty, stale. There should be fires set in the buildings to drive the moisture from the dark corners and the vermin from the thatch; but smoke curls from a single building's open eaves. This must be where the servants charged with maintaining my estate live: it looks (slightly) better-kept than the rest.
People swirl past me though the entrance—shouts and chattering, the clattering of tools and wagons, the slapping of feet through water and mud. A groom catches my mare's bridle as I slide gracelessly from her back. My back aches as I bend over to remove the leg-coverings that have protected my silks. I walk back the way I came, past my wife's and my son's carriages; past the gold-colored ox we have brought with us for luck; past the carts loaded with our chests and baskets and boxes; past the chattering servants and through the stable yard gale—back to the ruined formal gate. The peasants in the fields still watch. Under my eye they resettle their huge straw hats over their eyes and turn back to their fields.
Nothing is left of the gate, just this pile of logs grown mossy on their north faces. The logs, the moss, the grasses around—everything shines with moisture that reflects the gray sky. The air of this place seems to watch me in a silence that the shouts from the stable yard only accentuate.
I cannot walk through the gate; I can only step over it. Holding the folds of my hunting robes close, I step onto the nearest log. A burst of red-brown at my feet tips me back on my heels. By the time I've caught my balance, the whatever-it-was has gone. Only the rustling of the tall grass settling back into place proves it ever existed.
It seems that more than the air watched me.
The fence enclosing the formal gardens is almost invisible in places, but whether it is covered with uncontrolled growth or missing altogether, I cannot tell. Up the hill I see the house, huddled tinder its dull tile roofs. Many of the walls of the wings are missing; the covered walkways leading from wing to house look sound, but everywhere there are fallen tiles, moss, weeds springing from floors and roofs.
This is my gate, my fence, my home: its disorder is my fault. My wife in her cramped dark carriage, my son's impatient boredom, the loneliness of this uncivilized place, my inability or unwillingness to embrace the delicate life that would have given me a future in the capital. My fault.
If I had known I would have to return, I would have tended things better.
Posted November 2, 2013
Posted October 9, 2009
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this book is based off a 9th centry japanese fairy tale. Though bittersweet, this book has mystery and suspense. Johnson's writing style is different and fresh. If you like this one, read Fudoki next. Total keeper for anyone wanting to add to their collection of books.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 31, 2007
I love Japanese literature, so this caught my eye. I love a good kitsune tale, and Kii Johnson managed to start out with a very lyrical style. About half-way through, however, it lost focus. I'm not sure if it was intentional 'considering the story', but if it was, it wasn't a keen move. I found myself losing interest in the tale and skipping over places to get to the pertinent parts. Basically, this was a light read.
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Posted July 11, 2005
I bought and read this book six years ago and it is still in my shelf as one of my faves. I highly recommend this book to those who love Japanese myths and legends and who are also not offended by sexuality (this book has very graphic details).Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 2010
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Posted December 29, 2010
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