It’s been a week since Minoru joined the residents of Ashihara’s Inari Shrine, and in that week, he has learned a lot. First of all, the house that he’s living in is actually only halfway up Mt. Suseri, connected to an inner shrine, and it takes at least an hour to journey down to the main shrine at the base of the mountain. Old Lady Hibiya always wakes up at six in the morning to open the shrine on time. Second, the eyeballs he met are various spirits that make up a creature called the mokumokuren. To Minoru’s embarrassment, the mokumokuren are actually benevolent spirits and had been trying to warn him about the aobouzo, the monk demon who had been trying to eat him on the very first night. In fact, between the sub-shrines on Mt. Suseri, there are more tenants much like the mokumokuren who have lived in recluse and are overjoyed by the fact that they’ll have a kid around to bring color to their dull routines. And lastly, the kitsune who had saved Minoru, her name isn’t really Sujin—it isn’t kitsune-neechan either, but Minoru had to call her something that sounds a bit less formal than Sujin. Sujin is just a part of the title she was given when she entered service to Inari Shrine—the shrine is dedicated to the god Inari who has in his service many kitsune, and Sujin is just one of many kitsune who had given up a life of mischievous and malicious deeds against humans. She was given the title of Sujin no Myōbu or the Myōbu Sujin. Myōbu had been the fifth highest rank of imperial court women, but it has become a title given to virtuous fox spirits like Sujin whose new name is made of the characters shuu for beauty and chin for rare. Hosho has been the one to explain this to Minoru, telling the young boy that the kitsune has been around a lot longer than the old priestess and him, and only Hibiya knows Sujin’s real name.
When asked why, Hosho had explained it simply as Hibiya being closer to Sujin than anyone else living on Mt. Suseri. Of course, being just a little boy, Minoru had interpreted these words as the old priestess and kitsune being friends, so now Minoru has taken it upon himself to finding out Sujin’s real name. His line of logic is simple: once he knows her name then they will be friends. Of course, now he just needs a plan of attack since asking the fox spirit directly hasn’t worked at all…
A low chuckle sounds in this dark candle-lit room Minoru is currently sitting in. “Soneura no boi,” that same voice says, the creaking of a spinning wheel flitting about. “Does something trouble your mind?”
Minoru faces the folding screen. The candle lights shine onto the plain wisteria-colored screen, and the shadow of an old woman spinning thread is cast. Obaachan, as the residents of Inari Shrine call her, is a kage-onna, a shadow woman. Minoru had met her the third day of his stay. He had made the mistake of wondering whose shadow it was and had looked behind the folding screen, only to be met by an empty space between the wall and the screen. Sujin had scolded him for being rude to the most senior tenant of the shrine but has since then left him in the kage-onna’s care whenever an errand was to be run, today being such an occasion.
“Obaachan, why won’t Sujin be my friend?” he asks. “I’m always nice to her, and I always listen to her. Doesn’t she like me?”
The sorrow seeped into the question almost breaks the kage-onna’s heart, and she stops spinning her thread. “Do not worry so, little one.” She is soft-spoken, but her voice is like sandpaper. Her voice soothes Minoru just as a grandmother’s would. “It is not a question of whether or not Sujin likes you. Rather, it is because she has taken a liking to you that she keeps you at a distance. My boy, she has been through things your human heart would not be able to take, and so now she keeps her own heart guarded. But that is not to say she won’t be friends with you. You just have to try harder and act smarter. There is a very easy way to get a kitsune to do what you want.”
Her words interest Minoru, and he leans forward as if expecting a secret to be shared. “How would I get her to do what I want?” he asks eagerly.
But the kage-onna laughs, and her spinning wheel begins to spin again. “I cannot tell you. Sujin would be very crossed with me if I did, but it is a very simple method though perhaps difficult to carry out. Let’s just say, there is something all kitsune hold dear and if you are able to get your hands on it then they’ll do anything to get it back.”
Hibiya watches as the resident kitsune helps dust the ornaments with a vigor Sujin only has when she is annoyed about something. The old priestess does not complain. It is very amusing to see Sujin in this state. Plus, the fox spirit cleans faster when she is vexed. However, once Sujin has cleaned the same statue for the third time, Hibiya decides it’s time to start a conversation before the fox statue is sanded down from too much cleaning. “Minoru is certainly a handful, isn’t he?” she says, a small chuckle shakes her body as she recalls the boy’s escapades. “I haven’t seen you this irate since I was a young child asking you question after question about the shrine.”
The statue is saved once Sujin is distracted, her hand holding the cleaning cloth still. “At least, you did not repeat the same question,” the kitsune snarls, her grimace making her face more foxlike. “All this boy asks is if I will be his friend! You try keeping your temper when he repeats that to you on an hourly basis!”
Hibiya’s chuckle morphs into a hearty laugh. The situation is certainly entertaining. “Perhaps you should―”
“Do not say what I think you will suggest,” the fox spirit snaps, turning to face the priestess. She puts a hand on her hip, and she throws the cloth back into the wooden bucket full of water. “It will not do the boy any good to get close to me. I am hardly benevolent.”
“Surely, you still do not believe that.” As Hibiya bends slowly to pick up the bucket, she huffs, having not realizing how strenuous the water-filled bucket to be on her back. “You have been in the service of Inari for over two hundred years! He would not have given you the title of Myōbu, had He believed you unworthy.”
Sujin rolls her eyes, tired of hearing this same argument. “Perhaps the great Inari was deceived.” She takes the bucket from Hibiya and walks to the shrine entrance. “After all, kitsune specialize in trickery… Perhaps I am too good an actress.” It is a sunny day with only a few white wisps decorating the blue sky. There’s no sign of rain, and so she dumps the water, free of any soap or detergent, over the porch and onto the grass underneath.
“Or perhaps you are not giving yourself enough credit.” Hibiya turns away from Sujin and faces the large golden fox situated in the center of the main hall. She places her hands together in front of her and bows to the statue. For this shrine, Inari is represented by the golden fox with a clear jewel in his mouth. Once Hibiya’s done giving her routine morning prayers, she straightens out and turns back to Sujin. “Your past is just that, in the past. Do not dwell on what you did. It will only ruin the future.”
Sujin, however, throws her a crooked smile, her sharper than average canines proudly showing. “Old Lady, you are a few hundred years too young to be giving me advice.”
The next day, Minoru is left alone again. As always, Sujin has left him to go run another errand, but this time, instead of leaving him with another tenant of the shrine, she’s left him all alone at the main house. All alone and terribly bored. He lays on his back on the engawa, the wooden wrap-around veranda, with nothing to do but listen to the loud buzzing of the cicada and watch the wind chime blow in the almost non-existent wind. How utterly boring… He is lucky that, even on the hottest of days like today, he does not sweat or feel the least bit hot or he would be stuck in insufferable monotony.
“Why am I always being left behind?” he wonders aloud to himself. However, he finds talking to himself a tad odd, and so he looks to the large tree in the middle of the yard—well, not really yard because it’s a meadow behind the house—and pretends to be talking to it instead. “You’ll listen to me, won’t you?” he asks of the tree whose flowers have fallen in the spring. “I have no one else to talk to. My father has gone, and no one here has the time to be my friend.” He hops into a squat and stares intently at the tree. “Will you be my friend?” He sighs and sits, letting his legs dangle off the engawa. He rests his elbows on his thighs and rests his head on his hands. “Who am I kidding? A tree can’t be my friend…”
He has given up almost all hope when he feels something soft nudge his foot. When he looks down, there is a small dog looking at him and wagging its tail. His long fur makes it look slightly bigger than it is, but it must have been a puppy, for it was no larger than Minoru’s hand. Minoru can barely contain his elation.
“The Gods do listen!” He picks the dog up in his hands and jumps with joy. “You’ll be my friend, and I’ll be yours!”
The dog barks in reply and licks Minoru’s face, and Minoru knows he won’t be bored again.
It is during the following week that Sujin finds herself in the yard looking into the little room Minoru uses, the shoji doors opened so that the boy could get some fresh air while bedridden. For no particular reason that any doctor could find, the boy’s health had been slowly deteriorating during these last few days. As Hibiya tends to the ill child, Sujin cannot help but wonder if the illness is a sickness of the mind—perhaps she had been a bit harsh when rejecting Minoru’s friendship and wonders if her rejection has caused him to be depressed. However, as quickly as her guilt appears, she is even quicker at reprimanding herself for getting soft. She had to reject his friendship or he’d only be in danger. “There is only harm for a human who befriends a demon,” she tells herself, “much less a kitsune like me…” But her reasoning does not ease her guilt. The poor boy is ill and does not look like he will be getting any better.
“Hm…” She watches as Hibiya prays again over the boy, and Hosho gives yet another complex health amulet for Minoru to put under his pillow. “He’s not getting any better, even with all they are doing…” Even in her guilt, Sujin’s mind is quick to suspect something is amiss. Unlike most priestesses, Hibiya’s spiritual powers are much stronger and purer, thus her prayers are much more effective. It’s the same with Hosho’s charms and amulets. His specialty health amulets are not weak or ordinary, so Minoru should have shown some signs of getting better by now. “Something’s not right…”
“Oh, have you come to welcome me home?” The voice is soft, wispy, as if invoking the sounds of the wind blowing through tree leaves. It comes from the small sprite standing by the base of the tree.
“Would I have any other reason to be standing out here?” is Sujin’s cheeky response. She kneels on the ground so that she comes eye-to-eye with the sprite. “Okaeri, Chieri-chan.”
“Tadaima,” the sprite beams at her longtime friend. Chieri is a kodama, a tree sprite, who resides in the cherry blossom tree in the yard. The tree had been planted around the time Sujin started to reside here at Mt. Suseri, and so Chieri is as old as Sujin’s residence and employment here. Having witnessed Chieri’s birth has won the kodama a special place in the kitsune’s heart.
“How was your trip?”
“Splendid. Aokigahara does wonders for the purity of sprites such as myself.” Her line of sight turns to follow what Sujin had seen before the fox spirit was awaken from her thoughts. “I take it that that is the human boy who will be living with us?” she asks, though her question was more of a statement.
“How did you know?”
Chieri answers by putting her hand on the tree. “I was told,” she plainly states, staring at the home she’s missed in these last few months. The tree has grown a bit since she was last home, and the thought of missing out on even those few inches brings tears to her eyes. “Even though I was in the forest of Mt. Fuji for some time, my connection with this tree was never severed. We may be far apart, but our bond will forever be as strong as it was the day I was born.”
“You are fortunate, Chieri,” Sujin tells the sprite. “Not many in this world find a bond as strong as yours.” There is a sad tone to Sujin’s words, but if anything bothers the fox lady, she doesn’t let it show in any other way.
Having known the kitsune for more than two hundred years, Chieri knows not to pry into matters Sujin will not talk about. It is just not her place to act as though she could fix Sujin’s broken heart when she could not. “That being said,”—the kodama turns to glance into Minoru’s room—“I do not see the dog the tree has seen these last few days.”
“The dog?” The information adds momentum to Sujin’s earlier suspicions. “What dog?” As a fox spirit, Sujin would have sensed if there’s a dog on the shrine’s premises. Foxes and dogs do not get along well, and it is the same with fox spirits and dog spirits, perhaps even worse.
“The dog that boy found here in this yard,” Chieri explains. “The tree tells me that, since the dog’s appearance, Minoru’s pallor has paled even more, though the boy has been happier with the dog’s company.”
“It’s not a dog.”
“Then what is it? The tree’s memory clearly shows a small pup.” Even though Chieri is a couple centuries old, her existence has been restricted to the yard and the places she’s travelled to. Her knowledge of creatures is not as vast as Sujin’s.
Sujin does not take the time to answer and rushes into the boy’s room. “Alright, kiddo, fess up. Where is it!?” Her sudden entrance surprises both the priestess and the monk, and just as Minoru does not answer Sujin’s question, the kitsune does not answer their questions either, rummaging through Minoru’s things in a frenzy Hibiya has never seen her in.
“What are you looking for?” Hibiya asks, offering her assistance. In the state Sujin is in, the old priestess is worried for the safety of her home. “Surely, whatever it is you’re looking for will be found even without your dramatics,” she adds when Sujin begins to toss aside the few furniture.
“The fox has finally gone crazy,” is Hosho’s comment on the situation. “How troublesome.” He chugs down another mouthful of his rice wine. Unlike Hibiya, he is not particularly agitated by Sujin’s antics. Instead, he is watching Minoru closely. Though weak, the boy has managed to sit up during Sujin’s rampage, and though Minoru tries to hide it, his worry shines in his eyes as Sujin opens the drawer underneath the small TV.
“I knew it!” the kitsune exclaims as she takes hold of the furry creature trying to escape from her grasp. “This is why he’s sick! It’s a keukegen!” She holds out the small creature for Hibiya and Hosho to see. The two could hardly believe their eyes. A keukegen is a rare disease spirit that lives only in damp places. How in the world did it get here? “Hibiya, after I destroy this one, put up more wards around the house. We cannot afford another one to sneak its way in!”
It’s then that Minoru draws all his energy to stand and protest Sujin’s plan of action. “No, kitsune-neechan! You can’t do that! He’s my friend!” the boy argues. Minoru tries to reach for the creature he thought a dog, but Sujin holds it away from him.
“Do you want to die, kid!? Do you have any idea what this creature could have done!? If I don’t destroy it, its disease will kill you and then move to the old priestess next! Do you want to be responsible for another’s death!?”
“No!” Minoru is crying at this point, fighting against Hibiya who is holding him so that he would not fall. “He would never do that! He’s my friend!”
“He’s a demon!” Sujin yells, trying to get some sense into the boy’s thick head. “A demon can never be friends with a human! Demons will only bring harm to humans!”
“Is that why you’re going to get rid of him?” Minoru asks. “To hurt me?”
His words cut into Sujin’s heart, and for a moment, the kitsune hesitates, but her resolve returns when the boy begins to cough. “It’s for your own good, kiddo.” She turns to walk somewhere far so that Minoru would not see the thing burn, but Minoru shoves Hibiya’s hands off his shoulders and leaps towards the fox spirit. If Sujin did not turn around at that moment, Minoru would have collapsed onto the floor. But Minoru takes advantage of this and reaches for the keukegen. It is Hosho who pries Minoru off of Sujin, and when Minoru moves to grab the furry creature, he ends up ripping off Sujin’s necklace. His possession of the fox spirit’s necklace halts all movement, and the old priestess and monk become tense as they anticipate the kitsune’s next move.
“Give it back,” Sujin snarls, a feral growl rips through the air. It is the scariest Minoru has seen her, but he doesn’t fully understand her anger. It’s only a necklace with a clear sphere charm whereas she is threatening to kill his only friend.
“Only if you promise not to get rid of him,” Minoru shoots back, trying to look as tough as he can, but he has trouble hiding his fear with Sujin looking as though she’ll bite his neck.
“Do you not understand, boy!?” Sujin almost screams, baring her fangs. “You. Will. Die. If I let you keep this thing!”
“But I will have no friends if you get rid of him!”
Sujin is so frustrated—she’d explode in anger if that were possible. The boy is impossible to reason with. But she has no choice. His desire is clearly stated in his words, and according to kitsune mandate, because he has that necklace in his possession, she’ll have to grant him his wish.
The wind picks up and blows into the room. The kitsune’s hair stands on edge, and a stream of blue fire begins at her feet and twirls around her, slowly engulfing her. Hibiya pulls Minoru back, but even though the blue flames lick his face, there is no heat, no pain. And soon, where the woman had stood, there is a young girl standing in her place. It is a stark contrast: a girl Minoru’s age, her hair in two twin ponytails, in a pink kimono, shoeless, in place of the sexy woman with hair to her waist in a crimson red kimono.
“Then, I will be your friend.”