Once upon a time, a fox came across a cat in the forest. Or something very similar to a cat, at least. The thing was neither flesh nor fur, but pale enamel, the tip of its nose and the insides of its ears daubed with blood. It sat on its polished haunches atop a mossy log beside a babbling brook, paw metronoming in salute.
“Hello,” said the fox to the cat, drawn to its gleam and its amiable expression, its bobbing foreleg, but mostly by the golden coin at its throat.
“Hello,” said the cat to the fox. “Are you alright?”
“No,” panted the fox, crumpling onto the dirt. It bled from a hundred places, although its illusions did a fine job at masking the untidiness. Blood seeped unseen into the soil, feeding the moss. “The Lady’s hounds are relentless and all the tricks I know can only delay them. But if I find my way from her lands, perhaps that may change. We will see. I will most likely die. Alas. Food for mutts too stupid to realize the world is a better place with sake and cooked meat.”
The maneki-neko, for that was what the cat was: a simulacra of uncommon intelligence, awoken to itself, did not change expression. Its paw continued to beckon to the moss and trees beyond. “I am sorry,” it said. “My owner set me down here and then left. Perhaps he thought I would like some sunshine? Although the sun is setting now, and if I could feel cold, I would fear its coming. But mostly, I am merely . . . present.”
The fox lifted its head and sniffed. It was, it decided, a peculiar response to what the fox had said. “Would you like to come with me, then? Should I survive the evening, we could together find a new way to live. Something more fun.”
The maneki-neko began to rock excitedly on its perch, and the fox found itself worrying that the figurine might plummet into the water, ending the fun before it really began. “I would like that,” it said. “I sat in my owner’s library for a while, and watched him study. I know not what I know, but I know much and can share it with you.”
The fox opened its mouth to respond, but the baying of the hounds gave it pause. The pack was closing in. So instead of explaining to the maneki-neko that it was terrible at polite conversation, the fox carefully took its new companion into its jaws and darted into the underbrush.
• • • •
“Why the fuck aren’t you paying for her ticket, Sean?” demanded the maneki-neko. Her anger sloshed inside his pocket and not for the first time, Sean—a name the fox had pilfered from occidental traders, too charmed by the monosyllabic plainness of it to let such a treasure go—found himself thanking his past-self for his foresight. The sigils brocaded on his coat’s satin lining kept the maneki-neko’s vexation from spilling free. There were evenings when he welcomed her ire, but not tonight.
Tonight, he had different plans.
“She’s going to look like a monster. Trying to waltz into a charity opera that only asks for suggested donations.” The maneki-neko hissed again. “Why didn’t you warn her?”
“Shush,” he muttered, flicking a fingernail against the figurine. It chimed a protest. Masked patrons, their hair set with peacock feathers, streamed past, their lips tinted gold and plum, the colors of their new sovereign. “That’s the point.”
“You’re being cheap.”
Sean grinned at that, swiveling on a heel to watch as his date—a small, sharp thing draped in indigo silk, with pearls nested at her throat—negotiated with the cashier. Her eyes flicked between him and the man at the counter, jaw tensed. “Oh, boo hoo. I’m sure this one only contacted me because she thought I looked Chaoxian.”
“I don’t know why you’re giving her the time of day, honestly.”
“Because I can. And because there’s something dangerous to this one. She reminds me of our kind.” Sean stroked his companion’s grainy ear, its protective lacquer long since worn by repeated caresses, and then withdrew his hand to perform a familiar ritual. First, an upward nudge of his glasses to ensure proper vision. Then, a tug of his collar to ward against wrinkles. Before finally, a quick incantation, familiar as breathing, to extend his human seeming for another fortnight. Beijing, under the auspice of the Thousand-Eyed Countess, suffered no affection for the yao guai.
“That’s the fifth time in the last four hours. Don’t think I didn’t notice.”
“I would not dream.”
“You know you could find another fox to mate with.”
“That’d be too easy. Still, neko. Still.” He sighed, ignoring her yowl of displeasure. The maneki-neko disliked his nickname for her, thought of it as gauche. A cat was a cat and the point of being a cat was that you were a cat no matter what anyone else said. So why call her a cat, and in a different language, too, the maneki-neko demanded, when she already understood that was what she was? The fox, of course, thought it was hysterical and remained unrepentant. “I think I might soil my pants. A hound will tear out your throat and be happy to do it, but women? They’ll just defecate on your ego and piss on your dreams, leave you a vegetable. That said: flying colors on test number one.”
As his date approached, her irritation brushed under a glittering smile, Sean donned his own grin, all pointed teeth, and extended a gallant elbow. “Erin, right? Your photographs do you no justice at all.”
• • • •
“I don’t know, neko,” the fox muttered in the darkness, nosing the statuette, nearly overturning the maneki-neko before she spun upright. Even maneki-neko land on their feet, apparently, the fox thought to itself. It’d have to test the idea again someday. “Erin says what she means, she’s sharp as hell, and I don’t even know when I ended up moving in.”
“Two weeks ago.”
“That was rhetorical.” It could hear her snoring above them. It could smell her, too: coconut milk and rose, the faint sourness of a human mouth spoiling in its sleep. And to its surprise, the fox found itself aching to return, to crawl back under the duvet and curl himself around her, cheek buried in the ripple of her hair.
“Regardless, you’ve walked into your own jail, fox, and I’ve never seen you happier to swallow the key. You woke up one day and forgot to go home. You need to accept what this means.”
“But, neko. I’m not—I’m not this. I’m not a human. I’m a fox. We can’t do this. She will know. She will find out.” It hissed, panic warbling in its throat. “She’s a snuggly shark with too many teeth. She’s going to find out my credentials are fake and I’m just an animal and then she’s going to litigate the pelt off my back. Also, I haven’t even met her parents yet.”
“So, go meet them.”
“It isn’t that simple.”
“Yes, it is.” The maneki-neko spun like a planet that had lost its star, a motion that the fox had come to decide meant its companion was thinking. “Honestly, fox. You’ve done well for yourself. Does it matter that you had to eat a man’s heart first? You’re living his life better than he ever could. You’re already in the water. You might as well find out what is at the bottom. Also—”
The cat slowed her rotations. “Also, I did warn you against seeing a lawyer.”
It could only whine, paw flopped over its nose. “What do you think I should do?”
“You know what you want to do.”
The fox thought about the future for several long moments, ears twitching in tandem with the whirring of its thoughts. “I suppose, after all our years together, this is the one adventure we haven’t tried. Are you sure you’re alright with this?”
“It’s your hide. Not mine.” When the fox barked in alarm, the maneki-neko added in a softer tone. “Whatever makes you happiest, fox. You know it is the only thing I want.”
• • • •
The ring the crows stole for the fox wasn’t just the wrong cut but apparently the wrong color as well, whatever that meant. The sight of it had made Erin cry, a fact that alarmed the fox to no end. Human women claimed to venerate love above all else, but they went to pieces for the pettiest things. Still, it could have been worse. She could have rolled over, bared her belly to circumstance, and revealed herself an inadequate match.
But she didn’t.
Instead, she auctioned the offending bauble and returned with a full trousseau: silver bracelets, a necklace of white gold, and a beautifully subtle ring, a lacework of titanium with a diamond like the stolen glint of a star. Then she glared at Sean and the fox gave up its immortality in the next breath. An eternity without his—his, him, he, what a strange thing it was to define oneself as a single thing—bride suddenly seemed unthinkable.
They married in the new world. A destination wedding, she’d called it, and he’d kissed her knuckles as she listed its wonders, amused at his own predicament. This new world would indubitably be identical to the last: full of conflict, full of adventure, full of people. One day, it’d be crowned as the pinnacle of civilization. One day, some centuries after that moment, it would die, and a historian would affix it to their records, pin the memory in place with paragraphs of dry observation.
The fox had seen it all before.
But this was the last world he’d see, too, the last century he’d live.
“Do you think this is too much?” she asked, worried.
“No,” said the fox, infinity dripping like amber from his fingertips. “In fact, I’m not sure it’s enough.”
She planned all the details, of course. Sean was a scholar, an ascetic removed from the vagaries of modern life, and Erin was the one who’d travelled this new world, aide to a coven of diplomats. It made sense that she’d be the one to decide the particulars. Her family had, quite naturally, been delighted by this. So unlike those other men, her aunts chortled. Sean blushed prettily at their approval, while the fox laughed behind his tails.
The truth was that for all the knowledge the maneki-neko had bestowed upon him, none of it explained how to strangle confectioners into submission or coerce two hotels to frothing competition, to bleed them with knives made out of sub-clauses until it became impossible to distinguish between loser and victor, their representatives mauled by words.
The wedding was small and the guest list consisted almost entirely of Erin’s relatives. Foxes did not keep many friends, at least not the sort that could present themselves at official ceremonies without being shooed away.
The crows cackled amongst themselves from the periphery, greedily eyeing the finery on display. As dusk drew veils of rose and resin across the shore, one swooped down to steal a sugar-pearl from Erin’s cake, and the fox nearly laughed his fur loose of its illusions.
“I don’t know what red velvet cake tastes like,” said the maneki-neko from Sean’s pocket as he fed his bride cake with his fingers, her tongue warm on his thumb, “but I bet it tastes amazing.”
• • • •
“Oh, dear.” said the maneki-neko.
“She’s angry,” said Sean.
“So angry,” said the maneki-neko.
“So, so angry,” said Sean, who was, when he certain his wife wasn’t paying attention, sometimes still a fox.
“So very, very angry,” said the maneki neko.
The market ignored them, the man with a bowl of noodles and an effigy in his pocket. Six years had passed since the wedding and the fox was beginning to forget what it was like to live forever. He had wrinkles now, a stomach he could knead with his fingers, and the grocers in their little community all knew his name.
“Worth it,” declared the fox.
“So worth it,” agreed the maneki-neko. “You should order a nice—”
“—stuffed animal,” Sean finished for his friend. He spooled noodles around his fork, marvelling the whole while at the existence of the pronged instrument, the politics of cutlery, and how knowledge of its myriad components intimated one’s status in society. The west was so strange.
“A real one, Sean.”
“But those have needs. You have to walk them. Worry about their food. Poop. Shed. It’d be like having kits, except they’ll never be able to debate with you. Maybe,” he mused. “Maybe, we’ll find her a maneki-neko, too? It seems unfair that I alone have one.”
“Oh, please,” scoffed the maneki-neko. “All the stuffing in the world can’t possibly hold a candle to my glory.”
“I suppose they’d need thumbs to do that. And minds. And a sense of personal autonomy. Perhaps, even a taste for mischief.” Even without looking, Sean knew where to find the figurine’s ear. He stroked its rounded tip. “But you’re right. You’re a singular creation, neko. The one and the only. How could I have ever suggested we turn you into a matching pair?”
The maneki-neko said nothing. The fox decided it meant that Sean had won.
• • • •
Two months later, they got a puppy.
The fox took immense pleasure in coddling the creature, dressing it in ridiculous attire and tying bright ribbons to its tail. It was making reparations for everything its species had done, the fox told the maneki-neko gleefully. Again, his companion said nothing. She had said nothing for a long time.
And the fox worried at the silence whenever he could, nuzzling at the statuette which now sat on the mantle above the bed he shared with his spouse. Come back, he sighed. I’ll repaint you, if you like. I am very good at that now. We could dress you in gilt, if you’d prefer. Swirls of dark purple, all mixed with nebulae of carnelian and gold, a handful of glitter to make it look like you drizzled stars on your pelt. Only come back.
The maneki-neko, of course, did not reply.
• • • •
“Hey, Sean? I think I would like to be human.”
The sound of her voice took him by surprise. It’d been months. The fox counted. Twenty-eight months, seventy days, and three hours exactly. Sean barely noticed. He wore glasses now and the weight of his years as salt in his dark, glossy hair. The fox nudged aside Sean’s thoughts of mortgages and pensions, put down his book, and leaned out of his chair.
“I think we could arrange that,” he began carefully. “We’d have to request a new body for you, however. Something hollow so we can fit you inside. Would you like to be a boy or a girl or both or neither at all? I know excellent artists now.”
“No, no. You have me mistaken. I don’t want to look human. I’d like to be human.”
Sean frowned. “I’m not sure how to do that.”
“I know how.” The maneki-neko began to rock on her perch. “But I am afraid that it may take a while.”
Between one blink of Sean’s eyes and the next, the fox, for the first time since he met the maneki-neko, found himself completely alone.
• • • •
The fox waited.
His maneki-neko did not come back.
• • • •
The years slid together like a lie.
Anniversaries, births, birthdays, festivals, other people’s weddings, a thousand celebrations of mankind’s ephemeralness. Sean attended every one. The fox delighted in these festivities, saw them as competitions, a way to measure his cleverness. He was, he discovered, very good at being Sean, and even better at being mortal. Humanity wasn’t a trick to learn, but a ravine that demanded you do nothing but freefall into its heart.
He thought about his maneki-neko sometimes and their first meeting in the forest, what might have become of its ambition to be human. He missed his friend. But with every year, it was becoming harder and harder to remember the things he cared about as a fox. Some days, Sean woke up and wondered if it’d been all a dream.
• • • •
“You know what surprises me most about being mortal? How much I like being old.”
Sean blinked rheumatic eyes. He remembered that voice. He recognized the shape of its timbre and the fact it once meant something to him. A long time ago when he was someone else, when his back didn’t hurt, when his mind wasn’t a labyrinth in which he sometimes sat dreaming of sunlight and baying hounds, green moss and a gold coin hanging from a white throat.
Someone from his childhood, Sean decided. Someone that made an adventure of seeking out old friends, someone with a memory better than his.
Wrong, laughed a voice somewhere inside him.
“Do you remember me, fox?”
He hesitated. “I’m afraid I don’t.”
The woman sat down beside Sean, her hand closing over his. She smelled of summer and, strangely enough, of clay. “That’s all right. Mortality demands different things from each of us. I’ve missed you, fox.”
“I’m sorry,” Sean exhaled. “I wish I could say the same about you, but I don’t know who are you.”
“But you remember Erin, though?”
“Yes, of course. Everything. She’s my wife.” Sean paused. “She’s in the next room as well. I’m afraid she might be quite angry if she returned to see you holding my hand.”
The woman did not move her grip. “And your sister’s first child? And your mother’s funeral? And the first time you saw snow on the peak of a mountain? The sunlight white-gold on the ice? Do you remember all that?”
“Yes,” he lied. “All of it.”
She laughed then. The sound was the heartbeat of a cello, dark and rich. “You were never good at hiding things from me, fox. I don’t know why you try.”
And the words found their way out of his throat before Sean could think twice about their birth. “Because your exasperation is fun, neko.”
Ah, the fox thought. There I am.
The fox ran his eyes down the woman beside him, teeth in his smile. She looked exactly as he thought she would, only older than either of them expected to become. His maneki-neko grinned back. “What took you so long?”
“You. This is your fault. You left and took away all my magic.” He inspected her again. “Did you have a good life, neko?”
“A complicated one, but yes. I’ve so many stories to tell you, fox. I’m sorry it took me so long to come back.”
“I’m sorry I never went to look for you.”
She nodded. Her hair was the color of polished enamel, and she wore rubies on her ears and her fingers. It was, the fox decided, a nice touch. “What now, though?”
The old woman sighed and poured tea for them both. “I don’t know. These bodies likely have a few years left. Enough time to tell each other all the stories we’ve missed.”
“And after that?” The fox sipped from his cup. The brew was tepid but serviceable, sweeter than he’d have liked.
“We die, I suppose. And then we’ll see if there’s an adventure waiting on the other side.” Her smile was incandescent. “Would you like to come with me then? Should we survive dying, we could together find a new way to live. Something even more fun than being old.”
“Yes,” the fox said carefully, once he trusted himself to speak. “I’d like that.”