... ... In The Beginning, She Was The Sun ... ...
... ... ... julia shiota ... ... ...It began with a blinding rage, a spark, then the thick choking smell of smoke. The wind was strong, easily drawing eager flames upwards, coaxing them along the paper and wood framed buildings of the village. Embers floated nimbly through the air and in an instant everything was alight. Villagers ran shrieking amidst the roar of the fire, emerging from the night as the flames illuminated their figures momentarily before plunging them back into darkness.
The fire illuminated the torii gate that guided worshippers between two stone fox statues and up to the shrine housing Inari, the god of wealth who promises abundance and rich harvests. The inferno caught the red of the torii gate and the faded crimson bibs neatly tied around the necks of the fox statues until red bled into red and the shrine was fully engulfed. Dismay spread through those who caught sight of the immolated shrine. Inari and the fox messengers were supposed to protect them from fire. With the shrine decimated there was no one to protect them now.
Some desperately tried to stamp out the flames licking at their homes, while others scrambled towards the nearby stream to get water to douse the fire. A few young men bolted to the neighboring village for help.
Sawako didn't bother looking back as the other villagers fled, she simply ran towards the fields. As soon as her body hit the tall grass, she lept, landing smoothly on four paws and darted swiftly through the underbrush.
She kept running until the smoldering village was far behind. The fields stretched for miles ahead of her beyond the bounds of the village, reaching as far as the mountains that rose in the distance. Sawako slipped easily through the brush, only slowing when the black smoke of the fire was a hazy whisper against the grey dawn sky.
It would be impossible for her to return to that village now.
Instinctively, her gaze shifted to the mountains, their wide base obscured by a thick, dense forest. To the mountains it is, she thought grimly. Her ears twitched with the echoes of screams that she half-heartedly tried to scratch away with a hind leg. After a quick shake, she pressed onward.
The faces of the village children haunted her as she trotted along, primal terror reflected in their eyes as the fire consumed their home. She regretted putting them through that. At least no child was killed, she thought, which is more than that village deserves. Still, their faces lingered reproachfully in her mind’s eye.
To distract herself, she focused on the forest nestled below the mountains. She guessed it would take her a day or so of steady walking to reach it. Her mind wandered to the beings that lived there, of the kappa and tengu and tanuki she hadn’t spoken to in some time, and wondered whether anyone would remember her. They won’t chase me away, at the very least, she thought and suddenly felt an intense, indignant heat rise up through her chest, burning up into her large round eyes. She instinctively pressed herself down against the cool ground, willing herself to breathe slowly, deeply. There was no need to set fire to these fields, too.
The burning cooled slightly, but the heat continued to simmer just below her skin, pulsing angrily through her coat. But the fire is easier to control as a fox.
The first time she discovered she could change she was in a field like this with her sisters. She remembered reveling in the feeling of the tall grass sweeping along her body as she darted about in the undergrowth, her sisters' playful growls stalking closer. Her paw caught on a stone jutting out of the ground, sending her tumbling. When she suddenly hit the ground she broke her fall with two outspread hands, her vision partially obscured by an outpouring of long black hair that fell like a curtain across her eyes. She heard her sisters’ startled yelps in the grass and pushed her hair out of her face to be greeted by three other, equally bewildered, human faces. Eventually, it became a game to see who could shift the quickest, how artfully they could adjust their appearance between fox and human. Through their games, Sawako gained a sense of what her human self looked like, what features that felt most comfortable on her second face.
But as she and her sisters grew older they felt something start to tug at them from within, a need, a craving that never went away. No matter how much they ate or how much water they guzzled from the stream, the wanting never went away. Even when they gorged on the mice and small birds that nested in the fields, the ravenous hunger remained.
There had been a time when she thought she would die of this hunger, the desperate emptiness eating away at her day after day. She had been sitting alone among the grass, trying to keep her mind off the gnawing ache within her. She had been in her human form, enjoying the wind as it blew through her hair, gently pulling at her clothing as she ran outspread hands gently over the tops of the grasses surrounding her, the tips tickling her palms.
She heard him long before she saw him.
The young man was making his way across the field. He seemed to sense he was being watched as she noticed his body tense, a hand instinctively reaching for something at his side while he scanned the field around him. She stood up, meeting his gaze. His hand dropped and he stared at her, a look on his face she had never seen on any human face before. The gnawing inside her waned slightly. She smiled. He brought her back to his village, her hand tucked into his, and she became his wife. But he learned the truth after only a few years of marriage. That day she had been tending to their home, humming to herself, lost in the motion of her broom as she swept across the packed dirt floor.
He must have wanted to surprise her that day, her usually keen instincts must have atrophied over time. There was a shout, a flurry of fabric, and an explosion of fur. When she realized what had happened, she tried to switch back as quickly as she could, to play it off as a trick of the eye. But he knew. Weeping, he said he still loved her, that he wanted to remain with her, but that there was no place for a fox in the village. She would need to leave, he said, but she could return under cover of night. He tenderly swept aside a lock of hair out of her face as he said this, his hand resting against her cheek. We can at least have that, my love.
She felt his love as he spoke, the warmth that moved between them through their touch, the slight buzzing beneath her skin as he gave her what she needed. But as his hand cradled her face, she wanted to ask why there was no place for her in the village now. She had, after all, always been a fox.
Maybe it was shock—maybe it was the fear of losing him completely—but she never had the courage to ask.
How many times had Sawako, resplendent in her most appealing human form, approached a village in the hopes of being welcomed?
When she was allowed to stay, she guarded the village as best she could—monitoring the dry brittle wood of the houses during drought, keeping wary watch over the young men who recklessly tussled around the fire at night, their eager feet knocking a piece of firewood out of place and sending a hungry spray of embers upwards. She would catch each tiny flaking ember in turn, surreptitiously returning them to the fire, willing them to stay put. Inari would have been proud.
How many times had she saved these villages from fire?
Each of the villages she had lived in told stories of strange happenings, of inexplicable and sudden appearances of outsiders making their way into the community. An elderly couple discovering a child in a peach, a beautiful princess discovered within the round hollow of bamboo. They were welcomed, even beloved. They left their adoptive homes only when some larger destiny snatched them away, leaving an aching emptiness in those they left behind.
How many times had she been chased out of a village the instant they found out what she was? She had remained silent that first time, quietly returning to her first love each night until he eventually passed away. Then she returned to the fields.
Though their love sustained her for some time, the gnawing crept back after his death, pushing Sawako back out on the hunt. It was a cruel quirk of their evolution—or their punishment? But for what?—that the hunger could only be quelled by the life force of a young man. Or so all the foxes said.
All foxes lived with the aching hunger as a fact of life, but Sawako couldn't pinpoint when she began to resent their condition. All she could remember was a constant sense of disquiet, a sickening powerlessness. It felt so stifling, to live off the scraps of life that a single human being might have to offer. What if there are no young men who catch your fancy? What happens when no villages are willing to let you in?
During one of her many exiles between villages and husbands she ran into one of her sisters sunning herself on a rock. Her sister gave an imperious flick of her tail as Sawako settled beside her on the warm rock, tucking her paws beneath her belly and drinking in the warmth from the sun. The sun couldn't sustain them, but it felt good to bask in its warmth. Her sister looked her over, clicking her tongue in disapproval.
“Oh dear, you have had a time of it, haven’t you? I don’t know why you insist on going about this in such a roundabout way, dear. How many times do we all tell you—just make some poor sap fall for you, take all the life you need from him, then move on.” Her sister rolled languidly onto her back, “They will always discover you one way or another, so you might as well take what you can then burn the rest to the ground.” The other foxes Sawako spoke with said much the same.
Sawako’s mind wandered to her other sisters, imagining what it would be like to encounter them now. It had been so long since she had seen them. Foxes gave one another a politely wide berth; it wouldn't do to have too many beautiful women taking the life force of too many men in the same area. People would start to suspect something. Sawako imagined the comments her own sisters would make now, had they been able to watch her solitary walk to the mountains in the wake of her desolation of a village:
“Finally, the littlest one has grown up! My, my, my and it took her this long to finally take some action? Better late than never, I suppose. What did we tell you, dear one—it is better to take what you need and leave before they are any the wiser. They will always try to kill you in the end.”
Her sisters had no qualms taking life when necessary.
"What other option do we have?" Another sister had snarled, meticulously grooming a coat of glorious ebony fur. "Should I go hungry for the sake of creatures who would just as soon kill me? Of course I want to enjoy the human for as long as I can before I have to take the last few bits of life out of him, but when push comes to shove, I will go for the kill if I must." The sentiment rang true to the other foxes.
"The proof is in the biology." A speckled grey fox once commented matter-of-factly, "Why else would we be able to switch only between human and fox? Why else would they find us so alluring? The tanuki can change their shape into anything they like, yet here we are, precision machines perfectly attuned to catch our prey."
But when Sawako caught sight of her human face in the placid surface of a pool of water or reflected back in the dark eyes of her fellow foxes, it didn't feel like an accident of biology. As she stared at her hands running through the dark ends of her hair or touched the fleshy, furless contours of her body, she felt this was as much a part of her as her fox form. She knew her way came at a higher cost, that to nurture the bonds linking her to human life was harder than to simply seduce and to exploit. But something inside her refused to split herself between the fox and human, refused to accept the life of just any human who happened to cross her path. Stubbornly, she did not hunt or kill even as the hunger caused her to chew at her own tongue, grimacing blood through the aching that intensified the longer she fasted.
Dizzy with hunger, she finally wandered into a village, causing a stir as residents hesitantly hovered around her emaciated human form. She collapsed. When she came to, she was tucked in a cot, the warmth of a fire radiating onto her face and the smell of cooking wafting around the small space.
"You are awake?" A woman peered at her from across the room, her attention quickly returning to the fish she was frying. Sawako nodded weakly.
"It is alright, you should rest. The fish will be ready soon." The next time Sawako came to, the woman was mending a large swathe of fish net, her hands working methodically along the torn sections. She looked up as Sawako sat up on the cot, smiling and setting the net aside.
"You seem rested now. Good." Before Sawako could respond, the woman handed her a small bit of fish and rice, along with some vegetables from the local area. Unexpectedly, the woman's hand brushed Sawako's and she felt the familiar buzz of energy beneath her skin. The hunger within her settled a bit.
"Thank you, but I can't accept this." Sawako said, her voice trailing off. The woman shook her head firmly, picking up the net to continue her work.
"You must. We would never dream of letting anyone leave the village in such a state. Please eat."
Dutifully, Sawako ate. The crisp skin of the fish crunched satisfyingly between her teeth. The woman smiled encouragingly at her, deft hands working at their task even as she chatted with Sawako. Her husband was a fisherman, she said, and he was out at sea for another week, so she was pleased to have the company.
"Wouldn't he worry about you accepting an outsider into your home?" Sawako asked, scraping the remnants of fish into her mouth and resisting the impulse to lick the bowl. The woman gave her a quizzical look.
"Why would he worry? You were certainly in no state to harm anyone." She held up the mended section of fishing net against the light of the fire, inspecting each knot carefully, "There are any number of reasons for a young woman to be traveling alone. I would not send you on your way until you have regained your strength. And my husband would feel the same."
Sawako remained with the fisherman's wife for several weeks, regaining her strength piecemeal through the kindness of her hostess and the other residents who would pop into the fisherman's hut to speak to the outsider. To her surprise, the gnawing emptiness within her ebbed. By the time she was well enough to set out to the fields, the hunger was fully satiated.
From then on, she found that she could take just a little bit of life at a time, drawing a little energy out of her husbands, friends, neighbors, all members of a village, returning some back to keep all at a steady equilibrium. She would gently, surreptitiously draw some out to satiate the hunger within her, then return a little back to ensure she hadn’t depleted their spirits too much. None of the humans seemed affected by this method. And the hunger abated.
The other foxes were skeptical. Most felt her approach was not worth the time. But a kindly older fox whose burnished bronze coat shone brightly in the sun pulled her aside one day, nodding sympathetically as Sawako spoke. “I understand why you seek this path, dear one, and I will not stop you from doing what you feel is best. But you must know that your way only works when others want to give something of themselves away. There will not always be those who are willing to give anything of themselves to you.” Sawako brushed aside the bronze fox’s words, continuing to draw what she needed from those around her, often remaining in villages long after other foxes would have. She no longer needed to rely on the life of a single human being.
But the bronze fox's words echoed in her mind as decades slipped by. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to find villages willing to let her enter, even for a brief respite. Suddenly, she faced questions of lineage, home, birthplace, things she never knew how to convincingly side step.
Once, she tentatively approached villagers at the outskirts of town but was instantly cast out. “Do you think you can deceive us?” An elderly woman shrieked at her as she retreated to the safety of the fields, “Only a fox would make herself so unnaturally beautiful. Vain, greedy creature. You will have none of our fine young men!”
That shrill voice pierced her mind even now, as did the memory of the heat that first bubbled within her stomach at the old woman's words. Horrible old crone, she had thought from her hiding spot among the tall grass, watching the humans scamper back into the safety of their village through narrowed eyes and feeling the heat rising within her. As if I chose to look this way just to snare your sniveling, pathetic young men.
She wasn’t so desperate as to settle for the weak, limp souls in this foul village. She’d rather be completely consumed by the gnawing hunger. The more she watched the shadows of the villagers moving about in the fading evening light, the more the heat rose within her with an intensity that caught her off guard. She just barely managed to clamp down on the column of fire that nearly spilled from her eyes and mouth. In that moment Sawako realized for the first time what she could do with the fire she used to simply monitor for the villages she lived in, how hotly she herself could burn. And she had felt the first glimmer of temptation as she eyed that village, before she turned her back on them, deciding to take her chances elsewhere.
Her flame fully unfurled for the first time while she was married to the provincial official. After years of failed attempts to join village life, Sawako was desperate. All that she had in her was depleted and the gnawing came back, insatiable, more unbearable than ever before. Instinct took over and she approached the nearest village she could find and slipped into her human form, still careful to remain safely within the boundary of the fields. And she waited, crouched among the tall grass, until the sun moved across the sky and bathed the field in a heady, crimson glow. Finally, she spotted a small procession on the horizon, steadily making their way to the village. She stood up fluidly, catching sight of a spindly middle-aged man sat awkwardly upon his horse. His eyes flicked over to her figure and he froze, transfixed. She inclined her head just so, causing the setting sun to catch the glint of yellow red in her eyes. He hastily dismounted from his horse, reaching out an eager hand to her. She smiled despite herself. Perfectly attuned to our prey.
She went with him into the village, noting an Inari shrine with its sentinel of foxes tucked near the center of the village, its steps worn away with devoted use. A wave of relief flooded through her. She shifted her attention to the villagers beginning to crowd around, their interest piqued by the official's return. Sawako tried to pleasantly smile away the suspicion and the fixed stares cast her way. She knew instinctively that the villagers sensed something was wrong, but she was too hungry to care. Just for a little while, she thought, I just need to stay for a little while. They were quickly married, much to his family’s chagrin. It had been the coldest wedding she had ever had.
As before, she tried to befriend others in the village, to draw a bit of their life to her and to give hers in return. But each time she reached out in gentle supplication, she felt them instantly close up. Few travelers found their way to the village, so Sawako had to make do with those what was available. There was no reciprocity here, but she was careful not to take too much from any one person. If the villagers felt their energy slowly sapping the longer Sawako remained, she never heard any direct complaints. Though the gnawing never fully subsided, it dulled enough for her to survive. It had been so hard to find this one bit of respite, she feared she would never find anything else again. So she stayed.
Her new husband worked as the administrator for the provincial lord and spent most of his days pouring over documents and darting out of their home to oversee various elements of village life. She would sometimes catch him running about the village while she went out to do the shopping, the man looking for all the world like a chicken with its head cut off. She also caught stifled snickers and snippets of muttered insults in his wake. The more time she spent in the village, the more she sense her husband was not a very respected man.
Out of curiosity, Sawako peeked at the documents scattered across the sturdy wooden table in their home on one of the occasions where her husband was flitting hectically around the village. To her shock, the notes were barely legible scribbles, the mathematics only partially accurate, the years-long ledgers in utter disarray. Now her husband's frantic comings and goings made perfect sense. She had married a complete fool. I just need a little more time, she thought each day as she plucked a little more of the life force from her husband.
Then, she began to hear the first whispers.
“A bewitching!” An elderly man hissed to those who gathered around him as she walked past at a distance, “No, a possession! The man has been possessed by a fox, I would recognize it anywhere.”
She tried to ignore their words, brushing past the gawkers on the street as she hurried along with her business. Sawako couldn't bring her self to leave the village quite yet. She was still so hungry.
I just need a little more time.
The whispers eventually wormed their way into her home. Her husband was late coming home from one of his many outings and as she watched the sun dip below the horizon Sawako sensed that something was deeply amiss. When he finally returned she was careful to keep distance between them. Her husband, whose affections had gradually dulled throughout their short marriage, now stared at her with open hostility. Behind him in the open doorway, she could see a small crowd had formed; her husband's family members, their neighbors, and the most senior members of the village buzzed with eager agitation. Sawako remained within the house.
"The ledgers," her husband hissed sharply, "Never add up. No matter how much I check the figures, nothing adds up. If those above me see what has happened, I will be accused of stealing, of lying! They will have me killed."
"You have kept the ledgers long before we met, my dear." Sawako said evenly, her eyes leveling against him, "If there is any discrepancy I have no part in it." She felt a warmth begin to bubble in the pit her stomach. Do not push me, human.
She could see his body vibrating with rage at her words, his slim bony hands clenched into tight impotent fists. The fire continued to grow inside her and this time she did not try to stop it.
"I was advised against making you, a stranger, my wife. But you did this, you bewitched me, you brought ruin upon this family." At this, the crowd beyond the threshold clamored loudly, trying to press themselves into the home.
"I told you she was a fox, from the moment I saw her!"
"We should have killed her long ago."
"She should pay for what she has done."
"It brought ruin on us all!"
They will always try to kill you in the end.
There was a sudden spark of red and a guttural roar that pulsed outwards, throwing the villagers back through the door and knocking them flat onto the street. Sawako's husband hit the doorframe hard, desperately scrabbling against the wall to get away as the temperature in the house spiked. His eyes grew wide with terror as thick black smoke enveloped him completely and spew out to the street. The embers that Sawako once fought so desperately to keep away from the dry wood frames of the village houses now floated freely, gleefully upwards. She fanned them outwards, letting the heat that had been pent up within her pour out in ravenous, rushing tongues of fire. In the midst of the inferno she saw the hazy smoke-clogged silhouettes of the villagers reaching out towards her, beseeching. Above the roar that might have been the fire or might have been the reverberations of her own voice she heard the screaming supplication, the eyes that stared at her in icy hatred only moments before now wide and soot-streaked as the fire consumed their pleas.
Let everything burn.
In the cool of the field Sawako remembered running past the Inari shrine on her way out of that village, past the smudged smoldering pile of wood that had once been the torii gate now collapsed around the stone fox statues, their stoic faces glinting disapprovingly at the village center. She had seen the villagers pray at the shrine each day, had overheard the murmured prayers for abundance and for protection against fire. Did the fools not realize that she was the one protecting them all along?
They only accept the parts of us they want, Sawako thought grimly, raising herself up on her hind feet to peer into the forest now looming before her. If there were no longer any villages that wanted to take in a fox, she would simply go through the forest to the mountains. It wasn't far now. She lowered herself down to her haunches, her tail curling and uncurling thoughtfully around her paws. The wind tugged gently at her whiskers as she listened intently to the thrush of the grass as the wind slipped past her and whistled its way through the trees.
Something held her back from bolting headlong into the dark forest.
On impulse, she leapt once, instinctively steadying herself as she landed on two feet, smoothing out the wrinkles in the plain kimono she opted for during most of her transformations. She pulled her hair out of her face, pushing the smooth bulk of it behind her shoulder as she considered the forest before her. Was this the only way?
She began walking parallel to the tree line, following its uneven border with the field, weighing her options.
A sudden shriek pierced the silence behind her, nearly causing her to jump out of her skin and back into her fox form. Instead, she whirled around as a young girl darted into view, balancing a satchel on her shoulder as she gleefully chased a butterfly leisurely floating along the tall grass. The girl's face was grubby and her clothing looked worn, though meticulously mended in multiple spots. She was no child from the village. The girl made one mad dash for the butterfly, satchel flopping off her shoulder and small bare feet crushing several reeds as the butterfly swiftly fluttered out of reach as the girl tumbled to the ground. The girl lay still, sniffling in the dirt. She eventually pushed herself up and rubbed her dirt-smudged cheeks, a bereft look on her face. It was then that she caught sight of Sawako.
"It is alright, they can be hard to catch." Sawako said gently. The girl tensed, her dark eyes lingering on Sawako as her small hands clutched the satchel against her chest. After some deliberation, the girl seemed to decide Sawako wasn't a threat.
"I know." The girl said in a self-assured manner, standing up to face Sawako though carefully keeping her arms tightly around her satchel. The child's short cropped hair stuck out in all directions, giving her a slightly bedraggled, impish look. But there was no shade of suspicion in her bright eyes as she gazed steadily at Sawako.
Another voice cut across the field.
"Hitomi? Where are you? I told you to stick close!"
"I'm here!" The child shouted back, holding out the last vowel until a woman pushed her way through the grass towards them, her face clouded by anxious annoyance. Her hair was done up in an updo that had loosened over time, her worn garments were faded with use and clearly patched multiple times. Like the girl, she also carried with her an assortment of satchels that clanged slightly as she moved.
"Hitomi! How many times did I tell you to stop running off?" She caught sight of Sawako, "Oh, was she bothering you? I'm so sorry!" The woman shot the girl a stern look, "I hope she wasn't any trouble."
"Not at all." Sawako said, "I am probably the one who frightened her."
The girl crinkled her nose at that. "I was not scared." She said defiantly, though surreptitiously inching closer to the woman that Sawako took to be her mother. Sawako smiled at that, while the girl's mother let out a soft chuckle. The woman looked again at Sawako, examining her more closely.
"What's someone like you doing out here?" She asked, her bluntness catching Sawako off guard, "Are you from that village that burned down?"
"Did you see what happened to it?" Sawako asked, carefully sidestepping the question.
"Not really. We usually stop by on our way through these parts. My husband had some connections with the rice farmers there but we took one look at what was left and kept moving." The woman shrugged. "We're on our way to the capital anyhow, so it made no sense to stop."
"You are heading all the way to the capital?"
"Yes, my husband's opening a shop stall there. We've done well enough that it's about time for us to stop moving around peddling what we have, so we're taking a shot at the city." The woman said, mussing the girl's hair affectionately as she squealed and squirmed out of reach, "It's not as far from here as you'd think."
Sawako had heard of the capital city from her last husband. How many nights had she listened patiently as he rambled on about its cultural hubs, all the glamorous goods that came from the artisans and craftsmen there, the samurai who dominated city life. He had painted it as a bustling, lively place so far removed from the provincial life of their village. She never gave it a second thought until now.
"Are there many people in the capital?" Sawako blurted out.
"Is that a joke?" The woman raised her eyebrows incredulously, "Of course there's a lot of people there, it's the imperial capital!"
Sawako's mind whirred to life. Perhaps there was another option for her after all.
"Can I go with you to the capital?" She asked before her nerve gave out, "I promise I will not be a burden on you or your family, I will do what I need to forage for food or help you along the journey."
The woman's eyes narrowed slightly, considering Sawako's offer. "Well," She said after a measured pause, "I'll ask my husband first, but I don't see why not. Like I said, it's not far, but it would be nice to have another pair of hands to help on this last push." The woman took some of the satchels hanging off of her and tossed them to Sawako, who easily caught them and slung them over her own shoulders. The woman nodded approvingly, gesturing for Sawako to follow her. The young girl tagged along behind them. They walked a short way to a clearing, where a man was hunched over the wheels of a small chart.
"I'll warn you, though, the city's a lot different from village life. It's a big place. You might get lost in the crowds if you're not careful." The woman waved towards the man as she spoke. He waved back.
Sawako adjusted the weight of the satchels on her shoulders, picturing throngs of bodies jostling through a packed street, the crowds she could easily disappear in and out of when necessary. An expectant thrill ran through her.
"I am sure I will get used to it." She said, then bowed as the woman's husband came over to greet them.