The Farmgirl and the Kitsune

THE FARMGIRL AND THE KITSUNE Illustration

The Farmgirl and the Kitsune

Patrick J. Hurley

 

In a land far away, where dragon sages watch the stars and turtle gods rule the rivers, there was a girl named Ishiko, the only child of a prosperous farmer. She was small and quick, taking after her father, and smart and stubborn, taking after her mother.

One day, as Ishiko played among the rice fields, she heard an animal cry out in pain. She followed the cries to the edge of her father’s field that bordered the dark wood, a place she’d been told by her parents never to go.

Of course, Ishiko had explored the dark wood many times and had become quite familiar with its secrets. Though her parents warned her of evil spirits, of tengu in the high trees and yokai under the hills, Ishiko had only ever seen black squirrels and skittish raccoons.

The cry echoed again most piteously, and Ishiko couldn’t help herself. She left her father’s fields, running along a twisty path to a small hillock beside a creek. There she found a white fox curled up in the dirt, moaning in pain. The creature’s left hind leg had been trapped in an evil-looking snare.

By its white fur and many tails, Ishiko knew this was no ordinary fox. She’d heard legends of the kitsune, the mischievous fox spirits who served the gods of river and sky, who worked mischief on men and women of the field and plains.

“Help, help! Release me from this snare,” the white fox called out. Now Ishiko knew for sure that this was a kitsune, for no other animal she’d met in the dark wood was capable of speech. She wanted to help, but she remembered stories her mother had told before bedtime of the kitsune and their trickery.

“I’m sorry for your trouble,” Ishiko said, “but how do I know this isn’t a trick? That you won’t bite and possess me as soon as I release you?”

The kitsune’s eyes rolled, whether from pain or annoyance, Ishiko couldn’t say. The clamp appeared to tighten around the its leg, and the creature whined softly.

“What can I say to convince you?” whispered the kitsune.

“Swear to me,” Ishiko said firmly. “Swear by the stars in the sky, by your name, and by the lord of the waxing moon, that you aren’t trying to trick me.”

Without hesitation, the kitsune quickly said, “I swear by the stars in the sky; I swear by my name, and by the lord of the waxing moon, that I’m not trying to ensnare you, child.”

That was good enough for Ishiko. But before the farmgirl could examine the snare around the kitsune’s ankle, she heard loud footsteps and the sound of harsh laughter from further within the dark wood.

“Quickly!” the kitsune whined. “They are coming and I must be away!”

“Who is coming?” Ishiko asked.

“The tengu hunters,” the kitsune said, shivering. “Demon poachers from the places where the walls of the world are thin.”

“What must I do to free you?” Ishiko asked.

“The snare requires the blood of an innocent to unclench its jaws,” the kitsune said. Though she wore the form of a fox, Ishiko could feel the kitsune wondering just how innocent Ishiko actually was. As if to prove herself, the farmgirl slashed her thumb on the thorn of a nearby bramble and held it over the snare. As her red blood dripped upon the black metal, it shivered once, then withered way.

“Now run!” the kitsune said, and vanished into thin air. Ishiko didn’t need to be told twice. She could hear the footsteps drawing closer, the guttural laughter growing louder. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her, using all the secret paths she knew to escape the tengu hunters. As she fled, the sound of their following footsteps faded. Soon she could see the outline of her family’s house beyond the trees, familiar and beautiful against the setting sun. Breathing a sigh of relief, Ishiko stepped out of the dark wood and into the open. That was when a heavy clawed hand clamped down on her shoulder.

She was spun around roughly and found herself face to face with a tengu hunter. The fell creature had bulbous, yellow eyes, a giant curved nose, black fangs biting into its purple lips, and green hair covering its armored body. On either side of it, two more of the creatures loomed.

“Well, well, sweetmeat. Why do you run from us?” the tengu asked with a voice as hideous as its face.

Even though Ishiko was very afraid, she managed to keep her face composed. “I do not run from you, tengu-sama. I didn’t even know you were in the dark wood. It was getting late, and I was in a hurry to get home, to sup with my father and mother.”

“It is too bad you weren’t quicker, little thief,” cackled the demon poacher, and his comrades, who were even more hideous than he, laughed with him.

“I don’t know what you mean, tengu-sama,” Ishiko lied. “I am no thief.”

“You mean, you haven’t seen a little white fox this day?”

“No sir. If I had, I’d leave well enough alone, for it is known that kitsune are very dangerous.”

The tengu stared at her. “Strange then, that her smell is all over you. Stranger still, that we smelled your blood on the ruins of our poor, broken snare.”

Ishiko said nothing.

“You should have left well enough alone, little sweetmeat. Everyone knows that kitsune are faithless and treacherous. Still, our day is not a total loss. A girlchild will make fine supper, will it not?”

The other two other tengu crowed in agreement. As they howled, the field grew dark around them.

The tengu hunter dropped Ishiko and spun about, a glowing sword suddenly in hand. A mist covered the ground at their feet.

“Who goes there?” the tengu hunter shouted. “What foul magic is this?”

“It is not wise,” the kitsune’s voice called out from everywhere and nowhere, “to hunt one of the fox people, and even less wise to threaten those to whom they owe a debt.”

“You think we’re scared of you, you moonfox!?” the tengu hunter growled, waving his sword in a figure eight. “When I find you, I’m going to—“

But he never finished his threat. Out of the mist came a blur of white, and suddenly, the demon poacher fell to his knees, clutching at the bloody ruins of his throat.

The other two tengu snatched up their friend and fled, shrieking curses and promises of retribution.

The darkness fell away, and before Ishiko stood a pale young girl with white hair, about her age.

“Come, I will walk you home and explain to your parents.”

This, the kitsune did and from that time forward, she became a friend and guardian to the farmgirl. If Ishiko’s parents were upset that their daughter had disobeyed their prohibition of the dark wood, it was outweighed by the joy of her having gained such a powerful patron.

The years passed, and Ishiko grew to be very lovely. Since she stood to inherit the farm from her parents, her father received numerous proposals of marriage from other families in their village. However, there was only one man Ishiko wished to marry: Tatsuya, the son of the prefect across the river, whom she’d loved since she was a little girl.

Both her parents and the kitsune knew of her desire and were troubled by it. Her parents felt Tatsuya was too high above Ishiko’s station. The kitsune cared little for stations, but she thought the young man smelled funny and didn’t trust his smile.

On the eve of Ishiko’s sixteenth birthday, the kitsune appeared before the farmgirl as a white fox. “This is the last time I can visit you as your guardian,” the kitsune said. “For after today, you shall be a woman, and though you will always be my friend, you must make your own way in the world.”

Ishiko hugged the kitsune, burying her face in the her friend’s soft, white fur.

“I have a gift for you,” the kitsune said, once Ishiko released her, “granted to me by my own patron, the lord of the waxing moon. On this night, you may ask one wish of me.”

Ishiko gasped. “Do you mean it?”

“I do mean it. My hope is that you will use this gift to open your eyes and gain the wisdom that comes with being a woman.”

Ishiko gazed across the river. “I wish for Tatsuya, the prefect’s son to love me with all his heart, unconditionally.”

After a hesitation that seemed to last both an instant and a lifetime, the kitsune answered, “I will grant this wish for you, my friend.” Her voice sounded more formal than Ishiko had ever heard before. “If you are sure.”

“I am,” Ishiko said immediately.

“Then so be it,” the kitsune pronounced, and a fine akita hunting hound now crouched where Ishiko stood. The hound whined for a moment, as if confused, but the kitsune placed her right forepaw on the akita’s head and said, “Hush,” and the akita fell silent, sitting on its haunches and waiting.

Glancing around to make sure they were unseen, the kitsune opened a path to the thin places. She shepherded the akita down the path, which closed behind them.

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Now, it was well known that the prefect’s son Tatsuya was, above all things, a passionate hunter. He shirked his studies and neglected to maintain his father’s estate, instead spending days at a time on his horse with his hounds and hunting companions. If there was one thing that Tatsuya loved and treated well, it was his hunting hounds, which were the finest in all the land.

One day, not long after the kitsune had disappeared with her friend, an old wandering peddler came to the estates of Tatsuya’s father, advertising trinkets of jade and ivory. Tatsuya’s family received the peddler in their main hall, allowing him to display his works on a rolled out sheet of flat bamboo.

The peddler was odd-looking, it must be said. His robes were bulky and fit poorly, so that one could not tell his shape. His face was mostly hidden by the shade of his wide-brimmed hat and a long white beard that fell down to his waist. When he spoke, it was in a whisper so soft one had to strain to catch his words.

The prefect examined the old tinker’s goods, picking out several trinkets that caught his eye. Tatsuya paid little attention to the statuettes his father loved, but couldn’t help but notice the fine akita hound the old man kept at his side.

As his father haggled over the price of his purchase, Tatsuya studied the akita closely. More and more, he became convinced that she was exactly the kind of hunting hound he’d been looking for. The strong jaw, thick neck, and firm haunches would be a perfect addition to his pack, and Tatsuya could see the fierce intelligence behind her eyes as well.

He asked the peddler how much it would cost to purchase this akita. The old man protested that the akita was his friend and companion, that she was without price.

At that, Tatsuya smiled and said that everything had a price. The peddler only had to name it, and Tatsuya would pay. Behind him, the prefect nodded approvingly. He liked it when his son showed spirit.

The peddler bowed and named a high price. Tatsuya’s father clapped, and bags of coins and gemstones were brought out and given to the peddler, who left immediately. Had either of the man been watching the peddler as he left, they might have noticed the smallest tip of a fox’s tail poke out from the bulky and shapeless robes the peddler wore, but they were neither of them observant men.

And so the akita with the intelligent eyes was given to the care of Tatsuya the prefect’s son. Never had a hunting hound been as well-treated and well-loved as Tatsuya loved his akita. He took her with him everywhere, doted on her with treats, delighted in how quickly she learned all his commands and how well she took over his pack of hunting hounds.

The akita, for her part, was less pleased with the arrangement. This was not what she’d meant with her wish. Though well loved, she still had to eat scraps and offal with the other hounds, obey all commands, and kill prey. At least she didn’t have to sleep in the kennels with the rest of the pack. As Tatsuya’s favorite, he allowed her to sleep at the foot of his bed.

Her one consolation was that Tatsuya did take her almost everywhere: his trips to the city, his hunts, his visits with friends. Yes, the prefect’s son was a bit lazy, and never seemed to take anything seriously, but he was kind to his parents, treated the servants fairly, and absolutely doted on the akita.

There was only one thing that bothered her, a persistent, nagging question, as troublesome to her as a flea she couldn’t scratch. Once every month or so, Tatsuya would leave his parents’ estate for three days. Though he claimed he was hunting with friends, he never took the akita, nor any of the other hounds with him on these trips. The akita wondered where Tatsuya went and why he smelled so strange when he returned. She decided she would see for herself.

The next time Tatsuya went on his trip, the akita waited until nightfall, then released herself from her pen, ignoring the dull whines of her packmates as she fled the estate and picked up Tatsuya’s familiar scent.

She followed it off of his father’s lands, past her own parents’ farm, and into the dark wood. Soon she caught sight of the prefect’s son making his way through the trees. Deeper and deeper, the akita followed Tatsuya into the dark wood, deeper than she had ever dared venture as a little girl. As the moon rose above the rustling trees, Tatsuya entered into a shadowed valley and came upon a hunting lodge tucked into the very far end beneath the shadows of the high surrounding cliffs. Its walls were constructed from black ironwood and covered with innumerable pelts and skins. The blood-red tiled roof was lined with skulls of every sort of animal, even, the akita saw, the skulls of men and women.

The lights in the lodge were already lit, and the akita watched as the door opened to receive Tatsuya, calling out his name amidst coarse laughter and harsh cries.

With her sharp eyes and canine senses, the akita could tell that the place was warded by magic, much different than what the prefect, a skilled onmyoji, used to keep the homes in his prefecture safe.

Who, she wondered, had created this place? It could not have been Tatsuya himself. He had no discipline for study, and had never shown any interest in following his father’s path.

From inside came a dull, repetitive drumming, like the heartbeat of an ancient elder god. Harsh laugher and screams of pain punctuated the silence between the drumbeats, along with the occasional clink of a glass or a loud belch. From the stone chimney on the far end of the lodge, a foul green smoke writhed out, looking like a clawed hand reaching toward the moonlit sky. There were no windows in the lodge. The dull orange light within only escaped through the cracks in ironwood logs. Using her nose, the akita carefully parted the pelts covering the outer walls and peered through one of the cracks.

For some time, all she could do was stare, unable to believe the horrors that were taking place on the other side. She almost howled, but kept silent, and thanked all the gods there had ever been that she had not married Tatsuya.

“So now you see.”

Startled, the akita turned to see a silver-white fox crouching beside her. She had not seen her friend the kitsune since the day she had been transformed. Staring at the beautiful fox spirit now, the akita felt a mix of anger, fear, and relief.

She had no time to say anything, for at that moment, both of them heard the sound of the front door being opened. Faster than the wind, both akita and kitsune sprinted into the dark wood, further and further away from the lodge, until finally they were on the border of the lands of mortals. After making sure they were alone, they lay down to get their breath back.

“Why couldn’t you just tell me?” the akita said, speaking in the silent language of animals.

“You had to see it for yourself,” the kitsune answered. “You were so in love with the idea of Tatsuya, you would not have believed me otherwise.”

The akita was about to protest this, but the kitsune cut her off. “How many times did I or your parents try to tell you Tatsuya was not a good man? How did you react whenever we did?”

The akita fell silent, considering this. “Why then, have you made no move to stop these monsters? Surely their actions offend you. They are horrible!”

“You looked, but did not see,” the kitsune scolded. “Inside the lodge, there was more than just the evil of men. Describe it for me, what you saw.”

“I do not wish to,” the akita said.

“Nor do I wish to hear it,” responded the kitsune gently, “but sometimes we do what we must, rather than what we wish.”

The akita shivered. “I saw Tatsuya and the other… I will not call them men. They all wore masks over the top halves of their faces. Terrible masks, with long, sharp noses, black fangs, and purple lips. They sat around long tables, eating, drinking, and smoking opium.”

“Go on.”

“Must I say it? Don’t you know already what I’m going to say?”

The kitsune nodded. “You need to say what you saw out loud. Elsewise, you will forget, and lock away the horror, convincing yourself that it was only a nightmare. By telling me, you keep it firmly in your mind, and erase its power over you.”

An angry tear rolled down the akita’s cheek. “They feasted on the bodies of people. Whole people, splayed out on their long table, tied down, their stomachs and chests cut open. They reached into their cavities and pulled out guts like they were stripping a turkey. And worst…”

“Go on.”

“They were still alive!” the akita cried out, and began to sob quietly. “Somehow, through all of it, these poor souls were alive as the monsters ate them.”

The kitsune nodded, appearing unsurprised by the akita’s description. “Did you see the shadows about the men? Did you notice the golden glint in their eyes?”

The akita tried to remember. “Yes, I think so.”

“And those strange masks they wore, with the long noses? Did they not look familiar to you?”

The akita thought about this. The memories of Ishiko–she-had-been had faded during her time as a hunting hound, but she could still recall them if she concentrated.

“The masks, they looked like the faces of the tengu hunters,” the akita said, remembering that day in the dark wood so long ago.

“That is because they are not just masks, they are the spirits of those very same tengu that nearly trapped me all those years ago. After I drove them off that day, they had been unable to return to the mortal world in their own bodies, only with the masks that Tatsuya and his friends now wear. How do you think it is that these men have done so much evil and never been caught? It is not because of great skill or cunning, I promise you. No, the reason they’re successful is because they’ve been possessed by the tengu hunters.” The kitsune growled. “Had all this been solely the result of cruel men, then I would have put an end to it long ago. Unfortunately, I have little power against these spirits. While we’re on their land, they can see through my tricks and illusions.”

“Then what can we do?” the akita asked.

“We must return to the mortal world,” said the kitsune. “I will change you back into a farmgirl, and then we will find a suitable husband for you.”

“And ignore all this?” the akita cried

“That is the price paid for poor wishes.”

“We should stop them,” the akita said. “Like we did long ago, together.”

For a second time, the kitsune appeared to grow angry. Her hackles rose as she said, “Do you wish to get yourself killed, foolish girl?”

“I am not a girl, but an akita,” the hound growled back.

They both grew quiet.

“What if we could stop them?” the akita finally asked. “You said that your magic wouldn’t work on them here, because they are spirits, the same as you. But I am an akita who was once a girl. They cannot see me for what I am.”

The kitsune thought on this. Here was a different creature from the lovestruck girl who had made her unwise wish.

“If you can find where Tatsuya keeps his mask,” the kitsune said, “we may be able to stop them all. The masks are the key to their power.”

“I will find it.” The akita nuzzled the kitsune. “Thank you, my friend, thank you!”

“Enough,” the kitsune said. “We must return you to the world of mortals. Keep sharp, and keep aware. Find the mask, and let me know in dreams.”

With that, the kitsune disappeared along the secret paths of her kind, while the akita went back to the prefect’s estate and awaited the return of her master.

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The next month passed by swiftly. So calm and pleasant was Tatsuya, that the akita could almost believe that what she had seen was a dream. Yet the kitsune had been right: by naming the horror, the akita could not hide from it.

The end of the month drew closer, and the akita began to despair of ever finding the mask. And then, one day while rolling on to her belly for Tatsuya in his room, she noticed it.

The tengu mask hung on a wall in a richly engraved display case, among other masks, out in the open, seemingly just for decoration and devotion. The akita thought about snatching the foul thing between her jaws and biting it in two, but even from here she could smell the magic emanating from where it hung.

Instead, that night in dreams, she summoned her friend the kitsune.

“What is it?” the kitsune asked, appearing in the shape of a pale, beautiful woman instead of a fox the color of the moon.

“I have found the tengu mask of Tatsuya.”

Slowly, a dangerous smile began to form on the kitsune’s face. “Show me your memory. I must see where you found it.”

The akita placed her head in the kitsune’s lap. “I believe it is protected,” the akita said as her friend examined her mind.

“Of course it is protected,” said the kitsune. “No kami worth his salt would leave his totem out in the open without safeguards. Should any but the hand of Tatsuya touch the mask’s display box, she would receive a most terrible curse.”

“There must be a way to steal it,” the akita said.

The kitsune studied the memory closely. From it, she could discern the types of wards and kanji that protected the relic.

“Nothing short of cutting off Tatsuya’s hands themselves,“ the kitsune said, a plan beginning to form in her mind.

“I’d be willing to do that,” the akita said.

The kitsune smiled once more. “I think there is a better way.”

“Oh?”

“Tatsuya loves you, does he not? That was the nature of the wish.”

“Oh yes,” the akita said bitterly. “I am his prized possession. He treats me kinder than all living things.”

The kitsune nodded. “Then it is time,” she said, “that we use this against him.”

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For the next few days, the akita watched Tatsuya very closely, waiting for the young man to take his mask down from the display case. Finally one night, as the akita watched from the bedroom floor, Tatsuya carefully got out of bed and crept toward the tengu mask. The akita waited until Tatsuya slowly withdrew the tengu mask, then let out a horrible, shrieking whimper.

Shocked, Tatsuya spun around to see his akita limping toward him, holding a paw up in the air as if it were injured, whimpering in pain.

Careless of the mask, Tatsuya flung it on his bed and rushed over to his prized pet, gathering her in his arms. The akita whimpered again, crying and crying, tears rolling down her intelligent eyes.

Murmuring sweet nothings, Tatsuya gently carried the akita to his kennelmaster and demanded he figure out what was wrong with his favorite hound. The kennelmaster could find no injury, but the akita had ceased her whining, so Tatsuya left her in the servant’s care.

When he returned to his room, the tengu mask was nowhere to be found. Tatsuya fell to his knees, whimpering almost like the akita. He searched his entire room in a furious panic, upending furniture, flinging his robes everywhere, but it was gone.

Tatsuya told none of his compatriots of his lost mask, fearing they would bring their wrath down on him. Within days, the prefect’s son noticed a startling change in himself: he had begun aging. His hair turned white and begun to fall out. His skin turned gray and full of wrinkles. He constantly felt sick, and his sleep was troubled by strange dreams. Yet none in his household, not his parents or servants, could detect any of these changes.

It was then that another of Tatsuya’s band came to visit. With shock, Tatsuya saw that he also had undergone the same withering.

“So you have it too,” his companion said, shaking his head, his eyes fearful. “I thought the magic of the tengu would protect us?”

“Do you still have your mask?” Tatsuya asked.

The compatriot admitted reluctantly, “No, it is gone. Vanished from my vault.”

“As is mine,” Tatsuya said, shaking his head. “We must visit the lodge and ask our benefactors what to do.”

And so, that night, the two old/young men left Tatsuya’s father’s estate and took the secret ways between worlds to the dark wood, and finally to where their hunting lodge had stood.

The building had changed since last Tatsuya had visited. In the place of the black ironwood longhouse was a smoldering ruin. All around the edge of the surrounding clearing, foul creatures hung dead from the gathered trees. Though their faces had been carved off, Tatsuya recognized the tengu hunters from their wings, claws, and hunters’ clothes. He felt a dull terror run through his spine.

“We must get away from this place,” he said to his companion.

“Why would you leave so soon?” a voice asked. Tatsuya and his compatriot watched in surprise as a fox woman stepped out from the trees, the burnt remains of several masks in her hands. She was followed by more of her kind: kitsune, yokai, and kami of all sort. “The feast has only just begun.”

With growing horror, Tatsuya realized that surrounding the kami was an even greater number of shades, ghosts of the dead. Ghosts he recognized.

“We already have a banquet prepared,” the pale fox-woman continued, gesturing with one hand. The two would-be hunters turned and shuddered, for there, eyeless, armless, and legless, were all of their other companions, the wearers of the tengu masks, bound on long tables, with apples in their mouths like suckling pigs.

“We just needed the final two courses,” the fox-woman explained. “The spirits of those you hunted have been waiting some time for this.”

“For vengeance?” Tatsuya spat. He may have been a monster, but he was no coward.

“No,” the kitsune said, giving him one of her slow smiles. “For dinner.”

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Later that month, Ishiko returned to her parents’ farm. She was surprised to find them relatively unaffected by her reappearance. This whole time she’d been so worried that they’d been driven mad with fear, but instead, she learned her parents had believed her gone on an apprenticeship in the cities, learning the ancient and noble art of poetry. Why, had they not watched their daughter leave in the company of a most famous poet? She was a beautiful old woman, with sharp green eyes and long, white hair, as they recalled.

When Ishiko asked her parents what had happened in the prefecture while she had been away, they were, as always, filled with bits of gossip. The most shocking news was that the prefect’s son, Tatsuya, had disappeared, along with several other men in the province. The farmer and his wife told their daughter this news carefully, remembering how she had hoped to marry Tatsuya. They were thus somewhat relieved at how calmly their daughter took the news.

“Does anyone know what happened?” was all she asked.

“It seems they never returned from a hunting trip,” her father said, his tone disapproving. He had never thought much of the prefect’s son.

In the years that followed, Ishiko eventually did marry, and the kitsune approved the scent of this man. She and the farmgirl remained close over the years, and had many more adventures together. During all that time Ishiko was careful, however, to never make another wish to her friend.

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Patrick Hurley’s story “The Farmgirl and the Kitsune” is actually taken from his first novel Granters. Before moving to Seattle to work at becker&mayer books, he was an editor for The Great Books Foundation in Chicago for ten years. Among other credits, Patrick has had work published in Flame Tree Publishing’s Murder Mayhem anthology, Penumbra e-magazine, Big Pulp, and The Drabblecast.

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