The Man with the Fox Shadow
Vivi has started a new school in Japan, and feels lonely... until she makes an intriguing new friend.
Vivian’s family had just moved to Japan for her mom’s work. She missed a lot of things about living in her old home in Missouri. But she liked how close they were living to the ocean now, at least. She could see the ocean from her window. She often did homework with the window open, or sometimes she’d sit out on their little balcony. The smell of the sea was carried up by the breeze, and it mingled through the whole apartment.
That was another thing she was getting used to: living in such a small place. Their old house had been big, and no matter which way you looked you could see meadows. Now they had a four room apartment on the eighth floor of a tall grey building.
They had moved to a city called Yokosuka. Vivian still had to sound it out in her head to say it right aloud. And though her school was taught in mostly English, all the students spoke to each other in Japanese. No one had been unkind to her, but nobody had made the effort to make her feel like she belonged, either. Vivi couldn’t help but wonder if her classmates were talking about her to each other.
She was picking up words here and there, mostly things like good morning, please, and thank you. It sounded so much prettier coming from the others–like water flowing in a spring. When Vivi talked in Japanese it sounded more like hail denting a car. As her mind wandered, her pencil followed. Instead of filling out the blanks on her vocabulary sheet, she was sketching the face of Hanako, the girl who sat next to her in class. Hanako was very pretty, and always wore her long dark hair in braids.
Maybe I could ask Mom to put my hair in braids tomorrow… Vivan thought. Coming back to her senses, she hurriedly erased the doodle and began working. Her mother would be home soon, and Vivi wouldn’t get to watch TV before dinner if her homework wasn’t done.
Fifteen minutes later the lock began to jiggle. After some muffled growling there was a click, and the door swung open.
“I’m home!” Removing her shoes at the door, her mother threw her briefcase onto the kitchen table and came out onto the balcony. Sweeping Vivi up into her arms, the woman hugged her daughter tight. “I missed you soooo much!!” she exclaimed happily.
“..Mom…!” the young girl gasped “…can’t…b-breathe…”
“Oops! Sorry sweetie.”
Relaxing her bone-crushing grip, the woman laughed, kissing Vivian on the head before putting her back in her seat.
“How was your day, Mom?” Vivi brought her things inside and put away her homework, while her mother changed out of her work clothes.
“Oh, it was fine. Nothing super exciting. How was yours?”
Vivi shrugged, grabbing the step stool. She got the plates from the cabinet while her mom started preparing the food.
“It was okay. Hanako helped me with a math problem.”
“That’s wonderful!” her mother beamed “Next thing you know you two will be inseparable!”
Vivian snorted, rolling her eyes “Sure, Mom.”
“Well, I can hope, can’t I? I want you to be happy here.” She said this last part in a quiet tone.
“I will be, Mom! Don’t worry!! I just need to get used to it, promise!”
The woman looked down at her daughter, and smiled “You always know just how to cheer me up.”
She wiped her hands on a towel and grabbed the pad that was stuck to the fridge. Fumbling around for a pen, she scribbled down ‘carrots’ and ripped off the page. Handing it to Vivi, she said
“I nearly forgot, can you run down to that little shop across the street? Here’s some money.” She dug around in her purse, then gave Vivian two of the colorful bills. “This should be enough.”
“Okay!” said Vivi. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
She hurried down the many flights of stairs and across the street. The bell above the door tinkled merrily as she entered, and Vivi made sure to smile politely at the man behind the counter.
But after hunting around the aisles, she found that all the signs were in Japanese! Sighing, she looked around for someone to ask for help. In the next aisle over there was a tall, thin man in a very pretty floral patterned kimono. His hair was snow white, and when he looked over at her his sharp green eyes caught the light like jewels. Taking a deep breath, Vivian began to speak
“U-um, sumi-” the unfamiliar word got stuck in her throat. She tried again “Sumimasen?” Excuse me? He smiled kindly at her and replied
“Do you need help, little one?”
He spoke English! Vivi found that most people did, but her mother taught her never to assume anything about a person you didn’t know.
“Yes, please, sir. I’m looking for the carrots. Do you know where they are?”
“Let’s see if we can’t find them together.”
It didn’t take very long with the man’s help, and soon enough she was standing in front of the counter to pay.
After, Vivi turned to the man and held out her hand.
“Thank you very much, sir!”
He chuckled, and shook her hand lightly. Then, she remembered that she was supposed to bow, not shake hands.
“Oh! I’m sorry!” She quickly bowed to him, and the man laughed.
“Please, it’s alright. Everyone makes mistakes.”
Vivi smiled in relief. They left the store at the same time, and as the man walked away she noticed something that took her breath away.
His shadow was…a fox??! Rubbing her eyes with her free hand, Vivi blinked quickly and looked again, but it was still there. Trotting delicately behind the man as he walked away was a fox shaped shadow. Shaking her head, Vivian hurried back home.
That night after dinner, she sketched the stranger and his weird shadow. Giggling, she added a pair of fox ears and tail for fun. She laughed, thinking That looks about right. Now they match.
The next afternoon she was back out on the balcony, her mind wandering away from her homework and to the ocean once more. Her sketchbook lay across the table, and the wind blew it open with a flutter.
Suddenly, someone started to speak. “Oh! Is this me? Did you draw this?”
Turning quickly, Vivian jumped in surprise to see the strange man from last night sitting on her balcony.
“You’re very good, you know,” he said.
“U-um?? How did you get up here?? Who are you?”
His sharp eyes looked at her in amusement. Hiding his sly smile behind a fan he replied
“I got up here by flying, of course.”
“And how rude of me.” He stood, closed his fan with a snap, and bowed to her. “I am Nori, a fox spirit.”
As if to make sure she believed him, a pair of snow white ears popped out of his hair, and seven white tails fanned out from behind him. Vivi stared at Nori, owl-eyed in silent shock. He chuckled, coming closer and crouching down so they were eye to eye.
“Would you like to check to make sure they’re real?”
Hesitantly, Vivian reached out and touched one of his ears. Grinning, Nori wiggled it under her fingers, and she squeaked.
He laughed, then returned to his seat across the table.
“So..um, Nori, why are you here?”
“Just visiting an old friend.” He smiled pleasantly, beginning to flip through her drawings.
“Um, Nori, we just met yesterday?”
“Well, I’m the oldest friend you have here, aren’t I?” Nori looked up, ears pricked.
“Since when does helping someone find carrots mean you’re friends?” Vivi asked “And you’re older than me!”
He just smiled at her bewildered state.
“Little one, I’m older than pretty much everyone. And,” He held up her drawing “You saw my shadow. Not many people are observant enough to catch that. Not anymore. Besides, I had a feeling you needed a friend.”
Vivian looked down at her homework, thinking of her classmates. “The kids at school are…kind of intimidating…” Nori put his chin in his hand, listening. “And I don’t know what they’re saying most of the time. What if they’re talking about me?”
The fox spirit’s eyes softened, and he replied “I see. I wonder…”
He looked down at the drawings again “Miss..?”
“Vivian. But everyone calls me Vivi.”
“Right. Well, Vivi, do you draw in school, too?”
She thought about it. “Yeah, sometimes. Why?”
Nori smiled that sly smile again. “I think the other kids might be intimidated by you.”
“Well, I said it before, didn’t I? You’re very good. If you’re drawing during breaks, the other kids might not want to interrupt you.” Vivian stared at him. “Courage is a lot harder to muster when you see someone ‘better’ than you.” He gave her a wink. “But I’ll tell you a secret. It’s all a matter of perception.”
“Perception?” she asked curiously. Nori reached across the table with a long arm and tapped his folded fan against her nose
“It’s easy to focus on the extraordinary in others, and see only the ordinary in yourself. All you have to remember is that they’re human, too. I’m sure they wake up with bed head just like you.”
Vivi giggled, and he smiled kindly, tails rustling softly. “As for the Japanese, how about we make a deal?”
“Yes. I’ll give you lessons after school and you tell me stories.”
“What stories could I tell you?” she wondered aloud.
“What is was like where you came from. What happened at school that day, what you drew, what you laughed at.”
“But those don’t sound very interesting…”
“Believe me, Vivi,” he said with a sigh “After dealing with gods and monsters for so long, a little peace and quiet is wonderful.”
She shrugged, and held out her hand, confidently this time. Grinning, Nori shook it.
“It’s a deal.” Vivian replied.
“Great! Come to the Hakuseki Inari Shrine, that’s where I live.” Suddenly, Nori’s big ears swivelled and twitched, like he was hearing something. He stood, and bowed to her. “I’d best be going, then. You mother is coming up the stairs. See you later, little one.” He winked again, sticking out his tongue at her before elegantly leaping over the railing.
It happened so fast she didn’t have time to say goodbye. After blinking at the empty space she thought I wonder…did that really just happen?
Looking down at the table, Vivi noticed that he’d left his fan behind. She smiled.
The next day at school, Vivi was working on her drawing of Nori during the lunch break. She figured she might as well make it accurate. Looking up, she saw Hanako and her friends staring. Remembering what the fox spirit told her, Vivian asked
“Do you guys like drawing, too?”
Looking both relieved and happy, the girls crowded her desk, and after introducing themselves they started talking together.
Hanako caught sight of the folded fan inside Vivi’s school bag, and asked “Oh, you have a fan? Can we see?”
“Sure!” The girls passed it around, gasping and admiring it. “Wow!” “Vivi, this is really beautiful!” “Where’d you get it?”
Vivi gave them a small, secretive smile. “Oh, it was a gift from an old friend…”
Header illustration courtesy of Pixabay
1. Have you ever started at a new school or moved to a new place where you have needed to make new friends? How did you feel at the time?
2. Looking back on that time now, are you happy that you moved house or school? Why or why not?
3. How did the mysterious Fox spirit help make Vivi feel not so lonely?
4. What are some of the good things about having friends?
5. If you ever saw a person who was new and lonely, what might you to do help them fit in?