|A monk lived in solitude beside a small temple on the side of a mountain. It was a small temple, and the monk was a young monk, and the mountain was not the most beautiful or impressive mountain in Nippon.
The monk tended the temple, and he passed his days in peace and quiet until the day that a fox and a badger passed the temple and spied the monk hoeing the little plot of yams which fed him for much of the year.
The badger looked at the monk and the temple, and he said, "Let us make a wager. Whichever of us succeeds in driving that man from the temple will keep the place as a home; for it has been many years since pilgrims or travellers came to this temple, and it will be a finer place by far to live than a badger's set or a fox's den."
And the fox smiled with her sharp teeth, and blinked her green eyes, and she swished her brush and she looked down the hill at the temple and the monk, then she looked at the badger and she said, "Very well. A wager it is."
"Each of us will take it in turns," said the badger. "I shall go first."
Down in his little garden plot the monk hoed his yams, then he went down on his knees and he weeded the wild onions and the ginger plants and the little patch of herbs: then he cleaned the mud from his hands and knees, and he went into the living quarters at the back of the temple, to prepare for that evening's devotions.
That night, the moon hung full, huge and silver, in a night sky the color of a ripe plum; and the priest heard a mighty commotion outside his door.
There were five men in the courtyard, richly dressed and mounted on five great horses. They were hairy men. Their leader held a great curved sword.
"Who serves in this temple?" he called, in a voice like thunder. "Let him show himself!"
The monk came forward into the moonlight, and he bowed deeply. "I am the unworthy guardian of this temple," he said, simply.
"And a skinny, unimpressive runt of a priest you are," boomed the leader. "But who among us can account for the will of the gods? Truly was it said that those who seek after fortune find it as elusive as grasping a rainbow, while those who disdain good fortune and the world often find it beating upon a gong outside their door."
To this speech the young monk said nothing, but he raised his head a little, and he looked at the horsemen in the moonlight with sharp eyes that missed nothing at all.
"Well, do you wish to know what your good fortune is?"
"Certainly," said the monk.
"Know then that you have been sent for by none other than the Emperor himself. You are to travel as fast as you can to the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor wishes to speak with you and to confirm that you are indeed the person of whom the augurs and the diviners have told him, and then you will be raised from obscurity and appointed to minister to the needs of the imperial court -- a position which brings with it great fortune and mighty estates.
"However, know also that if you do not present yourself at the Imperial Palace before the next Day of the Monkey, then the auguries go from good to very bad, and the Emperor shall, regretfully, be forced to issue your death warrant. Therefore wait not a single moment, but depart this place before dawn or risk the Emperor's severest displeasure."
The horses stamped their feet in the full moon's light.
The monk bowed low once more.
"I shall leave instantly," he said, and the five horsemen grinned, the moonlight gleaming from their eyes and their teeth, and from the metal bridles and decorations of their horses, "but before I leave, I have one question to ask."
"And what would that be?" asked the leader, in a voice like a tiger's roar.
"Why the Emperor would send a badger to tell me to come to the Imperial Court," said the monk, who had observed that, while the first four horses had the tails of horses, the last horse of all had the tail of a badger. And with that the monk began to laugh, and he walked into the temple to begin his evening devotions.
There was a clattering from the courtyard as the riders rode away, and from the mountainside came the yip! yip! yip! of a fox, high and vicious and amused.
The clouds covered the mountaintop before midday the next day, and they were dark, full clouds, so it came as no surprise to the monk when the rain began to fall, a hard drenching rain that bent the bamboo and flattened the young yam plants. The monk, who was used to the weather on the side of the mountain, remained at his devotions and did not stir, not even when the lightning started -- a blinding whiteness, followed by thunder so loud and so deep it felt as if it were being wrenched from the very heart of the mountain.
The rain redoubled. It sounded like the beating of a hundred small drums, such that the monk could scarcely hear the sound of weeping, over the pounding and rattling of the rain, but he did hear someone sobbing, and he went out into the courtyard, where he saw, sprawled upon the ground where the earth ran like a muddy soup, a young woman, soaked by the rain. Her robes, which were of the richest silk, were sopping, and clung to her body like a second skin.
The monk was painfully aware of the young woman's beauty, and her body, as he helped her to her feet and walked beside her into the temple, where they could be out of the rain.
"I am the only daughter of the governor of the province of Yamashiro," she told him, as she stood beside the small brazier, wringing out her garments and her long black hair, "and I was travelling with a party of women and guards to this very temple, when we were attacked by brigands. I alone escaped. I overheard them say that, when this rain lets up they are going to ride up the mountainside to this temple and burn it to the ground and kill anyone they find here." While she spoke she ate a bowl of the monk's rice, and a small bowl of yams, gobbling her food hungrily as she stared at the monk with bright green eyes.
"Therefore," she said, "let us flee this place, never to return, before the bandits come, for if we stay here, we shall both perish. And if we are separated, then you should make your way to the province of Yamashiro, and ask for my father, who is the governor, and has the finest house in the province, and he will reward you mightily. Thank you for the rice. It was very good, although the yams were perhaps a little dry."
"We must certainly leave immediately," said the monk, with a gentle smile playing at the corners of his lips, "if you will explain one thing to me first."
"And what would that be?" asked the girl.
"Explain to me how it happens that the daughter of the governor of the province of Yamashiro happens to be a fox," said the monk, "for I have never seen eyes like yours on a human face.
At that, no quicker than it takes to tell it, the girl jumped over the little brazier, and, when she landed she was no longer a girl but a fox, with its coat sleek and its brush held high, and it darted the monk a look of utter disdain before it leapt upon the stone wall and ran along it, to the shade of a bent old pine, where it paused for a moment, before vanishing into the storm.
Later that afternoon the sun came out, and the monk was able to walk around the temple picking up blown leaves and fallen branches, and repairing the damage of the storm.
He was beginning to perceive a pattern here.
So he was not entirely surprised when, several nights later, as the sun was setting, a troop of demons shambled through the woods to surround the little temple. Some of them had the heads of dead men, and some of them had the heads of monsters, with yellow tusks and staring eyes and huge horns; and they set up a clamor such that you have never heard.
"We smell a man!" they shouted. "We scent man-flesh! Bring out the man and we shall eat him -- we shall roast his heart and vitals and brains, feast on his eyes and his cheeks and his tongue, swallow his liver and his fat and his testicles! Bring him here!"
And with that, several of the demons began to pile high the fallen branches the monk had gathered, and they breathed on them with their fiery breath until the branches began to smoke and then to burn.
"And if I do not come out?" called the monk.
"Then we shall come back every night at sundown," screamed a demon with a head like a flayed bat, " and make a tumult, until finally, our patience at an end, we shall burn down your little temple and we shall pluck your charred body from the ashes, and chomp it down eagerly with our sharp teeth!"
"So flee!" shouted another demon, its face that of a drowned man, flesh swollen, eyes blind and pearl-like, "flee this place and never come back!"
But the monk did not flee. Instead, he walked out into the courtyard, and he picked up a burning brand from the fire.
"I will not leave this place," he said, "and I am tired of these performances. Now, whatever you are, fox or badger, take that! And that!" and began to lay about him with the burning brand.
In a moment, where before there had stood a horde of demons, there was nothing more than a fat old he-badger, who scrabbled and began to run away. The monk threw the burning brand at the badger and struck him on the rear, burning its tail fur and singeing its rump. The badger howled in pain, and vanished into the night.
At dawn the monk was half-woken from his sleep by a whispering voice from behind him.
"I wished to say sorry," said the voice. "It was a wager between the badger and me."
The monk said nothing.
"The badger has fled to another province, his tail burned and his dignity in shreds," said the girl's voice. "I shall also leave, if you desire it. But I have lived all my life in a den above the waterfall, by the twisted pine, and it would hurt me to leave."
"Then stay," said the monk, "if you will play no more of your foolish fox tricks upon me."
"Of course," said the whispering girl's voice behind him, and soon the monk returned to dreams. Whe he woke properly, an hour later, the monk found fox-footprints on the matting of his room.
The monk caught sight of the fox from time to time, slipping through the undergrowth, and the sight of her always made him smile.
He did not know that the fox had fallen violently in love with him, when she came to tell him she was sorry, or perhaps before, when he had picked her up from the muddy courtyard and taken her inside to dry herself by the fire. But whenever it had happened, it was unquestionably true that the fox was in love with the young monk.
And that was to be the cause of much misery in the time to come. Much misery and heartbreak, and of a strange journey.
Now in those days there were many things walking the earth that we rarely see openly today. There were ghosts and daemons, and spirits of all kinds; there were beast gods and little gods and great gods; there were all manner of entities, beings and wraiths and creatures, both kind and malevolent.
The fox was hunting on the mountainside one night, after the moon had set and the night was at its darkest, when she saw, by a blasted pine tree, several bluish lights glimmering. Quiet and quick as a shadow she slipped toward them. As she approached, the lights resolved themselves into strange creatures, neither alive nor dead, which glowed with the flickering blue of marsh gas.
The creatures were talking to each other in low voices.
"So we are commanded," said the first creature, blue flame glistening on its naked skin, "and the monk shall die."
The fox stopped moving then, and concealed herself behind a clump of trees.
"Aye", said the second, its teeth sharp as knives. "Our master, who is a Yin-Yang Diviner of great power, from his studies of the stars and of the patterns of the earth, has seen that, come the next full of the moon, either he or the monk shall be dead -- and if it is not the monk, then it must be our master."
"How, then, shall he die?" asked the third creature, its eyes shining with blue flame. "Hush! Is there anything listening to our counsel? For I feel eyes upon me."
The fox held her breath, and pushed her belly down into the earth, and lay still. The three creatures rose higher into the air and stared down at the dark woods. "There is nothing here but a dead fox," said the first creature.
A fly alighted on the fox's forehead, and walked, slowly, down to the tip of her muzzle. She resisted the urge to snap at it; instead she just lay there, eyes unfocused and blank, a dead thing.
"This is what our master intends," said the first of the creatures. "For three nights running, the monk shall have evil dreams. On the first night the monk shall dream of a box. On the second night he shall dream of a black key. On the third night he shall dream that he unlocks the box with the key. When, in his dream, he opens the box, he shall lose all connection to this world, and without food, and without water, he shall die soon enough. His death will not be held to our master's conscience." And then it looked about one more time. "Can you be certain that we are not overheard?"
The fly crawled onto the fox's eyeball. She did not blink, although the tickling felt like madness in her mind.
"What could hear us?" asked the second of the creatures. "A fox's corpse?" And it laughed, high and distant.
"But it would not matter if someone did hear us," said the first of them, "for if someone did overhear us, and spoke of what he heard to another, no sooner would the first word leave his mouth than his heart will burst in his breast."
A cold wind blew over the mountaintop. The sky began to lighten in the east.
"But is there no way the monk can escape his fate?" said the third.
"Only one way," said the second.
The fox strained to hear another word, but there was nothing, no more words were spoken. All she could hear was the whisper of the wind as it stirred the fallen leaves, the sighing of the trees as they breathed and swayed in the wind and the distant ting ting of wind chimes in the little temple.
She lay there stiff as a fallen branch until the sun was high in the sky. Then she swished her tail, and snapped at the ants who were crawling over her paw; she made her way down the side of the mountain, until she reached her den. It was cool in her den, and dark, and it smelled of earth, and in the back of the fox's den was her most precious thing.
She had found it several years ago, tangled in the roots of a great tree; so she had dug, and chewed, and dug some more, for days, until she had it out of the ground, and then she had licked it clean with her pink tongue, and had polished it with her own fur, and she had taken it back to her den, where she had venerated it and cared for it. It was her treasure. It was very old, and it had come from a far country.
It was a carving of a dragon, carved from jade, and its eyes were tiny red stones.
The dragon brought her comfort. In the gloom of her den its ruby eyes glowed, casting a warm radiance.
The fox picked her treasure up in her mouth, carrying it as gently as she would have carried one of her own kits.
She carried the statue in her mouth for many miles, until she came to a cliff at the edge of the sea. She could hear seagulls screaming above her, and the pounding of the cold waves on the rocks below her. She could taste the salt on the air.
"For this is my most precious possession," she thought. "And I give it up, give it to the sea, and all I ask is the knowledge of how to save the life of the monk. For if I do nothing he shall dream of a box, and then of a key, and then of a key opening the box, and then she will be dead."
And then she nuzzled the pale jade statue over the cliff-edge, gently, and watched it tumble hundreds of feet into the churning sea. Then she sighed, for the little statue of the dragon had brought serenity and peace to her den.
Then she walked the miles back to her den and, tired beyond all imagining, she slept.
This was the dream the fox dreamed.
She was in a barren place of grey rock and brown rock, where nothing grew. The sky was grey as well, neither light nor dark. Poised on a great rock in front of her was a huge fox, jet black from the tip of its muzzle to almost the end of its tail, which was as white as if it had been dipped into a paint-pot. It was bigger than a tiger, bigger than a war-horse, bigger than any creature the fox had ever seen.
It stood on a rock as if it were waiting for something, and its eyes were dark pits in which distant stars glinted and burned.
The fox clambered and sprang from rock to rock until she stood in front of the fox of dreams, and she prostrated herself in front of him, rolling over to show him her throat.
Stand, said the great fox. Stand and have no fear. You gave up much to dream this dream, child.
The fox got to her feet. In her dream she was not shaking, although she was more scared than any little fox has ever been.
"My dragon," she asked. "Was it yours, Lord?"
No, he told her. But it was lost, long ago, by one whom I called friend, back before the true dragons left this place to swim in the sky. My friend lost the statue and it troubled him. Now the sea shall wash it back to him, and he will sleep more peacefully, at the bottom of the Great Deeps, with the rest of his kind, until the next age of the world.
"I am honored and grateful to have been permitted to be of service to your friend," said the fox.
They stood there in silence for some timeless moments, in the dream-place, the tiny fox and the great black fox. The little fox looked about the rocky waste.
"What are those animals?" asked the little fox.
They were the size of lions, and they snuffed about the rocks, their long noses rooting and snuffling in the barren ground.
They are Baku, said the great fox. They are the Dream-Eaters.
The little fox had heard of the Baku. If a dreamer wakes from a dream of ill-omen or a portent of dark things, the dreamer may invoke the Baku, and hope that the Baku will eat the dream, and take it and what it foretells, away.
She stared at the Baku, as they moved across the rocky desert of dreams.
"And if one were to catch a Baku after it had consumed a dream," asked the fox. "What then?"
The great fox said nothing for some time. In the hollow of an eye one distant star glittered. Baku are hard to catch, and harder to hold. They are elusive and crafty beasts.
"I am a fox," she said, humbly, and without boasting, "I am also a crafty beast."
The great fox nodded assent. Then he looked down at her, and it seemed to the fox that he could see everything she was, everything she dreamed, and hoped, and felt. He is only a human, said the great fox. While you are a fox. These things rarely end happily.
And the fox would have told him what she thought of this, and opened her heart to him, but with a flick of his tail the great fox leapt from the rock down to the desert floor below. And it seemed to the fox that he grew and he grew, until he was the size of the sky, and the huge fox was the night, and the stars twinkled in the blackness of his coat, and the white tip of his tail was the half-moon, shining in the night sky.
"I can be crafty," said the little fox to the night. "And I can be brave. And I would die for him."
And the fox imagined that a voice in her head was saying, almost tenderly, Then catch his dreams, child, as she awoke.
The sun was golden in the late afternoon, and it burnished the world as the fox stepped into the brush and made for the little temple, stopping only to devour a large frog she found at the foot of the stream, and to crunch it down, bones and all, in a couple of mouthfuls. Then she drank the cold, clear water of the mountain stream, lapping at it thirstily.
When she came to the little temple, the monk was chopping firewood for his brazier.
Remaining a safe distance from the monk, for his axe-blade was sharp, she said, clearly, as people talk, "May you dream only propitious dreams in the days to come, dreams of good omen and great fortune."
The monk smiled at the fox. "I am grateful for your wishes," he said. "Although it is not for me to know if my dreams shall be dreams of good fortune or otherwise."
The fox stared at him for some time with her green fox eyes. "I shall not be far," she said at length. "Should you need me."
And when the young monk looked up again from his firewood, she was gone.
Far to the south and the west, in his house in Ishina-o-kanazawa, the Master of Yin-Yang, the onmyoji, burned a lamp at a small table, upon which he had placed a square of painted silk, and upon it a lacquer chest and a black wooden key. Arranged according to the five cardinal points of the compass were five small porcelain plates, upon three of which were powdered matter, upon one of which was a bead of liquid, and upon the last plate there was nothing at all.
The onmyoji was a rich man. He was a high official in the Bureau of Divination, and many sought his advice and his favors. The governors of the many provinces were grateful to him, and believed his influence and his fortune-telling had given their fortunes or their high positions. He had the ear of the Chancellor, and of the Ministers of the Right and the Left. But he was not a happy man.
He had a wife, who lived in the northern wing of his house, who ran his household judiciously and efficiently and who treated him in every way as a wife should treat a husband. He had a concubine, who was barely seventeen, and who was very beautiful: her skin was as pale as the palest plum-blossom, her lips were dark as plums. His wife and his concubine lived together, under the same roof, and they did not quarrel. But the onmyoji was not a happy man.
He lived in what was widely said to be the seventeenth-finest house in Ishina-o-kanazawa. Spirits and demons of the air, Oni and Tengu alike, were ordered by him, and would obey his orders. He could remember every detail of two of his previous lives. As a young man, he had traveled to Tsien-chi to study, and he had returned with his hair prematurely gray but with an unequaled knowledge of portents and omens. He was respected by those who were his superiors, and feared by those who were his inferiors. But, with all this, the onmyoji was not happy.
And this was because the onmyoji was afraid.
Ever since he could remember, since he was a tiny child, he had been afraid, and every thing he had learned, every scrap of power he obtained, he had gathered in the hope that it would drive away the fear. But the fear remained. It waited behind him, and in the heart of him; it was there when he slept and there to greet him when he woke in the morning; it was there when he made love, and when he drank, and when he bathed.
It was not a fear of death, for in his heart he suspected that death might be an escape from the fear. And there were days when he wondered if, by his arts, he were to kill every man, woman and child in the world, that the fear would be gone, but he suspected that the fear would still haunt him even if he were alone.
It was fear that drove him, and fear that pushed him into the darkness.
The Master of Yin-Yang sought knowledge from the defilers of graves. He met with misshapen creatures in twilight, and he danced their dances, and he partook of their feasts.
On the outskirts of the city, where thieves and brigands and the unclean lived, the Master of Yin-Yang kept a dilapidated house, and in that house there were three women, one old, one young, and one who was neither young nor old. The women sold herbs and remedies to women who found themselves in unfortunate situations. It was whispered that unwary travelers who stopped in that house were never seen again. Be that as it may, no man knew of the onmyoji's involvement with the three women, nor of his visits to the house on those nights when the moon was dark.
In his head, and in his heart, the onmyoji was not an evil man. He was frightened. And the fear stole the joy from any moments of pride or happiness, and leeched the pleasure from his life.
One night, several weeks before the events previously related, when the moon was at its darkest, he had asked the three women in the dilapidated house the questions that troubled him the most.
The wind blew through the broken screens, and howled in the rotting eaves.
"How can I find peace?" he asked the oldest of the women.
"There is peace in the grave," she told him, "and a momentary peace in the contemplation of a fine sunset."
She was naked, and her breasts hung like empty bags upon her chest, and on her face she had painted the face of a demon.
The onmyoji scowled, and tapped his fan into the palm of his hand impatiently.
"Why do I have no peace?" he asked the youngest of the three women.
"Because you are alive," she told him, with her cold lips. The onmyoji was most afraid of the youngest of the three women, for he suspected that she was not alive. She was beautiful, but it was a frozen beauty. If she touched him with her cold fingers, he shuddered.
"Where can I find peace?" he demanded of the woman who was neither young nor old.
She was not naked, but her robe was open, and down her chest curved two rows of breasts, like the breasts of a she-pig or a rat, her many nipples black and hard as so many lumps of charcoal.
She sucked the air in through her teeth, and held it in, and then, after too long a time, she exhaled. And she said, "In the Province of Mino, many, many long days of travel from here, to the north and the east, on the side of such and such a mountain is a small temple. It is of so little importance that it has but one monk tending it. He is afraid of nothing, and he has the peace you desire. Now, I can weave it so that when he dies you will gain his strength, and you will fear nothing. But once I have woven, you will have only until the next full of the moon to cause his death. And he must die without violence, and without pain, or the weaving will fail."
The onmyoji grunted, satisfied. He fed her several small delicacies with his own hand, and stroked her hair, and told her that he was satisfied with this.
The three women withdrew into another part of the tumbledown house, and when they returned again it was almost dawn, and the sky was beginning to lighten.
They handed the onmyoji a square of woven silk, pale as moonlight. On it was painted the onmyoji and the moon, and the young monk.
The onmyoji nodded, satisfied. He would have thanked them, but he knew that one must not thank creatures of their kind, so he placed their payment on the floor of their house, and hurried home, to be there before daybreak.
Now there are many ways to kill at a distance, but most of them, even if they do not involve direct violence, involve the infliction of pain.
The Master of Yin-Yang consulted his scrolls. Then he sent his demons to the mountain where the monk lived, to obtain for him things that the monk had touched. (That was where the fox had overheard them.) And here, and now, the onmyoji sat in front of the little table, with a lamp upon it, and the lacquer box, and the key. One by one, he added a pinch of the substance in the little porcelain plates to the fire of the lamp - a pinch for each of the five elements. And the final pinch was from the last thing the demons had stolen from the monk: it was from the plate with nothing in it, which contained a scrap of the monk’s shadow, that the demons had stolen from him.
With each pinch of powder the onmyoji added to the flame, it burned higher and brighter; and when he added the final pinch of nothing which was the monk’s shadow, the flame burned so high it filled the onmyoji’s chamber with light, and then it was gone, leaving the room in darkness.
The onmyoji kindled a light and was pleased to observe that on the silk square that covered the table there was an unpleasant stain, as if something dead had been lying there over the face of the young monk.
He observed this with satisfaction. Then he went to his bed and slept the night peacefully, and without fear. He was, for that night, content.
In the monk’s dream that night, he was standing in his father’s house, before his father had lost his house and all he owned in his disgrace, for his father had had powerful enemies.
His father bowed to him, and the monk remembered, in his dream, that his father had died by his own hand, and he also remembered that he, the monk, was still alive. He tried to tell his father this, but his father indicated, without words, that he could not listen to anything his son could tell him.
Then he produced from inside his robe a small lacquer box, and he held it out for his son to take.
The monk took the enamel box, and his father was no longer there, but he gave no thought to this, for the enamel box took all his thoughts (although, in his dream, he thought he saw the flick of a fox’s tail through an open door).
He knew there was something important inside the box. There was something he needed to see. But the box resisted all his efforts to open it, and the more he tugged and pried the more frustrated he was.
When he woke he felt troubled and discomfited, wondering if the dream was an omen or a warning. “If it was an evil dream,” said the monk, “then may a Baku take it.”
Then he rose, and went to bring in water, and began his day.
On the second night the monk dreamed that his grandfather had come to him, although his grandfather had died, choking on a mochi, a small rice cake, when the monk was little more than a baby.
They were standing on a tiny island that was little more than a black rock in the sea. His grandfather stared out to sea with blind eyes. The sea birds wailed and cawed over the howl of the sea-wind and the splash of the spray.
His grandfather opened one hand, to reveal a small black key. Slow as a mechanical toy he put his hand forward. The monk took the key from his grandfather. A seagull screeched three sad descending notes, and the monk would have asked his grandfather what they signified, but the old man had gone.
The monk held the key tightly. He looked about for something that the key would fit, but the island was barren and empty. The monk walked about the island slowly, seeing nothing.
And then it came to the monk that he was being watched, in his dream, and he looked around him, but there was nothing in his dream, save for the distant seagulls and a tiny figure on a distant cliff which might, the monk thought, have been a fox.
He woke with his hand closed about a nonexistent key, still feeling that the eyes of a fox were upon him.
The dream was so real, that later in the day, as a cold wind tumbled the first red and orange leaves from a maple tree into the temple’s vegetable garden where the monk was tending the white and yellow gourds that grew in profusion, he found himself looking about him for the key, and only slowly realizing that he had never touched or seen it in the waking world.
That night the monk expected another dark dream. As he closed his eyes he heard something at his door. And then he slept.
But for the first part of the night, he dreamed of nothing at all. And in the second part of the night he dreamed he was standing upon a bridge watching carp swimming placidly about a fishpond, and one of the carp was purest silver, and the other carp was purest gold, and it made the monk happy to watch them.
He woke, certain that the dream was a good omen, and relieved that the days of dark dreams were done with, and he smiled and was happy as he climbed from his sleeping mat.
The monk’s good mood remained until he stumbled over the body of the fox, her eyes closed, stretched out across the threshold of the temple.
At first, the monk believed the fox was dead. Then, as he squatted beside her, he perceived that she was breathing, so shallowly and slowly that one could scarcely tell that she was breathing at all, but still, she was alive.
The monk took the fox into the little temple, and set her down beside the brazier, to warm herself. Then the monk said a silent prayer to O-noko, for the life of the fox. “For she was a wild thing,” thought the monk, “but she had a good heart, and I would not see her die.”
He stroked her fur, as soft as thistledown, and felt the weak beat of her heart.
“When I was a boy,” said the monk to the unconscious fox, “before my father’s disgrace, I would from time to time, run away from my nurse and from my teachers, and I would go to the market, where they sold live animals: in bamboo cages I saw all manner of beasts - foxes and dogs and bears, small monkeys and pink-faxed monkeys, hares and crocodiles, snakes and pigs and deer, herons and cranes and bear cubs. When I saw them it made me happy, for I loved the animals, but it also made me sad, for it hurt me to see them imprisoned like that.
“One day, after the merchants had packed their wares and gone for the day, I found a broken cage, and in it, a baby monkey, too scrawny even to have been sold for the pot, for it was dead - or so somebody must have thought. But I perceived that it lived, and so I concealed it in my breast and made my way to my father’s house.
“I kept the monkey in my room, and I fed it scraps I saved from my own meals. He grew, my little monkey, until he seemed almost as big as I was. He was my friend. He would sit in the persimmon tree outside our house waiting for me to return. My father tolerated the monkey, and all went well until the day a certain lord came to the house to see my father.
“The monkey seemed to go mad. He refused to let the lord approach my father. Instead he swung down and barred his way, baring his teeth and showing his chest, acting as if the lord were a rival from another tribe of monkeys.
“The lord gestured to one of his retainers, who pulled out his bow and put an arrow through the monkey’s chest, although I begged him not to. I carried the monkey out of the house, and he looked into my eyes as he died.
“Later, when my father was disgraced, it was through the machinations of that selfsame lord. And sometimes I think that the monkey was not a monkey, but a spirit sent by Amida O-noko to protect us, and protect us it would have done if only we had listened and seen. This was long ago, little fox, before I was a monk, in a life that is dead to me, but still, we learn.
“And perhaps, with all your fox tricks, perhaps you also wished to protect me.”
And then the monk said a prayer to Amida O-noko; and another prayer to Kishibojin, who was a demon before she encountered the O-noko, and who guards children and women; and to Dainichi-Nyorai; and lastly, he said a brief prayer to Binzuru Harada, who was the first of the O-noko’s disciples, whom the O-noko had forbidden to enter Nirvana. He said his prayers to all these entities, imploring their aid and their intercession for the little fox.
And at the end of his praying, the fox still lay, limp and still on the matting, like a dead thing.
There was a village at the foot of the mountain, almost half a day’s travel away. “Perhaps”, thought the monk, “there will be a doctor or a wise woman in the village, who can help the fox.” And without a second thought he picked up the limp fox and began to carry her down the mountain track that would eventually take him to the village.
It was chilly, and the monk shivered in his thin robes. Large flies, the last and oldest and most unpleasant flies of the year, buzzed about him, following him down the track, doing their best to annoy him.
Half the way down the mountain the mountain stream became a small river, and there was a bridge over this river. As the monk approached the bridge he saw an old man coming up the track toward him. The old man had a long white beard, and long, long eyebrows, and he leaned on a tall, carved stick as he walked. There was an air about him of wisdom and of serenity, but there was also an air of mischief, or so it seemed to the monk.
The old man waited on the bridge for the monk to reach him.
“The maple trees are very beautiful,” said the old man. “So many colors, and so soon they will be gone. Sometimes I think that the autumn can be equally as beautiful as the spring.”
The monk agreed that this might be so.
“Now what is that you are carrying?” asked the old man. “It looks like a dead dog. Is that not an unclean thing for a monk to be carrying?”
“It is a fox,” said the monk, “and she is not dead.”
“And do you go to kill her?” asked the old man, gruffly.
“I go to seek a cure for her,” said the monk. The old man looked very stern, and he raised the stick he carried and with it he hit the monk - once across the side of the head and once across the shoulders.
“That! is for deserting your temple,” said the old man, with the first blow of the stick. “And that! is for meddling in the affairs of hu hsien.”
The monk bowed his head. “You may be right to hit me,” he said, “for it is as you say. I am not in my temple, and I am carrying a fox. But still, I believe I am doing the right thing, in trying to seek a cure for her.”
“The right thing? The right thing?” And once again the old man hit the monk with the stick, this time prodding him in the chest with it. “Why, you ninny, you thoughtless creature. The right thing would be to return to your temple with the fox, and to sleep, with a token of the King of All Night’s Dreaming beneath your head, for it is in dreams that your little fox-girl is trapped.”
“If I can ask this, without receiving a commensurate blow to my person,” said the monk, hesitantly, “where would I find a token of the King of All Night’s Dreaming?”
The old man stared at the young monk, and then he looked at his carved stick, and then he sighed, long and loudly, like a very old man trying to cool his soup. He reached into his sleeve and pulled out a strip of paper with something written upon it, and this paper he pressed into the monk’s hand.
“There,” grumbled the old man, “but you are still a fool, for the fox will die, or you will, and there is not a thing you can do on this earth or off of it that would change this, whether or not your motives are pure.”
The monk was going to protest, to ask why the old man had given him the token if it could do no good, when he realized that he was alone on the bridge, and indeed, alone upon the mountainside.
“Then that old man must have been Binzuru Harada,” thought the monk, for Binzuru Harada is often depicted as an old man with a white beard and long eyebrows; and he will do good on this world until one day Lord O-noko permits him to move on.
Still, the monk wondered why Binzuru Harada would have helped someone as insignificant as himself; and he took little comfort in recalling that it was for breaking his vow of chastity that Binzuru Harada was denied Nirvana.
The fox had weighed almost nothing on the journey down the mountainside, but as the monk turned to walk back up the mountain he found the body seemed to get heavier and heavier. A soft mist had descended upon the mountainside, blurring the edges of things. The monk placed one foot in front of the other, and he walked back up the mountain.
He wondered if he were doing the right thing, helping the fox. He did not know, but he knew that he could not abandon her. He had to try.
It was late in the afternoon by the time the monk reached the temple he had left early that morning. Autumn mists hung like cobwebs, or strands of raw silk, across the mountainside, and the encroaching twilight made the world feel doubly dreamlike.
Even in the temple, in which the monk had spent the last eight years, seemed ghostlike as he entered it, as if it were somehow now an imaginary place. The brazier was almost cold; the monk added charcoal to it, and he cooked his rice over it, roasting some thinly-sliced gourd to accompany it.
Then he made his evening devotions, although he made them with slightly less enthusiasm than usual. It is one thing to pray; it is another to pray to entities who might not only be listening, but who will search you out on the road and beat you across the head with sticks if you say something that offends them.
In the flickering light of the brazier, the monk experienced a strange illusion - it occurred to him that a scrap of his shadow was missing, gone as if it had been torn away.
The fox slept like a dead thing.
The fox was so small. He ran his hand across the softness of her fur. Then he inspected the strip of parchment that Binzuru Harada had given him. He could not read what was written there: the characters seemed to twist and shimmer as he looked at them, like characters in a dream.
The monk put the fox in his robe, so that the heat of his body would keep her warm, and perhaps keep her alive. He lay down on his sleeping mat, and placed the slip of paper beneath his pillow, and worn out from his walk first down the mountain and then up the mountain, he slept.