THE JEALOUS FOX / Daigo Sugiyama

 

In the hot summer of 2013, a tiny Shinto shrine in the middle of Tokyo was burned to the ground. People have suggested the possibility of arson, but nothing specific has been announced by officials to this day.

I had been to the shrine a few months before the fire. It was still spring, chilly from the cold breeze that winter had left behind. Especially at night, the cold forced me and Narumi into our winter sweaters, me protecting my legs with denim, Narumi with a long frilly skirt.

“I hate coming to this lake,” I said. “Whenever we come, I feel like we’re spending more time swatting insects than talking.”

Narumi stretched her long, skinny legs far in front of her, placing her feet on the short wooden fence stretching parallel to the bench that we were occupying. I mirrored her move and stretched my own longer, slightly more robust legs.

“I like it here. I don’t mind the insects,” said Narumi. She looked ahead into the dark night, through the vegetation that was growing on the other side of the fence. I followed her gaze, and found the dark surface of the lake shimmering in the moonlight.

“It’s the water,” I said. “It makes the weeds grow, and then the bugs are attracted to them. It sucks.” I swatted a fly that was buzzing in my ear.

“It’s not even hot enough for them to be out yet,” I added.

Narumi touched her hair, adjusting her fringe just above her eyes into a straight line. A breeze blew past us, making the tips of her short hair flutter.

“Do you remember the time we rowed across the lake?” asked Narumi.

I looked to my right, my line of sight obstructed by the shadow of a densely populated patch of leaves and flowers. A few boats were supposed to be stationed on the other side, ready to be used by families and couples.

“Yeah, but that was in the summer. It’s too cold to be out on the lake now,” I said.

“Maybe,” said Narumi. “But we were there, and we loved it.”

I stared intensely into the vegetation, trying to catch a glimpse of the boats.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, turning my head back forward to face the lake. “But I was probably swatting mosquitos, just like I, well, we always do in the summer.”

Narumi crossed one leg over the other.

“Maybe,” she said. “But we still had fun.”

“You might have,” I said.

Narumi’s cheeks were lit in a light shade of blue, her round eyes and tall nose staring at the ripples of the black watery surface. The shimmers of the water reflected off her eyes, making them look as though they were gleaming with interest.

“Aren’t you bored?” I asked.

“No,” Narumi replied shortly.

“Well, I am.” I stretched my neck.

A fly flew past my face. I felt another one crawling up my hand.

“And these flies! How can you not be annoyed?”

Narumi turned to me and placed her hand on mine.

“I enjoy your company,” she said. She stared at me, as if she was waiting for an answer.

I sighed and took my hand from her.

“What time is it?” I asked.

Narumi took her phone out of her skirt pocket, and handed it to me. Before I could turn it on to see the time, the phone vibrated in my hand and lit up to show a message. I froze, staring at the screen, before I put the phone back to sleep mode and handed it back to Narumi.

“Let’s go for a walk.” I stood up, and she followed.

We walked side by side along the perimeter of the oval shaped lake.

The place was quiet with young couples holding hands and kissing on every other bench. A group of teenagers were laughing and yelling at each other on a set of swings in the distance.

“Look,” said Narumi. She was pointing at a bridge hanging across the lake. Tiny balls of light were sprinkled all about the exterior of it. The bottom of the wooden structure hovered just above the surface of the lake, making the yellow lights look like fireflies, frozen, sparkling midflight, just above the waterline. Narumi looked on in amazement, her cheeks sparkling as they plumpened up into a smile.

For a second, I lost myself in her smile, remembering what it was that I loved so much about her. Her large, glistening eyes, her plump cheeks, the tiny dimple that appeared beneath them when she smiled. A vaguely familiar warm feeling began to swell in my body, but was stabbed to death immediately by a sharp sting in my chest.

“Narumi,” I said. “Who’s Ken?”

Narumi lowered her hand, and held mine loosely.

“There’s a shrine up ahead,” she said.

I tried to loosen my hand free, but she tightened her grip and wouldn’t let go.

“Narumi,” I said.

“There’s a legend that says the spirit of a fox lies in the shrine. I want to see it,” she said. She walked ahead, pulling me by my hand. “The arches at the entrance of the shrine are supposed to keep the fox in.”

“Yeah?”

“And the fox, it gets jealous whenever it sees a couple, so it makes them separate.”

I let her pull me forward without protest until we reached a corner in the path, completely consumed by trees, flowers, and weeds. I saw a squadron of insects buzzing in the tiny forest. The bottom of a red pillar was peeking out of the shrubbery. Narumi pulled me towards the pillar, all the while keeping her gaze intensely glued to the dark corner. As I peered into the corner myself, I felt a sudden gust of wind blow me back, making my back sweat, and my knees buckle. An ominous blue stream of light was escaping through the leaves above.

“I, I don’t want to,” I said, holding Narumi’s hand tight, tugging at her, trying to pull her back. “Wouldn’t it be bad for us if we entered? You know, the jealous fox?”

“Chicken.” Her laugh rang like a small bell. She took my hand, pulling me forward. “Nobody really believes in that.”

We approached the shadowy corner, and found that the red pillar was not actually a pillar, but part of a wooden structure, a gate, painted in red. There were two long cylinders poking out of the ground on each side of a path, just wide enough to fit two people side by side. The pillars were connected at the top, a curved line stretching far out to the sides. The red paint was peeling off in numerous places, showing different shades of red and the bare black skin of the wood.

“I’ve always thought these looked like birds,” said Narumi. “With their wings stretched out.”

“Well, it’s part of their name,” I said. “Torii, right?”

Narumi tightened her grip, and tried to pull me in. Suddenly remembering what I had been trying to ask Narumi, I pulled my hand loose. Narumi slowly turned around and cocked her head to the side, as if she was waiting for me to say something.

“Narumi, I already asked you, who’s Ken?”

“Why?” said Narumi.

I stared into the shadowy forest. I could see that there were more of those red structures ahead.

“Check your phone,” I said.

Narumi took her phone out of her pocket, and turned it on. The bottom half of her face lit up from the light, obscuring everything above her nose.

“He’s just a friend,” she said briefly. She put her phone back in her pocket. “I want to see the shrine.”

“Fine,” I said. “How did you know about this place anyways?”

“I’ve come here before,” said Narumi.

“With who?” I asked.

“A friend,” said Narumi. She grasped my hand again and led me through.

Narumi walked through the first red arch into the dense vegetation. I felt tiny insects buzzing about me, a few hitting my face and hands as I walked. A cobweb stretched far and wide to my right, glistening with dew. As soon as we passed under a red arch, another one followed, hovering over our heads, just missing the tops of Narumi’s hair, brushing against mine. I looked ahead, and was surprised to see that the path was shorter than I had expected. Narumi knew exactly where she was headed.

A friend.

“I hope this place burns down,” I muttered under my breath so Narumi couldn’t hear.

The arches grew older and weathered as we proceeded, but we soon made it past them, reaching another corner breaking off to the left. Narumi didn’t hear me, and turned the corner. I followed.

“Wow,” said Narumi.

A large stone square the size of a desktop computer was placed on a column of rocks. There was a tiny wooden door in the middle, its skin peeling off from weather and decay. In front of the stones was a brown box, its top replaced by small bars, showing slits of darkness between them.

“Come on,” said Narumi. She grabbed my hand and pulled me up next to her.

“You know what to do,” she said.

“Yeah.”

I reached into my back pocket to grab my wallet. Narumi took out her own. She fished out a 10 yen coin, I got a 5 yen coin. We each threw our coin into the box. the coins bounced off the bars, but were swallowed into the darkness with a clunk. We bowed, clapped our hands twice, and made a wish.

 

We were walking back to the bridge, walking side by side, the backs of my hands itching from mosquito bites.

“What did you wish for?” asked Narumi.

“I’m not telling,” I said.

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t want to know,” I said.

We reached the bridge and stood next to it, hand in hand.

“Narumi,” I said. “Please, tell me the truth.”

Narumi touched the back of her head, smoothing out her hair.

“I am,” she said.

The shadows of a few people could be seen crossing over the lake, most of them holding hands, leaning on each other.

“I need to go home,” said Narumi.

“Okay,” I replied.

The station was bustling with people going home and transferring from one line to another. Waves of people splashed into the ticket gates, gushing through from between the machines, everybody pushing at and tripping over each other. We stood away to the side, where nobody else would come.

“Well, thanks for coming,” I said.

Narumi was watching the push and pull of the tide at the gates.

“Do you want to know what I wished for?” she said.

I sighed.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

Narumi looked at me, face to face.

“I wished that we could be together for as long as the shrine exists.”

Narumi gave a light kiss on my cheek and smiled.

“I hope my wish comes true.”

She blinked, waiting for my reply. I didn’t give one.

“Goodbye,” she said.

Narumi turned and walked to the gates.

Her tall, skinny back had already disappeared into the raging sea of people by the time I reached out my hand to her.

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