|At first it seemed to the monk that the inside of the lacquer box was a familiar place that he had somehow forgottenn -- perhaps his room as a boy, or a secret room in the temple that had remained hidden until this moment.
There was nothing in the room but a mirror in one corner. From the mirror came a gentle glow, as of sunlight in the final moments of the day.
The monk picked up the mirror.
On the back of the mirror was a painting. It showed two men: one was a fierce, proud man with hunted eyes and a grey beard. The other figure was clearly intended to be the monk himself, although it was covered with stains and mold.
He turned the mirror over, and looked into its face.
He saw a green-eyed girl who seemed almost as if she was painted out of light. When she observed him looking at her, her face fell.
"Why did you come here?" she whispered, sadly. "I gave my life for you."
"You were asleep at the threshold of the door," he told her. "I could not wake you."
She tossed her head. "I hunted the Baku," she told him. "I went to the place where the Baku go, and went with them as they ate dreams, and I entered your dreams as you dreamed them. I was there with you when your father gave you the chest, and as you woke I kept the chest, and when your grandfather gave you the key, I took it from you as you woke.
"Through the next day I followed you, and when night came I lay down at your door, in the place that the dream would have come on its way to you, and I slept. I saw the dream slipping through the darkness, and I sprang upon it, and made it my own. And in my dream I opened the chest with a key, and it opened, huge as the sky, and I had no choice but to enter.
"And then I was very afraid, for I was lost in this box, and I could not find my way out again. I had lost the path that would take me back to my body. I was sad and scared, but also I was proud, for I knew that I had saved your life."
"Why would you do this for me?" asked the monk, although he knew already that he understood why she had done it.
The fox spirit girl smiled. "Why did you search me out?" she asked. "Why did you come here?"
"Because I care for you," he said.
She lowered her eyes. "Then -- now you have come here, and now you have learned the truth -- you must know that it is time for you to leave. I have saved your life. The onmyoji who is your enemy will die in your place, and you can return to your temple, grow your pumpkins and your silly dry yams, and when it is appropriate, say a prayer for me."
"I have come to free you," said the monk. "It is my task and my fate."
"And how would you free me?" asked the girl, sadly. "Can you break the metal of the mirror?"
"No," said the monk. "I can not." And he pronounced the name that had been written on the slip of paper that Binzuru Harada had given him on the bridge. Standing beside him was the King of Dreams.
* * *
Well, said the king, are you ready to leave this place?
"My lord," said the monk. "I am a monk. I own nothing but my begging bowl. But the dream that the fox dreamed was my dream by rights. I ask for it to be returned to me."
But, said the king, if I return your dream to you, you must die in her place.
"I understand that," said the monk. "But it is my dream. And I will not have this fox die in my place."
The King of Dreams nodded. His face did not change, but it seemed to the monk that he was saddened by this, but that he was also pleased, and the young monk knew that his request had been the correct one.
The king gestured, and the mirror lay empty on the floor, while the fox spirit stood beside the monk in the dark.
You have done the right thing, at some cost to yourself, said the king to the monk. So I shall, in my turn, do something for you. You may have a little time to say farewell to the fox.
The fox spirit threw herself to the floor at the king's feet. "But you swore to help me!" she said, angrily.
And I helped you.
"It is not fair," said the fox.
No, agreed the king. It is not.
And calmly and imperceptibly, he left the two of them alone in that place.
* * *
That is all the tale tells us of this moment: that he left them alone to bid each other farewell. Perhaps they said formal farewells, awkwardly, the space between them -- between a man who had forsaken the world and a fox spirit -- a gulf that could not be crossed. It is certainly possible.
But one remembers all they had done, one for the other, and one might conjecture that, at this time, they made love. Or that they dreamed they did.
When they were done with their farewells, the King of Dreams rejoined them.
Now all will be as it should be, he said, and the monk found himself staring out from the mirror at the fox.
"I would have given my life for you," she whispered, sadly.
"Live," said the monk.
"You shall be revenged," said the fox. "The onmyoji who did this to you will learn what it means to take something from a fox."
The monk looked at the fox-girl from the mirror. "Seek not revenge, but the peace of Lord O-noko," he said to her. Then he turned, and walked into the heart of the mirror, and he was gone.
* * *
The fox sat in the wilderness of rocks beside the huge black fox of dreams.
"All that I did," she said, "everything that I tried to do. All for nothing."
Nothing is done entirely for nothing, said the fox of dreams. Nothing is wasted. You are older, and you have made decisions, and you are not the fox you were yesterday. Take what you have learned, and move on.
"Where is he now?" she asked.
His body is on his sleeping mat in the temple. His spirit will go where it is meant to go.
"So he will die," she said.
Yes, he said.
"He told me not to seek revenge, but to seek the peace of Lord O-noko," said the fox spirit, sadly.
Wise counsel, said the fox of dreams. Vengeance can be a road that has no ending. You would be wise to avoid it. And...?
"I shall seek out Lord O-noko," said the fox, with a toss of her head. "But first, I shall seek revenge."
As you will, said the fox of dreams, and the fox could not tell if he was happy or sad, satisfied or dissatisfied.
And with a switch of his tail, he bounded away across the landscape of dreams, and left the little fox more alone than she had ever been.
* * *
She woke in the little temple on the side of the mountain, beside the body of the monk. His eyes were closed, and his breath was shallow, and his skin was the color of sea-foam.
It hurt, having already said goodbye to him, to have him still here. But she stayed with him and attended to his body.
He died, peacefully, on the following day.
There was a funeral for him, in the little temple, and he wad buried on the mountainside, beside the other monks who had tended the little temple in the centuries that had gone before.