One morning at the end of December, Kiku and Miko-chan were sitting in their favourite spot on the front steps of the Bamboo Bathhouse, watching the world go by. Miko-chan ran her hand over her best friends bushy tail, and said “Did you notice that this year your fur did not return to its original red colouring in the summer?”
The little fox’s red fur had always turn much paler in the winter in previous years, but this year had stayed quite pale throughout the year. “I did, yes”, said Kiku. “I also think it is getting even paler with each season – I wonder what is happening?”
A sudden cough from behind them startled the pair, and Boss Panda poked his head through the entrance curtain at the door.
“I think we ought to go and visit the brewery” he told them.
“Oh good!” said Miko-chan. She had once been frightened to go to the nearby sake brewery owned by Boss Panda and run by the slightly gruff Toji Tanuki, because she knew that the brewery workers or kurabito were kappa, and she was scared by the stories about them. But she now knew they were shy but friendly creatures, and she got on especially well with the littlest one, Chibi Kappa, who was cute and curious.
The three friends set off later that day, and were met at the door of the White Crow Brewery by the chief brewer, Toji Tanuki, who looked as though he had been expecting them. He was standing under the sugidama cedar ball hanging over the entrance – still green, showing that the new sake brewing cycle had begun.
The old tanuki exchanged glances with Boss Panda, and Kiku felt as though his fur had begun to tingle. Miko-chan ran off to see Chibi Kappa as soon as they entered, and the tanuki led Kiku and Boss Panda through into a tatami reception room to the side of the building. Chuu Kappa entered with a tray of green tea and sweets, and set them down on the table, giving a little encouraging smile to Kiku as he left, who was beginning to feel a little worried.
Boss Panda cleared his throat, and said gently “we thought that the time had come to tell you something. We weren’t sure that you would stay when you first turned up a few years ago, but once you had met Mama Kōjin at the enoki tree, you seemed to be determined to fulfil what she asked of you, in learning more about Japanese customs and the importance of the seasons. You have also become a good friend to all of us, and especially to Miko-chan”.
The little fox nodded solemnly, and said “When I first arrived, I wanted to know more about the country that my mother and grandfather seemed to know so much about, and since her death, there was nothing tying me to England. In fact,” he continued, “I must admit I feel especially at home in this country”.
At this point the tanuki (who had never said much to Kiku before) asked “did you ever wonder why your mother knew so much about Japan?” Kiku shook his head. “I thought she had learnt through stories told by other foxes, although she did seem to know so much…” he paused, remembering with sadness his mother’s kind face.
She had been killed in a fox hunt in England and he had decided to leave for Japan shortly afterwards. “Well”, said the tanuki, “we have noticed that your fur has started to change colour, and we think it is because you are beginning to resemble your father…”
Kiku was only half listening, looking down at his fur and wondering why everyone was so preoccupied with this change, when he realised what the brewer had said. “My father? You know about my father?’ He was suddenly confused, his mother had never really spoken to him about his dad. How could these people who he had only known for a few years know about his father. Boss Panda rested a paw gently on the little fox’s shoulder. “Your father is a Japanese fox, and met your mother when she was here many years ago. We are sorry we did not tell you sooner, but we did not want to put pressure on you to stay in Japan, if you wanted to return to England.”
Kiku’s face went blank, as he tried to process what he was being told. “My father is here? You know him?” The older pair looked at each other and Boss Panda sighed. “Well that’s another part of the reason we didn’t mention it before. Your father is an old and magical fox, with special powers, and has not been seen for some time – in fact he was last seen around the time your mother left to go back to England. We aren’t actually sure where he is now, but think he may have gone into a kind of special hibernation. We also think that he may be beginning to feel your presence, and so your fur is beginning to turn white, like his…”
Kiku sipped his green tea, a flavour that had always appealed to him, and thought back to the tales his mother and grandfather would tell him about shrine foxes and magical foxes with nine tails, and the strange pull he felt to find himself a role in this country halfway across the world. Far from feeling angry at not being told earlier, he was pleased that he had been allowed to get to know people on his own terms without the added mystery of a missing father. He had begun to put down solid roots in Tokyo, and felt confident that this new piece of the puzzle could be solved with the help of his friends, and he told the old Panda and tanuki that. They looked relieved.
“Although we don’t know much more to tell you at this point, we are hoping that we will be able to find out where he has gone,” said the old tanuki, who was now looking at Kiku with more fondness than he had ever shown before, “with your help and permission of course.” Kiku nodded.
On their return to the Bamboo Bathhouse later that day, Kiku whispered to his best friend Miko-chan, “I’ve got so much to tell you…”