The Kitsune

Victoria Sgarro

 

     During the rainy season, the sun throbbed over the grey streets of Shanghai’s Yangpu
District. Even within the dark cave of the restaurant, carved out from the xiao longbao stations
and tiny knick-knack stores, there was no relief. The heat would push past cotton clouds and
through the sealed glass door of the restaurant’s entrance, clawing at the two women inside. It
was on these days that Ayi took the afternoon off. She would ride the metro to the air
conditioning of her daughter’s apartment overlooking the Huangpu river, leaving Liya in charge
of the place.
     Liya liked these afternoons. She welcomed the heat, sitting with it in the empty
restaurant, getting acquainted with it and its discomfort. She did not expect anyone to interrupt
their time together, the heat having suppressed the rest of the city into complacency for the
afternoon. Potential customers shrank back beneath the cool ceilings of their offices or
classrooms or homes, until the pat of rain or the drape of night signaled that it was safe to
venture out.
     On these afternoons, Liya would sit with the heat until she could no longer bear the
intimacy. She would allow its fingers to wrap around her body and squeeze until moisture rose
up out of her skin. And when she thought the heat’s hold would finally strangle her, she would
shoot up from her stool behind the bar and reach for the black knob of the radio, turning the dial
until it settled on the “American Oldies” station. The soothing voice of Frank Sinatra or Ella
Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole would pour out of the speakers, and she would allow these familiar
strangers to croon to her as she worked. As their words spilled over her pale skin, she would
occupy her hands by rubbing water stains from glasses or alphabetically ordering the thin bottles
behind the bar, from Absinthe to Zinfadel. Sometimes, she would press her eyes shut and let her
head fall back, the black tips of her long hair falling to the half moon of her arched back.


    Today the sky took mercy on the city. Cool streams of rain punctured and dispersed the
heat, freeing the people trapped beneath its cloak. The gentle rhythm of water against hard earth
mixed with the words of “I’ll Be Seeing You” as they streamed out from the radio speakers in
Ayi’s restaurant. Liya mouthed the words as she measured liquids into a tall glass. The swish of
rum mingled pleasantly with the flow of rain and the flux of Billie Holiday’s smooth voice. Liya
closed her eyes and inhaled the symphony.
     Opening them again, she reached for the silver tongs resting in the ice bucket on the
counter. The instrument’s posture put her in mind of a pair she had once seen placed on a
doctor’s plastic table. She had peered out at the forceps from behind a white curtain, her legs
splayed, the instruments shining under fluorescent lights. The doctor had reassured her, “Don’t
worry, it won’t hurt, you’re just going to feel some pressure.”
     Her lithe fingers hovering over the ice bucket, she heard the suck of the glass door. A
woman, a bit older than she, stepped inside and pressed her lips into a flat smile, holding up a
finger to indicate to Liya that she would be eating alone. It was just past six o’clock, and Liya
had not been expecting anyone. On most nights, the restaurant did not receive its first customer
until after eight, when darkness had doused the day’s heat like a blanket over fire. Liya swiveled
to the radio, which she knew was too loud to be welcoming. She ushered the woman to a table
facing a rain-coated window and handed her a worn plastic menu with pictures of elaborate
cocktails and subpar Japanese and Chinese dishes. Liya then returned to the counter, abandoning
her cocktail project and spraying a rag with cleaning liquid instead.
     Glancing at the woman studying Ayi’s eight-page menu, Liya could not place her. The
regulars were pairs of balding men in geometric business suits coming home from work, local
and international students from the university across the street escaping the monotony of the
cafeteria, groups of girlfriends catching up on lives growing apart. But never any singles; never
any families.
     The woman held up a finger again to signal to Liya that she was ready to order. One eel
roll, a bowl of white rice, and a filtered water with lemon. Despite its brevity, Liya recorded the
order on a faded notepad. Ayi’s was the only Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood, but people
knew it was really only good for its bar. She must not be from around here, Liya thought.
     Liya passed off the order to the cook, Ayi’s eldest nephew, hidden in the back room.
Within minutes, she was carrying out the dark fish wrapped in seaweed, then placing it front of
the woman. Already holding a book, the woman thanked her without looking up. Her eyes did
not stray from the page as she plopped each piece of fish into her open mouth. Although usually
stifled by any customer’s presence, Liya soon forgot the woman and returned to measuring
liquids at the counter. Eventually, the woman closed the book around a silk bookmark, dropped
several coins next to her dish, and slipped out from the restaurant back into the rain.


     Liya had not suspected anything was wrong until sometime after the seventh month of
trying. She had said nothing to Zuo about her fears, not wanting to trouble him. She had always
been a worrier, they both knew that. When they had first moved into their little apartment above
the family-owned Bubble Tea shop, she had worried that the specks of dust on their white bed
sheets were families of bed bugs. A few months later, when winter had bestowed upon her a
scratchy throat and dripping nose, she had feared SARS. And now, she believed she and Zuo
would never have a child. Why burden him with this? But later, when she looked back on it, she
would admit to herself that it had felt different. She could not explain why.
     Waving to Zuo as they parted ways on their morning walk to work, she stood at the
intersection until his tall silhouette blended into the web of pedestrians. People bumped into her
immobile body, indignant at the obstruction, but she did not budge until she was sure Zuo was
gone. Then snaking her way through the hoards of sticky bodies toward the university’s Center
for American Studies, she called Dr. Wang. The doctor’s voice, calm and measured, instructed
her to come into the office on Zhengli road the next morning. “Nothing to worry about,” he had
told her, “We just want to quell your fears.”
     Dr. Wang’s tests had been routine for a young, otherwise healthy woman trying to
conceive. First the blood tests, then a physical exam and a few samples to send to the lab. After it
was over, Liya dressed slowly, focusing on each button as it slid through its corresponding hole.
When Dr. Wang returned, knocking softly at the door, he said everything looked normal, but he
would be in touch with the results from the lab. For now, there was nothing more he could tell
her. She nodded and reached for her black purse, filled with materials for the afternoon’s lessons.
She read aloud the day’s new vocabulary words to her students as if it was any other Tuesday
afternoon, but the stale scent of the doctor’s office loomed over her body, and memories of the
cold touch of the doctor’s forceps made her shiver.
     Dr. Wang called Liya’s cell phone a few days later. He recommended she come in again
to discuss her lab results. This time, Liya noted, there were no patterned gowns or cold
instruments. There was only a desk in a dark room at the end of a long hallway, with Liya sitting
on one side and the doctor sitting on the other. He looked at Liya over the desk, her hands
embracing each other in her lap. “I’m sorry,” he said.
     Liya could no longer remember his exact words. Once “something wrong” slipped from
his lips, time had compressed and lengthened so that when she thought back on it, the moment
was almost impossible to piece back together. Sometimes she wondered if it had happened at all.
Her only proof of its existence was her newfound revulsion to the song “What a Wonderful
World.” It had been one of her favorites, and she had been surprised to hear it playing in the
doctor’s waiting room. But now a tiny convulsion took hold of her stomach whenever she heard
Louis Armstrong’s voice. For awhile after, she had not listened to any music at all.
 

     After her first visit, the woman began coming to the restaurant regularly, almost once a
week. The exact days of her visits were unpredictable, but it seemed to Liya that she returned
whenever the rain was heaviest, and always when Liya was alone. The woman would pull the
glass door back over the damp streets, land onto the dark floor of the restaurant and, without a
word, drift toward the plastic seat Liya had offered her that first afternoon. The heat, gathering at
the foot of the door, would slip in with her, rushing to fill the room before the door shut again.
The surge in warmth was often Liya’s first sign of the woman's presence.
The woman’s order never changed. Before Ayi’s nephew could place the tightly wrapped
fish onto its waiting plate, she would pull out a thick book from her bag and rest it on the table in
front of her, letting its spine fall open to her bookmarked page. With each visit, she travelled
farther into its frayed pages, though Liya never saw her make it to the end.
     At first, Liya continued to pause the music upon the woman’s arrival. Sometimes she
would swivel the dial to the local Chinese station. But one day, so engrossed in “Autumn
Leaves,” Liya did not feel the shift in the air as the woman entered. Nat King Cole’s words
swelled inside the restaurant and Liya remained behind the counter, eyelids hovering closed.
When she opened them a few moments later and saw the woman in her seat, she silenced the
song abruptly. The woman, whom Liya had not spoken to apart from asking her order during her
first few visits, turned towards the counter. “Excuse me, could you turn the music back on? I
think I used to like that song,” she said. Liya hesitated for a moment before reaching toward the
dial, unsure whether she had imagined the request. By the time she pressed the button and looked
back at the woman, the woman had already turned away. Her book was out now, and her head
swayed softly to the music. Liya picked up a smudged glass, and the two listened as the song
faded into another.
 

     Liya had not told Zuo about what Dr. Wang had said — not the night she received the
news, nor the many nights after. That night she came home to the burnt smell of duck roasting in
their oven. One of her records hummed softly from its perch on the old turntable, an anniversary
gift from Zuo. It was barely audible beneath the sizzling of meat. Zuo smiled at her from behind
a saucepan and gestured toward a chair. Their small dining table was adorned with a lace
placemat and slumped candle. Liya knew what he was doing. He always left the worrying to her.
After their lovemaking, Zuo would lie on his back and wait for sleep, allowing Liya to
rest her head on his chest. She would press her ear against him and listen to the rhythmic
thudding of his heart, trying to overwhelm her worries with the sound.
 

     Liya had come across Ayi’s restaurant not long after she had moved out of the apartment
above the Bubble Tea shop. Under a white sky she had wandered the streets of an unfamiliar
section of the city. Waiting for some kind of opportunity to make itself known to her, she passed
the dark restaurant’s entrance. Through a layer of dusty glass, Liya saw a floor of empty chairs
and tables. At a wooden bar in the corner, an old woman counted the earnings of the day. Her
knotted fingers pressed the pink and green and blue slips of paper into piles, flat against the
counter.
     Though she had no restaurant experience, Liya had told the woman at the counter that she
would be able to serve the foreign exchange students because she spoke English. The woman had
appeared unconvinced, only angling her head toward a seat at one of the empty tables without
interrupting her count.
Waiting for the woman to finish, Liya thought that she liked her already. Later, she would
learn the woman's name was Ayi. She would come to know that, despite her rough exterior, a
childhood spent on the clean streets of Japan had instilled in her a belief in the basic good of
others.
     After Ayi had shuffled the inventoried bills into a yellow envelope, she returned her
attention to Liya. “Follow me, child,” she said, gesturing towards a small stairway behind the bar
that Liya had not noticed before. She led Liya to a spare room above the restaurant, which had
not been in use since her adult children moved out many years ago. On her first night there, the
smell of Ayi’s son still lingered on the bed’s blue sheets, wrapping itself around Liya’s body as
she fell asleep.
 

     On her way home from class, Liya had often stopped at a fruit shop discretely squeezed
between a cafe and a foreign shoe store on Daxue Street. Most passersby hardly noticed it, and
Liya herself had not ventured in until one evening in her second year of teaching. She would
circle the small store, peering at the many fruits, before deciding on the one piece that would
satisfy her particular craving that day. The store’s owner grew to like her, and on days when he
was in a good mood, he would give her any too-ripe fruit for free.
      A boy whom Liya thought looked to be college-aged had started working the cash
register at the little fruit shop within the past half year. His presence disquieted Liya, who found
his manner abrupt and his gaze lingering. The second time she saw him there, he had asked her
what exactly she was looking for, seemingly annoyed at her perusing. “I don’t know,” she
replied, still circling the perimeter of the floor.
     Liya had avoided the shop for several weeks after. There were plenty of other fruit stands
on her way home from work, and she quickly folded these locations into her routine. But exactly
three months after her visit to Dr. Wang’s office, Liya returned to the store. This time, she knew
what she was looking for before she even went inside. Ignoring the tempting colors and textures
of the fruit, she walked through the door and directly to the boy at the cash register. His dark
features shifted, perhaps in surprise, but he did not refuse. He took her to the store’s back room,
barely spacious enough to store a freezer for leftover fruit. The old freezer buzzed the whole
time, powerfully enough that it would have stifled any sounds of another customer walking into
the tiny shop — though none did. After they finished, Liya dressed and left him in the back room
without a word. On her way out, she pulled an over-ripe plum from its pile and slid it into her
jacket pocket. She knew she would need something material to prove to herself what she had
done.
     That night, Liya went home and told Zuo everything. Fingering the weight of the plum in
her pocket, she told him about her appointments with Dr. Wang, about how they would never
have a baby, about what she had done with the man at the fruit shop. She wanted to be sure that
there was nothing left to come back from after that.
 

     Liya began working at the bar in the afternoons, when business was slow and Ayi had
time to train her. The old woman spent hours meticulously instructing her on mixing specialty
cocktails, pouring drinks with a discrete flourish, operating the cash register, remembering the
names of regular customers. Liya was a fast learner, and this made it so that the two women did
not have to say much to each other. Ayi never asked Liya about where she came from or why she
seemed to have no one, and Liya never offered an explanation. Instead, Liya found that she liked
listening to Ayi’s stories of her life in Japan, a life which she learned Ayi had abandoned with her
children after their father’s death.
     “Child, have I ever told you the Tale of the Kitsune?” Ayi asked Liya one day, as they
practiced pouring specialty drinks in the empty restaurant. Liya shook her head, “I don’t think
so.”
     “Well, before I begin you should know that the Kitsune is a very important creature to the
Japanese people,” said Ayi. “There are many legends about her. This is just one.”
     “Ok,” said Liya, waiting for Ayi to continue.
     “In this legend, a man named Ono marries a very beautiful woman. But he does not know
that she is not a woman, but a Kitsune in disguise. Unaware of her true identity, the husband
lives happily with his wife, and eventually she gives birth to a son.”
     “This seems happier than most of your stories, Ayi,” said Liya.
     “It is to some degree,” agreed Ayi. “But I did not mention that at the same time as the
Kitsune gives birth to their son, they have a dog who gives birth to a pup. As the pup grows
bigger, he comes to distrust the wife, barking and growling at her whenever she approaches.”
     “Because she is a Kitsune,” said Liya.
     “Yes,” said Ayi. “One day, the pup viscously attacks her. Trapped, she is forced to return
to her true fox form in order to defend herself. After she scares away the dog, she turns to
discover that her husband has seen the whole thing. She becomes scared that the husband has
seen her true self and flees. But the husband calls out to her, telling her he still loves her and
wants her to come back when she is ready.”
     “Does she return?” asked Liya.
     “She does, child,” said Ayi. “That night the Kitsune returned home to her husband and
child, sleeping in her husband’s arms. From then on, she took her true form as a fox by day, but
by night she came home to them in the form of a woman.”
     As Liya lay in Ayi’s son’s bed that night, she thought of the Tale of the Kitsune and tried
to decipher its meaning. She had no way of knowing if the stories Ayi told her actually existed in
Japanese folklore, or if they were only the creations of an old woman’s imagination. But this
ambiguity was part of why Liya liked hearing them; it did not seem to matter if they were true. 
 

     It was in Liya’s second year there that the woman began coming into Ayi’s restaurant. At
six-thirty on a grey evening, the woman sat at her table, facing a window overlooking the street
outside. “The Way You Look Tonight” played over the tapping of rain. Liya watched the drops
stick to the restaurant’s glass window, dripping downwards in streams, as if racing each other to
reach the floor. An off-white rag rested on the counter in front of her. It looked as if it might have
belonged to Ayi’s son as a baby, but now it was used to wipe spilt drinks and food from the
restaurant’s plastic surfaces.
     The restaurant door peeled open, startling Liya. She looked up from her glass, unsure of
who would intrude so early in the night. A tall man stepped into the restaurant. She recognized
him at once.
      “Zuo,” said Liya.
      “Hi,” he said over Sinatra’s baritone.
     They looked at each other for a moment. Liya reached for the knob of the radio.
      “You always loved that stuff,” he said.
      “Why are you here?” she asked as she turned the knob to silence Sinatra’s voice.
      Zuo’s hand travelled up to the crown of his head and he brushed the drops of water from
his hair.
      “I needed to see you,” he said.
      “Why?”
      “It’s important, Liya.”
      She looked down at the rag on the counter, the pink stitching embedded in its tough
discolored fabric.
      “Liya, I met someone. She’s now eight months pregnant. It wasn’t planned — it just
happened.”
      The stitching on the rag made an “S” shape among the stains. Liya imagined Ayi’s son
holding the cloth between his toothless gums, its color more white, the stains not yet marring its
soft perfection.
      “I wanted to tell you in person. I thought it was better that you hear it from me,” said
Zuo.
      “Ok,” said Liya, reaching again for the radio to signal the end of their conversation.
     Zuo’s expression darkened as he took a step towards the door. Appearing to think better
of it, he hesitated, turning back to her. “What’s happened to you Liya?” he said.
     Liya looked up from the rag between her fingers. For the first time since he had entered,
her eyes met his.
     “It doesn’t have to be this way,” he said. “You don’t need to lock yourself up in this
dungeon just because of what the doctor told you. You know you have other options, Liya.”
      But Liya was not listening anymore. The woman had abandoned her seat and was now
standing at the end of the bar. Her slender hand rested on her stomach. Liya had never noticed
the slight convexity of her torso, but now it was all she could see.
      “Excuse me, miss,” the woman said, glancing surreptitiously at Zuo. “My check, please.
I’m in a rush today.”
     Liya nodded and began to search beneath the counter for the woman’s bill. The woman
returned to her seat, where Liya brought out her check. “Sorry,” she muttered to Zuo, passing
him on her way. As she placed the bill next to the woman’s book, she could hear his footsteps
and the thud of the restaurant’s door open and close behind him.


      The woman did not return to Ayi’s restaurant the following afternoon, nor the many after
that. Once again, Liya was left with only the company of the heat and the rain. Eventually rain
turned to wind, and weeks turned to months. As the weather cooled, Ayi stopped visiting her
daughter by the Huangpu river. More customers came into the restaurant as the rain eased and
the heat lifted its hold on the city.
      “You look different,” Ayi told her on her first afternoon back at the restaurant. “You must
have changed in all these afternoons we spent apart,” she said, the corner of her mouth upturned
into a slight smile. But Liya did not answer, lost in her own thoughts. Ayi put down the glass she
was cleaning and looked at her.
      “Liya, do you remember the Tale of the Kitsune?”
      “Of course, Ayi.”
      “Child, I did not mention this before, but others in my country do not like the Kitsune.
     Though she is beautiful, she is a deceitful and mischievous creature.” Ayi picked up the glass
again and began to pour a clear sake without removing her eyes from Liya. “But this is why I
like the Tale of the Kitsune. It shows a different side to her. She was born a fox, but that did not
mean she could not find human love. Inside she is a balance of darkness and lightness, but it did
not mean she could not choose between the two.”

 

 

Victoria Sgarro is a designer currently living in Washington, D.C. She recently graduated with a degree in Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis, where she also studied Chinese and communication design. A summer studying abroad in Shanghai inspired this story.