A/N: This is actually a story I wrote for an English assignment a while ago, a short story in fact. Its based a little on both a Chinese myth and a Japanese myth on foxes, which people thought were magical, sacred and possessed supernatural powers. I thought out this story carefully and I tried to give it a big twist and suspenseful ending. Enjoy! :)
The cold gentle breeze of spring swept across the isolated dirt track, rustling the cherry blossom branches, bending and swaying them in a slow and tranquil manner and causing petals to drop and scatter. It was early morning and a Japanese sparrowhawk perched on a nearby tree took off in fright as a young man walking alone on the dirt road suddenly spooked it. A straw hat sat on his head and small bag of belongings were slung over his shoulder. The young man stopped briefly and reached into his pocket, pulling out a piece of faded and crumpled paper that was starting to yellow at the edges. It was a portrait of his Aunt whom he hadn't seen since he was an infant. He examined the portrait. His Aunt looked quite beautiful, just like his mother. Her skin was fair and her almond shaped eyes sparkled as she smiled. His eyes clouded over in recollection as he remembered his mother's last words to him as she lay on her deathbed.
His dear mother had asked him to find her younger sister, for she had suddenly run away and disappeared one rainy night when he was a young child. His Aunt had run away without an explanation. She had told no one of her plans or where she was going. According to his father, it had left his mother distraught for a month. The only word they ever heard from his Aunt in the end was a short letter that she'd sent to them soon after the incident, telling them that she was alright and to not come after her. After his mother had received the letter, she had finally accepted the fact that her sister was gone and would never return. Over the years she had ceased mentioning anything about her altogether and had never spoke of her again until the day she died. Her one last wish was for her son to find her beloved sister and bring her news of her death.
The young man sighed. How hard was it to find a woman he hardly knew? The picture that he had now was very outdated and he'd been searching for almost half a year. Every passer-by he'd asked had said that they had never laid eyes on her before. It was hopeless. There were completely no leads or rumours at all to where his Aunt had vanished to. The young man was beginning to feel like giving up.
From his small fishing village by the sea where he'd started, he'd slowly drifted north in the direction of Fukushima prefecture. He was now in a country region with rolling hills and green grass, something he had never been familiar with and so he longed to return to his hometown beside the sea as soon as possible. Nevertheless, it was his duty and responsibility to find his lost Aunt. He needed to for the sake of his dear mother. He needed to persevere.
Having walked a long way since the break of dawn, the seemingly endless hills suddenly gave way and the young man found himself looking down from the top of a grass covered knoll. From his spot he could see the dots of small huts and the winding string of roads that connected them. A feeling of relief flooded through his tired body, for he had found a village where he could rest at last.
In a tiresome and weary mood, the young man entered the village gates and sat down at a small noodle stand on the side of a street. There, he ordered his meal and sat patiently waiting with the portrait of his Aunt clutched in his hand. Once his food was ready and served to him, he gulped it down and then continued to sit at his stool, staring at the portrait. The young man could not feel any motivation to move from his spot.
'What use was it?' He thought. 'I've been away from home for so long and I still have heard nothing about my Aunt's whereabouts…' He sat there deep in thought and with a frown on his face until he was interrupted.
"What's the matter there young man?" Questioned the noodle stand owner, concerned. "Is something wrong with the food?"
"Oh no, no. The food was fine!" The young man replied, waving his arms around in reassurance, accidentally dropping the piece of paper in the process. Bending down to pick it up, he dusted it off and was about to put it back into his pocket when the stand owner spoke up again.
"If you don't mind me asking young man, you seem to be looking at that piece of paper quite often… is there something bothering you?"
The young man looked up at the stand owner. He looked like a man in his late fifties with his greying hair and he had a kind smile which made the corners of his eyes crinkle. The stand owner looked like he genuinely wanted to help him.
"Y-yes there is. You see, I'm looking for my Aunt. This is a picture of her, have you seen her before? If you have, could you tell me of her whereabouts please?" The young man explained, passing the piece of crumpled paper to the stand owner.
The stand owner smoothed out the portrait and held it up to the sunlight and hummed while he thought. The young man had no high hopes. How would a stand owner differ from the other people he'd asked? The answer would probably still be no.
"This woman…" Began the stand owner. "I remember this woman."
The young man's head shot up in surprise. "Y-you know her?"
"Yes. I've been working here for a number of years now lad. I like to get to know my customers well, especially the regular ones. It's funny that you should ask though, I don't usually remember the ones that come only once, but this woman was one that I could never forget."
The stand owner now had the full attention the young man. "R-really? Do you know where she is now, or where she went after she ate here?"
"Oh… let me think. Ah yes I remember! A crazy woman she was, out of her mind! She ate here a good 16 years ago it must have been. That woman was carrying nothing but a few coins with her and she claimed to be travelling to the foothills of Noroi Mountain! Such a crazy idea she had, no one journeys to Noroi Mountain anymore these days."
"Noroi Mountain? Where is that?" The young man asked puzzled.
"You mean you've never heard of Noroi Mountain lad? Why, all the folks around here know of the old folklore stories about the cursed Noroi Mountain. Would you like me to explain?"
"Yes please, that would be helpful." The young man replied, curious as to the story behind Noroi Mountain.
"Well," The stand owner cleared his throat. "They say there are wild vixen foxes that roam around the foothills of the mountain. But no, they aren't your usual garden-variety fox that you find in common forests. These foxes… they're demon spirits that haunt the forests around the mountain. They're smarter, quicker, more agile and possess supernatural powers. Now, with all demon spirits, there is something they want. There have been stories, tales throughout the years, of people disappearing when they venture too close to the mountain. Once the bodies are eventually found…" The stand owner trailed off and beckoned for the young man to come closer.
"What? What happens to their bodies?" The young man questioned.
"The bodies…" The stand owner started again. "... Are found with no faces."
The young man's eyes widened. "No faces?"
"Yes. The bodies are left discarded, be it dumped beside a stream or slumped against a tree. The vixen has no use for the bodies of man, what it wants are the faces of its victims. You see, once it has the face of its victim, it will put it on its own muzzle like a mask. Doing this will allow it to transform into a human, into the form of their victim. Since they are so cunning, their transformations are flawless; you would never be able to tell the difference. The vixen foxes, they usually take the forms of beautiful women whose face have been stolen and then they lure young men into the forest to take their faces as well."
"But how do people know the foxes are doing this? Has anyone actually seen one of the fox spirits?"
"Yes, plenty of times! Every time a corpse is found, the red blur of a fox is always seen scampering away from the scene, stopping once only to look back. People say if you look into its eyes, you will see the spirits all the people it has snatched the faces of."
The young man did not know what to think. So this was the story behind the Noroi Mountain. Why would his Aunt want to go to such a dangerous place like that?
"My Aunt, she headed in the direction of Noroi Mountain you say?" Asked the young man.
"Yes she did. A crazy thing to do isn't it?"
"I have to go find her for my mother, I have something to tell her!" The young man stood up and picked up his bag of belongings, preparing to leave.
"Wha-? Wait! Young man, don't do such a foolish thing! It's pointless, you're Aunt is probably already dead! You'll meet your demise if you travel to Noroi Mountain! Don't you cherish your life?" The stand owner called out after the young man, who merely held up a hand in farewell.
The young man was excited. He now had a lead to the whereabouts of his Aunt and after following the village road north for a few days in the direction of Noroi Mountain, he soon arrived at another village similar to the one before. About to drop from fatigue, he decided to spend the night at the small village's only inn. Heading inside and straight to the counter, the young man paid for his room and was being shown to his living quarters by the innkeeper.
"Here you are young man, this is your room. It gets a bit chilly at night, so you might want to cover yourself with the extra blankets in the corner over there. Let me know if there's anything else you need." The innkeeper voiced.
"There is one thing that I'd like to ask before you go," The young man said, causing the innkeeper to turn around again. "To travel to the foothill of Noroi Mountain, do I keep following this road out of the village?"
The innkeeper, who was a middle-aged man with a broad chin and short, stumpy beard, stared at the young man with a surprised expression.
"Noroi Mountain? You want to travel to Noroi Mountain?"
"Yes, if you could tell me the rest of the way there from this village, it would be of great help to me."
"B-but the stories! Surely young man, you do not want to risk your life going to such a dangerous and cursed place!"
"I must, because I have someone I need to find. My Aunt is at the foothill of Noroi Mountain and I must find her to deliver the news of my mother's death. Please innkeeper, I have already travelled for a long time and I wish to return to my hometown. Only once I find my Aunt and inform her, will I be free to return. Please, tell me the way."
The innkeeper stroked his stumpy beard and looked at the young man with concern before he finally spoke. "Very well, but you must be careful while travelling to Noroi Mountain… you never know who you'll meet on the way."
"I will." The young man nodded.
"You follow the rest of the road out of the village until it finishes. Where it finishes, there is a river that flows down from the top of Noroi Mountain. Cross that river and you will arrive at the foothill. That is all."
The young man bowed, expressing his gratitude. "Thank you innkeeper, you've been much help."
Then the young man was left alone to sleep and in the morning, he farewelled the innkeeper and continued on his way. It took two whole days for the man to reach the end of the road, for the remainder of the second day, it was raining heavily and the strong winds threatened to rip down the trees that lay on the side of the road. The weather was getting too treacherous to travel in, but the young man had to keep walking, for there was no shelter of any kind in sight to seek refuge. It wasn't until he had reached the river said to flow down from Noroi Mountain, that he saw an ancient, shabby-looking temple on the other side.
Hanging on to his straw hat and bag of belongings to prevent them from being blown away, he crossed the river where there was a bridge and ran to the gate of the temple. Whilst he knocked on the gate and shouted loudly to see if anybody would let him in, lighting flashed and thunder boomed over his head and the rain pelted all over and drenched his clothes. After what seemed like an eternity, the wooden gates creaked open, revealing a woman dressed in a dark and hooded cloak, clutching a lantern with one shaking hand.
"Well, don't just stand there, come in!" Snapped the woman.
The young man followed the woman through the courtyard to the temple doorstep, where the roofing offered shelter from the heavy rain.
"Take off your shoes and leave them outside." Commanded the lady.
After doing as he was told, the young man followed the woman through the door and was immediately greeted with warmth and light. Removing his straw hat, he started shaking off the water and was immediately scolded.
"What do you think you're doing? You're in a temple! Show some respect and stop scattering water all over the temple floors!"
"Sorry…" He apologised, ceasing his actions at once.
He watched the woman as she took off her heavy rain soaked outer robe, taking off the hood and showing her face. The woman was looked a little older than he was; her shiny black hair was tied up into a neat bun. If only her face wasn't scrunched up in a permanent scowl, she could have been considered quite beautiful.
"Now, I'm guessing you want to stay here for the night, until the rain stops am I right?" Interrogated the lady in her snappy voice.
"Yes, that would be-"
"Come this way!" The lady ordered, cutting off the young man in mid-sentence.
The woman led the young man through the temple, and brought him to a stop outside a small room that was possibly once used for worship. The interior was decorated with tapestries and in one corner of the room sat a statue of some deity surrounded by lit candles.
"Here you are, you can stay here. Just don't touch the statue, that's all I ask." Instructed the woman.
"Thank you for your kind-" The young man turned around to thank the woman, only to find that she had already left. He was alone. The young man shrugged and put down his things in one corner, and then lay down close to the statue surrounded by candles, hoping to get some warmth. As he lay there, he thought about his location.
It suddenly occurred to him how strange it was that a temple would be built so isolated at the foothill of Noroi Mountain. The innkeeper hadn't mentioned anything about a temple after he crossed the river. What was even more peculiar was that a lone woman was tending and minding the temple. Was she living here? All by herself? Why? The young man wondered.
After a while, the young man tried to get some sleep but discovered that it was difficult. The thunder and rain was still raging on outside and so he found it quite impossible. Instead, he took to examining the interior of the room he was staying in. He looked at the tapestries that hung on the walls, the unscratched tiled floor and the plain deity statue in the corner. However, something caught his eye. There, beside the statue hung two metal lanterns that were lit and identical. There was nothing much about them that made them stand out; they were just normal lanterns hanging beside the buddha. But on a closer inspection, the young man came across an image of a fox carved onto that of each lantern. Fascinated, the young man took one of the lanterns off its hook and held it up closer to inspect the image of the fox more clearly.
He was rotating the lantern around in his hands, when a particularly loud clap of thunder boomed just outside and startled him. The lantern shot out from his fingers and landed at the foot of a long tapestry. Unfortunately the latch had broken and the candle inside had flown out, hitting the tapestry and causing it to spontaneously catch fire. It was like a chain reaction. All the tapestries beside it caught fire as well and the fire spread so quickly that it gave no chance for the young man to beat out the flames.
"Help! Help! There's a fire! Help!" He coughed as the black smoke chocked his lungs. Bursting out of the room and running out into the hall, the young man tried to find the woman to warn her. "There's a fire! Water! We need water to put it out! Where are you temple woman?"
Wherever he looked, he could not find her. It was as if she disappeared into the darkness and shadows lurking in the corners of the temple. The fire had already spread beyond the room and the air was getting thick with smoke. The young man dashed from corridor to corridor, searching for the woman in hopes of saving her from the flames. He heard a scream. Following it to the source, he found the woman in a small room, cowering in a corner with flames dancing around her.
"Here! Run through the flames while you still can! You can still save yourself!" He cried, beckoning her towards him. The woman whimpered, and shook her head. "Come on! Here, I'll come for you!"
The young man was about to dash into the flames to save the woman when a portion of the ceiling collapsed in front of him, blocking him off and trapping the woman in the room.
The flames rose higher and the young man's arms and legs were being scorched. He had no choice but to leave the woman behind. He ran several metres when another part of the ceiling collapsed. Coughing and spluttering, he avoided the pieces of flaming wood and continued running towards the temple door. Finally reaching it at last, he tugged with all his might and the door was flung open revealing the path to safety. Dashing across the courtyard and out the gates, he turned to survey the angry, flaming ball of fire that was the temple. Not concentrating on where he was stepping, he tripped on a rock, fell and hit his cranium on the uneven ground. Everything was plunged into darkness.
When he finally came to, it was morning. Head throbbing and a trickle of tried blood on one side of his face, he got to his feet clumsily and saw what was left of the temple. Nothing. It had all been reduced to ashes. In his mind, he pictured the temple woman. Where was she? Did she make it out? Was she… dead? Staggering closer to the wreckage, the young man moved chunks of broken and scorched black wood out of the way in search for her. He should at least find the woman and give her a proper burial, he thought.
A red blur moved at the corner of his eyes. Looking up and to his left, he froze in his tracks. There stood a striking red fox at the top of the mountain of charred wood, remnants of the temple. The young man blinked. Was it an illusion? The fox was looking straight at him, piercing into the depths of his soul. Unmoving. The young man held the fox's gaze and they both stood there inanimately. Then without a single sound, the fox turned on its heels and descended the mound of wreckage.
The fox was injured. The young man could see that a patch of fur on its back was singed along with an ear as it limped, keeping off one of its hind legs.
Then the fox was gone. It had disappeared in the blink of an eye. Had he imagined it all? He couldn't be sure. He had hit his head rather hard on the rocky ground last night after all…
The colour of red caught the attention of his eyes again, though a different, slightly duller shade. It was easy to spot in the sea of black that surrounded him. Walking over, he lifted a heavy piece of wood that was hiding it, revealing a box. The outside was fairly damaged; the exquisite red paint was peeling off. What was inside? He wondered. Undoing the latch, he carefully lifted the lid.
Inside lay something wrapped in a black silk cloth. Taking out the dark bundle, he found the wrapped object to be somewhat light and soft as he passed it to his other hand. Almost jelly-like.
What was this? The young man was curious. So he unwound the silky cloth that covered it… something he should never have done. What he caught a glimpse of in the following seconds made him cry out and drop the objects in his hand in utter disgust and horror. He backed away and tripped over his own feet. Whimpering as he did so in frozen panic.
"No! No it can't be!" He exclaimed.
It was a monstrosity.
It was repulsive.
It was gruesome.
It sickened the young man to his very core.
A few feet away from him… lay four discarded faces.
Ripped straight from the very heads of their owners. Lying there, flittering in the breeze. Three of them were stretched, indicating that they had been used. The fourth was untouched, completely brand new. The young man looked more closely and reeled away in absolute terror.
No… it wasn't possible!
The first face was of a man who looked like he was in his late fifties with greying hair and a kind smile which made the corners of his eyes crinkle.
The second was of another man, middle-aged with a broad chin and a short, stumpy beard.
The third was of a woman a little older than he and her face was scrunched up in a permanent scowl.
The Stand Owner. The Innkeeper. The temple woman.
But what shocked the young man beyond words was the fourth and final face, the only one that had not been stretched and was in perfect condition. It was of another woman. Quite beautiful she was, and looked just like his mother. Her skin was fair and her almond shaped eyes sparkled as she smiled.
Hands trembling, the young man took out the faded piece of paper in his pocket, looked with horrified eyes at the portrait of the woman it showed and then looked at the face that lay discarded on the ground.
They were identical.
~ End ~