I'm writing this at a small table in a dark room. The kitsune is watching me write it. I'm sitting on the edge of a deep, soft armchair, hunched over these milky sheets of paper that I found piled on the bookshelf. They're a bit stiff, somehow seem old, though they aren't browned at all. The pen is mine, a blue ballpoint from my cargo pockets. The kitsune is walking up and down in front of the two windows, looking at me, looking at the glowing fireplace on the wall to my right, looking at the broad, dark lawn, all overgrown with Virginia creeper and dandelions. She's wearing a yellow robe—I guess it's a kimono, properly speaking—yellow with dark blue flowers. It looks orange and black in the firelight; her fur, orange and white by day, is dark red and a light tangerine.
Here's what just happened. She pointed at my headphones, lying next to their their pooled cord on the bookshelf. "No music tonight?"
"No," I said. "I like the quiet right now."
"What are you writing?"
"I'm not sure, yet," I told her, I think honestly. "It's kind of a letter telling what I'm doing right now."
She got that obscure smile—it shouldn't look right on a fox. I'm not sure, because I have no pictures for comparison, but I think she's kind of human-like even in her face, with a more flattened and wide snout than a real fox has. That's why the smile takes to it so naturally. "To whom do you write?"
I shrugged. "No one, yet. It's not addressed to anyone. I haven't dated it. I think I'm writing a letter to organize my thoughts."
"So you use the letter as a mode of composition."
"That is what you think," she said, turning back towards the north wall and its door, brush bright in its edges, her face lit only by the flicker of the lantern by which I read at night. "Yes?"
"Yes, that's what I think," I replied, feeling a cool touch of sweat inside my Sosa Lumber Company t-shirt.
"You are uncertain."
I thought, genuinely combed my beliefs and desires. "No, I'm fairly sure," I answered. I'm not stupid, after all.
"So you don't think you would send it as a letter to someone?"
"Well, one reason—the most obvious reason, is that you don't want people finding out about you. I mean, that's why nobody leaves you." I hesitated, and then said, "Right?"
"You don't like asking me questions," she said.
I didn't answer that; it hadn't been uttered as a question. I watched her walk to the bookshelf on my right (the room's a kind of small library). Her toe-claws pressed at the splintered black floor under the edge of her cloak. She ran one of her furred, long fingered hands along the spines, apparently scanning the titles.
"I'm going to go into the yard," she said suddenly, orange flashing about her as she turned to the door on my left. "The yard sounds very good tonight."
"Have a good time," I said.
"I will." She pulled the door closed behind her with something not a slam, louder than a click.
I don't think she will return before morning. She wants other prey tonight.
It took me a while to write that, thinking over what had just happened. I have a lot of time, so much that I experience everything twice: when it happens, and when I consider it. When I'm not thinking I read. The library is pretty good in here. I've read a few of the books, but not nearly all—some really good English fiction (English language, I mean), a full Encyclopedia Britannica, one translated Dostoevsky, some Stendhal in the original, which unfortunately I can't speak or read, a couple of really old histories by authors with whom I'm not familiar, some omnibus collections, and a pair of ancient-looking vellum things written in Japanese—I believe they call the writing Kanji. I'm guessing those are hers.
"Have you ever read this?" I asked her when I came out of the guest bedroom this morning. She was sitting in the chair, her kimono draped loosely around her shoulders. Annoying Hiker was curled on her lap; she stroked his back idly. "Notes From Underground," I said, leaning against the wall between the windows. "Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian."
"I know of him," she said haughtily. "I have read none of his writings."
"There's just this one here," I said, "not any of his other novels."
"The books were already here when I took this house," she said, forgetting or choosing not to mention the two obvious additions. "They do not reflect my own taste."
"Can I make a suggestion?"
She sat mute, scratching the cat under his chin. After a few moments of silence I turned back to the book. She interrupted: "Do so, mortal."
I clasped my hands around the book and bent forward slightly, a kind of cautious bow I've found myself sliding into recently. "Perhaps you might want to read a book with me—not out loud, I just mean we could read the same book, and talk about it. When it suits you. You seem interested in humans; I could, uh, maybe offer minor insight into some passages. In the Dostoevsky, for example. I think I know more than you about human society—pardon me, at least about modern American society. Probably about modern Europe, too."
"And modern Japan," she said. She frowned. I had never seen her frown before. It sort of hypnotized me for a moment, her sharp face suddenly blunt and curved, and I stalled slightly before I concurred.
"Perhaps. And of course I also ask because I think I would enjoy it."
She lifted Annoying Hiker off her lap and put him gently on the floor. "There you are," she said quietly, scratching a last time at the beast's haunches. She stood up, brushed off the cat hairs and stretched, a doglike shiver passing from her nose down through her trunk. "I do not wish to do so. I am occupied with other things."
"Hunter?" I asked.
She nodded tiredly.
"Can I help?
"Oh, she is nothing," she yawned. "A little hedge sorceress who believes that she knows the secrets of the cosmos. She is entirely uninteresting."
"I mean, if it's such a chore, maybe I could help?"
She turned to me with her smile as she gathered her kimono up about her chest. "Mortal, mortal, mortal," she said, smiling. "Do not bother me so. I do not wish you to meddle in my affairs."
"By your standards, perhaps."
"I'd end up like Jack?"
At that she dropped her smile. She walked out of the room through the door to the north, the door to the stairs, without saying more. Two hours later she wordlessly brought in some steamed rice, a few torn slivers of some kind of uncooked meat and a bowl of sake. I was sprawled near the brick fireplace, reading Underground. She put the food on the table and left without looking at me.
Jack Bastinado was the fellow who got me here. He was an acquaintance from undergraduate days and a jerk. I'm not sure what his being a jerk had to do with what happened to him; but it had something to do with what is happening to me. About two weeks ago they invited him to some sort of welcome party for this year's crop at Circle Campus, and he invited me along. I was doing a week in Aurora at the time. We were to take the Burlington line into Union Station, but he dragged me off the train at Route 59. He was evasive as I followed him along a sidewalk into some labyrinth subdivision, but this much I pulled from him: he had a person vouching for him at the party; this was to be part of his "alibi." He wanted me as an additional part of his alibi, for the train ride, which was why he was "cutting me in." I couldn't get a comprehensible word out of him, insulted and fumed, but I followed him at dusk to the edge of the Hawson Woods Forest Preserve. An unpaved road started from the tail of a NO OUTLET spur. "This isn't the forest preserve, here," he said. There was a mailbox and a hand-lettered sign that read"Private Drive—No Trespassing." "It's at the end of this." He led me along the pitted road between the hanging maples, without a flashlight, to what looked like the house of the seven gables, except without all the gables and alone in five acres of woods—I'm sorry if that annoys you, but I don't have an eye for architecture and I've only seen it one time.
No lights. The front door he opened with a turn of the knob. "Unlocked," he said to me, winking as though it were some coup. A dark house: an old grandfather clock, still marking time, near the door; a long gray hallway stretching back alongside a rising staircase; a cold dining room with porcelain dishes in glass chests. I whispered about tumultuous entry into houses at night and situations in which the law authorized deadly force. "Relax," he said loudly, as we climbed the stairs. He led to a door on the right of the landing. "You're about to see something totally incredible. I barely know what to make of it." He turned the blackened brass knob of the oak door and, "Voila!" threw it open on a furiously roaring fireplace and a two-legged fox woman, walking towards us, black claws, walking towards us. She whipped her snout towards Jack. "You again," she said in an alto.
"Oh, God," Jack squeaked. "What the fuck. Oh Jesus."
"Were you not sufficiently warned the first time?" she asked. "And what have you prepared? Nothing?" A laugh, a growling smile that showed long teeth: "What a joke you are, mortal! I have been hunted for centuries. No human has escaped me."
Jack took a step backwards, then turned, ran, his shoulder slamming me back into the wall, knocking a picture to the floor.
The fox woman strode through the doorway. "No," she barked. She planted her feet apart and crossed her hands before her, brushing the fur of her right arm against the underside of her left up to the points where the orange met speckled black, the kimono's sleeves pooling in her crooked elbows. As Jack's hand grasped the rounded edge of the staircase's banister she curled her clawed fingers towards her palms as though grabbing hold of an ether, screamed a sharp, barking "ryrrah!" and threw her arms wide. A burst of air, the undulating folds of her kimono afloat, something like sparks sliding along her raised, fiery fur, glinting off her teeth, and Jack just combusted. There was a whoomp and air was pulled into a white, total flame that turned him into a shapeless lump before he struck the floor. He never got off a word; it just lay there burning at the top of the stairs, not smoking, not burning the planks or the walls, and I turned my open mouth to a smile of white canines, bright yellow eyes and pointed ears. She took a step, her black short toes emerging from under a fold of smooth yellow fabric, and her hand raised, articulate, two fingers and thumb curling away from the middle and pointing fingers that reached to my forehead, pressing claws and warm black fingertips firmly between my eyes.
"As for you—"
"Is that silk?"
I have kept count: I have thought over these words for more than an hour at a stretch twenty-seven times. I am undecided what to say about them. I don't think there's any reason I asked the question. I'm not even sure that I was talking about the kimono at first.
Her smile slid from her face and her ears gave an impossible flick. "What?" she asked.
Looking into her eyes, I lifted my hand and cupped it to the hem that hung from her outstretched hand, not touching it. "The cloth," I said. "Is it silk. Your cloak."
"Yes," she said. Her face, fluid for a moment, had taken on a hard, displeased aspect. Her inhuman joy was gone.
"I apologize for trespassing," I said. I think she would have struck then if I had not instantly continued: "Are you a kind of demon? A spirit, I mean? Animal spirit?"
She removed her fingers from my forehead as she shook her shoulders and collected her cloak. "Kitsune," she said.
I nodded, surprised and pleased at my recognition: "Kitsune, Japanese fox-spirit. I have heard of you—of Kitsunes, I mean."
"The plural is also Kitsune, for an English speaker," she said.
"Pardon me," I said automatically, lowering my head and hunching my shoulders.
When I looked up her eyes caught me again. I stared silently, my head empty. Her kimono arose and her left hand emerged, extended to the open door bright with firelight.
"Remove your shoes," she said. "Enter and sit."
I wrote that yesterday evening. It is now morning. It is sometime in September. The weather must be getting cooler, but the house is still warm—the guest bedroom and library are still warm, at any rate.
I'm not afraid to write this—scratch that. I wouldn't have written that sentence a week ago. It is more appropriate to say that I'm not exceptionally afraid of writing this, and I am afraid to clear my throat. I know the kitsune can read this when I sleep, but she knows more about me than a normal person would anyhow. She's very intelligent, far more so than I, and she may have modes of sense beyond anything I suspect. She could certainly see through any deception I should wish to show her. That is, I think, one of the reasons she has taken to me, if it is fair to use those words: I am totally honest with her; I am by now concretely and unbearably afraid of being dishonest with her.
These are some things she has never done: She has never used polite terms with me or used the subjunctive when telling me to do something. She has not told me her name. She has not explained why she is a recluse, or why some humans apparently pursue her. She has not given me an account of Jack's previous interaction with her. She has never accepted my apology for trespassing. She has never explicitly refused my apology. She has never inquired as to whether I am hungry or thirsty.
These are some things I have never done: I have never asked her name. I have never inquired into her past. I have never asked permission to leave the three rooms I entered on the first night—the library, the guest bedroom and its small bathroom. I have never tried the doorknob to the second-floor landing; I have no doubt it is within her power to lay a trap which responds only to my touch. I have never asked permission to contact people outside the house. I have never asked her to bring me food, or mentioned hunger or thirst.
She is of course a total mystery to me. I know hardly anything about Japan. All I know of foxes is what they look like, that they're chicken thieves, and that they're related to dogs; and she doesn't even act like a dog. She's more like a cat. I had heard of the word 'kitsune' only because of my old roommate Avnish shooting his mouth off about a mind-numbingly trite 'mythology' course, saying every culture has its animal creatures. Kitsune-fox-Japan came in right between Nosferatu-bat-Romania and Jersey Devil-Jersey Devil-New Jersey.
When she beckoned me into the room I kicked my dirty sneakers off outside the door and crossed the northern threshold. She pointed to the armchair, which was sitting in the northwest behind the table, across from a small, round, cushioned stool. She seemed to gesture at the chair again, theatrically, as she walked past the table. She leaned very far over, so that her arm was less than a foot above the top; her odd hand began palm-down, with fingers spread, and then slowly rotated and closed as the drape of her sleeve brushed over the wood. When her hand was a supine fist she seemed to abandon her gesture, and whisked her arm away as she twirled and lowered herself to the stool. The folds of her sleeve rippled and whffed off of a small, oddly shaped bottle and two small dishes. They had not been there before. She reached out and poured a thin, transparent liquid into both dishes as I sat.
"What do you know about kitsune?" she asked—demanded, really, staring down her lowered snout at me.
"What I've told you," I said, leaning forward to sniff at the dish. It smelled like liquor. I'd never had sake. When I glanced up I saw that she hadn't moved an inch, and the nearness of her mouth to my face startled me into continuing, "and I think you're supposed to be a sort of, ah, trickster spirit. I think." "Trickster spirit," she said, and I kept talking, tongue sputtering and then sliding into motion: "Like coyote and raccoon, in Ind—Amer—indigenous cultures. They're supposed to be tricksters. They play practical jokes. But they aren't just clowns; a trickster can be cunning. Deceivers. They can—you know, play cruel jokes, painful. Lethal, maybe. They're all predators that I've mentioned. Foxes, too. They subvert social rules and procedures. Lawbreakers. They make things go wrong; they break things."
I brought myself to a halt; I was talking too fast to think. I watched the kitsune tilt her head back and pour the dish into her mouth—she didn't seem to have a problem drinking this way, though I thought that with her long mouth potentially open on the sides she should have. Her red tongue slid along under her upper lip and felt down the edge of a briefly seen white tooth before receding into her mouth.
I started again. "I've been—my thoughts have been lopsided. That's how a human would see a trickster, but I suppose they wouldn't be deliberately disruptive. Humans would attribute evil intent when nature, I mean a nature-spirit, doesn't do what they want, which would be frequently. So the trickster might have goals differ not immediately, ah, accessible. To humans." I felt that was a good place to rest, a point of equilibrium, the hint of an argument with some sort of balanced structure. I cupped my pinky under the rim of the small dish. "May I?" I asked.
"Do so," she said, and she smiled, watching me as I took a very small sip, too small to get the flavor of it, and put it back down. She kept smiling and I felt uneasy—to be honest, I came within a muscle's twitch of emptying my bladder—and then saw where I had ended up just as she said, "So a kitsune is a trickster, and a trickster—"
"Is something I know nothing about, right," I said, racing to get ahead of her, hunching apologetically for interrupting. "And all that was symbolic anthropology. It's just what humans think about themselves. I mean, I could have told you all that five minutes ago, but I also would've said that, uh, none of this could be happening. So, yes, I know nothing about you other than that you're a Japanese fox-spirit." I nodded, decisively, and added, "This is interesting—I didn't say that you were a spirit; I asked if you were. So I know nothing about you that you haven't told me." I smiled.
"Mmm," she said.
"This is a nice room," I said, to keep talking.
"Why do you say that?" she asked.
"It's warm. The fire is nice," I said. "This chair is very comfortable, for me." I looked around the room, the black windows on the east wall, the black-varnished wood with its white insides. I couldn't think of anything more to say.
After a minute the silence didn't get to me quite as much, maybe because I paid more attention to the sound of the fire. My glance became less frantic. I offered a test. "May I look at the books?" She nodded silently. She poured herself some more sake and seemed somewhere else. The books on the west wall's inset shelves are good not only in their content but in their bindings, mostly leather, some with gilded pages. The Kanji texts are manuscripts bound in leather, perhaps bound long after their writing. I looked over at her—she returned my gaze, but without much interest. I walked to the window, saw only black outside, and then noticed on the sill a bonsai tree in a ceramic dish, its leaves black in the firelight. I smiled and exclaimed, "Oh! One of these!" I couldn't remember their name. "What do you call this?"
"Oh ban-ohn," she said.
"It's an o banon tree?"
"It is a bonsai tree. I call it o banon."
"Why do you call it that?" I asked, unsure what we were talking about.
"That was the name on the box before the house when I took the house from her, before she was a tree," she said. "She was human then, of course."
Neither she nor I spoke again that night until the moon slid out over the drive, between the branches. She rose and opened the west wall's door to the guest bedroom, which I had not noticed behind the armchair. She told me to sleep there and to use the bathroom when I needed. And as I was thanking her, she turned and left the room, closing the door to the landing behind her. I didn't hear it lock, but didn't dare to try it—I was filled with fresh terror, now that she had left.
It wasn't until morning, and her return with a plate of small red berries and what I think were the boiled eggs of local birds, that I felt that I had achieved a certain status. Not that I was out of danger. The feeling remains with me now. I don't know quite how to describe it—perhaps, though it is certainly a mixed metaphor, I have been given a short head start.
The door to the yard has opened and closed on the first floor. I hear the kitsune as she comes up the stairs—it is the one part of the house that sounds under her silent feet—
Here is what has just happened:
She came in, her fur ruffled on her forearms and neck. I noticed a tear in the silk, frayed and conspicuous, just above her right elbow. Her orange showed through. "Know-it-all-human sorceress?" I asked.
"Yah!" she yapped, her scream filling the room. I cringed involuntarily. "The rat is infuriating!" she snarled.
She hadn't been here for almost two days, before today. I'm abominably hungry. I was going to break my habit and ask her to please bring me food, but her scream killed that. I felt like I was back in August, a finger-gun pressed between my eyes. "Are you okay?" I asked tentatively.
Teeth and pinched eyes snapped towards me. "Certainly I am well. Do I look unwell? Do I look shaken?"
"Pardon my rudeness," I said, bowing, "but you're more agitated than I have ever seen you."
"You see what she did to my dress!" she shouted.
I nodded. I though I desperately wanted not to, I found this a bit funny. I tried for something commiseratory. "Unfortunate," was the best I could manage.
She paced, staring at a point just beyond the tip of her nose, as though the battle were replaying itself there in miniature. "The accursed little rat did it with a knife, the sharp-toothed little mouse. She panicked when her graceless weavings buckled, and lunged quickly, trying to catch me off my balance." She huffed, looked at me and smiled. "A false decision." I think what she calls 'weavings' are spells, or what have you. Whenever I see her perform something impossible, her hands move with a peculiar exactitude, sometimes with an odd tic or flourish.
"May I ask what you have done to her?"
"I have transformed her into a rat," she said. "I learned her scent before loosing her in the path before the house. If she is wise she will do well to flee before I wish to take four legs again." For a week I have been certain that she can take the form of a normal fox. "If I cross her, I will not kill her hurriedly."
With a sigh she went to a tin box that propped up an old Norton Anthology of English Poetry—it had always looked to me like a sort of rustic-themed bookend—opened it and removed a short, odd-looking needle and shining yellow thread. She is closing the cut as I write this, while still wearing the cloak, deftly piercing and pulling tight, accurate stitches in the light cloth. I have refrained from asking her why don't you just magic it fixed?
My clothes are a bit chill—I haven't let them dry enough after washing them in the sink. I feel on the verge of shivering, despite the warm fire. The kitsune isn't here right now, but the fire never goes out, and it never requires more fuel. Neither do the lanterns by which I read and go to sleep.
The kitsune likes to watch me squirm. She likes to watch everything squirm: Jack quavering out obscenities and calling on his western deity as he stumbled backwards, her (I check these pages) 'panicked' sorceress, probably some goth chick with the Real Necronomicon, scrabbling as she hangs by her hairless tail.
My squirming is so much more refined. I have a modicum of tact. I am the vintage.
Earlier she came in and told me to show her how the CD player works. I had offered to play her music before, but she had refused. I took it off the shelf, showed her the lens, put in Movement in Still Life (I had been taking the BT and Rebel Yell by Billy Idol to the party—I would've shown better taste if I had known about my detour) and demonstrated with a finger on the little column in the middle how the disc could be made to spin. Then I closed the case, explained the buttons, and gave her the headphones.
She had seen me use them before. She held them at chest height, pulling at the high cut-off cups, feeling the elasticity of the black band that connected them. I think she was anticipating problems, as was I: her ears are fox ears, pointed and high on her head.
"Perhaps you can press the halves to your ears," I said. "I do the same when things around me are unpleasantly loud."
This didn't seem to encourage her. She noticed how the cups could rotate on the one axis, twist just slightly on the other. "Make it spin now," she said. I did. The beat came out tinny. "Please inform me if it is too loud," I said quickly, "I can control the loudness from here."
"It is not loud enough," she said immediately.
Vacillating helplessly I ducked my head, clasped my hands and looked up at her. "I beg you," I said, "please put them to your ears first. You will be surprised at how loud it is."
She lowered her snout and sniffed at one of the cups—I wonder if that was holding her back, if my headphones smell like earwax to her nose—then lifted them over her head, trying first to flatten her ears back under the soft pads, then to press them forward, then flattening them again.
"Is it too loud?" I asked.
"No." She stood for perhaps ten seconds with her black fingertips molded along the Labtech logos before she removed the headphones and tossed them, a bit roughly, on to the table. "This is imbecilic."
"I am sorry it displeases you," I said quickly, unsure if she meant BT or the entire process.
She spent the rest of the night peering from the window.
For almost three weeks I have been in this room. I feel no safer than I did on my third day, but I think I'm getting used to it. The possibility of the kitsune striking me down as she sits in the room with me, however real, is no longer as near to me as it was. With a feeling like that I should be doubly suspicious of myself, but I am finding it hard to concentrate.
I think that if I am to break out of my funk I have to see things differently, and that means the kitsune. I decided to start here: I have never been close to any second-generation immigrant and can't tell Vietnamese from Koreans, but the kitsune does not seem to me to speak English with a Japanese accent. She has an accent, but I cannot place it in any way. I want to say it's a wildly diluted BBC British, but I am certain I only want to say that because her English grammar is impeccable.
Last night I asked the kitsune point-blank if she spoke Japanese. She crossed her arms and stared at me with utter contempt. "Could you please speak some Japanese to me?" I continued.
"Why do you desire this?" she asked.
"I would like to hear you speak in your tongue," I said.
She said something to me in Japanese—what I believe was Japanese. Her voice sounded a harsh, staccato phrase in my ears, sharply uttered, even for that language. The last word sounded like 'arigato', which I think means 'thank you'. Her accent sounded entirely correct.
"What does that mean in English?" I asked.
She said something else in Japanese, not much longer than a word, and strode out to the staircase, slamming the door.
Her English now sounds more Japanese to my ear. Now I'm wondering how she acquired English. I don't know if her magic allows her to teleport or otherwise quickly travel between two locations, but if it doesn't she hasn't been in Japan for at least the time in which she's occupied the house. Where has she been? Has she been only to Japan and the United States—or did she come before the United States was here? Asian immigrants come to the west coast. Did she? Did she come through Los Angeles?
I don't even know what that question means.
For the first time I have had enough sense to search for and discover a 'kitsune' entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is completely useless. It reveals that they live eternal natural lives if not destroyed. This she has already made abundantly clear by way of comparison. The article mentions spoiling of crops, as well as tales of humans marrying kitsune, which indicates either that they can take human form or that that there were some very dull-eyed people in feudal Japan. "Sometimes they are described" as "good wives," "helpful and kind," except that one day they run off and never return. Shortly after such a departure, the husband sees a fox lurking near his dwelling. The article is not so much about the creature that has trapped me here as about beaten peasant wives fleeing to the next village over.
With one exception: Britannica provides detail of a charcoal sketch that looks like it could have been her portrait, drawn by 'unknown, 15th c.' Tiny flowerish specks dot the kimono.
No human escapes the kitsune. Are all transformed or violently extinguished? She's immortal; she's got time. She likes to watch. I was looking through the books on the shelf the other day, cataloguing them, planning out which I was going to read first, second, third, after I got done rereading Underground. She has Finnegan's Wake up here. You know what Joyce said about Finnegan's Wake. This is a serious problem, I know, because I have thrown away what I think was my once chance to get out of here and I don't feel particularly crushed; my thoughts are fixed on something else.
I spent this afternoon hunkered in the bedroom, lying on my bed reading. I had gotten up at about three-thirty, by the faint chimes of the grandfather clock. (I ceased keeping regular sleeping hours after the first week. The kitsune doesn't seem to have regular sleeping hours; she definitely doesn't have regular coming-and-going hours.)
It was after seven when I finally dressed and went out into the room. The kitsune was in. She was near the fire, sitting cross-legged on the floor, her kimono tied up under her arms. She had a flask and a drained dish of sake arranged to her right. Her tail lay curled and tucked beneath her left knee. On the floor before her was a book, spread open. She was hunched over it, keeping it open with one hand. From across the room I could see the vertical typography and knew that it was one of hers.
On the table was a plate with a hexagonal arrangement of what looked to be six pieces of sushi. I have no eye or taste for the discrimination of fish. It was somewhat pinkish, almost orange. Wrapped around the meat were cold styrofoam rice grains and what I think is supposed to be seaweed. I took the plate of fish rolls across the room and sat, first Indian style, which I'm far too out of shape to do properly, then with both my legs out to one side, my socks warm on the bricks around the fireplace.
When I sat down she looked up at me. She didn't have an expression on her face. I stared back for a moment, then grabbed one of the rolls and popped it my mouth. The weirdly meaty flavor of the raw fish hit me hard, and I spent a long time chewing. They weren't very cold or wet, but I wiped my fingers down the front of my shirt, right over 'Sosa'. I flinched as the kitsune's fingers flashed in the corner of my vision, but when I turned they emerged from a fold of her cloak only with a pair of thin, small wooden shafts. She extended her arms toward me, the chopsticks held between her index and middle fingers.
"Thank you," I said as I took them. She was already reading again, if that's what she was doing. She would turn her head when looking at the page, as though it were a painting instead of a book. I began the process, so arduous to born suburbanites like myself, of getting the chopsticks to oppose one another properly. It took maybe two minutes for me to pick up a third of a torn roll and get it just within my lips where it promptly slipped the sticks and landed on my tongue. I assumed this would bring a few derisive chuckles, but she was too engrossed in her book, her kimono pooled in little waves of yellow and blue. She put a second hand atop one of the pages as I watched, the black pads of her fingertips tracing a column of symbols down the page, spread so as to keep her claws clear of the markings. She moved her hand not as through keeping place, but as though reading Braille, feeling the texture of the ink on the parchment. Reaching the end of a column she stroked the final symbols an extra time, as she would Annoying Hiker.
I swallowed my fish and poked at the shreds of rice I had strewn on the plate. "What are you reading?" I asked. "May I ask?"
She leaned smoothly to her right and clasped her hand about the flask of sake. The line of her cocked head and the titled bottle formed a sloping triangle above the dish, which she filled almost to the brim. "It is very old," she said, after a moment. She reset the flask on its bottom and returned again to the text, leaning very far over it, almost close enough for her long snout to smell the moldering pages. "You do not know it," she said.
"Is it a story? Fiction?"
She hesitated, opening her mouth for a pair of false starts. "It is a true report," she said finally.
"No," she said after a pause. Her voice faded back into her throat. I waited patiently until I saw her hand again brush the paper.
"Who wrote it? Is it in verse?"
"No," she snapped. She showed her teeth, then let her lips close as she sat back languidly. Her hand again scooped her dish. Her left hand closed the book, which has an unmarked, cracked brown cover, as she craned her head back and drained the sake. A bit of the rice liquor ran down her white cheek from the corner of her long mouth. Upon finishing the dish she noticed: she frowned, raised the hand with the dish slightly to her face before stopping with slow surprise. She looked at the dish in her right hand, the book in her left, then opened her mouth awkwardly and licked at the corner of her mouth. Seeing that this did not improve matters, she put down her dish, wiped at the edge of her mouth and neck with the furred back of her hand, then stood up and replaced her book in its place on the shelf, a faint frown on her face.
I put the chopsticks on the plate and stood up, quickly tossing another of the rolls into my mouth with my fingers while her back was turned. She walked over to the stool by the table and sat, laying her wrists on its edge. "I am sorry I cannot provide more diversion for you," I told her
"Hmm," she huffed. She turned herself around, facing me from the stool. I walked to the window and leaned against the wall.
"If you want," I said to her, "I could perhaps devote some time to making my headphones more comfortable for your ears."
"Do not," she said. "That is foolish. I made it spin this morning. I did not like the musicians."
"What music were you listening to?" I asked.
"I did not listen long. I listened to the first and second."
"First and second what?"
"Songs, stupid mortal!" she barked, and she suddenly laughed. "Songs!"
I smiled, a bit uneasily. "I mean, what . . . collection of songs were you listening to? Which was in the player?"
"It is still within," she shrugged.
"Hold on," I said, stooping to lay the sushi on the floor. I was pretty certain I had been listening to Rebel Yell last, but walked to the shelf to check. It was still in the caddy. "It is Billy Idol, the singer, and the electric guitar player Steven Stevens, and some other musicians," I added, thinking that she might not be familiar with pop nomenclature whereby star stood for band. "You did not like the music?"
I hesitated. "Please excuse me if this is rude, but were you unfamiliar with the arrangement of the notes?"
"Oh," she said, and waved a hand. "I have long known your kind of music. It is not . . . I do not like it, but neither does it repel me. But this singer cannot speak clearly."
I was surprised; I'd always thought of him as being among the least mush-mouthed vocalists I had heard, despite his groaning and grunting. "Really?"
"Not a single word can I comprehend! And he often sounds as if he is violently ill."
I laughed. "Well, that can't be helped, because it is his style. But the first song goes: Last night a little dancer/Came dancing to my door . . ." I have a good choral tenor, 'choral' meaning that my solo performances are nothing to excite, but I'm competent enough. I was more careful than normal to pop consonants, not dropping 'dancing' to 'dancin'. In the process I birthed not a few stylistic horrors and once or twice added an article or connective to clarify syntax.
She watched silently through my entire recitation. "Is that helpful?" I asked.
"I suppose," she said. "It is excessive, but that is to be expected for a boasting song."
"A boasting song, you find it?"
"Do you not listen to yourself, mortal? The singer can satisfy the most insatiable of women. A singer with so little measure of his skill as a lover is a poor student of both disciplines."
"Oh," I said, "you think that's excessive?" And I sang "Flesh for Fantasy." By the time I was going into the first chorus, she was constantly laughing, hands clapped to her snout. "Face to face/And back to back/You see and feel/My sex attack!" I whirled and punched my hips out and stopped in terror as she screamed, shrieking high-pitched gibberish. Then I realized she must be speaking Japanese. She was almost sliding off her perch with laughter. "This singer truly does that?" she returned to English, gleefully appalled.
I wasn't sure, but it seemed more than reasonable. "Oh yeah."
She screamed again. "Look you, woman; here it is, I assure you!" she yelled, and I laughed so hard I had to back up and prop myself on the bookshelf.
She went back over to get her sake and I did a few more, trying to find things that would be good a capella. She liked comic songs best: "Taxman" by the Beatles, "My Wife" by The Who. After a while, though, she seemed too tired to laugh, and finally she sat down rather quickly on the floor near the fire. I asked if she was well, and she said that she wanted to sleep, and it was only then that I realized the obvious; the kitsune was drunk. I hadn't thought of her as having been able to get drunk, which was stupid, and I now found myself at a loss. She couldn't sleep on the floor, but I had no idea where she did sleep.
"Where do you sleep?" I asked her.
She mumbled something unintelligible, or Japanese, or both.
"Do you want to sleep in the guest bedroom? I'll lie down out here." She mumbled and nodded. I helped her up by her hand—odd to actually touch it—and led her tottering into the guest bedroom, where she promptly fell face down on top of the comforter. I checked to make sure she would be okay if she threw up, used the bathroom, went back into the library and closed the door all but a crack.
I was tired, but I was no more inclined to sleep on the floor or in an armchair than she was. I tried to read, but I was sick of Dostoevsky. I had just started a go through Ulysses the previous day but had already finished the comparatively simple first chapter. I just couldn't concentrate. I listened to Rebel Yell instead. After the album was done I went in to check on the kitsune. She was fine, sleeping soundly in pretty much the same position as before, the folds of her kimono rising and receding as she breathed. I went back out to the library, switched Billy Idol for BT, and was horrified to see the low battery light blink once as it got up to speed. The thing couldn't last more than a few days once that came on, and I couldn't just slip out to the store and get more batteries with her always watching.
Instantly it was as obvious as a blow to the head: she's asleep, she's passed-out drunk behind a closed door, you dumbshit! I went to the stairs door and opened it and tiptoed out on to the landing. The house was dead quiet except for the damned boards groaning under me and the soft heavier-than-clicks of the clock downstairs. In the light from the door I could see no signs of anything ever having happened at the top of the stairs, no scorch marks, no Hiroshima-outlines, and I wasn't dead, I was okay. I had to fight off the urge to just make a run for it, thunder down the stairs and jerk open the door and run screaming Police! Fire! Exorcist!—but that's just the problem: I didn't have to fight that urge; I had to totally give into it, because now she's off downstairs somewhere and it's a day later and I'm still stuck in the damn house! I don't know why I assumed the front door would be death when the upstairs one wasn't—though of course it could be, there's no reason why it wouldn't be—as a matter of fact, I think it is—at any rate I couldn't bring myself to even touch the knob when I got to the bottom of the stairs. I silently and slowly toured the dark first floor instead, terrified that I'd knock something over. I saw an empty plate on the dining room table, little bits of something on it, walked into the kitchen, which was bizarrely normal except for the slightly retro furnishings and the fact that the refrigerator was overturned and unplugged, probably having made too much noise for her ears before the power was cut off (note: bathroom works; she understands water, not electricity). I passed a closed door to either a closet or a basement, which I didn't touch. And then I scampered back up into the room.
I was so worried that when she got up I wouldn't look normal, that she'd look right at me and say, wrong move, mortal and slowly raise her right hand . . . I sat there in the armchair while the day seeped in, imagining it over and over, her movements as she did it, once I even began to fall asleep and actually saw her doing it. And then, around noon, dead tired, when she finally opened the door with low-lidded eyes and ears lazily back on her head, kimono half-gathered up in her left arm as her right held the knob, I looked right at her face and thought: there are knives in the kitchen.
I asked for permission to use the bedroom now that she was up. When I went in I pissed and then couldn't use the bed; I just lay on the floor. I couldn't believe what I was thinking, but for Chrissake, she'd done worse! I thought of ways it could go wrong, if she can trap a door she can trap her own person, I thought of her eyes rolling open as I stood helplessly by the door, ten feet away with a bright, black-handled carver from the pricey-looking block of Modern Furnishings Kitchen Knives. I don't know if it would even work. I know it would have to hurt her, terribly, that at least or she wouldn't have bothered to dodge the sorceress. Maybe she'd come back, though, even if it worked to begin with. She might come back together, somehow.
I don't want to think about it. It's justifiable homicide, but I can't make myself believe it. Her head turns and her eyes open and her mouth—I don't want to think about it.
This is going between the mattress and the box spring. She knows I'm writing, so the rest stays out, but this goes under the bed. Christ, I ought to put it down the toilet. I ought to put it in the fireplace, but who knows if it would burn.
I am writing this on my knees. It hurts to sit in the armchair, and she's not about to magic me a donut pillow.
Here is what happened. This is the truth.
I was sitting at the table this morning, a plate just relieved of some of her sushi on the table before me. She came in and announced her intention: she was going to try to listen to the music that was not by the grunting singer she hated.
"I'm very sorry, but you can't."
She stopped delicately opening the player and turned to me. She looked confused. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"The player functions though batteries that produce force by virtue of the chemical compounds they contain," I said. "And the chemical resources of these batteries are almost entirely exhausted. You will note that a small black rectangular sign flashes when one attempts to make it spin. This sign indicates the failure of the battery. You may be able to hear ten to fifteen seconds of music. Earlier I could not manage any music at all."
She promptly went to verify this for herself—by 'this,' of course, I mean that the player wouldn't work. I haven't shown her the batteries and she doesn't know what part of the machine they are, let alone what a compound is. I sat slumped in the chair, pretending to read Notes From Underground again. I wanted to pick a book I'd read recently, so I'd be able to recite and comment in detail about whatever passage I happened to be looking at if she were to suddenly grill me about it. She pressed the button and waited anxiously, head slightly ducked, hands holding the phones to her ears. After ten seconds she glanced down at the player, probably to look for my winking light, undoubtedly seeing it. After a moment she started back, then peered angrily at the machine. It had affronted her, no doubt, by turning itself off.
She tried the player four more times. Such persistence in the face of an obvious technological limitation I have seen only in my older relatives.
Finally she slid the cups from her head and put them carefully on the shelf. She walked across from me and sat down. When she began to sit I closed my book, putting it in my lap.
"What is wrong with the music player?" she asked.
"I have already told you," I said. "The batteries are exhausted. New batteries are required."
"Make new batteries."
I shook my head. "I cannot. I have to purchase them. I have no doubt they can be obtained at any of the local shops. I have money sufficient for them on my person." I took out my wallet and showed the money to her. I always take extra cash when going into the city. I have forty dollars. "I find it impossible that fresh batteries should cost more than a tenth of what I have here."
She stared. I looked down and thumbed aimlessly through the second part of the Dostoevsky.
"Perhaps," I suggested, "you could go purchase them sometime soon. I am not very familiar with the area, but I can direct you to a much-used road on which you will find any number of stores with proper batteries."
I thought, based on the Encyclopedia article, that she might be able to do this without drawing screams. Even then, it would be a rough issue: she has nothing to wear but her conspicuous kimono, and she is deathly afraid of letting people know of her location, though I don't know why anyone would be keen on seeking out this devilish bitch. I kept glancing up at her, trying to sense her reaction before it came. She sat looking at the empty plate, totally blank, hands palm up in her lap.
"Make the batteries new again," she said. "Give them more strength."
"I can't do that, either."
"Please make the batteries new again."
"I can't," I said, getting up, pulling my hands down my face and cheeks, smelling sweat. "There is only one way to get the machine to work again, and that is for one of us to go and buy new batteries."
She turned to look at me as I paced by the windows, her face just as impassive as before.
"You did this," she said.
"I did what," I grunted.
"You broke the machine. You have exhausted the batteries."
"I didn't break the machine. I can't do what you do. I can't"—I snapped my fingers—"the batteries."
"You did it."
"I can't do what you think." The night before I had had it spin Billy Idol for maybe ten straight hours. I hit the play button whenever it stopped, listening to last night a little dancer, last night a little, last night, just the intro.
"You have exhausted the batteries," she said, "now give them more strength."
"They exhaust themselves," I said. "Use them long enough and they can no longer sustain the music. If this were not to happen today, it would happen some other day, some day soon." And then I laid it out: "If you do not wish to buy the batteries, I can."
Her face remained blank. Her hands reached up and clasped each other, fingers pressing fur. "Do not try to leave the house," she said.
"I won't say a thing to anyone," I said, glancing out the window. I turned my head back and saw her looking at me. "I'll come back, with the batteries. With more, if you'd like. I can get more money easily."
"Please do not try to leave the house."
"If I don't leave the house, there are no more batteries."
"You have done it yourself, mortal," she said.
"I didn't," I said, "and even if I had done it that player is mine, understand? I let you use it because I'm a friendly person and I like it that you enjoy it."
I had expected her to say well this is my house, human, to which I had refined the rejoinder you have something to talk over with your O'Bannon tree. She said nothing, though. She kneaded her hands, then grabbed the used chopsticks from the plate and toyed with them nervously, testing their tensile strength, scraping them down each other's length. I walked up and down the room, stopping occasionally in front of one of the windows to watch the day. The kitsune said nothing, just played with her chopsticks—like the pen-rolling tricks I had seen in high school. I thought about reading, but I was too nervous to think, let alone read, and I had no reason to want a prop to convince her that I was reading, as if she couldn't see right through that.
I felt like I had some more compelling thing to say to her, stopped pacing and turned, waited while no words materialize in my mind, and turned back towards the fireplace. I promptly tripped and fell on my face. I wasn't in any mood to laugh this off, and neither was she; it was just embarrassing. I got up and walked to the shelf, looked over the titles. I looked at Finnegan's Wake, which I always looked at first, then checked once more to note that, as I remembered, there was no copy of Paris Spleen, then turned around and promptly tripped again, falling on to my hands and knees. I turned my head quickly around to look at the fire, as a grin from her would infuriate me too much, possibly enough to put me in danger. I began to get up and shouted as something smacked my right hand, just a sting but enough to send me down to the floor again. This is getting ridiculous, I thought, and then stopped: It was ridiculous, looking at my right hand: nothing could have done that. Nerve twitch? It had felt like something real had struck it.
"Stand up, mortal."
I kept looking at my hand, and said very quietly, "Oh, no."
"Stand up, mortal."
I rolled quickly on to my back, watched the charming, graceful, impossible to follow switch, tuck, roll of the chopsticks, both in the fingers of her right hand. "Look," I said, sitting up, and one of the sticks flashed down over the other, held flush between the tips of the middle and ring fingers. It knocked my hands out from under me and I slammed back on my ass again.
I looked at her, stared hard, not moving, not saying anything because I was trapped; I couldn't look right at her and say I didn't wear out the batteries; this isn't my fault. That's been my policy, that's always been my safety net. I lay back on my elbows, showing her that I wasn't going to try and get up anymore.
After a moment she brought the heads of the chopsticks together with a faint snick. The effect was of a punch in the solar plexus.
I gaped, scrambling away from her, trying to sit up, in response to which she knocked my right hand out from under me, sending me down hard on my shoulder. I sucked air and literally threw myself to my feet, probably without enough control to keep myself upright even if she hadn't twirled a stick about her raised index finger, clubbing my ankles out from underneath me as if there were a huge piece of timber spinning on the floor. "Fucking bitch," I gasped to myself as I kept it up, trying to get closer to her, for what reason I don't know, her weaving gaining finesse. She let me feel little feints at my side and once at my head without any impact, finally getting me to trip myself up without even building any physical impact into her magic, thumping down on my tailbone in front of her. I looked in her face and spat, "You fucking bitch; I hate you," and rolled and now tried to run away from her, I don't know where, maybe to throw books at her or wreck her non-fiction whatever-it-is, and she clubbed my feet out from under me again and then once more, sending me headfirst into the floorboards, and then gave an barking scream.
The chopsticks clattered off the far wall and onto the bricks in front of the fireplace. The door slammed.
I think I'm okay. I checked out as much of my surface area as I could in the bathroom mirror. My most prominent injury is a swelling bruise on my forehead, above my right eye. I don't think I have a concussion. The most painful injury is at the very least a nasty bruise at the base of my spine. It might be a bone bruise to the coccyx, but I don't think it's broken. I hope to God it's not.
I've been writing this to keep busy. I'm waiting to hear her coming up the stairs, which is when I'm going to kill her. I've already practiced getting up from the chair silently, picking up the little stool and raising it over the doorframe. I've swung it a few times, not enough to get tired—I only swung it hard enough once, to get the feel of it. I know what happened to the hedge witch. But I've got one thing on my side: whatever I've done, I still don't think she'll expect it.
She's been gone a day and a half, almost as long as when she battled the sorceress. Perhaps something has happened to her. I'm writing this on the floor by the fireplace, which hasn't gone out. Probably that means she's still alive. Why can't I just sit in here till the cows come home, reading Joyce, eating her food? Hell, what else do I have to do? Work for a living? But no human escapes her, that smiling demon.
Christ, why can't the bitch ever let me in on anything? Why doesn't she teach me her weavings, if she can? Okay, that's asking too much, but why the hell can't she teach me Japanese? Why not cooking? How about history? Why doesn't she tell me what she does all day, the fucking Jap bitch?
How am I supposed to measure her powers? I don't know if she has been watching me all the time, if she has booby-trapped the doors; not for certain. So I should add some sort of power of intimidation to the beast's arsenal. Anything that keeps me here gets counted. But then: even if I haven't escaped, I'm still here. We're both still here, because I'm not quiet and quick and I can't cause Spontaneous Kitsune Combustion. But how can I still be here if I don't have power over her? Everything is either the result of a natural process or of will, and the only natural thing in this room, if you want to stretch the term, is the o banon tree. It follows that I have powers over her, that I can bend her to my will as much as she can me to hers. I have arcane powers and I don't even know how they work. I can't even tell when I'm using them.
No human escapes her, and I haven't escaped. Yet. And she's still here, too—she will be, when she comes back. We're dancing slowly around one another in this cramped room, so gracefully bowing around one another, sliding and curtseying. We're dancing so slowly that we're like plants, slow plants growing up alongside and choking each other, throwing themselves up on top of each other, cutting each other's roots.
This impossible idea has been growing: that I have to kill her. When I am in certain circuits of the room it is the only thing that makes sense. She's a human-trap, and that I'm alive demonstrates that I'm a kitsune-trap. I commiserate and lower her guard, give her music and take it away, everything in brackets before the last step, which is out the front door. I can't leave her alive any more than she can lay off a rabbit, or me. This doesn't make any sense, because it means that I don't know who I am, that I'm off somewhere else, but it's true. It's symmetrical, complete.
I need to get out of here.
I'm being as honest as possible, as that seems to help—to be strictly honest, it seems to help keep me alive. I've said that before, I think. I'm putting a sheet of paper on top of these that says read all of this first.
Don't hunt me down. I assure you, I am coming back in three days. I will have batteries and more music for you, and probably some soft drinks, if you know what those are. If one of your traps gets me, don't feel bad, because believe me, I'm doing my utmost to avoid them.
The police will want to talk to me, as I am probably a missing person. They may hold me prisoner for interrogation. That could take a little bit; I'm not sure how long. But I won't tell them about you, and I'm telling you, I'm coming back.
This is not a trick. I don't think so. I wouldn't, but—Christ, I don't know. I have to be honest to you, I have to be honest to you, I have to be honest to you.
I promise you I'm coming back.
Please don't come after me.