August 4, 2019

FOXFIRE by Lisa Cai

A three-legged crow swooped down
and perched by Toki.
Cindy held a sprig of cherry blossoms
between her beak...
The mountains of Sendai were cast over by the shadows of the clouds, making them blue. Centuries ago, the previous rulers of this land awoke to the view of the town and the ocean below. Now, the horizon was blocked by buildings. Toki had flown over that water when she was a girl and immigrated to Canada, carrying her uncertainty of the future with her. And now, she returned as a woman.

She, sitting in her tree, heard the crows cawing. Their deep voices sounded like laughing old men. Toronto's birds were never this loud. She had been annoyed at those noises when she was a child and disturbed from her sleep. Though, for a tourist like Cindy, she was interested to hear every new thing. After all, this was her first time travelling abroad.

A three-legged crow swooped down and perched beside Toki. Cindy held a twig of cherry blossoms between her beak. Where did she find these flowers? They had hoped their trip to Japan included seeing the spring blooming, but they were too late. They had to wait until next time. Toki took the twig from Cindy’s grasp.

“Do you like it?” Cindy said.

The white petals were wilting, but Cindy’s efforts were what mattered.

“I do.” Toki nodded. She took out small bento boxes from her bag. “Would you like to eat, Cindy-chan?”

Inari, please!” Cindy opened her beak as Toki popped pieces into her mouth. In this smaller form of hers, Cindy could pretend she was eating an abundance of sweetness. She praised Toki's cooking after eating.

Toki prepared several snacks for this outing; the one she put the most care in was Cindy’s favorite. She made inari by opening the fried tofu pouches, boiling them in a stock, and stuffing it with rice. This dish was enough to sustain them for now. Though, she had once been embarrassed to eat her own food. 
Toki waited inside the washroom stall as the voices of the other elementary students faded away. She wished she could shapeshift into an adult and walk about the school without fear. Then, no one would mock her home country or accent. She fetched out a leaf from her pocket and placed it on her forehead.

Concentrate, her mother's advice rang through Toki. She imagined her plump middle-aged teacher. Toki’s fists tightened as she commanded her limbs to stretch, yet her arms and legs remained unchanged. Her grandparents shapeshifted within a few seconds. Her older kitsune cousins had teased her for having too much human and not enough fox blood. When she was in her fox form, she chased after the tails of her cousins, always behind and unable to catch up no matter her efforts.

Her mother would frown and tell Toki she was just too young to compete. When Toki failed her mother’s lessons, confirming her muddled humanity, she held back her frustration. The disappointment was clear in her tight-lipped silence. Did she regret wedding a man for love, rather than lineage? Now, Toki was in Canada and had to face new challenges in school. She had to place a new language on her tongue and be a good person in this land. She always lacked something; she was too human in one way and not enough of a fox the next moment.

Her stomach growled. She made the lunch in her backpack with her mother and was proud that she could fry tempura by herself. She even used her foxfire to heat her pans; it was good to practice honing her skills and her parents could save on utility bills. 

Her classmates insisted she’d get sick from eating her food. While others mingled and bonded in the cafeteria, Toki avoided it altogether. She had to keep her troubles to herself. Even now, she was alone to smell the waft of soap and urine.

She could eat in her hiding place. There were some trees and bushes beyond the school playground, providing the privacy she needed. Today, that spot was shaded. House sparrows perched on the branches above her and sang amongst each other. Some of their chirps were soft or sharp. Others tweeted incessantly or scarcely. Even these birds had more companions than Toki.

She squatted by her lunch box and downed the hot soup. Her eyes burned and droplets ran down her chin. There was no moment for enjoyment; she was allowed to savour nothing.

"What're you doing here?" Cindy, soccer ball in hand, stood by a tree. They stared at one another. Cindy was that girl who always wore oversized pants and shirts; her boyish attire were hand-me-downs from her brother. Her family was poor, even by the standards of their neighborhood. Most people were too proud to show their lack of wealth.

The soup tipped and streaked down her lips. Toki was frozen, waiting for an insult to be thrown at her. Of all the moments, this was her most embarrassing state. Cindy pointed at the lunch box with the exposed inari pieces.

“That looks really good! Can I try one?”

Toki nodded, unsure what else to do.

Cindy ate all three inari. She licked the remaining grains off her lips; she had never tasted such a combination of vinegar, rice, and sugar before. Her delight shined through her smile.
Cindy stood near the stove of her apartment kitchen, watching the kettle boil. She had bags under her eyes.

Toki sliced her cake on the coffee table. She brought this treat to celebrate the end of the academic semester. Despite her worries, she had done well in all her university classes. Though, Cindy had done poorly on her essays and voiced concern over her exam results. Beside Toki was a pile of empty noodle cups and cracker boxes. How many nights did Cindy spend slurping salty ramen and binging on a show to forget about her impending failures? Luckily, bugs had yet to inhabit the garbage.

“I’m going to dropout,” Cindy whispered. She felt lighter when she finally said it. She had contemplated her future for several nights and knew this was her best option. “I’ll find a job and pay off my student loans.”

Toki froze. Cindy should be encouraged to study and pass her classes, but that would make her unhappy. She had no plans to use a degree or any career aspirations. She went to school because she was expected to, because she wasn’t sure what else to do with herself. Her older brother, Richard, was able to obtain honors with ease. Everyone was going to be disappointed.

“…and I learned something about my family.” Cindy put a hand over her face. Black feathers sprouted on her arms last week. Richard started teaching her how to hide her fledgling abilities and told her about their origins. They were descended from the sanzuwu: three-legged crows that could guide the sun. Their paternal grandmother was one of the last descendants that flew from China to Canada. Cindy didn’t even know her grandmother was the one who landed here first.

Why had the truth been hidden from her? She never met her grandparents and didn’t know what they had done, or their ambitions. They had been faceless figures looming over her with hopes that their grandchild could accomplish something on this cold continent. Cindy had been denied almost a century of history and had to reorient her sense of self, all because her powers had appeared so late. She could never ask her grandmother what she felt when she arrived on this foreign land with only her resilience, hearing a tongue she never learned to copy. What were her worries? Did she think her efforts could be worth anything for her descendants? Cindy had so much to be grateful for being born here, but she could never owe her grandmother back.

“Everything will be fine.” Toki should offer some kind of comfort. Neither of them picked this life, but they could determine how it would be lived.

Eventually, Toki revealed she was a kitsune to Cindy. This time, the things that made them different was the commonality they had with each other. Perhaps, as a child, Toki somehow sensed Cindy’s supernatural roots and found some kind of bond, familiarity with the other woman. They had no expectations of one another and had nothing to hide or prove. They could figure out who they were, with each other. They had so much time. 
The mountains of Sendai turned navy as the day progressed. Once the sun settled, the surroundings would go black, but Toki provided light.

“Cindy-chan, I’ve been practicing.” Toki opened her palm. A flame flickered above her hand.

“Your cousins will be amazed.” Cindy returned to her human form and clapped.

Toki was a novice, at best. Other kitsune could possess or impersonate other people. Though, Toki had made great progress with the gifts that she had. She focused on where she wanted more fires to be lit.

Flames appeared above Cindy. The whole tree was illuminated. Their long shadows danced on the bark and branches. Cindy locked her thumbs together and spread her fingers apart. A fluttering bird-like figure was cast on a tree trunk. Toki made her own hand gesture by a fire. It looked like a black fox was staring up at a crow.

Toki, after years of her mother’s tutelage, honed her abilities. She wasn’t a kit hiding in a den; she would show all who wanted to witness her growth. Could she outrun her cousins in a race?

“I’ll see my relatives and pay my respects at our ancestral graves.” She hadn't seen any of them in twenty years.

“We should see my family’s graves too.” Cindy’s mother could provide directions to find the tombstones in China. The sanzuwu part of her came from her father, and the location of those graves were lost, but her ancestors' powers would always flow within her.

“We will,” Toki said. They had all the time in the world together. “But first, we have to go to Kyoto, Himeji, Hirosaki….”

“Nara, Kariya.” Cindy smiled and shifted closer to Toki. She lightly kissed Toki’s forehead. They were going to see castles, museums, cherry blossoms, and so much more; they had so many sites to visit and things to experience. “And anywhere my wings will carry you.”

Lisa Cai obtained a Master of Library and Information Science from Western University and works in IT. She has been published in The Future Fire (forthcoming) and Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins.  

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
Follow her on Twitter @karenleestreet
Check out Karen's book
Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru 

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