by Heather Jensen
Akio carried the tiny mouse in his hands as he hurried home. It seemed to be dehydrated; listless and weak, it had barely moved when he approached to pick it up. A movement caught Akio’s eye and he glanced up in time to see a shadow disappear between two trees.
He called after it. “Help, please, do you have a little water?”
The shadow hesitated, and Akio took a step closer. “Please, this little creature has been injured. She needs water. My flask is empty and it is a distance to my home. Please.”
The shadow emerged from the trees, revealing a tall thin figure, dark hair and pale skin barely showing beneath the scarf wrapped around her face. She pulled out her flask and allowed a few drops to fall into Akio’s outstretched palm.
“Thank you,” Akio said. “I am Akio.”
“Chiaki.” The young woman pulled the scarf away from her face and peered down at the little mouse. It shivered as it drank from Akio’s hand, and she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, folded it in two and placed it over the poor little creature.
“Do you often save the lives of small things?” Chiaki asked.
Akio laughed. “Only when the opportunity comes my way,” he said. “After all, if the larger creatures of the world cannot take care of the smaller, what use are we?” His thoughts turned to Sachiko, a lump forming in his throat as sorrow threatened to overwhelm him.
“Are you alright?” Chiaki noticed.
Akio began to nod his head then stopped.
“No,” he said. “I lost a dear friend yesterday.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” Chiaki said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Akio looked at Chiaki. He did want to talk about it. He wanted to talk of Sachiko’s laugh, of the smile that lit up her eyes, and the gentle kiss she’d placed on his cheek the day before she’d died. But how did you tell someone you’d fallen in love with a creature from a folktale?
He shook his head, not trusting his voice.
“I understand,” Chiaki said.
Akio had to stop himself from shaking his head again. Chiaki couldn’t possibly understand! There was so much that was wrong. The guilt he felt, that he’d been meeting Sachiko in the woods when he was supposed to be helping his father on the farm. And then yesterday he’d stayed behind to help his father when he should have been meeting Sachiko. There’d been a fox amongst his father’s chickens again. It hadn’t harmed the chickens, but it had stolen most of the eggs, and Father needed Akio’s help to prevent it happening in the future.
Sachiko must have come to the farm to look for him. She’d never done that before, it had been an unspoken agreement that they did not seek out the truth of each other’s lives. It made their meeting in the forest something special, sacred. He didn’t know why she’d come this time.
Akio hadn’t seen her, but his father must have. He pushed the thought away. When Akio had finally found Sachiko, curled up under the great tree, he thought she was napping. And then he’d got closer and seen the bushy red tail and the soft pointed ears. When he’d pulled on her shoulder she’d rolled back onto his lap and he’d gasped in horror as he saw her face, Sachiko’s beautiful face, with a pointed snout and a wet black nose in the centre of it. She was kitsune, a fox spirit, messenger of the Great Spirit Inari.
And she was dead.
Akio closed his eyes, forcing himself to breathe deeply until the ill feeling that threatened to bring up his lunch had passed.
“You might want to loosen your grip there a little,” Chiaki’s voice broke through the pain and Akio looked down to see he was squeezing the little mouse.
“Oh my goodness, I am sorry little one.” The mouse squeaked up at him, and Akio gently patted its back with a finger.
“Oh, I have something else she might like.” Chiaki reached into her pocket and pulled out a biscuit, which she crumbled into Akio’s hand. The mouse nibbled at the crumbs, eating them all up, before sitting up and squeaking a thank you. Akio and Chiaki laughed.
“I don’t think she was injured at all, I think she just knew you had a soft heart!” Chiaki said.
“I think you’re right.” Akio knelt, and opened his hand flat on the grass. The little mouse squeaked some more, jumped off Akio’s hand and darted towards the trees.
“Are you a traveller?” Akio asked, now the distraction of the mouse was gone.
Chiaki glanced back at him.
“No. Well, sort of,” she said. “I live not too far from here, a farm on the other side of the forest. But my younger sister went missing last night. She loves to play in the forest, and mother is worried that she’s got herself lost. But I cannot find her in any of her usual hiding places. You haven’t seen anyone, have you?”
Akio shook his head. His thoughts turned to Sachiko, but she was kitsune. Her home was within the forest, not the other side of it.
“I’m sorry, no.”
Chiaki nodded. “Never mind then. Perhaps I should keep going.”
“Would you like some help? I live in the farm house just beyond that hill.” Akio pointed to the thatched roof, barely visible above the grassy hilltop. “I know this area. There are many caves and hiding places your sister might use, if she were caught out at night.”
“Really, you would help?”
“Thank you, I would appreciate it!!”
They walked in a companionable silence, as Akio led the way to the creek. Upstream there was a waterfall, with a cave behind it. Following the cliff around, they soon came to a number of rocky overhangs where Chiaki’s sister might hide.
As they walked, Akio found his mind returning to Sachiko. He’d held her for a time, but as the sun had set he knew he could not leave her body out in the open. In her half-transformed state, he could not take her home, and there was no way to tell her family. As kitsune, she lived in the other realm, a realm he had no idea how to access. He’d done all he could do, dug a shallow grave in the soft soil, and covered her body first with a layering of leaves and flowers, and then rocks, so that any animals exploring the forest at night might not disturb her.
“You were close?” Chiaki asked, breaking the silence.
Akio looked up startled. He had forgotten Chiaki’s presence for a moment, so deep were his thoughts.
“You were very close to your friend?”
He nodded. “Yes. She was my dearest friend.”
“She?” Chiaki had stopped walking, and turned to watch Akio. “Did you love her?”
“Yes,” Akio said, his voice barely above a whisper. He looked to the ground. He did not want to talk of Sachiko anymore. It was too painful.
“She was lucky to have one such as you.”
Akio shrugged. “I don’t know about that,” he said.
“I do,” Chiaki said. “One who cares for small creatures, who helps strangers in need.” She smiled at Akio. “It is clear you have a good heart. I hope to be loved by one such as you one day.”
Akio and Chiaki spent the afternoon searching through the wooded areas around his farm. They searched every place but to no avail, Chiaki’s sister was not to be found anywhere.
“I’d better return to my home,” Akio said as the sun began to set. “My father will be worried.”
Chiaki nodded. “Of course. Thank you for your help, it is greatly appreciated.”
“I hope you are able to find your sister,” Akio said and gave a little bow. As he did, Sachiko’s necklace fell forward out of his shirt.
“Where did you get that?” Akio heard the catch in Chiaki’s voice before he saw the fierce look of anger in her eye.
His hand reached up to touch the charm, a fox carved into a stone disk, on a leather cord. Akio had taken it as a token, to remember her by.
“That was my sister’s!” Chiaki’s eyes were wide in surprise, but as he looked at her, her eyes narrowed. “You said you hadn’t seen her! What have you done with her?”
“Chiaki, please. I spoke the truth. I have seen no girl…”
Before he had time to react Akio found himself on his back, his arms pinned by Chiaki’s own, a low growl emanating from the back of her throat.
“You are kitsune,” Akio said. He spoke in a whisper, so soft he wasn’t sure he’d actually said the words aloud.
Copyright© Heather Jensen. All rights reserved.