Shichi awoke to the sound of songbirds. He waited before opening his eyes, trying to think through the terrible pounding in his head. The smell of poppy sap still lingered in his nostrils, reminding him of what had happened the previous night. Normally, a few drops were enough to ease an adult into a quick sleep. It was often consumed in a tea, as inhaling the vapor itself was considered too harsh and astringent. Shichi could recall the human crushing the entire pod in his fist, visualizing the white sap as it gushed between his fingers. At that dosage, he was lucky to have awakened at all.
Gradually, his eyes dared to open. It was morning. Faint gray light filtered in through the paper doors of the room. A room -- he was in a room.
He pushed himself up onto his elbows, taking in his surroundings, trying to piece together where he was. The interior was fairly small, yet ornate. Painted scrolls hung on the walls and the cabinets were made of a dark, richly colored wood. His staff was in the corner, leaning against the wall in one piece. He himself had been placed on a bed on the floor, it's covers made from crimson fabric and stuffed with warm down. He inhaled, happily taking in the familiar scent of tatami straw. He had missed being indoors.
As he breathed in, he noticed another scent, one that made his heart skip -- food. It was the wafting aroma of rice and seasoned vegetables, with hints of vinegar and sweetness. His tongue tensed, eager to taste what he was smelling. Shichi turned his head, looking to the side in search of its source.
What he saw made him forget about the food, if only for a moment. There was a young woman sitting on her knees at the table. She was sorting through colored beads, oblivious to his eyes. He had never seen anyone like her before -- her hair was short and stark white, matching her fair complexion. Outwardly, she looked human, yet there was an inherently non-human air about her. As he took notice of her eyes, he felt that there was something familiar in them. Then, as if feeling his stare, she glanced back over her shoulder.
“Oh, good,” she said. “I thought you’d died.”
"Kitsune?” he asked under his breath.
“What?” she replied, squinting as she spoke. It seemed he was already trying her patience.
“So, it’s true. You can take a human form.”
“What, can’t you?”
“No,” Shichi said, knitting his brow. That was certainly a question he’d never been asked before. Realizing they were practically bickering before he even had the slightest clue as to where he was or what had happened, he shifted the dialogue.
“Did you bring me here? Where is the human?”
“I did. I was just going to leave you there but... you did help me, after all. I don’t know where he went. Or care.”
“Well, thank you. You have my gratitude,” he said, placing his hands together as he bowed. She didn’t seem to have an appreciation for formalities, simply turning her attention back to the beads on the table.
“He stole your bag,” she added. “I think. You had a bag before, didn’t you?”
"Ah," Shichi said, burying his face in his hands. The set of acupuncture needles had been his only real possession, and of course, they had been in the satchel.
"Yes, I did," he added. "And what about your ball? Where is it?"
"Somewhere safe," she answered with a shrug.
“So you... carried me?” Shichi asked, finding it hard to visualize. Though she was seated, he could tell that she was much shorter than he was.
“I’m stronger than I look. Um, and you’re really skinny,” she answered, as if it were obvious. “Are you hungry?”
It took quite a bit of willpower to avoid jumping at her request. The scent of the food had continued wafting, tempting and beckoning him as they spoke.
"I am," came his simple response, barely representative of his actual desire.
"Help yourself, then," she said, gesturing towards the wide table. It was laden with dishes -- there were stacks of grilled sweet potatoes, of steamed pumpkin and mustard spinach. Of all options, however, tofu seemed to dominate the selection. There were fried slices and pouches stuffed with rice. Red bean jellies, buns, and pastes were laid out among the savory foods, drawing him in with their rich color.
For a moment, Shichi could only stare. He imagined himself giving in to craving, shoving the girl aside and consuming everything on the table. He was, however, a monk, and monks were to act with quiet dignity. He closed his eyes, accepting her offer with a nod.
He moved to sit next to her on the floor. With great focus, he kept his hand from shaking as he lifted a pair of chopsticks.
"There's so much here," he murmured, having difficulty choosing what to eat first. "Who prepared this?"
"Not me," she replied, examining a red bead. "The villagers offer me food to ensure a good harvest."
"You can control their crops?"
"No, but I'm not complaining," she said.
Shichi cleared his throat. It wouldn't be proper to accuse his generous host of being a scam-artist. If it gave the humans comfort, then that was their own business. He picked up a piece of grilled eggplant, eating it with as much etiquette as he could muster. Not only was it fresh and brimming with flavor, but it was cooked. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten prepared food. The flesh was mild and firm; he could almost taste the flames licking the salted skin.
“So, Tengu,” she said, leaning her elbow on the table. “Are you a monk or something?”
“That’s correct,” he replied. “Though my name isn’t ‘Tengu.’ It’s Shichi.”
“Oh, I’m Chiyo. And that explains a lot.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, giving her a sideways glance.
“Why you’re so poor. And strangely polite.”
“I am not poor, I just-,” he began, then realized that he indeed lacked the property or possessions of a common individual. Shichi sighed, once again deciding to change the subject.
“What happened, anyway?” he asked. “How did that man manage to steal your ball?”
“He came from the village with an offering of food,” Chiyo explained. “There was some kind of poison in it that paralyzed me. I tried to chase him, but I lost my strength by the river.”
“What could he possibly need it for?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t hold any magic for others, only me. Maybe he likes shiny things.”
“Perhaps,” Shichi said, recalling the look in the man’s eyes. There was something unsettlingly desperate in his expression, something that hinted at more than a fondness for jewels.
“And so, since yesterday, I’ve stopped eating the offerings from the village. For all I know, it could all be poisoned.”
Shichi’s hand paused before he could take another bite. He slowly looked down at the piece of sweet potato, and then over at the kitsune.
“Is that... why you’re giving it to me?” he asked, feeling suddenly ill.
“That’s right,” she said, giving him a smile that only increased his nausea.
“How very kind of you,” he said, lowering the food and sliding the bowl a few inches away. He tried not to think of how wonderful it smelled, or how hungry he still felt.
“It wouldn’t kill you,” she protested. “Just stop all of your muscles from moving for a while.”
“I don’t think you want me spending another night on your futon,” he said with a forced laugh. “Do you live here with anyone?”
“No, but I like being alone,” she said, looking down at her hands.
“Then I suppose I’d better get going,” Shichi said, shifting to stand. He folded up the bed, placing the cushion and blanket onto a storage shelf.
“Well,” Chiyo said, but didn’t seem to know how to finish her sentence. ”Maybe, ah...”
Shichi fetched his staff, checking it for damage before heading towards the sliding door.
“Thank you, again, for helping me,” he said with a low bow. “I truly appreciate it.”
“You don’t have to leave just yet,” she said, looking away as she spoke.
“My situation requires me to keep moving. But perhaps I’ll see you again.”
Shichi slid the door open. He was met by a heavy fog, making it difficult to make out his surroundings. Squinting, he focused for a moment before piecing together exactly what he was seeing.
Water. It was all water.
On all sides of the small structure lay the width of a lake, its surface perfectly still. Barely a ripple could be seen in its sheen. The shore was rather far, most of its trees obscured by the fog. They were distant, pale ghosts, fading behind the cloudy air.
“Ah,” he said, feeling rather foolish as he stared.
“I was trying to tell you,” Chiyo said, stepping up behind him. “We’re in the middle of a lake. You should wait until low tide, you can walk back then.”
Sure enough, a few hours passed before the water level dropped. Shichi had accepted a cup of tea after being assured it hadn’t come from the village. He had let the steam rise against his face, remembering the scent and gentle strokes of warmth. His next cup might not come for a long time.
They stepped outside together. The land hadn’t been entirely exposed, but was shallow enough to walk through.
“I’ll walk you out,” Chiyo said. “I need to go hunting anyway.”
There was a deck of wooden planks around the house, giving it the illusion of floating. Just as Shichi stepped off into the water, he felt a weight land on his shoulder, nearly throwing him off balance. Chiyo had returned to the form of a fox, hopping up onto him without asking.
“Do I look like a horse to you?” he asked, eyeing her with a slight turn of his head.
“I don’t like getting my feet wet,” she explained, not budging. She hung comfortably over him, using her paws to keep her balance on his robe. Her tails wrapped around to the other shoulder, giving her the appearance of a rather large fur muffler.
“Oh, and I do,” he muttered.
“Good to hear,” Chiyo replied, ignoring the obvious dryness in his tone. Shichi sighed and gave in, making his way towards the shore.
“So you hunt?” he asked as he walked through the inch-deep water. The lake was frigid and clear, rippling silver behind his ankles.
“Even if I could eat the offerings, the villagers rarely give me meat,” she scoffed. “Stingy.”
“You poor thing,” Shichi said under his breath. Soon, they reached the water’s edge. A red gate stood alone by the shore, signifying the sacredness of the lake. The more he got to know Chiyo, however, the less he thought ‘sacred’ was an appropriate word for her. Once his feet found dry land, she leapt down from his shoulder and trotted down the path.
“Well, see you,” she said, painfully casual as she went ahead.
“That’s it?” he asked, brushing the white fur from his collar.
“What, do you want a hug or someth-,” she started, but was rudely interrupted by a tug at her paw. The crude snare tightened around her leg, snapping upwards until she was dangling upside down from a young tree.
“Ah! Stupid human, where are you?” she cried, struggling admirably against the tight noose. “Show yourself! I’ll kill you!”
“Chiyo!” Shichi called, rushing forward to help. Right on cue, the man from earlier emerged from the trees. He wore the same thinly woven clothes and tense look as before. This time, however, he had a knife.
“Stay back,” he said, angling the blade towards the fox’s throat. She snapped at it, baring her small, pointed teeth, but he didn’t falter. Shichi stopped in his tracks.
Keeping his eyes on the tengu, the human took a firm grip on the tall sapling, giving it a shake. The kitsune flailed as the snare tugged once more, sending a silvery ball dropping from the thick fur in her tail. The man crouched to retrieve it, brushing a bit of dirt off of the side.
“That’s mine!” she snarled, thrashing in anger but coming no closer to freeing herself.
“You said it was somewhere safe!” Shichi protested, glancing up at her.
“It’s not like I have pockets or anything,” she hissed back at him.
“Your... ‘fluffy tail’ is not a safe-”
“Oh, like you’re an expert on safety, Mr. Knocked Out By My Own Poppy Sap,” Chiyo huffed, her ears twitching in annoyance.
Attempting to take advantage of their exchange, the man began to back away with the ball clutched carefully in his hand.
“You stop right there,” Shichi snapped, pointing the head of his staff at the human.
“I need this,” the man replied, his teeth grit in defiance. “And I won’t let you stop me again.”
“But she’ll die without it!” Shichi said, gesturing towards the dangling kitsune with his hand.
“And so will my wife!” the farmer shouted, tightening his hold on the pearly ball.
“Your... wife?” Shichi asked, pausing as he tried to piece together the man’s words. “What could she possibly--?”
“The fortune teller said that a star ball could heal her.”
“Heal her? From what?” Shichi asked, slowly lowering his staff.
“Who cares, just hit him with your monk stick and get my ball back!” Chiyo growled.
“Be quiet,” Shichi said, keeping his attention on the human. “Please, tell me.”
“She’s... she’s very sick. We can’t afford a doctor. But this,” he said, looking down at the ball in his hand. “This will make her healthy again.”
“I’m sorry,” Shichi said, gently shaking his head. “But that’s simply not true. That ball won’t help anyone but this kitsune. And even if it were, how could you trade one person’s life for another?”
“I have no choice,” he replied, his hands shaking. “It must be true. It has to be.”
Shichi looked down at the ground. It wouldn’t be very difficult to subdue the man and retrieve the ball. It would not, however, be long before he tried again. A man fueled by desperation would never give up. He would continue to harass Chiyo until his wife passed away, leaving him alone and full of anger.
“I’m... I’m a healer. Perhaps there’s something I can do.”
“I won’t fall for your tricks,” the man spat, looking offended at the very idea.
“You took my satchel. What was inside?”
“Some old roots.”
“And?” Shichi pressed, his eyes narrowing as he waited.
“And... acupuncture needles,” the human answered with a deep sigh. He ran his hand over his face, dragging his fingers in frustration.
“You can either let this girl die over a false superstition, or you can let a doctor tend to your wife. It’s your choice.”
“You better not let me die or I’ll--”
“Chiyo,” Shichi interrupted, silencing her with a hand gesture.
“If... if you’re lying,” the man mumbled. “If you can’t help her... then I’m keeping the ball.”
Shichi looked up at the dangling kitsune, waiting for her approval. She returned his look with an icy glare, then looked over to the ball in the human’s hand.
“Fine,” she snapped. “Fine, just get me down from here.”
With a quick cut at the sapling, Chiyo plopped down onto the cold earth, sending up a bit of dust as she fell. She shook herself off, then turned her attention to the human. It was clear that she was struggling against the temptation to lunge at him.
“This way,” the farmer said, then turned down a narrow opening between the trees. Shichi and Chiyo exchanged glances, then followed his path. Noticing that the kitsune was limping, he knelt and offered his shoulder. She hesitantly accepted the gesture. Though she had perched on him, the scowl hadn’t left her face.
“Can you really heal her?” she whispered, sounding rather doubtful.
“I certainly hope so.”