The Fisherman. A Forest Path. Promises. Cherry Blossoms.
It was nearing the end of the day, and Henjō lifted his trap from the lowland river. He frowned at his luck as he reeled in his nets and lines from the water. Recovering only two eels and a catfish, Henjō would go hungry today, for his catch would only feed his wife and child. His stomach growled in disappointment.
A young man, Henjō wore a green kosode over his hakama trousers, and a round straw hat shielded his face from the sun. Two nearly-empty wicker baskets hung from a sturdy pinewood rod balanced between his shoulders. On his back, he bore the weight of a day pack and a long bamboo fishing pole.
Henjō tossed his catch into his baskets and baited his lines before casting them back into the river. In the distance, the peak of a snow-covered volcanic mountain stabbed at the horizon. A fine mist settled in as he slogged barefoot through the wetland marsh to take the higher ground. Entering a stand of tall pine trees, Henjō walked the path that would take him to his village. The trail was lined with green ferns and mosses that thrived in the shade, and enormous decaying tree trunks felled by blustery seaside winds.
Alone in the wood, Henjō was reminded of fishing with his father and their hour-long trek home. To entertain him as a boy, his father would play old songs on a breathy bamboo flute, a shakuhachi. As Henjō would twirl and dance on the road, his father would laugh through a row of missing teeth. Even in unfortunate times when they had nothing to show for their efforts, his father always encouraged Henjō to be optimistic and joyful; our baskets may be empty, he’d say, but our hearts will be full. Henjō missed him and enjoyed reminiscing about those happier times, so he retrieved his father’s shakuhachi from his pack, placed it to his lips, and played to idle his time.
Henjō held the flute like a recorder with both hands in front of him, and he kept his head bowed to watch where he stepped along his path. It was spring, and pollen particulates hung suspended in the air, but the sun was setting, it would be dusk soon, and the forest would gradually become a darker, more ominous place. Cruel brigands, eager to steal a day’s meal rather than earn it, were not uncommon, and these woods were rife with yokai and kami - supernatural spirits both malevolent and well-meaning. He hoped that his songs would offer a friendly greeting to anyone, or anything, he might encounter on the trail.
Alarmed by a sound of movement behind him, Henjō turned to find a slender fox pacing him on the path, entranced by his song. Her fur was rusted-orange, and she had sharp, black-tipped ears, and bright white fur lined her breast. As Henjō stopped, so did the fox, resting on her haunches. She looked longingly at Henjō, as to encourage him to continue playing, and when he did not, she whimpered, tucked her tail, and slunk into the ferns and thickets alongside the path.
A man who respected kitsune lore, Henjō prepared an offering. Pulling a wriggling eel from his basket, he slapped its temple against a rock to still it, sliced it into edible chunks of meat, and left it on the rock. Resuming his walk, Henjō returned to the shakuhachi and recalled the proud times with his father when they were burdened with a more ample catch.
A brief time passed before the fox reappeared on the forest path ahead of Henjō. She sat there as if she waited for him, and she lifted her head in greeting as he approached.
Henjō stopped and bowed deeply, reverently to the spirit.
“You were kind,” she said, speaking in a way where Henjō heard her in his mind; her mouth did not move. She looked at him with sullen black eyes. “And so I shall return your kindness. Play your best for me, and your baskets shall overflow with fish.”
Henjō was apprehensive. His father warned bargaining with kitsune was a fraught enterprise. At best, they were trickster spirits and couldn’t be trusted, but Henjō’s baskets were light, and his family was hungry. What choice did he have?
Reluctantly, Henjō remembered a celebratory song his father would play at weddings, and, resting his fingers over the instrument’s spine, he inhaled, and breathed life into his bamboo flute. It was a slow-moving romantic melody, and the fox closed her eyes to listen. Henjō’s father’s song was as watercolor brushes in her mind that painted a world of lush, green landscapes, flowing rivers, distant purple hills, and flocks of white cranes. Captivated, the fox swayed on the road.
When Henjō finished, he brought the flute from his lips to watch the fox from under the brim of his hat. Startled by the music’s sudden end, the whimpering fox turned to dash away into the trees, yet, balanced on his shoulders, his baskets remained light and empty. Scowling, believing he was tricked, Henjō’s mood soured, and he grumbled and returned the shakuhachi to his pack, resolved to walk the rest of the way in silence to spite the kitsune.
It was nearly dark as he approached his village, and Henjō heard the rumble of distant waves crashing along the seashore. A round, full moon crested over the forest of rocking, leaning pines, and a copse of cherry blossom trees bordering his village budded with swollen green florets.
Crossing a footbridge, he heard an unfamiliar sound of sloshing and jumping, and in looking there, at the stream under the bridge, he saw hundreds of silvery halfbeak fish, schooling in the shallow creek.
Overjoyed, Henjō dropped to his belly and submerged his baskets up to his shoulder; resting there, he felt the dense mass of swimming fish bump, scrape, and peck his arm. Satisfied, he pulled the pine rod up towards him to lift his baskets from the creek, both inundated with wet, slippery, silver halfbeaks. And as the water drained through the wicker to spill over the bridge's surface, Henjō’s gaze went to the forest to thank the fox, but she was nowhere to be found.
When he returned home, Henjō was warmly greeted by his wife, marveling over his catch, and he and his family were happy. But he did not tell his wife of the kitsune nor their encounter along the path, for he did not wish to concern her. Food was food, Henjō believed, and a bargain made with kami aside, he was thankful for his good fortune.
A week later, Henjō returned to the wetlands to check his riverside traps in the morning but once again found very little. Baiting them, he set out across the marsh to try a fishing hole he knew, a place where there should be much larger catfish, trout, and carp, that he might catch with his pole. Traipsing across the wetland in a drizzly rain, he again encountered the kitsune, waiting for him in the tall reeds.
“Play for me,” she said in a way that was without words, “and when you return this evening, your traps will be full.”
Remembering his bounty from the last time, Henjō dropped his baskets and offered a long, wandering tune his father would play at sunsets along the beach. The fox swayed, listening to the composition, and marched in circles, enamored with the music. Henjō’s brushes painted a tan shoreline with deep blue waters with frothy white tips, roiling before a setting sun hanging low in an aquamarine sky. And when it ended, when Henjō stopped playing, the fox bounded into the thick cattails and reeds to disappear from sight.
Henjō spent the day fishing but caught very little. Still, his spirits were high, and he wasn’t overly concerned, for he had faith in the kitsune’s promise, and was eager to return to his traps.
When it was time, Henjō jogged briskly across the wetland, the pine rod bowing and his baskets bobbing up and down with every quick step. He raced to his traps to pull them from the water and was amazed at the abundance. He had caught many catfish, crawdads, carp, and eels. His baskets could not carry them all, and as his father had taught him, Henjō released what he couldn’t use. Overburdened, Henjō staggered home, lumbering through the forest with the weight of his baskets.
Surprised, his wife asked him how, once again, he had experienced such good fortune. Henjō was at a loss knowing he couldn’t rationally explain his catch, so, an honest man, he told her of the kitsune, how he would play for her, and how he’d be rewarded. He expected his wife to be displeased and inclined to scold him, but instead, she cautioned him to be careful, trusting her husband’s wisdom but uncertain about the kitsune’s motivations. Together, they ate well and shared loving, comfortable evenings watching sunsets from their home.
Two weeks later, when the food had run its course, Henjō returned to the marshes with his baskets and gear.
However, instead of checking and baiting his traps, Henjō went looking for the fox.
Henjō lingered in the forest, walking its trails in the middle of the morning, playing his flute as if to summon the kitsune. He wandered the marsh up to his ankles in mud and poked through the tall grassy reeds with his fishing pole. Henjō found no sign of the fox.
Henjō spent his whole day wandering, playing the shakuhachi in a vain attempt to lure the kitsune to him, and the fox never came.
When night fell, and Henjō returned home, the cherry blossom trees were in full bloom, lining his village in splattered patterns of pink and white. Henjō, however, was empty-handed, and with nothing to feed his family, they hungered in the shadow of intense beauty.
The next day, Henjō marched directly to his traps in the wetland and, in finding no catch, angrily baited and recast his nets and lines. Frustrated, Henjō trekked to the fishing hole and let the line fall from his bamboo rod and sink into the clear, deep water. Hours passed, and the warm sun beat down upon him as he waited for even a bite or a nibble. Nearing the end of his day, Henjō felt a tug. He had hooked a catfish, and he lifted his pole to bring his lonely catch to his basket.
Then, he heard a snap, and the fox appeared behind him. She sat away from him, at a distance, and said, “Play for me, and I will show you a place where the fish are more plentiful.”
At first, Henjō abstained, saying, “I must fish, and not entertain you. Yesterday, my family went hungry as I waited for you to appear.”
The fox twitched her ears and leaned her head to her side. “But your beautiful music. I long to hear it. What am I to do?”
Henjō sighed and resigned to play once more for the urging spirit. He played a sad song that his father would often play in the heart of winter. The fox closed her eyes and saw a painting of deep snows with daggers of ice hanging from trees and rooflines, where villagers, covered in meager blankets, carried armloads of firewood across bridges that spanned a frozen pond. The fox could feel the freezing breeze in her fur, and her paws felt like they rested on a sheet of ice.
When he stopped, the fox reluctantly opened her eyes to see Henjō collect his baskets from the river’s shore. “I am a fisherman,” he said, lifting his baskets. “Sometimes, what I catch is scant, and today, I will return with one fish. But it is a fish that I caught, and it will feed my family.”
Taking the shakuhachi and tossing it to the grass as a final offering, Henjō turned away from the fox, and said, “As I must work to feed others, so you must learn to play.”
Henjō returned home in a flurry of cherry blossom petals blowing in the ocean breeze. He prepared his single catfish and served it to his family, and although it was unfulfilling, it was still a meal he caught and he alone provided. Though Henjō never saw the kitsune again, his remote fishing hole was always plentiful with fish, and his family never went hungry. And every spring, when the cherry blossoms would bloom and take to the wind, Henjō could hear his father’s drifty, breathy songs played on a shakuhachi coming from somewhere in the pine forest, as the kitsune taught herself to play.