The Fox Witch

“In the depths of the mountains,
Whom was it for the aged mother snapped
One twig after another?
Heedless of herself
She did so
For the sake of her son.”

—Buddhist Allegory

The old woman awoke in a bed of snow. She lay on her side, curled like a centipede, with ice brushed over her kimono, rough and thinning from long summers.

“Why dress her in layers?” Kesa had protested the night before, as her husband fretted over his mother’s apparel. “Why dress her at all? Those clothes will keep our children alive. Granny Orin will not need them in the mountains.”

Orin’s son, a quiet and nervous man, who never questioned the authority of his wife, looked at her as if a stranger had appeared before him.

“Would you have me carry my mother without clothes?” Tatsu asked, his tone mild but his eyes holding hers. She was the first to look away for once. “My mother will be comfortable to the best of my ability—to the very end.”

Orin had smiled in the corner near the fire—altercations between her son and daughter-in-law were enjoyable but rare—and hugged Shuya, her youngest grandson, to her breast. In the morning, of course, she left her winter kimono, her blanket, her wool socks and rice straw sandals. How could she not? Her three grandchildren clutched at her hem. She could see the bones under their rags, fragile as bird wings. If the winter grew worse, her family would chew on the braided straw of the sandals to fill their sunken bellies, and they would need everything they could scrounge to push back the cold.

Orin shifted in the snow, rolling onto her back, her arms outspread, eyes on the stars draped across the southern sky. Never in her life had she lain in a bed as soft as this one. And the view—did they have as magnificent a view at Edo castle? White below and black above, and the pregnant moon and all her spinning courtiers turning night into day.

If this was dying, then dying was wonderful. Even the whispers of the dead felt as natural—as inconsequential—as the snowfall over her body.

Get up.

A whisper. It came from the three stones that had for centuries served as a shrine to the mountain spirits, the honorable dead, the ones who sacrificed their lives for kin. The tri-stones marked the place as Shintaisan, the sacred mountain.

Do not look to the sky, little one. There is nothing of value up there.

A low moan punctuated the strange remark. Orin looked beyond the stones and cried out. She started to her feet. There in the snow slumped the body of her neighbor and childhood friend. Had she not seen Aki carried out of the village the week before, the very day he turned seventy? Aki’s son was not as strong as Tatsu, and he had struggled under the weight of his father—who was as withered as a bundle of firewood.

Aki lifted his head slowly, and his eyes were two black embers in the bottom of a fire. He opened his mouth to speak, but she heard nothing, nothing over the whispering of thousands of voices.

Now she could see the shadows of people in the clearing, standing with their arms around their bellies as if holding in their insides. The old woman pushed herself to her knees, sat in a stance of respect to her friend.

Come here little one.

That voice. It was not Aki who was speaking to her.

“I am old,” the old woman snapped at the night. “And not little by any means. Why do you call to me like a child?”

Something laughed in the darkness, melodic and nearer than before.

You are little in the eyes of the mountain.

The old woman stood, slowly, brushing snow from her kimono and pulling a small, yellowing bone from her hair. Then she made her way through the skeletons of cypress trees, calligraphy strokes against the snow. The branches plucked at her hem, caught her hair. Otherwise, neither the forest or the shadows bothered her. She walked among them, trying not to stare, to an archway weaved from living branches. Orin had to bend low to the ground, as if bowing, to enter. The high neck of her kimono slipped from her neck and she shivered, feeling uncertain for the first time.

“Please enter,” a low, musical voice said.

Orin stared. The alcove beyond the green wood had expanded, because surely it looked larger than when she had approached. Inside the space was a low table. Nearby, a fire sat crackling on the dirt. Hanging over it was an iron cauldron, bubbling with spring-green liquid.

There was a woman, stirring the contents of the cauldron. Orin could make out the blue tints in her waist-length hair, the silver of her silk-worm kimono. A pale white light emanated from her skin, glowing, as if she had been infused by moonlight. Her eyes were pale and pupil less. She looked straight into the approaching old woman as if she were not as blind as she appeared.

“Who are you?” Orin said.

“I guard the Gates of the Shintaisan,” the woman said, “and guide those who are abandoned here.”

“Am I dead then?” Orin asked. She felt as alive as she had in her youth, strong from working the rice fields.

The shining woman did not answer. She stirred the cauldron with a ladle of polished bone. Inscriptions wove up and down the handle. Orin walked as if in a dream, as if her feet did not come into contact with the ground. If something were to chase her, a malevolent spirit or one of these pour souls keening in the wind, she would run in place as if in water.

The woman gestured to the low table. They both sat with their legs unfolding beneath them on the earthen floor. The woman offers Orin a cup of tea with both hands.

“Please partake,” she said graciously.

Orin accepted the tea bowl with her right hand and placed it in her left. She had forgotten the traditional etiquette. It had been a long time since a tea ceremony—since any ceremony. She would have to rely on the memories of her fingers. They sipped together. The tea was hot and bitter. Orin was surprised to discover that, even in death, tea could still burn the tip of her tongue.

“That is incorrect,” the woman said, her white gaze studying Orin’s hands. “Tradition dictates turning the tea clockwise so that it faces away from you. You drink the tea in a few sips before placing it back on the table.”

“Tradition dictates that tea be boiled from a teapot,” Orin replied. She watched the bubbling mixture in the cauldron, the steam rising. She had forgotten the ways her mother taught her.

Feeling rebellious, Orin slurped the tea with savage pleasure and smacked her lips loudly. Strong, bitter. Thick as bone broth.

“I once knew of a royal court who serve their guests ten cups of tea to begin,” said the woman. “Then another ten. And another. Until it becomes a game in which the guest cannot refuse the drink and the host cannot stop pouring, until one of them admits defeat.”

Orin belched, a fluid sound that made the woman crease her lips in disgust. Somewhere in the distance, the spirits of the dead laughed softly.

“I was raised in the most isolated village in the world,” Orin said, at last, when she had drained the last dregs in her cup. “What do I care for the customs of cities or royal courts?”

The younger woman studied her.

“Yes, of course. Your village has far more interesting traditions, don’t they?”

The old woman said nothing.

“Abandoned by your village, by your only son,” the woman said, insistent. “I ask each of you on your journey through the gates. Why do you all insist upon isolation and poverty? Why not seek other places to live?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Orin said. “Whatever you are. With all due respect. Where would we go? Everything we have ever known is here, tucked away in the hills and hollows with summer droughts and winter freezes. And still we survive. Our village has survived.”

“It has,” the woman said. “And at what cost?”

Those white, pupilless eyes seemed to be laughing at Orin, although the woman’s face was expressionless.

“We survive because we know our place. Our duties,” the old woman said to fill the silence. She was helpless to prevent the defensive notes in her voice. “It is an honor to offer ourselves to the spirits of the mountain. We scrabble for survival every day, but when it comes to protecting the village, we each do our part.”

This time the woman laughed outright.

“How noble,” she said.

Orin drew herself upright, her curved spine protesting.

“I have lived for seventy years,” she said. “The oldest in the village. And I have lived so long, despite my friends being carried off into the mountains, because I am useful. I make clothes from wool, know which roots are medicine and which are poison, keep the sacred tales. It was this past year that was my downfall.”

She had caught a cold and never recovered. Something had happened to her hands, and they trembled. And she was no longer able to pick up a needle and thread, or prepare meals.

For the first time, Orin felt doubt. The face of her son who clutched her hands, and every step that carried them up the mountain had seemed to beg for forgiveness. Tatsu had always been more sensitive than his peers, always clung to her skirt as they tended the rice paddies, hated to be parted with her for more than a moment. She had bartered her ceramic teapot and cups, passed down from her own grandmother, in order to secure a marriage for him. Her beloved heirlooms for the proud and hardened Kesa.

It was a testament to her industrious nature that the entire village turned out in the snow that morning, in the bitter cold, to bid her farewell. How different it was for Aki the week before, carried on the back of the son-in-law he despised. Aki’s own sons had died years ago and only a few faces braved the ice to send him off.

It was colder this year. Less forgiving. The wind reddened their cheeks and frosted eyelashes. And yet they came, husks of the people she loved.

The people of the village bowed to her. The village elder thanked her. She looked at their pinched faces. The sunken sockets of the young ones. So many children dead that winter—

Orin did not fear. She held her head up high. Tatsu was expressionless when he bowed to the villagers and then to her, before kneeling in the snow. She climbed on the wooden seat that was secured to Tatsu’s back by braided rice straw straps. It was tradition.

“Have some more tea,” the woman said gently. They were back in the green wood, in the land beyond the shrine. The woman took her bone ladle, the possibility that it was made from the parts of someone she knew suddenly occurred to Orin, and brought forth more tea from her strange cauldron.

This time the tea was a dark viscous liquid, a green that was almost black. Orin recoiled from it and held her breath. She scarcely looked at it as she drank, and managed to stifle her cries at the ensuing scorch in her throat.

The wind blew, rattling the tea sets. It was a chilling wind, full of dark tree breaths and bones beneath the ice. Then the woods were around Orin so fast it took away her breath. The mountain was bare and the stones glowed. She was alone—alone in a blue twilight, when stars were less friendly. She gasped.

There was a man.

He struggled on the incline, his feet tramping through the snow, his breath like fire smoke. A person was strapped to his back. A person unknown to her.

The man stopped at the stones and knelt. A small figure tumbled to the snow and clawed forward with his arms. Then Orin put her hands to stifle the sound trying to escape her lips, because the man with the chair was her son, and the figure in the snow was her eldest grandson, Shuya. Older, twisted, but she knew him instantly. He had the same curious sparrow-tilt of his head, looking around at the open space. His father gently arranged him near the stones, sank to his knees by him and bowed his head.

“Your grandson is brave,” the woman said. “Look—he shows no fear, even as his father leaves him. He knows his place and his duty. He knows a crippled boy is of no use to a starving village in winter.”

“No,” Orin said, reaching out instinctively for the boy. He looked so small and alone in the snow. “No, he is strong. He is whole. He has the most energy out of his siblings.”

“He did,” the woman said. “And then he did not.”

The boy tumbled down the rocks in search of game. Shattering his leg, irreparable. Screams. Her son and Kesa looking woodenly at the damage. No one cried in the village.

“No,” Orin whispered, her mouth dry.

“The old, the weak, the un-whole,” the woman said. “And—”

A woman with a moving bundle shivering in the night. She kissed the infant before lying him on the ground by the stones. Her hands clasped together, she bowed to the spirits.

The village shrinks, the wind whispers, came the voice. Orin blinked. Where was she? Was she the glowing rocks, the dead eye of the moon? And still the droughts come and rob them of water, the winters come and rob them of life.

“No,” Orin said, louder. It had never been this bad. Not in a hundred generations. Children were cared for over all else—they were given the food; the adults went without. This could not be the future.

Now she saw the village, the thatched straw roofs. She saw the worst of it, the frozen excrement, the faces of familiar people twisted in cruelty, stupidity. The vacant blank agonized expressions of beasts. Saw the old people carried in droves up the mountain.

You can stop this.

That whisper again filling her head.

Orin saw herself, small and wizened, on the back of her only son and surrounded by friends and family. Their eyes gleamed and they looked eager, viciously eager, like crows picking apart a frozen carcass. And Kesa with her pinched cheeks, wearing Orin’s own cloak as she shivered in the snow and she looked triumphant. Even the children laughed as if it were all a game. Orin clenched her fists, nails cutting her palms.

“I will tear them all down,” Orin said in a voice not her own. It was a feral noise, a growl. Behind her, the glowing woman towered, nine fox tails waving behind her like a fan. The woman’s face was longer than ever—all sharp angles.

The woman waved a hand.

“Look,” she said.

Orin stood on top of the mountain overlooking the village. Rage filled her at the sight. The people within who slept easily in her absence, the ones allowed to live. She howled into the night. Silent shadows padded in the snow and foxes emerged from their dens, surrounding her, awaiting her command. Orin raised her arm.

And froze.

Hovering at the edge of her periphery, barely visible, stood the white figure of Aki. When she turned, he looked at her with charcoal eyes, his mouth open and soundless. Orin felt hot all over—her skin exuded sweat that chilled, a fever breaking.

“My throat is dry,” Orin said suddenly.

A flash of annoyance crossed the glowing woman’s face, but she ladled more liquid into her cup. This was weaker tea, watery brown, the way Orin used to make it in her hut. Barley and roasted rice, fresh from the fields. A peasant’s brew, rough but filling. Orin threw back her head and drained it in moments.

The world changed.

Orin was on her son’s back again, in the wooden chair used to haul the village old up the mountain. She brushed a dead leaf from his graying hair.

Above, the skies rumbled and darkened with incoming storms, but it was not snowing yet. Orin thanked the spirits for that, and prayed for his safe journey home. She reached and snapped the brittle branches from an overhanging tree and cast them in the white snow, leaving a marker for her son. If they hurried, he would have light enough to guide him down again. They walked in silence, the crunch of snow deafening under Tatsu’s tabi boots.

Orin put her arms around her son, hugged him closely, smelled his familiar scent. His body flickered, revealing the table before her and the dark alcove of trees. The glowing woman blinked in and out of her vision.

No, she would not join the foxes in the hunt.

Orin breathed deeply, gathered herself. She smashed her cup against the table, where it shattered into splinters. The glowing woman screamed, a wild and animalistic sound rising, accompanied by the deafening yips and howls of her foxes. Orin threw her hands over her head to keep out the sound. A gust of wind rose around her, blinding her, erasing the trees and the table and the glowing woman like a stifled fire.

Silence. She was on her back in the snow and the sky was clear. She knew this unfriendly ice covered the bones and fragments of her village generations, and it was comforting that so many had gone before her. Orin drowsed, and suddenly it was dawn. There was a glow on the horizon, red as a fox coat in autumn.

When the moon was high, Orin slept once more, spinning through those dreams which guard the door to death.