Bunsa was still very weak. Moriko took him out to the backyard, where the fresh air and the beauty of the forest could help him get better. She noticed, he was more irritable with her than usual, but didn't realize, it was more than just the post-illness stress. For his sake, she tried to be more affectionate and cheerful, pouring all her love on him, like only the Japanese women can. Gradually, Bunsa put aside his fear and opened his heart to Moriko once again. The old man stayed with them for a few weeks, while the affected village still needed his help.
On a balmy summer evening, the old man and Bunsa enjoyed a game of Shogi, the Japanese chess. The old man took it easy on Bunsa, he let him win a few matches in a row. He stood by the open door to the backyard, looking into the approaching dusk. He noticed something in the trees and exclaimed: "Oh!" Then suddenly his face changed, he became pale and had to sit down quickly. Moriko came in from one of her foraging trips with a bird that she snared in the forest and noticed that something was wrong. She ran up to him, asking about the reason for his distress, but he only gazed at her with widely opened eyes. All night long, they heard him pacing in a tiny room, where he lived. The old man went back to his town shortly after. He never explained to them, what shocked him that day.
A few months passed. Moriko and Bunsa became closer than ever. The life in the village was beginning to get back to normal, if you can call normal the pain of the the loss of their loved ones in so many people's hearts:
"the gods of death have passed me over...autumn dusk".
In the first month of a new winter, Moriko found out, she was pregnant again. What was she to do? She wanted this child more than anything else in her life, more even than life itself. But the memory of the previous pain urged her to fear the possibility of another loss. Bunsa, although reeling with joy, understood his wife's misgivings. He gently tried to allay her worry. Three crucial months passed without a problem. Moriko dared to hope again. She started to disappear in the woods like before, but now she came home radiant with health.
The baby was born in the autumn. He was big and hale, but a line of pale hair ran down his spine from the nape of the neck to a small bottom. After the initial shock, the father was told, it happens sometimes and does not portend a bad omen. The mother didn't let the boy off her arms. She nursed, changed and cooed to him, singing and talking to him all the time. Both parents were delighted by this little miracle that the gods granted them after so many trials.
"a baby boy cries for milk...glorious blossoms."
They called their child Kokuro - heart, spirit.
The old man looked like he was buried in his work for a good while. His eyes and cheeks were sunken, it was obvious, he didn't bother to cook for himself, and no one else did neither. He warmly welcomed his young friends to his house and was overjoyed to see Kokuro. Moriko immediately began to cook and scrub the floors. The men sat and smoked over the cups of sake. "I am writing a fantastic story" - the old man said finally. "Would you like to hear it?" Bunsa bowed deeply: "Yes, please, it will be an honor!"
From the kitchen Morko heard the old man rise to get his writing and settle back on the tatami.
"After a long battle for the lives of my fellow countrymen" - the old man began - "I stayed with my dear friends in a nearby village. They were a young couple, but the pain and suffering touched their lives as well. On a calm evening I stood gazing into their backyard, when in the approaching dark I saw a small fox carrying a bird in her mouth emerge from the trees. I was about to share this good omen with my friends, for the fox is a powerful spirit and can be a great ally, when the fox dropped a bird and began to shimmer!"
The men heard the crash in the kitchen. They rushed there to see, what happened. Moriko sat amid the fallen crockery and spilled rice, horrified. She brought her hand forward in a gesture of supplication. After taking in her dismay the old man, walked up to her and said quietly: "I know, what you are. Don't you think, your husband should also know the truth?"
Bunsa looked at him and Moriko, not understanding, what it was about. He almost went to her then, but her form began to shimmer and change! He leapt backwards, smashing into the low table. Where Moriko was, only her clothes laid on the kitchen floor. Inside them something was hiding, not daring to come out.
Bunsa reached for a broom and nudged the pile of clothes with its handle. A small furry face with the whiskers and erect ears timidly emerged from it. A fox was glancing anxiously between Bunsa, the old man and the door, as if thinking to dash out!
As if struck by lightning, Bunsa staggered out of the kitchen into the bedroom, where Kokuro was sleeping. He fell on the floor by his son's form. Thoughts were racing through his mind, the memories of his visions during the sickness, the suspicions he pushed away. Like the waves, those thoughts crashed against one single question: "What was he supposed to do now?"
He heard the door slide aside and, in a little while, the dogs' barking. It sounded like a whole band of them were after something. "Moriko!" He acted on pure impulse to protect his wife. He ran out of the house and bounded toward the forest, where the chase was leading. He came upon the snarling dogs at the foot of the woods, where the fox hid in a hole in a tree's trunk.
Bunsa didn't have any protection with him: no staff or a stick to repel the dogs' attack. Nevertheless, he put himself between Moriko and her vicious pursuers. The old man arrived also, panting and huffing, but armed with two strong canes he brought from the house. Together they were able to inflict enough damage to dissuade the dogs from staying there any longer.
After the last of the beasts fled, Bunsa and the old man tried to convince Moriko to come out. In vain, they called her name into the tree hole. Perhaps, she already left through another opening...
Bunsa forgot all about a job that he was there to do. For days he stayed in the wood, searching for his changeling-wife. The only thing on his mind and heart was, how to get her back! The old man hired a young girl in the village to look after Kokuro. Time to time she would bring the boy to his father and look in confusion and sympathy, as he'd shed tears onto the warm baby-bundle. What was he to do? Abandon his son, his people and live in the forest in hopes that Moriko will one day come back to him?
There was only one choice open to him. The old man saw him and Kokuro to the edge of the village and bid them good bye, promising to keep an eye out for Moriko-the-fox.
"Everything I touch with tenderness, alas, pricks like a bramble."
The hardest part was to avoid Moriko's parents' questions about her disappearance. Bunsa couldn't tell them the truth about their daughter; neither could he simply say that she suddenly died, for the hope that she might change her mind and come back. He steeled himself to the villagers' nosy inquiries and tried to focus on day-to-day living. A lady from Shinano-machi took his son in. Bunsa saw him every few days. He brought the rapidly growing boy home and on fair days spent a lot of time with him in the backyard, as he used to do it with Moriko. In the evenings, when the fireflies came out and filled the space between the trees with their glow, Bunsa learned to restrain himself from dashing into the woods, because after many attempts to do so, he accepted: it was never going to be the shimmer of Moriko's transformation that he saw there!
The crisp heat of the summer gave way to the mild warmth of autumn. Kokuro was quickly developing, but by the date of his first birthday he didn't walk yet. On that day Bunsa had him at his house. They sat together in the backyard, Bunsa showing his son the butterflies, the flowers and the birds, and the boy delighting his father with his laughter.
It happened when Bunsa went into the house for a minute and was just coming back with a blanket for a baby. He stepped out the door and froze: a fox was crawling toward Kokuro! It came close to the boy and then lay there, it's head on the front legs, the whole body trembling with the suppressed need. Kokuro crawled to the fox and gingerly touched its fur. The animal licked the boy's hand, then went all around Kokuro, sniffing. rubbing the boy with its body and licking him. Kokuro was laughing, but when the air shimmered and a lady suddenly appeared, where there was none a second before, he started bawling. Bunsa was torn by conflicting emotions: he wanted to run to comfort and protect his son, but he couldn't move, because for the first time in months he saw his wife, and she was more beautiful than ever! He forced himself to walk out into the backyard slowly. At first, she was startled and looked like she was about to make a run for it, but Bunsa talked to her softly, putting all his heart in his words: "My dear wife, I missed you so much! You don't need to worry, I will do my best to understand your nature and won't hold it against you! Please, stay with Kokuro and myself, don't run!"
Moriko slumped to the ground and Bunsa put the blanket over her naked body. He held her for a long time, and, after awhile, she also put her hands around him. Kokuro stopped crying and was now sucking his thumb and dozing in the dying sunlight.
Tune in to read an alternate ending to Moriko!