The road was poorly kept and his ankles hurt from trying to hold steady in his geta against the worst of the ruts. His back hurt from the weight of his medicines and he had long ago lost feeling in his fingers despite his gloves.
It would be dark before he reached the next town. It would not be the first time he had slept under the shielding branches of trees in his years of wandering. He turned aside from the path and went into the woods. There, he would be able to sleep in some kind of peace.
He put his pack aside and gathered some wood, made a fire, lay down beside it. Sleeping would let him avoid some of the cold. He would wake when the fire burned most of the way down and the chill returned.
He woke thinking he heard footsteps, and looked around. There was only darkness, and the fire, and his pack beside him.
He woke thinking he heard footsteps, and looked around. There was only darkness, and the lantern painted red, and his medicine chest beside him.
He woke thinking he heard footsteps, and looked around. There was only light, and the fire, and his pack beside him.
He did not feel rested and it was still cold, so he waited while the fire burned down before gathering his pack and moving once more toward the road.
He passed a small clearing, and a verdant field filled with soybeans, and another with adzuki beans, and he did not come upon the road. He breathed on his hands to try to warm them and only succeeded in making himself colder; the moisture on his breath remained even after the heat had dissipated.
In time he did come upon the road and began to follow it. It was still cold and the trees had just started to bud. He walked until he began to sweat under his coat, but still did not reach a town, though he thought he had seen smoke from hearth fires the night before. Maybe he had been mistaken and it had just been a reflection, or a cloud.
He rounded a curve in the road and found an old woman trudging along in zōri towards him; he bowed to her and she bowed back. He passed her on the road, as he had done to old women before, and did not turn back.
He rounded a curve in the road and found a young woman shuffling along in a red kimono towards him; he bowed to her and she bowed back, looking at him through her lashes. He passed her on the road, as he had done to the old woman before her, and turned back.
There was no old woman, nor young woman, on the road behind him; there was only the row of tree trunks and the curve in the road around which he could not see.
He walked off the road because this wasn't the first time a fox had tried to bewitch him and he'd already had several families' worth of imaginary children. He no longer had the patience for that game.
As soon as he stepped off the road, he was back at the fire, waking up again, his pack beside him. He did not wait for the fire to go out this time but rather took up a branch and lit it, and carried it with him as a torch in the darkness. It lit his way to the field of adzuki, where he dropped the branch in the middle of the field and watched the plants' leaves crackle and burn as the fire spread.
A shadow swept past him; the fire died out suddenly. The plants that had burned were no longer ash in the dirt, instead returned to vivid freshness. He remained still.
"You could have stayed there," the fox said. It looked human out of the corner of his eye, but turned into shadows when he tried to look directly at it. Its shadow still looked like a fox, but glowed with golden lines and spirals.
"Continuing would be," he paused, looked at the line where the flourishing adzuki beans stopped and the trees began, "better." He had not noticed the barrier until after he had crossed it. Made of paper, it seemed to have been painted with eyes, or perhaps vulvas. It was probably both.
The fox shifted its weight. "If you want to, you can."
He walked to the edge of the line and looked out into the trees, which were red with autumn leaves.
"I can," he mused, "can I?"
The fox's shadow twitched its tail. "No."
"I thought so." He took off his pack and set it on the ground to search through it. The books of erotic prints were still there, as were the little pawned trinkets, the netsuke, his dried persimmons, dried squid, and his money.
"Nothing's missing," he stated.
The fox's humanlike body nodded; its shadow's glowing lines trailed over the adzuki beans. "I wouldn't steal anything."
He adjusted the folds of his deep blue kimono and took his gloves off; the field was beginning to warm. "I can't escape," he began.
The fox took a step closer to him on the tatami floor beneath their feet. "Have something to eat."
He knelt before the table and drank from a bowl of oshiruko. The mochi, sticky-sweet with adzuki, caught on his teeth. The fox, across the table, was also drinking some; it turned its lips pink where before they had been the same tan as its skin.
"You prefer to seem," he swallowed another mouthful, "male."
The fox considered this and nodded once before biting into with its small sharp teeth into a slice of aburaage it had picked out of a bowl of soba.
"Why me?" he asked.
The fox chewed slowly before sipping some more oshiruko, but its shadow turned to point its nose at the barrier.
"What is," the oshiruko was becoming cold fast, thick and too sweet, "outside of the fire?"
The shadow's tail twitched and its glowing spiral let off glimmers of light that rested for a moment on the fox's skin and floated in the air.
"A mononoke," said the fox. Its shadow quivered a moment before half-disappearing beneath the fox's skin.
"And you are different?" He set the oshiruko down on the table and picked up a set of chopsticks.
"I exist," said the fox, although it was slurping its soba and there was no way it could have been speaking. "It is combined with a human."
He pushed the slices of aburaage to the side of the bowl and began to eat the soba. "I suppose that it is dangerous."
The fox dipped its head and picked at a bowl of rice, disinterestedly. "We will be killed."
The salty broth for the soba noodles burned the roof of his mouth. "The mononoke is stronger," he glanced at the fox's reflection, but it had gone still, "because it is combined with a human."
The fox's shadow bent to brush its nose along the tatami mats.
"I am," he murmured, into the empty bowl of oshiruko, "human."
The fox dropped its eyes to the table, to the folds of its clothing, which was purple-red-gold and tied with a maroon obi. The eyes on the line between the doors of the room and the trees of the courtyard outside opened, gaping red-lipped empty mouths, and began to glow red.
"It is coming," he said to the fox. "Will you become?"
He took the last bite of his mochi kinchaku, savory-sweet, and set down his chopsticks. "Then let us begin."
When the fox cut open his belly and its shadow crawled inside him, sharpening his teeth, bleaching his hair and his eyes, spreading gold over his robes and pink over his cheekbones, it did not hurt.