A streak of light trailed across the sky as the young fox chased it from the lake at the base of the forest valley. Surely it was a star landing, though why would a heavenly messenger come when it wasn’t yet dark?
Her petite paws pounded and clawed against the ground, kicking up dirt behind her. She pushed and gulped in air, forcing her cramping muscles to move since her dream from the night before remained vivid—of a star from the heavens visiting and bringing an important task. She HAD to meet the star. Following it all the way to her house, only added tangibility to her hopes.
Panting hard, she entered her den, forgetting to wipe her paws as she charged through the genkan entryway. Her legs wobbled as she scrambled to the tatami mat room with the open hearth where her family welcomed guests. When she reached the doorway, she skittered to a stop. Her heart pounded in her chest and her mouth turned dry. She wasn’t presentable. What if the star didn’t like her because she neglected common courtesy or that her family would look bad if she didn’t make herself respectable?
But she had to peek around the corner. She gaped at the profile of the most beautiful white fox. A quick sniff said the visitor was male. No other foxes in her acquaintance were white, nor did anyone have such lustrous fur. Why did he have a faint glow?
Ready to haul tail outside, she put one paw out to lean in for a better measure of his features. His head turned as if he felt her stare. The breath left her lungs. Her muscles refused to move. Her mind reeled, but her body wouldn’t respond.
When her father’s icy glare lit on her unkempt form, icy dread filled her core. Her head drooped and her gaze fell to her muddy paws, which were visible from the door. Why didn’t she take the time to make herself ready to be seen?
“Hisako. Come here. The messenger from Inari wishes to speak with you,” her father’s voice boomed in her ears, though he remained calm.
It took all her will to pad primly into the main living area, where the shimmering white fox sat on a cushion next to the tokonoma display alcove across the central brazier from her father. There would be no glancing back at the mud prints trailing behind her. No matter what, she would hold her head high because she was Nakamura Nobu’s daughter. Her father’s disapproval was palpable and caused her stomach to knot. Taking her place, she tried to keep her forepaws from trembling while she waited for the messenger to speak.
The silence stretched as the visitor looked from his paws to hers. He shook his head as if he remembered he had a duty. “Nakamura-chan, my message isn’t from Inari. It’s from Soujoubou, the King of the Tengu. He expects one of your clan to provide service for the nation. Your father said you would be a good fit.”
She twitched. Did he say KING OF THE TENGU? The scary, loud, and often mean crow people? Me? Represent the family? I’m only a kit!
As if her legs had a mind of their own, she scrambled backward, colliding with the wall. Her cheeks warmed, and she sprinted from the room. It didn’t matter where she went, she had to escape. She whispered a word of kotodama to hide her scent as her lope carried her down the mountain, through the basin, past the lake, and up another slope. As she passed a rotted tree, she skittered to hide in it. Her father’s shouts and the melodious barks of the messenger called her name from across the valley, but she shrunk against the surface in the dark, safe space of the tree’s hollow.
After darkness fell, the crunch of twigs announced an intruder, and she trembled. The musk of the white fox filled her nose. You could see him again... But you made a fool of yourself.
“Nakamura-chan? I know you’re there. Come out.”
Her throat constricted too tight for her to answer.
“Little one, are you afraid of me or of Soujoubou?”
“S... Soujoubou,” she squeaked. When he poked his head into the hollow of the tree, she screeched, “Don’t look at me! A star such as you is too bright to be near a muddy kit like me!”
“I’ve met him, you know. He is loud, but not rude. He’s also strong, courageous, and kind-hearted when you learn to see past his brashness. Your family is concerned since the sun set a while ago. I can walk you back to the house.”
“But my father will be angry with me,” she whispered as her stomach tightened again.
“Didn’t you notice how surprised he was?”
Peeking her head out of the opening, she asked, “You aren’t only saying that?”
“No, little one. Part of my vows in serving Inari is to always be truthful.”
So she emerged, bowing low. “Thank you for finding me.” And for helping me be less afraid.
Back at the den, Nakamura Nobu said nothing to her. He’ll have words with me later, I suspect.
“What does Soujoubou mean by expecting service from our family?” her father asked the messenger. “Hisako-chan will do whatever he asks, but she does best when she understands the situation.”
“He’s making plans to protect the nation. That is all I know,” the white fox said. “Now little one, do not fear. Soujoubou is reputable. He has his reasons for calling on a kitsune family. When the time comes, I will guide you. His house is impossible to find unless someone shows you the way.”
Every night for over a decade, she looked for the blazing light trail that would announce his arrival. But the call to meet Soujoubou would not come for many years.