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The Fox Woman

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The Fox Woman

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Author: Kij Johnson
Publisher: Tor, 2000

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
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Kij Johnson has created an achingly beautiful love story, a fable wrapped in smoke and magic set against the fabric of ancient Japan. Johnson brings the setting lovingly to life, describing a world of formalities and customs, where the exchange of poetry is a form of conversation and everything has meaning, from the color of the silks on wears to how one may address others.

Yoshifuji is a man fascinated by foxes, a man discontented and troubled by the meaning of life. A misstep at court forces him to retire to his long-deserted country estate, to rethink his plans and contemplate the next move that might return him to favor and guarantee his family's prosperity.

Kitsune is a young fox who is fascinated by the large creatures that have suddenly invaded her world. She is drawn to them and to Yoshifuji. She comes to love him and will do anything to become a human woman to be with him.

Shikujo is Yoshifuji's wife, ashamed of her husband, yet in love with him and uncertain of her role in his world. She is confused by his fascination with the creatures of the wood, and especially the foxes that she knows in her heart are harbingers of danger. She sees him slipping away and is determined to win him back from the wild...for all that she has her own fox-related secret.

Magic binds them all. And in the making (and breaking) of oaths and honors, the patterns of their lives will be changed forever.

The Fox Woman is a powerful first novel, singing with lyrical prose and touching the deepest emotions. A historically accurate fantasy, it gives us a glimpse into, and an understanding of, the history that shaped the people of one of our world's greatest nations. But it is also a story about people trying to understand each other and the times they live in, people trying to see through illusions to confront the truth of who they are.



There were four of us.

Grandfather was an old fox, of perhaps eight or nine years. Gray ran along his narrow jaw and in a broad streak from his black nose to between his black-tipped ears; it frosted his pelt so that he seemed almost outlined in gray light. His joints stiffened on cold wet days, and he liked to doze in the spring sunlight when he could. He was missing a toe on one of his front paws. When I was little and first realized he didn't have the same toes I had, I asked him why, and he told me a tanuki-badger bit it off, but I think he was teasing. He was like that.

Mother was simple, even for a fox. My brother and I watched her sometimes catch and lose a mouse a half-dozen times before she remembered to bite it while she still had her paws on it. We were amazed sometimes that she had survived long enough to bear us.

Fortunately, the place where we lived was thick with mice and chipmunks and other small prey. The grasses around our home were too long and dense for hawks, and the few humans who lived nearby chased off anything larger. Our only competition was a family of cats led by a black-and-white spotted female. They lived in a deserted outbuilding near the people, but they hunted in our range, and ignored us rigidly. The cats chased and lost mice, too. I think this was intentional for them, but who can understand cats? Even as a woman I have never understood them.

My brother and I had been born the winter before, down in the still air of the den. At first there were four kits, I think. One died early, before we saw daylight; she smelled sick and then she was gone. Another died when we were barely old enough to suck the juices from meat our grandfather brought us. That kit was the boldest of us; one night when he was still much too young he followed our grandfather out hunting and never came back.

Halfway to adulthood, my remaining brother was a gawky thing of long legs and oversized ears. His fur had not yet filled into its rusty adult coat, so his brush and neck-ruff were thin and spiky, dun-colored. I suppose I looked the same, but taller at the shoulder, heavier-boned. It was easy for me to pin him, and he usually ended the play by baring his belly to me. He was quiet, my brother.

I did not see all this back then. They were my family: why should I think of them? If anything, I associated them with their smells. Grandfather was bright and dusty, like damp leaves fallen underfoot. Mother was drying mud. Brother was tree bark and woodsmoke.

Words, words, words. There were no words then, just sensation: smell, sight, experience, day and night, as flat and complex as a brocade held too close to the eyes for focus, or a rainstorm full in the face. All details, no pattern. I have words now, maybe too many. I try to describe the fabric to you, but words will not make you wet or shelter you from the rain.

We lived in a tangle of tunnels and rooms hollowed out of packed dirt. Everything was wide--too wide, said Grandfather, who never did anything to change it--and worn smooth, and it smelled of a hundred generations of foxes. Our sleeping chamber was nearly at the bottom, lined with dead leaves and shed hair. We could all sleep together in it, but Grandfather no longer slept well, and he liked to lie nearer the entrance, where he could crawl out and stretch his legs when he needed.

The den was pitch-dark. Surrounded by the smells of my family and burrow, I lay inside on spring days: dozed and waited for the crisp scents of dusk. Filtered through the fur of my brother's haunch, I smelled the air outside, sweet and sharp.

Nights we went out.

Mother and Grandfather hunted, sometimes together but often alone, one leaving the other to watch as we kits played near the den. Mother never had anything to spare, but Grandfather usually returned dragging a soft-boned kiji-pheasant or a half-eaten hare, which he threw down for us to bicker over. We caught things on our own, as well: fledglings fallen from their nests, mice, voles. We learned to stamp for worms, and to catch birds, and to cache our kills for leaner days. I played with and ate the blue-black beetles that came my way, felt the smooth knotting of my joints operating, wrestled with my brother for the experience of hunting. I was learning to be a fox.

Our burrow was dug under a structure that was flat and black over our heads, supported by a forest of tree-thick pillars, each resting on a rock. When I was old enough to be curious about this, I jumped up into the structure.

I saw and smelled a cavern supported by pillars and roofed with dead grasses a tree's height over my head. The floor under my toes was of boxwood planks, smooth and cool and flat. Through a crack in the floor I heard my brother barking at my grandfather--impatient little noises. I scratched at the crack. Paws padded below. A nose snuffled upward.


"I'm walking on you?" I couldn't understand this.

"Where are you?"

I didn't know what to say. This floor I stood on was the roof over the burrow, I knew--there was my brother, after all--how could it be else?

A scrambling noise behind me.

"It is a building," Grandfather said, and he stretched and walked across to me. "A house. Humans make them." Brother clambered up after him.

I looked around. There were no walls, just empty screen frames and lattices. Beyond them I saw other buildings, roofed and walled and raised on posts, with covered walkways that led from one to the next. "This is a den," I said, realizing it. "The big buildings are chambers, and the little ones that lead from place to place are like tunnels. Or trails."

Brother sniffed at a pillar's base and lifted his leg against it. "How did they make this place?"

"And why?" I demanded. "If it's a burrow, it's open to everything. How can it be safe?"

"They were humans, they feared nothing. But it was not like this, back then. It was closed in with walls they could slide away or remove."

"How did they do that?" Brother asked.

"How did they do any of this?" I sniffed a lintel rubbed shiny by passing feet. Even now I smelled the shadows of people, ghosts in my nose.

Grandfather made a face, as if he'd eaten something bitter. "Magic."

"Humans don't have magic," I said scornfully. "Magic is spring turning to summer, day and night."

"There are a lot of sorts of magic, little bug-eater. More than you can know."

"What kind is this, then?" Brother asked.

"They have clever paws," he said. "They change things with them."

I inspected my own paws, cinnamon-colored with black-edged toes and ragged claws. Not clever, not magical. "But how?"

He bared his teeth: not hostile yet, but tired of the topic. "Give it a rest, Granddaughter."

Brother was marking every pillar, sharp little squirts of urine. I should check his marks, I knew. And Grandfather? He was temperamental at all times and smelled irritable now, like a high wind filled with dust, still a long way away. I should leave Grandfather alone, I knew. But how could I?

"I just want to know how their paws are clever--" I stopped when he took a step toward me. "Well, then, what other magics are there?"

"None that concern you," he said dampingly. "The people will never be back."

"But people live across the garden from us, past the wall--"

Brother came to sit next to us, lolling his tongue. "This is like that, isn't it? Where they live--those are dens, too, aren't they?"

"Mere servants' quarters," Grandfather snorted. "Wretched drafty barns. They bring their stock in to sleep under the same roof."

"I don't understand. Servants?" I said, but he continued without listening.

"This--" he looked around us, at the empty neglected buildings and walkways "--is where the master and mistress lived. They were sweet-smelling, sweet as flowers out of season. Her hair was black as my feet and fell clear to the ground when she stood. Not a knot or tangle in it. They wore fabrics like spider-webs. Gossamer. Their lives were a thousand kinds of magic. Poetry, calligraphy, moon-viewing, archery games in the wisteria courtyard--"

Poetry? Moon-viewing? How could I imagine what these things were?

Brother asked: "The fabric was made of spiderweb?"

"No, it was as if it were spiderweb."

My brother pressed his ears back against his skull. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Not to you. It is as though you see me and smell pine, as though eyes and nose fail to agree. Which is real? Am I your grandfather, or am I a pine?"

My brother whined and backed away.

"You're--" I said, and stopped. Thinking like this made me afraid, made me want to run or bite, to break the tension inside.

"Just because you do not understand a thing does not mean it's not real," Grandfather finally said.

"How do you know all this?" I asked.

"They were here," he said irritably. "I saw them. Noise all the time, bustle. We had to watch ourselves, not to be caught, or they would kill us."

"They don't sound so dangerous," I interrupted, bold because of my fright. "Even the humans on the other side of the wall are not dangerous if you stay out of their way, and they are much more active than this 'master' and 'mistress.'"

He grabbed me by the ruff and forced me down. I yelped. "What do you know, little milk-sucker? They are the most dangerous of all--more dangerous than bears."

I abased myself until his grip loosened and I squirmed free.

"If this was their den," Brother asked, "where are they now?"

"Gone," Grandfather said. "There's nothing left here. Come down."

Brother moved to the edge. "Why would they leave this place?"

"Who knows?" he said irritably. "I was not much older than you when they left."

A breeze ruffled my fur. I shivered. "What if they return? Their den is right over ours."

"They will never come back." Grandfather dropped heavily to the ground.

* * *

I had this dream, back when I was no more than a fox. In the waking world I never looked at the sky--why would I? There was no prey there--but in this dream I did look. A ...

Copyright © 2000 by Kij Johnson


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