I have a bit of a fascination with the Japanese folklore of fox spirits. We don’t have foxes in Singapore but I’ve seen foxes in the wild in other countries. Once when I lived in Brighton, England, and it was nighttime and I was walking back to the student apartments after a pub crawl with some friends. At first I thought I was seeing things but no, it really was a fox, nonchalantly loping down the pavement with the rest of us. It was smaller than I expected.
Sometime earlier this year, in Livermore, a fox dashing along the sidewalk as we drove by. As I looked in the side mirror, it jumped into the street and ran across the road. Luckily the car behind us stopped for it and it got to live another day.
“Humanness is more than robes. Or tiled roofs, or poetry.”
“Expectations. Separation from things. Lonelinesss. Sadness. Truthfully, I was glad to give it up, to run again. Not even love can make it worthwhile.”
Kij Johnson, whose short story collection In The Mouth of the River of Bees is one of my favourites (I especially loved The Man Who Bridged the Mist), writes an intriguing story told from three perspectives. Kaya no Yoshifuji has failed at the emperor’s court and has brought his wife and young son to his estate in the countryside. Kitsune is a young fox and she falls in love with Yoshifuji. Yoshifuji becomes obsessed with the foxes living in his garden. And this obsession frightens his wife Shikujo and she returns to the city with her son. Meanwhile, Kitsune and her fox family attempt a strange kind of magic that creates a whole illusion – Kitsune and her family seem like humans who live in a large wealthy house nearby, complete with manservants and handmaidens. Yoshifuji falls head over heels for the magic and for Kitsune and her family and this world they have created, and he married Kitsune and they have a child. But soon the magic unravels – can Kitsune keep her hold on her love?
I loved how the stories are told from Shikujo’s pillow book, Yoshifuji’s notebook and a fox diary. How strange it is that I easily accept the idea of a fox diary while it felt so strange reading of the life of Shikujo – often she would hide behind screens, surrounded by her women servants. Social norms of 11th century Japan make me feel so grateful I live in modern times.
“Like her poems, her life has always been elegant but lacking spark. Still, she has a beauty I will never attain, bareheaded in the rain like a peasant.”
Sometimes a quiet, subtle story like this is exactly what I need. The writing is beautiful and has a great dark feel to it. It does require a bit of time to sink into it, to be able to take on this tale of a fox falling in love with a human.
Kij Johnson has also written a second book in this series, Fudoki, which tells of a cat turned woman warrior and sounds just wonderful.
This is my second read for RIP XII