Timothy Tucker

In times long past there was a man named Akira Gozen who was tending to his garden one brisk, overcast day. Bulbous clouds that threatened rain loomed in the distance, and a gustful wind sent a shiver through the white pines.

As Akira pruned away at his asagaos and sakurasas, he seemed to hear a faint thrashing and crying, as if someone was in trouble in the thicket of trees.

He wiped his dirt stained hands on the hem of his kimono, unsheathed his kaiken, and headed in the direction of the sound. Beyond his garden was a gurgling stream that he followed along its muddy bank, the once distant cries becoming more distinct – a mixture of hoarse yelping and a helpless, throaty whimper.

The stream ended at a large pond where dense shrubs blanketed its edge, and entangled among the vegetation was a gray animal. As Akira approached he found it was a fox of dignified age, with grizzled fur and its hind leg snared in a thicket of thorns. It looked at him with pleading storm orbs of eyes and yelped again.

Above head roiling clouds gathered ominously, and a deep rumble of thunder reverberated across the land with the force or a celestial taiko drum. Careful not to prick his already weathered hands, Akira used his dagger to release the creature from the thorns.

The fox trotted out of the thorn thicket and reared its head at Akira in a gallant manner, Another duo of thunder and lightning illuminated the sky and in that fleeting moment instead of a gray fox there was an old man who stood before him. A straw paddy hat obscured the top of his face and his ash colored beard flowed to his belt line. He bowed deeply to Akira, his silk kimono rippling across his stooped body like smoke.

"You must excuse me." The fox man said. " As sagacious as I am even I sometimes need assistance in your mortal realm."

"W-who are you?" Akira stammered, trying his best to stay composed.

The fox man spread his arms and proclaimed, "I am the God of Thunder, the Lord of Lightning who holds dominion over the skies and I presume that you now expect some sort of reward for rescuing me from my plight." Their eyes finally met, fox man's pupils a solid milky white and face a storm of wrinkled contemplation.

"Ah! I know," He said, snapping his gnarled fingers. "For your good deed I shall bestow upon you three wishes, no more and no less."

"Three wishes, of anything I want?"

Fox man nodded. "Anything you want, but be warned: in all my years I have yet to see a human make good use of a gift from the Gods." He reached into the sash of his kimono and pulled out three blushing cherry blossoms. "Take your three wishes then, you'll most likely spend the last wish unraveling the work of the first two." He flung the blossoms into the air just as more thunder and lightning punctuated the sky.

Akira caught the blossoms and put two of them tenderly in his sash. When he looked up the gray fox was dashing towards a copse of trees, disappearing into natures veil.

Akira stood for some moments,reflecting on how he should use his gift. The idyllic life style had made him content with what little possessions he owned, but there was still a deep void in his heart, one that could never be filled by material goods, riches, or fame. A void that was formed when his wife, Miko, was taken far too early by disease, and while time had made it easier to handle his loss, there was not a day that went by that he did not long to be with her again.

With tears beginning to sting at his eyes, Akira held the third cherry blossom in his outstretched hand and said, "I wish more than anything in the world to have my beloved Miko back!"

He blew the blossom from his palm just as the sky finally opened up and fat pellets of rain began to cascade to the earth. Taking haste Akira made his way back to his home where he shed himself of his soaked clothing for dryer ones and laid in bed. Outside, the howling wind made a waning, almost melancholic rattle through the trees, and he wondered if it too was mourning someone.

When Akira awoke it was dawn, golden shafts of early morning sun seeping through his windows. A melodious bird call was beginning to sound, along with something else – a shrill yelping coming from in front of his home. He recognized the cries as those of a fox and bolted out of bed. When he stepped outside he saw a woman standing in his garden. She was nothing more than a shadow under the crepuscular light, with eyes that seemed to glow a preternatural amber against the rising sun, but Akira could sense her identity, and he knew that his first wish had come true.

With legs that felt too distant, he ran towards the woman and embraced her deeply out of fear that she was the product of a cruel illusion, and would vanish along with the rest of the fleeting darkness, but with each passing moment the sun crept higher and illuminated the land he found that she was still there, as real as ever.

"Oh Miko," Akira crooned. "I've missed you for far too long." He stared into her eyes, which had lost their eerie amber luminous, leaving behind a perfect reflection of before her death, with her flowing black hair, thin eyebrows, and pallid, high cheekbones. He was so spellbound by her appearance that he did not see the fox skulking near the edge of his garden until it began to yelp – the same high pitched whine he heard when he first awoke.

The fox was as white as freshly fallen snow with a shaggy tail that wagged enthusiastically and piercing amber eyes that regarded Akira and Miko with bashful glee. With a final yelp the fox turned on its heels and dashed towards the treeline.

"Wait!" Miko cried after the fox.

Akira took her hand in his own. "They never come this close to my home."

She interlaced their fingers, and squeezed. "Perhaps it was just lonely."

Miko was just as dutiful a wife now than she was ever before. She was tender and loyal, helped him to tend to the garden, accompanied him on hunts through the forest, and busied herself in the kitchen where she was as formidable a cook as ever. But as time went by Akira began to sense that Miko was not happy. She often wandered listlessly and would sometimes spend hours in the garden sitting crossed legged and as motionless as a stone, as if she were waiting for something.

One evening Akira was making his way along the stream when he saw Miko down by the pond, a white fox in her arms. He remembered the fox as the one that greeted them the morning of Miko's return and as he drew near he could hear the fox weeping softly, its muzzle buried against Miko's neck.

"Miko, what are you doing?" He asked, perplexed by her actions.

"Forgive me Akira, but I've kept this a secret for too long." She removed an unseen pendant from around her neck and dangled it towards Akira. The jewel on the end glowed a faint amber. "I am a kitsune of the forest, and was kidnapped by the Thunder God as punishment. Now my sister Koi has no one to care for her." The white fox, Koi, shuddered fiercely in her lap.

Akira stared at the pendant, the same pendant that held Miko's very life essence. Echoes of the familiar crushing void stirred inside of him, for he knew that love between foxes and humans were doomed to sorrow.

"What if I used my second wish to turn your sister into a human, so that you two can be together?" Akira suggested.

Miko shook her head. "I was already punished, I could not ask the same thing of Koi."

He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder and said, "Miko...is it really so hard to be human?"

"More than I ever could imagine." She answered.

"But don't you love me at all?"

"I do love you," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "But I miss the old life of the forest, and my sister, who is the only family I truly have left."

"Then shall I use my second wish to turn you back into a fox?" Akira asked, a wave of grief undulating his heart.

"I will not be as unkind to you as that. I am a woman now, and with each passing day the fox spirit in me wanes." She replaced the pendant around her neck. "I will stay with you."

As much conviction as Miko tried to muster, Akira could still see the pain in her eyes and did his best to make their lives happier, even suggesting moving to the big city of Edo, but she declined, preferring to stay in their own home near the pond.

He noticed that she spent more and more time in the kitchen, preparing bushels or rice filled fried tofu and stringy udon and soba noodles. She would often take basketfuls of her cooking into the forest, and one day Akira followed her to find his wife feeding the white fox.

The two sisters spent the majority of their days in the forest, communicating in a wordless fashion. For a time he thought all was well, until he began to notice how weak and pale Miko was becoming.

On a night where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom Akira awoke to find his wife in the grip of a nightmare, her face a mask of anguish and sweat. Feint mutterings escaped her mouth but Akira swore he heard her calling for Koi, It was then that he realized it was pointless to prolong Miko's suffering. She was not a woman, nor his wife, but a shade of both who would never truly be happy as a human. With a heavy heart he placed a soft kiss on his beloved forehead, took another cherry blossom from his commode, and used his second wish.

The next moment instead of Miko there was a sleeping fox lying on the bed, her ebony coat lush and sleek in the moonlight. He wrapped her in the blanket and carried her outside past the garden, where he placed her gently on the grass.

:"Miko! Miko!" Akira called, rousing the black fox from her slumber. She gazed at her surroundings in shock for a moment and then shook herself, the pendant falling at Akira's feet. He knelt and embraced the fox deeply.

"I release you from your punishment. Go on, you are free!" The fox regarded him with steely eyes and ran towards the treeline where she disappeared between the mingling shadows and underbrush. Akira retrieved Miko's pendant – his pendant – which had begun to pulsate with shades of rich amber, and placed it around his neck. A harsh cackle erupted behind him and he turned to find the Thunder God staring at him with malicious glee.

"So much for your first two wishes, eh? What will you do with the final wish, turn yourself into a fox to frolic in the dirt with those two fools?"

"I shall not," Akira said defiantly. "Foxes and humans are better off with their own kind!" For all his words however he gazed wistfully towards the forest and fingered his pendant – Miko's pendant. Enduring the Thunder God's now maniacal laughter he walked slowly back to his empty house.

The next day he saw two foxes playing near the pond, one black and the other white. The two foxes came up to him and nuzzled his hands. Akira Gozen and his foxes came to be well known across the land. There were tales of him singing to the foxes in a strange, almost lupine manner that only the three of them could understand, and of a time when bandits tried to break into his home and were set upon by the foxes in a frenzy of claws and teeth.

As Akira grew older everyone wondered of his well being. Even when his hands became afflicted with arthritis and his feet swollen with gout Akira continued to care for the garden that he had once shared with his wife.

One Autumn evening, as a glorious rainbow arched its way across the horizon during a sunshower, nearby villagers could hear three foxes keening in Akira's garden. One was as white as snow, the second a creamy mahogany, and the last was a magnificent creature with nine flowing tails and fur darker than midnight. All night their crying went on, melodious and harsh, clear and distant.

The next morning Akira Gozen was found dead in his bed. A look of great serenity on his face. In between his hands, which lay clasped on his chest, were a radiant amber pendant and a withered cherry blossom.

THE END