She heard their words drift aimless and unfocused, echoing off bamboo screen doors to settle like knives at her throat. Marriage. It’s the one thing Hatajinko Ai never imagined for herself—her parents, on the other hand, thought differently.
Do you not see how I tend the Shrine?
She had dedicated her life to the Hatajinko Inari Shrine, an act she had never decided but always known to be true in her heart. Ai looked up into the faces of her parents. Shouhei and his wife Hitomi had never known what to do with her. Her father may have been the Head Priest of the shrine, but Ai had done his duties for the last week. She had done everyone’s duties. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t inherit the shrine, but she had tried to make the best of it.
In her hand, she clutched the acceptance letter to Kannushi like a lifeline.
“We’ve arranged a meeting with the Minamoto family later this week. Perhaps that will give you enough time to make yourself presentable,” her father said as if her unbrushed hair would be a deal-breaker.
Even if it was, she didn’t want the marriage anyway.
“I just finished my exams for Kannushi,” she stammered.
Her father went on as if she hadn’t spoken, talking of the conversation he’d had with Minamoto-san, the opportunity for her to begin her life, and how fulfilling she was sure to find marriage. It coiled in her stomach, a rippling shudder that pricked the hair along her arms. And then she was looking into Shouhei’s face and the words slipped past her lips before she could stop them.
“I can’t get married. I’m going to Kannushi and getting a degree.”
“Ai,” her mother chided, shaking her head impatiently. “You don’t need a degree. Minamoto-kun will take care of everything, he’s going to inherit his father’s shrine and—”
The word rang imposing and unwelcome in the space as if she had uttered a disgusting swearword instead. Smack—her father backhanded her across the face. She stumbled back, hand rising to caress the stinging flesh, tears in her eyes as she looked up in fear at the figure of Shouhei.
He screamed red fury into her face, degrading disregard in every furious word. She was ungrateful. She should know her place. Her role would forever be subservient—Ai winced and pleaded, a supplication that he refused to answer. It didn’t matter what she thought. She was too young, too inexperienced, too stupid to understand. Her choices were stolen, her voice muted.
Am I not human, too?
He sent her to bed without dinner. She searched for her mother’s eyes in the distance—they remained fixed on a point just above the floor, unflinching resolution beneath weathered, tired eyes. Hatajinko Hitomi had accepted her fate in this world; she had no room in her heart for anyone except herself.
Ai curled up in bed, her ribcage vibrating as wracking sobs shook her bones. She squeezed her eyes shut, and lips trembling, asked for help. She didn’t want to marry someone picked out by her parents. She didn’t want the life they had shoved her into. All her life, they had treated her less like a daughter and instead like own property, the help, the maid. They had shoved a dustpan and a broom into her hands the moment she could stand, and Ai burned to think of her stolen childhood, her stolen happiness.
She was a fox in a trap. But what limb would she need to chew off to break herself free?
The following week she was a ghost, flitting in and out of rooms, avoiding the inevitable as much as possible. She couldn’t eat. She tossed and turned at night, sweat on her brow, and all the while, the fire burned. Like magma, it seeped through her veins until it scorched her skin.
Two days before she was supposed to meet her husband, she collapsed.
The physician found a fever raging and ordered immediate bed rest. The ceremony was postponed, and she breathed a little easier that night. At first. Drawn from sleep by the parched valley of her mouth, Ai rose and poured herself a glass in the cool night air.
“—This is just ridiculous. What a time for her to get sick.”
Her steps faltered as she passed by her parent’s bedroom.
“We shouldn’t have told her until the day of.”
“No use worrying about that now.”
“Well, the minute she’s well, we’ll hand her over to Minamoto-san, and finally we’ll have that girl out of our lives.”
She remained there a silent statue in the dark long after their breathing had stilled and snores filled the air. With a start, she stumbled back into her own bed, and pulling the covers around her neck, she buried her face in her hands and cried.
I’m sorry I’m such an inconvenience.
Why? Why was nothing she ever did good enough? She had done everything they had ever asked of her without question or complaint, the dutiful daughter as always, faithful to the family shrine, devout to Inari—and it wasn’t enough. She hadn’t earned their love. Her face shone with heat, sweat on her brow, her lips cracking in the desert of her fever. She had pushed herself to prove she was worthy. What a fool she was to think that love was earned. She should have realized—she had given to them every piece of her, sought to endear herself to them—but they had never given her any in return.
What had she done to deserve this? By what right did the world force her into weeping misery? She had nothing left to give, nothing left to bribe the fates to change her story. But she deserved more. She deserved more than the cold dismissive scoffs of her parents, the gloating smiles of her brother. The flames of injustice encircled her heart.
She could feel herself fading, feel the fire consuming away at her flesh. Her mind felt alive within the inferno. Where was the person to hold them accountable for these crimes? Didn’t she deserve a knight in shining armor to save her from the cruelty of the world? But there was no one coming, she had no freedom, and the taste was harsh and metallic in her mouth.
Maybe the fever would kill her—let nature take its course. But foxes would sooner chew off their paw then lie down and die.
What are you, child of Inari?
The heat burned behind her eyes. It was almost as if she could hear the God Inari echoing in the recesses of her mind.
What are you, devout priestess of the Inari shrine?
Pain blossomed, the clicking of bone scraping against bone, the long numbing ache of teeth shifting. Her blood burned, her fingernails sharpened and curled into claws. She buried her face into her pillow to drown her muffled cries as her body distorted. What was happening to her? Razor-sharp incisors grew past her gums and replaced her teeth; her sight took on a fevered haze.
What are you?
She took deep breaths, in and out—in and out, adjusting to the warmth still hovering just beneath her skin. She raised her hand; saw the curled clawed fingers, a growth of thick black hair traveling up her arms. A power she had never known before thrummed in her veins.
She emerged from her room, marveling at the strength in her limbs. She felt like if she were to strike out with her hand she could blot the stars from the night sky. She could kick the mountains into the sea. In the darkened hallway came another sound of a door opening, and her brother stepped out.
“I thought I heard you. Feeling better then? Good, we can get rid of you tomorrow.”
He came to stand beside her, his eyes glazing over her in the dim, missing the sharpness of her teeth. He bent his head to whisper in her ear, “Just don’t cry on your wedding night. No one likes a weepy bride.”
She looked up at him, and he caught a glimpse of bloody red eyes where brown should have been. She didn’t give him a moment to wonder what it meant. In a second, she had knocked him off balance, stepping around behind him and kicking his leg out from under him. She bodily threw him down the stairs, and into the kitchen. He groaned, curling into a crumpled heap on the floor. She would come back for him later.
She pushed open the door to her parent’s bedroom.
The noise had roused them. Shouhei turned on the lamp, and her mother screamed as she caught sight of the creature standing in the doorway. Ai saw the fear and panic in their faces and she feasted on it. She took a step toward them and relished the flinch her father gave as he stepped back.
Why don’t you love me?
She wanted to scream at them, scream until the effort tore apart her throat and left her gurgling blood upon the floor. She wanted them to understand. “Why was it so hard to love me?” she cried instead, hot tears trailing down her muzzle. “Why must you control me? Why can’t you just leave me be?”
But they had no answers for her. Hitomi stared at her in unrecognizing terror. She could see her father trying to find a weapon without her notice. “You will never let me be,” she growled at them, teeth bared. “You poison everyone around you. You are dictators and fascist monsters. You want to play God. Then I guess I’ll have to play the devil.”
Her father’s warm blood drenched her fingers as she ripped out his throat. He gaped and floundered like a fish. Hitomi mumbled incoherently, frozen in fear. Ai caressed her face, leaving a stream of crimson in her wake.
“Please, Ai,” her mother begged, tears in her eyes.
“You let it happen.”
“I know—I didn’t mean to, I was just—” she trailed off as Ai hushed her softly, pressing her bloodied finger against her lips.
“You care only for your own life.”
“I decided to care about mine.”
Ai held onto her until the light faded from mother’s eyes. She rose from the bed and surveyed the lake of blood and body parts, breathing in the smell of death. She didn’t look back as she stepped back into the hallway, blood dripping from her claws. Black ears angled as she heard heavy breathing and straining pants—and she found her brother attempting to drag himself up the stairs. She watched his struggle for a moment, and then swooped down in a mass of black fur and crimson rain.
“Ai—” he choked as she grabbed his hair, pulling him up, a feat of strength impossible for a woman of her small stature. She slammed him back into the wall, cracking wood.
“Hello, little brother.” She stood on her tiptoes to reach his ear. “Beg me to spare your life.”
“They can’t hear you anymore.”
He tried to pry off her hands, but though his nails dug into her skin until he drew blood, she didn’t let go. Instead, she slammed him against the wall again, knocking the air from his lungs.
“All you had to do was think for yourself,” she growled into his ear.
He began to scream, incoherent cries for help. It made her chuckle instead.
“I’m saving the woman you would marry,” she said with viciousness and spite in her colored tone. And then she smashed him a third time against the wall, throwing back his head until a sickening crack reverberated from him and up her arms. He slumped to the ground, vibrant crimson blossoming across his head.
Drenched in blood, the Inari Shrine glowed in ruby fever. She had dragged the bloodied forms of her family, laid as offerings before it. She stared at their lifeless faces for a moment, at the river of red staining the stones before her. She looked up into the face of Inari, the eyes of the stone fox glowing crimson in the night.
Who are you?
She turned to look out the city lights of Kyoto, at the tall concrete buildings hiding other stories like her own. And as she descended the staircase, she decided she would paint this whole town red if she had to.
I am free.