The Crow had been lucky, as she had scavenged a ripening cheese while out seeking food. She flew high up into a perch in a hazel tree and settled down to feast on her prize. However, a Fox had witnessed the theft, and plotted to win the cheese for herself.
Her feet were bare. Her hands were empty.
Morrigan called to the power of the lonely Moon. The argent magic spun around her bones, and made the tips of her hair crackle and spark … tiny comets collecting in the midnight of her curls. It glittered over her cloak of black feathers. The power collected in the tattoo of the Tree of Life that spread its branches across her ripening belly. It filled her eyes, turning them into mirrors.
The goddess stood in the centre of a stone circle. As Morrigan spun her webs of power, a nine-tailed, white fox slipped in from another time and place; the fox used one of the stone lintels as her gateway between worlds, in place of the spirit gates of her homeland. Wild and hungry, the vixen stared at Morrigan.
The fox transformed into a tiny woman with black hair. Her skin was a shade between white and gold. The shape-changer’s eyes were vulpine almonds; Morrigan could not see them properly as the spirit kept her gaze to the ground. Her bones were as delicate as a dove’s skeleton, in contrast to the height and strength of the Phantom Queen. The fox fairy was dressed in an ornate kimono.
Out of respect for Morrigan, her feet were bare and her hands were empty.
“Hello, dark queen,” said the fox fairy.
Morrigan chose to ignore her and remain focussed on the shimmering energies spinning down from the Moon. The intruder was only a little spirit.
“I have come a long way, great one. I heard so much about your strength and beauty,” said the fox fairy. “I had to see your famed magnificence for myself.”
The Fox called out to the Crow, “Oh my, what a lovely creature you are: the richness of your feathers, the gloss and gleam like silk cloth. Your eyes are gems in such a setting. Surely, the beauty of your singing voice must match your glory.”
Morrigan was surprised and mildly flattered. The little spirit had journeyed far from the other side of the world – that much was true. And yet she had come at an inconvenient moment, for Morrigan must concentrate or she would lose her control over the Moon’s quicksilver magic.
As subtle and as powerful as the tides, the magic grew. It swirled in the circle of Morrigan’s stony ribcage, restless, seething, owl-fierce. It glowed. It burned. Morrigan was limned in silver. The fox spirit observed the surge of sorcery from beneath her veil of downcast eyelashes. The Moon’s energy drugged the goddess.
“Is there anything I may do to help?” said the little spirit.
Morrigan fought down a surge of annoyance. The glimmer of magic rippled as if a stone had been thrown into a deep pool, and all around the stone circle, there were dancing splinters of moonlight. “Be silent.” said Morrigan, “Or I will curse you into the lowest of the nine hells”
“I only wish to serve you, dark queen.”
Morrigan turned her mirrored eyes upon the vixen. Even in anthropomorphic form, the spirit’s shadows were fox shaped, and so a dozen dark beasts fluttered behind her as the moonglow shuddered.
“Why? What do you seek to gain?” asked the goddess.
The fairy woman prostrated herself with her forehead resting on the ground. “Oh queen of terror, I seek your wisdom. You have the gift of prophecy.”
“Your own gods have this gift.”
“My ruler, Inari, will not use it,” The little spirit beat her forehead against the turf. “He believes in letting the rice grains fall where they will.”
Morrigan frowned, and the argent power thundered in one tremendous heartbeat. “And you ask me to go against the wishes of your own master?”
“There is one mortal I hold dear to my heart. I must know what will become of him.”
A score of shadow foxes flickered in and out of existence. The Tree of Life flowered and bore silver fruit. With a golden sickle, Morrigan cut the power away from the solitary Moon.
The flickering light settled down. The fox spirit now had only two shadows; moonlight flowed from both the sky and the goddess.
“Tell me your story,” said Morrigan. “I will listen. That is all I will promise.”
The fairy woman rose to her feet, and bowed deeply. “Thank you, Phantom Queen.” She kept her eyes lowered, so that Morrigan watched her mouth and not her eyes.
“I am one of the messengers of Inari, a Myobu. Inari is the force of the growing rice and the rice harvest, both male and female, protector of scholars.”
“My duty was to watch over a calligrapher. He is old, and his hara – his creative centre – is deep and rich. When he shares his soul with his brush, the world lights up. However, his eyesight is fading. Lamplight is no longer enough for him to see his paper. Even the bright light of noon has grown dim for him.” The fox spirit paused.
Morrigan waited for the vixen to continue. The Moon watched over them both. The night grew older.
With a sigh, the fox fairy said, “I love him. He is just a wretched old man and a mortal, and yet my heart yearns to make him happy.”
“Is this what you wish of me? To foretell his death? Child, no one can escape their death.”
Morrigan smiled grimly. “I wouldn’t want them to escape their death.”
“Oh no, great queen. I know that my heart is fated to be cut to pieces with grief. Every man is a child of time.”
Morrigan’s mirrored eyes grew thoughtful. “Then what is it that you would ask of me, as prophetess?”
“My calligrapher still lives in obscurity. It is unfair that one so rich in spirit should be so poorly treated by his people.”
“From what I know of your scholars, they are usually holy men. Holy men do not wish to have honours heaped upon them.”
“My calligrapher is a poet,” said the fox fairy. “Every poet should be read.”
Morrigan smiled again, but this time her smile was as soft as cream. “So he is not a holy man. And you know that I favour poets.”
“And warriors. He is a warrior of the word, great queen.”
“This is true, but I favour the bards and brave men of my own people.”
“Our people are not so different,” said the fox fairy, her hands clasped together as she sought to remain calm. “My people have strong traditions for honouring swordsmen of both the knife and the pen. They honour the spirits of the land and their ancestors. They know about the power of the Moon.”
“Indeed. I believe they worship the moon in the form of a man, Tsuki-Yumi.”
The foreign woman went still. Morrigan guessed the fairy was at a loss as to whether a male moon god would be pleasing or infuriating to the Phantom Queen. After all, Morrigan understood the moon as a female, a symbol of a fertile woman’s monthly cycle, and her gilt sickle echoed the Moon’s crescent. The goddess took pity on the little spirit. “I have heard he is handsome in his human form.”
The fox spirit visibly relaxed. “Yes, he is. He is considered very handsome by my people.”
The Moon was starting to set. It was poised upon the lintel of the stone door, a shield balanced on a mantelpiece. It was twice mirrored in Morrigan’s eyes. “I concede that people are the same the world over. So, ask me your favour. Ask me for your sake, or for the sake of your poet. Ask me.”
“Will my poet be remembered after he is gone?”
Morrigan grew still at the question. The stone circle throbbed, once…twice…three times. Then she said,
“A little white fox
Jumps the moon with perfect grace.
Light gifts an old man.”
For the first time, the fox woman raised her eyes to meet with Morrigan’s gaze. The almond-shaped eyes were hungry. “So he will be remembered.”
“I would argue that your love gives him greater immortality than any fame. After the human race has passed away, you will still treasure his memory.”
The fox spirit dropped her eyes again. “My love means little to him. It is just another part of the material world he has put aside as devotes himself to his art.”
“And yet you still work so hard for him. Is the tuft of his brush made from fox fur, I wonder.”
The woman blushed, as rosy as any blossom. Her hands clenched.
Morrigan put her broad hand out to the fairy. “I do not laugh at you, little one. I would not laugh at one who has given her heart to a true artist.”
The fox woman took the hand of the goddess. The light flowed down one arm and onto the other. The fairy was soon filled with light. How the light changed the fox woman: her skin was silver-gilt; her hair was caught in a net of stars; and she was as beautiful as the goddess. “What is happening?” she gasped.
“The Moon has chosen you,” said Morrigan. On her belly, the silver fruit ripened into a myriad of tiny lights, and the goddess’s mirrored eyes returned to their familiar amber. The lights spun away from the Morrigan, orbiting her head like a tiny galaxy. In one and twos, they swirled away to attach themselves to the fairy, until she was dressed in light. They faded away … or maybe they sank into the flesh of the fox spirit.
Morrigan said, “You now have the ability to call up the floating lights whenever you need them. I’m sure you can find a use for such power.”
The vixen was stunned. She held out her hand, and concentrated. A small globe of silver fire formed in her palm, floating in the air, and lighting her pointed face. The light was bright and clear. She could count every stitch on the sleeve of her robe.
Morrigan said, “Your poet need never fear the darkness. You can shine for him.”
The fox fairy felt her eyes fill with salt tears. She didn’t understand what tears were, as the immortal rarely cry. Morrigan reached out and caught the tears on her fingertips and they coalesced into tiny moonstones.
“And now I am repaid,” said the goddess. “There is the ingredient for a philtre if I ever saw one.” Though a mystery remained; when and where and why would the goddess of death ever need love potions?
“Oh thank you, great Phantom Queen,” said the fox spirit. “I will certainly spread the news of your strength and generosity where ever I go.”
The Moon was now framed in the arch of the stone doorway. The tiny woman returned to her true form, the nine-tailed fox. She stepped through the arch, and for a moment it was no longer stone, but formed of red, lacquered wood. The rich perfume of cherry blossoms wafted in the air.
And then Morrigan was left to stare at the Moon.
The goddess bowed to silver disc.
“That was a satisfactory night’s work,” said Morrigan. “It made a change from pain and blood. I wonder if the little spirit will realise the burden I laid upon her.”
Flattered, the Crow opened her mouth to sing, and instead screamed a raucous call. The round, white cheese fell from her beak, and the Fox snatched it up and was away.
The little fox fairy returned to her land with the power to call up foxfire. She was able to provide clean, steady white light for the calligrapher. The calligrapher was a philosopher as well as a poet. He went on to write many poems, some about the rights of the individual, some about how power corrupts, some about the need for honouring promises.
Many people read his poems. After he had died, the poems were collected into a book. They became the treatise used by a revolution, and the rebels were not restricted to warriors of the word. Some were swordsmen. There was an uprising and many people died. The ground was red, and Morrigan was well pleased with the sacrifice.
No one was able to forget the name of a gentle old calligrapher. It was written in blood.
The Crow laughed at the Fox. The silly creature had thought to trick clever, cunning Crow. She flew off to find her sisters.
Morrigan’s feet were bare. Her hands were empty. Her heart was full of light.