The Fox Woman

Kij Johnson

Tor Books

1. KITSUNE’S DIARY
 
 
There were four of us.
Grandfather was an old fox, of perhaps eight or nine years. Gray ran along his narrow jaw and in a broad streak from his black nose to between his black-tipped ears; it frosted his pelt so that he seemed almost outlined in gray light. His joints stiffened on cold wet days, and he liked to doze in the spring sunlight when he could. He was missing a toe on one of his front paws. When I was little and first realized he didn’t have the same toes I had, I asked him why, and he told me a tanuki-badger bit it off, but I think he was teasing. He was like that.
Mother was simple, even for a fox. My brother and I watched her sometimes catch and lose a mouse a half-dozen times before she remembered to bite it while she still had her paws on it. We were amazed sometimes that she had survived long enough to bear us.
Fortunately, the place where we lived was thick with mice and chipmunks and other small prey. The grasses around our home were too long and dense for hawks, and the few humans who lived nearby chased off anything larger. Our only competition was a family of cats led by a black-and-white spotted female. They lived in a deserted outbuilding near the people, but they hunted in our range, and ignored us rigidly. The cats chased and lost mice, too. I think this was intentional for them, but who can understand cats? Even as a woman I have never understood them.
My brother and I had been born the winter before, down in the still air of the den. At first there were four kits, I think. One died early, before we saw daylight; she smelled sick and then she was gone. Another died when we were barely old enough to suck the juices from meat our grandfather brought us. That kit was the boldest of us; one night when he was still much too young he followed our grandfather out hunting and never came back.
Halfway to adulthood, my remaining brother was a gawky thing of long legs and oversized ears. His fur had not yet filled into its rusty adult coat, so his brush and neck-ruff were thin and spiky, dun-colored. I suppose I looked the same, but taller at the shoulder, heavier-boned. It was easy for me to pin him, and he usually ended the play by baring his belly to me. He was quiet, my brother.
I did not see all this back then. They were my family: why should I think of them? If anything, I associated them with their smells. Grandfather was bright and dusty, like damp leaves fallen underfoot. Mother was drying mud. Brother was tree bark and woodsmoke.
Words, words, words. There were no words then, just sensation: smell, sight, experience, day and night, as flat and complex as a brocade held too close to the eyes for focus, or a rainstorm full in the face. All details, no pattern. I have words now, maybe too many. I try to describe the fabric to you, but words will not make you wet or shelter you from the rain.
We lived in a tangle of tunnels and rooms hollowed out of packed dirt. Everything was wide—too wide, said Grandfather, who never did anything to change it—and worn smooth, and it smelled of a hundred generations of foxes. Our sleeping chamber was nearly at the bottom, lined with dead leaves and shed hair. We could all sleep together in it, but Grandfather no longer slept well, and he liked to lie nearer the entrance, where he could crawl out and stretch his legs when he needed.
The den was pitch-dark. Surrounded by the smells of my family and burrow, I lay inside on spring days: dozed and waited for the crisp scents of dusk. Filtered through the fur of my brother’s haunch, I smelled the air outside, sweet and sharp.
Nights we went out.
Mother and Grandfather hunted, sometimes together but often alone, one leaving the other to watch as we kits played near the den. Mother never had anything to spare, but Grandfather usually returned dragging a soft-boned kiji-pheasant or a half-eaten hare, which he threw down for us to bicker over. We caught things on our own, as well: fledglings fallen from their nests, mice, voles. We learned to stamp for worms, and to catch birds, and to cache our kills for leaner days. I played with and ate the blue-black beetles that came my way, felt the smooth knotting of my joints operating, wrestled with my brother for the experience of hunting. I was learning to be a fox.
Our burrow was dug under a structure that was flat and black over our heads, supported by a forest of tree-thick pillars, each resting on a rock. When I was old enough to be curious about this, I jumped up into the structure.
I saw and smelled a cavern supported by pillars and roofed with dead grasses a tree’s height over my head. The floor under my toes was of boxwood planks, smooth and cool and flat. Through a crack in the floor I heard my brother barking at my grandfather—impatient little noises. I scratched at the crack. Paws padded below. A nose snuffled upward.
“Sister?”
“I’m walking on you?” I couldn’t understand this.
“Where are you?”
I didn’t know what to say. This floor I stood on was the roof over the burrow, I knew—there was my brother, after all—how could it be else?
A scrambling noise behind me.
“It is a building,” Grandfather said, and he stretched and walked across to me. “A house. Humans make them.” Brother clambered up after him.
I looked around. There were no walls, just empty screen frames and lattices. Beyond them I saw other buildings, roofed and walled and raised on posts, with covered walkways that led from one to the next. “This is a den,” I said, realizing it. “The big buildings are chambers, and the little ones that lead from place to place are like tunnels. Or trails.”
Brother sniffed at a pillar’s base and lifted his leg against it. “How did they make this place?”
“And why?” I demanded. “If it’s a burrow, it’s open to everything. How can it be safe?”
“They were humans, they feared nothing. But it was not like this, back then. It was closed in with walls they could slide away or remove.”
“How did they do that?” Brother asked.
“How did they do any of this?” I sniffed a lintel rubbed shiny by passing feet. Even now I smelled the shadows of people, ghosts in my nose.
Grandfather made a face, as if he’d eaten something bitter. “Magic.”
“Humans don’t have magic,” I said scornfully. “Magic is spring turning to summer, day and night.”
“There are a lot of sorts of magic, little bug-eater. More than you can know.”
“What kind is this, then?” Brother asked.
“They have clever paws,” he said. “They change things with them.”
I inspected my own paws, cinnamon-colored with black-edged toes and ragged claws. Not clever, not magical. “But how?”
He bared his teeth: not hostile yet, but tired of the topic. “Give it a rest, Granddaughter.”
Brother was marking every pillar, sharp little squirts of urine. I should check his marks, I knew. And Grandfather? He was temperamental at all times and smelled irritable now, like a high wind filled with dust, still a long way away. I should leave Grandfather alone, I knew. But how could I?
“I just want to know how their paws are clever—” I stopped when he took a step toward me. “Well, then, what other magics are there?”
“None that concern you,” he said dampingly. “The people will never be back.”
“But people live across the garden from us, past the wall—”
Brother came to sit next to us, lolling his tongue. “This is like that, isn’t it? Where they live—those are dens, too, aren’t they?”
“Mere servants’ quarters,” Grandfather snorted. “Wretched drafty barns. They bring their stock in to sleep under the same roof.”
“I don’t understand. Servants?” I said, but he continued without listening.
“This—” he looked around us, at the empty neglected buildings and walkways “—is where the master and mistress lived. They were sweet-smelling, sweet as flowers out of season. Her hair was black as my feet and fell clear to the ground when she stood. Not a knot or tangle in it. They wore fabrics like spider-webs. Gossamer. Their lives were a thousand kinds of magic. Poetry, calligraphy, moon-viewing, archery games in the wisteria courtyard—”
Poetry? Moon-viewing? How could I imagine what these things were?
Brother asked: “The fabric was made of spiderweb?”
“No, it was as if it were spiderweb.”
My brother pressed his ears back against his skull. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not to you. It is as though you see me and smell pine, as though eyes and nose fail to agree. Which is real? Am I your grandfather, or am I a pine?”
My brother whined and backed away.
“You’re—” I said, and stopped. Thinking like this made me afraid, made me want to run or bite, to break the tension inside.
“Just because you do not understand a thing does not mean it’s not real,” Grandfather finally said.
“How do you know all this?” I asked.
“They were here,” he said irritably. “I saw them. Noise all the time, bustle. We had to watch ourselves, not to be caught, or they would kill us.”
“They don’t sound so dangerous,” I interrupted, bold because of my fright. “Even the humans on the other side of the wall are not dangerous if you stay out of their way, and they are much more active than this ‘master’ and ‘mistress.’”
He grabbed me by the ruff and forced me down. I yelped. “What do you know, little milk-sucker? They are the most dangerous of all—more dangerous than bears.”
I abased myself until his grip loosened and I squirmed free.
“If this was their den,” Brother asked, “where are they now?”
“Gone,” Grandfather said. “There’s nothing left here. Come down.”
Brother moved to the edge. “Why would they leave this place?”
“Who knows?” he said irritably. “I was not much older than you when they left.”
A breeze ruffled my fur. I shivered. “What if they return? Their den is right over ours.”
“They will never come back.” Grandfather dropped heavily to the ground.
* * *
I had this dream, back when I was no more than a fox. In the waking world I never looked at the sky—why would I? There was no prey there—but in this dream I did look. A star hung, dim as marsh gas, in the red-black glow of the sky; in the east, the moon rose over a mountain, and the moon and the star were the same size.
I stood on the mountain I had just watched the moon rise over, and the path was cold under my toes. I stepped forward, but my way was barred by a fox made of moonlight that smelled of nothing.
“Make a wish, little sister,” the fox said.
I thought. “To eat well and sleep safe.”
He—she?—laughed at me. “Never mind, then.”
“Wait!” I said, but the fox turned to a flower and vanished, and I woke, my family’s smells in my nostrils. I did not know what it meant—didn’t even think, then, that a dream might have a meaning. But I also did not forget it.
Now I wonder: do all foxes dream like this? I only know I did.
* * *
The house (and our den) was in a huge space enclosed by tumbledown fences made of bamboo and hinoki-cedar latticework. I was careful when I asked questions about the human constructions around us because Grandfather cuffed me down if I showed too much interest; but he took me hunting once, and I managed to learn that the space had been gardens. People had torn up the plants and paths and streams of the place and replaced them with new paths and plants, and rerouted the stream.
“But why?” I asked my grandfather.
“Because they could do it,” he snapped, and I knew to let it be.
The sweet-water brook led from the topmost corner of the enclosure, under the raised floor of one of the deserted buildings, and through three little lakes, one after the other. Mandarin ducks nested in the building over the stream, and chased us away when we tried to explore or (more often) to eat their feckless ducklings. A trail strode across the lakes’ tops, lifted above the water on structures.
“What is it?” I asked Grandfather, when I saw the first one.
“Bridge.”
I stepped onto it, and felt the same cool smoothness under my toes I’d felt in the house. Huge murky shapes moved in the weed-clogged water below me.
“Fish,” Grandfather told me. “Eat them if you find them on the shore, but you cannot go in after them—like hunting a shadow.”
The rest of the garden was trees and long-dead grasses pushed aside by new growth. An overgrown path led down from the main house past the lakes and to a collapsed gate at the foot of the garden; other small paths trailed off one way and another. They all seemed to go nowhere and then suddenly stop; if it had not been for the large stones the humans laid flat on the ground in ragged lines, I would have thought they were not trails at all.
One dusk it was cold and raining. I woke up before the others and left the den, and sat at the edge of the overhang, looking across the clearing around the house to the rain-heavy grasses beyond. The air smelled cold, like molds and wet dust. I snapped at the puffs of fog my breath made before I got bored.
A female rabbit, wood pigeon-gray, hunched over a clump of grass at the edge of our clearing. They never came this close to our den. I think the rain must have washed down our smell, and the rabbit must have been half-grown (and possibly simple, like Mother), not to know that foxes lived here. Even in the rain, the sweet smell of freshly cropped grass drifted down the slight breeze to me.
It wasn’t that I was hungry yet: I had not even thought of food before I dropped to my belly and inched forward. It was the fox-blood. What else could I do? I was so close I could smell the rabbit’s sweet-musky fur, and see its whiskers quiver as it nibbled.
Its head came up. It fixed me with a dark eye. I held still, staring back with the fixing-gaze, the gaze that holds an animal to be killed. Killer: prey. And then a rain droplet gathered in the fold of my eyelid, tickling. So I blinked.
And the rabbit was gone. In a single leap it was lengths away from me; a second, and it was lost in the weeds. Water sprayed up from its path. I chased it through thick mats of grass just in time to see it dive under a tall black stone in a clearing. I dug frantically at the hole it had vanished into. I was soaked to the skin and shivering before I gave up.
The rock was riddled with little openings and fissures. Tiny pools had gathered in the pockmarks; mosquito larvae hung on the pools’ many surfaces. There were no trees for paces all around, just dirt, white sand and the rock, all alone.
It was full dark by the time I got back to the shelter of the den. My family was awake. Grandfather stood looking out from under the building. Mother sat with a hind leg held rigid to bite at a flea. Brother played with a curved stick, bouncing at one end so that the other popped up and caught him from behind. I told them about the rabbit, the dark stone.
“It is hopeless chasing a rabbit near that,” Grandfather said.
“Why?” I licked my paw to warm it.
“They have a safe warren there. Deep, buried under that rock, so you can’t dig after them. Your only hope is to catch them away from it.”
“It is a moon-rock.” It was my mother. I sniffed at her: she never said things to us, nothing that made sense, anyway. “It lived on the moon until it fell off and landed here, but it remembers rabbits. That is why they are safe. Because a rabbit lives on the moon, and it protects them.”
“What’s she talking about?” my brother asked.
Grandfather hunched a shoulder irritably, as if to say, “Do not ask me.”
“God,” Mother answered. “The rabbit-god lives on the moon and watches them.”
My brother snarled and snapped at the ground, nervous at a thing he could not fight, could not even find. A cold wind ruffled my wet fur. Life was a practical thing to us foxes: what could a god be? I’d never smelled one.
She answered without my speaking. “What do rabbits see when they die? Their god. Tanuki-badgers have them. Mice. Oxen. Men. Birds, no. Cats—no one can tell—”
I could not help the hairs rising along my spine, my ears flattened against my skull. “Do foxes?”
“There is no such thing as gods.” Grandfather made our mother drop in submission, and that was the end of that. But it took me all night to get warm.
* * *
Beyond the fence there was a mountain to one side and behind us, covered with pine trees and ivy-hung cypress. As my brother and I learned to hunt, we followed the deer paths and caught baby rabbits, and once ate part of a dead fawn some other animal had killed. There was a long outcropping of dull red stone and a path of pounded dirt along the ridge that smelled of people, though we never saw any.
Past the ruined gate and fence at the bottom of the gardens were rice fields. People were always fussing over them: making little rows of dirt, and pouring manure mixed with water onto the slick earth. One day they redirected the stream where it exited the garden, so that it flowed through the fields, to make them a mesh of small shallow lakes. Gnats and mosquitoes bred and rose in clouds. I watched uguisu-nightingales and enamel-bright dragonflies chase the insects; this made more sense to me than the incomprehensible acts of the humans. Prey: catch. I caught a dragonfly once: it was sharp, hot, prickly on my tongue.
On the other side from the mountain, beyond a fence made of pine strips woven together, was a big pounded-dirt area surrounded by clumps of structures smaller and closer to the ground than those on our side of the fence. This was where the other people, the “servants,” lived. I occasionally saw them: more often I smelled them, along with woodsmoke and feces and fowl and big animals, oxen. Human smells. Sometimes at night, greasy-scented yellow light flickered through the lattices of their buildings, inconstant as foxfire, the glow of marsh gas at night. My brother and I crept along the fringe of the open dirt area to hide under a glossy-leafed bush that brushed the house’s wall. There was a constant low-pitched babble inside, a rippling noise like water or birds chattering.
“What is that noise?” my brother breathed. “The humans make it?”
“It’s like barking.”
“No; they’re all there, in the room, face-to-face. Why would they need to bark like that?” he asked.
“Maybe they are like dogs and bark for boredom?” Foolish to ask: he knew no more than I. “Let’s crawl under the floorboards, maybe we can hear more.”
My brother hunched his back and lowered his ears. “Grandfather says they’re dangerous.”
“We’re fast and clever.”
“Grandfather says—”
I scoffed: “He’s old. Maybe things scare him that we don’t need to be afraid of.”
“But he’s so wise—”
“But he’s not here, and I’m stronger and bigger than you, and I say we can do it.”
My brother shook his head, as if clearing his face of clinging webs. “No. No.” He turned and ran.
I eased into the crawl space, but learned nothing; and when I came back later, Grandfather smelled the house and the humans on me, and cuffed me down. Maybe he was old, but he was still the head of our family.
After that I learned to stay upwind of the house.
This was our lives. My brother and I got better at hunting. I explored the garden and the woods and fields beyond with the others and alone. I learned many useful smells: rabbit droppings, egg yolk from hatchings, the scent-marks of tanuki-badgers and wolves (though we never saw any of them—they lived deeper in the forest, and, Grandfather said, only came down when the food was not good there). I killed and ate one of the black-and-white cat’s kittens; a gamy mouthful of fur and half-digested mouse, it did not seem worth the effort, so I avoided them after that. My brother was stung by a wasp when he was up in the deserted house over our heads renewing his marks; he was sick for a day and a night.
I watched the humans when I could get away with it, but with less interest than I felt toward the ducks in the stream, or the rabbits that fed near the moon-rock. These were at least edible, relevant to a fox. The houses and verandas, sheds, fences and gardens of the residence—all the things the humans had built—meant little to my brother and me: they were as unchanging as the standing rocks in the woods.
* * *
I looked at everything, smelled everything, marked everything. I did not think much, back then. The season warmed, and I grew. I was still a fox. Nothing changed.
 
Copyright © 2000 by Kij Johnson McKitterick