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The Foxes

Tree.  Wood.  Thursday.

Water. 

So many brushstrokes to learn.  So many words to teach.

So many images to forget.

Gazing down through the clouds, her eyes peer into the barren swamps of Siberia.  Somewhere in the rows behind her, a baby cries. Finally the plane swoops lower down, toward the maple trees, the autumnal colours of December in Japan.

Later, in the tall hotel where caged birds sing in the jasmine-scented lobby, she inspects the soft blue cotton kimono spread out on the coverlet.  She ties the sash tightly around her waist.  Then she tears into the plastic package to release white terrycloth slippers.  They fit snugly across her insteps as she paces around the tiny, perfect room.

Finally she huddles in the armchair, sipping green tea and leafing through her kanji dictionary.  She ignores the patient ghosts that haunt the dusty corners of her mind.  Only later, when she is asleep, do they moan in her ears.

In the night, she wakes, as if summoned by an invisible baby’s cry, wailing in pain like that infant on the plane.

She rises in the dark and opens the blinds.  Far below dark figures huddle on the platforms, silhouetted against the white-gold station light.  Tomorrow she will take the famous bullet train out of that station, to the most ancient city of Japan. Far below her window, blue fairy lights sparkle in bare-branched cherry trees.  Christmas in Japan.

Her hosts from the Language School drive her up into the hills, to a hotel, on the mountainside, which offers another fresh kimono, another pair of slippers to warm her feet.  Mozart plays the clarinet whenever she flushes the loo.

Down a twisting corridor, she discovers a secret moss garden enclosed in glass.  Outside, on the mountain, she climbs up a steep and winding path, hearing only the sounds of her Ugg boots crunching on the pine needles and birds’ wings fluttering in the bushes.

I want to begin work as soon as I can, she tells her hosts.  I need to find a flat or at least a room of my own.

They shake their heads and smile.  There will be time enough to meet her students, to settle in.  They will help her.  But first she must pay homage to Kyoto—to the temples and the shrines. They have arranged for a car and a driver. What would she like to see?

A temple, she replies.

This time last year, he and she moved closer together than was really wise, leaning up against the back wall of the auditorium.  The two of them had always been friends.  They were the young teachers, the ones the children and the parents liked,.   That evening they stood shoulder to shoulder, listening to four-year-olds wearing dressing gowns and tea towels  singing Away in the Manger in tuneless soprano wailing.

You’re not religious, are you, she’d whispered to him in the dark.

I sometimes think I might be a Buddhist, he’d whispered back.

The last time she saw him, he was not whispering but shouting. He’d be really angry if he knew she was at a temple in Kyoto, while back in Camberwell he was once again dusting off the shepherd’s crooks for this year’s Nativity.

Next morning, she discards her shoes and clambers up flight after flight of slippery wooden steps, to gaze upon the golden Buddha.

Outside, in thin sunshine in the grey-green garden, the quiet wraps around her like a silken obi.  She sits on a wooden bench beneath a willow tree, breathing in the leafy silence in the wind.  Small birds flutter down and peck at the dirt beneath the gravel path.

Back in Camberwell, she could not have envisioned this state of grace, this perfect peace.  This is the perfect place to learn to read Japan.  Later, when she goes back to the hotel, she will take out her ink, practice her brushstrokes in the embroidered sketchpad she bought at that art shop by the lake.

She looks out at the swaying bamboo in the gravel garden.  Tree.  Wood.  It’s the first Thursday of a new life.

But she can’t yet escape back to the silence of her hotel room.  She must see more sights.  The car and driver have been booked for the entire morning.  What does she wish to do next?

I’d like to see a shrine, she says, hoping this will suffice to show her gratitude, her respect not just for the Buddha but also for the older Shinto gods.

The driver says he wants to take us to his very favourite shrine, her host whispers.  I myself have never been there.

In the car park they push past milling pilgrims.  All is blazing orange.  The driver follows them through the crowd.  She walks faster, out of reach of his acrid cigarette smoke.  Children chase each other across the gravel courtyard.

This shrine seems rather jolly, she observes to her host.  That temple was so beautiful but this is much livelier, isn’t it?

We have Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals, her host replies.

They climb past the temple gates, up a steep stony path enclosed within a canopy of rusting orange arches.  All along the path, stone foxes stand guard.  Their laughing faces stare at the pilgrims.  The foxes’ glass eyes sparkle.  They wear jaunty red bandannas tied around their necks.

Her sombre host presses his lips together.  He clasps his hands behind his back.  The fox god knows death as well as life, he murmurs.  The mothers who come to the shrine give the cloths to the foxes, to send a message to their babies who were born dead.

There were foxes in the allotments behind her London garden, shrieking in the night, as the clots of blood fell on the bathroom floor.  But London foxes shrink back from death.  They never offered to take a message to her half-born baby.

They climb upwards, through the endless tube of orange metal arches. Dark silence gathers underneath the shadow of the trees.

She looks back down the tunnel.  They are alone.  None of the other pilgrims have climbed so far up the hill.

At a breach in the parade of arches, the driver steps off the path.  He lights another cigarette.  I take my break, now, he says.  You go on.  Go up the path and see the lake.  People always go see the lake.

Do you want to go on? Her host looks doubtful.

She yearns for her hotel room, her clean kimono, her soft calligraphy brushes.  But this is her new life, in polite Japan.

Oh, certainly, I’d like to see the lake.

They duck their heads and enter the next segment of the rusting orange tunnel.  Outside the cage of arches, birds complain in the darkening woods.  The air smells of still green water.

They stumble out from the last of the arches into a field of gravestones.  An army of stone foxes leer at them.  The fox soldiers’ red bandannas hang limp in the windless air.  Feral cats twine their way through the gravestones, crying as urgently as the allotment foxes did, back in London.

The taxi driver emerges from the orange tunnel.   This is the place people come to see he says.  This is where the dead babies gather, in the dark, when only the cats and the stone foxes are here to see them.

Ruby-red maple leaves drift down, skating gently across the still surface of the lake.  The sun slides behind the clouds.  The cats slink back into the shadow of the gravestones.

Perhaps it’s time to head back to the car, says her host, looking at his watch.

But she steps forward, away from the men, toward the leaf-drowned lake.  Just under the silence, she hears multitudes of frightened babies, calling out to their lost mothers.

Please do take care, her host calls down to her.

She pays no attention.  She strains her ears, listening for the weary cry of one ill formed English baby, lost in the murmurings in Japanese.

Her feet sink down, through the leaf cover, into the mud.

Tree.  Wood.  Thursday.  Water.

Ghosts.

– Frances Hay is an American woman who has lived in Britain for nearly 30 years.  She is a psychologist who has written academic papers and books.  Her short stories have been published online in Flash Flood, Café Aphra Flash Fiction Fridays and the Mulfran Press Story of the Month series.

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