She leaned against the edge of the engawa, her breath traced in clouds of frosty mist. Beyond the white-caked balusters, the black pines glistened, as if their snowy casings shone from their own light. The daylight had faded as dusk advanced, leaving the landscape basked in the sickly light of a winter evening. Flakes of snow billowed down from the wan sky, desperately reflecting the last of the dying light. Her sakura pink cheeks served only to further emphasize the loveliness of the girl, whose obsidian black hair curtained her small frame, offering the slightest shield from the advancing cold. Her sparkling brown eyes searched the distance, waiting, hoping, resisting the need to retreat back into the warmth of her home, willing a blink of light to appear on the barren road, ever a dutiful daughter.
Father said he would be home before nightfall.
The telephone wires had already fallen victim to the snow; Father would not be able to reach her.
She had to hope that he would make it home. Back to her.
But fate had other plans for him. The wheels of his old Mitsubishi whined and cried as he tried to edge the car out of a rut, until the engine could take no more, bellowing smoke as the only signal of its demise. Ruined twice that day. Once in Tokyo, as his lawyers regaled him of the devastating resolution to his attempt to restore his fortunes. Indeed, he had to turn out his pockets to pay for petrol for his defeated return home.
He did not even have enough left to buy Izayoi, his lovely flower of the moon, the white chrysanthemum he had promised her. The only gift she wanted—whether he regained his former wealth or not. She asked him for something so small, so simple, and even in providing her this, he had failed. He sighed and swallowed down the bitter bile that attempted to engulf his broken spirit. All he could do now was pull his old overcoat around him, and set off away from the metallic husk of his last hope to find his way back home to Izayoi. Resigned, he walked down the snow-blanketed road, to look for help.
Behind a protective wall of black pines and evergreens, a small pathway peeked out, kissing the edge of the snowy lane. The little pathway was lined with smooth gray stones that meandered through a delicate garden, lined with Chinese maples. He heard the tinkling of water coming from a small koi pond, with magnificent pearl-white and opal-orange koi dancing lazily through the water. The path wound around moss-covered boulders that divided the yard into well-maintained gardens of rhododendrons and chrysanthemums, full of rotund blooms, and fig trees bearing fruit, even during the peak of winter. Against the stark-naked white of the snow and grim gray of the sky, the pinks and oranges and greens that danced around him sang a cheerful melody. Everything along the pathway seemed placed with care to make the space welcoming, beckoning one further into the property.
At the end of the pathway stood a copper gate; the metallic rose tones weathered into a deep turquoise, which split a low wall of creme and earth tones that made it look as if it were an outcropping of the garden itself. Atop the two posts that secured the gate to the wall sat resplendent pearlescent dogs, their jeweled yellow eyes keeping watch on the garden and the road beyond. The bars were smooth and thin, and attached to elaborately carved vines, with intricate leaves and sakura blossoms reaching out to touch and welcome weary travelers who found themselves in front of that gate. Beyond the wall and the garden rose a manor adorned in the same creme and earth tones of the wall, with large western windows hemming the lower floor, and the upper floor retaining the regal simplicity of traditional Japanese architecture. Pagoda roofs capped both the second floor and the entryway that sat just meters from where he stood on the other side of the gate, blending the traditional and western styles nearly as flawlessly as this manor blended with the garden which surrounded it.
A subtle clink drew his attention and pushed him back, and the little copper gate opened of its own accord, welcoming him to venture beyond the wall. He took its cue and crossed the threshold, taking in the lush carpet of grass and yet another small pond. But those were not what drew his gaze. For in the waning light of the evening shone a singular bright light, a single, perfect, white chrysanthemum—as perfect as his beloved Izayoi—clung to its bush. As he studied it, it shuddered; whether from the tickle of a winter breeze or from the hunger in his eyes, he was not sure.
A yip called his attention away, and back toward the manor in front of which he stood. He studied the darkened windows one by one, following them to a single window in which he could see a faint light. Perhaps, in this darkened house that seemed to call him forth, there indeed was an occupant home. As he came back to the entryway, the copper gate behind him let out a clamorous clang as it closed, and for the whisper of a moment, he thought he heard the deep, melancholic baying of a great dog. He stepped back, wondering if the house and its occupant had lured him in, with promises of warmth in the piercing cold.
He almost turned away when another insistent yip reached his ears, this one pleading him to continue his journey, accepting his host’s silent welcome. It was enough to bring his feet back to the front of the ornate door, the door that truly did hold the promise of warmth against the unforgiving cold. The door itself was mahogany, its deep chestnut color sprung as much from the earth as the rest of the manor. It was elaborately carved with the same vine and sakura blossom pattern as the gate, but seated proudly in its center was a massive knocker, in the shape of the head of a great dog, which shimmered silver in the waning light. The knocker itself was held in the dog’s mouth. At first he thought that the knocker was made of steel, or perhaps silver, but when he placed his hand upon it, he knew it was made of a finer metal even than this: it was made of platinum.
As his hand moved to clasp the great knocker, once again, the door swung open smoothly and silently, and of its own accord. He came to a stop in the genkan, removing his shoes and placing them carefully on the shelf that was clearly left for this purpose before continuing onward. He paused once more after removing his overcoat, puzzled why no living soul had appeared to take his coat. A vined coat rack seemed to reach out to him, asking to accept his coat, as if it too had read his thoughts. He placed his overcoat upon it, and continued into the house. Perhaps his host was a recluse, willing to extend his welcome to those in need, but without a desire to show his face to the beneficiary of his generosity. The tatami under his feet rustled as he came to a great room lined with shoji screens, each painted in delicate ink with great battles between elaborate dragons and resplendent inu, chasing one another through clouds and waves and mountains. Another screen was painted with forests of sakura trees, the pink blossoms trailing all the way down the hallway.
The soft light he’d seen through the window was coming from a room at the end of the great corridor, and he plodded forward, feeling like the beautiful figures on the shoji screens were following him. Atop little tables along the way, he saw well-maintained bonsai of redwood and juniper and sakura, until at the end of the corridor there sat, in a bright turquoise base with a bolt of gold, a Japanese apple tree, bearing fruit. At the foot of the bonsai sat a most peculiar creature: a flame orange kitsune with bright green eyes stared up at him, its head intelligently cocked.
Upon the kitsune’s neck was a collar made of yellow diamonds, a small badge hanging below it in mother-of-pearl with the name “Shippō” engraved. The kitsune wagged its bottlebrush tail at him, then bounded around him in a gleeful circle before shepherding him into the lighted room beyond the shoji screen.
As he crossed into the room, a burst of warmth lapped at his tired bones. The room itself was western, with a circular fireplace, and plush leather chairs sitting facing the terracotta enclosure. Between the chairs was a heavy mahogany table. On the table lay a silver tray, with bento boxes full of rice and tamago and katsu. A small note in neat handwriting simply said: Eat Me. Next to the bento box sat a narrow ceramic jug with a delicate spout, white with pink sakura blossoms dancing down to its base. A sake bottle. Around its neck lay another small note: Drink Me. Finally, there was a jug of water, and a hot towel for him to use to wash his hands. When he looked back at the kitsune, it yipped and tipped its nose toward the food, and he understood that it was for him. When he settled himself and dug into the bento, the kitsune trotted off to continue whatever it was it had been doing before his arrival.
The only thing that remained to make Izayoi’s father completely at ease also sat on the tray: a small hand-written note saying that his car had been taken to the repair shop in the nearby town, along with its name and telephone number. He rushed to the telephone in the corner of the room, and quickly dialed. The repair shop had successfully freed his car from the rut, and it was in working order and fully fueled. The shop asked if he could pick it up that night, and provided simple-to-follow directions for him to trek the half-mile to the village, now that the snow had abated.
When he asked the cost, he was told in no uncertain terms that they were covered, leaving him feeling in even more debt to his reclusive and generous host. He sipped another cup of sake as he tried, unsuccessfully, to reach Izayoi and explain his circumstance. After he’d finished his bento and sake, the kitsune appeared again, a single shoe in its mouth, flicking its tail toward the door and effectively signalling that his host’s hospitality was now over.
As he threw his overcoat back onto his shoulders and returned his shoes to his feet, he realized that the great dog on the knockers had eyes made of Tiger’s Eye, giving them a gleaming life-like feel. As he made to walk through the inner garden and then find his way into town, he stopped. The moon had risen and was bestowing an unearthly glow to the single, perfect, white chrysanthemum. A moonlit flower: the only gift he had promised Izayoi, his flower of the moon.
Were he to have met his host, perhaps he would have asked. But, the host had been so kind, so generous, he certainly would not deny Izayoi, who he loved more than anything in the world, the only present she ever desired, yes? And so, he plucked it from its bush. Izayoi’s father stole the chrysanthemum.
The moment the delicate flower was liberated from its home, a rumble shook him. Not distant but as close to him as the copper gate that now held him prisoner as all the lights in the house blazed to life. A guttural growl, as if made by a pack of dogs, introduced his host.
There is always a gravitas about those of enormous stature: a presence that pulls all inextricable toward it. And so it was that Izayoi’s father met his host, who he believed for many moments at his arrival, to be more vast than his palatial house. Because, before him sitting on muscled haunches, with golden eyes that reflected the moonlight, and curled pearlescent fur that draped over his body, and sharp and dangerous claws that now pressed against his throat, sat a great dog, indeed, the greatest dog that Izayoi’s father had ever laid his eyes on.
He could not swallow, and felt the tremors of fear rumble through his body like slow-rolling thunder, his eyes fixed on the stormy golden eyes of his host. Around them both, the kitsune scampered, baying sorrowfully at them both.
“My… my… good fellow—” stammered Izayoi’s father, which only earned him a deeper and more dangerous growl.
“Fellow? I am no fellow and I am no fool. I am the Inu no Taisho, and you must call me Inu no Taisho. And I will call you thief!” The dog’s voice was audible over his raspy growl, but every word struck further fear into Izayoi’s father.
“Please forgive me Inu no Taisho!” He fell to his knees, then pressed his forehead to the ground, for he was a thief. “I have dishonored you, disrespected your generosity, and taken great advantage. But please, I thought only of my daughter Izayoi, and bringing her the one gift I promised her I would give.”
The great dog’s shoulders slumped and he bought his great head closer to Izayoi’s father, studying them with his sharp amber eyes.
“Show me,” said the Inu no Taisho.
Izayoi’s father put his shaking hand into the pocket of his overcoat, bringing out his pocketbook and the single photograph he kept inside—that of his flower of the moon. The camera had captured that certain look she had, the duality of her kindness and her strength, as if she were reaching out for the camera and caressing it with her soul. The Inu no Taisho took the photograph in his great paw and studied it, taking care not to scratch it with his claws.
“You may give her the chrysanthemum, but… the price for this is you must bring her to dinner,” he growled. It was a generous bargain for forgiveness of a great misdeed.
Her father had warned her of whom she was to be a dinner guest, and so she thought she’d arrived prepared, but she could not contain the involuntary little shiver that ran through her when she saw the Inu no Taisho. It was true that he was ethereal, with hair that glimmered like mother-of-pearl and eyes made of amber, but a dog, however beautiful, is still a dog, and not a man. And while those dogs welcomed into homes have instinctual loyalty to their masters, the wild ones have no need for humans. Indeed, humans are the ones who cut off their heads and subjugate them as Inugami for all time. Perhaps that was the glint of sadness Izayoi detected in those amber orbs of her host, something deep and pleading. A dog desperately seeking the belonging of a family who would never come. Those eyes, their depth, their pain: it anchored in her heart, and her fear gave way to pity.
Perched on his haunches at the head of the western-style dining table, which gleamed from its mirror-black lacquer, he was content to observe his guests. The shoji screens that surrounded the dining room were adorned with great battles, helmed by a magnificent dog with almond eyes and curled white fur. On the table sat a mirror-black lacquered boat, painted with a small trail of white chrysanthemums. The sushi that sat atop the boat glistened and gleamed in all colors of the rainbow, with every and all varieties of fish: hamachi, tuna, salmon, and eel, and tamago, and three kinds of shrimp. An ark on which the sushi animals marched two-by-two. Around the base of the sushi armada swam small plates of emerald green: seaweed salad wreaths topped with red flakes of pepper and bright red porcelain bowls of miso soup sitting atop spirit lamps. At each of their seats sat a personal bottle of sake, and a heavy teapot with aromatic jasmine tea. The host beckoned them both to dig in, but he himself ate nothing.
In spite of the opulent feast before them, Izayoi saw no sign of servants in the manor; only the kitsune could be seen, scampering about on invisible business that he alone seemed to understand. Perhaps a constant human presence pressing reminding him of his otherness would be too much for the Inu no Taisho. How strange he was. She found him to be almost unbearable in his difference. In spite of his manor being open and airy, she felt stifled there, a sacrificial lamb waiting to be slaughtered and crushed between the dog’s great teeth.
Yet she stayed, and she smiled. Because her father had asked her to, and because the Inu no Taisho had done her father a great service. Surely it was worth a night of being gazed upon and feeling as prey between the great paws of a predator. As the night wore on, and her father had swapped his tea for sake, the Inu no Taisho offered to help him combat the judgment that left them despondent, and Izayoi smiled, with both her mouth and her eyes, for the first time that night. It was not until the Inu no Taisho, in his rumbling voice of guttural and feral growls, suggested with not a small about of trepidation, that Izayoi stay with him, in comfort, while her father returned to Tokyo, that the light in her eyes retreated, and she returned to the mask of her smile. So it was, she was the price. Her father’s solvency for her.
It was not as if she was robbed of this choice. She would have made the same, for she loved her father with her every fiber, and would give everything of herself for his happiness.
Her bedroom was adorned with fine silk hangings, depicting white chrysanthemums. And her bed—western style—was dressed with a goose down and silk duvet and pillows, plusher than an unshorn sheep and softer to the touch than a baby’s skin. The panels that surrounded the bedroom were painted with cranes taking flight, and koi swimming playfully in pools, and kitsune frolicking through wooded paths. At the foot of each panel was a small shelf, similar to the bonsai’s homes in the main hallway, but instead adorned with a menagerie of colorful flowers from the Inu no Taisho’s miraculous gardens, which produced blooms in the dead of winter. And finally, along a single un-paneled wall was that which she had never seen the likes of: a library of rich leather-bound books of all styles and variety, with neat kanji letters announcing each title.
The next morning, Izayoi’s father kissed the crown of her head, full of renewed vigor and fight, to reclaim what he felt to be his, and to return her to the luxuriant life that his precious daughter deserved. She wished to declare she had no need for such things, that all she wished for was the warmth and happiness of their shabby home, but held her tongue at the light of hope she saw glimmering in her father’s eyes. As she watched his figure disappear down the winding slate lane, she looked around at the splendor that was to be her cage, the smallest sigh escaping her at the irony that he was fighting to return her to the luxury that she only wished, at this moment, to escape. Izayoi braced for what she predicted would be the next element of her price, but found that she spent her day alone, the kitsune her only company, as if her host feared her in a curious defiance of her expectations.
Days passed with nary a sighted tuft of fur of her host, and yet, her meals always served, and every one of her needs was meticulously tended, from rose oil appearing in her bath to an endless new display of bright and exotic flowers. And yet, her only companion was the kitsune, for she never observed a single human, servant or otherwise, set foot in this manor, save for her.
Dinner that night was a breaded pork katsu with fluffy rice and pickled vegetables. Izayoi sat at the table, enraptured by a fairy tale book of a young girl and an Inu half-demon falling in love during a timeless quest for a cursed jewel. As she sipped her tea and turned away the sake, the kitsune pranced before her, wearing a collar decorated with ovals of deep jade, before swirling his tail around her leg. Puzzled, she stood, to find that the kitsune had taken her hand into its mouth, and gave her a gentle (but insistent) tug. When she gave no resistance, the kitsune let go and trotted directly into the study in which her father had eaten his first meal in the manor. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the fire-warmed room, her eyes found the golden eyes of her host. Next to him was a small table, which was set with green and pink and brown balls of mochi, and a bottle of sake, with one cheerful little glass waiting for her.
Izayoi found her seat, careful not to let the mask of her serenity slip and reveal her fear of her giant bestial host. His rumbling growl broke the unsteady stalemate, and finally crashed like a wave against the stillness of her day. She schooled her features to not reveal the surprise that still welled up in her that she could converse with such a creature. But the boom of it vibrated through her, leaving her with a sense of wonder at her host, a beast, perhaps, in name only. Instead of backing away, Izayoi leaned in, and paid attention to the details so long ignored. The way that the firelight danced over his fur, diffused by its gentle pearlescent sheen, creating a great umver halo colored by the underworld. The great dog in the many paintings, bringing destruction and death across feudal Japan, downing armies with one great swipe of his paw.
Izayoi was never one capable of idle chatter, and so at the fits and starts and attempts at conversation, she found herself woefully unprepared. And yet, the Inu no Taisho never exposed discontentment at his companion, instead, timidly but stubbornly grasping at topics and language with which to converse. He looked nearly as frightened of Izayoi as she felt of him. Yet he asked about her father’s law case and what she remembered of her mother; he asked of the books and tales she enjoyed, and even how it was that they had fallen from comfort. In watching the great dog, so shy and wild, using all his effort to converse with her, so too did she master her own fear. And soon, their conversation felt so natural, it was as if they had known each other through many lifetimes. Only when the caw of the night heron broke them from their exchange did both seem to realize the hour , and how the time had flown by.
“You should get your rest,” the Inu no Taisho said.
A tense silence passed through the odd pair, as if both were quite astonished to still be there, comfortable, together, at such an improper time of night. As Izayoi made to rise, the great dog closed his distance to her, laying his head on her lap, an inaudible whine escaping his lips. Instinctively, Izayoi brought her hands to his great head and stroked his ears, then touched his great muzzle. His rough tongue lapped at her fingers, bathing them in his saliva. After her momentary shock, a wave of compassion came over her: the Inu no Taisho was kissing her hands.
He withdrew his head from her hands, then turning his gaze to her eyes, the firelight dancing through the amber in them, inscrutable. With a chuff, the great dog turned heel and bounded out of the room, and to Izayoi’s surprise, he did it on all fours.
Next day, the forests surrounding the manor rang with jubilant howls. Has your master gone hunting? Izayoi asked the kitsune, who flicked his tail irritatedly to be asked such a silly question.
Each day after that, Izayoi would stay to her suite, reading books (which seemed to always be replaced with new titles once she finished), practicing calligraphy (with brushes made of ivory and horse hair), or origami (with paper splashed with colorful designs of maples or sakura or birds). She wandered the outdoor gardens, marveling at the flowers that bloomed in the dead of winter, and she watched the koi drift lazily in their little pond. The little world of the manor sung with a serene happiness that breathed new life into Izayoi, a place she found, much to her surprise, that she was happy in a way she did not realize existed. Never once had she seen another human in that place, and never once had she felt sorrow at their absence.
Her nightly interviews with the Inu no Taisho had slowly become one of her favorite parts of the day. After she ate dinner, the kitsune would lead her to the waiting study, where she would enjoy mochi and tea and sake with her host, and they would talk about the tempermentality of orchids, or the nature of the moon and the stars, the newest advances in automobiles, or the transitory state of the conflicts with the Mainland. Yet even as her comfort with him grew, still she could not ignore his otherness. Each night, when he fell to her feet, placing his head in her lap and laving her hands with his tongue, she shivered and closed her eyes, careful not to let her distaste of his affectionate gesture show.
The baying of the telephone beckoned her: her father had won his appeal! They were returned to prosperity!
The Inu no Taisho’s ears dropped and his shoulders slumped. A whine escaped him. Will you come back to me? I will be lonely without you here.
Izayoi met his earnest gaze, moved near to tears by the confession of his affection. She thought to press her lips to his great muzzle, and even advanced a single step. But she could not bring herself to touch him. Because a beast was a beast and a man was a man. Yet, she was resolved. She would come back, she promised, before the end of the winter. The taxi picked her up and dropped her at the train station, to Tokyo, to return to her father.
Gone was the serenity of the manor, of the gardens, of the daily routine of books and calligraphy and warm fires and engaging chats. In its place was a city that defied nature, its steel bars caging in its residence, and ignoring the assault of a season’s change. There was no shadow of the despondent shame left in her father’s mind, for their friend’s machinations had returned him to whole, undeniable in his status once more. And for his darling daughter, he refused nothing. Opulent hotels and intricate tea ceremonies and luxurious onsens with only the finest baths. He wore his daughter on his arm to society parties and events, decorated now with an entirely new wardrobe, imported from abroad, his delicate flower now properly displayed in the place of her mother. She had never known a world such as this, as her father had come to ruin before her mother succumbed to death to give her life.
They spoke of the Inu no Taisho often, the ethereal and monstrous guardian of their good fortune. But slowly the reality of him faded into the background, to be believed somewhat to only have been a dream, a miracle, capable of delivering them back to their rightful place in society, then freed them to enjoy his gifts. Izayoi sent him flowers: white chrysanthemums to replace the one his father stole, the final debt perceived to the great dog, and when she left the courier, she felt a weight lifting from her heart, and yet, the lightness in her heart came from a vapid emptiness. But she could not keep her father waiting. He was set to fit her with a new kimono for New Year, so she could visit a shrine and make a wish dressed in exactly the resplendence she should be. She repeated her trip to the florist, and her trip to the courier time and time again, but Tokyo walled the seasons out, and so all failed to notice that winter was almost gone.
Returning to her room from the bath of oiled mineral water, Izayoi wrung out her hair in front of the mirror, admiring her form. She picked up the rouge she kept in a clamshell—a gift from her father—to decorate her lips and prepare her for another trip to the theatre. She was no longer who she was before. The spoils of the good life were beginning to show in the way that her skin shined from expensive creams and baths. The youthful plumpness of her face had begun to give way to high cheekbones and pink cheeks. And the willowy youth of her body was now expanding in the ways that drew desirous glares from businessmen. When before she would lower her eyes and hide herself, now she inwardly smirked. She found herself drawn to the image of her beauty, sharing her brightest smiles only with her own pale reflection. And yet… the woman who looked back at her was so different from the one reflected in the koi pond of the manor, the one she saw dancing in firelight in the Inu no Taisho’s golden eyes. Was that woman a mask, or was the one she now faced in the uncaring windows of Tokyo the mask? She’d always thought it to be the former. She was no longer who she was before.
But the tears that came to her eyes when the admiration of her reflection became revulsion were no mask, encouraged on by the gentlest tickle of a spring breeze along her naked back.
A desperate scratching sound broke her away from her reflections. Coming from the door. And everything came back into stark contrast. Her promise to her generous host to see him before the end of winter, only to find that it was now spring! The Inu no Taisho had come to collect her! To force her to return and keep her promise. The pangs of terror at his anger for her broken vow were soon replaced with a mysterious delight, so she threw on a yukata and traipsed to the door, fully prepared to be met with amber eyes alight with fire. But instead she was met with the wide green eyes of the kitsune, who launched into her arms at the right of her. He was light, thin, and his formerly shimmering auburn fur had acquired a dullness as if it were rubbed in ash. The small kit yipped and trembled at the sight of her, exhaling so jubilantly that Izayoi knew it was meant in relief.
What had happened in those intervening months that would turn the proud creature so pitiful? Once the kitsune seemed content that she knew it was him, he escaped her arms then took her hand in his mouth, tugging more forcefully than she’d ever experienced with him before. Begging her to come. Come to try to save his master: he was there, she knew, because the Inu no Taisho was dying.
Izayoi scribbled a note to her father, dressed haphazardly, and made her way to the train station that would take her to her destination, narrowly making the last, slow train of the night, the kitsune curled at her feet. The sky was inky black when she awoke to the gentle mouth of the kitsune, tugging her from the train. She pressed money into the waiting taxi man’s hands to drive to their destination: as fast as they can, the kitsune now nestled in her protective arms.
It was as if all color had bled from the manor and its grounds. The ever-blooming garden carried the rot of the winter now into the spring. In the untended pond laid carcasses of the playful koi; from ice or neglect, she could not be sure. The turquoise gate was broken open, and even the stoic dog statues that guarded the walls seemed slumped. Not a single light escaped from the manor itself, whose gloom seemed to steal all light from the inner garden that used to house the glowing white chrysanthemums. The proud platinum knocker was caked in black soot, leaving no sign of the beautiful creature it was fashioned to symbolize.
She opened the door and found a chill hanging in the hallway air, and the darkness pressed upon her. She removed her shoes in the genkan, and set the fussing kitsune back upon the ground. He guided her hand to a single beeswax candle, which she lit with a flint. Even with the return of a flicker of light, Izayoi could not see the ornate paintings of proud battles on the shoji screens, nor could she see the green endurance of the bonsai that lined her way. No. Instead she followed the kitsune into corridors of the manor she had never explored, hidden as they were behind the screens. Soon, she was faced with a bare staircase, which the kitsune beckoned her up.
She could feel the dust that blanketed her feet, and an unseen snag ripped the fabric of her dress. She quickened her pace. At the top of the staircase was an attic, and a modest room was hidden away in its depths. No curtains bordered the windows, no rug lay on the floor. The only pieces of furniture in that room were a table, on which sat a vase of wilted and dead chrysanthemums (Izayoi gasped), and a shabby futon. Atop the futon lay the Inu no Taisho. His fur was no longer smoothed with a gentle curl, but instead was matted with dust and dirt. The usually manicured black nails of his paws were cracked and untended. His amber eyes that she would never forget were closed, and his breath was shallow and labored. The kitsune scampered into the futon, curling up against the great dog’s chest.
“My dear Inu no Taisho,” Izayoi whispered, “I have returned to you.”
His body flinched, and slowly, his eyelids opened and she saw them again. The amber eyes she sometimes dreamed about, the amber eyes that reflected her without her mask, as she wanted to be. The eyes that, for the first time, she saw were not those of an animal, but contained the soul and depth of eyes of a man. Had she… had she ever looked beyond her own image in them before?
“I’m dying, Izayoi,” the Inu no Taisho whispered, his voice robbed of all of its former growl, “When you left, I fell ill. I could no longer stand to be what I am, a beast. I could no longer kill and hunt, even for my own survival. But now, even as I must die, I may die happy, because you have returned. So I may say goodbye.”
Izayoi’s arms were around his great neck before she could think. Her tears were bathing his dirty fur as she clung to him. She finally crawled to his paw, covering it with her kisses, the kisses she wanted to give him and never had.
“Don’t die, my Inu no Taisho!” Izayoi whimpered through her tears. “I will never leave you again. You—you are my home.”
No words that Izayoi had ever uttered carried as much truth. They were words that settled in the depths of her soul, refusing to let the mask of opulent mimicry chase them away. And so she cried, and so she kissed. And when her lips reached the leather pads of his paw, they drew back, replaced by a clenched fist. Izayoi watched in wonder as the paw-turned-hand opened to stretch its clawed fingers, which gingerly found her cheek. Izayoi turned then to search for the great black nose and muzzle of the dog, only to find a delicate nose and supple lips in its place. His eyes were still golden, and a cerulean jagged stripe dressed each of his cheeks. His ears were pointed and long silver hair billowed down his back, and the luminous smile he gifted her showed his fangs. And the fur and body of the great dog had retreated, replaced by a pearly white cape of fur. The Inu no Taisho was a demon, and the handsomest of beasts.
“Please call me Toga.” The Inu no Taisho’s golden eyes were filled with reverent wonder. “And I think… perhaps… I can manage a little breakfast today, Izayoi, if you would join me?”
The ever-blooming garden was never so splendid as it was in fall, when the leaves of the Chinese Maples bled crimson, counterbalanced by the evergreens. The flowers—chrysanthemums—bloomed endlessly, their fireworks of color as bright and jubilant as the lord and the lady of the house. On this particular soft autumn day, the opal and mango koi splashed in the water, and the kitsune, its coat burning ruby against the changing leaves, dozed. Mr. and Mrs. Taisho walked through the garden, laughing and cooing, holding their silver-haired dog-eared babe, content to enjoy the waning warmth.
Artwork commission by Thunderpot