Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin is not mine.

Summary: One-shot. They say that my mother was kitsune. (Part pastiche of traditional Japanese folklore. Of boys and foxes, of fathers and sons, mothers and wives, and of love.)
Pairings: Should be fairly obvious. :P
Rating: K+

Notes: Hmm, been a while since I wrote for this fandom. (HA. Understatement of the year. And for those of you who know me/still remember me: no, I haven't forgotten about Kakusei yet...) At any rate, this fic was prompted by a final paper I did on kitsune folklore last semester. It's not an exact emulation of such traditional Japanese fairy tales, though I do make an effort to mirror the style and themes to a certain extent -- it's probably much more accurate to think of it as an overall "response" to the stories I've read, as applied to RK. It was definitely an interesting exercise... (extensive notes are located at the LJ community megaoshi, though I should add a disclaimer here that this is not my field of study; I took the class for fun, and did a ridiculous amount of informal research on my own that could very well be inaccurate or misinterpreted on my part.)


Fox Stories

THE MOTHER

Mukashi mukashi, aru tokoro ni...

In Yokohama, before the black ships came, there dwelled a certain samurai of good wealth and standing. This samurai had a young daughter, his only child, who grew to be quite lovely as the years passed, and became much sought after by the young men of the city. Her father was hard set to find a good match for her.

But because she was pretty, and young, and perhaps more than a bit foolish, it so happened that before long, the girl grew heavy with child. Though at first she attempted to hide her condition, the truth of the situation soon became apparent to all. Her father, try as he might, could force no word from her regarding the father's identity. Thus was he forced to disown her, despite his wife's tearful pleading and his own reluctance.

Foolish and young though she was, the girl was not unintelligent, and she knew she would find no peace in this city by the sea where she had been once so envied and desired. She fled as far as her feet would take her, across the dusty winding roads and through dark, forbidding forests until at last she collapsed, in the middle of a snowstorm, outside a lonely village in the outskirts of Edo. There she was discovered by a poor but kindly old couple, who, taking pity on her, took her in, though their fellow villagers warned against keeping an unclean presence in their house during the time of renewal.

Some days after the last bells had tolled and the gate-pine had been taken down, the girl gave birth to her child, a healthy boy with startling blue eyes.

She named him after the deep blue of the stormy seas of her childhood, and the four tall pine trees that stood guard between the village and the forest beyond, rather than burdening him with the proud names of her forebears. And though she was weakened considerably by her arduous journey and her subsequent childbirth, still she managed to cling on to this mortal world... But in the end, she wasted away, out of homesickness, or perhaps heartbreak, or perhaps out of guilt. She did not live to see her child's fourth summer.

o.o.o.o

They say that my mother was kitsune.

I wouldn't know. I have no memories of my mother. She left soon after I was born, and Father never spoke of her. But Father was always a man of few words, so his silence on the subject may or may not have meant anything. It never occurred to me to ask.

When I was a child I often wondered what I must have done, to have driven my mother away. I wondered what I could do, to beg for her forgiveness, to make her come back. Later, as I grew older, I came to resent her, for having abandoned Father and me. But that was only later. For years, I waited patiently, faithfully, for my latent powers to manifest, proof of my mother's existence, proof that she had loved me enough to leave me at least with one final gift. Would it be the ability to sense the supernatural, I wondered? Inhuman strength? Or would I gain the power to communicate with wild creatures, like Abe no Seimei of old?

But of course, I was no Abe no Seimei, nor my mother Kuzunoha, and my childish fancies were nothing but the foolish whimsies of a young boy with a too-wild imagination.

It was only after I was old enough to understand such things that I learned how unnatural it was, how unheard of, for a woman to voluntarily leave her husband and child. How only shame and dishonor could have driven her from her home, her family. How it was whispered among the villagers that my mother had been a fallen woman, a disgrace to her husband and to the village.

That was the first time I wondered if my father's silence was from shame.

o.o.o.o

THE FOREST

"You must not go farther than the pine trees," warned the elderly couple. "You must never venture into the forest."

The boy was a quiet child, and obedient, and so he did not question their commands. The old couple had always been kind to him and his mother, and now that his mother was gone, there was no one else in the world he could trust.

What he did not know, could not know, was that the villagers in fact feared him. For no normal child could have such strange blue eyes, eyes like mirrors, frozen pools reflecting the sky. Though they had kept silent while his mother was still alive, now that she was no longer in this world, nothing remained to assuage their fear.

"Oni-child," whispered the villagers behind his back. "What kind of a child could remain so calm at his own mother's death?"

"We warned you," they would tell the old couple, shaking their heads. "It was ill luck for you, to have brought uncleanliness into your household during the passing of the old year." And though the old couple would always defend him, the seeds of doubt were planted within their hearts as well; indeed, had been there already from the start. So they hovered over the boy, watching over his every move like hawks. They feared what he might become, should they let him out of their sight. But the couple were no longer as young as they once had been, and they had neither the energy or time to watch him as closely as they might have wished.

One summer evening, the boy happened by a group of children playing at the village entrance.

"Come join us!" called out the children. "Come on! It'll be fun!"

He had never played with the other children of the village before, and so for a while he joined in their game. Though he did not know the rules, he was a quick learner, and fleet of foot. But soon enough, one of the other boys, resenting the newcomer's speed and craftiness, shouted, "I heard that you're a child of oni!"

"Child of oni! Child of oni!" The other children picked up the chant, laughing and screaming, and rushed at him.

"Oni out! Oni out!" A stone whizzed past his head. One child closed in on the boy and kicked him down. The boy picked himself up and hit the other child in return, attacking in a sudden rage.

"Get out, evil oni! Get out, get out!" More rocks came flying, and the boy turned, stumbling, and fled, past the four pines, out the village, and into the forest beyond.

The boy ran and ran. Presently, the reaching dark branches overhead cleared away and he found himself standing under the starry sky in a vast rice field, stretching as far as his eyes could see. He wondered whose fields they were, for to his knowledge there was no one in the village who was wealthy enough to own so much land. The curiosity that he normally kept suppressed overcame him, and he stepped forward, trudging steadily through the endless rows of lush greenery. A soft glowing light near the horizon caught his notice, flickering now and then as if beckoning him forward.

But as he drew near the light, it flickered and vanished. The boy felt a vague sense of disappointment, and stopped in his tracks. He looked around, and realized he could no longer see the forest. There seemed to be no end to the long, straight rows of rice plants.

"Are you lost?" came a soft, whispery voice, and the faintly familiar rustling of silk. The boy turned to see a little girl around his own age. The moonlight lit her pale face gently, accentuating the deep crimson of her lips. Her corlorful long sleeves fluttered in the soft breeze, and the finely embroidered obi tied about her waist seemed to the boy like the spread wings of a little sparrow. But her smooth black hair hung long and loose against her back, unadorned, that single discongruous detail a sharp contrast to the rest of her image.

"No," the boy lied. "Is your father the owner of these fields?"

The girl giggled, covering her mouth with a delicate hand. For a moment the boy thought he saw the shadow of a red brush behind her, but he blinked, and the moment passed.

"These fields belong to no one," she replied.

"Oh," said the boy, considering this information. "Then what are you doing here?"

"Hmmm," she said playfully, and then frowned. "You're hurt!"

The boy shrugged stiffly. "It's nothing."

"I'm not powerful enough yet..." murmured the girl. "I wish I could help you. If my father..."

"Your father?" said the boy.

"He was killed by cruel men, who smoked us out of our home," said the girl. "My mother and my two brothers were killed with him. I was the only one who managed to escape."

"I never knew my father," said the boy. "My mother is dead too."

The girl bowed her head in silence. Then, as if something had occurred to her, she looked up again, and reached for something up her sleeves.

"Here," she said, holding out a small white jewel that glowed with an unearthly light. "Take this."

The boy stepped back. "I couldn't..."

"I want you to have it. But you must not show it to anyone. Promise."

The boy nodded, and accepted the jewel reluctantly. "My mother told me I am descended from samurai. I promise you, on my honor as the son of a samurai, that I will not show this jewel to anyone."

The girl smiled in reply.

The boy suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired, and lay down where he was, soon drifting off to sleep. When he woke again, he found that it was already morning, and that he lay on the ground only a short distance away from the village. The rice fields of the previous night were nowhere to be seen, and the forest loomed ominously behind him. But the white jewel remained clutched tightly in his fist.

When he stumbled back into the village, the old couple grabbed him immediately, questioning him. But the boy, remembering his promise, said nothing. What happened, what did you see, they asked. Nothing, nothing, he replied.

But how could they believe him? The very next day, they took him to the nearby monastery and left him there to be raised by monks. The head abbot there was famed far and wide, and it was said that evil spirits dared not tread there, for fear of incurring his wrath.

The boy was not sorry to leave the village, but that night and many nights after, his dreams were haunted by four looming pines.

o.o.o.o

I was eleven when the village apothecary took me along with him to gather herbs for the first time. I had been sick the previous winter, and had shown interest in his stores and in his knowledge when he came to our house with medicine for me.

"You have a bright kid, Shinomori-san," the apothecary had said to Father, near the end of his visit. "Why not let him come along with me on my next trip?"

Father told me once, in passing, when I was still too young to understand, that the old ways were over. Master and apprentice, samurai and lord... all those were gone and passed. As he spoke, he had raised his hand to the back of head, fingering the fringe of his shortly-cropped hair. He was different in that respect from the rest of villagers, many of whom clung to what I could only assume were the "old ways": clad in kimono, shod in geta or straw sandals, hair tied back. Father dressed in traditional garb most of the time, but when he went away on business trips, he wore instead the severe black and white suit of the gaijin men, with gloves and leather shoes and a long beige coat over it all. It was a rather unusual sight in our little inland village, though not so much at the port a week's journey away, where he sometimes took me to watch the ships and the crowds and the gulls and the waves, sometimes white, sometimes blue, sometimes green, sometimes gray, lapping at the edge of the land.

And so when Father hesitated at the apothecary's offer before finally nodding in consent, I thought that perhaps it had something to do with all of that -- the old ways, and the new, and the ever-changing sea.

Spring arrived, wet and gray, then green, and the apothecary, Tamura-san, came by our house again. He took me to find peonies, blooming white and red and pink, explaining that the roots helped soothe the pains of women. In the summer, I gathered biwa leaves for the skin, and gennoshouko, for problems of the stomach, and sucked on dried ume while Tamura-san explained that it increased one's appetite and prevented food poisoning. In the autumn, I learned to recognize the karin fruit, to help with coughs and colds, as well as infested matatabi fruit, transformed by the larvae within them, and persimmon, to stop bleeding, and dokudami, which removed poisons from the body.

Tamura-san was funny and easy-going. He always seemed to have interesting things to tell me, to share with me. His knowledge and wisdom impressed me greatly. He taught me of the gift of life, and to cherish all living creatures. I was eager to learn, and he was eager to teach, and we spent many happy hours together.

Tamura-san had a daughter about my age, and that autumn, we saw each other particularly often, though she always seemed too shy to approach me.

I remember that it was the morning after a full moon when she asked me about my mother. Her question took me by surprise, for no one had ever spoken to me of my mother before. To me, my mother had always been a figure shrouded in whispers and dark secrets, some ephemeral, intangible spirit who did not, could not belong in our mortal realm.

"Is it true," asked Hana-chan, "that your mother ran away with another man?"

The maple leaves flamed brilliantly against a clear blue sky, and I could not answer her. I had heard the rumors, but only now, hearing it voiced in the bright daylight, did the full gravity of the accusations hit me. Later, when I would remember that day, I knew that the girl had meant no harm in her question, that she had posed it out of genuine, childish curiosity. At the time, however, her words provoked a odd sense of fury within me I had not known I possessed. A dragon within me had awoken. Coils of fury, intertwined with humiliation, knotted with a fear that resembled sorrow.

"You liar," I spat, and ran to find Tamura-san.

I found him at the edge of the forest, eating lunch. He asked me what was wrong, but for some time, I could not speak.

"Did you know my mother?" I asked at last.

"Ah," said Tamura-san, nodding thoughtfully. "The fox lady."

I waited for him to continue, holding my breath, my fists clenched at my side.

"Beautiful woman. Never seen the likes of her! She beguiled everyone who set their eyes on her. And yet there was always something strange about her, something unnatural..." He shook his head sadly. "Your poor father. He can hardly be blamed, though -- we were all of us fooled. That was strong magic she possessed. But it was your father who suffered the most from it all! Such a pity no one realized the truth sooner..."

A horrible chill ran down my spine, and it seemed to me as if a pall had been cast over the land. I looked up to see my father, tall and straight and cold, the sun shining down behind him diminished by his shadow. His expression was hard and forbidding. I realized, with a sudden pang of fear, that he was angry. I had never seen him angry, not even when I misbehaved and he reprimanded me, or when he dealt with particularly trying businessmen. Even Tamura-san looked terrified.

"I have come for my son," said my father, his voice icy and frightening in its calmness, and only then did I notice that he was wearing his gaijin's suit and long white coat. He took me away without another word.

For a long time we did not speak.

Only after we had reached the inn for that night, and settled into our room, did my father turn to me. "If you wish to understand life," he said, "then you must first understand death."

During the rest of our journey, he taught me, as he had once taught me to read and to write. He spoke to me of aconite, of the poison of unripened ume, the dangers of matatabi in high doses. When we reached our destination, he took me to a section of the city he had never taken me to before, an area of darkness and filth, of prostitutes and dangerous men. I found a tattered newspaper on the ground speaking of war and battleships and glory, of our country's grand destiny and our certain triumph over the gaijin of the northern land across the sea. My father tore it out of my hands in disgust. He took me then to an opium den, filled with smoke and decrepit creatures with hollow, glazed eyes, and I broke away from my father's grasp and ran screaming and sobbing into the lengthening shadows of dusk.

I do not remember falling into the sea. I remember frothy waves like soft white hands, reaching for me, trying to pull me under the surface, down into great, vast depths. I remember fire and water, and through it all the shimmering vision of a dense forest of tangled dark branches.

I remember my father, wrapping me in his long coat, cradling me in his strong arms, whispering words of apology and comfort into my ear.

His face hovering over mine, softened and aged with fear and worry, and with love.

o.o.o.o

THE PROMISE

Life at the monastery was stringent and austere, but not unhappy. The boy was taught to read and write, and there were other orphans and young novices there to keep him company, though he made no friends with them. But the abbot noted the new arrival's potential, and began to watch him closely.

More than a year had passed when one noon, the boy noticed a crowd gathered at the edge of the forest.

"What are you doing?"

At his voice, the others immediately stepped back. They did not quite fear the boy, but he was tall for his age, and his demeanor was ever aloof and forbidding. They did not like to provoke him.

At the center of the circle laid a little fox cub, which the other children had clearly been kicking and poking at with sticks. The boy glared coolly around the ring. The other children dispersed, muttering silently, but unwilling to cross him directly. When they had gone, the boy bent down to examine the fox, and saw that it was not badly hurt. Life at the monastery had taught him something of the basics of dealing with injuries, so he gently scooped up the creature and took it back to his quarters. Within a few days, the fox cub had healed completely, and the boy released it back into the wild with a gentle pat on the head.

That night, as he was sweeping the grounds, the boy saw lights glimmering in the forest beyond. For a moment he hesitated, but then curiosity overrode caution, and he dropped his broom and ventured towards the lights. Eventually, he came across a procession of shadowy figures.

"Welcome," said the first.

"Welcome," echoed the rest.

"Who are you?" asked the boy.

"We have come to escort you to a feast, where you are the guest of honor."

"It shall last three days and three nights."

"But I have chores," protested the boy, but they ignored him and pushed him along until they reached a silvery grove lit by many lanterns. There a great feast was laid out, with fish and wild boar and many colorful dishes he did not recognize.

A young girl dressed in richly embroidered silks stepped forward to greet him, her loose long hair fluttering slightly in the breeze. The boy knew her immediately.

"I don't understand," he said.

"It is the least I can do," she replied solemnly, then broke into a wide grin. "Come!"

So they feasted and sang and danced long into the night, and when the boy woke in the morning, he was lying in his own bed and dawn had not yet broke, and if the head abbot had noticed his absence, he said nothing about it.

That night the boy ventured into the forest once more, this time clutching the glowing white jewel the girl had given him. The procession met him as in the previous day, and when he arrived at the feast, he offered the jewel to the girl.

But the girl shook her head. "No, keep it. It was a gift to you. How could I possibly take it back?"

The boy thanked her again, but she only laughed. "I only wish it were in my power to help you further," she said. "How can I ever repay you?"

The feasting that night was even rowdier than it had been the night before.

On the morning of the third day, a stranger dressed in black came to the monastery. He and the head abbot disappeared to a private room, where they conferred with each other over sake and rowdy jokes. At noon, the head abbot sent for the boy, then left to let the stranger and the boy speak alone.

"I've heard some rather interesting things about you," said the stranger, watching the boy shrewdly.

The boy thought of the girl and the feast, but silently returned the stranger's gaze without betraying his sudden fear.

The stranger smiled. "I journeyed here upon my friend's recommendation, and I see that my time was well spent. Now, boy: what plans have you for the future?"

This time the boy could not hide his confusion. "I don't know. I thought I would become a monk, and stay at the temple here."

"Unbelievable! The boy wishes to forsake the world of illusions and dedicate his life to the mysteries of the Buddha," muttered the man to himself. He turned to the boy. "Your talents are wasted in this place. Will you not come with me? I cannot teach you the Buddha's way, but I will teach you instead the way of the warrior."

The boy frowned. "Are you samurai?"

The man snorted. "Heavens, no! I am a shadow, unknowable to all. I am lightning, swift and lethal. I am the wind, free and intangible. And I offer you neither glory nor honor, but strength, and power, and this most of all: life, and death, and a choice. This I promise you. It is a path rife with difficulties, and you will have to steel your heart against them. And yet, will you not come with me?"

The boy heard all this, and understood. He was a bright boy, and not without ambition.

"I would learn from you all that you have to teach me," he said. "I will come with you."

That night the boy sneaked away one last time to the forest.

"I am leaving," he told the girl, who was dressed entirely in red tipped with white instead of her usual pale lavenders and pinks.

"I see," said the girl. "I knew this day would come."

"I came to say goodbye."

"I know." She hesitated, and then murmured, "If only I were human..."

This was a strange remark, but the boy, engrossed in his own thoughts, did not hear it. "Would you --"

But suddenly the lights flickered, and the girl and the feast behind her vanished. The boy shook his head, bewildered, and found himself alone, deep within the dark forest, surrounded by a tangled maze of branches. He wandered, stumbling, lost, through the dense foliage until dawn broke and he found himself once more where he had started, at the edge of the monastery grounds. He staggered into the room he shared with a few other boys, and found his meager belongings ransacked and strewn across the ground. The white jewel he had kept so well hidden was gone, and the boy suddenly understood, just as he knew that he would never see the girl again, that the other children had taken their revenge.

He did not look back once as he walked away with the man in black later that morning.

He did not have to.

o.o.o.o

Father received letters frequently, and wrote them just as often. My earliest memories are of watching him long into the night: kneeling before a yellowing sheet of paper, inkstand resting to the side, brush poised in hand, his shadowed profile straight and stern in the flickering light. I suppose I should have realized from the letters that Father had friends outside the village and his business, but it seemed so strange to think of Father as having friends that I never dwelled much upon it. And so it was not until after Father's death that I learned their names.

The first letter arrived about a week after his death. By then his body had already been burned (how odd it had been, to think that a man so cold could blaze so fiercely!), and the ashes lay in an urn in what had been his room. I had not been back to the village in almost a year when I received word from Tamura-san that my father was dying, and I had not been sure whether to feel hurt that Father had not seen fit to inform me himself of his illness, or sorrow that a man whom I had loved but never really known was soon to leave this world, slip beyond my grasp forever. Even now, I could not seem to feel either.

It had been only a year, and yet nothing seemed the same anymore. The village had become unrecognizable to me in my absence, nothing like the hazy memory I had cherished in my heart. Save for Tamura-san, I saw no familiar faces in the dusty streets of my childhood. Even his daughter, to whom I had not spoken in years, had left to get married. The house in which my father had raised me seemed even starker, even quieter than I remembered it to be. The sound of my own padding footsteps echoed in the empty halls, and my father's last words to me hung heavily over every silence, every pause.

When the letter arrived, it came almost as a relief. It gave me something to do. I did not open it, unwilling to read its contents, perhaps afraid of what they might reveal. Instead, I sent a polite note back informing the sender of my father's passing, identifying myself as his son.

The next letter that arrived was addressed to me.

Two weeks later, I found myself dressed in a stiff Westerner's suit, waiting at the train station for a small, compact woman wearing a black tomesode, patterned with cranes in red and gold. She saw me before I saw her, shoving through the crowd, her step quick and light. I knew for certain that it was her as soon as I saw the bouquet of white chrysanthemums in her arms.

"Makimachi-san, I presume?"

She laughed at my formality and insisted that I call her obasan, giggling gleefully when I obliged. She said that it made her feel older than she actually was, though she must have already been in her late forties. She still moved with the easy grace of a young girl, but her age had long begun to show in her face. I had never met another woman so happy to be old.

"You..." she said, looking me up and down, and I knew that she was looking for my father in me. But then she shook her head, a bright smile covering the deep, unspeakable emotion I had glimpsed in her face for a single, fleeting moment. "I'm forgetting myself! Here, let me introduce you to my family -- this is Soujirou-san, my husband --" he nodded genially at me "-- and this is our younger daughter, Natsumi-chan. Our elder, Fuyumi, is busy running the inn with her husband, or we'd have brought them too..."

Misao-basan's husband made me uncomfortable. He smiled too much. He was not a big man -- I was taller than him, in fact, and probably broader as well -- but something in that inscrutable smile of his was simply unnerving, even intimidating. Like me, he was dressed in a suit, but he looked far more natural and at ease in the outfit than I suspected I ever would. Though actually, it was not so much that he looked natural in it, because he didn't -- but the fact that he looked simply unconcerned.

Their daughter, on the other hand, who seemed to be about my age, looked drab and downright awkward in the strangely subdued colors of her furisode.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Shinomori-han," she said, bowing. She spoke with the same soft lilt as her mother, I noticed, but far more pronounced.

I couldn't stand the look of pity on her face.

"Are all the girls in Kyoto as lovely as you are?" I asked instead, allowing myself a slight smile. Sure enough, her pity instantly transformed into a rather endearing scowl, her face brightening, dark eyes flashing. She had an impish look to her, I thought, and I wondered, suddenly, what she looked like in her normal clothes.

"Don't you try your flattery on me," she growled, though from the blush that colored her cheeks I think she must have secretly been at least somewhat pleased. "I'm not one of those naive village girls you're so used to getting your way with."

"Natsumi!" Misao-basan chided, but she was laughing merrily. She turned to me again, eyes crinkled and bright. "Truly, you are..."

But she trailed off without finishing the sentence.

We hired a horse-drawn carriage to take us to the village. It was a long and bumpy ride, but we whiled away the time, chatting about my brief stint at school in Nagasaki over the past year, about their business in Kyoto, the branches in Tokyo and Yokohama, the branch here up north that my father had run, their daughter Fuyumi's plans for further expansion. Eventually talk turned to current events.

"We were born at a crossroads," said Misao-basan, "the passing of an old age. I was too young to understand it then, though I grew up surrounded by men and women who had lived and fought and died for a country on the brink of change. And now the emperor is dead, and all that he represented, and we have come, once more, to the end of an era." Her voice was mournful, but it was not the Emperor Meiji for whom she mourned, though I could not say for whom or what she did.

"I heard the new emperor is dotty," Natsumi declared then, clearly discomfited by what I realized must be unusual behavior from her mother.

"That's a bit blasphemous, don't you think?" said her father, though he was hardly offended at all, and his smile did not even flicker once.

"I heard that he was sickly," I said. It was, in fact, somewhat of an open secret that the crown prince, now emperor, was not just physically frail, but also a bit... slow. "Though marriage was supposed to have improved his health quite dramatically." I directed that last part at Natsumi with a sly wink and an emphasis on the word "marriage", making it clear that I meant something else entirely. She sputtered in response, muttering something about sharp knives and evisceration and really sick men.

It was about then that we reached our destination. As soon as we stepped off, the driver whipped his horses and dashed off in a hurry. I think he found us terrifying.

Dinner that night was quite lively, without even a hint of the gloom and sorrow I had been expecting. I could not remember the last time I had laughed so much. The Makimachis may have come to pay their respects to my father, but perhaps out of consideration for me, they spoke nothing of him, and of what he had been to them.

Natsumi was seated next to me, much to her displeasure, or so she loudly proclaimed. At first she tried to ignore me, but eventually she seemed to tire of keeping her mouth shut, and turned to me while her parents were engrossed in their own conversation. "You're so lucky," she sighed.

"What do you mean?" I asked, genuinely curious.

"That you're a man. I'd give an arm and a leg to get to see the world."

"I haven't seen much of the world myself, you know," I pointed out.

"You got to go to Nagasaki, didn't you?"

"That's just one city. Before that, I basically spent my entire life here in this village. And besides, I don't see why you couldn't go yourself."

"Because I'm a girl, dumbass. I consider it a good day if Mother even lets me out of the house alone."

"Ah. So your mother disapproves. Well, I suppose it is rather dangerous for a young woman like you to be travelling alone... I don't blame her for worrying about you."

"Like she's one to talk! She went off gallivanting on her own all over the country when she was only fourteen! That's four years younger than I am! And Father wandered throughout the country when he was younger, too -- he nearly made it all the way up to Hokkaido!"

"Why on earth would you want to go to Hokkaido?"

"Why not?" she demanded. "I want to see what it's like for myself. And not just Hokkaido -- not just Japan -- China! Europe! America!"

Something about the genuine, unhampered passion in her voice struck a chord within me. It was rather disconcerting. It had been strange enough hearing the rough speech rolling off her tongue in her soft, almost melodic accent, but that had been an entirely different flavor of disconcerting, and one that was not altogether unpleasant.

"So would you?" I asked, trying to distract myself from my sense of unease.

"Huh?"

"Give me your arm and leg if I took you to Nagasaki? Though really, I'd settle for just your hands." She had very nice hands. I knew because they had inadvertently brushed against mine several times when she had tried to snatch away food I was reaching for before I could get to it.

For a brief moment she was taken aback. Then she spat, "Bastard, I never said it was my body parts I'd be giving away! Want me to cut off yours?"

I doubled over in laughter, and for the rest of our meal, she refused to say another word to me. She kept giving me dirty looks instead.

Much later, as we headed back to my house, drunk on sake and pleasant conversation, I found Misao-basan watching me again. Natsumi and Soujirou-san were walking some distance ahead of us, Natsumi chattering away and her father nodding amicably in time to her lilting voice.

Misao-basan realized that I had noticed her scrutiny, and quickly glanced away. After a moment, she spoke. "So, what will you do now?"

The question and the bluntness of her words took me by surprise. To be honest, I had not given much thought to the future at all. "I was thinking of going overseas to study," I admitted at last, recalling my earlier exchange with Natsumi. It had actually always been an old dream of mine, but in truth I had never given it any serious consideration, having always sensed my father's vague disapproval in that regard. But now that he was gone...

I felt a sudden surge of guilt.

Misao-basan seemed to consider my response. "You know," she said then, somewhat awkwardly. "We think of you as family, and... and I hope you'd be willing to think the same of us. I mean, if you wanted, we'd be willing to support you. We could even set you up with a job at the inn, and when you're ready, you could take your father's place here -- we do need to find a replacement manager now that he's -- oh, this isn't coming out right at all..."

"I --" I gaped at her, and struggled to find the right words. "Thank you. I really appreciate it," I said, and truly meant it. "But..."

"We would really be happy to have you work with us," she said sincerely, the words flowing from her mouth, a torrent of things unspoken lying underneath. "But I understand if you'd prefer not to. Go ahead and take as much time as you need to decide. Just know that... whatever path you choose, we'll support you all the way."

"Thank you," I said again, quietly.

Misao-basan smiled then. "Aoshi-sa--" She broke off, then began again. "Your father... He often wrote about you. He was very proud of you. He -- Meg-- he always -- they..."

We were interrupted by a sudden screech from Natsumi up ahead.

"-- off me, get it off me now! FATHER! GET IT--"

It turned out that she was afraid of frogs. I teased her mercilessly all the way back home.

o.o.o.o

Natsumi had her revenge in the morning. As we headed outside -- the Makimachis to make their way to the train station, and I to see them off -- I realized suddenly that my shoes had mysteriously disappeared.

Misao-basan was appalled. "Natsumi! Return his shoes at once, you little monkey!"

I had to stifle my laughter upon hearing that. That sneaky little spitfire, a damn monkey indeed. Despite my slight irritation at being shoeless, I could not help but be amused.

"Give him back his shoes, Natsumi," said Soujirou-san.

Natsumi made a face at me, but obeyed, apparently conjuring them out of nowhere before tossing them at my head with a deadly aim. I was impressed.

"Why does that girl only ever listen to you?" Misao-basan complained loudly behind me. "Fuyumi-chan was always so obedient --"

"Perhaps because the two of you are too much alike?" Soujirou-san observed, mild as ever. Misao-basan tossed her head with an indignant snort and stalked off with Natsumi, the two of them squabbling rather more like sisters than mother and daughter. Soujirou-san turned to look at me and shrugged.

Then he cocked his head, almost boyishly, considering me. "You really are a lot like your mother," he said.

"Ah," I said uncomfortably, and looked away.

"The only one who can find the answers to your questions is yourself," he said then, so solemnly that I glanced back over in surprise, but he was already bowing, smiling serenely, turning to follow his wife and daughter. "Thank you for your hospitality. I hope we will have a chance to speak again."

And then I was alone.

It was only after they left that I realized their presence had filled a hole I had not realized was there, and now that they were gone, that sense of hollow desolation returned, seeping back relentlessly with every step I took. I walked back alone into an empty house, and the silence seemed even more overbearing than ever. I found myself wandering aimlessly through the halls, until at last I came to a stop before my father's room.

Father had never owned much in terms of material possessions, though I knew his business under Misao-basan had been very successful throughout the years. Most of what he did own was impersonal and utilitarian. It should have made it easier for me to go through his belongings, but for some reason, I had been unable to bring myself to touch them. And now, I felt a strange urgency driving me as I entered the room, half fearful, half reverent.

The first thing my eyes fell upon was his coat. That beloved old coat of his -- I could not remember a time he had not owned it. I reached out to finger its familiar soft fabric, and realized something was bundled inside. I set it carefully on the ground, slowly unwrapping the coat. Within lay two sheathed blades.

I had never asked him about the two blades he kept hidden in his room, that I had accidentally stumbled upon once when I was bored, and young, too young to know any better. I had known enough to realize that they were not a daishou set -- we were not of samurai lineage, and my father was not the type to collect such artifacts to exhibit his culture. At any rate, neither blade was long enough to be katana. They were both the same length, a matching pair. And only later did I learn to identify them as kodachi.

They had frightened me, as a child, for some vague, unknown reason that I still could not fully comprehend, and even now the sight of them made me uneasy. They reminded me that there was so much about my father that I had never known, and still did not. There had been so many questions, I realized now, that I had always wanted to ask him, but never quite dared to. What dark secrets did you harbor from your past? Were you happy, Father? Were you truly content with what life gave you? Did you regret the choices you made? And now, I would never have the chance to ask.

I thought briefly, bitterly, then, of Soujirou-san's words to me. For if I knew little about my father, I knew even less of my mother. And from her, I had nothing at all.

For a long time I sat there, both mind and heart in a mess. I could not comprehend what my father meant by leaving his blades wrapped up within his old coat, almost as if he meant for me to find them. I looked at the sharp shine of the metal, and imagined the edges dulled from use and the gleaming surfaces stained with blood. I wondered if my father had fought in the civil wars that had taken place long before my birth, as I had wondered many times before, but as usual it seemed hardly possible, for a man who had so deeply disapproved of the wars with the Chinese and the Russians, and of war in general.

At last, I stood, thinking vaguely that I had wasted enough time mired in the past, in my own useless doubts and half-memories. As I straightened, however, coat and kodachi gathered gingerly, awkwardly, in my arms, a slip of worn, yellowed paper fluttered to the ground from a coat pocket.

Setting coat and blades aside, I picked up the paper. It appeared to be a telegram in faded English. I peered at the words, attempting to decipher them. I had always been proud of my skill with languages -- and I remembered, now, with a hint of grief, that it had been my father who first taught me the English alphabet.

Shipwreck. Survivors unknown. Come quickly. News at port.

As I pieced together the message, I was seized with a sudden desperation, some deep, sudden unconscious understanding. I looked around the room frantically before my eyes fell upon an old wooden box I had never noticed before -- upon closer examination, I saw that it was a medicine box, much like the one Tamura-san had gifted me upon my departure to the school in Nagasaki, but of finer make, and it had clearly seen many more years of use than mine. My hands trembled as I lifted off the lid.

Inside lay a stack of letters.

Without even thinking, I reached out for the first letter. The calligraphy was unfamiliar -- flowing and elegant, a woman's handwriting.

Kaoru is even worse than expected -- I hardly recognized her when I saw her. It is hard to believe, I know. That silly little girl; once so vibrant and feisty, and yet now so pale and gaunt, little more than a ghost. I cannot understand. I cannot forgive Ken-san for this, no matter what I may have once felt.

It seems so long ago now. All that we lived through, all that we fought for and believed in and strove towards. What happened to that happy future, that future filled with hope and promise? Little Kenji now grown, and angry, so angry. Yahiko and Tsubame grown too old for their time. I thought the darkness was past. I believed... I no longer know what I believe.

o.o.o.o

She worsens daily. Tsubame tells me that she often goes to the harbor, gazing out to the sea. Waiting. Waiting for him. Sometimes I think that the promise of his return is the only thing that keeps her chained to this world...

There is nothing I can do for her.

o.o.o.o

Why do people fight, Aoshi? You and I and all of us asked that once, so long ago.

Is it truly to protect? Why is it that we can protect only through fighting? And this war... it is so terrible. What are we fighting to protect? What are we doing to ourselves?

That fool Ken-san. We have all of us made our mistakes, and lived our lives repenting. Was his own guilt excuse enough for what he has done to his family, is doing to his family? But perhaps I have no right to criticize. After all, I too...

If I could have only one wish granted in this lifetime, I would wish for our son to grow up in a world of peace.

o.o.o.o

They are gone. I cannot say more -- it is all I can think now -- they are gone! they are gone!

o.o.o.o

He came back on a beautiful spring morning... She went out to meet him. Their bodies were found together beneath the sakura trees.

They did not deserve such an end as this. Ken-san -- he deserved happiness, and Kaoru too... None of us deserve such an end.

Why is life so cruel? Why is life all suffering such as this? Did we not suffer enough, back then?

And I could do nothing. Just as back then, I could only stand back, watching helplessly...

o.o.o.o

Forgive me. For our sake, for our son's sake, please forgive me.

You gave me a choice, once upon a time...

Forgive me. I cannot stay. I cannot stand by anymore. I will go to pursue old dreams -- to seek the knowledge that might save many. That might have saved them.

Please understand.

I will return as soon as I can. I promise.

o.o.o.o

I heard a story the other day from one of the doctors with whom I am studying, a kind old American gentleman. (And never fear -- he was a gentleman indeed, and no Okina!) About a fox and some grapes. A silly little tale. Perhaps you have heard it before?

But I could not help wondering... Do we go through our lives seeking the unhaveable, the unreachable? Only to turn away when we realize that we cannot reach our desires, telling ourselves, "Some other day, some other year --"

Should we have? Should we not have? Earlier? Later? To wait or not to wait?

But Aoshi, the one thing I realized was that I have no regrets. I keep remembering, and thinking back, to all the choices I have made, we have made -- and though we have often known sadness, and despair... I do not regret.

Truly, in the end, I am happy. I have been happy. And I believe... Kaoru and Ken-san must have been, too.

I eagerly await the day I return to you and our son. Only a few more months, I suppose, but it feels like eternity. What must the villagers think of us!

How has he been doing, by the way? Has he learned to speak yet? Who does he take after more, you or me? I hope...

It was sundown, and I found I could not read on. Instead, I wept, for the first time since I had become a man.

o.o.o.o

THE DREAM

Many years later, the boy had grown to become a fine young man, a guard and a warrior and a proud leader of men. By then he had forgotten all about the fox cub he had saved, and the little girl of the rice fields. Where he was now, there were no fields and growing things, but only blood and death, and holes where things had once flourished but could no longer thrive.

One day, as the shadows grew long in the faded light of dusk, he heard a rustling in the leaves, and turned sharply to see who the intruder was. To his surprise, it was a lovely young woman dressed in simple blue and lavender tones, her hair falling loose upon her back, lips painted a deep red, face pale and narrow. He reached out, thinking to touch her, to confirm for himself that she was real, but she seemed as if she would vanish if he so much as moved, and so he stilled.

"Who are you? What are you doing here?" He wondered if she had been sent by his enemies. But she was truly an enchanting visage, and he found that he could not maintain his distrust for long. She began to speak and her voice was odd and her speech awkwardly accented, but strangely alluring. So he sat down, and listened, and said nothing more.

As she spoke, and he listened, it seemed to him suddenly that they were no longer anywhere he recognized, but somewhere open, and wild. The wind howled in his ears like shrieking, bitter laughter, and stretches of yellowing grass waved all about him like the rolling swells of the ocean. Not another living creature in sight, and a sky full of stars he had long forgotten, and a sense of freedom he had never known. But when he opened his mouth to demand an explanation, she shook her head, and placed a finger on his lips.

"Do you remember...?" Her words were halting, and possessed a certain timbre to them, a harshness that was not altogether unpleasing. Her dark brown eyes were mournful and downcast.

The young man reached for his blade, only to find that it was not there. "What are you talking about? Why have you brought me here?"

"Help you..." she whispered.

He could not imagine how he could be helped by a woman he did not even know, could not know. Nor by anyone at all, for that matter, for he was long beyond help. Angry and confused, he bent close to her, wrenching her chin up to face him. Something in her eyes frightened him, but he could not look away. There was fear in her face as well, he realized. Fear, and grief, and things that ran far deeper, things unknown, inexplicably wrong.

She smelled faintly of rain and wild things.

"Tell me," he said coldly. "Who are you?"

No one, he thought he heard, but her answer was lost in the wind. Her long black hair whipped wildly at him, tangling between them. They fell to the earth together, rolling. The wind stilled and the world seemed strangely silent save for their heavy breathing. It seemed to him for the briefest moment as if he had rediscovered something lost long ago, but the sensation soon passed, replaced by a jumble of unnameable emotion.

Later they lay together in the dark stillness, and the young man felt something brush lightly against his cheek. He opened his eyes, thinking it was a stray strand of grass, or perhaps a wandering moth, but then he heard the rustling beside him, and tilted his head. The sky was lightening, and the young woman knelt there beside him, weeping.

"Sorry... I'm sorry..."

"There's nothing to be sorry for," he said.

She shook her head.

"Cannot go on," she murmured sadly.

"What are you talking about?" Fear swept through him, then dissipated. He reached again for his blade, but this time remembered its absence. "Take me back --" he began, then trailed off, at a loss for words. "Don't cry," he whispered. Then, angry again, numb and confused, "What have you done to me?"

She shook her head again, but no more tears flowed from her eyes. "Cannot go back."

"Impossible."

"Impossible," she echoed softly, and stood, rustling, rustling away, the tip of her red kimono swishing back and forth in the long grass.

"Wait," he said, and broke off, startled by the sudden desperation in his own voice. "I don't understand. Don't leave."

When she glanced back at him, there was that wildness, that frightening otherness in her eyes again, and he thought suddenly that it was as if he gazed into a mirror at himself, but the reflection was smooth and empty and everything about it was wrong but there was nothing he could do about it. And something clenched in his heart and it felt as if it were ripping itself out, tearing away piece by piece.

He lunged forward and tightened his hands about her pale white throat, but her skin burned to his touch and she slipped away from his grasp. "I'll hunt you down," he promised then. An empty threat, and they both knew it, and yet the words had to be spoken.

Do you remember?

There were tears in her eyes again and again he whispered, "Don't leave," but it was too late. It had been too late from the start.

"Choose," she said simply, but they both knew the choice had been made long ago.

When he woke, his blade was gripped firmly in hand, and there was nothing left but a terrible, gaping hole in his chest and a lingering, inexplicable sense of loss.

o.o.o.o

The night I turned fifteen, I had a dream. I stood at the brink of a vast, dark chasm, four disembodied skulls suspended before my eyes.

"What a dashing young man," cackled the first.

"Just like his father," agreed the second.

The third remained silent, and the last shook back and forth. "He takes more after his mother," said he.

"Are you blind?" shouted the first, though there was no malice in his voice. "Just look at him!"

"I didn't mean looks, you fool. He's a man; of course he looks like his father. Or did you think he would look like a woman?"

"You certainly did. Look like a woman, I mean."

"An ugly one."

They argued and bantered like this for some time, jaws clacking, eyes blank and hollow, staring sightlessly into the void behind me. For some reason, it did not occur to me to be afraid.

Even so, I did not dare laugh or otherwise interrupt them, until at last a question that had been weighing on my mind bubbled to the surface, and I blurted out, "What is happiness?"

Their conversation halted with a startlingly synchronized abruptness as they turned their attention to me.

"A woman!" shouted the first, after considering me briefly.

"Sake!" roared the second, laughing along with the first.

The third said nothing, and the fourth said, "Strength."

I tried again. "What is the meaning of life?"

"Death," snickered the first.

"Loyalty," said the second, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

The third did not speak, and the fourth hesitated.

"The way of the sword," he said at last.

"And what is the way of the sword?" I whispered.

At that, the third twisted in midair and looked me straight in the eye. Like a mask, his jaws did not move, and yet I heard his voice as clearly as I had heard the others as he spoke for the first time that night.

Love, he said, as the darkness crumbled around us.

I recalled this dream, for some reason, exactly five years later, as I stood at a crossroads, upon the brink of change. My own man now, and yet not alone, and yet the journey that lay before me was one only I myself could undertake. Brimming within my heart still were the questions I had asked all those years ago, and even more had gathered since then, but doubt and despair had fled, and along with them the desperate urgency that had driven me. All that had been replaced by a sense of calm acceptance, and when the time came for me to make my decision, the choice came easier than I had expected.

When spring arrived, I boarded a ship to America, and I was not alone.

- - -

They say that the love story of a man and a fox can only end in tragedy. But I think they are wrong. Mother and Father found in each other what they thought they had long lost, and they clung onto that one last hint of humanity they saw in each other, a lifeline even in their darkest moments, when death was all they saw and knew. And then they seized those shattered shards that had been scattered to the winds, weaving them back together, piece by piece, rebuilding their lives into something new, something more beautiful and stronger than before, so that even when they were separated in the end, the threads held firm and did not tear.

The day my father died, he called me to his bedside and smiled at me. I had never seen him smile before, though I think now that perhaps I just never noticed.

He told me only one thing before he drew his last breath.

"My son, I have known joy."