It was an unassuming bar in Narita – the kind of quiet, hole-in-the-wall place that caters to tired sararimen and the occasional slightly lost international traveller on layover. The latter was myself, so I felt comfortable enough to order a beer in Internationalese: pointing at a bottle behind the bar, holding up one finger, putting a credit card on the bar-top. It got me an icy Sapporo and a friendly, toothy smile, so I guess I got it right.
The beer was good, and I knew how to wave my Visa card and point at the yakitori they were serving, so I was feeling comfortable by the time she sat next to me and leaned into my shoulder. It was her perfume that really got my attention: musky, dark, infinitely sexy without a trace of flowers or spices.
She smelled dangerous.
I moved a little on my stool, just enough that she couldn’t lean on me any more. She looked as striking as she smelled: long, black hair, porcelain skin, and a perfectly composed, elegant face with astonishing green eyes. I may have goggled for a moment. “I didn’t know Japanese women could have green eyes,” I said, when I got my breath back.
She frowned, and said something in what I figured was probably Japanese. “Sorry,” I said. “I don’t understand.”
She shifted her position to get a better look at me, a puzzled expression on her face. It was quite a production, that little move. She was wearing some kind of razzle-dazzle get-up that put me in mind of some cosplayers I know: multiple layers of brilliantly coloured… were they kimonos? Dress-like things that folded shut across the front, held in place by a wide sash. She rustled when she moved, and the layers of colour shifted like a drunken rainbow. She gave me a quirky smile, and slowly, gently, reached out to touch my forehead.
“Is that better?” she said. “You understand now, yes?”
“English,” I said. “Yes. English I understand. I’m glad you do too.”
“I’ve seen your kind,” she said, peering at my arms and hands. “Pale. Pink. What are you called?”
“I go by Dirk,” I told her, though I was a little confused. “What’s your name?”
“I am Tamamo-no-mae,” she said with a little smirk, as if I should maybe know something about that. “I am pleased to meet you, Dirk.”
Dirk. Not Diruku. Just Dirk, like she was born to the tongue. That was interesting. “I’m from Australia,” I told her. “I write stories. I’m on my way to a science fiction convention in the US. I’m only here for a night.”
“I, too, am a stranger here,” she said. “We can keep each other company.” The slim, delicate finger she trailed over my forearm gave me a few ideas on what she meant by that. I smiled, and moved my arm from under her hand.
“Not in the market,” I said. “Sorry.”
Her – Tamamo’s – eyebrows did the jump of surprise. “Oh! You thought…” She giggled behind her hand. I’ve read plenty of books and written a few myself, but I’d never before actually heard a laugh that was like music. “Well. I… wouldn’t mind. You look like a strong man, and I’ve never… Not with one like you.” She still held her hand across the lower half of her face, and glanced coyly up at me through her lashes.
I thought about it a moment. “Pink, you said. I’m pink.”
“So… when you say ‘one like me’, you mean someone with skin like mine?”
“And your eyes,” she said, staring at me. “So big! Round, like the moon!”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “You’re telling me you’ve never met a… Westerner before?”
She glared at me. “You are not from Chugoku. Or Kyushu.”
“Couldn’t even point to them on a map,” I said. “Farther west. A lot farther. How do you speak English so well if you’ve never met someone like me before?”
Tamamo smirked again. “What makes you think I do? Have you not heard of Tamamo-no-mae, she of the Nine Tails?”
Well. I’d read enough manga to know a kitsune, a fox-spirit reference when I heard one. So – play along with the pretty lady, brother Dirk. Play along. This is a pleasantly eccentric approach, after all. “That’s you?” I said, wide-eyed. “So sorry! I didn’t recognise you. Not…” I gestured vaguely up and down at her. “Not like this.”
“So you have heard of me,” she said. “My fame has reached even whatever far barbarian land you come from. I am pleased!”
“So am I. It’s not every day I meet one with nine tails. Nine! Perhaps I might… see them?”
Tamamo went coy at me again. She had the most amazing eyelashes: thick, dark, beautifully curved, impossibly long. “Perhaps,” she said. “If you amuse me.”
“Say no more,” I said. “What’s your pleasure? Storytelling is what I’m best at,” I added hastily. I hadn’t forgotten that finger on my arm.
“Fortuitous,” she said, and I admit I was pretty damned impressed that she could use the word so well. “You know my story, Dirk?”
“Oh, well. I admit the details are a little hazy. I mean, I really do come from a long way away. But the fame of Tamamo-no-mae is undying!” Okay, yeah, I was laying it on thick. But that was the game, wasn’t it?
“Nine hundred years I lay imprisoned in the stone,” she said. “But I am strong. Nine centuries it took, but the stone is broken. I am free.”
And now I knew why the name was familiar. I’d seen articles online. The demon trapped in the stone on the mountainside. The stone suddenly, mysteriously split. Now I knew what game this ‘Tamamo’ was playing. The only question that remained was – why? “You said it was fortuitous that I’m a storyteller,” I said. “What did you mean by that?”
Tamamo smiled. “Stories. I want stories. Nine hundred years inside a stone!”
Point well made. “What did you want to hear?”
Her smile faded, and she looked pensively out through the glass-paned door that gave onto the street. Outside, a bus drove slowly past, driving with care to negotiate the narrow, old streets. Tamamo blinked, and looked back at me again. “Do you have a place to stay, Dirk-from-afar? Are there still inns where travellers rest?”
I nodded. Her smile came back.
She stayed deep in character the whole way. It was somewhere between adorable and downright creepy. Everything we saw seemed to capture her attention. She looked at the cars and buses as if they were unfamiliar to her, and the face she made every time a jetliner went overhead was – well, it was enough to start me off. I told her about the history of flight as we walked. Then I had to explain what I knew of internal combustion engines, and petrochemicals, and that led to oil and oil wars and international economics, and CO2 pollution and overpopulation, space exploration, cutting-edge technology, social media… Hey. I’m a writer. Don’t ask me questions if you don’t want me to talk.
Tamamo played along beautifully, asking questions as if she really had been stuck in a rock for nine centuries. Where was my country of Australia? Did the Great Land Down Under bow to the rule of the emperor? Who was the emperor now? Oh, really? What of the emperor of China? No! Honestly?
I worked out very quickly that I liked her, whoever she was. She was smart, and wickedly funny with a sense of humour that buzzed like a wasp between zany slapstick and deepest, mordant black. It was easy for me (fantasy writer, much afflicted by imagination) to play along, forget the woman behind the cosplay, and simply interact with Tamamo-no-mae, the Nine-Tailed Fox Spirit from the 12th century. It was a wonderful game, and I asked questions about her time with as much curiosity as she showed about the present day. Her answers varied, and sometimes she simply said that she hadn’t been interested – in weapons and armour, for example, which disappointed me – but she was wonderfully well informed on the religion and politics of her era, and I drank her words eagerly.
Tamamo was particularly impressed by phones. She’d seen them everywhere, people holding them up to their ears, talking, taking photos, using the Internet… I showed her mine. With a throwaway local SIM in place, I had reasonable access, so I made a video call to my daughter back home. Tamamo looked over my shoulder as the Mau-Mau appeared onscreen. “Hi, dad,” she said, blinking a little blearily. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Not really,” I said. “It’s only about nine-thirty here.”
“It’s eleven thirty here.” She peered at the screen. “Who’s that with you?”
I angled the phone towards Tamamo. “This is Tamamo-no-mae. She’s a nine-tailed kitsune, and she just broke out of a rock where she’s been imprisoned for nine hundred years.” Tamamo waved. The Mau-Mau blinked again, and waved back.
“I thought you didn’t get to the convention until the day after tomorrow,” she said.
“That’s right. I’m still in Narita.” I moved the phone to give her a panorama of the city, then brought it back to face Tamamo and me.
“But you’ve managed to find a kitsune,” my daughter said. “Typical.” She peered closely at us again, and nodded. “Nice costume, Tamamo. Love the ears.”
“Thank you,” said Tamamo. She preened a little. I didn’t see anything special about her ears, but who could tell? Maybe the phone image was distorted at the far end.
“I gotta go,” said the Mau-Mau. “My fat-ass cat wants to be fed.”
“Sure,” I said. “Nice talking to you! I’ll bring you back some books.”
“You always bring books,” she said, but she laughed. The image disappeared. Tamamo looked at me, and clapped her hands.
“Your daughter is pretty,” she said.
“You should see her mother,” I said. “She was always going to be pretty. But she’s smart, too, and she’s good with a bow and a broadsword, and she makes music.”
“It is a good time for one like her,” said Tamamo reflectively. “This is a different kind of world.”
“It’s got its problems,” I said. “I wonder sometimes if I had any business bringing children into it.”
And of course, Tamamo wanted to know what I meant. So by the time we reached the transit hotel, we were deep into the current state of the world, complete with pandemics, invasions, rising sea levels, nuclear diplomacy, and drastic climate change issues. Tamamo stopped asking questions after a block or two. Instead she’d taken to watching me sadly, inscrutably, nodding occasionally to show she understood. Perhaps she’d run out of enthusiasm for the game.
I stopped at the entrance to the lobby. “This is it,” I told her. “I’m on the third floor.”
“So high,” she said, gazing up at the twelve-story building. “In my time only a great lord might live in such a thing. But now there are so many… I can hardly see the sky!”
“It’s still up there,” I said. “You have to get out of the city if you want to see the stars, though.” I hesitated. “I’m going up now. If you want to keep talking, there’s a place to sit. We can order food, if you like.” I was uneasy, inviting this stranger to my room. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea. But I knew nobody else in the country, and the game had been so very satisfying that I didn’t want it to end.
I held my breath. After a moment, Tamamo smiled again.
It wasn’t a big room – just a comfortable and spotlessly clean but somewhat utilitarian space to rest, recover, and clean up between flights, Narita being a big airport city. I showed Tamamo how the card-key worked, which delighted her so much that we had to work the lock with its friendly beep and its little green light several times. Once inside, I introduced her to the bar fridge and some snacks; the chocolate went over particularly well. When she was well ensconced with a bottle of fizzy soft drink that made her hiccup happily, I switched on the TV set for her, and showed her how the remote control worked. Then I made an apology.
“I’ve travelled a great distance today,” I said. “I feel uncomfortable and sticky. I want to be clean.”
Tamamo giggled again. “You think you smell!” she said. “Well it’s true, but I don’t mind. Everyone smells to me. But if you will feel better, you should bathe. Is there a hot spring here?”
So then of course, I had to show her the little bathroom with the shower and the sink and the complicated Japanese toilet which made her howl with laughter, especially when I accidentally activated a couple of the unexpected features that sprayed water and warm air, and played music. But at last I shooed her out, and I set about bathing.
Just before I stepped into the shower, the door opened again, and Tamamo peeked impishly around the edge. “Pink everywhere,” she said, and grinned at my obvious discomfort. “I wondered.”
I frowned at her, and waved her away. She giggled, and shut the door.
The shower was hot, and it felt good. The hotel towel was thick and soft, and they’d supplied some kind of a half-length cotton kimono thing as a dressing gown. Refreshed, more or less respectable, I left the bathroom.
And she was gone. The TV was still on. She’d found Fox News on the cable channels, and the smiling idiot visage of Tucker Carlson was delivering some sort of drivel about Biden and Ukraine and Putin. I switched it off, and looked carefully around the room – but there really wasn’t anywhere to hide.
Well. It had been fun.
She’d left me a note. I found a sheet of complimentary hotel stationery neatly folded on the little desk/table in the corner, weighted down with my phone. Her writing was as elegant and deft as everything else about her. The note just said: Thank you for the stories, Dirk. It was good to meet you, but this world of yours is no place for me. I am going back to my stone. Goodbye.
That was a good way to end it. I liked her all the more for the bitter humour of the idea: that a nine-tailed fox demon of chaos might find 2022 so awful that she felt it was better to go back to sleeping inside a stone. After all, I frequently found myself thinking much the same kind of thing.
The only other thing she left behind was a selfie she took on my phone. She must have downloaded some kind of cutesy Japanese filter software, like those apps that put animal faces on teenage girls. The photo showed Tamamo in the middle of my little room, but she had grey, neatly furred ears – pointed, like a fox. And behind her, fanned out like a peacock’s glory, were the fluffy, silky-looking tails. All nine of them, white-tipped, waving proudly.
It’s a cute photo. I look at it sometimes when social media and pandemics and invasions and floods and fires and extinctions get me down, and it makes me smile. I hope she’s okay, safe in whichever stone she’s chosen.
I hope that when she comes out again, the world will be a better place.