Summary: An original slash story, previously published in MAS-Zine, Issue 5. A retelling of a Japanese folk tale involving a guard, a prince, and a trickster fox-spirit.
Thanks to my beta readers Suza and Aayesha.
This is a story I heard on the other side of the world. I have forgotten who told it to me. When I try to learn again where it comes from, I cannot. Nonetheless, it is true. And I tell it again for you.
Itoru had glimpsed a fox every day for the past three days. He had decided that this was an omen. Praying to Kwannon had brought him no mercy. Praying to the Amida Buddha had brought him no peace. Perhaps the god whom the foxes served, a humbler, older god, would aid him in gaining his desire. Many of that god’s stone shrines had been built in barbaric times, long before the days when Japan was ruled by emperors. Even stranger, it was said that this god was even, at times, a goddess; the ambiguous Inari.
That night, Itoru took up an offering and went to seek a shrine of Inari. He went forth from the palace when his time of guard’s duty was done, walking amongst the wood and reed buildings of the city. Itoru accepted the obeisance of peasants as he passed them by. He himself paused and bowed as the litter of a great lady was carried down the muddy autumn street.
When Itoru passed outside the city’s gates, he grew wary. Itoru was not a small man; his bones were heavy, and his shoulders were broad above his waist. He did not give hungry footpads much of a chance against himself, well-fed, armed, and skilled. Just the same, he was careful. The rustle of fallen leaves would reveal his passage to any who had ears to hear, and the moon was full.
Itoru’s confidence was lifted by the sword he carried. Its promise of violence would not offend the god. Inari was the patron of swordsmiths as well as the master of all fox-spirits and, in addition, the fertile spirit of the rice. Itoru’s blade was his only heirloom, all that was left of a richer past after his disgraced father had been banished to the provinces. Its steel was purified and damasked with secret arts, its hilt woven with silk, and its curved blade as hard and fatal as winter. Itoru was never parted from it, even though his uniform was a common soldier’s ramie, and his skill at poetry went unused. Itoru had to admit that, in his current state, he was not in a good position to win the desire a handsome lad richly placed within the Emperor’s court, much less his heart’s desire. He set his jaw firmly and went on through the darkness.
At last, Itoru came to the shrine that he sought. This shrine to Inari lacked even a red gate to mark it. It was in the scrub ground between a rice field and a wood, marked by only two fox statues, hip-high in weathered grey stone, with a piece of flat stone between them. The thin soil supported sighing grasses and young maple trees.
Despite the risk of bandits, Itoru had chosen this shrine for two reasons. One was that everyone knew that this shrine, humble though it was, had been there longer than the oldest sages could remember. Surely the god would know about it by now. And the other was that, if he stated his desire aloud in one of the shrines of the Emperor’s house, he was not sure that his head would stay attached to his shoulders for long. It was, in those enlightened days, not forbidden for a man to desire a lad. But Itoru desired none other than the Emperor’s youngest son, whom he had glimpsed as he guarded the Emperor’s palace.
Itoru stepped up to the shrine, forcing his mind to be clear of his blasphemous dissatisfaction with Kwannon and the Buddha. He drew his offering out of his sleeve and, kneeling low, placed it upon the grey stone. Itoru looked at it, feeling foolish; the paluwonia-wood bowl, full of puffy cubes of fried tofu, looked incongruous on the leaf-scattered stone. But then one leaf fell out of the maple boughs above, spiralling down to balance exactly on top of the bowl.
Encouraged, Itoru spoke. “Inari! God of the rice and renewal; master of swords. I have brought an offering for you. If you give me my desire, I –“ Then he fell silent, hearing the rustle in the wood he had half-expected. Alert and tense, he reached ready to unsheathe his sword.
And then he nearly laughed as the source of the rustle revealed itself. It was a fox. For an instant, he hoped wildly that it was a white fox from the god himself. When its flashing eyes drew closer, Itoru saw that it was a common, reddish fox. Still, it was an excellent sign.
Itoru stayed silent as the fox trotted up to the altar and, without much ado, ate the tofu. Licking its whiskers, the little animal then sat upon the stone, its paws delicate and coquettish. Itoru could not help but smile at how human the animal was, and whispered to himself, “Little fox-lady, I find you prettier than all the attendants of the Empress. But women do not seduce me.”
The fox looked directly at him and said, “What makes you think I am a woman?”
Itoru blinked in amazement to hear a fox speak, and after his eyes’ flicker, the fox before him was transformed. A very young man was sitting cross-legged between the stones, his narrow face turned upwards, his silk coat patterned with maple leaves, blending into the night.
Itoru’s bowels turned to ice. The old legend, that fox-spirits might take human form, was true! He recovered and bowed his head to the ground. “Fox-spirit! Will you take my message to the god?”
The fox-spirit smiled, a trickster’s smile. “Perhaps. If it is not dull.”
Itoru took a deep breath and willed himself to be poetic. “I am in the service of the Emperor, may he live ten thousand years. Guarding his palace every day, I have seen his son. I have watched the prince grow from a boy to a youth, and his beauty is as great as that of the moon on the western sea. He passes by where I stand before his doors like a divine shade, like a bar of light. I hear his pure laugh as he goes, like a young stream upon stones. And every night, I ache as hard as jade to possess him. I would not dishonour him – I love him, as truly as ever man loved youth. But I am too lowly to be worthy of him. I came here to beg the god to make it possible for me to gain the one I desire.” Itoru swallowed. “That is all.”
The fox-spirit tilted his head, considering. Itoru watched him closely. It seemed, in the moonlight, that the fox-spirit’s hair, bound only with one thong, was reddish-brown, not black. Finally, the fox-spirit said, “Perhaps if you show me what a fervent lover you are, I will take the message.”
Itoru grimaced, gripped by fear. “What do you demand to see my devotion? A curse broken? A treasure retrieved? A dragon slain?”
The fox-spirit bent at the waist with laughter. “Ah! Ah! I did not ask to see your devotion, but your passion. Lie with me. Show me that you are willing and able to enjoy the pleasure that, I do believe, you wish to prize from this prince among princes.” The fox-spirit met his eyes. “Can you do that?”
Itoru was astounded at the demand, ribald and virile, on the lips of this heavenly youth. Then he remembered which god it was he had begged; Inari, master of the rice, the spilling seed, and it seemed more fitting. He reached to his waist and began to unwrap his linen clothes.
It was altogether disturbing, to disrobe before the fox-spirit’s gleaming eyes, eyes so large and dark that there was little white to them. The fox-spirit disrobed as well, and their shed silks and linens mingled before the stone. The spirit’s flesh was incredibly smooth. When Itoru, seduced by the touch, reached up to grasp the fox-spirit, he smiled and eluded Itoru’s hunting hands. He wound and weaved around Itoru, laughing as he caressed the roughness of Itoru’s chest, biting about Itoru’s neck and ears as he slid his lithe body down Itoru’s back. Itoru submitted to the fox-spirit then, as he had not to another man since he was a novice among the warriors. He yelped for pain; not from the spirit’s hard jade stem, mysteriously slick and easy as it entered him, but from the needle-sharp nip of the fox-spirit’s teeth against his nape. The bite stayed hard until their coupling was done.
At the end, Itoru drew away, troubled at how deeply he was shaken. The fox-spirit slid swiftly into his clothes and smiled, long eyes sleepy. “I will take your message to the god, and see if he will grant your boon. More, I will say that if he does, the young prince will be lucky. Return in three days.”
The wind blew, sending maple leaves fluttering loose across Itoru’s face. When his eyes stopped stinging, a fox stood again before the stones. It licked the bowl one last time, then sprang away into the night. Itoru went back to the palace, not thinking once of bandits.
Three days passed. Itoru wondered if it had been a dream. It had felt dreamlike even as it happened. He wondered, too, if the fox-spirit meant well. Perhaps all this was some elaborate spirit’s trick. Be that as it may, he could not keep himself away from the altar on the third day, returning to pace there only an hour after the autumn sunset.
It was not until the moon was high that Itoru heard a rustle behind him. He swung about, to find the fox-spirit returned, standing there in his handsome two-legged form. “What, no tofu? I have been a long way to speak to my master. I was hoping for some refreshment!”
Itoru bowed stiffly. “Forgive me. I – I will bring many offerings if my boon is granted.”
The fox-spirit strolled around Itoru to stand upon the stone. He was quiet before he smiled and said, “Ah well. I thought I’d ask before because you will not give it to me afterwards. My message to you is this. Inari says he cannot help you. He could make you a rich man; he could make your fields full of the finest rice for seven years by seven; he could make you a swordsmith who would become immortal in myth. But he cannot make your young man love you. No god can do this, just as the gods cannot force enlightenment.”
Itoru exhaled, feeling his heart settle in him like a lump of clay. He reminded himself that he had, at least, been heeded by the god, and worthy of a messenger, but this was no consolation. Then he placed his forehead to the stone once more. Before his mouth came to life, the fox-spirit spoke again.
“It is a pity, because I rather like you.” Itoru felt a soft stroke of fur along the back of his neck, and shivered at what the fox-spirit said next. “Would it please you if I was like the one you would have for your lover? I see him in your mind; it would be easy…”
As Itoru looked up, the fox-spirit tucked his uncanny face behind his sleeve for an instant. When the fabric fell away again, the fox-spirit had the prince’s smooth round cheeks and sleek black hair, but with an expression open and glowing with desire - as the prince’s countenance had never been. From behind this new visage, the fox-spirit’s voice was still sibilant as he said, “Come with me to the spirit world; we shall be lovers there. You shall have the reflection of every desire in me, and every deathless year, we will grow more wise together. “
The lubricious light in the fox-spirit’s eyes was nothing like the simple joy on the prince’s face when a kite or sporting hounds pleased him. And Itoru was also filled with fear. Perhaps this fox-spirit sought to possess him. He would not put it past this trickster, who inverted how everything should be. Itoru did not trust himself around the spirit. The hunger for unmanly acts that he had felt in the spirit’s arms returned to him once more.
The fox-spirit knelt before where Itoru half-lay and reached to stroke the nape of his neck again. Itoru turned away. “I – I thank you. But…it is not the same.”
The fox-spirit, standing, ran its sleeve over his face again, and was once more as he had been. Itoru stood as well, and bowed, able to speak this time. “Please tell the god that he has my thanks. It is more than I deserve that one of his spirits has come to me.” After another bow, the fox-spirit stepped back into the shadows, so Itoru turned to depart.
He heard a step behind him. Then, the fox-spirit said, “Wait. There is another way.”
Itoru whirled about to see the spirit standing there in the moonlight, his arms clenched around himself, swaying slightly. “There is another way,” he repeated, a note of doom in his voice. “If I give you my tail, and you place it under the prince’s bed as he sleeps there, when he awakens, he will desire you as none other. And he will be yours.”
Itoru was stunned. Everyone knew that fox-spirits kept all their magical power in their tails. “You would do that for me? I will bring you offerings every night in thanks – incense and delicacies, whatever you desire.”
The fox-spirit smiled and said, “Give me your sword.”
Itoru had not protested the fox-spirit’s use of his body. He stiffened in resistance at the idea of giving over his sword. Then it came to him that, with the spirit’s power influencing the young prince, he too would be as helplessly seduced as Itoru had known himself. The idea of the prince being helplessly hungry for Itoru’s roughest embraces was intoxicating. What mortal had ever enchanted a lover so before? His mind made up, Itoru’s warm, sweaty hands undid the woven belt that held the precious sheath on his back. Itoru knelt and, after touching the hilt to his forehead one last time, handed his treasure over.
The fox-spirit unsheathed the blade, and let the sheath clatter away. Itoru watched as the fox-spirit held the perfectly balanced blade up in one hand. With his free hand, the fox-spirit reached up and took the weight of his long hair, twining the ends around his wrist once. Then he swung the blade to sever the length of hair.
The sword flashed in the moonlight, almost blinding Itoru as it caught the beams, and there was a cry of pain. Itoru heard the metal clang against the stone, and looked around. Between the flash and the cry, the fox-spirit had vanished.
Nothing was left except Itoru’s unsheathed sword on the stone, and beside it, the silken plume of a severed fox’s tail. There was also some blood.
Itoru called out, and the spirit did not return. After several minutes, Itoru took the tail and, following a moment’s doubt, his sword. Then Itoru bowed to the sacred blood and moonlight. He muttered what thanks to the god and his messenger he could, and left.
He went back to the palace, with great caution. The day’s guards were different than those of the night. The night-guards were black-clad, with split tabis upon their feet, assassins set to foil assassins. Itoru needed to pass by these hidden guards to reach the prince’s bedchamber.
Cautiously, he slipped through the corridors. Near the prince’s chamber, deliberately loose floor-boards were set to squeak and sing like nightingales, revealing the presence of strangers. Itoru was amazed at how silent his feet were over those floors. He did not doubt that it was the power of the fox’s tail guarding him. He carried it inside his garments, warm and soft as a caress.
After three tries, he found the prince’s chamber. The curtains were open about the bed. The young prince was asleep on his elevated futon, his face shining in a beam of moonlight, hair loose about his face like a black river. Itoru stared at him hungrily, drinking in the clear lines of his slender neck, anticipating running his own hands over the prince’s silk-curtained nape. He padded up to the bed, where he stuffed the tail under the lowest futon. After this, the floor squeaked sharply as he stood. Itoru cursed to himself. The fox-tail was doing its magic work, but it protected him no more.
The prince inhaled and started awake. “Who? Guards—“
Itoru leapt onto the bed, smothering the prince’s mouth with a hard swordsman’s hand. “Quiet, be quiet! I am not here to hurt you.”
The prince stared at him, wonder in his brown eyes. Itoru felt the prince’s warm mouth open under his grasp. He released his hand, relieved that the prince stayed silent.
Itoru was pierced to the heart to realize the boy did not recognize him. Before that gaze, Itoru knew that the lad had never noticed him before. But he was noticed now. “My prince; I am your servant. But the gods have sent me,” he pressed the lad’s shoulders back down, “to be your lover…”
Itoru got no further before two paper wall-panels swished open, and four assassins tumbled about the bed, unsheathing their knives as one. “Say the word, master, and he dies!” their leader hissed.
There was a dreadful moment of silence.
Then, suddenly peremptory, the prince snapped at the black-clad guards. “A false alarm! You heard what he said. Leave us be!” The prince did not turn his eyes away from Itoru. Straddled across his slim loins, Itoru rejoiced, feeling the prince’s young manhood hard below. The prince slid a warm hand up against Itoru’s chest. “You have to stay here…it is true that the gods have sent you…” the prince murmured, sounding besotted already. Even before the guards left the room, he was drawing the rejoicing Itoru down to him.
Winter came. As the prince’s lover, Itoru had much favour. His once-disgraced lineage was respectable again. He received the governorship of a rich province, but he sent his grateful cousin’s husband to manage it. The prince demanded Itoru’s presence at court.
Itoru faithfully took offerings to the fox’s stone.
After the first snow fell, the smoked eel and tofu that Itoru brought vanished – but he saw human footprints, not a fox’s, around the bowls. He remembered that the fox-spirits went to the mountains in the winter and returned to hunt mice and rats from the rice-fields in the spring. When the second snow fell, Itoru suspended the offerings.
Winter drew on. With the bad weather and the constraints of being a favourite, court was very dull. Worst of all, the prince, for his beauty, did not improve upon acquaintance. Before, Itoru had glimpsed him in passing, like a beautiful dream. Now, in his company most of the day and night, Itoru frowned to see the young prince get tipsy on rice-wine, or waste money at gambling; and he winced to hear the ungifted poems the prince read. Itoru had been charmed when, walking in the evening, the prince pointed out that the new moon was like a sickle bow. This seeming wit was revealed for mere parroting when the prince, thinking himself clever, repeated it every time the new moon was seen.
Itoru found himself thinking of the fox-spirit more often. For whatever strange reason, the fox-spirit had desired him, without any enchantment laid down. Would he have been able to turn the tables on the spirit, through persuasion or force? What would it have been like? And his mind turned on the pleasures that the elusive spirit might have withheld.
Spring came. It was none too soon for Itoru. He was more aware, now, of the patient, preying look in the eyes of some of the prince’s counsellors. His attempts to bring the young prince to wisdom led to quarrels. Still ensorcelled, the young man would always tearfully beg forgiveness. But in the face of the prince’s persistent foolishness, Itoru’s own love had melted away like the snow.
When green began to show in the rice fields, Itoru brought offerings to the woodland shrine for three nights running. There were fox prints in the mud around the shrine every dawn.
On the fourth night, Itoru went to the prince’s chamber. He took the eager prince most thoroughly, leaving him sleeping and sated. Then, as he had before, he drank in the young prince’s beauty. He blew out the lamp at last and took the fox’s tail out from under the bed. It was shrunken, both dry and unpleasantly waxy, pressed flat and lank. Despite this, he tucked it into his clothes as before.
It was raining when he left the palace to seek the shrine one last time, with his sword to guard him. Arriving, he waited in the spring rain. As the night grew colder, mist arose from the rice fields, making the darkness thick. Finally, the clouds parted, and a weak new moon emerged.
Itoru almost got up with a shout to chase away he took to be a skinny cat slinking to the rock. He realized it was a fox without a tail, lean from the winter. Breathless, he waited.
Rain stung Itoru’s eyes; knowing the fox spirit, he allowed them to close. Opening them, he saw a figure in the mist. It was indeed the fox-spirit, leaner than before, leaf-patterned coat faded and tattered, hair still short about his cheeks, still inhumanly handsome.
“I knew it was you,” said the fox-spirit.
Itoru said, “I have brought you your tail back.”
With only a touch of his trickster’s lilt, the fox-spirit said, “Weren’t you happy?”
Itoru admitted, “Your god was right; fate has shown me that magic does not bring love. Nor does prayers. I did wrong…I asked too much…”
Itoru had expected the fox-spirit to be smug about this. Instead, he was sombre. “So did I, said Inari, to force you to pleasure me.”
Itoru laughed sharply. “You, force me? You never lifted a hand!”
“By making it payment for the errand I should have given freely,” the fox-spirit explained. “That was why Inari commanded me to offer you my tail.”
Itoru muttered, “Commanded…” He sat silent and grim for a moment.
After his thought, he lifted up the hank of fur once more. “I have brought you back your tail; I would go with you, if you wished. But you need not put on an illusion. I like how you look as you are.”
The fox-spirit hung its head, and seemed to fade a little more into the mist. “I cannot take you with me, now. Bringing me back my tail does not return its magic to me. That is lost forever, as my punishment. And without that magic, I cannot take you with me.”
“Then stay!” Itoru cried, and leapt upon the stone to seize the beautiful spirit-man. He cried out again, this time in horror, as his hand slipped through. The fox-spirit’s human shape was no more substantial than mist, and he saw the skinny fox-body curled up in the shadow of the statue, not vanished as before.
The fox-spirit reeled in pain, and melted back from Itoru. “I cannot stay,” the spirit said. “I am barely here.”
Itoru knelt once more before the stone, groaning with contrition, “If I had known – if I had known—“
The fox-spirit lifted a hand to silence him. “I am sorry, too.” He paused. “Put the tail on the stone?”
Itoru did so. The fox-body crept forward and took it in its mouth, then laid down again on the shrine. The male form of the spirit shuddered and began to melt into the mist. “I will never be what I was. But thank you.”
Itoru stood there, no words inside him. Then, he stabbed his sword into the ground between the two fox statues at the shrine, before the altar-stone where the withered tail had laid. He ripped the sheath off and lay it down before the stone’s length. He bowed to the fading spirit, then turned and walked away, silent still.
He returned to the palace that night. But he did not go to the prince’s bed. Instead, he gave away all that he still owned, except one simple set of garments and a wooden bowl.
The next day, he went to one of the shrines within the city, where those who served cut off his own hair. And he became a monk.
The young prince came to beseech him, and called him Itoru again and again, but the monk said that name was his no longer. Until he died, he said, he would be only the servant of Inari.
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