Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Yoko Kinoko – Yoko because her father liked the name and Kinoko because her nose was a cute as a little button mushroom. Yoko lived in an apartment on that street near the temple. You know the one – it has a big red gateway leading onto a courtyard where you can burn incense in brass cauldrons full of sand. She liked to pop in on her way home from school to waft the smoke over her hair and clap her hands in front of the large Buddha statue that gazed out from scented indoor shade with a sleepy and ever so slightly bored expression on his venerable face.
One day, Yoko Kinoko was passing through the temple grounds when she heard a tiny mewing sound. The path and garden were mostly rock and sand, with wooden steps and artistically displayed moss, but around the edges grew huge stands of bamboo, big soft bushes, and thickets of gentle green trees, and the sound was coming from somewhere in there. Yoko Kinoko walked slowly along with her ear brushing the leaves, following the mewing until it stopped. She stopped too, listening. After a moment, she knelt down and poked her head into the greenery. The mewing started up again, quite close. Taking her satchel off her back and placing it on the floor, Yoko pushed in between the bushes, poking back at branches and scratching back at twigs until finally her head popped out into a tiny clearing. The ground was soft with pine needles from the trees high above, and the light was gentle green from the trees lower down. It was beautiful. Yoko Kinoko stepped out from the bushes and looked around.
She had expected a kitten, but the creature that crept up and rubbed itself against her legs was instead a tiny and very soft baby fox. Yoko Kinoko crouched down carefully and stroked its orange head, rubbing its ears as it pushed its nose into her hand.
‘What a pretty baby. I wonder where your mama is.’
But the fox gave no reply. It seemed to be alone.
‘I wish I had some food for you’, said Yoko Kinoko as she scratched the fox’s little chin.
No sooner had she said it than she felt the weight of her satchel on her back – the satchel she had left on the other side of the bushes. Startled, she twisted round a couple of times, then took it off and held it out in front of her. Definitely her satchel. She rummaged in her lunch box for some left-over chicken and held it out to the fox, who nipped and nibbled at it with a contented expression.
Well, that was strange. Yoko Kinoko considered for a moment then said, loudly and clearly while scratching the fox’s chin:
‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’
Nothing. She put the remains of the chicken back into her lunch box and closed the lid firmly.
‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’
The fox gave a little frown.
Pop! An ice-cream appeared in her hand. She licked it once all the way round then opened her lunch box and put it on the ground.
Yoko Kinoko and the fox ate together for a while in silence. When he had finished, he climbed into her lap and curled up tightly with his nose under his tail.
‘Where is your mama?’
The fox was silent.
‘I shall call you Kitsu Chan. How would you like that?’
‘Would you like to come and live with me?’
The fox pricked his ears, and licked Yoko’s hand.
Yoko walked slowly back along the street and climbed the stairs to their apartment with great care, making sure that the satchel sat very straight on her back, but when they arrived home, she kicked off her shoes in a hurry, called out ‘I’m home’, and was in her bedroom before her mother had even opened the kitchen door. She quickly scooped Kitsu out of the satchel and deposited him under her kotatsu, arranging the quilt so that it hung all the way to the floor, then she peered underneath.
‘Are you comfortable there?’
The fox peered back at her.
‘Is there anything you want?’
Kitsu licked his lips again.
‘OK, here goes. I wish I had Kitsu Chan’s favourite food in my bedroom.’
Three mice ran out onto the rug.
Yoko Kinoko screamed.
She wasn’t afraid of mice, it was just the shock. And then the sight of Kitsu catching them in his teeth. And then the blood and crunching sounds. And then the pile of worms on the kotatsu. But what really tipped her into hysterics was the sudden swarm of fat cicadas emerging from her wardrobe.
Yoko Kinoko screamed so loudly that both her mother and her big brother came running. They arrived at her door to find dead mice on the floor, a plague of cicadas, and a young fox chasing a half-eaten mouse with bits of worm spraying from his mouth. Yoko’s brother screamed just like Yoko, and her mother demanded to know what was happening. All that the sobbing Yoko could tell her was ‘but he was so cuuuuuute!’
That evening, Yoko Kinoko had a calming bath while her mother shooed the cicadas out of the window and thoroughly cleaned the floor. She threatened to bring a fox catcher but somehow, in all the chaos, Kitsu had disappeared.
Yoko was inconsolable. After everyone else had gone to sleep that night, she lay under her quilt and cried hot tears. She had met a magic fox and lost him on the very same day. And although he was a greedy little thing, and had a gruesome way of getting his dinner, she felt terrible at the thought of him being frightened and alone. He was so tiny and his ears so soft.
‘I wish Kitsu Chan would come back.’
A soft thump on her pillow. A tiny tongue licking her tears. Yoko Kinoko sat up in surprise and delight. Kitsu climbed into her lap and stuck out his tummy for a scratch. It was as tight and tubby as a little kettle drum, and his tail was as soft as a calligraphy brush.
‘I’m sorry I screamed.’
He closed his eyes in contentment.
‘I wish I had a new iphone.’
Kitsu opened one eye and looked at her sarcastically.
Too soon. So instead, Yoko Kinoko and Kitsu Chan curled up together and went to sleep, dreaming about the adventures to come.