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
Filed under: Jabberwocky 7