by James Steele
©2008 James Steele
Shane gradually woke out of the fog of his dream. It was a very unpleasant dream, weird and graphic. He was glad to be out of it and back to the waking world. Shane snuggled his pillow, breathed the cool morning air as the gentle sunlight teased his eyelids.
One of the best things about nightmares, Shane thought as his brain gradually woke up, is how utterly great it feels when it stops. The dream is over and youre back in the real world and for a few precious minutes nothing in real life can be as bad as what youve just escaped. Shane smiled and basked in the feeling that the world was full of wonder, and compared to that dream it made perfect sense. The morning sun warmed his eyelids, beckoning them to open and greet this world of logic and order hed been blessed to live in, but Shane kept them closed. The feeling always ended as soon as he opened his eyes or stepped out of bed, and he wanted it to last as long as possible. He was happy to be here. In bed. Safe. Next to his wife.
He met her last year while hiking on a mountain trail. She was just standing there on the trail as he walked by. She had no walking stick, no water, no food, and for some reason shed been wearing a dress. And a loose-fitting blouse with no bra. If he remembered correctly, she hadnt even been wearing shoes! Nothing to protect the body from insects or the sun.
Its odd the details you remember when your mind is waking up, he thought. His smile stretched into a grin. He chuckled, then he closed his lips over his grin, trying to keep from busting out laughing and waking her up.
Shane had walked her back to the park station. Along the way, he asked who she was and where she came from, all the usual questions you ask a woman who looked so out of place she could have passed for a time traveler. She couldnt answer where she was from, and she only gave her first name, and when Shane asked her where she got those clothes in the first place, she didnt answer. He couldnt figure out if shed lost her memory, or she just didnt want to say. It was the most awkward conversation hed ever had with a woman but it was a different kind of awkward. He sort of enjoyed it. Thinking back on it, he figured the difference was that he was genuinely curious about her.
She had obviously needed help, so he offered to drive her to town to get her some appropriate clothes. That dress and blouse would have worked for a runaway princess in a medieval fantasy movie, but not for a woman named Cynthia walking in the mountains.
She had no money. Hell, she didnt even have pockets! Shane found himself buying her some basic clothes, and after walking around the strip mall for a few hours Shane offered to let her stay at his apartment until she could figure out who she was and what she was going to do. Even now he couldnt remember why he made that offer.
The first day he came back after leaving her alone in the apartment he half expected Cynthia to be gone, and all his stuff with her. But shed cleaned the place, organized it, and even made dinner using nothing but random, leftover ingredients around the kitchen. He tried many times to explain that she didnt need to do thathed been living on his own for years and could do all that himself. But she seemed to enjoy helping him. He didnt stop her; he supposed she felt she needed to do it to repay him.
Days passed. The more he was around her, the more he got used to the idea that this wasnt temporary. She might have been secretive about her past, but she seemed to know everything else in the world. She didnt know her last name, but she spoke of Greek philosophers, feudal Japanese lords and Russian tsars as though shed known them personally. Every day he didnt show up to work was worth the lost days wages, because she was the most fascinating person hed ever known.
Now that he thought about it, she was the one woman hed met that he enjoyed talking to. Several times, he almost lost his job talking to hernot just hoping hed end up in bed with her, but because he genuinely enjoyed listening to her. She seemed to enjoy what he had to say as well, but he felt ridiculously ignorant compared to her. A couple weeks after she moved in, he found himself getting a library card so he could brush up on his history and philosophy just to keep up with her. She liked that.
It figures, Shane thought as he resisted the warm sunlight trying to find away through his eyelids. All those times Ive tried to have a lasting relationship, and the one time I dont try is the time it worked.
Pretty soon she was buying groceries with his credit card; driving his car to run errands for him; getting to know his friends; going out to movies with them; making small talk with his co-workers. Everywhere she went she made friends. As the months passed, Shane forgot hed ever lived alone.
Shanes mind skimmed over those early weeks and he smiled. He couldnt remember when they started calling her his girlfriend. He didnt remember why he never objected. He never thought of her as his girlfriend; there were no labels or stages in their relationship. Come to think of it, hed never thought of her as a stranger, or a friend, or a lover. Even now, he didnt really think of her as his wife. She was just Cynthia.
Suddenly he thought of something hed almost forgotten: One day he noticed the unused closet in the living room was open a crack. He opened the door the rest of the way and looked inside. A fur coat was hanging on the only hanger. Gently he pulled it out and looked it over. It was a beautiful coat, dull red with white and black markings. He felt the front with the back of his hand. The fur was soft and it wasnt fake.
Thats when Cynthia appeared out of nowhere, snatched the coat from him and hung it back in the closet. She closed the door and held it shut with her back. Shane asked her where it came from. She didnt say, but she made him promise not to touch it again because it was the only thing she owned and it was very precious to her. Shane hadnt opened that closet since, though he did notice that from time to time the door would be slightly ajar. She never did tell him what animal the coat was, or where it came from, but since no multi-thousand dollar coat ever appeared on his credit statement, he let it go.
Shane stirred in bed, holding his eyes closed against the sun. The fur coat reminded him of another time when hed come home, showered, stepped out and was about to shave and the bathroom mirror was missing. Just a blank white wall staring at him. He walked around the apartment looking for her, and every mirror in the apartment was gone. Cynthia said she didnt like the mirrors, so she got rid of them. Shane thought hed be angry about it, but it was actually fun to go along with it and he got used to a home without mirrors.
Theyd been living together for about eight months when he asked her to marry him. They had opted not to have a humongous wedding, settling instead to have a small civil ceremony. No pomp, just truth. Shane liked that about her. She recognized when something needed frills and when it simply needed to stand on its own. (She also understood he didnt want to go into debt for a ceremony.) Marriage had not changed their relationship. Now, about four months later (a year since the day he met her on the mountain trail), things were the same as they had always been. Making it legal hadnt made it less special.
The post-nightmare euphoria was at its peak. Shane rolled over, still not opening his eyes, and breathed deep. He smelled Cynthia next to him and smiled. Lately she smelled a bit funny, even after showering. Right around the wedding it started. He couldnt quite identify it. It wasnt a bad smell, but it was unique. Hed grown to like it. He even learned how to use itfinding Cynthia at parties was easy now.
Shane guffawed, then held his mouth tighter. A wonderful morning to reflect on a wonderful year, and the woman whod changed his life. He didnt want to think where hed be right now if he hadnt met her on that trail.
His eyes were giving up the fight with the sun. He knew it was going to be a good day because he wanted to open his eyes and see the world. He felt that no matter what happened in his life, as long as he could come back and see Cynthia again, everything would be fine. He never thought hed meet a person who could make him feel that way.
Shane scooted closer to his wife and wrapped his arms around her, held her close. She was so small. Hed forgotten how small she was, and for some reason this made Shane want to keep her closer and never let go. She felt vulnerable and he wanted to keep her safe. As more of his brain woke up, he briefly wondered if this neighborhood was safe enough. She was a wonderful person, a trait that marked her for disaster. It was always the nicest people who were trampled, and he didnt want that to happen to her.
He wished she would tell him what the deal with the mirrors was. He brought it up from time to him, more as a joke than anything. All her quirks had become private jokes he teased her with, but he did want to know where that fur coat came from, what happened to her before he found her on the path Hed gotten used to the idea that she would probably never give him a real answer and these things would forever remain mysteries to laugh over.
That was okay with Shane, but as well as he knew her, he always had this feeling that there was something about her he couldnt touch. The feeling was strongest when he touched her. It felt like his hands werent really touching her, that his lips were not actually kissing her. The sensation had been around her since the day they met, and it was intoxicating. She was unique. He loved her because she was unreachable, but since the wedding he wished he could know all of her.
He stroked the fur on her stomach and pondered everything he wanted to do for her. He wanted to find a better job so they could move to a place she deserved. He hesitated bringing up the subject of children, because until recently hed never thought about it. Now that he was with her, he suddenly wanted to talk about
Shane opened his eyes. The bedroom painfully poured into them like a waterfall of needles. He figured where he was laying he should be right behind his wifes head, with Cynthias back against his chest. Instead there was fur. And a small body. Shanes hand was still involuntarily stroking the fur on the chest. Slowly moving up the neck, and then the chin.
He snuggled to it for a moment, thinking his wife had gotten up and left a stuffed animal in her place. He glanced down, saw red fur; it was a fox. How sweet! Shane cuddled it closer, burying his head in the neck fur. Breathed deep. The toy smelled like Cynthia
and it was warm
and it was breathing.
Suddenly Shane was propped up on his hands, looking down at the fox beneath him. The red fox with three tails. There was an indentation on the pillow where Cynthias head had been. A few of her hairs were on the pillow underneath the foxs head. The tails twitched while he stared at them. He couldnt quite see how they were attached.
The foxs eyes blinked open. Her head turned up and looked at him. She smiled. It was familiar and unnaturala piece of humanity that shouldnt be there. Shane stared slack-jawed and wide-eyed. The fox reached her neck up and licked his nose. He didnt recoil; it wasnt disgusting, but it was definitely a fox lying on the bed. When Shane didnt respond, the fox wrapped a paw around his neck and pulled him down into a kiss. Shane bent with the paw until about halfway down, when she stopped.
Suddenly the foxs human-like smile fell as she glanced along the length of her body and became aware of herself for the first time. Her eyes widened, her tails twirled in agitation and fear. She rolled to her stomach, stood up and bolted to the bedroom door. Shane threw the covers off and leaped off the bed, shivering at the chill from the open window. The white-tipped tails had just rounded the corner when he reached the frame. Claws skittered across the kitchen floor. Shane held the doorframe as he rounded the corner. Across the living room, the fox pounced on the front door and hung from the doorknob, frantically trying to turn it.
Shane watched for a moment, still holding the frame. Cynthia?
The fox paused for a split-second and looked at him. She whimpered and resumed twisting and grinding the doorknob. Old habit made Shane approach the fox slowly, so as not to frighten a cornered animal. One careful step at a time he crossed the living room. The fox lost her grip and fell to the floor, flat on her back. She twisted around, righted herself and leaped on the doorknob again. Shane noticed the deadbolt was unlatched. Either he forgot to lock the door last night or or shed already managed to unlock it.
Now Shane was only five steps away from the fox. The knob turned. The door unlatched and fell slightly inward. She dropped to the carpet on all fours, nosed the door open and squeezed through the crack. Shane jumped the last five steps, held the door open and watched the three-tailed fox bolt down the sidewalk at full speed and disappear around a corner.
He blinked. He blinked again. And again. Even vulgarity failed him.
Shane ran back to the bedroom. He grabbed a random pair of boxers and a shirt off the floor and hopped into the shorts as he crossed the living room again. Before he even had the boxers on all the way, he jumped into the flip-flops by the door and ran down the stairs. He was at the sidewalk and halfway down the block before he got the shirt on.
It was difficult to run in flip-flops over concrete and asphalt. His feet hurt so bad he tripped a couple times, but caught himself before he fell on his face. He ran to the end of the block, crossed without looking for cars, ran another block, turned a sharp left without thinking about it and ran through a playground. He ducked under the swing set, jumped through the merry-go-round and veered right, towards a particular tree. Like all playgrounds in this neighborhood, this one was adjacent to a patch of woods, and he ran headlong into the trees. Trees flew by and he kept running.
After several minutes Shane slowed to a stop. He looked aroundsaw nothing but forest in all directions. Odd. This place seemed much larger than a typical, tiny sliver of forest dividing the housing developments and apartment complexes.
He realized he didnt know where he was going. The fox was long gone and there was no way she wouldve come to this particular patch of forest in the middle of suburbia. Why did he come here? He turned in circles for a few minutes, trying to decide which way to go. Then, in one breath he caught a familiar aroma: His wife. He ran in the direction the scent was strongest. The scent faded to the left. He steered left. It veered to the right. He did the same. He wasnt lost.
Now that he was sure he was following his wifes path, he felt safe to speak. Cynthia? He climbed over a fallen tree in the middle of the path he was blazing. Cynthia, I know youre here. Whats happening? When you went to bed you were my wife. What happened while I was sleeping?
He felt like he was talking to himself. His mind ran in circles trying to justify what happened and what he was doing. Why was he following the fox? What was he hoping for? Shane pushed through the trees and the ground plants that tickled his calves, still following his wifes scent? He tried not to think about it, for if he thought about what he was doing he really would become lost. Shane kept talking aimlessly to distract his mind so he wouldnt have to think of what he was doing. He hoped she could hear him.
He pushed a branch out of the way and stepped through. Suddenly he was standing in the center of a clearing fifty feet wide. The ground darkened until his feet stood on a solid black void. The trees around him faded and melted together into a black wall. The sky had been alive with morning sunlight, but that, too, was fading. Lowerloweruntil the sky was finally as dark as the trees and the ground and there was no difference. Shane stood alone in a black void, but he could see his hands, feet and arms as though it were still daylight.
He turned in all directions, looking for some kind of reference point. He didnt want to leave this spot. It was the only place he knew was safe. But as time passed and he got used to the void, he took a few deep breaths, stepped forward, and finally started walking around. The view never changed, no matter which way he turned or looked. For all he could see, he might as well not have moved at all.
On an impulse, Shane turned around yet again, fully expecting to see nothing but more empty space. Sitting in front of him was a red fox, fully illuminated and then some. Firelight rose from the animal, changing from red to yellow to green, then separating into thousands of colors. The light did not seem to connect with him physically. He had nine tails, all of which moved independently.
Shane held the creatures stare for some timeminutes? seconds?then new flickers of light appeared to his left and right. Turning, he saw another fox sitting to his left, this one five-tailed, with yellow and green light flowing like water around his body. Two more foxes sat behind him, and three more at his right. All were aglow; all had either five or three tails.
Shanes nose turned him to the right. He looked down, and Cynthia was there! She was sitting next to another fox, so close their light dissolved into each other. His eyes met hers, and her features sank as she looked down. Shane stepped closer, leaning to the ground. Cynthia?
A swirl of light held him back and pulled him upright. It turned him around and once again he was facing the nine-tailed fox. Even though the fox was sitting on the ground, Shane felt like the creature was the same height as he was.
What do you seek by following? said the fox. His mouth moved to the words, but the sound did not come from his mouth. It came from the light, which moved with the foxs voice.
I I. My wife. Wh-what happened to her?
The fox looked to Shanes right. This is the woman you once knew.
The vixen on his right picked herself up, slowly, sorrowfully, and stepped forward. She stopped halfway, sat down and looked up at Shane. Her three tails were easily visible. Shane still couldnt see how they were attached.
Im a kitsune, said the light around her.
As soon as she said it, Shane dropped to his knees. At first he thought it made no sense, but as he knelt in the presence of these creatures, memories came rushing back to him. Hundreds of little things hit Shane and added up in an instant. Everything that never made sense, and hed always wondered about, suddenly mattered and fit into a bigger picture.
As if she were following his thoughts, Cynthia nodded and said, I loved your scent, Shane. Every day you went for a hike I was in the trees walking beside the path. Sometimes I walked behind you on the path. I followed you to the hotel outside the park. And finally on the last day I worked up enough courage to meet you. I didnt do so well with the clothing when I changed form. Its been hundreds of years since I met a human I liked. But it still worked better than I thought.
A smile crept up his face. Your scent. The mirrors. The fur coat. Letting you move in when I didnt even know your last name?
The vixen smiled weakly. Yes We have an enchanting effect on your kind. Just being in the same room with one of us makes humans more trusting, more forgiving, agreeable. Weve used it many times in the past to end wars. Sometimes even start them. Weve used it to protect families, bloodlines, even kings and emperors. And sometimes we use it to get what we want But as time went on I was less able to hide what I was. One day I noticed mirrors reflected my real form. A few months later my scent started to come through. I knew it was almost time, but I didnt want to leave! I didnt want to lose you! I stayed much longer than I should have. You were never supposed to see me like this, Shane. Im so sorry!
Cy-Cynthia, why are you crying? Whats wrong?
The light from the nine-tailed fox spoke. Shane turned to face the source, but there was no need anymore; the light from each fox had filled the void with a river of moving color, making everywhere the source. Her time is up. She cannot maintain a human guise indefinitely, and it is time for her to leave.
Kitsune are Cynthia paused to hold back some tears, composed herself and said, We have great affection for mankind. Were allowed to take a human mate for a short time, but its only temporaryIm sorry, Shane! I loved you so much I didnt want to leave. I knew it would end this way but I just couldnt!
I dont understand.
Every marriage between a kitsune and a human ends like this, said the nine-tailed fox. Shane wondered if they moved their mouths out of necessity, or to make him feel a little less disoriented. Most kitsune leave their human mates well before this point, because our charm on man is broken as soon as he discovers our true form. It is rare for a human to learn the truth, and when they do, it often ends violently. You, however, followed her. This is an unusual situation. It requires unusual handling.
The fires glowed, mixed together into beautiful colors. Before, the light had become the sky; now it flowed over the ground, and Shane and the foxes were standing on light. Cynthia was crying. Bright tears fell from her eyes. The light coming from her was sad. It mixed with the light coming from all the other foxes and saddened theirs as well. Shane knelt before his sobbing wife, looking at her, wishing he knew what to say.
I have to leave now, she said.
Shane sank. He cried, too.
We are sorry you had to see this, said the nine-tailed fox. You were never meant to know, but since you followed, we wanted to help you understand.
The fox who was his wife laid down and cried more tears, which joined the light coming from herself and the other foxes.
Shane stuttered to get the words out. L-l-leave? B-b-bu-u-but why are you leaving?
The light halted. The swirls reversed, as though the colors had become confused; the light coming from the nine-tailed fox wavered as well. Cynthia lifted her head and looked up at him.
What did you say? she said.
W-why cant you stay?
There was confusion in the light. And curiosity.
Its the way its done. My time with you has ended, I must leave. But it was a wonderful year, Shane. You made me so happy. And someday you will make someone else very happy. Goodbye
Shane started to move. This time he resisted the light holding him in place. He wanted to run to her, but he was still held back, so all he could was reach out.
No Sadness became determination. Please dont go!
She hesitated. You mean you want me to stay?
Yes! Yes! I knew there was something different about you! I knew you had a secret. But it was a good secret. I liked it and now it makes sense. No, Cynthia, please dont leave me!
While he pleaded Cynthia looked at his hands, then up to his eyes. Her tails twirled in confusion. The feel of the light changed as well. Then she rose to her feet and slowly walked to his outstretched hands. She stood just at his fingertips.
I married you because I couldnt imagine a day without you, he said. And I still cant.
Cynthia glanced at the nine-tailed fox, who was just as curious as she was, and then back at Shane. The sadness that had depressed her body lifted, the tone of her light warmed, and she hopped into his hands. Shane picked her up and cradled her to his chest. The light in the sky and under their feet swirled faster, changed to fascination and surprise.
He held her closer, trying to figure out what his reaction actually was. Holding her felt no different than when he held her as a human. And He kissed her on the cheek. It felt the same as when she was human. Except
Ive wanted to tell you this for a long time. When I kissed you, it felt It felt like it wasnt real. Like no matter how close to you I got, I couldnt touch you. But, this He kissed her again, this time on the mouth. They held it for more than a minute. The kiss ended mutually and Shane stared into her slitted eyes.
Now I know what it was, Shane said. I was touching a disguise. This is real. This is better! He laughed. This is what I married! He held her tighter and closed his eyes. Dont go, Cynthia. Please dont go! Not now!
The light around him swirled faster, brighterthe light was like wind . Shane opened his eyes to see what was happening. The other foxes were now walking around them in opposing circles.
Thats Thats the nicest thing anyones ever said to me, Cynthia whispered. Shane felt a tongue on his cheek.
The fox with nine tails passed by only once that Shane could see. He was smiling like a human.
Shanes tears evaporated into light and joined the glow. The foxes walked faster until they were running. They ran so fast they turned into streaks of light that glowed brighter and brighter. Then the foxes disappeared into it. Gradually the trees reappeared and the ground became earth again. Sunlight faded through the firelight until blue sky was above.
Shane was still holding a fox in his arms. She reached up, wrapped her paws around his neck and pulled him into a kiss. He closed his eyes and kissed his wife. The world felt like a place full of wonder, and no matter what happened everything would be all right. As long as he could feel this way, no evil could touch him. Even if tragedy destroyed everything else, it could never destroy them.
He stood up and carried his wife out of the trees. He exited the patch of forest in ten steps, which was exactly what Shane expected. He walked slowly down the street. The sun was up. Not a cloud in the sky, and a warm rain fell. The sidewalk was wet, and so were the houses and the few cars that passed by, but Shane and Cynthia were perfectly dry as he walked up the stairs to his apartment.
She hopped down from his arms as Shane closed the door behind him. When Shane turned around she was sitting on the couch, all three tails waving wildly. Shane smiled and sat next to her. She stood on his leg with one paw and looked up at him. Shane leaned down to be at her eye level.
Shane I cant even describe what this feels like.
Your tails say it all.
She smiled and licked his mouth. Shane rubbed the back of her head while she kissed him. Out of habit from when she was human he opened his mouth, and her tongue slid inside. It tickled, and they both laughed and sputtered out of the kiss. Cynthia settled down on his lap.
Ive had at least twenty husbands in my life, she said. I left most of them before I changed back. But a few I stayed too long, and as soon as they saw me they chased me away. When the enchantment broke, suddenly they hated me. A couple of them tried to kill me. Thats why I ran from you. I thought you were going to run me out of town yelling demon! I cant believe thats not why you followed!
Im not still under your charm, am I?
Not any more, she said. That ended as soon as you found out what I was. Youre here entirely on your own now.
I was hoping youd say that, because that means I really cant imagine why anyone would want to chase you away. He kissed her again.
It was weeks before the police called off the search for his missing wife. Months before the neighbors and Shanes family and friends stopped trying to comfort him during his loss. The hardest part was putting on a face of grief for everyone elses benefit. When he came home every day, he was happier than ever.
About three months after he learned the truth, he came home from work and laid down on the bed. Cynthia hopped up on his stomach and laid down, nose to nose with Shane. Shane stroked her back, kissed her on the nose.
Cynthia, I dont know how to say this, but Ive liked this so much better. Im actually touching you now. He rested his hand on her back. Finally, I feel like Im with the real you. Makes me wish Id found out sooner.
When I saw you on that mountain trail, I knew I liked you. But Ive never had a husband who still wanted me after they saw me this way. She laughed. Who preferred me this way!
Is that why they let you stay?
Maybe. Im not sure. I dont think any kitsune has done this before. Im not used to the idea that you like me more than the disguise. And I dont have to leave I dont know what to do with myself now.
Shane grinned. Well, heres an idea. Shane reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and removed a small card. I finally got it. Took long enough, but now its official.
She looked it over, read it top to bottom. Her ears laid back and she glared at him, tails wagging. What is this!?
Its an exotic pet license. He laughed. She bounced on his chest. The neighbors were complainingthey even called the police on me. Apparently its illegal to have a wife without one of these.
She nipped him on the nose. Shane covered his nose and laughed through his fingers. He dropped the card and rolled to his side with his wife tucked close to his chest.
So now that youre my pet, I think Ill start by teaching you a few tricks. Sit up! Shake! Play dead! She kicked her claws into his stomach. Shane curled up and laughed. Roll over! Speak! And Ill Ill have to get you a leash so I dont get fined when I take you for walks. She licked his face, his ears, his closed eyes.
After a few minutes they settled down.
The neighbors called the police on you for that?
They didnt call because the day your wife disappeared, you came home with a pet fox?
I told you, that kitsune charm would work on everyone else as well as it worked on me. They dont even notice the extra tails. Were completely free! And now that I have a license, I can take you anywhere. No more hiding! So lets go somewhere. Where would you like to go?
She smiled. Shane could tell because the room brightened. Pet store. I want to pick out my own collar.
Shane laughed. The room grew brighter still. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the peaceful feeling of a world filled with wonder and beauty. It hadnt gone away yet. Maybe it never would