Chapter III: In a Lonely Place [Foxtrot]
Zuru does not weather the night deep in the den. Zorro might be wounded, but Zuru is hungry, and the night is prime for hunting. He does not travel far, for he can hear Wolf howling to the North, toward the lodge. Lynxie is no doubt prowling the woods, combing the area for game to sate her hunger. Coyote is closing in on the edge of Kuni no Kori.
Zuru catches little, for the other creatures sense the stench and call of their predators. The rabbits are hidden and still in the darkness, deep under thickets. Deer are lying still in the meadows—not that Zuru would attack them anyway. Voles and mice seem to have disappeared from the world altogether, and an owl screams in a tree with rage.
Zuru pounces on the single rabbit he manages to catch and eats. Then, against even his better common sense, he trots up to the lodge. He is hungry, and even the threat of Wolf and Lynxie cannot drive him off for long. Coyote has been up recently; he will not be back for a while, or so Zuru reasons.
He is glad he comes. The couple have left a little bit of food out on the porch. He doubts it is for anyone but him; they have only met him, and he thinks they might have been impressed with his fine manners. It is only a morsel that they have left him, and they have left it well away from the door. He will check tomorrow afternoon to see if they have left more. He will not expect them to leave him much, but he is sure they’d much rather him eat it than Wolf or that cheater Coyote.
He eats, then dodges out to the garbage pile. Wolf howls close by, however, so he doesn’t bother to nose around. He heads back to Kuni no Kori, back to the den. He can hear Kuenai tending to his father, and Umisen’yamasen is asleep in the foyer. Sometimes, the old fox sleeps outside, atop the den.
Zuru makes his way to his own chamber, and sleeps there. He sleeps there through the wee hours of the morning, listening to the frogs in the pond and the howling of Wolf. When the sounds of the night begin to fade and the sounds of the day begin to rise, he wakes. He lies there, curled up, with his tails wrapped about his nose. He listens to the songbirds heralding the start of a new day. Then, he sleeps for a little while longer.
Then, it is time for another day of prancing about the forest, catching prey, and hassling humans. Zuru stretches and yawns, then parades out of the den, into the sunlit world. He blinks a few times, adjusting from the darkness of the den to the brightness of the day.
Kuenai is lying on a bare patch of earth a few yards away from the den. A fly buzzes into her eye, and gets caught in her lashes. “Good morning,” she says. She eyes her grandson warily.
He yawns and arches his back. “Your father has gone to Huali to fetch your bride,” she tells him lazily.
“My bride?” he asks, his tails swishing and swatting at the flies who would dare to try and suck the blood of the Crown Prince of Kuni no Kori. “I thought I should not have my bride until I had nine tails and immortality.”
Kuenai closes her eyes. “Your father grows leery,” she murmurs. She puts her head down on her paws and sighs. “Lorne prowls still. Coyote, Wolf, and Lynx grow nearer and nearer. These are the least of his troubles, as discontent grows in the Kitsune no Youkai.”
Zuru frowns. Kuenai looks drole. “He fears his own people may turn against him. He goes forth to fetch your bride.”
Zuru sighs, and turns away from his grandmother. He trots off into the woods. Huali is many days’ travel away. Zuru and Kuenai will be in charge of the Kitsune no Youkai until Zorro returns. If anything should happen. . .
Zuru travels over to Lorne’s first. The dogs are still asleep. Lorne’s traps are empty, and the cages that line his yard are fox-free. Zuru moves down to MacRaleigh’s. He’ll patrol the perimeter; he will leave Kuenai in charge of Kuni no Kori itself.
MacRaleigh’s is just as quiet as Lorne’s. He counts the voices of the chickens, all of them, including the rooster. No one has had the foolishness to try and steal one, despite the fact the yard reeks of Coyote.
Zuru makes his way quickly over to the lodge. He does not like the heavy scent of Coyote in MacRaleigh’s yard. He makes sure to splash through the stream, lest he be trailed by a lone dog.
The situation suddenly seems more tense than it did in the tranquil moonlight of last night. The air is colder today, Zuru notes, his eyes scanning the sky, then falling to some of the naked tree limbs. The breeze smells more of pine smoke than it did yesterday. The humans might have started lighting fires in their homes, but the first frost has not come yet. The days are waning in warmth, but they will be warm for about a week yet.
Zuru doesn’t bother to nose around the garbage pile. He checks around the lodge. The plate his morsel was sitting on is still on the porch. The humans aren’t up yet. He almost sighs in relief, then trots back down to the woods.
He feels threatened somehow, a strange tightening in his chest, between his lungs. He does not like it.
He happens across Wolf. The big dog is regal and poised, despite the blood around his mouth. His belly is full, and he will not attack Zuru. Zuru ignores the remains of the black one’s meal, and dashes back to Kuni no Kori. Wolf howls, summoning his brethren together. Zuru runs faster.
Kuni no Kori seems to be deserted, except for Umisen’yamasen. He has taken up residence atop the den and is sleeping peacefully in the sunshine. Zuru wants to bark at him, but he hears the cries of the Wolves in the distance. They are hidden deep in the thickets, and Umisen’yamasen, though old, is still regal. Wolf will not challenge the Nine Tails. Zuru, on the other hand, is just something to be devoured. Until he attains his nine tails and his immortality, Zuru must be just as wary as other foxes.
He darts into the deep dark of the den, and curls up there. Today is not a good day. Today is a horrible day, and the tension has left Zuru panting and scared. He tries to sleep. But sleep is not much better than the day; it is not restful, and more than once does he see his father die in his dreams. His tails and feet twitch.
Kuenai sticks her snout in his ear, then bites him. He is not a kit any longer, and she will not treat him as such. “Why are you so afraid?” she snarls at him. “Are you a coward? Coyote sleeps the day away, and Lynx has retreated to the cool of her den. Wolf walks still, but he is full and proud. These sunlit hours belong to the Kitsune no Youkai.”
She turns about and leaves the den. Zuru lies in the darkness, panting for a moment or two. Then, he decides that his grandmother is right. So, he crawls out of the den, shaking the dirt from his fur and standing proud. The day has waned, and the breeze is stronger. It whips through his fur.
He leaves Kuni no Kori for the second time that day. For the second time, Zuru makes his way up to the Ruse lodge. The strange vehicle from yesterday is gone, but another vehicle has replaced it. Zuru trots around the porch and listens along the wall for voices.
He hears nothing save a clicking sound. He pauses, then sits in front of the door. He waits there a while, but no one emerges. Growing bored, Zuru decides his time is being wasted here and ventures down into the woods.
No sooner has he made it back to the trees, however, than the door swings open, and a human walks out. Zuru is quick to make sure he looks nothing more than a red fox, and he watches the human.
He is a young human, a beautiful human, Zuru thinks. If he were kitsune, he would be a beautiful silver fox, Zuru thinks. He watches the human, his pale skin and his dark features, as he walks across the porch. He stretches and yawns. Zuru is transfixed.
The human walks the length of the porch, gazing dazedly up at the sky. Zuru follows, trotting along parallel to the porch, from the safety of the trees. The human pauses, then turns, his eyes seeking Zuru in the foliage.
“Oh,” he says, “hello there.”
Zuru wonders what a true red fox would do. He himself has no fear of humans, except those wielding a gun. But the red foxes, he knows, are wary and suspicious. He eyes the human, but doesn’t bolt yet.
“I was told about you,” the human says with a smile.
Zuru almost snarls. It seems like a natural reaction. The human turns away from him and makes as though to head back to the room. Zuru hops up on the porch and follows him. The human stops. “Oh,” he says, “curious little fellow, huh? Well, I’m sorry. You can’t come in.”
Zuru sits down on his haunches and frowns at the human. The man goes back into his hotel room and shuts the door. Zuru feels the tension of the day lift, the anxiety evaporating. An easy smirk comes to his lips. He prances off into the forest, concocting his little prank in his mind as he goes through the sun-dappled forest.
A fox might not go in, but a vixen, he is sure, would be welcome. . .
He chuckles to himself and decides to go and visit one of the construction sites. The humans are putting in a bunch of new buildings on the other side of the village. They tore up a lot of the forest to do it, and they’ve used most of the old McNab farm too. Perhaps that is why Coyote has a stronger presence near Kuni no Kori now; all those who lived near McNab’s had to move away from the humans.
Zuru wanders around the excavated site, weaving his way between the foundations of the buildings. Little orange flags wave in the wind. For a moment or two, Zuru thinks he might have wandered into the desert. The parched, cracked soil is a sandy color. This dusty place stretches onward to the horizon.
Humans gasp behind him, and his ears swivel in their direction. “Look, look,” one of them hisses, “a fox.”
Zuru wonders if it is really so rare to be in the presence of a fox; perhaps the humans are just awed at the way he stands there, brash and bold, in the open for all to see. No doubt the humans are in the presence of a fox more often than they know.
They chatter on a moment. They watch him parade back and forth before them, before he grows bored of their outbursts and hushed exclamations of awe. He turns and ducks between the house frames, working his way back toward the woods and Kuni no Kori. The sun is beginning to set, and no doubt Coyote would find it easy to hunt him out here.
Besides, if he wants to put his little scheme into action, he ought to be back to the lodge when the stars begin to dot the sky. The moon had already risen while he stood in that lonely patch of place. It is a strange thing, to see moon and sun share the sky. It makes the planet feel lonelier somehow. Zuru shudders at the wind in his fur, and he feels, for the first time, all alone.
He wonders if that is what immortality feels like.