‘Kitsune’, Fox

by Brit­tany Warman

‘Aishiteru’ is the word used between lovers but I have not earned that word. Some­times he will say it if I say it first, ten­ta­tive­ly, teasingly. 


He smiles in a dis­tract­ed sort of way, uncom­fort­able, and echoes the word as if push­ing it away. That word is not for me. First I must learn oth­er words, sim­ple words—‘ringo’, apple, ‘denwa’, tele­phone. These words are the foun­da­tion, he says, but I want the words that real­ly mean some­thing. ‘Kitsune’, the word for fox, sleeps in my heart like a secret. 

I say the word for lovers when I am alone and lis­ten to it set­tle like dust. I say it again and again, but it always comes out stale, for­eign, strange. I feel inca­pable of wrap­ping my tongue around these unfa­mil­iar sounds. Words nev­er used to mat­ter to me at all.

The old vix­ens warn us of the dan­gers of falling in love with human boys. Their many tails curl around their legs: red, white, gold, black. They have won their tails through age and wis­dom and they call out their warn­ings to us as we play in the grass. 

“Do not believe in the kind­ness of humans, kits,” they say, speak­ing over us and through us. “They are full of lies and rebel against any sort of mag­ic, includ­ing us, no mat­ter what we may do for them. They grow tired of things they don’t understand.”

We nip at one another’s ears and roll around in the cool dirt, half-lis­ten­ing to words we’ve heard a hun­dred times before. What is a real human of any sort to us? Trans­form­ing into almost-humans is only a game we play, a spe­cial fox game. Our hearts belong to the sun­ris­es, to the full moon, to each other.

I see my sis­ter dart away out of the cor­ner of my eye, a chal­lenge in the swipe of her tail. I take off after her but she is so fast, faster than me. We run around the group as the vix­ens watch us with sad, accept­ing smiles. We are just kits after all, their eyes say. I know it is just for play but I am angry and frus­trat­ed by my sister’s quick­ness. She is rab­bit-fast and I am cater­pil­lar-slow. Her sil­ly lone tail brush­es mock­ing­ly at my nose. I lunge for­ward, reach­ing out a paw to trip her. My sud­den­ly human hand grabs her and takes her down. We roll in the dust togeth­er at the vix­en­s’ feet and my friends laugh and bark their approval as I watch my hand shape back into a red-furred paw. My eyes glow with pride and I leap up to prance for the oth­er kits. This has been hap­pen­ing to us late­ly, one by one, quick hints of the trans­for­ma­tion mag­ic we haven’t quite mas­tered yet.

I feel the vix­ens exchange glances over my head.

“Love is the most dan­ger­ous kind of magic…” they whis­per so that only I can hear them. 

He takes me to a build­ing with enor­mous glass win­dows and the reflec­tion of the sky sleep­ing above us is gray and impos­ing. The clouds are almost ready to burst with rain as we run for the door.

Inside the walls are pink and vel­vety like the inside of a jew­el­ry box. The rooms are warm and the air is as heavy here as it is out­side. There is a group of women wait­ing for us, each one framed in dark hair that shines in the way of cha­toy­ant stones. They are all dressed com­plete­ly in black, like pup­pet-mas­ters. They are all excit­ed to see me.

“We hard­ly ever get ‘gaijin’, you know, this is going to be so fun for us!” They smile at me and run their slim fin­gers through my frizzing hair. He smiles too. ‘Gaijin’, stranger, I think with­out want­i­ng to. They dress me up in the most tra­di­tion­al kind of kimono, red and gold, yards of fab­ric tight as a sec­ond skin. They twist and pin my hair with silk flowers.

“It’s just like play­ing with a doll!” they say.

I look at my reflec­tion and don’t rec­og­nize myself. None of their beau­ti­ful clothes look right on me. I feel more for­eign than ever and won­der if he won­ders what I see in the mirror.

Chang­ing into our human shapes takes prac­tice and we sneak out of the den at night to take turns try­ing. The moon streaks the fur on our backs with shim­mer-pale light as we dart through the under­brush. An owl cries dis­ap­prov­ing­ly as he flies over us—discovered! We dis­solve into gig­gles and kick our feet in the air. We col­lec­tive­ly decide that this is the spot.

A kit I don’t know well goes first and we crowd around her, tails twitch­ing. She has a very brushy tail and snarls a lot to get us excit­ed. She makes a big show of the whole thing and we laugh as she puts twigs and leaves on her head like some human per­form­ing a rit­u­al. Then she scrunch­es up her eyes in con­cen­tra­tion and her legs get longer and her fur dis­ap­pears but she’s still got her own fox-head! We laugh and laugh. She shrugs good-natured­ly and tries to do a human wink at us as she shrinks back to nor­mal, kick­ing at the ground.

My quick sis­ter goes next, cocky and bold. She starts with the head and makes a pret­ty human girl face. It sits crooked­ly on her fox-body as she tries to remem­ber how to do the next part. For just a moment it looks like her bright eyes are trapped behind human glass and I am a lit­tle afraid with­out real­ly under­stand­ing why. I hear the owl cry out again in the dis­tance and I shake myself. I watch as she fin­ish­es her girl, a rosy and thin lit­tle wisp of a human. The only thing she can’t get is the tail but the tail is the hard­est part. It whips behind her as she stands wob­bling on two feet, grin­ning with tri­umph. We cheer and she does an awk­ward lit­tle bow.

When it’s my turn I make my way to the cen­ter of the cir­cle with as much brava­do as I can man­age. I am deter­mined I will get the tail this time. The feel­ing of trans­for­ma­tion is a glow­ing, fiery feel­ing that is always inside me, wait­ing there like a sup­pressed pounce. Once found, it is impos­si­ble to ignore. It is like the deer you miss at your first glance into the trees. Once some­one shows you where it is, its ter­ri­fied eyes are the only things you can see.

When I let the feel­ing go it first puls­es in the pads of my feet, then creeps up and flows through the red vines of my body until it reach­es the tips of my ears. Then I am spark-light and grow­ing limbs with­out even real­iz­ing I’ve begun. I stretch claws into fin­ger­tips and mold haunch­es into hip­bones. I turn my fur into long, tan­gled human-hair. I close my eyes and con­cen­trate hard and then hard­er, ignor­ing the grow­ing silence.

Final­ly some­one whis­pers, “You got the tail…” and I open my eyes. I stare down at my sib­lings and friends, wob­bling on my weak human legs. I spin around and near­ly fall try­ing to get a good look at my backside—no tail! I’ve done it! The oth­er kits crowd around and inspect my human body close­ly, sniff­ing and licking.

“You’ve even got­ten the smell right…” my sis­ter says, a hint of jeal­ousy in her voice.

The kits dance around me in jubi­la­tion. They know that now that I’ve got­ten it they will all soon fol­low. We make progress togeth­er. I trace the out­lines of my human body and flex unfa­mil­iar hands and feet. I twist this way and that like a fly caught in a spi­der web. The moon shines full and bright above us and our shad­ows play across the ground. Sud­den­ly I am hit with a burst of real­iza­tion. There are only fox shad­ows, no human shad­ows at all. I look around me, con­fused, and wave my girl-hand wild­ly. A fox shad­ow at my feet waves its paw. My per­fect human has a fox’s shadow. 

I change back into my true shape before any­one can notice.

He sleeps but my eyes stay open in the dark­ness. The wind sneaks in through the open­ing at the base of his bed­room win­dow. Silent as falling snow, I move up to his bed on my hands and knees and watch his eye­lash­es move soft­ly as he dreams. I rest my head on his chest, lis­ten­ing for the mur­mur of a heart­beat beneath his skin. It’s as steady and faint as the clock tick­ing on the wall.

“I don’t real­ly know what you are.” I whis­per into the soft­ness of his knit­ted blan­kets. My heart aches with unknow­able things. He is always so cer­tain he knows the way the world is. 

I sit up and look at my hands, run­ning the pads of my fin­gers over the nails oppo­site them. I am lost and home, cer­tain and uncer­tain. My eyes move over his face as if study­ing a map. I want to always remem­ber every part of him. He is much more frag­ile than a wild thing. 

Uncon­cerned, the music of city and night wraps around us like a sil­ver thread.

I sit alone, a vix­en almost grown, and watch my shad­ow flick­er upon the ground and merge into tree and plant shad­ows. The sun sets behind me and the sky set­tles into a pit of for­got­ten embers. Every­thing is gold­en, haunt­ed with the mem­o­ry of the lost day, and the ground is warm beneath me.

One of the old­est vix­ens comes up behind me, silent as a sliv­er of moon­light. Her fur is like frost­ed autumn leaves and she moves with the grace of a much younger fox. Her nine tails whip behind her and I won­der, not for the first time, what it must be like to be so old and wise and to have earned so many tails. Her eyes are dark and deep—she has seen a thou­sand worlds and more. She says noth­ing and seems to be wait­ing. I feel as though I have done some­thing wrong, that I should already know why she is here.

We sit togeth­er for a long time. She lets the qui­et set­tle down around us as gold fades to pur­ple and gray. When she speaks, her words crack into the twi­light like a rock shat­ter­ing the ice on a lake.

“I have seen you, my kit, study­ing your shadow.” She moves her head slow­ly to look me in the eyes, hawk-serious. 

“Yes,” I reply, unpre­pared for this. I am sur­prised she would notice. She waits for me to con­tin­ue and I low­er my eyes, some­how ashamed. I stare at the space between my two front paws. “My shad­ow does not change when I do. None of the oth­er kit­s’ shad­ows do either, I don’t think, but they don’t seem to notice. I’ve tried so many times but it stays a fox shape always.”

I can feel her eyes on me, splin­ter-sharp. “No, the shad­ow does not usu­al­ly change.”

I taste the ques­tion on my tongue before I say it, before it bursts out of me like a thun­der­storm. “Then how can we ever go about in the human world if our shad­ows give us away? So many fox­es have gone into their world; all the kits know it. What else could all this be for?” When I look up there is a glim­mer of unex­pect­ed pain in the old vixen’s eyes. She blinks, owl-slow, once.

“Most humans are poor at notic­ing such details, my kit. That said, so are most fox­es. You will nev­er be ful­ly human and you must remem­ber this.”

“I don’t want to be ful­ly human.” I say harsh­ly, with­out thinking.

“No,” she mur­murs, “I know.”

She does not offer any­thing more.

The restau­rant sparkles in the way that some­thing excit­ing and new always does. It is over­whelm­ing, daz­zling. On the walls are fab­rics with the most gor­geous col­ors, col­ors like sun­sets and rain­storms, but not quite the same. His world is so dif­fer­ent from mine. We are seat­ed across from each oth­er and it feels very far away. We each mem­o­rize the strange face of the oth­er. His small hands move across the table like he’s look­ing for some­thing he doesn’t want to look down to find. My fin­gers reach out to his with­out my permission.

“I know what you are.” He says, but I am not sure he real­ly does.

When our meal comes he takes my hand in his and forms it into the prop­er shape for hold­ing chop­sticks. He is gen­tle but firm, deter­mined I must do it cor­rect­ly. I drop my food many times and we laugh at how clum­sy I am.

“When I was little,” he says, “my moth­er brought out two jars. One jar had all these tiny beans in it and the oth­er one was emp­ty. She made me trans­fer all the beans from one jar to the oth­er so that I could learn how to use chop­sticks perfectly.”

My fin­gers curve around the smooth sticks, rigid as claws.

My sis­ter and I sneak into the city in dress­es stolen from clothes­lines, our lips stained red with berries. Our eyes dart between the neon lights so quick­ly that the col­ors blur togeth­er. There has nev­er been any­thing big­ger and stranger than this place. We laugh laughs unfa­mil­iar to us and thread our human hands to run through the streets, star­tling ven­dors and qui­et passers­by. Men watch us, as we knew they would, and we are old enough to smile back before van­ish­ing into the crowds. 

We come into a square some­how qui­eter than the oth­ers, dark­er. It almost seems to exist out­side of the city, as if it’s carved itself a nook where it can hide away. We col­lapse on the stone steps of a cen­ter foun­tain and human sweat pours down our faces and backs like rain. I reach out a hand to my sister’s face and smear her per­spi­ra­tion into her hair­line, trans­fixed and dizzy. It is so odd to pro­duce water in this way. 

We are not alone in the square. There is a café oppo­site us and we can feel the humans there watch­ing us while pre­tend­ing to study their menus. We have dis­turbed the peace of this still place. There is one boy there whose eyes I can feel in par­tic­u­lar, his curi­ous gaze a mys­tery. I have not felt a gaze like his before.

My sis­ter nudges me and her famil­iar look of chal­lenge sparkles in her eyes. She is as curi­ous as I am. I stand imme­di­ate­ly and walk over to the human boy. Up close he is small­er than he first appeared, his wrists are moth-thin and his fin­gers are long and del­i­cate. They look like they could make things, things like birds from nap­kins and the moon from a col­lec­tion of street­lamps, if only he remem­bered how. His spi­der-webbed amber eyes are like no fox’s and I can­not look away.

Sud­den­ly I feel that some­thing has giv­en me away. He seems to know imme­di­ate­ly that what­ev­er I am, I am not one of them. I stay trapped in his eyes. I should run, I know I should run, but it is strange­ly not fright­en­ing. Instead of dis­ap­pear­ing once more into the night, I reach out to brush the dark hair from his fore­head and won­der what it would be like to stay here for a while.

She knows that some­day she will run. She will run with the wind through the city, a near silent shad­ow. Even­tu­al­ly her own wild world will envel­op her, untamed and beau­ti­ful, and she will see again through her once blind­ing tears. She will feel the earth again beneath her feet, hard but giv­ing. Birds will soar above her, bod­ies motion­less as they slice through the air. Long grass­es will brush her face and she will keep run­ning, keep run­ning, keep running.

Old vix­ens will warn of the dan­gers of falling in love with human boys for as long as there is fox mag­ic. They will call out their well-mean­ing advice as their kits play in the grass, inno­cent and new, with hearts as full as the sun. They will smile sad­ly, know­ing it all futile. And some­times, an old vix­en will remem­ber things—jokes shared at mid­night, the feel of a cer­tain human hand through her hair—and while she is lost in those bit­ter­sweet and strange mem­o­ries, there will be a woman’s shad­ow amongst the foxes’.

Brit­tany War­man is a grad­u­ate of Sarah Lawrence Col­lege and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her master's degree in folk­lore at George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty. She has had cre­ative work pub­lished in Mag­pie Mag­a­zine, Fin­ery, EMG-Zine, and The Sarah Lawrence Col­lege Review. Her web­site is www.brittanywarman.com and she jour­nals at briarspell.livejournal.com

2 Responses to "‘Kitsune’, Fox"

  • Oh, love­ly.

    1 Virginia said this (August 2, 2011 at 1:04 pm)

  • Such evoca­tive lan­guage. It flows in a nat­ur­al rhythm, in keep­ing with the char­ac­ters. Bravo!

    2 Ramona said this (September 28, 2011 at 6:06 pm)