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Misfortunes' Windfall

Misfortunes’ Windfall

Published by John Jeng at Shakespir

Copyright 2016 John Jeng

Cover design by www.viladesign.net

Misfortunes’ Windfall

By John Jeng

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may only be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

Table of Contents

Part 1: The Wind Knocked Out

Part 2: Christmas Eve

Part 3: Someone Who Needs Me

Epilogue

About the Author

“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.”

—Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard

Sasuke Inari Jinja is a Shinto shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture and the site of the Hidden Village of Kamakura. Visitors pass through a series of vermilion torii to reach the worship hall guarded by a pair of fox statues called kitsune.

Part 1: The Wind Knocked Out

“Tabasa, based on your performance reviews from the teachers at Iwai Girls’ School from the last six months, we regret to inform you that your services are no longer required.” The nondescript recruiter spoke the practiced lines evenly, not meeting Tabitha’s gaze. Tabitha had suspected this might happen, yet hearing the words still surprised her. A shiver traveled down her spine and hands tingled with cold sweat. She had to say something fast.

“Won’t you please reconsider? I really need this job. I mean, I admit the situation caught me off-guard, but I’d know how to handle it now. It won’t happen again.”

The recruiter shuffled some stacks of papers and stood up. “I’m sorry, Tabasa, it’s out of my hands. As per the employment contract, your apartment lease will be terminated at the end of the year. Please shut your keys in the mailbox when you vacate the premises.”

“The end of the year? But it’s already Christmas Eve! That only gives me a week.”

“I’m sorry, Tabasa,” the recruiter repeated with a tone of finality, ushering her outside. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Japan.”

The door slammed shut in her face, and just like that, the exit interview was over. Tabitha’s chest tightened and blood rushed to her head. A roaring tiger was trying to claw its way out of her stomach; a mix of indignation and anxiety seethed out of her ears. She gritted her teeth and resolved not to let getting fired bother her just yet. She slapped her cheeks twice to perk herself up for her next task and walked around the corner toward a local café.

Tabitha swung open the door and the door chimes reverberated upon her entry. She never could get used to how narrow Japanese spaces were—how the café parlor’s acoustics always seemed to amplify the cacophony of people chitchatting. Finally, she reached the end and sat down on a wooden dining chair which groaned under Tabitha’s girthy frame. Mrs. Ishida, a slight, dainty woman in her fifties smiled at her from across the table. For the past three months, Tabitha had been teaching her basic English conversation. Mrs. Ishida, however, never relinquished her special seat in the parlor’s innermost corner.

“Hello, Tabasa, how are you?”

“Not bad, how about yourself?”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“Christmas is tomorrow. Do you have any plans?” Tabitha asked loudly over the din, steering the conversation.

Mrs. Ishida’s eyes swam as she searched for the right words. When she spoke, it was in the Japanese staccato accent Tabitha had never quite gotten used to. “I’ll go to… how I can say… onsen?” She made a breaststroke motion in the air. “Hot water?”

“You’ll go to the hot springs?” Tabitha guessed.

“Yes. I’ll go to a hot spring with my husband. Then we will eat kentakkii furaido chikin for dinner.”

“Wow, I didn’t know Kentucky Fried Chicken made Christmas dinner. Is that popular?”

“Yes, too popular! My husband made… how I can say… youyaku in English?” She mimed picking up the phone and dialing a number.

“Oh, you mean a ‘reservation.’ The KFCs in America are all closed on Christmas.”

“Yes, but do you know this television CeeEm?” Mrs. Ishida sang the jingle “‘Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’” She paused to take a sip of tea. “Do you like furaido chikin, Tabasa?”

“Love it. I have a lot of fond memories of KFC. My folks and I used to get a bucket of the colonel’s original recipe all the time and eat it in front of the TV.”

Mrs. Ishida was eyeing Tabitha behind her mug with a you-don’t-say sort of smile curling on the edge of her disappearing lips.

“So, Tabasa. Will you spend kurisumasu with your boifurendo?” Mrs. Ishida held up the thumbs up sign with a glint of mischief in her eyes.

“Oh no, I don’t have a boyfriend. I’ve got to start looking for a new job, actually. The company I was working for gave me the bad news today.”

“Oh, that’s terrible. But why you don’t have a boifurendo?”

Tabitha was not prepared to answer this question. “I guess I just haven’t met the right man yet,” she hedged.

“Pardon me, but how old are you?”

“Me? I’m 30.”

Already 30? Difficult, quite difficult…” Mrs. Ishida murmured to herself in Japanese, tilting her head and examining the American from different angles. “A challenging fixer-upper, yes, but the potential is there.

“Say, are you familiar with any English Christmas carols? ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Deck the Halls,’ and all that jazz?” said Tabitha, trying to change the subject, but Mrs. Ishida talked over her.

“I know how you can get a boifurendo. Many Japanese bijinesuman like American woman because they want to learn English.”

“Please, I’d rather not discuss it,” Tabitha protested, but Mrs. Ishida didn’t relent.

“You should go on a daietto. A thin body will make you more beautiful. You lose twenty kilos, and you can get a boifurendo. Just tell me your type. I can recommend you to a gentleman.”

“No, it’s really not nec-”

Although Mrs. Ishida’s English was far from fluent, when she found a topic to criticize, she rambled without stopping. When she didn’t have the vocabulary to describe her feelings, she threw in some Japanese words Tabitha didn’t understand. Mrs. Ishida would not let the topic go during their hour-long tête-à-tête, and Tabitha suspected that Mrs. Ishida wanted English conversation lessons because, more than anything, she loved hearing herself talk. She kept finding tangents to lecture Tabitha on the meaning of true happiness.

Tsumari,” concluded the matronly Mrs. Ishida, “a woman is not complete until she finds a husband and has children. My husband’s cousin’s daughter is haimisu. Almost 40 and not still married. She works as a bar hostess. Her poor mother almost die of haji. I tell my husband, I take her to omiai to find a nice gentleman, but niece says ‘no’ always. So selfish, deshou?”

Don’t get angry, Tabitha thought. Don’t talk back. Don’t get defensive. Before long, the one-sided conversation had turned on Tabitha. Mrs. Ishida didn’t pull any punches listing Tabitha’s faults and what she should do to change them for her future husband. By the end of the relentless assault, Tabitha was feeling defeated.

They stepped outside into a midday thunderstorm—Tabitha feeling grateful the ordeal was over. Mrs. Ishida barely came up to Tabitha’s shoulders, yet Tabitha could palpably feel the woman looking down on her. Tabitha resolved that this was the last time she’d let Mrs. Ishida walk all over her and call it a favor. She broke the news outside the café entrance.

“I don’t think we should meet here anymore.”

“Why?” Mrs. Ishida asked sharply through narrowed eyes.

Uh-oh. Tabitha gave the most convenient excuse she could think of: the truth. “My company told me to pack up my apartment, so I’ll be busy looking for a new place to live,” she said. Mrs. Ishida’s expression softened into a look of pity instead.

“Oh! Then you must do a homestay with us until you find a new apaatomento,” she declared.

“No, I mean I don’t think I can give you lessons anymore.”

“Don’t enryo so much, Tabasa!” Mrs. Ishida laughed, and Tabitha knew her protests had fallen on deaf ears. A quintessential Japanese social grace was knowing when to enryo, or hold back for fear of becoming an imposition. However, Mrs. Ishida lived in a western-style condominium and was nothing if not wealthy enough to dismiss just about any statement as enryo. She chortled as though Tabitha would even worry about taken advantage of her hospitality. “I still pay you for lessons. You stay with us for free. No problem! We have ekisutora room.”

Tabitha wilted under Mrs. Ishida’s imperious gaze while Mrs. Ishida’s triumphant smile grew smugger by the second. She’d been to Mrs. Ishida’s house once before and knew exactly how much extra room Mrs. Ishida had. Since her adult children had married and left home, Tabitha suspected Mrs. Ishida had a bit of the empty nest syndrome because she constantly demanded her children to visit her. She wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Finally, Tabitha uttered a noncommittal ‘yes.’

“Next week. You must come to my house. Go pack your things. I drive car to pick you up!” said Mrs. Ishida, grasping Tabitha’s hand with both of hers. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Tabitha relented.

“Wow, it is very exciting! I’m thrilled you will teach me the native English every day!”

After Mrs. Ishida swaggered away, Tabitha stood frozen in the café’s small parking lot feeling the wind knocked out of her. She heaved. Go on a diet? Lose weight? Tabitha had struggled with her weight since she was a teenager. What did Mrs. Ishida, who was probably not even 100 pounds, know about weight? She didn’t care that Mrs. Ishida had meant well. Each comment about her weight was uncalled for. Tabitha had lost her job because she couldn’t abide being insulted, much less being pitied.

Back at Iwai Girls’ School, her students had referred to her as ‘Miss Piggy’ when they thought she couldn’t hear. She told the Japanese teachers, and their attitude was ‘so what?’ They didn’t want to get involved because they talked behind her back, too. For six months, they had made her life miserable.

The last straw came during a class when she’d been teaching comparative and superlative adjective stems. Tabitha had been enunciating the words, “Big, bigger, biggest. Heavy, heavier, heaviest,” for the class to repeat. Then a brash ninth-grader asked, “By the way, Tabasa-sensei, what do they call you?”

“What do you mean?”

“In America, do people call you the big, bigger, or biggest?” There was a chorus of laughter, and Tabitha froze.

Tabitha had ballooned in weight during her college days. The memory from over ten years ago resurfaced like a sepia photograph. How the first time she was away from home, the way the Freshman 15 had stolen into her life, and followed her everywhere like an insidious shadow. The bulk of it came from stress. Not enough time. Not enough sleep. She wasn’t a naturally gifted learner, and there was too much information to take in. But what she lacked in book smarts, she made up for in passion and effort. She maintained her GPA only by spending the bulk her time outside of classes studying, changing her lifestyle into a sedentary one. It also didn’t help that the ubiquitous fast food chains were open 24 hours; the promise of quick sustenance tempted her so she could continue burning the midnight oil. She let herself go, feeling justified that her fast food addiction had so far allowed her to pass her classes with distinction. Her roommate Siobhan had been so worried that Tabitha was wasting her college experience, studying in their apartment or the campus library, she used to coax Tabitha to join her at the local British pub.

“You’ve got to branch out more, Tabby. You can’t stay in our flat every weekend.” Siobhan wheedled in her practiced British accent. “Honestly, what’s the point of university if you never go off campus?”

“But I’m not beautiful like you are,” Tabitha had protested. “I don’t belong in a bar.”

“That’s not true!” Siobhan assured. “You’ve just got to have a little faith. You never know if today’s the day you meet someone.” Siobhan was the only person who could persuade her, and every Friday, Tabitha found herself at the pub with her roommate.

Siobhan had no problem getting guys to buy her drinks. She was a theater major, a talented conversationalist who endeavored to include Tabitha. She insisted that Tabitha was a great cook (untrue) and had a 4.0 GPA (true). But if Siobhan was the light that drew college men to approach like moths, Tabitha repelled them as though she were selling something very unpleasant. Guys didn’t care about Tabitha’s grades. They would trade a few perfunctory remarks with Tabitha, but before long, they’d leave her alone to read the class materials she’d brought in her purse.

No one approached Tabitha after Siobhan left. The male patrons who came to scan their prospects at the counter averted their eyes as soon as they saw her, quickening their pace before anyone could call out to them. Usually, Tabitha pretended not to care and left after Siobhan. But one time, she stayed up late, engrossed in a novel for her comparative literature class. The bartender, a grizzled-hair woman who wore an eyepatch, came from behind the counter to sit down next to her.

“Honestly, sweetheart, what are you still doing here?” The bartender’s words cracked like a whip, a little brusque and impatient. Even though no one had come to the counter since Siobhan left, Tabitha still looked over her head to make sure no one was behind her. No one. The middle-aged bartender whom she’d never spoken to outside of drink orders was asking her.

“Um, well…” Tabitha gulped. She checked the wall clock—still an hour before closing time. “What do you mean?” She was woozy from the vermouth the bartender kept refreshing for her—Siobhan had somehow managed to charge all of Tabitha’s drinks on someone else’s tab.

“I mean, you come here with your friend every Friday until she finds someone to leave the bar with, but today, you just stayed on. I’ve never see you exchange more than a few words with anyone, so it seems like you just come here to read.”

“B-but I…My roommate Siobhan said I should go out more… hic!” Tabitha covered her mouth with a napkin. Heat was rising to her temples and she was starting to feel dizzy. She realized then that the bartender had been silently judging her all night.

“Maybe she did, but every time I see you, your friend talks to every guy like she’s Scheherazade or something while you brush off every guy she points in your direction. You don’t talk, and no one talks to you. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

“What does it tell me?”

“That this is no place for a big girl like you, and frankly, sweetheart, you’re killing my business by reading here.”

“B-but I-I…”

“Why come here to read? Can you even concentrate after so many drinks?” said the bartender, lifting the book out of Tabitha’s hands. “Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar? Good god, you know how to pick a depressing book written by a loony. Your tab’s been paid already, so go on home. I don’t want to catch you reading here again.”

Tabitha’s throat was as dry as the martinis she’d been putting away all night. She couldn’t even muster a riposte to defend Sylvia Plath. The words “big girl” kept reverberating in her memory of that night. She had run out of the pub as fast as she could into a torrential rainstorm. After getting soaked on the way back to her apartment, she had woken up the next morning, feverish and suffering a splitting headache. There was a glass of water on her nightstand and a note scrawled with the words, I’ve straightened things out with the pub. The water will help. I’m sorry I left you alone, Tabby. Siobhan’s a’s weren’t fully closed at the top, resembling u’s instead. Since then, Tabitha became wary of talking to strangers, afraid that they would silently judge her, too.

All eyes focused on Tabitha now in front of the classroom. She sniffed and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. She needed a minute to catch her breath. Just one minute. The class of fifteen-year-old girls devolved into chaotic bickering, split between indignation and indifference.

Tabasa-sensei’s crying, you idiot!

Come on, you didn’t think that was funny?

No! What the hell did you say that for?

Lay off, okay? It was just a joke.

Tabitha didn’t know what they were saying. The class buzzed like a colony of bees until the din of their argument summoned a homeroom teacher. He bellowed at the class to silence them and declared the rest of the period silent self-study. He also must’ve noticed how Tabitha’s mascara had smeared across her face where she’d tried to wipe her tears, because, at that moment, he was looking daggers at her.

Afterward, the teachers quietly investigated the incident, but they never asked Tabitha to explain why she’d reacted the way she did. All the company wanted to know was the bottom line. The teachers had reported the students didn’t get along well with Tabitha because for one, Tabitha couldn’t speak Japanese. For another, Tabitha was KY, a Japanese expression for socially inept. Her recruiter came to Iwai to scold her for crying in front of the students—a sign that she wasn’t suited for teaching.

That was two months ago. Although Tabitha had asked to be transferred to another school, that didn’t happen. Her recruiter gave her the runaround before the emails turned nasty. Afterward, Tabitha knew that the company had run out her probationary period to buy time before terminating and replacing her in one fell swoop.

Tabitha’s blood boiled as she stood in the chilly parking lot recalling her humiliation. The tiger inside her was roaring again. She cursed herself for not looking for another job. She still taught at Iwai each day hoping she could keep her job if she planned every lesson and continued working diligently like she had been doing since day one. But the company didn’t care. The news of Tabitha’s breakdown spread through the school, and there was no going back. All respect that the students had for their American English teacher was gone when the anonymously uploaded video called, “Miss Piggy English Teacher” went viral.

She remembered the way the other teachers gave her the cold shoulder in the staff room, the way students laughed behind her back, and the stiff emails and negative performance reviews from her company. Coming to Japan hadn’t worked out for her like she’d hoped. Men didn’t find her attractive. She was getting evicted in a week. Christmas was tomorrow and she had no plans.

Ping! Tabitha looked down at a notification on her phone. It was a photo message from Siobhan.

The text read, “He proposed! I’m getting married~!” Siobhan was holding the back of her hand to the camera showing a huge rock of an engagement ring, affecting her joy with a criminal smile that extended from ear to ear.

Tabitha snapped her flip phone shut and strode in the general direction toward the train station. She felt dizzy. She wanted to lie down in the middle of the road. Up ahead, the road ahead took a steep turn. Should she trace her steps back to the subway station? No. She wanted to keep moving on her own two feet, feel some semblance of control. She wished the December air would freeze inside her lungs and stop the painful memories from resurfacing.

Where to next? Back to her apartment in the boonies of Tokyo and start packing her things? Should she contact a shipping company and ask for some cardboard boxes? Or was it off to an English-speaking travel agency to book the cheapest economy class flight back to America? She hung her head, walking less by design than by a subconscious desire for physical propulsion.

I guess I should book a ticket back home, Tabitha thought. Then she slapped herself on the forehead. What am I even thinking? Pull yourself together, Tabby! I’m not ready to go home yet! She pictured herself explaining to friends and family why she’d been fired after only six months. She didn’t want to be stuck with getting fired as her last memory of this country. She had another six months on her visa. But could she even get a new job in a country where she didn’t have any references or speak the language? Then she recalled Mrs. Ishida’s parting words, the nerve! The thought of living with that woman made her physically ill.

The road narrowed into a stretch walled on both sides by cold limestone. There was a staircase on her left side. She tried to read the bronze plaque on the wall inscribed with four large Chinese characters. The English translation underneath read “Inari’s Shinto Shrine.” Tabitha looked up to observe a girl standing on a landing and sweeping the steps. Judging from the girl’s white vestments and the pleated red skirt, she probably performed Shinto rituals. She must still be in high school, Tabitha thought, for she noticed a set of headphones clamped on the girl’s head. She must be one of the shrine maidens I’ve heard about.

The girl must’ve sensed Tabitha’s gaze because she looked up and waved. Immediately, Tabitha felt timid and hurried away, but she’d only walked a few steps when the street lamps lit up. A string of incandescent bulbs overhead flashed intermittently before stabilizing as a golden halo. Whoa, she thought, the halo reminding her of Christmas lights in her hometown. This takes me back. I guess I could check it out. She backtracked to where the shrine maiden was still sweeping the steps humming a familiar tune.

“Excuse me, but do you speak English?” Tabitha asked the girl, fully expecting a timid, “No,” in reply.

Instead, the girl met Tabitha’s gaze, slid off her oversized headphones, and smiled. “Sure do. How may I help you?”

Tabitha felt a flush of blood to her face, unsure of what to ask next. She was a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, and interactions with strangers made her uncomfortable. “Well, uh, I saw your lights, and uh, I’m interested in seeing your shrine. Do you think you could show me around?” Why did she have to sound so stupid? Why?

The shrine maiden stopped sweeping. She pulled out her mp3 player to stop the music. Then looking at Tabitha again, uttered, “Of course, come on up!”

Tabitha was a bit taken aback by how cheerfully the girl called to her and went up the steps. She wondered if the girl was a kikokushijo, a child who had returned to Japan after being raised overseas. There had been a couple of kikokushijos in the classes she taught—girls who spoke English like natives but sat through Tabitha’s class looking bored or doing homework for other subjects. Tabitha didn’t like those girls because they wouldn’t take English seriously, and they had prejudiced their classmates and teachers against her. Each step up the shrine steps, she recalled the faces of those punks, hoping she wouldn’t be swayed by a few rotten apples. When she reached the same step on the stairs as the shrine maiden, Tabitha was struck by the shrine maiden’s considerable height, standing eye-to-eye to her. Tabitha glanced down at the girl’s shoes—straw-rope sandals. Close up, the girl looked no more than sixteen. Her freckled face was narrow, and her almond shaped eyes were peculiarly close to the bridge of her nose. And she was standing too close, her protuberant eyes boring into Tabitha’s face.

“Are you Shinto?” the girl demanded.

“I’m uh… not very religious,” Tabitha stammered, backing away.

“You mean you do not even have one religion? I have three religions.”

“Three religions?”

“Yeah, Catholic, Zen Buddhist, and now that I am the shrine maiden of Inari Jinja, I have Shinto, too, so three religions. Although strictly speaking, Shinto is more philosophy than religion, but you know how it is.”

Something about the way she spoke about religion felt wrong, even outlandish, as though she were reducing the religion she represented into a change of clothing. Was the girl trying to elicit a response? Tabitha simply nodded, following the shrine maiden to the top of the stairs. In front of them was a brown wooden corridor. Through it, Tabitha could see intricate buildings surrounding a central courtyard on three sides.

The girl pointed to a smooth stone statue of a fox to the side of the brown wooden gate in front of them. The fox was wrapped in a red bib and held a jewel in its mouth. “This here fox is a kitsune, a messenger of the god, Inari-sama and come in pairs, one male, one female. Foxes intercede with Inari-sama on the worshipper’s behalf and sometimes even grant wishes. If we do a good job, devotees offer us tofu and rice as thanks.”

A pile of sundry convenience store snacks lay at the base of the fox statue. Among the colorful packages, the girl seized a package of rice crackers and stuffed it into her kimono jacket.

“Why is there only one statue?” Tabitha asked, noticing the empty pedestal on the other side.

“Oh, the vixen is out working at the moment. She will be back soon.”

Tabitha forced a laugh. “You mean the statues come alive like gargoyles?”

“Yup,” she replied seriously, then pointed to a vermillion structure behind the wooden gate.

“That vermillion thing behind the corridor is called a ‘torii.’ Each one creates a boundary between the ordinary world and the sacred spirit world. Those who cross its threshold with pure intentions will have their wishes granted.” She paused and turned to Tabitha. “Are you ready?”

“You mean to go over there?”

“Set, go!” The girl bolted without warning, running headfirst through the hallowed torii like a competitive sprinter crossing a finish line.

“Hey, what the-!”

“Come on!” cried the girl, already giggling hysterically on the other side of the corridor.

Tabitha was shocked by how fast the girl had sped away in her Shinto vestments; her personality changed after the spurt of hyperactivity. She rushed forward to draw level with the teenager. “Um, excuse me, but what’s your name?”

“Oh, yeah!” the girl sang, rocking on the balls of her feet. “My name is Inaho Okami, Inari-sama’s shrine maiden extraordinaire.” She reached into her skirt pocket and offered Tabitha a wrinkled business card. “What is your name?”

Tabitha took Inaho’s card and looked at it. Then she looked back at the girl in front of her. Something was off about the girl’s speech pattern that she couldn’t quite place. She wanted to ask where the girl had learned English but was afraid it’d sound rude. Instead, she murmured, “I’m Tabitha Small.”

“Good to know you, Tabitha. Now, let us continue the tour, shall we?” Inaho didn’t wait for a response before bounding away. Reluctantly, Tabitha followed her tour guide, wondering if she’d made a mistake in coming here. Seen from the back, there was something odd about this shrine maiden, like she was a little too eager to show Tabitha around.

Inaho stood in the center of the courtyard where she explained that the shrine was dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. She pointed to a simple structure at the far end surrounded by four wainscoted fences. To Tabitha, it resembled a glorified garden shed, except it stood on top of a small flight of stairs leading up to a dais. The structure was enclosed behind plank walls covered by a gabled roof thatched with reeds.

“That there is the honden where Inari-sama is enshrined. It is the most sacred building in the shrine. In fact, no one is allowed inside Inari-sama’s sanctuary, but between you and me, there is nothing inside except a mirror.”

Tabitha raised an eyebrow. “How would you know that unless you’ve peeked inside?”

Inaho just coughed in reply and pointed to a grand hall next to the honden. “And this here is the haiden, the worship hall where the bigwigs conduct their religious rituals. And sometimes I practice kagura dancing in there. And sometimes I recite chants or perform spirit channeling.” Then she cleared her throat like a bellhop expecting a tip. Tabitha gave her a 100-yen coin, and Inaho beamed.

“Now on to part two! Do you want to make a wish today, Tabitha?”

“Do you think that’ll help? I’m feeling a little down.”

“Why? Did something bad happen to you?”

“Yeah, sort of. I got fired today, and I might have to go back to America if I don’t find another job right away.”

“What a bummer. Anything else?”

Anything else? The question unblocked a dam in Tabitha’s tear ducts. She shielded her face with her hands. “Yeah, there’s a lot else. The stupid company I’ve been working for for the last six months is evicting me. And then I got a text from my best friend from college who just got engaged, and I suddenly felt really lonely, you know? I’m already 30, and I don’t have anyone, and tomorrow’s Christmas, and it’s like this huge lovers’ holiday in this country. Then this lady at the café called me fat, said I should go on a diet, and next week I won’t even have a place to live!” She realized she was crying now and wiped the tears away with a handkerchief. “I’m sorry, you’re just a kid, and I’m probably boring you, aren’t I?”

Tabitha looked up when she heard a sakusaku sound from ten feet away. Inaho was sitting on a railing, munching on a rice cracker, and watching her like a television set. “How’d you get all the way over there? Oh, never mind. Say something, won’t you?”

Inaho cleared her throat again. “Pish posh, do not sweat such trifles, such vicissitudes of life. What is important is that you pick yourself right back up. Incidentally, do you know this song?” Inaho sang a few lines.

Cause you had a bad day

You are taking one down

You sing a sad song just to turn it around

You say you do not know

You tell me do not lie

You work at a smile and you go for a ride

You had a bad day

The camera does not lie

You are coming back down and you really do not mind

You had a bad day

You had a bad day

Although Tabitha was annoyed that Inaho could dismiss all her problems, she had to admit Inaho’s acapella voice wasn’t half bad. “That’s Daniel Powter’s ‘Bad Day.’”

“Yup, I was listening to it when you called out to me, so our meeting must be fate. Do you believe in fate?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it before.”

“Well, there are some people who choose their fate and others who let fate happen to them. Which one are you?”

She’s getting more and more tangential, Tabitha thought. “I want to choose, but I’m always afraid I’ll make the wrong choice.”

“When fate happens, you can curl up into a ball while someone kicks you around, or you can stand up and yell, ‘Hey fate, I am better than all this crap you are giving me, I am going to choose a new fate for myself.’ The trick is having a little faith in the fate you choose.” Inaho winked.

“Faith? What do you think faith is, exactly?”

“I know that one,” Inaho replied. “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. That verse is from the Bible, you know.”

“How do you know all this?” Tabitha asked, surprised at the girl’s worldliness.

Inaho shrugged, hopping off the railing and tugging Tabitha by the wrist. “I was a Catholic altar girl and Zen Buddhist monk before working here. I guess I must have learned something at those jobs.”

The statement was full of meaning, yet it didn’t exactly answer the original question. Instead, it piqued Tabitha’s curiosity so much she forgot she’d been crying. “Hold on. If you were Christian and Buddhist before, then-”

“No, not before!” Inaho cried. “I have three religions right now. Roman Catholic, Zen Buddhist, and Shinto. Like Pi in Life of Pi.”

“Sorry,” Tabitha amended. “I mean, how is it you ended up working here?”

“Because,” said Inaho, stopped in front of a stone basin, “I asked Inari-sama for a favor, and he or she gave me this job.”

He or she did? Tabitha wondered if all of Inaho’s answers were going to beg further questions. Just let it go, she repeated to herself. Just let it go.

“Before you pray, you have to perform ritualistic ablutions at this here temizuya,” Inaho instructed. She showed Tabitha how to wash her hands at the purification trough where water filtered into the stone basin. She took the ladle and filled it with fresh water and rinsed both hands. Then she gargled the fountain water and spat it beside the fountain. Tabitha followed Inaho’s example but skipped rinsing her mouth.

Next, Inaho led Tabitha to the offertory altar, where she pulled a thick rope that hung from the eaves, sounding a bell. From the pocket of her pleated red skirt, she pulled out a gold coin and threw it into the offering box. She bowed twice, clapped twice, and then bowed once more.

“After the third bow, you pray to God in thanksgiving and supplication.”

“Which god do you pray to, Inaho?” Tabitha asked, curious of the shrine maiden’s real religious affiliation. “To Inari, or someone else?”

“I pray to the God of Israel, of course. Zen Buddhism does not have any gods and Shinto has too many, so no conflict there.”

“No conflict!” Tabitha spluttered, unable to stand it any longer. “B-but isn’t this an Inari shrine? And don’t you participate in all the Shinto rituals? How can you follow three religions at once?” Even for Tabitha who didn’t believe in any particular god or belong to any organized religion, the idea of having more than one religion at once sounded like sacrilege.

“Oh, I get what you mean!” Inaho said, comprehension dawning on her face. “No, no, no, you got us totally wrong. Inari-sama is just my boss, not my god! These rituals are just part of my job.”

Tabitha swallowed the tiger in her throat that wanted to leap out and object to every dubious thing Inaho had said and done. She didn’t know why she was getting so worked up over the topic of religion, except that this irreverent high school girl had a job while she didn’t. Thinking back, Tabitha couldn’t see anything in common between any of her students at the Iwai Girls’ School and the Shinto shrine maiden singing the Daniel Powter song with oversized headphones slung around her neck. This girl was happy-go-lucky to the point that made Tabitha wonder where she’d gone wrong. Had she been too serious in front of her students at school? Would it have been better had she loosened up more during her lessons? Perhaps then, the girls would’ve found her more interesting.

Tabitha spun back to face the offertory altar. She didn’t believe in prayer and being newly unemployed, she didn’t want to waste her money. She reached into her purse, feeling around for the 5-yen coin that had a hole in it. When she pinched one, she withdrew it only to realize she had picked a gold 500-yen coin by mistake. Tabitha could feel Inaho’s gaze burning a hole into her back. She sighed, tossed in the 500-yen coin, and went through the motions. The tiger inside her was still angry about being fired, and if there was a god, she was angry at him too for how unfair her new life in Japan had turned out.

Next, Inaho solicited 300 more yen from Tabitha to draw an omikuji from a red coin-operated vending machine. Tabitha twisted the lever and reached into the slot. The fortune came in a clear plastic capsule. She twisted it open and unfolded the slip of paper inside, revealing a wall of Chinese characters. She flipped it over looking for a translation. More kanji. How she hated being illiterate!

“What does it say?” Tabitha asked, relinquishing the slip of paper for interpretation.

Inaho looked bug-eyed at the result. “It says ‘Awesome Luck!’” the girl declared. “You will have auspicious results in romance, marriage, and all your endeavors.”

Tabitha’s “Great Curse” omikuji detailing from top to bottom unhappy prospects in Desires, Conflicts, Romance, Lost Articles, and Marriage.

Tabitha very much doubted Inaho’s interpretation and asked for the fortune back.

“Trust me, you do not need a second opinion.” Inaho laughed, tying the slip onto a withered tree branch with all the other discarded fortunes. “Fortunes are just for fun anyway.”

Inaho took the omikuji’s plastic capsule and fired it into a trash can five feet away. Another 300 hundred yen down the drain, Tabitha thought as the plastic capsule sank into the black abyss.

“What are those?” asked Tabitha, pointing to a wall of wooden plates.

A rack of ema at a shrine.

Ema,” said the girl. “You write wishes on them and then leave them the rack in hopes that your wish will come true. Here, I will read you some.” She pointed to a scribbled piece. “Bad example: ‘Please let me win the lottery.’ A wish that depends on chance is made in vain. A shrine is where people give thanks that springs from the bottom of the heart, not a wish-granting factory.” She pointed to another. “Good example: ‘Please help me pass my Tōdai entrance exams.’ A wish that depends on effort will come to fruition.”

“Do they work?”

“Sure do. If the wish is practical enough, I can send it to Inari-sama, just like that,” said Inaho with a snap of her fingers. “And they are a real steal for only 1,000 yen.” She swept her hand toward the fifty or so engraved torii around the shrine courtyard. “All the torii around here were donated by worshippers who got their wish. Would you like one?”

“When in Rome,” Tabitha sighed and placed a thousand-yen bill onto a plastic blue tray Inaho held out to her. Smiling like a luxury car salesperson, Inaho handed her a blank ema and a Sharpie.

Please help me find someone who needs me, Tabitha wrote, conscious of the upstart girl peeking over her shoulder.

“What? Is that all you want?” the girl chirped, whisking away. “I will let Inari-sama know right away.” Tabitha had no sooner hung the ema on the rack than someone struck a gong, making her jump a mile.

“Inari-sama has heard your request!” Inaho informed her with gusto. She held out a red brocade bag, offering it to Tabitha. “As a souvenir, here is your special edition Inari Shrine omamori on the house. It will give you super-duper luck. Do not open it, though, or you might suffer a great misfortune like Pandora.”

Don’t open it? Well, okay. Tabitha took it, and they crossed under the torii, and descended the flight of stairs Inaho hadn’t finished sweeping.

“Well, this is it. Thanks for showing me around your shrine. I enjoyed the tour.” Tabitha turned to leave, but the shrine maiden reached out to grab her shoulder.

“I will give you some advice before you go,” said Inaho, turning grave. “Never feel sorry for yourself. Even if you are facing a bitter aspect of life, just take the opportunities you are given and grow.”

After Tabitha left the shrine with Inaho bowing in her wake, she had to admit that the high school girl was good at her job. Even though her coin purse felt lighter, her advice at the end was sound. Tabitha dangled the red omamori by its drawstrings in front of her. Should she be back in America next week, she’d at least managed to get a souvenir and leave a part of herself in the ema at the shrine. Though she might never see the eccentric shrine maiden again, she had to admit she felt a little better now.

An omamori from the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto.

Part 2: Christmas Eve

The TV was blaring a holiday special in the background, but Tabitha wasn’t paying attention to it. She was organizing her luggage. Her pots and pans sat outside in the apartment complex’s shared space for garbage disposal. Christmas wasn’t an official holiday in Japan, so she could at least count on the garbage truck coming tomorrow. She’d never liked cooking anyway. It was one less thing she had to worry about now.

She cursed under her breath. She had tried to stuff all her dress shirts and pencil skirts into her suitcase, but the lid kept springing open from trying to compress too many things. She removed a tartan wool blazer and tried to close the lid again. No go. Everything she couldn’t pack had to go into cardboard boxes to be donated or transparent plastic bags for garbage collection. She cursed again, removing a pair of heels that was taking up too much room. Angrily, she chucked them into the plastic bag. It was always a sad day when a girl had to retire her shoes before their time, and even more so on Christmas Eve.

The beep beep beep of her kitchen timer announced that three minutes had passed. Tabitha exhaled resignedly. At least her cup of instant ramen was ready. She peeled back the lid and let the oily aroma of the kitsune udon hit her face.

Then came a knock on her studio apartment door. Huh? Tabitha hadn’t had a single visitor since her company moved her into the shoebox-sized apartment six months ago. Annoyed, she left the warmth of her kotatsu to looked through the peephole. There was an unfamiliar man wearing a conspicuous red parka on the other side of the door. He probably had the wrong unit number. But how could that be? Her apartment was clearly marked with the nameplate outside.

She opened the door. “Moshimoshi?” she said tentatively, for that was how people said ‘hello’ in this country.

The man stifled a laugh. “You mean ‘konbanwa,’ right?” Wow, he was baby-faced, Tabitha thought. Probably no more than twenty years old. “Konbanwa, Tabitha. Merry Christmas Eve.” His English pronunciation carried no hint of any accent. He held out a box with a transparent side to show her the words, Merry Christmas, written in frosting on a cake. “My name is Bungo Okami. The shrine maiden at the shrine you visited today is my younger sister. I am here to fulfill your wish.”

“Your sister?” Tabitha scrutinized Bungo’s face and conceded there was a certain resemblance in the peculiar slant of their eyes. She was otherwise hopeless in distinguishing Asian people’s faces. “Sorry if I sound rude, but how’d you find me here?”

“Inari-sama’s omamori. You should have gotten one before you left. It had a tracker chip inside.”

“What?!”

“Just kidding!” he laughed. “The truth is, I am a fox, and my job is to fulfill people’s wishes. Finding a client is a trade skill.”

“You’re a fox?”

“Uh-huh.”

Tabitha furrowed her forehead. Did he think she was stupid?

“Look, I’ve got dinner waiting for me. If this is a trick, please just leave.”

Bungo’s nose twitched. “Trick? No way. Foxes might play tricks in Western culture, but only half of them do in Japan. Our group of foxes serves the god Inari-sama to help those in trouble.”

“Then prove you’re a fox. Are you going to transform into one for me?”

“No, but I can smell your kitsune udon calling my name from all the way out here. Is that what you are having for dinner?”

Tabitha’s eyes widened. It wasn’t possible. No one’s sense of smell was that good. “How did you know?”

Bungo smiled. “Did you know that foxes just love fried tofu? I can smell its oily scent like a shark smells blood. Look, I will give you my card.” He produced a card holder from his parka and proffered a business card with both hands. A two-sided bilingual business card. Tabitha turned it to the English side that looked a lot like the card Inaho had presented.

“Do you mind if I come in?” He held up a shopping bag with his other hand, indicating he’d brought other provisions. Tabitha scrutinized the man’s comely porcelain face one last time for an ulterior motive. But could anyone really tell? Since her undue dismissal earlier that day, she couldn’t help but feel cynical. However, Tabitha had to concede that if this was a trick, it was an elaborate one and she stepped aside.

Inside, the man neatly removed his shoes and gave her a quick, reassuring smile. He climbed the odd step into the apartment’s foyer. Tabitha was struck by the uncanniness between the similarity of their heights.

“It smells wonderful,” he commented. He glided toward the kotatsu, setting down his shopping bag on the table. Steam from the bowl of kitsune udon rose like an aroma diffuser.

Half-packed cardboard boxes littered the room, but Bungo looked unperturbed. He opened the box to reveal a festive white and red velvet cake. Tabitha had to admit as she slid into the kotatsu’s warm embrace the cake did add a sort of Christmas cheer to the room.

She watched him produce a few glass bottles from a shopping bag, and mix a shandygaff into a champagne glass for her. Huh? Where had that champagne glass come from?

“Why do you say you’re a fox?” said Tabitha, her voice still sounding more suspicious than she wanted to let on. “I’ve been thinking about how to interpret that.”

“You can take it literally or figuratively. Both would be true. We take the form that will best serve the patron.” He pushed a slice of cake toward her. “Help yourself.”

“Come off it, you’re pulling my leg.”

“No, I am serving you a slice of cake,” he said, placing a plate in front of her.

They stared seriously at each other for a moment.

“Kekeke,” Bungo snickered.

“Har, har,” went Tabitha.

“You still do not believe me.”

“No, not really,” she deadpanned.

“Fine, I will prove it to you.”

Bungo drew the curtains of the studio apartment. He surveyed the empty second-story balcony through the sliding glass door.

“May I borrow a stool or stepladder?” he asked. Tabitha handed him a bar stool, wondering what kind of charade this was going to be. He stepped out and placed the bar stool onto the balcony. Then he placed a flashlight behind on the stool on the railing and switched it on. It was bright, a hundred lumens at least. Finally, he sat cross-legged in front of the flashlight so that a halo of light appeared behind him.

“I will show you my silhouette, but you must promise not to open the curtains until I say so. When I rap on the glass, turn off the room lights. You will see my silhouette. When you are satisfied, turn the lights on in your room and I will come back inside.”

Tabitha drew the curtains. She heard the tap, tap, tap and turned off the light in her room. The outline of a man sitting down was melting away, becoming more and more slender. The robust outline of the parka was changing, too. The figure on the other side of the curtain sharpened, until finally, she could indeed see the silhouette of a fox in profile, swishing its bushy tail to and fro. Was this another magic trick? It looked real. Uncannily real.

“How are you doing this?” she exclaimed.

What does the fox say?” came the yowling from the other side.

She turned on the light, and Bungo’s human form slid back inside.

“How’d you do that?” Tabitha exclaimed again, now more excited than cautious.

Bungo shrugged. “It comes with being a fox, Miss.”

“But why just the shadow? Why not let me open the curtains?”

He shook his head at her, bemused. “Because reality is sometimes too harsh to face, shadows are as close as one can and should get to embracing reality. That is from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Although…” Bungo bit his lip unsure if he should continue.

Tabitha waited. “Although?”

“If you really want to know, you could have just pull the curtain.”

“But you said-”

“Do you always do everything you are told? I could not have stopped you,” he laughed. “Shall we eat?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” Tabitha agreed, suddenly feeling that she wasn’t being a very good host. “Here, let me get you a plate for the cake.”

“No need,” said Bungo. He took out a clear plastic container bound by a rubber band and a thermos that hung around his neck. Inside the pocket of his parka was a box of sushi wrapped in deep fried tofu. “Christmas cake and shandygaff for you, inarizushi and mineral water for me,” he said. “I moonlight as a pâtissier, so I can guarantee the quality of this Christmas cake.” He took a sip of water and then said offhandedly, “How do you like Japan?”

“It’s…” Tabitha had fielded this question many times from strangers back when she still had a job, but she couldn’t pretend anymore. “It’s not as nice as I’d thought it’d be. It’s funny because I thought I was changing my life by leaving America, like I was going to do something meaningful in this country. But I’ve been here six months and I haven’t made a single friend or even learned the language. I just feel like a failure, and I don’t want it to end like this, but I don’t know if I can stay. With only a week left on my current apartment lease, I don’t even know if I can find a new company to sponsor me, let alone find a place to live.”

“Inaho told me about what happened. I am sorry your job ended.”

“It’s frustrating, you know? My job shouldn’t have ended the way it did. I can’t accept it.”

“I know what you mean.”

“And I don’t want to go back to America where my family will find out what a failure I am.”

“So you will get another job. Not like your dog died or anything.”

Tabitha took a deep breath. Bungo’s eyes had darted to the TV. He was just as mercurial as his sister was.

There was an NHK interview segment broadcast going on. The camera panned across the visage of the sapphire blue LED lights hung on zelkova trees in Omotesandō shopping district. A reporter and her camera crew were interviewing people around Tokyo about their Christmas plans.

“Do you understand what they are saying?” Bungo asked.

Tabitha shook her head. “I just turned it on for background noise while I packed.”

Bungo leaned across the kotatsu and touched Tabitha on the shoulder. A surge of static electricity flowed through the point of contact. Stunned, she recoiled, dropping her fork. “Now you can.” Bungo smiled.

Tabitha turned back to the TV. The Japanese dialogue became intelligible. More than intelligible. She could understand the nuances of the interviews as soon as each word was spoken.

A college student (21) in Omotesandō: “Well, I just got off my part-time job, so now I’m going to meet my boyfriend at a fancy restaurant, and tomorrow, I’m having Christmas dinner with my parents.”

The frame cut to Roppongi where another interview was in progress. The reporter was addressing a businessman in a backdrop of dimly lit back alleys and solicitous signs to drinking establishments and nightclubs. “I’m just going to work tonight, and tomorrow night, my coworkers and I are going to a beer garden,” said the man who declined to give his name or age.

An upbeat office lady (32) in front of the Hachiko exit at the JR Shibuya Station: “I have the day off work, so I’m going to Tokyo Sea with my husband and children!”

Tabitha was sweating now, and it wasn’t from the warmth emanating from the kotatsu. It was from the fact that she could also read and understand the telops (TELevision OPtical Slide Projector), the Japanese captions on the screen, as though they were in English. She looked at Bungo, who was crouched on his haunches like that was a normal way to sit.

“They all sound so assured,” Bungo remarked about the people on TV. “They are well-off here with their friends and families. Do these confident people make you wish you were back in your country?”

But Tabitha wasn’t listening. “How did you do that? I-I can suddenly read and understand Japanese.”

“I should think so. It would be a hassle later if you could not.”

“But… but…” Tabitha wanted to protest, but for what she didn’t know.

“You want a logical explanation for why you can suddenly understand Japanese?”

She nodded. He had understood her before she could ask.

“Foxes are yōkai. I transferred a fraction of my power into you. We can do things like that, you know. But if it makes you feel better…” He withdrew a book from the pocket of his red parka and laid it by the spine on the kotatsu. The book opened flatly to a chapter heading about the kitsune, and Bungo pushed it across to her. “The Irish writer of Japanese folklore, Lafcadio Hearn, described our powers like this,” he said, pointing to a highlighted passage.

Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps… Possessed folk are also said to speak and write languages of which they were totally ignorant prior to possession. They eat only what foxes are believed to like—tofu, aburagé, azukimeshi, etc.—and they eat a great deal, alleging that not they, but the possessing foxes, are hungry.

— Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, vol. 1

Tabitha read, but couldn’t quite process the incredulity of everything that had happened since Bungo had knocked on her door. This passage was about demon foxes in Japanese folklore. Folklore about mythical foxes. Not a zoology book about real foxes. Meanwhile, Bungo was devouring his inarizushi, a food she understood foxes were supposed to like. However, it wasn’t as though she were watching a movie that required a suspension of disbelief. This was real life, and the man claiming to be a fox who was sharing her kotatsu with his eyes glued to the TV was something Tabitha still found absurd. Yet, Tabitha couldn’t help but question the basis of her doubt. She couldn’t think of any way he would’ve been able to project the silhouette of a fox on her veranda and then download an entire language into her brain. Was he a demon fox or not? The unknowability of it all was driving her crazy.

“All this is too meta for me, so I’m just going to ask you simply,” she sighed, sliding the book back across the table. “Have you possessed me?”

“How could I?” said Bungo between bites of the inarizushi, “I thought you did not believe in demon foxes.”

“For Darwin’s sake, let’s just say I believe you!” Tabitha exclaimed, “Have you or haven’t you possessed me?”

“Not enough to make you run naked through the streets anyway.” His answer vacillated between fact and fiction so that Tabitha couldn’t tell whether he was kidding or not. “I hope you are not superstitious.”

“I’m not superstitious, but strange things have been happening since you arrived.” Then Tabitha thought back. “And you said you were here to grant my wish? What did you mean by that?”

A vulpine smile curled on his lips as he sensed her confusion. “All in due time. Why speed up this perfectly auspicious evening?”

As Christmas Eve wore on, Bungo helped Tabitha pack the six months’ worth of things she had acquired in Japan into the cardboard boxes. Tabitha protested at first but relented when Bungo proved to be a master of Tetris and succeeded in maximizing the space to squeeze in all her worldly possessions.

They were done in under an hour, so Tabitha told Bungo all about the experience of teaching English at Iwai Girls’ School. About how she felt bullied by the students and teachers of the school. About how she had left America because she believed that she could reinvent herself in a new country. She had felt trapped in a cubicle working a thankless nine-to-five for a company selling pet thermometers, a job she believed was beneath her. She longed to change the condition of her life, so when the opportunity to teach English in Japan arose, she jumped on it, believing that her students would respect her, even adore her. Now six months later, she’d been fired. It’d feel like a dishonorable discharge to return to her hometown, a place she’d never felt needed by anyone. She loved her family, of course, but what would they think if she came back home? And the problem with staying with Mrs. Ishida was that it’d feel like a betrayal of her independence. Moreover, she’d feel like a failure for the rest of her life. “I need to feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. I need an actual reason to stay in Japan, not something that involves me bending over backward.”

Bungo looked back at Tabitha as though he knew exactly what she meant.

“I can give you a reason to stay in Japan,” he said.

“What?”

“Pack your passport and visa. I am taking you to Nagano tomorrow.”

Tabitha sputtered out her shandygaff. She looked at Bungo now, incredulous. How similar he was, Tabitha realized, to his younger sister. Unlike her, both of them were full of purpose, and they declared things unilaterally, convinced they could make them happen.

“B-but I haven’t agreed to anything yet!”

Bungo flipped open a cell phone and showed Tabitha a picture message. It was a .jpeg of an ema. “You paid 500 yen for this wish. You have not changed your mind, have you?”

Sure enough, the picture was the ema she’d written hours earlier. “I paid 1,000 yen for it,” she corrected through gritted teeth. “I haven’t changed my mind, but I’d like to know exactly where you want to take me.”

Bungo conjured an English travel guide from his red parka, which Tabitha now suspected included a pocket vortex for unlimited storage. He opened a bookmarked page and pointed to a small entry for a Japanese inn.

The Okami Inn has been family run for ten generations. In winter, it is a popular destination for visiting Japanese macaques and sightseers alike.//Address: Kitsune Street, Okami Village, Ryokan District, Nagano Prefecture 392-04XX//Phone: +81 269-33-XXXX

“Wait a minute, isn’t this place all the way up in the mountains?”

“Yes, so?”

“So what am I supposed to do when I get there?”

“Work full-time as the inn operations manager. The proprietress is looking for someone to work there. It should be right up your alley.”

Tabitha looked hard into Bungo’s face expecting him to say, “Just kidding!” again. A new job just landing on her lap hours after being fired? Things like that just didn’t happen. Bungo grinned, waiting for a response. She wanted to say yes. With everything that already happened that night, what did she have to lose? Finally, she nodded, conceding that it would do her good to get out of the apartment on Christmas.

“Good, then it is settled,” said Bungo, getting up to leave. “Tomorrow, I will take you to Nagano with all your things. Get some rest, and Merry Christmas!”

The next morning, all the cardboard boxes Tabitha had packed the previous night had disappeared, inexplicably replaced by a red spin-down luggage case.

“Good morning, Tabitha. Ready to go?” Bungo asked, rotating the mysterious luggage case around its axis. Tabitha was still wearing her pajamas, but that hardly seemed to matter now. She slipped her arms through the sleeves of an overcoat Bungo had laid out for her and slipped into a pair of sneakers. Bungo dropped Tabitha’s keys into a shoe locker attached to the front door. Then he parted the curtains that covered the sliding door to the veranda. A flood of light burst through followed by a mighty gust blowing into the apartment. Tabitha gasped. I’m dreaming, she thought. The scenery outside was a forest of pine trees covered in snow. Christmas never looked so picturesque in real life.

Part 3: Someone Who Needs Me

She ran around, leaving footprints in the snowy powder that coated the cobblestone surface. They were on the top of a snowcapped peak of some sort, and all around her were the effects of a shrine. She shivered a bit in the high altitude. Gusts were sweeping up the ice crystals, howling like reed instruments. The motifs were similar to the shrine where she’d met Inaho. She saw the offering altar, purification trough, and the wall of hanging ema. A golden sunrise was peering over the horizon. From all directions, Tabitha could see the panorama of pine-crested ridges. On either side of a vermillion torii stood a pair of stone fox statues clad in votive bibs the color of Bungo’s parka. Tabitha felt her back stiffen as a cold wind blew past her. She peered down into a valley still resting in the mountain’s shadow.

“We’re not in Tokyo anymore, are we?”

“Right. We are in one of the hidden Inari Shrines within Nagano Prefecture. Only the locals know of this place.” He pointed to the edge of the peak where a flight of stairs twisted and wound. “Shall we go?”

“Hold it!” Tabitha protested. “You’ve got to explain to me how one moment we’re in my apartment, and the next moment, we’re on top of a mountain.”

Bungo grinned. “My sister explained toriis to you, right?”

“Yes… They’re the orange gateways that connect the ordinary world and the sacred spirit world.”

“Right, torii gateways have no doors, so they are constantly open. I removed the sliding door on your veranda so we could cross the boundary into this sacred place, contorting time and distance.”

“You mean, you can go to any shrine in Japan at a whim?”

“Just the ones where Inari-sama is enshrined,” he replied, pointing at the honden. Tabitha could now read the charcoal words, “Inari Shrine,” engraved on its ornate vermillion plaque.

“So what does Inari look like?”

Bungo shrugged. “Not even foxes are privy to that information. We do not even know Inari-sama’s gender. Sometimes Inari-sama appears as a feudal lord, sometimes as a female bodhisattva. I prefer to think of Inari-sama as an abstraction, like a faith which restores humanity’s spiritual kinship with the celestial bodies of the universe.”

Left: Inari and his/her fox spirits help the blacksmith Munechika forge the blade kogitsune-maru (Little Fox) in the late 10th century. This legend is the subject of the noh drama Sanjo Kokaji. Right: Inari appears to a warrior. This portrayal of Inari shows the influence of Dakiniten concepts from Buddhism.

She walked to the edge with Bungo behind her pulling the luggage case along. From the top, the steps were impossibly endless, like a Japanese version of M.C. Escher’s Penrose stairs. Hundreds or thousands of vermillion torii were staked onto the path, each only a few inches apart from the next. Sighing, Tabitha tunneled tenaciously through the thousand torii.

“You couldn’t have brought us closer to our destination?” Tabitha panted after a while.

“My apologies for the lack of a cable car.”

Even with Bungo carrying her luggage, it took them an hour to descend the peak. They passed through a forest of snow-laden cryptomeria trees amid nearby sounds of a babbling brook that permeated the silence. Eventually, the stairs stopped winding, and Tabitha’s jaw dropped—Inaho was waving at her from the bottom of the stairs.

“ What the- Inaho!”

Yaho~!” the girl called. “Will the next contestant come on down!”

Tabitha descended the last of the stairs with Bungo trudging behind her.

“Are you surprised to see me?” Inaho was wearing a pink sweater and a red scarf that matched Bungo’s parka. In one hand, she held a thermos. She uncapped it and began pouring a clear liquid into the lid cup as casually as though she’d come to the Nagano wilderness on a camping trip.

“Surprised! What are you doing here?”

“Fulfilling my duties as a shrine maiden, of course! Merry Christmas, Tabitha. I am going to introduce you to the inn proprietress today. She wrote an ema just like you did, and she wished for someone to save her inn.” Inaho paused and blew into the cup to cool the steaming liquid inside. She lifted her cup, but before her puckered lips could take a sip, Bungo had passed in front of her to stay her hand.

“Just a minute, let me check that.”

Oniichan!” she pouted. “It is just my rice elixir! I need it!”

“We will see about that.” He passed the cup of steaming drink under his nose and then wrinkled his forehead. “Inaho, it’s four years too early for you to be drinking something this strong.”

“Aww, busted!”

“I told you to take your job more seriously.” Bungo admonished, “But I hate to waste good amazake.” He passed Inaho’s cup to Tabitha. “Would you like to try it?”

“What’s amazake?”

“Think of it as an eggnog that tastes good.”

She was only going to take a sip from the corner of the cup when she brought it to her lips. It tasted like a cup of hot cocoa consumed in front of the hearth at a ski chalet. Her eyes opened wide. Phenomenal! Not that she needed any help, but Inaho’s chants of, “Ikki, ikki, ikki! Chug, chug, chug!” encouraged her. The warm grains of mushy fermented rice and koji went down as easily as Santa Claus down a chimney. Warmth spread through Tabitha, rejuvenating her spirits. Suddenly, she felt as if anything were possible.

“Awesome, right?” Inaho sighed wistfully. “I was freezing my tail off waiting for you enough that I drank half the thermos already.”

Bungo shot a stern look as his younger sister, who tromped off ahead of them. To get to the town proper, they got on the municipal bus at the closest stop, a route Bungo warned would be canceled after the new year.

“What about the trains? Don’t they run?” Tabitha asked.

“No, the JR lines stopped servicing this part of Nagano ten years ago.”

The bus rolled along the main street, populated by defunct buildings worn away by years of neglect. A pair of snowy sidewalks ran on either side like a riverbank, but not a single pedestrian was out and about. Black shadows darted past the cracks of the boarded-up windows. Even sitting inside the bus, Tabitha had the distinct impression that they were being watched from behind darkened panes of the rusted boutiques. Her spine shivered from the occasional glow of lights, which could’ve been anything from a will-o-wisp to a ruin maniac’s lantern. One thing was certain; the town had seen better days. In a different time period, this street might’ve been a bustling thoroughfare. But the only living things she saw now were a few alley cats.

“Is there a single business still open on this street?” Tabitha asked the siblings. “This place is a ghost town! The only thing missing are the tumbleweeds.”

Bungo gave Tabitha a wry smile that suggested he had answered this question before. “Oh, some people still live here. Times changed; After the whole country suffered a recession in the early 90’s, only this town was left out of its economic recovery. Out-of-work people moved away and the infrastructure fell apart. But all that is going to change. All this town really needs is an economic stimulus to encourage the residents to open up shop again.”

“And we brought you here to save the town!” Inaho interposed.

“Inaho!” hissed Bungo. “Stop giving Tabitha unnecessary pressure!”

Otto. My bad.”

Tabitha swallowed, now feeling a sense of foreboding. The bus wasn’t stopping because they were the only passengers, and there were no other passengers to pick up. It was taking them clear from one corner of town to another. Every intersection was the same—mellowed gray buildings and empty car lots. There was no oncoming traffic and therefore no traffic lights.

“N-No. No way. You can’t possibly mean what I think you mean,” Tabitha stammered.

“Wait and see,” the siblings chorused.

Tabitha leaned against the cool pane of the glass, wondering where the sidewalk was going to end and the state of the inn that was waiting for her at the end of it.

They got off the bus, and Inaho led Tabitha through a back alley that reeked of expired sauerkraut. The alleyway sloped downward until the three of them arrived at a wooden door. Inaho unlocked it with a ceremonial brass key and led the way through a hall enclosed by wooden rafters and moth-eaten walls. They passed by a couple of boarded up doors along the hallway and stopped at the end of the hall. Here was another door, decorated with black wrought-iron latticework. Inaho used the same key again to open the metal door.

A late Shōwa period alleyway, unknown location

They entered into what looked like a kitchen basement. Huge pots of ceramic jars smelled heavily of sake. Inaho flicked a switch, and the ceiling lights flickered for a second before stabilizing. Just then, a huge black shroud swooshed over Tabitha’s head and fluttered through the open door. She screamed and turned to the siblings, eyes aghast.

“What was that?”

“Japanese short-tailed bats,” said Inaho. “Sorry, I forgot to warn you, but they startle easily.”

Bungo glared at the teenager before calling out, “Tadaima!”

A minute later, a cellar door creaked open in the distance, and an old woman’s frail voice called out. “Inaho-chan? Bungo-kun? Is that you?

The proprietress approached, and she looked about as ancient as the hills and as wrinkled as the winding rivers. The siblings rushed forward to support her, each one holding a gnarled hand. She introduced herself as Mrs. Okami. Tabitha was at a loss for words to describe either the proprietress or the eponymous Okami Inn. It was a dilapidated place on the verge of becoming a ruin.

“Okami-hiiobaa is our great-grandmother. She was born in the Meiji period,” said Inaho. “She has been running this inn for sixty years and still, she does not look a day over 95. Can you believe it?” Mrs. Okami looked none the wiser as Inaho explained this in English and Tabitha couldn’t tell if Inaho was being facetious or just plain loony.

“What’s going on?” Tabitha whispered to Bungo as her misgivings grew. “This place doesn’t look like the guidebook description!”

Although Inaho went ahead and translated before Tabitha could stop her, Mrs. Okami didn’t protest. The ancient woman spoke slowly in an anachronistic dialect that Tabitha strained to understand.

Unfortunately, that guidebook entry is from the Shōwa period before the economic bubble burst. Foreign tourists no longer come to see the monkeys. Without guests, most villagers closed their shops and left town to look for work elsewhere. The ones who remain rarely venture outside anymore.

Finally, Bungo laid down Tabitha’s luggage. “What do you think? This town used to be an overnight destination for travelers passing through the mountains. We need your help to put our great-grandmother’s inn back on the map.”

Tabitha felt a rush of blood to the head. She touched her temples on both sides as she always did when she was nervous. The inn, with its broken windows and ferns popping up in every nook and cranny, looked more appropriate for archaeologists to dig up than for travelers to stay. Time had taken a toll on the inn, reclaimed by primeval life forms too ingrained to uproot. She imagined herself in the kimonos of the hot spring resort innkeepers she’d seen on TV, running around to serve visitors. How they must’ve worked to the bone from so much physical movement, cooking and cleaning all day! Given the intimidating mental image and how this was her starting point, she immediately dashed the thought. No way. The inn was way too far gone to consider.

“What if I say no?” Her voice quivered. “I mean, l-look at this place. It’s got bats! Ferns! It’s old! I can’t even teach m-middle school students, let alone run an inn!”

Hiiobaachan, would you mind getting our guest some tea and cookies? Inaho, go with her and make sure she takes her time,” Bungo said, turning away. Inaho bustled out holding her great-grandmother’s hand.

Bungo returned his attention to Tabitha. “Look, it is important that the inn stays open. Without this inn and the visitors it brings, this village will disappear altogether.”

“I can’t help you, Bungo. This is out of my depth.”

“You can help me, Tabitha. You can choose to do this. It is not impossible. I know it is hard to help a couple of strangers, but Inaho and I brought you here because we have faith in you. Please, Tabitha, I need you to stay. Inaho needs you to stay. Our great-grandmother and an entire village need you to stay.”

Bungo’s words brought back a flood of memories. Had anyone ever said that to her? Certainly not her students or Mrs. Ishida. No one had ever needed her. She looked around the musty wine cellar and felt the cool ceramic under her palm. Even though it might give her the sense of purpose she’d been looking for, restoring the inn would be a herculean task.

“But… the condition of this inn, do you really think I can restore it?”

“Of course!”

“But how…?”

“Just have a little faith,” he urged. “This will all work out.”

This again? Tabitha thought about the old woman who seemed ready to fall over if someone didn’t take her place. She felt bad for her, but…

“But you are worried that you will choose wrong if you stay.”

“Yes, exactly!” Tabitha exclaimed. Wait, how did he know?

“And you think Inaho and I are bad great-grandchildren for not doing this ourselves.”

“You’ve got to stop reading my mind, Bungo!” Tabitha protested because the thought had indeed crossed her mind.

“But think about it. This is exactly what you wished for. A new job, a place to live, and a chance to help someone who needs you.”

“But I’m just one person!” Tabitha sobbed. She ran toward the wrought-iron door where they’d come in. “I can’t do anything right! I’ll screw up your family inn! I’ll-”

“Nothing will ever change if you keep on running away,” he called behind her.

Tabitha stopped. She pictured herself living with Mrs. Ishida or going home to her parents with her head bowed in shame. No, those things were out of the question. Bungo was absolutely right. She’d held a defeatist attitude for too long, never allowing herself to accept new challenges. She believed and accepted her own mediocrity, causing herself to wallow in negativity. But nothing would ever change unless she started believing in herself. Hadn’t Siobhan also told her that she needed a little faith?

The long hallway back to the alley loomed long and menacing before her. Walking down that path now would feel like a regression, a return to the ordinary world she had wanted to escape. She had to be brave if she wanted to change her life. Nothing would ever change if she didn’t. With a heavy heart, she shut the door and turned around. “Okay, Bungo,” she relented. “I’ll give it a try.”

The creaky cellar door swung open, and Inaho barreled back into the earthen room, carrying a furoshiki, a cloth bundle in her hands. “Onii-chan, did I hear that right? Did she actually say she would do it?” She’d been eavesdropping, and in her haste to reappear, she had kicked over one of the ceramic jars. It cracked, leaking the smell of sauerkraut into the room. “Uwa! Shoot!”

Bungo reached over to pull his younger sister by the ear. “Ack!” How similar the two of them now looked, standing side by side without an inch of difference in their heights.

“Thank you, Tabitha. Our great-grandmother will be pleased.” He nudged his sister. “Will you do the honors, Inaho?”

“Aw, man, is it time, already?”

“We have to get back to our shrines,” said Bungo. “Our work never ends.”

“Oh alright. I will give her my ability,” Inaho mewed. She turned to Tabitha. “Do you still have my omamori?”

“Yes,” Tabitha said slowly, wondering if she’d packed it. That had been only yesterday. She reached into both her pockets and it appeared like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat.

“Usually, people get all superstitious and never open their omamori, but that is just silly if you ask me. Go ahead and open it.”

Tabitha wanted to protest that it was Inaho who had warned her not to open it in the first place, but she did as she was told. The pouch opened, and inside was a round black pill. She pinched the pill in her thumb and forefinger and examined it in the light. It was no larger than a breath mint, but it smelled pungently of tree bark and mothballs.

“That there is my hoshi-no-tama, a star piece filled with mystical powers. If you take it, you will gain the ability to forget the past. Furthermore, I will take it as permission to erase all the bad memories holding you back so you can move on.”

Inaho undid the knot on the furoshiki and laid the contents on top of a huge ceramic pot labeled sake. It was her shrine maiden vestments—the white haori and red hakama. Immediately she began stripping off her clothes and changing into them as though Tabitha weren’t there.

“Are you preparing for a ritual later?” Tabitha asked, averting her eyes.

“Yeah, preparations at the shrine for Oharae, the grand purification ritual that happens on the last day of every year.”

“I see…” Tabitha trailed off. She had to get one more thing off her chest before she took the hoshi-no-tama. “You said you were an altar girl and a Buddhist monk in the past, but no matter how you slice it, you don’t look older than sixteen. How could you have had the time to do those things?”

Inaho scratched her head, as if trying to recover the memory. Finally, she shook her head. “Yeah, I know I did them, but beats me how I ever had the temperament for Zen meditation. I have just a faint memory that I did those things in a previous life. But poor hiiobaachan! She is the reason I am still here, to make sure someone continues our family inn’s legacy. Until our samsara ends, oniichan and I will keep roaming Japan granting wishes. It is the fate we chose—to come back to earth as kitsune.”

Once dressed in her vestal robes, Inaho stooped down to pick up the pieces of the broken jar. A blue light flashed in her hands, and a moment later, she had replaced it among the other jars, good as new.

“You see, my special ability is to reset things, including memories to their original state. Either choose your fate or let fate happen to you. The choice is in your hand.”

Tabitha admitted she was tired of letting her emotions control her. So many memories still tormented her. She remembered the rough night at the pub, the humiliation at Iwai Girls’ School, and recently, the shame she felt in being pitied by Mrs. Ishida. Then she wondered what it’d be like not to have those memories anymore. Sure, those memories had troubled her, but was forgetting them the only way to move on? The option to forget laid before her. What would Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung say? She felt like a wounded tiger each time those painful memories rankled, making her recall all her failures and embarrassing moments since she got to Japan.

She realized she wanted that blank slate.

Her hands quavered as she finally brought the pill to her mouth and swallowed.

“Got it!” Immediately, Inaho clapped and rubbed her palms together for friction. Tabitha saw them glow blue again, but inside her palms appeared an iridescent blue spark. Inaho blew gently into her cupped hands, and the spark raged into a blue flame. It grew larger and brighter as Inaho swathed the flames in circles around herself, each swipe depleting the room of more oxygen. Blue fire ignited in Inaho’s eyes and white bushy tails popped up behind her. One, two, three… three tails total. The tails kept swishing, batting the flames into a frenzy until they became a rotating Catherine wheel. The tails transfigured into ethereal hands molding the flames. At once, she was dictating her own center of gravity, her whole body floating off several feet off the ground.

Yoisho!” Inaho heaved. She lifted the growing blue flames in her hands over her head. The room grew hotter. Winter seemed to have melted away, banished by Inaho’s fireball.

“What on earth is that?!” Tabitha cried as the flames grew in size and intensity.

“My sister’s ultimate technique, the kitsunebi-ōdama,” said Bungo. “The larger the ball of fire grows, the greater the blast radius when it explodes.”

Tabitha’s mouth went dry. Speechless. Beads of sweat evaporated as soon as they appeared. Inaho’s three tails pushed her off the ground and sent her flying upward. The fireball in her hands upended the ceiling, bursting through the roof with a thunderous crash. Both her fiery blue hands were lifting the ball higher and higher in rapid ascent. She was hundreds of meters off the ground before she stopped; a singular curiosity suspended in midair holding a miniature blue sun. She inverted her body orientation like a ballerina in zero gravity, and the blue sun now pointed toward the earth.

Back on earth, Tabitha breathed, “What’s she going to do?”

“She is going to drive the ball of light into the ground at Mach speed. It should be a sight to behold if your eyes stay open long for your brain to process it,” Bungo answered.

“At this rate, the whole town will be caught up in the blast. Stop her!” Tabitha entreated. “Or we’ll all die!”

“Have a little faith, Tabitha,” Bungo laughed. “My sister may be crazy, but she knows what she is doing.”

“If she dives, she’ll send us all to kingdom come!”

Blue solar flares arced on the surface of the kitsunebi-ōdama, each crackling like the fourth of July. It suspended in midair as Inaho flew around it with her three tails like giant hands sculpting it into a long oblong shape. Even the morning sky had changed from blue to violet. Dark storm clouds gathered all around Inaho as she molded her fireball, dehydrating the atmosphere. The low rumbling of the clouds sounded like the sky was breaking. Rain sounded imminent, and the miniature blue sun was now the size of a…

“A blue whale falling out of the sky?” finished Bungo.

“Falling Whale!” Inaho’s three tails wrapped around the base of the gigantic whale. “Orya!” She hurled it at supersonic speed. The whale torpedoed through the purple ether, making a beeline straight back into the cellar where Tabitha and Bungo were standing. And for that moment, Inaho’s creation was an impending meteor.

“No! Stop!” Tabitha screamed, trying to shield herself with her arms. But it was too late.

Inaho’s molten blue whale of flame slammed into the ground where it burst into infinitesimal beams, infinitely refracting and enveloping everything its crystalline blue light.

A telepathic communication transmitted into Tabitha’s brain at that instant. She heard the words of an ethereal voice echoing in her ears, more austere than anything Inaho had ever said.

When bad memories moil and fray

Your expression will betray

How your blue sky has turned to gray

The camera does not lie

I can see the times you cried

In the hollows of your panda eyes

Inaho will extirpate

Cruel fate, conflagrate!

Let all the tears evaporate!

So fade, fade to black.

The flashbacks,

they will not come back!

The world went into a dizzying spiral. Tabitha felt herself lose the strength in her legs and someone catching her by the armpits. Guided by invisible hands, she lay down a soft piece of earth. She heard Bungo’s lilting voice echo as though the sound waves were traveling across a great distance to reach her.

“Our hiiobaachan will take care of you for the next 24 hours. You will gradually lose the memory of every bad thing that happened in your life, and when you wake up, you will not remember us either. But worry not, we will send all the help you need to restore this town in the coming months.”

“Yeah, thanks for helping us carry on the inn,” Inaho’s voice rang. “This inn means everything to hiiobaachan.”

“No!” she heard herself saying. “Don’t go yet! I still don’t know what I’m doing.”

Tabitha opened her eyes and saw Bungo standing in front of her, holding out a small porcelain plate. She scrambled to her feet from the earthen floor. Then she turned her head from side to side, not believing the spectacle. The musty cellar now looked warm and inviting with its Japanese cedar panels. Cracked windows and broken beams had been restored to their original splendor as if time in that confined space had reversed. Light from the winter sun outside bathed the cellar in gold. Everything looked good as new. Better than new. The giant ceramic pots glistened like someone had polished them. She could sense an artisan’s mastery in every detail of the room. She felt something falling from the ceiling. She held out her hand and realized it was salt. Bungo was trying to catching the crystals.

“B-but how is this possible?”

“The effect of Inaho’s Falling Whale resets everything caught in its light,” said Bungo. “Right now, you are seeing everything as it really is through your mind’s eye.”

Indeed, the vintage room felt totally restored. She liked the room now, and she hoped the rest of the inn would be just as appealing. It maintained a Shōwa period charm, but with some luck and hard work, she finally felt assured of the Okami Inn’s future. She glanced back at Bungo. He had fashioned the crystals into a conical pile.

“Here, this is a morijio, a pile of salt to purify your new inn. I hope your stay in Japan will be meaningful and fulfilling.”

“My inn?” Tabitha felt taken aback. When had it become hers. She received the pile of salt, now wondering whether all this were a dream.

“Your inn,” Bungo repeated, “And no, this is not a dream.”

“What about your great-grandmother?”

“She will be glad someone carries on our family legacy. At her age, it is a bit of a relief that she can finally retire.”

“And where’s Inaho?”

“Here I am!” Inaho called as though she’d been waiting for her to ask.

The cellar door swung open again, and Inaho walked up to her this time, stopping at Bungo’s side. “I went through all the other rooms and sprinkled salt everywhere. Everything is good to go.” She smiled brightly at Tabitha. “I know you will be a smashing success and make our hiobaachan proud.”

The siblings bowed low, Bungo pushing the back of Inaho’s head until she reached the proper angle to show respect.

“But if I don’t remember you, how will I ever find you again? I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me.”

“If you leave some inarizushi for us at the shrine, that would be more than enough,” said Bungo.

Senbei crackers for me, please!” Inaho chirped.

“We have to go now, but we are so happy for you.”

“Come visit the Inari Shrine in Tokyo sometime. I will be waiting!”

And they disappeared through the black wrought-iron door. Inaho’s three tails still swished behind her as she rounded the corner of the back alley. Tabitha closed her eyes, and everything faded. She couldn’t think anymore.

Epilogue:

In the following years, the Okami Inn changed Tabitha’s physique. She’d lost weight, becoming muscular through doing the inn’s management and hospitality legwork. Her Japanese was now fluent, and she regularly conversed with regular patrons of the inn and foreign tourists in both Japanese and English.

The destination had become popular, and the defunct train line had been restored. Foreign tourists passed through the town and revitalized its economy. Mrs. Okami had willed the inn to Tabitha before passing away.

Her college roommate, Siobhan, came to visit one spring after the snow had melted, a time when the herds of macaques retreated to the snowy mountains.

Their reunion was a strange one. Siobhan was now forty, a successful actress, and separated from her husband. She had arrived in Nagano to shoot a movie and had stopped by the Okami Inn to see her old friend. She lay languorously in a lounge chair after Tabitha served her tea and cookies. Her sleeveless A-line dress swept over the wicker chair and her strawberry blonde hair was arranged in luscious waves. Tabitha thought her friend now had the air of an empress.

“I’m impressed, Tabby. You’ve really turned your life around. Proprietress and beautiful hostess to boot. How’d you land this gig?” Siobhan acted like nothing had changed, still speaking like she did back in college.

Tabitha had the distant memory of riding a public bus from the mountain shrine to the Okami Inn. But she couldn’t remember the impetus that had brought her to this place.

“Honestly, I’m not so sure. I remember getting fired from the company that sponsored my visa and making a wish at a Shinto shrine one Christmas Eve. The next day, I just felt… led,” Tabitha replied lamely, dropping the last word like an anchor.

“So you’ve no idea how you ended up here on Christmas all those years ago?”

“Believe me, I’ve been trying to figure that out. Mrs. Okami remembered making a wish at the shrine for someone to inherit her inn, and the next day I showed up. She trained me to run the inn from the top down before she passed away, but I have no idea how we even managed to communicate for those first few months. It was like I just woke up one day able to speak Japanese.”

She showed Siobhan a sepia photograph of the late Mrs. Okami standing outside the entrance.

“Wow, the inn looked like it was on its last legs. You said she was running this inn by herself when you first came?” said Siobhan.

“Yeah. She was 95 years old by then.”

“Then I’m impressed by what you did here. It’s so modern, so chic! The difference is night and day! An absolute miracle.”

“Yeah, I know. After I started working here, a lot of windfalls came to this place. It’s like my every wish was coming true. The out-of-work businesses in town all had nothing better to do than to come help us. A carpenter came, then a landscaper, and even an interior decorator. In fact, a whole troupe of entrepreneurs came out of the blue to help bring this inn into the 21st century.”

“You were the catalyst, Tabby. The inn needed you and you responded. And I see it’s helped you out a bit too, huh?” Siobhan crooned, eyeing her old friend’s new physique.

“I know.” Tabitha lifted up her arms to show the obi around her waist that held her colorful yukata in place. I haven’t been this size since high school.”

“And you’re popular with the bachelors now, aren’t you?”

Tabitha blushed. “You might say that,” she conceded. “A lot of Japanese businessmen come here. They try to speak broken English to me before they realize I can speak Japanese, too. Then it’s like I’m the hottest thing on the market.”

“And are you dating someone now?”

“Well, yes, there is someone,” Tabitha demurred. “I met him at the shrine, actually, when I went there to pray.”

“Then pray don’t spare any details,” Siobhan cooed. “If you’ve found someone, you’ve got to tell me about it.” Some chimes signaled a new arrival just then, and Tabitha went to greet her visitors feeling relieved.

Coming!” Tabitha called from around the corner.

Excuse us, but is the owner here?

A man and woman stood in the entryway, their eyes momentarily widening when they saw her. Tabitha smiled. She was used to the bewilderment of her guests being greeted by a foreigner. The duo looked to be in their thirties. Both of them wore red parkas emblazoned with a corporate logo on their chests. She dipped down at the guests in a reverent bow and straightened up again.

“That’s me. I’m Tabitha Small, the hostess and proprietress of the Okami Inn.”

“Sorry to be rude, but what nationality are you?” asked the woman.

“I’m from America.”

“And you can understand us?”

“I try my best,” Tabitha laughed. “I’ve been in this country for ten years now.”

The woman exchanged quizzical looks with her male companion who carried a black camera bag around his shoulder. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Small. Sorry for showing up without an appointment, but we heard good things about the Okami Inn while we were passing through town. We write for an independent travel guide and noticed the last publication for your inn was archived in the Shōwa period. We are always looking to interview entrepreneurs like yourself. Would you agree to showing us around?”

“ Tabby, darling~ who is it?” Siobhan called as she sashayed into the entrance hall, buttressed in ankle booties.

“Journalists. They want to write about this inn and asked me to show them around.”

“Brilliant. Count me in, too. I want the royal tour.”

Tabitha wondered why this pair of journalists in red parkas looked familiar. Her gaze oscillated between the reporter and her cameraman.

“By the way, have we met before?” Tabitha asked.

The two journalists looked at each other again before replying simultaneously. “No way, we certainly would’ve remembered you.”

About the Author:

John Jeng graduated with a B.A. in English Literature from the University of California San Diego in and an M.A. in Teaching from the University of Southern California. His hobbies are trying ethnic cuisines, climbing mountains (the highest so far being Mt. Fuji), and exploring big cities. He lives in San Jose, CA.

Also by the Author:

The Mission Peak Adventurer

「ミッション峠の冒険家」

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Misfortunes' Windfall

At thirty, Tabitha is a self-defined failure. Japan was supposed to be the chance for her to reinvent herself, but her insecurities continue to plague her. Recently fired from her teaching job and facing an uncertain future, Tabitha makes a wish at an Inari shrine. The encounter with an eccentric shrine maiden keeps Tabitha on her toes. Then a mysterious man transports her to a hidden village in Nagano. As she grows aware of the supernatural forces surrounding her life, she realizes that the opposite of accepting fate is choosing it.

  • ISBN: 9781370878826
  • Author: John Jeng
  • Published: 2016-11-26 08:50:16
  • Words: 15937
Misfortunes' Windfall Misfortunes' Windfall