The story from the series ‘Fairy Tales of the Old Zoo’ by Nika Bathen.
|Illustration here https://invir-lazarev.livejournal.com/3040.html
All animals are equal, but there is a belief that some are more equal than others. A silver fox, who was known in the zoo as "Belle", knew it and showed it. Her cage was more spacious; food for the ‘princess’ was served in human dishes and her water in a tea bowl.
The blue-eyed Nastenka, the canines’ caretaker, would add an extra piece of liver or salmon for her and grumble, "I wish I ate from such porcelain." The silver fox would lick her sweet muzzle, without any expression of gratitude. She was absolutely gorgeous! Her glossy coat was perfect - the underside dark, silver at the ends, a black mask on her narrow muzzle and black stockings on her small paws which were decorated with white claws. But the most beautiful of all were her enchanting eyes, which seemed to be made from pieces of old amber. Sometimes it seemed like there was a flame burning deep in her eyes, sometimes it was the sun, and sometimes sweet viscous honey seemed to splash around inside. When a visitor looked into her eyes, he would be unable to look away for a long time. After such an encounter, men would have feverish dreams, and women would become more affectionate towards their husbands and lovers. This was because the fox knew how to evoke sensuality in others. Belle had been doing this for nearly a thousand years.
But it's not polite to discuss a lady's age. Belle, or Akomati, as she had been called in her homeland, appeared in the zoo, when it was still called a menagerie and had rows of cramped cages. She settled in the zoo a year later than the parrot, Zakonya, who was the oldest of the zoo's inhabitants.
Belle was happier with her modest refuge more than some persons, living in the palace.
Akomati was born in Yamato country, at the foot of Mount Shiomi.
Her venerable mother and her grandmother, the head of the fox clan, and every woman of the family used to lay leaves covered with spells on their heads on a full moon and bow down before the goddess Inari. Then they would to whitewash their faces, dress up in patterned kimonos and go on a hunt - to seduce careless peasants, lustful officials, naughty samurai, and even priests who did not honor their own vows. The Ki energy, transmitted by male blood, gave the Kitsune foxes a long life. The silk, gold and other gifts from their lovers were for the well-being of the kitsune big clan. Contrary to rumors, the beauties did not seek to kill their victims - they might happen to overdo it a bit or to trick a poor man into lovesickness, but usually the foxes were not cruel. You don’t need to kill golden goose, you can just steal the eggs.
In her youth, Akomati, like many girls, made mistakes - she became attached to her casual lovers, protected them from enchantments and enemies; she wasted energy instead of storing it. Among her lovers, there was even a prince-sinno, an inspired poet and warrior — the breaker of young Akomati's heart.
To the fields in springtime
Did I come
So welcoming the fields
A single night I slept there.*
*Yamabe no Akahito (700-740)
For the man she loved, Akomati settled in his cramped palace and tolerated all the ridicule of ladies-in-waiting and servants. She learned to play the shamisen and serve sake. She became an expert in Heian era poetry.
The face of the evening moon is
flickering on the wet satin,
and my sleeve is glossy -
as if the moon is shedding tears with me
*Lady Ise (877-940)
The prince admired the beauty of her snow-white skin and her slender figure. He visited her every single day and sent her exalted haikus. Then the effects of male attention became clear – she gained weight and ugly pigment spots appeared on her skin. The prince turned away from Akomati. The annoying ladies of the court, headed by the Lady of the Northern Chambers, began to bother her. According to ancient custom, Akomati had to give birth to a child into the Lady of the Northern Chambers’ lap so that the baby would belong to the prince's family.
The disappointed witch-fox escaped through the window. She later left the newborn in the house of a childless calligrapher and stopped getting attached to men. All the rough males needed was her body, but Akomati recognized the cost of her appearance. She could become anything they wished she to be — young, old, plump or slender. All she needed was to write the magic hieroglyphs on a leaf.
Years turned into centuries. Akomati had matured. She grew seven tails and had planned to have all nine. But life doesn't always turn out the way you planned it.
A couple of naughty foxes from the Akomati family got into the habit of tickling novices in a nearby monastery to death. By the time the elder kitsunes heard about it, it was too late to do anything about it — the young brother of the abbot had died. The enraged abbot of the monastery rejected the generous gifts of the fox- grandmother and called the brethren to the war. The monks, of course, could not kill the foxes, but they could easily lock them in a four-legged form, and turn them into mindless beasts. Many kitsune fled and took refuge in the shrine of the goddess Inari. But Akomati wasn’t so lucky. She did have a powerful enemy - the ascetic Yesifuji.
Hoping to weaken the spirit of her enemy, the witch- fox lured him to a feast, charmed him, fed him a white rabbit stew, treated him to sake and almost seduced him ... Damn sutras!
Realizing the depth of his fall, Yesifuji vowed not to wash or shave his head until he got his revenge on the tailed witch. Akomati fled to the coast and snuck into the hold of a ship. She set foot on solid ground only in a cold and wild foreign land.
The fox did not like everything here: the climate, water, food, strange gods and strange habits of white gaijins. Akomati sneezed, scratched like a vulgar dog, and was already close to her reincarnation. Fortunately, Bao, a Chinese tea dealer, picked up and sheltered the poor foxy. He was the only man who did not fall under her spell. For years, Akomati had been living in his teashop, pretending to be the daughter of a Chinese man. She had been putting aromatic teas into bags, smiling at the customers and playing the shamisen in the evenings. However, a change for the worse happened just as she was settling down in her new land. Times became turbulent, and Bao, fearing for the life and honor of his "daughter", advised her to wait out the troubled days in the form of a fox. He personally put the fox in a basket, took it to the menagerie and sold it for next to nothing. For several years, Bao had been visiting the kitsune twice a month, but then he was gone for good, and Akomati stayed in the menagerie.
Elsewhere, the strange fox's longevity would have raised questions, but the zoo was lucky both with the authorities and with the wondrous animals. The woolen female rhinoceros, Anyuta, the shy pterodactyl, Jose, and the man-ape, Sambo, were the least strange of animals in the zoo. In addition, the kitsune made it a rule to visit each new director of the zoo to confirm her privileges. No one dared to bother her.
In winter, the kitsune did not leave her cage — the snow slush was fatal for her kimono and geta; but from April to October, every full moon was a season for hunting. Sometimes Akomati walked around the zoo at night, and sometimes she turned into a girl at dawn and enjoyed the scenery in the old park until late at night.
There were rumors among the townspeople about a mysterious beauty that charmed the chosen ones, but the lucky men did not admit anything. Among the zoo stuff, only Palych knew the truth - as a night watchman, he watched everything that was happening in the entrusted territory, and as a faithful husband, he stayed away from the fox's path.
The curious Akomati had studied the regular visitors to the zoo park very well. There were persistent ‘fishermen’ who tried to catch fish from the dark zoo pond, quiet drunks, hardworking artists, harmless perverts in raincoats, and those who went for morning jogs or evening walks. But one day a long nosed stranger with glasses came who did not look like anyone else. The young man wandered along the alleys like an autumn leaf. He stood still looking at flowering trees and ripening fruits, then he admired the dance of dragonflies and dewdrops on the thin September web. People don't behave like that! She watched him from the thickets, and then she stalked him. The surprised kitsune had been following the weird person for months. Finally, she gave up and talked to the guy.
“Forgive my curiosity, honorable sir, but what are you looking at so intently?"
“Oh, look how sad the fallen jasmine petals are! This flower will not bear fruit, and its beauty is wasting irretrievably.
The falling of the flowers
Is sad, indeed;
In the spring haze
On Tatsuta Mountain
A warbler cries…”
Indeed, the sprinkling of snow-white petals on the bright green grass looked incredibly defenseless. Akomati couldn't help remembering the poem that Prince-Sinno had loved so much:
“These blossoms’ hue
But briefly flourishes
So richly, yet
Time and time again
Dewdrops stain them.” *
“What a deep understanding you have! Have you read ‘Poems of Ancient and Modern Times’? Interested in Japanese poetry?" the guy asked the kitsune.
His voice rang like a spring stream in a bamboo grove, and his blue eyes were clear and direct.
"The sweetest prey to catch!" the fox-witch thought.
*Takamuko no Toshiharu
Smiling slyly, Akomati assured the stranger that she had studied the poetry of the Yamato country from every angle and would be happy to join him in search of the secret meaning of the lines "Anyway, I won't go to my bedroom alone without you…". The guy objected to her that the sun was still high for the bedroom, but there was enough time to contemplation of the beauty of nature, and invited her to admire the graceful heap of stones covered with green moss. Intrigued Akomati followed her companion. She overcame the thickets of wild rose, windbreak and swamp, in order to make sure that fifteen boulders were located by nature in such a way that only fourteen of them can be seen from any point of view. How exquisite it was!
The kitsune started carelessly enjoying nature, sitting on the shabby jacket of her companion. The chirping of birds and the light rustle of young foliage harmoniously complemented a complete picture. The guy was silent shyly, but only once he said with a sigh:
"The waters of the Yodo River
Seem to be motionless
To those people on the shore,
But the rushing undercurrent
Washes the depths of the heart."
When the sun slid behind the treetops, her new friend escorted Akomati to the zoo gate. He introduced himself as Grisha and said goodbye to Akomati without regret. Neither her musk scent, nor her gentle speech, nor her meaningful and languid gaze worked. The kitsune just couldn’t utter a word from such indifference. She turned into a fox right at the ticket counter, and the watchman Palych carried her to her cage, taking her by the scruff of her neck. That was really embarrassing for the witch-fox.
The scorned Akomati was so upset that she lost her appetite for a couple of days. She set her mind to forget about walking in the park for next hundred years, but on the morning of the next full moon, she was sitting on a bench in the central alley, rejecting the flirting of passing cheeky men. Grisha did not meet her that day, but a month later, he went for a walk in the park and shared with the kitsune the subtle charm of maple leaves. The deep blue sky, breaking through the frilled trees’ crowns were most beautiful she had ever seen. The wilting grass smelled so exciting and there was so much sadness in the barely audible voices of the swans leaving their homeland... Oh, noble heart!
In October, Akomati made her way to the park despite a sprinkle of rain. The caring Grisha took an umbrella with him. He walked with the kitsune hanging on his arm until evening, discussing the taste of fugu fish, the process of sharpening samurai swords and the differences in the writing of hieroglyphs in manyogana and hiragana. Grisha was a Japanologist, the only specialist in the city that they would go to translation of televisions' or machine tools' manuals. But his real passion was high poetry and he could talk endlessly about it.
The witch-fox felt with her sixth sense that the man liked her: his heart was beating fast, his smell was bitter and he got the little beads of sweat on his forehead. But Grisha did not allow himself a frivolous word or a rude gesture; he admired his lovely companion as if she were a cherry blossom flower or a sunset cloud. The elevated feelings!
The winter seemed very long to Akomati. She sneaked into the park in her fox form several times. The zookeeper was dismayed each time, when she saw the empty cage.
Of course, Akomati saw Grisha who walked along the alleys, admired the snow-covered branches of firs and patterns of white ice over the dark water of the pond. A couple of times she saw him walking on the arm of dressy girls. He was talking to them about the sad fate of Sei-Senagon and was quoting Genji-monogatari, but the ignorant coquettes complained about the cold and the discomfort. Truly, "Even in jest, I would not be attracted to these changeable prudes." And still, the kitsune's heart sank with a vague longing: is there any point in telling about fragile beauty of things to those who, even in bed are only able to talk about miso and salt?
Spring cheered the sad witch-fox up, briefly. There were not sakura trees in the city, but the lush flowers of apple trees were suited for admiring. Dressed up Grisha was waiting for Akomati in the central alley, as if they had agreed to meet. He brought home-made onigiri with him, which were pretty edible, and a Chinese thermos of decent Georgian tea. A pinkish lace of tender blossoms swayed in a gentle breeze. The finches sang like crazy. The first butterflies sat on the kitsune's black hair that had given sophistication to her strict hairstyle.
“If I could ask
A furious wind,
Then I would tell him,
"Please have mercy
at least on one of the spring cherry trees,
Do not touch its flowers! "
Kitsune felt the balmy breath of her beloved man and the beating of his hot heart, saw how his blue eyes sparkled with joy ... But as soon as the sun was setting, Grisha escorted her to the zoo gate and cautiously said goodbye.
"Ah, the petals are falling,
They are passing away
By the creek flow."
Having lost hope, Akomati gave in silent sorrow. Fox tracks no longer beautified the park alleys, and no one admired the rock garden. On nights with a full moon, she wandered the paths of the zoo, playing the shamisen, and the whining of the foxes echoed the tunes of the yearning kitsune. A couple of times, adventure lovers their luck with her, but the beauty showed her bad temper. One womanizer even had to go to the first-aid station, to get his bitten butt stitched and rabies shots.
The trees were covered with dense foliage, then the leaves turned yellow and reddened ... Grisha came to the zoo when the maple leaves began to drop. Having circled the alleys, he accurately stopped in front of the cage "Vulpes vulpes, nicknamed Belle" and knelt down in front of the bars.
“Without you, my beautiful lady, the dying park has lost its charm. Do I dare to hope for a new meeting?”
“Waf-waf-wow?” the kitsune barked. “How did you know?”
“I would recognize the mistress of my heart again anywhere, even in the rags of a beggar, even in the skin of a beast. Your eyes heal the melancholy of separation,” Grisha admitted.
"I admire and sigh from a distance,
I would not ever dare to pick this flower,
Which captured my heart that evening,
And my longing grows stronger with every minute."
That night, the witch-fox disappeared from her cage and never came back.
At first, the zookeeper, Nastenka, was not worried. She was used to Belle's absences. Later she had to go to the police with a statement about the loss of the valuable animal and to put the missing posters around the neighborhood, but every effort was in vain.
In the spring, a pair of little black foxes occupied the empty cage.
They were not as chic as Belle, and, of course, not so aristocratic, but they attracted the attention of visitors with their cheerful fuss and sonorous barking. Nastenka became attached to the kids, spoiled them, and took them out for a walk using a harness. She was pleased the affection of her new animals, who were so different from the arrogant old fox.
Years and animals changed. Memories faded. Few would have recognized Akomati in a graceful middle-aged woman, who was dressed conservatively, but a little classily. Clattering her low heels on the pavement, she had been visiting the zoo with her two lovely twin girls in the fall and spring.
Kitsune traded the fox skin for the title of Professor of Japanese Studies. Her husband Grisha loved her more than life, admired her immensely and wrote a hokku for her on every wedding anniversary. Life finally smiled on the witch-fox.
And only to Palych seemed to see the tip of the tail from under the checkered skirt of the elegant lady, and the sharp teeth in the scarlet mouths of the sweet children.
But who would believe an alcoholic night watchman?
(translated into English by Invir Lazarev — 2020)