It is nearly spring. The rice fields are bare, the haze of smoke graying the air and the smell of burning chaff permeating even the dampest dark corners. The old women are gathered around the shabu pots, gossiping and shushing the children who run through the house. The children are all female, their hair braided and knotted and stuffed under soft wool caps, budding breasts bound. The unlucky ones beg their brothers to drop rolls of bloody rags into the outhouse. They cannot go outside. The Iron Rice Fox is on the hunt.
This one is a trickster, a sly wild thing whose motives are his own. Only one thing about the Fox is certain—when winter's rice is gone and leaves peek their green heads from dark branches, he will come and collect a bride.
Yumiko tugged at a snarl in her hair. “I don’t understand why he must come every year. He should have enough women to entertain himself by now.”
“Your city on the other side of the mountain has not seen their Fox in a generation’s time,” her cousin laughed. “Maybe he’s selling them off to lazier Foxes.”
“Well, there’s One Eye, who came back with that freak child of hers.”
Rie sniggered into her sleeve. “Maybe that’s why she likes Yuki so much. Birds of a feather and such.” The girl picked up a comb to re-plait her cousin’s hair. “Oi,” she addressed the boy crouched by the stove, “We’re cold.”
Yuki dusted his hands on his pants as he stood. “The fire is relit,” he informed the two girls.
“You’re so slow,” Yumiko commented. “I could have had that fire lit in half the time.”
Rie snickered behind her hand. “When have you lit a fire, Yumi?”
“Yuki may be slow, but at least he does what is asked of him,” Yumiko replied haughtily. “The future bride of the richest man in three towns should behave like a lady. Ladies are accustomed to being waited upon. When Masahiro and I are married, I’ll have at least three attendants, since his mother has twice that many. He promised to buy me—”
“Enough about Masahiro and his wealth,” Rie snapped, tugging the braid in her hands. “I swear I’ll pull your hair out.”
Yumiko turned and slapped her.
“Girls,” Yumiko and Yuki’s mother said sharply, sweeping into the room. “Enough. Mayu needs to take a nap. Rie, don’t antagonize my daughter. You are a guest.”
“Just because my mother decided to visit during such an awful time,” Rie muttered, not loud enough for her aunt to hear.
Yumiko threw the comb back in her cousin’s lap. “My father invited you, ungrateful twat. I hope you get sent up the mountain.”
Yanking even harder on Yumiko’s hair, Rie shot back, “Outsiders are not accepted. You’ll likely get sent, and then Masahiro will have to find another spoiled brat to marry.”
Yumiko slapped her cousin’s other cheek, who reached for her throat.
“Good afternoon, Auntie,” Yuki greeted the woman as he began shelling beans for the evening meal. The girls sat back down and Rie picked up the comb.
Rie’s mother glanced at him dismissively as she glided through the door, straightening her robe. Yuki suspected Father was doing the same in the stable. Mayu crawled into the common room, whimpering. The infant pulled up on her aunt’s leg, her lower lip curled. Auntie stepped away and Mayu fell on her plump bottom.
“I’m not your mother, child,” the woman addressed her as Mayu wailed. “Rie, take the baby.”
“Make Yumiko do it,” Rie whined. “She’s not my sister.”
Yuki scooped the screaming baby. “I’ll take her, Auntie. Mother asked that the beans be shelled and soaked in time for supper.”
He left the room to let the two younger women argue over who would take the task. “Shh, baby,” he sang as Mayu’s plump face turned red with anger, her chest heaving in effort to voice her unhappiness. “I’ll take you for a walk.”
Stopping to change Mayu’s soiled rags, Yuki wrapped his infant sister in a blanket and stepped outside into the spring chill. A clean bottom had calmed her a bit, but Yuki suspected his mother hadn’t patted the child’s back after nursing. He paced around the house once, then strolled into the fields. After the Iron Rice Fox came at the end of the week, he and Father would begin sowing rice and radishes.
Mayu cried into his shoulder until Yuki had traversed the path through the fields. She whimpered as he spoke to her in a singsong voice, stroking her silky black hair and bouncing her gently. The child had grown accustomed to the young man’s comforting since she was old enough to be left in his care. Yuki was unsurprised when she fell asleep before he had reached the thick old cherry tree on the other side of the family property.
Shifting his sister so that she was cradled in his arms, Yuuki sat against the trunk and closed his eyes, hoping the fresh crisp air would rid him of his headache.
“I want to hold her,” a child’s voice said from above him.
“Boys of four summers are too young to be that high up.” Yuki was no longer startled when the child appeared from seemingly nowhere. “I just got her to sleep, Koh.”
Scrambling down from the tree, the boy crouched by Yuki’s shoulder. He reached out a dirt-browned finger and softly brushed the baby’s cheek. “I like it when her looks at me. Mayu smiles nice.”
“I like it, too,” Yuki smiled, “but she was angry and wore herself out. If you sit very still and talk softly you can hold her while she sleeps. If she wakes up again she’ll be upset.”
Koh immediately sat cross-legged next to Yuki, bracing his back against the tree and holding out his arms. Yuki gently placed Mayu in the boy’s lap, inwardly amused at the concentration on Koh’s face as he cradled the baby’s head.
“Yuki,” he whispered, “Mayu, her like me and be nice when her get grow up?”
Yuki grinned and patted the boy’s head. “How could she not? You’re very good with her.”
Koh stroked the bridge of Mayu’s tiny nose. “Mama say that nobody likes us because Papa, him a Fox. Folk say that I grow up bad like him if Mama not careful, so I get whipped.”
Yuki shook his head. One Eye was the only woman in living memory to have returned from being sent up the mountain. Her fiancé had been a torchbearer, and had put out his light and stayed behind when the procession had left the girl behind. Yuki remembered Father expressing surprise at the young man’s actions, since the girl now known as One Eye had been no great beauty, though a promising seamstress. The boy was never found and the girl was clearly gone, but the Fox had left the town alone for nearly three years. When One Eye reappeared, great with child and missing an eye and an ear, she was shunned by family who was afraid of the god’s wrath. Some said that she had made life so miserable for the mighty Fox that he had booted her out. Only her skills with a needle had saved One Eye and her son from begging on the streets.
One Eye was safe because the punishment she had received was evident on her body. Koh, whose sand-colored eyes and dark auburn hair only added to his strangeness, was forced to remain anathema.
“Does she whip you even if you haven’t done anything wrong?” Yuki asked his young companion.
“Only if people is watching,” Koh replied easily. “Her say sorry, but Mama, her say people is nicer if I get whipped.”
Yuki frowned, though he had expected as much. One Eye had never seemed to dislike her child. “Who’s nicer?”
“They at market and such is nicer, and Yuki’s kin, and the ladies who Mama makes they clothes.” Koh turned light brown irises and oblong pupils on his older companion and patted his arm. “Yuki always nice, so me and Mama like you.”
Yuki sighed. “If you’re a very good boy, Koh, you can go to another town when you grow up.” He wished he could tell the boy the no one in Higashiyama would care, but the Fox made himself too real for them to forget his nature. “In some other towns they don’t care, and you won’t need to be whipped.” In other towns the deities were silent and nearly myth.
“I’m not go,” Koh protested. “People mean to Yuki and Yuki stay here.”
“My family needs me to stay here,” Yuki explained. Even if they’d never admit it. “I’m the only son, so I have to stay here for my parents until my sisters are married.”
Mayu pursed her rosebud mouth then yawned. Koh grinned hugely, glancing at Yuki. “You see that? Mayu, her the prettiest baby.”
Yuki laughed. “I’ll tell her you said that.”
Smiling gently at the baby in his small arms, Koh shook his head. “I tell her myself. I sing her a song tonight.”
“Little boys shouldn’t be out at night,” Yuki said disapprovingly. “You’ll make your mother worried.”
“Nah,” Koh said dismissively. “Mama not get mad because nobody touch Papa’s boy.”
“Boars, though,” Yuki said. He wasn’t surprised that villagers were afraid to touch a child whose father was powerful enough to control harvest. “They’re very dangerous.”
Koh shook his head. “Them say I smell like Papa. Only Mama say that if Papa find me he eat me.” The child paused to stroke the sleeping baby’s forehead. “But when I get grow like Yuki, I take Mayu and be nice to her.”
“Oh, will you?”
“Mm hm, like Papa took Mama,” Koh nodded. “But Papa threw Mama out when she got me. I keep Mayu forever. Me and her be friends and I teach her fishing.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Yuki said, struggling for seriousness. “Please have a wedding. My parents would like that better than if you snatched her away, I think.”
“Mama say that when Mayu get grow, people be mean to her like Yuki, because her papa from Sonobe.” The boy pointed a finger at him. “Mayu papa look like Yuki, Mama say.”
Yuki had suspected as much. His aunt lived in Kameyama, and his mother had “visited” often when his father had been away to help his brother harvest. Auntie seemed to have no recollection of her sister’s presence during that time. Mayu had supposedly been born a month early, but was as healthy and plump her older siblings had been.
“How do you know all of this?” he asked Koh, standing to stretch his legs.
“People tell Mama because her have no one to talk to. I’m listen in Mama shop, I’m mouse,” he said proudly. “Papa, him show me.”
The Iron Rice Fox visited his son? “What exactly did he show you, Koh?”
“Him show me be a mouse,” Koh said, excitement coloring his young voice. “I can be mouse, be dove to sing Mayu songs, be snake and baby fish. Papa say when I get grow I can be boar and fox, too. I’m come see you some day when I can be fox.”
“Is that so?” Yuki had not thought the boy would inherit so much of his father’s power. It also explained the dove that perched outside Mayu’s window at night and cooed when she awoke. “Does your mother know?”
Koh shook his head. “Papa say if Mama find out he eat me, and if him see me again, him and me fight for girls. So I only tell Yuki.”
What if he eats me? Yuki was tempted to ask.
“I’m not fight Papa,” Koh continued, running a finger over the baby’s tiny hands, “unless he come for Mayu. They ladies at Mama shop say Yuki family give Papa a girl this year.”
“Oh, really?” So that had been what his parents had been up debating—what they would do without Yumiko, or Masahiro and his money. If Father knew as much about Mayu as One Eye did, he would likely want to send her.
“Mm,” Koh answered. “Mayu, her nose cold. Her need to be inside now.”
Yuki smiled at the boy, taking his sister in his arms. She pressed her face to his neck in slumber and yawned again. “You’re right, Koh. Thank you. You’ll make a good husband for her someday.”
Koh’s small chest puffed up with pride as he stood. “If Papa come for her, I’m fight him,” he promised, bouncing on his toes. “I’m fight, fight, fight. Papa say we fight for girls. I’m fight, fight, fight.”
Yuki laughed softly, careful not to disturb his sister as Koh pranced in a circle, chanting “fight, fight,” to himself. “I think she’s too young. Your father will leave her be.”
Koh halted his circle in front of Yuki and pulled at the older boy’s sleeve. “I’m give her a kiss.”
Yuki glanced at the baby on his shoulder then the green mucus sliding from the boy’s nose. “Dirty faces don’t give kisses,” he said. “She’ll get sick, friend.” He tapped the dejected child’s shoulder and pointed to the stream. “Take my handkerchief and wash, boy. If your face is clean you may give Mayu a kiss.”
Grabbing the cloth held to him, Koh sprinted off before Yuki could say anything more. Yuki shook his head and headed back to the house. Before he had crossed the first field Koh was back, his face red with exertion.
“Here,” Koh said, thrusting the wet handkerchief at him. The top half of his face was still dirty, but from nose down Koh had scrubbed his skin shiny pink. “I wash it so it clean.”
Yuki wondered which was supposed to be clean, Koh’s face or the cloth. He leant down, putting Mayu’s face within reach of Koh’s lips. The boy pressed a soft, sweet kiss to the baby’s cheek and patted her head.
“All right, her can go in now,” Koh informed his older companion.
Yuki ruffled the boy’s hair. “Give my greetings to your mother.”
“Bye.” The small child raced into the fields and disappeared into the dry stalks.
The conversation during dinner was as expected.
“Why not send Rie?” Mother suggested.
The girl in question squawked her indignation.
“Sister-in-law,” Auntie said plaintively, “we are but guests.”
Father shook his head. “The lot fell to us. If the fields are barren we will be blamed, and then no one will marry our daughters anyway.”
“You can’t send me,” Yumiko pouted. “Masahiro has promised me a horse.”
Mother slapped her head, jostling Mayu and waking her. She handed the baby to Yuki. “Enough about Masahiro’s horses, selfish girl. Think of your parents. How will we afford old age without a son-in-law? Yuki will never be able to care for us.”
“Mama, I will do my best,” Yuki promised, cradling his sister. The jibe no longer stung.
“Noisy boy,” his father grumbled. “You can’t plow a straight line. You’ll never provide for a family.”
Rie waved a hand in Yuki’s direction. “Why not send Yuki? He’s useless enough.”
Auntie snorted. “If only we could.”
Yuki’s ears burned. The Fox would kill him.
Mother turned to her husband. “Father, what do you think?”
“Mother!” Yuki exclaimed quietly, careful not to disturb further the baby in his arms.
Father regarded at the son whose nose was tall rather than sloped, whose height had already surpassed his own, and whose dark silky hair fell straight down his back rather than standing up like his parents’. He looked at the boy whose cheekbones were high and defined, whose incisors were in line with the rest of his teeth, and whose jaw was square rather than rounded like the man’s own and his eldest daughter’s. Father's eyes narrowed.
A chill shivered down Yuki’s spine. “Father,” he pleaded. “The Fox is no fool.”
“There’s no rule that says virgin boys don’t count,” the man replied evenly. “Besides, we have no money for a wife. You’ll never earn it on your own.”
“Besides,” Yumi added, “Masahiro promised me a horse.”
And so it was decided.