The White Fox
by Jonathan Attrill
'It is time,' my father said that winter morning, 'for me to die.'
I looked at him, wondering what he meant. He was seventy-five and still healthy, having no illness that I knew of.
'Will you take me, Yoshi?' he asked.
'Take you where, father?'
'There,' he replied, looking through the window, 'into the mountains.'
The mountains glistened, haunting in the snow. I could think of no better place to die, but still I wondered what had given him the idea.
'Of course I will take you, but why do you wish to go now? Why do you think it is time to die?'
'A white fox told me in a dream,' he said simply, as if the emperor himself had commanded his death and there was no chance of reprieve.
'When will we leave?'
'Tomorrow,' he said, 'when the sun rises. Today I will write my last poem for you, my child, and tonight I will serve you tea.' We were only simple farmers but my father was a man of great refinement, having come from a noble background. A long time ago he had been a samurai warrior, serving the powerful daimyo, Shigenoi Yorihisa. Indeed, he was more than a servant; he was friend and confidant to the warlord. I knew this not because my father talked about these things, but because his story was something of a legend in the valley.
I bowed and left him alone to compose his final poem.
Outside, I sat down beneath the naked cherry blossom tree in the garden and began to weep. It was a cold, crisp morning, with a bright sun hanging above the mountain peaks; the sky was clear and blue. I wondered why my father had to leave this earth and what I would do without him. I had always known such a day would come, but he was so strong in his body and clear in his mind that I thought it would be a long way off yet. I comforted myself with the thought that we would have the trip into the mountains together, just as I'd often travelled into the mountains with him when I was a girl.
When I had stopped crying, I bathed my face in the stream that ran through the woods behind our small house and began preparing for the journey ahead.
That evening I heard the ringing of the bell that signalled the beginning of Chado. My father had disappeared into the tea house earlier so he could prepare the utensils. I was six years old when he had first shown me how to prepare and host the tea ceremony. I was only playing back then, the precious implements he used were just toys to me. He didn't mind, was never angry. Sometimes he would playfully wave the chashaku at me and threaten to hit me on the head with it if I didn't behave, and I would fall back giggling. Patiently he continued to show me the way of Chado, however, and gradually I learnt to respect it, use it, love it as he did.
I found the thought of him serving me, his only guest, tea for the last time in the little tea house he had built himself, almost unbearable, but I would do it for him and I would not cry. At least, not until it was over. I was determined to be the perfect guest, as he would determine (as always) to be the perfect host.
It was a cold evening as I sat down before the screen door, the sun falling behind the mountains and the valley darkening. I laid my fan before me, opening the door and placing my hands on the tatami mat, before edging forward into the tea house.
Inside, he was waiting for me. That night his performance of the tea ceremony was the best I'd ever seen him give. Little was said between us, as is customary, but his focus was perfect. I had never seen my father with such concentration and yet with such relaxation and serenity. It was as if the shadow of death had brought him to an epiphany. So much was this the case that I was drawn into it myself, forgetting the grief that had been threatening to overwhelm me all day. As he offered me the cup I bowed in acceptance, receiving the gift father to daughter, respectful of his wisdom yet equal. The infusion smelled wonderful and tasted even better. In that moment I knew in a deeper way what I had always known—how much he loved me.
When it was over and the necessary rituals had been performed, we sat in silence for a few moments, and then I said, 'I wish my mother could have been here tonight.'
He smiled. 'She is here, Yoshi; she is always with us. She is kami.'
I returned to the house while he cleared the things away. He came in quietly a few minutes later and sat. 'I have finished my poem,' he said. 'Would you like to see it? I have worked on it all day.'
'I would be honoured, father,' I said.
He handed me a scroll. I opened it to find the poem written in calligraphy of great precision and artistry. The poem moved my heart like no other. I read:
The night crane
drinks from the shimmering lake—
a spirit of light
'There is no need to say anything, Yoshi,' he said before I could utter a word. 'I am not looking for praise. Just know that although the crane in my poem is a simple crane, it is also you.'
My eyes began to fill with tears. I tried to hold them back for I felt I would be letting him down if I cried now, but he said, 'There is a time for all things, and now I think it is the time for your tears.'
I laid my head on his shoulder and began to weep while he stroked my long, dark hair, as he'd done many times when I was a child. 'If you like,' he said when my tears had ceased, 'I will tell you a story as I used to when you were a little girl. Then you must sleep, for we have a long way to go tomorrow and we must start early.'
I lay on my bed and he told me my favourite story of all, the one about Okuninushi and the white rabbit.
Soon I was fast asleep.
I was awoken early the next morning by my father's quiet voice in my ear. 'Yoshi,' he was saying, 'it is time to go. She is here.'
I blinked in the dim morning light. 'Who is here?' I asked, confused.
'The white fox.'
I wondered sadly if my father was losing his mind after all. There are no white foxes in Japan. But he showed me to the window and there, standing on the path that led away from our home into the mountains, sat the most enchanting animal I had ever seen. She was sleek with deep, dark, glassy eyes, and the softest white tail. The fox from my father's dream was waiting patiently for us to follow her into the mountains that lay beyond.
Quickly I gathered together the items I'd prepared the previous day for our journey—mainly food that could be boiled with mountain water, such as rice and beans, but also extra clothing such as blankets for the cold nights. I had no idea how long the journey would take, but the food would last us three or perhaps four days. I loaded the things onto Sei, our only horse, and helped my father up. I would walk, as Sei could not carry the burden of me as well. And so we began our last journey together as we followed the white fox into the sacred mountains of Hokkaido.
We crossed the little wooden bridge and very soon left the path I had always known, taking a different trail with the fox leading us. Every so often she would stop and turn her head towards us to make sure we were still there, then softly pad onwards. Sometimes she disappeared from sight but never for long, and she would reappear, waiting for us on some rock. I noticed with amazement that she left no prints in the recently fallen snow.
She led us across open ground, through dense woodland and narrow gorges. The air was clear and fresh. Sometimes I heard birds chirruping in the treetops; I even saw a bear, an early riser from his winter hibernation, but he bounded off into the undergrowth on hearing our approach.
Many times during the day I heard running water, as if we were following the general direction of a mountain stream. Once, through the trees, I saw we were near a gorge and caught sight of a great waterfall pouring down the rocks, sparkling like diamonds and roaring like a dragon. The sound was both melodic and deafening. But then the fox led us into the forest once more and the dragon's roar became a distant murmur. At last, however, as night began to fall we emerged from the thick forest of trees and came upon a lake; my father announced it was time to rest. The fox was nowhere to be seen.
'The journey back will be much easier for you, Yoshi,' he said, noticing how weary I was. 'You will be on horseback and the journey will be downhill.'
'I do not mind being tired, father. It is the sadness in my heart that wearies me. The journey will be much harder without you by my side.'
'My kami will be in these mountains, Yoshi, forever looking over you.'
I bowed before turning to Sei, running my fingers through her dark, wiry main, patting her neck and whispering comforting words in her ear, thanking her for the service she had given us that day. I buried my face in her and she whinnied softly as I breathed the scent of horse. A single tear ran down my cheek. I wiped it away and began to make a small fire so we could boil some water from the lake and eat. Somehow I knew this would be the last meal I would have with my father; that tomorrow our journey together would end; that my path would lead me not only back towards our own valley but back into life, whereas his would lead into the mystery beyond.
We ate in silence and words seemed unnecessary. I thought of my father's legendary story, as I had so many times during my life. Before I was born he had been a great samurai, a follower of bushido, the way of the warrior. His name was Murakami Jiro and he fought with great honour in defence of the daimyo, Shigenoi, during a time of many troubles in Japan; a time when war seemed constant between the rival daimyo and their armies. He'd never had time for love, but when he was fifty-two years of age he met a girl much younger than himself and fell in love for the first time. Her name was Masako and by all accounts she was extremely beautiful.
It was not an easy love, for Masako was not only many years younger than my father, but also a peasant. Marriage between a noble and a peasant girl was out of the question, but love knows no boundaries and the lovers continued to meet in secret. Then one day Masako told him she was pregnant. He wanted to marry her, whatever tradition might say, but he was a man who had been brought up in the ways of bushido; he was a warrior and knew no other life. So they carried on as before, impossible as the situation was, and awaited the arrival of their child.
One day my father heard terrible news: Shigenoi Yorihisa had died suddenly in the night. The honourable course of action was to commit seppuku in the courtyard of the daimyo's castle. Seppuku was not a requirement (indeed it was frowned upon by those in high government), but the unwritten law of the samurai meant it was expected of Yorihisa's greatest friend and general by many people, including my father himself. He did not wish to leave Masako and his unborn child but, nevertheless, prepared to take his life beneath the cherry blossom trees in the castle's courtyard. The gleaming blade of the sword was pressed against the skin of his belly when suddenly word was brought to him by a messenger: Masako was giving birth. Forgetting one duty for another he ran to her bedside. She gave birth just as he arrived and he took me in his arms and wept with joy. Soon the tears had turned to those of grief, for Masako died moments later having gained his word that he would take care of me.
And so, in shame, my father gave up the life of the samurai. He had failed his moral duty as a warrior, but in his own heart his greater duty was to his child and the word he had given to his dying lover. He laid down his sword and armour and became a peasant farmer for the sake of a child. This is the way he'd lived for more than twenty years.
As we lay down to sleep, the purple twilight descending over the lake, I asked my father, 'Was she as beautiful as they say?'
'More,' he whispered. 'Much more.'
When I rose the next morning, a mist hung over the lake in which my father was bathing. Standing up to his waist in the icy-cold water, he threw it in handfuls over his shoulders, sending sparks of shining droplets into the air, like white fire. The water on his skin ran snaking down his back in rivulets. If it hadn't been for his grey hair and his balding scalp he would have seemed a man half his age.
When he'd finished I made some breakfast for us, after which I began to load Sei with our things but he laid a hand on my arm. 'No, Yoshi,' he said. 'Sei has served us well and she is tired; the climb will be too steep for her soon, so we must go on without her. She has food and will be all right until you come back. Our journey together will be over before nightfall.'
'Yes,' he replied, smiling sadly, 'so soon.'
The white fox appeared on a ridge a little way off, so I tied a few things into a bundle and we started off towards her. My father carried nothing but a staff he had fashioned before I woke and a small pouch which he'd had since the beginning of the trip. He was not even dressed for the cold weather now (and it was getting colder the higher we climbed).
Later, the snow began falling fast. As we climbed, the trees started growing sparse and the mountain lay before us, thick and white. The fox was rarely out of our sight now we were out of the woodlands and the climb was becoming steeper and steeper. I found my breathing difficult in the cold wind and I was startled to find my father striding ahead of me with his staff, a man of seventy-five and hardly out of breath at all. Could this really be a man on the verge of death, I wondered?
Through the falling curtain of snow I saw in the distance something that looked like a hut. As we neared it, however, I saw that it was a small shrine. 'We must stop here for a moment, Yoshi,' my father called back to me as the wind howled around us. He reached the shrine first and waited for me to catch up.
'I must make my peace with the gods before we arrive at the summit,' he said. 'I would like you to come in with me.'
I bowed and we entered through the open doorway. There was barely enough room for both of us inside but luckily the wind was blowing over the roof, sheltering us from the worst of the blizzard.
We knelt together side by side. Before us on the wooden altar was a carving of a fox kami, very like the white fox we had followed on our journey, except it was cut from the stone of the mountain. My father recited the naming of the gods, before withdrawing something from the pouch he carried. It was a small flask of sake which he gave as an offering, before taking the harai-gushi and waving its paper strips before the fox kami for purification.
When we left the shrine, the snowfall had ceased.
'We are almost there.'
I looked up and saw with sorrow that we were no more than a hundred yards from the mountain's peak.
'Do not worry about finding your way back down the mountain. Your heart will guide you, as it has always done.'
The white fox was waiting for us.
Within a few minutes we had reached the top.
My father and I joined the fox, which was sitting on a small outcrop of rock, looking out over the valley. The view was astounding; I had never seen anything like it in my life until that moment, and never again since. Snow-capped mountains stretching in all directions, meandering rivers of glass, lakes like shining mirrors, glittering waterfalls.
'Let us sit for a while,' said my father. We sat down together with our backs against a rock and I realised the white fox had disappeared, as if she had become the snow beneath our feet.
'Where has she gone?' I asked.
'Her duty is done here. She has returned to where she came from.'
As we looked out over the mountains together, he said, 'In the shrine a few moments ago, as I prayed, the sun goddess came to me in a vision. Her skin was white as the snow on these mountains, her hair as dark as midnight, her eyes mirrors reflecting all eternity.'
I did not doubt him. I had not seen her but I had felt a strange warmth envelope me during our visit to the small shrine.
'She did not speak,' he continued, 'only smiled, and I knew she would take care of you, Yoshi, when I have gone.' He paused. 'I love you, my precious daughter,' he said, very quietly. 'Now, let us enjoy these moments together.'
I bowed once more before his great strength of spirit, told him I loved him too. Together we sat in silence, contemplating the beauty surrounding us, the great mystery of being, as the evening sun sank in the west. I no longer felt cold but after some time I felt small flakes of snow on my face and hands. They were not icy and when I looked down I realised it was not snow that was falling but cherry blossom. Looking to the heavens, I saw the sky was filled with it. 'Look, father, look!' I said, excited. 'Spring has arrived with a miracle.'
When he did not answer I turned to him. His eyes were closed but his face was looking skywards and a smile touched his lips. Cherry blossom was falling onto his body, dusting his hair and shoulders, settling in his lap.
He was kami.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Attrill. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Jonathan Attrill is a writer of fiction and poetry. His work has been published in a number of magazines, including Acumen, Iota, Interpreter's House and Dream Catcher. In 2005 he won the Poetry Monthly Open Poetry Booklet Competition with his collection Lateral History. His fiction has been anthologised and won prizes in a number of competitions. In 2005 he won The London Writers' Competition with his story 'Darker than Fairytales' and he has been highly commended in The New Writer Prose and Poetry prizes and the Willesden Herald International Short Story Competition. He lives in North London where he facilitates creative writing for people with mental health difficulties.