Prayers for a Fox

Shadi’s parents had to leave the country on a morning when one could think almost anything: the silence of sleeping people has roots in the rain, but the rain has gotten used to leveling villages.

Enza García Arreaza  (Venezuela) is a short fiction writer and poet, author of Cállate poco a poco (2008), El bosque de los abedules (2010), Plegarias para un zorro (2012) y El animal intacto (2015). In 2017 she was a resident in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and at the City of Asylum—Pittsburgh. In 2019 she was a Fellow at the International Writers Project for endangered writers at Brown University.

Author's introduction:

I just wanted to be a fox. But I didn’t die, nothing changed. One of the first memories I have of my childhood is the fear of going crazy. It was pretty common in the telenovelas back then, the story of a woman going crazy just because. Also, my mother was crazy. Also, I was alone. Nothing changed, I didn’t die, but I turned myself into an infection. A force of nature. I wrote letters to the world with the sole purpose of spreading my furry infection of foxes and other assets of a forest that was forbidden to me. There was also the fact that I was living in a horrid place. One of those countries, you know, one of those producing refugees and crimes against humanity. I was probably doomed to go crazy from the very beginning. "Prayers for a Fox" is the first short story of mine that forced me to face the fact that running away is sometimes not enough. How do you contain a haunting? How do you keep a posse [or 'clutch'] of ghouls appeased? I don’t know, and here we are.

Enza García Arreaza

Translator's note:

Fox spirits are common motifs in East Asian mythology. Western readers know about them through manga, anime, and video games (the pokemon Ninetales, for example, is based on a fox spirit). Garzía’s “Prayers for a Fox” adds a twist to the traditional fox spirit story. The reader discovers fox spirits through the foreign eyes of Shadi, whose parents come to Japan seeking asylum. The characters speak several languages in varying degrees of proficiency, which was a consideration when translating the dialogue. Shadi’s Japanese is not great, a sign of a lack of knowledge about Japanese culture which leads him to blindly trust the kitsune. Certain phrases echo throughout the story, as if they were the kitsune’s siren call; not only is Shadi entranced, but the reader is pulled forward with the repetition, so consistency in the translation of these phrases is important.

Kathleen Archer

You don’t know the great prestige of air beings.
José Watanabe

To Leonardo González Alcalá

Prayers for a Fox

  Shadi Mansfield’s parents were Catholic and made him pray every night before bed.
  “Mama, tell me the story of my name.”
  “She’s already told you so many times,” said Mr. Mansfield from a corner.
  “I don’t remember.”
  So Shadi’s mother gave in and explained that his name is translated as “song of birds” in the language of his grandfather, a Lebanese farmer who had crossed the sea and sailed to the place where the sun went to die. Shadi’s parents had to leave the country on a morning when one could think almost anything: the silence of sleeping people has roots in the rain, but the rain has gotten used to leveling villages. In the end, the only thing left is a silence that scatters ruins throughout the day. They were trying to hunt down Mr. Mansfield for having told the truth in a tribunal, so the Japanese Embassy, taking pity on him—citing past services—sent him to the city of Hokusai under the pretense of teaching at the country’s biggest university. That’s how Shadi came to move to the big island and make friends with Kitsune.

  Kitsune was a girl who smelled like dew-moistened leaves. Or was it the fragrance of freshly-cut grass? In the city of Hokusai, there were fewer forests than there were a hundred years before, but she knew them all. She was dead. She had fallen in a well one summer afternoon. Her parents mourned her for so long that life became a blur, like a long autumn dream, and then they also died. Shadi was crestfallen when he arrived in the city. The houses were strange and people in the streets stopped to look at him: they seemed to have never come across a child with big, sparkling eyes like the first stars at dusk. His best language was Spanish, the language he used for reading stories and playing with his friends. His mother had stopped speaking Arabic when she was orphaned a long time ago; his father only spoke English at work. Now Shadi had to learn a new language and was sad. Mr. Mansfield spent several weeks looking for a suitable school until he finally made an arrangement with an institution for foreign children, near a garden where ladies had afternoon tea. In the city of Hokusai, it wasn’t unusual for children to walk alone to school, or from school to a park. Shadi’s mother wasn’t comfortable with it at first: in the country they’d left behind, terrible things happened to children if the adults didn’t keep a close eye: someone would kidnap a child and ask for a lot of money for his or her safe return. Like that Lebanese family that lost four heirs one afternoon in April. But Mrs. Mansfield understood that in Hokusai she could be naïve. Some wounds, if they feel the air is right, heal quickly. So one morning that first winter, she let Shadi make the journey on his own. Shadi didn’t like winter. He never liked those stories where the snow was some poet’s liberation - how silly. Soon the birds were dark, and the pollen no longer gave birth to the creatures of light.

  One afternoon on his way home, Shadi stopped to watch the ladies having tea in the Koan garden. Winter did not seem to bother them; nor did it bother the teenaged girls playing with their cats. One curious lady got closer to ask him where “in the West” he came from with those sad little animal eyes. Although he was starting to understand them, Shadi answered in Spanish, and with heartless mocking grimaces, they turned away. The Koan garden was actually the gateway to a forest preserve in the city’s center. It was a forest of conifers, chestnuts, white plum trees, scattered birches, ashes and maples. Of course, there was also bamboo. As the cherries bloomed, the number of visitors increased, annoying the prefecture’s residents; gods be thanked, a lovely calm reigned within its walls the rest of the year. A guard warned Shadi not to cross the wall that separated the main garden from the rest of the forest; however, a girl hiding in the still young red pines called to him stubbornly. Shadi waited for the right moment and walked toward the pines. The girl was wearing an old woolen coat and shoes with no laces.
  “Kon’nichiwa, o genkidesu ka, Tori no nakigoe-san?”
  “I’m fine, thanks. But I don’t know what ‘Tori no nakigoe’ means…” he confessed, fairly convinced that the girl wouldn’t understand him.
  “Tori no nakigoe” is how we say ‘song of birds.’”
  “You speak Spanish?”
  “No, but you think I speak Spanish.”
  “I don’t understand.”
  “It doesn’t matter.”
  “What’s your name?”
  “Like ‘fox.’”
  “No. Like ‘fox spirit.’”
  “Your shoes are really old. Your coat too.”
  “Doesn’t bother me.”
  “You can have my coat if you want. It’s going to be freezing at night.”
  “Why are you worried about the cold?”
  “You’re a girl.”
  “But the cold doesn’t hurt me.”
  “And your mother?”
  “Inari let her go.”
  “I don’t know who Inari is.”
  “You should know. You’ve been living for Hokusai for two seasons now.”
  “Well, I have to go. Will you come tomorrow?”
  “Yes, tomorrow we’ll play kitsune-ken.”

  When Shadi got home, he found his mother distraught. Thank Buddha that Keiko was there to hold things together: they had called from the faraway country to tell her that Sonia, her best friend, had died from a gunshot to the head after burglars took over her apartment in Prados del Este. “Prados del Este,” thought Mrs. Mansfield, “we lived there for many years.” They opened Sonia’s legs and counted to a hundred while she screamed. Then they shot her and took her big TV. Keiko was a very energetic woman, hired to help with the household chores: among them, teaching the new language. However, she spoke to Shadi in English. Keiko was born sixty years ago, after her mother, a Buddhist, fell in love with a British soldier. When Mrs. Mansfield started crying in her husband’s arms, Keiko took Shadi to the patio for tea.
  “Keiko, what’s kitsune-ken?”
  “Where did you hear that?”
  “A girl in the Koan garden.”
  “It’s like rock, paper, scissors. But you shouldn’t play it.”
  “Why not?”
  “You’re not going to believe me if I tell you.”
  “Why do you say that?”
  “Westerners think differently. Your mother has a medallion of the archangel Michael, but she has never seen him. And if she did, I’m sure she would be scared to death.”
  “Tell me what kitsune-ken is.”
  “What was the girl like?”
  “She was pretty. She said her name was fox.”
  “That’s not good. The kitsune left Hokusai a while ago. There’s also never been a kitsune that’s taken the shape of someone so young.”
  “I don’t understand.”
  “Kitsune-ken means ‘fist of fox.’ It’s played with three hand gestures: the mayor beats the hunter because of his rank, and the hunter beats the fox because he shoots him. But the fox beats the mayor by putting a spell on him.”
  “Yeah, she told me…”
  “That’s not good. Who was the girl with?”
  “Nobody. She said Inari had let her mom go.”
  “This is not good. Tell me something, did her shoes have laces?”
  “I see. Then it’s a yurei: that’s what they call ghosts here.”
  “I don’t understand, Keiko.”
  “Listen to me carefully: a kitsune is not a ghost. And you must know this, Shadi. You might be in danger. A kitsune is a spirit, a yokai, something that was always pure, beautiful energy—if you want to call it that—not like ghosts that started out as blood and then died. The kitsune are not very different from common foxes, except that sometimes they change into humans. Especially into women who marry mortals. I’m afraid this zashiki-warashi wants to put a spell on you, making herself pass for one of Mr. Inari’s servants.”  
  “Who is Inari? What is a zashiki-whatever?”
  “Inari is the Shinto god of fertility, rice, and foxes. A zashiki-warashi is a child ghost: they usually live in houses and demand a lot of attention. Girls are more common. Maybe in the Koan garden there was once a town where she lived.”
  “I don’t understand. Nothing like this happens in my country.”
  “Your country is very young and it’s far away.”
  “I’m not scared. How would a girl put a spell on me?”
  “She’s not a girl, Shadi.”
  “Okay, Keiko. I have to go to bed.”

  He was lying when he said he wasn’t scared. He was very scared! He was far from home! He had never heard anything like that: in his country, dead people whistled on the hilltops or punished unfaithful men, but they weren’t children. In any case, Caracas didn’t have any more room for stories about how death barged into people’s homes or sat in court after counting to a hundred. But Kitsune was the only one in Hokusai who hadn’t looked at him with that sticky, scornful curiosity: he couldn’t help but like her appearance. He tried to sleep, but her name and black hair were burrowed into his flesh. Winter roared like a sick cat. At two in the morning, hands cold and chest trembling, Mrs. Mansfield got in her son’s bed. She was crying, but Shadi pretended to be asleep. He knew she only wanted to hug him.

  Wednesday. Shadi left school feeling sad. He had his first presentation in Japanese and made 25 mistakes. However, Miss Yoshitoshi, gave him a week to practice his speech again. Michael Firth and Jules Grant, both from England, had an extraordinary command of the local language and didn’t stop making fun of Shadi’s efforts, which remained fruitless. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t scared going through the gate of the Koan garden. All of a sudden, the sky seemed more hostile to him as the birds plowed through the void without song or compass. The same ladies from the day before, each immersed in her ancestors, were scattered among the benches and glimpses of snow on the branches.
  Shadi walked through the red pines. He had a notebook in which he practiced his spelling, although he’d noticed it was easier with kanji. Time wore on; soon he’d have to go back home. Then he saw the footprints. They went beyond the red pines, behind a trio of birches. The footprints were tiny and gray. He followed them. The smell of ash was a gesture of triumph.
  “Are you a yurei or a yokai?” he asked, but nobody answered. He realized that he was very far from the wall that separated the main garden from the rest of the forest. A frozen hand touched his forehead.
  “If you let me go with you, Inari will make me his servant,” said Kitsune in a low voice, while she got closer to Shadi’s face. “He’ll turn me into a white fox: I’ll have the power to ward off evil; I’ll take care of your soul and the souls of your loved ones. You’ll never be without good omens. You are just a bird and you don’t know how to grow rice or deal with things of the earth. You spend a lot of time in the air.”
  “I don’t do anything in the air.”
  “Yes, you do. You pretend to be sleeping when your mother cries.”
  “I heard you. I can hear what you think if you want me to.”
  Shadi sat on a rock, trying to warm up his hands with his breath.
  “How did you die?” he asked in Japanese.
  “When Hokusai was white and my parents ruled the meadow, I fell in a well while chasing a fox. I broke all my bones because the well was empty. I could hear the birds far away as I died, and the fox ran off.”
  “So, why do you want to be a fox? It was the fox’s fault.”
  “You never loved anything in your country?”
  “There aren’t any foxes in my country.”
  “I’m sorry.”
  “Don’t be sorry. There aren’t any rice gods either.”
  “You have to take me to your house, Tori no nakigoe.”
  “How do I do that?”
  “Tonight you need to write a letter to Inari. Ask him to let me go with you on his behalf. Tell him that I can be a good fox. At dawn, before going to school, leave the letter in the Fushimi Inari sanctuary on Ko-kitsune-maru Street and burn an ofuda. Then you can come for me.”
  “What am I going to tell my parents?”
  “They won’t notice. But you have to tell the man with wings who lives in your house not to bother me and to let me come in.”
  “What man with wings?”
  “The man with wings who’s behind your mother.”
  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  “One seed at a time, Tori no nakigoe. Now you must return home.”
  Shadi didn’t like eating tofu or daikon. And even less so, the daishi soup Keiko insisted on serving every night. But he had heard that foxes, since the Heian era, had always liked tofu. That made him smile and leave the table. The news from Caracas distracted Mr. and Mrs. Mansfield, so they didn’t even notice that their son left his dinner untouched.
  “They say they’re planning to kill him.”
  “But if they kill him, it’ll be worse, don’t you think?”
  “Maybe. But he’ll take less money dead.”
  “Would you want to go back after that, Thomas?”
  “What would be best for Shadi? That’s my only concern.”
  “We have to wait in Hokusai until spring to see what he says. You know how kids are.”
  Shadi sighed a tired sigh. He didn’t know how to write the letter in Japanese or in Spanish. He was pacing around the room for a while. While he meditated on the matter, he watched the path of a spider through the folding screen that imitated an Ogata Korin drawing. He assumed that, like God, surely Inari could understand any symbol he wrote. He turned on his lamp and got to work.
  Dear Mr. Inari,
  As you probably know, my name is Shadiya Mansfield Tarabay. I arrived in Hokusai in the fall because they were going to kill my dad. The past few months have been very strange. I never thought I’d come to this place. I didn’t even know it was an island. It’s hard, as you can imagine. In my country, islands are always hot. There aren’t any foxes. I’m writing to you because a fox asked me to. Kitsune is a girl, actually. She’s dead and it’s hard for me to say that. She fell in a well and broke her bones. According to Keiko, my friend Kitsune is a yurei, and according to Keiko, yurei do bad things. I don’t know, it’s not clear to me. I’ve only been in this place for two seasons. But I think it would be fair to make it up to her by turning her into a yokai. It would make me very happy if a girl or a fox took care of our home. My mom says that the situation isn’t changing in Caracas. They’ll probably come here and kill my dad. That would as terrible as someone falling in an empty well. So I think a yokai would be extremely useful for us in our situation. I must confess I would like her to keep looking like a girl, but if she wants to turn into a fox, I can’t argue. So, please, make her your servant. Give her nine tails and I’ll make sure she has enough tofu. I still don’t know how to ask the man with wings to let her in. Who is she talking about? I don’t think he exists. So I guess it won’t be a big deal. Oh, and please, help me with my kana writing. It’s still very hard for me to remember it all.

  Shadi woke up in a good mood and inhaled his breakfast.
  “You seem happy, Shadiya,” said his mother.
  “I am. Today I’m going to a sanctuary. But I need to know what an ofuda is.”
  “Ask Keiko,” said Mrs. Mansfield.
  But Keiko had left very early to do the shopping.
  “Then I’ll ask Dad,” said Shadi. And although Mr. Mansfield hadn’t woken up, it didn’t keep the boy from going into his room.
  “Dad, why haven’t you gotten up yet?”
  “I’ve been awake, but I don’t feel well. And I don’t have classes today.”
  “Could you tell me what an ofuda is?”
  “It’s holy Shinto writing on paper or wood. It could be the name of a kami or a devout phrase. There’s one in the entrance of the house on the board covered with moss. Why do you want to know?”
  “I was just wondering.”
  “I haven’t asked you: do you like it here?”
  “A little. These people believe in foxes. And everything is very clean, and on top of that, Mama lets me go to school by myself.”
  “So, you wouldn’t want to go back to Caracas.”
  “I don’t want to talk about that, Dad. I have to go now.”
  “Okay. Come here.”
  Shadi approached him. He thought Mr. Mansfield was going to ask him for a goodbye kiss, but instead, he took an ofuda out of the drawer and gave it to him. He told him they gave it to him the first time he visited Hokusai when he was 17 and his father was selling candy.
  “Who gave it to you?”
  “A girl in the Fushimi Inari sanctuary. They say it’s good to have one. Take care of it.”
  “You take care of yourself too.”
  “Go on, now, Shadiya. Don’t talk to strangers.”

  One winter morning. It wasn’t his favorite place in the world. The word “empire” started to spring up from inside of him, but it was also possible that that word would scatter ruins throughout the day. He figured that if he missed school, he wouldn’t get in trouble. In Caracas the teachers didn’t call home if a student missed one class.  “Everything can’t be perfect here!” he said to himself, justifying his transgression. He really wanted to go to the sanctuary and see Kitsune. He wanted to see her almond-shaped eyes and black hair one last time before Inari changed her into a Vulpes vulpes japonica with magical powers.
  In the sanctuary there were three people: the person in charge, dressed for the occasion, and two westerners taking pictures of the statues. In sweet, clumsy Japanese, Shadi asked where he could leave a letter for Mr. Inari. The monk, or whatever he was, thought it was a joke. Shadi insisted it was very important and to please tell him what to do.
  “You can bury it back there,” he said.
  Shadi dug out a space between the snow and the ground. He imagined he should say a prayer, but he drew a blank. “I hope it doesn’t bother you, Mr. Inari, if I make the sign of the cross: it’s the only thing I know how to do. I hope you can hear better than our Lord Jesus Christ, much better than his nails and his apostles. Praying is a distraction performed quietly, and where I come from, you can’t be distracted just because. Mr. Inari, do you know what happened to my friend Antonio’s dad? They locked him up in a cell for explaining how a flamethrower works. I don’t like the idea that Antonio’s dad, now that he has more than enough time sitting in a cell, has to pray. Mr. Inari, that’s like falling in an empty well. How nice that you don’t have to visit my country. Damn it, damn it, damn it, I imagine you aren’t offended if I say damn it, my country is a damned, cursed country.”
  From his pocket, Shadi took out the beautiful ofuda his father had given him. He thought he should keep it, but he also thought that this was an extraordinary situation. When he got closer to the fire to complete the mission Kitsune had given him, the monk, or whatever he was, shook him by the arms.
  “What are you planning on doing?”
  “I have to burn it.”
  “If you burn an ofuda, you could lose everything.”
  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  “Stupid Americans. They think that everything here is like in the magazines. Get out of here!”
  But Shadi, who in those days was patient and stubborn, waited for the monk to be distracted and came back to the altar where the fire was burning. He lit the paper and thought about Kitsune. Suddenly, the sun shone over the city of Hokusai.

  And that was the last time Shadi felt the sun and the snow on his cheeks. The news shattered the big city for weeks: a young man entered the Koan garden and gunned down eight people, among them a 10-year-old foreign boy who had skipped school that day. Amid the sudden thaw, Mr. and Mrs. Mansfield and Keiko attended the funeral in the Catholic cemetery on Inukai Street. Shadi, of course, had a privileged view of the events. He held the hand of his mother, who cried inconsolably in her husband’s arms. He didn’t have any questions about it all until Kitsune appeared in a white kimono, feet hidden, as Eastern ghosts traditionally pray.
  “I shouldn’t have burned the ofuda, should I have?”
  “Everything was for your own good.”
  “My own good?”
  “You would have never been happy among the living on this island.”
  “And now?”
  “We can live in the garden, and one day someone will bring a fox.”
  “Why don’t we do something better? We could go to my house. Mama and Papa aren’t planning to leave.”

  Kitsune was seduced by the idea of a home. She’d spent more than a hundred winters without the gleam of an evening fire, without the light footsteps of a mother quietly doing chores. They walked. The image was heartbreaking. Such beauty under the sky of Hokusai, an indigo winter morning: the naked trees like men wounded in battle; the sun, strong through the fog; the dry air playing with the ghosts of leaves. Two beings with hearts of water and clouds who were at the mercy of the streets, but who, at the same time, untouchable and fiery, bore the inheritance of an unknown universe that people sensed at half daybreak when they respected the silence of darkness. Mr. and Mrs. Mansfield were the first to go in. She collapsed in the garden and covered her face with wet earth. Her husband didn’t say anything. He was in a corner, searching for the words on a wooden board that someone had scratched off. Keiko was praying: she wasn’t going to lose her composure too, and she knew just as well, from the time she was born, that words didn’t help. The word “fate” is “fate,” but it doesn’t at all solve the excess of its call or the untrustworthy slowness of its pronunciation in some languages. When Shadi and Kitsune went through the gate, the sky seemed to darken more quickly than usual for that time of year. Something frightened Kitsune, like how the rage of the hunter awakens the fox in the forest.
  “You wanted to protect my house. Why aren’t you coming in?”
  “I just wanted you to die and stay with me.”
  “Don’t be afraid, little fox. Come.”
  Then Kitsune saw him standing next to Mrs. Mansfield, who was crying, her mouth covered in mud. He took out his sword and raised it. His wings were the oldest revelation of the mystery of light: nobody ever before in the Heian empire had ever seen a monster like that, an invincible star among mortals, like a song that kept in its belly the real name of a city. In a spell of dizziness, the wings closed and changed the girl, who had walked alone in the gardens of Hokusai for over a hundred years, into a fox. Shadi smiled, satisfied with his small revenge, and then bowed. He would wait for spring to show his fiery-furred kitsune how the birds sing among the flowers.

Kathleen Archer translates from Spanish and French. She is a second-year MFA candidate in Literary Translation at University of Iowa's Translation Workshop. Her previous work has appeared in The Arkansas International.