August 2022 Short

The Evening The Fox Falls, I Think Of You

Ryu Yumemiri

“I expect a fox to come down this evening.”

She said as the wind chimes were blowing softly.

Keeping her refreshing smile intact. In a tone no different from making small talk about how it looks like it’s going to rain in the afternoon – this evening, a fox is going to come down.

The woman’s innocent smile and the bad jokey forecast were somewhat incompatible, so I asked after a pause in silence.

“………… Fox, is it?”

“Yes, that’s right, fox.”

At the words she repeated, I twisted my head and said, “Huh,” as if I’ve been pinched by a fox.

The wind blew as if it was trying to reason with my troubled brow. Suddenly, a smell that reminded me of something burning, yet somewhat nostalgic, brushed past my nose. I’ve smelled it somewhere before, what was that smell?

I was too much of a grown-up to remember.

 ――――――――――――――――――――――――――――――――――――

How long has it been?

The summer has come and gone again and again.

When I was a child, a new summer came every year. There was only one summer that was the same. Nowadays, last summer and this summer are the same as usual.

My workplace is on a mountainside.

It is a fifteen-minute drive from my cheap one-room six-tatami mat apartment. I commute to work via the winding prefectural road that goes through a mountain pass. The road is just barely wide enough for cars to pass each other, and when the weather is rough, such as during a typhoon, I am worried that I might get caught in a landslide. There was a large bridge across a mountain stream, and at the foot of the bridge was a parking lot with a view of the mountains. In fact, it would be a waste of money to have an observation deck parking lot in such a non-touristy area, and I had never seen a car in the lot where about 10 cars could park, nor had I ever thought of stopping my car there to take in the scenery in comfort.

The round trip to and from the pass was almost all I had to do at the age of 25.

This is not to say that I am dissatisfied with the current situation. It was just that I had resigned myself to the fact that this was the way things were going to be. It was like a thick cloud hanging over my head.

It wasn’t like this when I was younger. I thought that when I became an adult, I would be able to do various things. I could go to faraway places without depending on anyone, and I could do whatever I wanted without doing homework. But, when I actually became an adult, I suddenly realized that there were more and more things I couldn’t do.

I could no longer talk about dreams that would never come true. I could no longer feel summer. I can no longer compare the shape of clouds to anything.

I no longer look up at the sky.

I no longer remember those days.

 

 

I finished work at six o’clock and was hurrying home on the mountain pass as usual. When I get home, I have to clean up for the first time in a long time. The laundry must have piled up. As I was about to pass by the parking lot with these thoughts in my mind, I saw a clear white color swaying softly in the corner of my eye.

As if drawn in, I turned my gaze to see a woman in a white one-piece dress standing there, leaning against the fence of the observation deck. Her hair, tied in a single knot, was swaying in the wind on her slender back.

What in the world was she doing there?

While I was distracted, the car approached a curve, so I hastily re-grasped the steering wheel. After passing by the parking lot, I think again. Did she come to admire the scenery? If so, was she a photographer or a painter? There were no tripods or art supplies by her side. There was no car to begin with. She’s not going to commit suicide – I thought about it and it made me feel very uneasy. Not wanting to leave her alone, I searched the width of the road, turned the car around, and drove back to the side of the bridge.

She was still there.

The twilight was turning bluish-purple as the evening twilight was beginning to spread, but there was a glimmer of white. It was bright as if a fire had just been lit there. Getting out of the car, I asked her what she’s doing. She turned around.

In the silky dusk, her pitch-black hair spread out. Her round, walnut-shaped eyes reflect mine. The dark circles on either side of her eyes are somehow childish. I almost feel a sense of familiarity with her just by the fact that our gazes meet. She immediately narrowed her watchful eyes and smiled cheerfully.

Oh, darn it I thought to myself. My fears were unfounded. There was no way that someone with such a cheerful smile could be thinking of something as disturbing as I had imagined. Well, as I was wondering what excuse I could give her, she said.

“I expect a fox to come down this evening.”

“………… Fox, is it?”

I can’t hide my bewilderment, so she continues as if it were normal.

“Yes, that’s right, fox—it’s about this time they come down every year, but this summer’s fox is a bit of a sleeper… Oh, why don’t you join me?”

She invited me with a sweet smile, letting her gaze swim vaguely.

The actual “fox” is not going to fall. A sudden rain shower is sometimes called “Kitsune no Yomeiri” (lit. “The Fox’s Wedding”), but if it rains heavily, it will be a hassle to go back through the mountain pass.

Let’s decline.

“Oh, no, I…”

“It won’t take that much time.”

She grabbed my arm and my pulse skips a beat. Her slender fingers clutched at my sweaty skin as if to cling to it. The fact that they are so thin doesn’t give the impression of being pointy, but rather soft and pliable. I was afraid that if I forced myself to untangle them, they would fall apart. Her eyes, peering at me intently, reflected the twilight and were slightly moist.

I couldn’t leave her alone, so I just nodded my head.

“Good, I’ve always wanted to see a fox falling with someone, so I’m glad.”

A thin shadow gathers around the hollows of my heart, like a star in the twilight of a sleepy night. Without warning, my heart began to race. Someone I knew had two lovely blubber marks like that, but I couldn’t remember who they were or why.

“Um, have we met before?”

For a moment, I felt a slight flutter of agitation at the tips of his fingers as he gripped my arm. A subtle tremor, similar to a single rain dripping on a green leaf. But the defenseless bewilderment did not last. She purses her lips mischievously. A small dimple formed on her cheek.

“Fufufu, I was sure you’ll remember me.”

She tilted her head and pressed her index finger to her pale red lips. As if telling a little secret. A corner of my chest creaked again. But I still couldn’t catch the tail of her sentimentality.

 

After that, she fell silent.

Her eyes were fixed on the distance, watching the twilight. I tried to talk to her a few times about something trivial, but she wouldn’t turn around, so I gave up and looked at the scenery. The sunset, which reminded me of ripe sweet oranges, was shimmering and burning in the blue screen-like summer mountains, and it would be a picture if it were displayed in a frame. Come to think of it, when was the last time I looked up at the sunset slowly like this? In the past, I used to hurry on my way home with the sky as my watch.

Her cheeks, glowing in the evening light, looked so childlike, and I thought back to my childhood, one by one, as if I were folding my fingers.

I’m not originally from the local area.

I came to this town when I was in the first grade of junior high school due to my parents’ job transfer, and I have only lived here for one summer. That summer was a special summer for me. The blue sky reflected on the bumpy, weed-filled paths of the rice paddies. The chorus of frogs that began at nightfall never ceased until morning, and I listened to the lively silence of summer forever. The occasional sound of stepping on a twig made me wonder if it was a deer or a fox. Sometimes, rubbing my thick eyelids, I would go out early in the morning to catch a beetle. I also went out to fish for crayfish, and played big-box sumo wrestling. Compared to the city, the countryside was inconvenient, but every day was like an adventure — and the most fun of all —oh, yes, the summer festival. Unlike in the city, the festivals were not so large-scale, but they had all the typical festival foods, such as yakisoba (fried noodles), cotton candy, and candy apples, as well as goldfish scooping, target practice, and yo-yo fishing. In addition, the festival held in the precincts of the shrine had a special atmosphere, which made my heart race.

Summer festival. The sleeves of my yukata fluttered at the edge of my head like it was on fire.

A cute girl with her hair tied up in a single knot. She grabbed my arm – rolling it around, giggling like a rolling bell.

“―――― Let’s play fox fireworks.”

I can’t remember who was at the end of that sleeve – as if she were wrapped around me.

I put my thoughts to rest and looked at the person next to me. I wonder how long she’s been staring at me, and our gazes collide and she turns away in a hurry. I was sure it was because of the evening glow that her cheeks were flushed with red, as if she had wiped them with a paintbrush.

This year, there was no summer festival following last year, was there? I don’t intend to go to a summer festival just because it was held, but I felt unnecessarily lonely.

After all, at the end of the summer, I had to return to the city due to my father’s transfer.

Ten years later, I moved back to this town not out of nostalgia, but because of the very trivial circumstances of the company I worked for – in other words, a coincidence. The mountains, rivers, and forests that were full of playgrounds when I was a child are now just landscapes, and the seasons have become numbers from 1 to 12. I was so worried about the little inconveniences of everyday life, and I couldn’t even go to the places where I was so excited.

 

The scarlet(daybreak) glow of the evening faded away, leaving only a handful of glare at the edge of the clouds. After all, I knew it was impossible for a fox to fall. I almost said that with a laugh.

Something fluttered in the light purplish-blue ledger.

“See, it looks like it’s started.”

A strong wind blew up and her voice sounded awfully far away. Without time to pay attention to the nostalgic scent that wafted through the air for a moment, my eyes were absorbed by the heavens.

One by one, golden rays of light crossed the purple sky as if they were dripping fire. In the blink of an eye, they became a swarm.

A swarm of fire. Too low to be called a shooting star.

“It’s…… a fox.”

They were clearly in the shape of a fox.

The tail that fluttered elegantly and flared—the fox came down. Straddling the blue shadowy lines of the mountains, the foxes shimmered like white waves. The golden fire was burning down to the valley, shining brightly and then burning out.

“It’s like fox fireworks…”

The nostalgic words came out of my mouth without thinking.

Fox fireworks. Yes, that’s what she called the sparklers. I heard that locals call Red Spider Lily “fox flower”. The sparklers with their flashing sparks were exactly the same as the shape of Red Spider Lily, so she laughed innocently and said, “It’s a fox flower”.

That night—I enjoyed the festival to the fullest, and when I was about to go home—she tugged on my arm and led me to the back of the shrine. This shrine is a branch of the Inari Shrine, so there are statues of foxes in the grounds, not Komainu (Guardian Dogs). The fox is posed with its hind legs stretched out behind it, as if it had come down from some high place. She sat down on the stone steps beside the fox and took out something from the sleeve of her Yukata.

“Don’t tell your mom and dad, okay?”

It was a sparkler and a lighter that she had probably stolen from the house. With her index finger on her mouth, she narrows her eyes.

“Here, one at a time, I’ll light it up… Don’t drop it.”

The sparkler that was hidden in the shadow of the fox and burned by two people was something special—the smell of gunpowder and the grass mingled together to give us a resounding smell of summer.

The hustle and bustle of the festival, heard from afar, brings into sharp relief the silence that lies beside us. It was a comfortable silence, like tepid water. Her shallow breathing touches my earlobe and leaves.

I pretended to look at the firework, and peeked next to her, and saw her eyes twinkling every time the flame flickered. Yes, that’s right. I thought the light reflected in those fruit-like eyes was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

“There’s only one thing left to do.”

We picked up the last sparkler together and lit it. The fire burned brightly for a moment, as the beads of fire, which had swelled up to a full size, fell down.

The profile of the girl that I had completely forgotten appeared in the darkness of my memory.

Her skin was white like out-of-season snow and her cheeks were soft. Her round shoulders showed that even though she was young, she was different from a man. Her hair tied back in a tight bun. Her two eyes were covered with wavy dark circles like stardust.

She was my first love.

“Are you … Suzu-chan?”

The woman who was looking up at the descending fox looked at me and laughed happily.

“Good, I’m glad you remembered.”

Why did I forget? I liked her so much.

In retrospect, it was always Suzu-chan who grabbed my arm and told me about summer. Her little hands would pull me along, saying things like, “Let’s go look for cicadas,” or “I found cuckoo eggs”, and she would pull me along, almost forcefully. There were times when I thought it was troublesome, but her eyes were so happy and bubbly that I couldn’t help but be carried along by her.

But summer doesn’t last forever. We said goodbye when the fun summer ended and the autumn breeze was beginning to blow. I had to go back to the city because of my dad’s job transfer—Suzu-chan said, “I see”, and then fell silent with a downcast look on her face. She clutched the sleeves of her clothes, which were longer than in the summer, so tightly that they were wrinkled.

I could not bear it, and held out my pinky finger.

I’ll come to see her again– yes, I intertwined my fingers with hers, but I never saw her again.

“You promised me, you would come and see me again. That’s why I’ve been waiting.”

“I’m sorry… I don’t know why, I just forgot about it for a long time.”

Suzu-chan, who was now quite grown-up, was sleek and her lipstick looked like ripe apricots. But her bright, shy eyes were as they were when I was a child. I scratch my head in embarrassment, and in a corner of my mind, I am screaming that I can’t remember something very important anymore. I am reunited with the woman of my first love, and that’s all that matters. I should be happy. But I am rushed by an indescribable feeling of discomfort.

“It’s okay, because you remembered me at the end… this summer was the last.”

“Last…”

“Actually, it was my turn.”

The fox reflected in her eyes burns brightly.

A light. I remember it as if the bead of fire, which had been shriveling up and almost burning up, but was still clinging to the end of the twisted paper, would finally fall off. Something I didn’t want to think about for a long, long time.

Suzu-chan – that she had passed away.

 

It was a rainy season as summer approaches. It was only nine months after I waved good-bye to her.

We received news of Suzu-chan’s sudden death due to a worsening of her chronic illness. She had been suffering from a heart condition and only had one year to live…… I couldn’t believe it. Suzu-chan, with her hair tied in one knot and bouncing as she ran around in the fields and forests, had been in such good health.

But I was just too stupid to notice it.

Her pale skin was exposed to so much summer sun, and yet it hadn’t burned at all. Her eyes were trying to enjoy the summer as if she was in a hurry to live.

Suzu-chan’s parents said it was her last summer. Even if she could prolong her life by resting, it would only be for a year or so. In that case, they wanted to let her enjoy her last summer to the fullest – thank you for playing with Suzu.

At the funeral, Suzu’s parents were moved to tears.

But now, Suzu-chan, all grown up, is holding my arm. She was smiling with the same young eyes she had when she invited me to the fox firework.

“Hey, let’s go together.”

Suzu-chan pulled my arm full of strength, just like that distant summer day. The wavy lines that framed her eyes sparkled.

Oh, I realized, even after all this time, that Suzu must have been lonely. The last summer. I wonder what kind of feelings she had, while holding my hand. What kind of thoughts did she have when we entwined our fingers?

I try to step on her side as I am strongly drawn to her. I know that there is a boundary there that I should not step on, but still.

“Kidding.”

Snap!

As if cutting off a thin thread, she released her entwined finger.

“Suzu-chan――…”

The first time I saw her, she was wearing a red and scarlet yukata that looked as if it was on fire.

It was the same yukata she wore on the night of the festival. She ran out, generously exposing her white bare legs from the hem of her short yukata. I almost fell down on my feet when she suddenly let go of my arm, and tried to grab the sleeve that was moving away from me.

But she slipped through my arm very easily.

That’s right. I am always the one who is grabbed by your arm and pulled by your arm – now that you’ve let go, I can never keep up with that back. I can’t catch up.

“You can forget about me.”

A flame flared up from the tiptoe of her bare feet, which she stepped lightly on as she lifted her hem. The flames quickly engulfed her slender legs. The sleeves of her red Yukata fluttered and spread out in a gust of wind. She effortlessly climbed over the rusty fence, she turned around once.

Her round eyes twinkled dazzlingly. It seemed like a bead of fire that was about to fall out of her eyes at any moment.

 

“But then, remember me again.”

A flower bloomed.

The red silk flutters in the wind as if it is about to tear, and she soars into the dusky sky as if she is about to burst. Not only her legs, but even her hair, which was tied into a single knot, burst into flames. She gently waved her sleeves in a scorching, shimmering motion. The fine fire that scattered from the base of her sleeves decorated the evening sky, which had begun to change from purple to blue, with more splendor than gold and more elegance than silver.

That’s right. It’s Red Spider Lily(Fox Fire)――――

Looking up, I felt hot drops on my cheeks.

The sorrow of not being able to chase after the backs of those who are moving away from us again. Mourning for the life that has been lost – but that’s not all, it wasn’t all. It was a very innocent impression that I haven’t remembered for a long time because I had been so distracted by the hurried pace of my daily life.

It was a feeling that shook me to the core, and I couldn’t stop it.

The fox that fell from the sky still drip. Drops of fire dripped from the translucent blue ledger. She joined the fire, burning the darkening twilight beautifully for the last time —

She fell to the edge of the horizon.

The night comes in an equal and gentle manner.

The foxes have ceased their descent, and in the stillness of the blue sky, one by one, silver stars begin to rise. In the distance, beyond the peaks, there was a small fire that was still burning, but soon the cover of the darkness would cover it. The bustle of cicadas could be heard from nowhere. The midsummer night descended on us, as if it were all a dream or a blur.

But somewhere in the wind that blew across my wet cheeks, it was still somewhat smoky. I inhaled the smell of summer with my chest full of air. When was the last time I took a breath like this? My chest is filled with the sound of cicadas, the smell of grass, and a handful of loneliness.

On the next vacation, let’s watch foxes fall. I’m sure I won’t be able to do it as well as I did back then.

I’ll try not to lose the rounded bead of fire until the very end.

Let’s look for summer.

The summer that will surely not come around again.

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