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The Fox Boy

2006-07-13 23:46

  Seven boys were walking along a country road in the moonlight. Some were quite young, having started school only a year or so before, and the others were somewhat older. They were on their way to the night festival of a shrine in the nearby town, which was about a mile away from their village.

  The moon was high in the sky, and the boys' shadows on the ground were very short. The boys were amused. How big-headed and short-legged their shadows were! They laughed. Some of them tried to change the shape of their shadows by running a few steps. On a moonlight night children are likely to imagine all sorts of very strange and fantastic things.

  The road ascended a little where it had been cut through a small hill. When they reached the summit, the boys could hear the faint notes of a festival flute wafted toward them on the soft breeze of the spring night. At the sound. Their steps became faster, and one small boy began to drop behind.

  “Hurry, Bunroku, hurry!” they called to him.

  The called Bunroku was in fact doing his best to catch up with the others. Even in the moonlight you could tell that he was a fair and thin little boy with enormous eyes.

  “I'm coming as fast as I can,” he called back in a whining voice. “But these clogs! They're Mother's, not mine.” And indeed his bony legs did end in a large pair of grown-up clogs, much too big for his small feet.

  Reaching the town, they first went to a clog shop on the main street. Bunroku's mother had asked them to buy him a new pair.

  Yoshinori, the oldest of the boys, spoke to the shopkeeper's wife, putting his hand on Bunroku's shoulder: “Listen, Granny, this is the son of Seiroku, the barrel-maker. He needs a pair of clogs that fit right. His mother said she'd pay you later.”

  The other boys pushed Bunroku to the front so the shopkeeper's wife could see him. The small son of the barrel-maker stood straight and still, blinking his big eyes now and then.

  Laughing, the woman took down from a shelf several pairs of clogs that she thought would fit the boy. Just as though he was the boy's father, Yoshinori squatted down and, one after the other, held the clogs up against Bunroku's feet. Bunroku stayed motionless and said nothing. Being the barrel-maker's only child, he was spoiled and used to having things done for him.

  One pair of clogs was finally chosen, and just as Bunroku was slipping his feet into the thongs, a very old woman with a bent back came into the shop. Noticing the boy and his new pair of clogs, she murmured, as though half to the boys and half to herself: “Dear, dear! I don't know whose child this is, but if you wear a new pair of clogs for the first time at night, you're sure to be bewitched by a fox.”

  For moment everyone was very quiet, and the boys simply stared at the old woman as though struck with fright. Then Yoshinori shouted: “No, that's not so!”

  “That's just a superstition!” cried another.

  All the boys nodded in agreement, and yet an expression of uneasiness remained on their faces.

  “Well, then,” said the shopkeeper's wife, “just leave it to me. I'll take away the spell for you.” Then she made the motions of striking a match and holding it briefly under the bottom of each of Bunroku's new clogs. This would have made a slight mark of soot on the clogs, you see, and kept them from being brand new. “Now, the spell's gone. Everything's all right. No fox or badger can bewitch you now.”

  Then the boys left the shop and went on their way to the shrine precincts, where an outdoor stage had been set up. A number of shrine maidens were performing the dance of celestial beings. The boys watched them closely as each dancer twirled two fans with amazing swiftness. From time to time the boys licked the stick candy in their hands, but without talking their eyes off the dancers. The maidens' faces were thickly coated with white, white powder, and it was some time before the boys recognized one of the dancers as Toneko, the girl who worked in the village bathhouse.

  “Look, look,” the boys whispered to each other, giggling, “that's just old Toneko.”

  After a while they had enough of the dancing and drifted off into the darker corners of the shrine precincts to watch the fireworks had firecrackers that were being ser off. Then a puppet show began on a lantern-lit float. The boys squeezed their way through the crowd and stood at the very front looking up at the little balcony-like stage on the float.

  A puppet was dancing. The boys watched it. The puppet looked neither like an adult nor like a child, and its black eyes shown so brightly that it was hard to believe it was not a real human being. From time to time the puppet blinked its eyes. The boys knew of course that it was the puppeteer standing behind the puppet who was making its eyes blink, but still they felt a little scared each time the eyes moved.

  Then, all of a sudden, the puppet opened its mouth, stuck out a long a tongue, and before the boys could give screams of surprise, snapped its mouth shut again. In a flashing instant the boys had seen that the inside of the puppet's mouth was all red. Again they knew it was the work of the puppeteer. If it had been daytime, they would have been moved to laughter. But none of them laughed now. In the light of lanterns that made mysterious shadows all about, there was a puppet who blinked its eyes and stuck a red, red tongue out of a red, red mouth. It really looked alive, and they were scared.

  They kept remembering Bunroku's new clogs and how the old woman had said: “If you wear new clogs at night, a fox will bewitch you.” They also realized they had stayed too long at the festival. The sound of firecrackers had died down, and the crowd was thinning out. And the boys remembered as well as the long way home over the hill and through the deserted fields.

  They started home; and the moon was still high in the sky. But their earlier excitement had become flat, and the moonlight no longer cheered them. They walked along in silence as though each of them was busy looking into some inner world of his own.

  When they reached the top of the hill, one of the boys cupped a hand to his mouth and whispered into the ear of the boy next to him. Then the second boy whispered to a third, and on the whispering went from one boy to the next until everyone except Bunroku had heard the secret.

  This is what they were whispering: “The shopkeeper's wife didn't take away the spell after all: she only pretended to strike a match.”

  The boys walked along, scarcely daring to breathe and not saying a word. They were all thinking the same thing. What exactly does it mean to be bewitched by a fox? Would the fox get inside of Bunroku? Or would Bunroku's mind turn into the fox's mind while his outside appearance remained the same? In that case, maybe the fox has already taken possession of Bunroku. But how can we tell if Bunroku doesn't say word? . . .

  The road was descending now. It went through a field planted with some low grass. The boys were walking faster, all thinking about Bunroku and the fox.

  The road went past a small pond with several plum trees around it. Just as they passed the pond, one of them made a faint coughing sound. In the silence they heard it very clearly. They looked suspiciously at each other. Everything was quiet, and they gradually realized that the sound had come from Bunroku.

  Bunroku had coughed! Did that have some deep meaning? The more they thought about it, the more they came to believe it hadn't been a cough at all. Surely it had sounded more like a fox's yelp.

  “Ahem!” There, Bunroku had done it again.

  And this time there was no doubt about it in the boy's minds: there was surely a fox among them. Frightened, they hurried on faster.

  Bunroku's house was in a grove of tangerine trees, in a little valley away from all the other houses. To get to it in the boy's minds: there was surely a fox among them. Frightened, they hurried in faster.

  Bunroku's house was in a grove of tangerine trees, in a little valley away from all the other houses. To get to it. You took a narrow path that branched off the main road just beside the water wheel. Usually the boys would go out of their way to accompany Bunroku to his gate, because they knew how helpless and spoiled he was. His mother often gave the boys tangerines and sweets, asking them to look after her little son. Even tonight, for example, they had taken the trouble to go to Bunroku's house and get him before starting for the festival.

  Now the group had reached the water wheel. They could see how the path to Bunroku's house descended into some tall grass and disappeared. None of them dared move. It seemed as though they had quite forgotten tat they usually took Bunroku home. But they hadn't forgotten at all: they were afraid. They were afraid of little Bunroku.

  At last Bunroku started down the path by himself. But he kept looking back, hoping that Yoshinori at least would come with him. But even Yoshinori made no move.

  Alone, Bunroku followed the path down into the moonlit valley. He could hear the muffled croaking of frogs from somewhere nearby. Now that he was almost home, he no longer minded that the older boys had not come with him. But they always had before. This was the first time they hadn't. Now, Bunroku was far from being an alert child, but at least he was sensitive enough to understand what had happened. He knew what the other boys had been whispering about and how they had felt when he coughed.

  Bunroku recalled how kind and helpful everyone had been on the way to the festival. But after he'd put on his new clogs, everyone had kept his distance from him. “They think a fox has bewitched me,” he thought, “and that's why they don't like me anymore.” His feelings were hurt. Even Yoshinori, who was much older and always very kind to Bunroku, had acted strange tonight. Usually this protector of his was quick to notice when Bunroku was cold and would give him his own jacket to keep him warm. But tonight Yoshinori hadn't offered his jacket, not even when Bunroku had coughed a second time.

  He had now reached the back gate to his house, just where the hedge ended. As he opened the little wooden wicket, he caught sight of his shadow on the ground. Then a suspicion crossed his mind: “Maybe a fox has bewitched me. If that's so, what will Mother and Father do with me?”

  His father had gone to a meeting of barrel-makers and would be late coming home. So Bunroku and his mother decided to go to bed without waiting for him. Though Bunroku had already started to school, he still slept with his mother. Indeed he was an only child, spoiled and helpless.

  After they were in bed, his mother said: “Well, tell me all about the festival.” She always wanted to know everything that Bunroku did. When he went to school, she wanted to know exactly what he had done every minute. When he went to town, she wanted to know everything that had happened. And when he went to a movie, she wanted to know the full story of what he had seen.

  Bunroku was not good at talking. He would tell what had happened bit by bit, joggingly. But his mother always listened intently and seemed very pleased by his accounts.

  “One of the celestial maidens-she was just old Toneko of the bathhouse,” Bunroku said.

  “Is that so?” His mother laughed heartily. “And who were the others-could you tell?”

  Bunroku opened his big eyes wide as though trying to remember. But his next remark had nothing to do with the festival. “Mother, is it true that a fox will bewitch you if you wear new clogs for the first time at night?”

  His mother, taken by surprise, looked puzzled for a moment. At first she couldn't understand what Bunroku was talking about. But she soon guessed what must have happened to her little boy.

  “Who said so?” she asked.

  Bunroku only repeated his question earnestly once more. “Is it really true?”

  “No, of course not. It was only in days long, long ago that people believed such things.”

  “Then it's a lie.”

  “Yes, it's a lie.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Absolutely.”

  For a few moments Bunroku was silent. He rolled his big eyes back and forth a time or two. Finally he asked: “But if it did happen, what would you do?”

  “If what happened?” asked his mother.

  “I mean, if a fox did bewitch me and I turned into a fox myself, what would you do?”

  His mother gave a peal of laughter.

  “Answer me! Answer me, Mother!” Half-embarrassed, he reached out and shook his mother.

  “Well, well,” said his mother, looking thoughtful. “If you became a fox, we couldn't keep you in the house of course.”

  Bunroku looked desolate as he listened to his mother's words. “Then where would I go?” he asked.

  “To Mount Karasune maybe,” answered his mother. “They say foxes still live there.”

  “But what would you and Father do then?”

  His mother put a very serious look on her face, the way grown-ups often do when they're teasing small children. “We'd talk the matter over, and probably we'd say: 'Now that our beloved Bunroku has a become a fox, we have no more joy in this world; so let's quit being human beings and become foxes too.'”

  “You an Father would become foxes too?”

  “You, your father and I will but new clogs and wear them tomorrow night, and that way we'll be turned into foxes. Then all three of us can go together to Mount Karasune.”

  Bunroku's eyes became bigger and bigger. “Is that in the west, where the tall mountains are?”

  “Yes, it's in Shimane Prefecture, southwest of Narawa.”

  “Is it deep in the mountains?”

  “Yes, and covered with pine trees.”

  “Wouldn't there be hinters?”

  “You mean, hunters with guns? Of course there would, because nobody lives there and there're many animals.”

  “If the hunters shoot at us, what'll we do then?”

  “We'll hide in a deep cave and huddle in a corner. Then the hunters won't see us.”

  “But when the snows come, there won't be enough food, and we'll have to go out for food, and then the hunters' dogs will find us.”

  “Then we'll run together for out dear lives.”

  “You and Father will be all right, because you're grown and can run fast, but I'm only a child fox and will be left behind.”

  “We'll take you by both paws and pull you along.”

  “With the dogs right behind us?”

  His mother fell silent, and when she next spoke, the teasing tone was gone from her voice: “Well, then I'll limp along slowly behind you.”

  “Why?” the boy asked.

  “Because that way it'll be me the dog catches in his teeth. He'll hold me there until the hunters come and tie me up fast. That'll give you and father time to run away to safely.”

  Bunroku was astounded. He stared at his mother round-eyed. “No, Mother, no!” he shouted, “then we'd be without you.”

  “But there's no other way, dear,” his mother said quickly. “Mother will go limping along behind, slower and slower.”

  “You won't! You won't! You won't!” Bunroku shouted, throwing himself about until he kicked his pillow off the bed. Then he clung to his mother for a moment, tears falling from his big eyes.

  The mother felt tears in her eyes too and furtively wiped them away with the sleeve of her nightdress. Reaching out for the little pillow, gently the slipped it under Bunroku's head.

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