Aiko's Game of Go-moku

It was spring and their dog was a year old, so Aiko's father wanted to take him hunting. Aiko, who had known about the coming trip for some time, had been begging her father to take her along, too. He had agreed on the condition that she not leave his sight nor stray from the path except when he did. Aiko had agreed, and the day to go hunting arrived.

They left shortly after sunrise. The cherry blossoms, sprinkled with dew, shimmered in the yellow sunshine. There was no mist to obscure their way, which Aiko took as a sign of good fortune.

Aiko skipped along at her father's side and Haru, the dog, ran in circles around both of them. Sometimes he ran off to sniff a tree or bush and they would call him back. Other times he went after a rabbit or bird that he spotted across the fields and, even though he failed to catch anything, they gave him praise. After a little time walking they reached the woods that were Aiko's favorite place to play.

The woods were dappled with the yellow sunlight, filtering prettily through the leaves and branches. Aiko was excited to go explore like she usually did: by now she knew this part of the woods well. Her father reminded her that she mustn't run off, though, for they would be goingmuch deeper in. So while staying close to her father, Aiko occupied herself in chasing and scouring the ground for fun sticks and rocks.

But in spite of her initial enthusiasm, Aiko grew tired after an hour of hiking. The woods had grown denser and dark and she no longer recognized her surroundings. Even Haru seemed tired and solemn. Her father kept going ahead with confidence, though, and Aiko didn't want to complain to him, so she followed with silent determination.

Aiko heard Haru growl and immediately froze. She glanced at the dog, who was standing stiffly with his teeth bared, and then at her father, who was even stiller than she was. She heard a rustle in the trees ahead and a red fox bounded right across the path in front of them. With a great bark, Haru lunged and chased after it.

"Come, Aiko!" her father called, and she came, running as fast as her short legs could carry her. They followed Haru along the top of a steep incline, Aiko falling further and further behind. She tried to force her legs to go faster but they got tangled in a root and she tripped, falling sideways over the slope.

She tumbled down to where the ground leveled out again, landing in a heap. She sat up, wincing from many bumps and bruises, and then carefully stood. By the time she called up to her father, she could no longer hear Haru's barking.

"Papa!" she yelled, trying to be brave and not panic too much. "Papa! Haru!"

There was no reply. Aiko turned to look at the slope she had fallen down, but it looked impossible to climb. Sniffling a little, she turned away and started walking in the opposite direction, pulling out twigs and leaves that had got stuck in her hair. She hardly noticed that the trees were thinning and the sunlight was growing bright again until she stepped into a small clearing of grass and wildflowers.

In the middle of this clearing there sat a woman who was preparing tea over a fire and had set out a game of go-moku.[1] When Aiko stopped short on seeing her, the woman looked up and smiled. She had a narrow face with high cheekbones that made her look beautiful. She motioned to Aiko and, with some hesitation, Aiko walked closer.

"Good morning, young lady. It seems you took quite the fall. You're all covered in dirt."

Aiko ran a hand through her hair, hoping there weren't any more twigs stuck in it. "I fell down a hill and got separated from Papa. He was chasing a fox and I don't know where he went."

The woman regarded Aiko with an amused smile. "Is that so? Well, it'd be best to not wander far so that your father can find you when he discovers you to be gone. Why not stay here? I can share my tea and a game of go-moku."

"Uh, yes, please." Aiko went and sat on the grass across from the woman, who reached out to the teapot and poured them each a drink in cups that she pulled out from behind her. Aiko took the tea and blew on it before taking a sip. She didn't recognize the flavor, but it reminded her of the blossoming trees. "It's delicious."

The woman smiled. "I'm glad you like it. Might I have your name?"

"Oh… uh, my name's Aiko."

The woman gave a graceful nod. "Then, Aiko, do you know how to play go?" she motioned to the board.

"Yes, Miss!"

"Good, then why don't you begin?"

Aiko and the woman played go-moku and drank tea for some time. The woman was very polite and asked Aiko lots of questions, even laughing at the stories Aiko told. It was so much fun and the woman was such good company that Aiko almost forgot about being lost. She only remembered when the tea ran out and she heard a familiar voice calling her name.

"That's Papa!" she said excitedly, jumping up. "Papa, I'm here!" she shouted. She looked back to the woman, who was watching the trees around the clearing intently. Just then Aiko's father and Haru came into view, and Aiko ran over to greet them.

She saw her father look at her in relief, and then he seemed to notice the woman sitting at the game board. He looked at the woman with a funny face she didn't recognize.

But when Haru saw the woman, he stared hard at her and sniffed in her direction as though trying to make up his mind about something. He bared his teeth, barked, and ran at her. Before Aiko or her father could shout anything to stop him, the woman stood, turned into a fox, and dashed away into the woods. At the same time the teapot and go-moku board burst into an explosion of leaves. Haru tried to follow the fox but Aiko and her father's combined entreaties brought him back, and Aiko, shaken by the thought of having spent all this time with a fox instead of a human, allowed her father to take her by the hand and lead her back home. On the way back she decided that she would forgive the trick, though. She had had fun, even if she had been playing with a fox.

That night, when she and Haru were supposed to be asleep, Aiko heard a knock at the door. She then detected the sound of her father's footsteps, going past her room and to the front door to answer it. Aiko quietly snuck out of her bed and went to her own door, peeking out to observe the visitor and her father's back. There, standing in the doorway, was the woman Aiko had met in the woods.

At first Aiko was sure that her father would close the door and deny the woman entry. Instead, to Aiko's surprise and delight, he stepped aside and invited her in. The woman noticed Aiko peeking out of her bedroom and motioned for her to come over, just like back in the woods. Aiko ran up to her and hugged her around the waist, receiving a gratifying pat on the head.

"I've come to play again," the woman said. "Would you care to join me?"

Aiko eagerly agreed. She and the woman went to the table while Aiko's father got a game board and pieces. Then, saying he would make tea for them, he went away for a little while. When he returned he sat to drink with them and observe their game. Eventually he even joined, and they had a fun time until Aiko became so tired that she couldn't remember when it was her turn to play anymore.

"Aiko-chan[2], let's put you to bed," the woman whispered, helping Aiko to stand and walking her back to her room.

"Will you stay?" Aiko asked, rubbing her eyes and yawning.

"I will sleep here tonight, but before morning I must leave so as to not upset Haru. But every night hence, so long as you love me the most, I will come back again."

With that Aiko climbed into bed and slept, and she loved the woman like a mother. As promised, though the woman was gone in the morning, she came the next night to play games. When Aiko went to bed, her father would tell the woman to come and sleep with him. Because she came that night, and every night after, they called her Kitsune.[3]

For two years Kitsune came to Aiko's house each night and slept in her father's bed. She then became pregnant and had a child, a little brother for Aiko. They named the boy Satu. At first Aiko still loved Kitsune more than her brother, but after Satu was over a year old and weaned, she grew to like him more and more until she loved him best of her family. Soon Kitsune did not come every night, but would leave her child to Aiko and her father for days on end. Eventually, she wouldn't come at all.

Aiko was saddened by losing Kitsune, but she and her father loved Satu best, and even Haru treated him as family. So they were happy and kept Kitsune in their prayers for the rest of their days. They sometimes went to the woods, but they never hunted foxes, and to any fox they did see they smiled.

Notes:

[1] Go-moku: A strategy game similar to tic-tac-toe, where the goal is to get five pieces in a row on a 19x19 game board.

[2] Aiko-chan: "-chan" is a Japanese honorific given most often to close friends, children, and girls. When Kitsune calls Aiko "young lady" she would be calling her "ojou-chan" in Japanese, which uses the same honorific. On the other hand, Aiko would probably refer to Kitsune with "-san" or even "-sama" to show greater respect.

[3] Kitsune: In classic Japanese, "kitsu-ne" means "come and sleep" while "ki-tsune" means "always comes." The other characters in the story have more common names, but these also have meanings. Aiko means "little loved one," Haru means "born in spring" and Satu means "fairytale."