April 1, 2018

The Tale of the Fox and the Lady - Alexandra Faye Carcich

Beauty walks through the tall grass...

A long long time ago, somewhere in Japan, there was a certain den where two fox spirits were born. Out of a litter of six, only the female kits inherited their ancestors’ power. The elder girl was born with flaming red fur, and their mother said, “This one will have many passions that will rage like the summer brush fires.” Her sister was white and delicately boned. Their mother cooed over her coloring and favored her above the other kits.

The sisters first manifested their powers struggling for the larger share of dinner. A dead mouse was presented to the growing kits. The red kit snapped her teeth and the mouse’s teeth rattled, biting the dirt. The white sister swiped a paw at her elder, and the mouse's tail whipped through the air, striking the red sister in the side. They moved from warnings to a tumbling fight, while their brothers devoured the mouse. Prevailing, the red sister stood as victor over the battered white until their mother interceded, bringing her favorite to suckle while the red fox went hungry. With her belly growling and empty, the elder sister thought herself the most hated of the litter. Someday she would prevail in affection over the white fox.

As she grew, the scarlet sister enjoyed bathing in the early morning dew while crickets sang. She played at chasing butterflies, leaping and snapping her teeth while they fluttered away from her incisors. During the moonlit hours she hunted, looking for small prey or lover’s hearts to satiate her appetite. When bored of the trysts in the Emperor’s gardens, she prowled the streets. One night she wandered into the garden of a mansion on Nijo Avenue to sleep under the plum trees. With the morning came a boy. She hid under a bush and watched him from between its leaves. His hair was as dark as a moonless night and hung undone down his back. Soft, smooth cheeks announced that he was too young to be a man. He disregarded the servants waiting to dress him in many layers of silk, preferring to walk unhampered in the morning sun. All of his movements displayed grace and refinement. Mortal women demurred behind their fans, overcome by his beauty, they would blush from afar, but never speak to him.

The fox was not mortal.

Under the bush she slid from fox into the form of a human. Brazenly, she went across the garden to greet the boy, so that he may be as dazzled by her. In the sun her black hair had a fiery hue. He saw her and smiled sun beams.

He spoke a poem:
With the sun's first kiss
Beauty is born of the dew
A lily opens
The delicate white petals
Have a heart of crimson

She answered:

Lily alone knows

When the sun rises each day

And how dark the night
Beauty walks through the tall grass
The dawn kisses newborn cheek.
They stood, side by side, in that picturesque manner, as the sun climbed. When he answered a servant's call, she slipped away through the grass.
Both sisters attended in the garden one morning.
The white fox looked across the grounds and sniffed. “The pool is overgrown with weeds. Maybe once they were rich, but now the occupants are poor as peasants.”
“Then you will cede this place and its people to me?” asked the red fox.
“Of course, I've never enjoyed the wilds.”
The boy appeared on the veranda with pen and paper. Carefully he held back his sleeve while drawing letters with the brush. The blooming wisteria was his subject. The red fox transformed to a maiden and walked under the wisteria branches to smell its perfume. When she was sure the boy watched her, she faded away. In awe, the boy penned a poem about a girl's haunting beauty, instead of the transience of spring as he originally planned. When the red fox returned, the waiting sister was silent and expression impassive.
“You will remember our agreement,” said the red fox. She was suspicious of her sister, who liked to have all the fine things for herself. With a silent assent, the sisters parted ways.
The younger sister enjoyed slipping into her human disguise to run among the village children. She played small tricks on them, making their ball disappear, or suddenly finding a ripe fruit, which was out of season. Her greatest achievement was convincing the regional governor and his wife that she was their own, human daughter. As the childless couple lifted their chopsticks to eat the morning meal, she knelt at their table and bewitched them. From then on they shared their rice and fish with her and believed that she was their own daughter. The trick was reversed back onto the white fox, for when she pretended to be a human she forgot she was born a fox. She became spoiled by their easily gained affection and the rich life among humans and never shifted back to her true form.
She grew into a beautiful and graceful woman. Suitors vied for her attention, while she demurred behind a screen. When one proposed to steal her from her parent’s house, she chose to join him, thinking that he would establish her in a mansion of her own with many servants. He was only the first of her lovers.
She began to have dreams of a distressing nature and always woke with an uneasy sensation of invisible spirits passing through the room. She dreamed of a fox snapping its teeth. “You pathetic creature,” it said, “you have forgotten what you are. Now you walk the earth nameless with no past or ancestors. Only a future of heartache waits for you.” Then she woke and could not sleep again, fearing the fox would eat her fingers and toes, turn her hair white, or steal her soul.
On Nijo Avenue, the boy came to the garden infrequently, but on those days the red fox was there to admire him. As he grew under her gaze, his visits became increasingly rare. He pursued romance in the houses of noble ladies, attended galas where he was much admired, and studied all the martial skills a man of high birth should posses.
As the red fox grew she followed in the mischievous ways of her forefathers, always doing as she pleased. She tricked the worshipers of a wolf god to give her the summer grain offering. She ate well, and the angry wolf god cursed the villager's fields. For a time she haunted a dell where a solitary house stood. The child who lived there offered nightly sacrifices to his ancestors to keep the evil spirits away, while she lurked behind walls hissing the consequences for his daily indiscretions. His fears amused her and she grew strong with his tremors. Once she married a wealthy merchant. Just as the wedding cakes were being offered, on the third night, he emerged from their rooms and took vows to become a monk.
In the outskirts of the capitol, the red fox saw her sister. It was a woman in an ox drawn carriage. Her many layers of sleeves trailed out the window, advertising her tasteful fashion sense. The curtain of the window flapped in a fitful breeze. There was the white fox, the white faced, indulgent beauty, laying on her cushions, pretending to the world that she had always been human. Resentment passed through the older sister seeing that the younger had chosen an easy life. The red fox reasoned, at least they were no longer fighting over mouse bones. Maybe it was better that each went her own way.
Occasionally, the red fox remembered the beautiful boy at Nijo and returned there, hoping to see him again. In the empty garden, she was lonely and wished for the boy. She spent afternoons sleeping under the verandah, daydreaming of him coming down the steps and crossing the garden under the golden sun.
On one such night, he returned to the remote mansion. The day was gone and the evening mist rose from the ground like an apparition. The carriage stopped in the enclosed courtyard and he escorted a lady wearing a veil across the grounds and into the house. The red fox spirit saw them as two bright eyes among the ferns. She did not like the lady, who took her place by the man’s side. Her heart was a burning envy. She licked her lips, those hearts rich in joy were the most delicious morsels. A single servant led the party down the hall by torchlight. The fox followed as a shadow. The bed chamber was divided by a partition; on the far side was the soft murmur of the lovers' talk. It bored the fox to hear them make poems for each other and the usual dreamers' promises of fidelity and eternity, promises that would be broken in a month or less. She slid between the shadows and out the door into the garden. There she caught a field mouse who was hiding under the dwarf maple. With a snap of teeth she crunched the mouse's bones, and its children became orphans.
Late the following morning, the shutters were opened and the man appeared looking across the gardens he had known as a child. The red fox watched him. What had been a boyish roundness to his features had become the firm lines of a man. His robes were arranged carelessly since he thought no one but his lover was able to see him. Then the woman rose and stood beside him. The red fox recognized her sister.
As a woman, the white fox had gone from lover to lover, and loved deeply but briefly. Her skills with brush and harp were not greater than other women, but as a fox, even one who had forgotten her nature, she was able to charm her visitors into love. The younger sister was so haunted by her dreams that she kept a host of lovers so that she would never be alone. The man of Nijo wooed her from a house maintained by a romantic rival.
As a trickster the red fox had desired to gobble up the joy out of the woman's heart, but as a sister her heart was broken and filled with hatred. She decided the white fox would never leave the house on Nijo Avenue.
That night the lovers slept in the curtained bed.  The red fox entered the room and again stood over her sister.  The woman was fashionable, with high painted eyebrows and blackened teeth.  Her white skin appeared uncommonly delicate. High cheekbones were the only sign of her past life as a fox.  The red fox heard the sleeper's happy sigh, no fond memories softened her resolve. Possession by a spirit was most feared by mortals. She entered her sister's mind through the crack between finger and nail.
That night, in the lady’s dream, she was crowned Empress, for her new lover had secretly been the prince.  On the steps of the palace, a royal herald presented her to a crowd of faceless subjects, but when they should have prostrated themselves they remained standing, their blank faces turned toward her.
Beside her, her lover said,  “They are no longer deceived.”
She cried, “In my love I trusted you.”
He disregarded her tears. “Flee, vile spirit.”
A fish-head struck her as the crowd began to jeer and shout. She fled into the palace. Inside the palace doors there were no finely painted screens or ornate furniture. She was in a dirt hole with great tree roots jutting out from the walls. The crowd of humans shouted and struck the doors. The dark hole was less frightening than the mob, so, tripping and groping, she followed the tunnel away into the earth.
As the roof lowered, she was forced to crawl on hands and knees.  Her silk layers were cumbersome, she let them fall off, one by one, until all she wore were her scarlet trousers and white kosode.  Behind her there was a quick padding of feet growing closer; she heard breathing.  She looked back and saw foxes nipping at her feet and legs.
“Stop stop, can't you see I am one of you!” she said, but did not understand the meaning of her words.
Then there was one red vixen snarling and licking her lips, hungrily, the woman thought.  She opened her mouth to speak again but an animal whimper came out; she was no longer a woman but a white fox.  She dashed down the tunnel but the red fox was in front of her. With despair she watched the vixen leap toward her.
The woman died in the night.
The man of Nijo went into mourning and made arrangements for her earthbound shell to be buried. He had known his lover for so short a time, she began to resemble a vapor, intangible, dissipating when it was grasped. He remembered to a friend the night when she passed away. “It was strange, before I knew the unfortunate had died, I dreamed of my childhood, of the little maid who played in my garden. She was my first inspiration. Her soft hand was on my cheek. She was like the fleeting spring days. Yes, youth and love, too quickly falling like the cherry blossoms.”
Alexandra Carcich is a long time hobby writer with a passion for myth retellings and a history with NaNoWriMo. Her folders of unfinished manuscripts are reminiscent of her refusal to write a singular sentence in the second grade. Her work is featured in Timeless Tales Magazine and This Zine Will Change Your Life and forthcoming in Ariel Chart. You can read her poetry on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/alexandracarcich/ 

Cover: Amanda Bergloff

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