The next Saturday afternoon, Raven went strolling idly through the park with Crow on his arm. They were promenading in their lolita and aristocrat personas through the rose gardens, by the tea house, around a lake, and back towards the fountain. Raindrops glistened on leaves and the air had a pleasant fresh smell following an early March rain. Crow’s ever present entourage of crows complained about wet feathers as they circled in the air above them. Fox was nowhere to be found.
“What is that sound?” asked Crow.
“The Rockabilly club,” hazarded Raven as a pair of girls in poodle skirts ran past.
“No. The low drone.”
Raven smoothed his goatee. “Ah, a didgeridoo.” He cocked his head to one side, listening. “Three, actually.”
“It adds a curious undertone to the rockabilly.” Crow added, “It’s a wonder Fox isn’t somewhere in the middle of this, given her penchant for musicians.”
“True. Didn’t the two of you meet over some mishap involving these musical creatures?” mused Raven.
“Yes. We were stalking the same band. I enjoyed the fireworks resulting from the exploding amplifier trick she orchestrated. It was the culmination of a series of impressive pranks.”
“Which band was this?”
“I don’t remember. Doesn’t matter anyway; they broke up after the third show of their first tour.” Crow shrugged. “Fox and I found we worked well together and have been good friends ever since.”
“A shame,” said Raven. “About the band, I mean.” He smiled faintly.
Crow looked up at him and winked. “I had nothing to do with it, of course.”
“Of course. Ah, there’s Fox on the lawn.” He pointed with is cane.
They changed direction, stepping onto the wet grass. Crow froze and looked down, horrified.
Raven looked perplexed. “Is this the time for artistic expression, my love?”
Crow scowled. “Mud.”
“Ah,” Raven smiled. “It can’t be helped. Unless you wish to take to wing.”
“Yes. Mud stains satin.”
The space around them twisted as reality changed to accommodate them. In the old reality, Crow and Raven were humans who made their way through the world as street performers. Raven also took acting jobs in summer Shakespeare troupes when the mood struck him. Crow preferred living statue gigs as they were an excellent cover for people watching. In the new reality, they were two black feathered birds flying over the park. They glided over the lawn where Fox, in her juggler persona, was playing catch with Mei and landed in a nearby cedar tree.
Fox caught the pearlescent star ball, with a twinkle in her eye. It was rumored to be a source of power for a fox, whispered that it housed her soul. The twinkle in her eye hinted at a private joke. She was allowing a human to touch it as if it were an ordinary item.
Crow asked, “Isn’t that her star ball? But…isn’t it powerful? Should she be so nonchalant with it?”
“I believe it is, and I believe she shouldn’t,” answered Raven. “Which leads me to ponder what sort of mischief she has planned for today.”
Fox flopped down under the tree and said, “Just teaching the kit to juggle.”
Mei flopped down next to her and stared up at the branches. Leaf buds were just starting to form. “Why are you talking to the tree?”
“I’m not. I’m talking to my friends. See?” Fox pointed up at Crow and Raven.
“Oh.” Mei frowned. “Those birds?”
“Look again, only squint your eyes a little.”
Mei squeezed her eyes half–closed, then squealed. “Raven and Crow! How did you get into the tree?”
Crow answered, “We flew.”
Mei consulted with Fish. “Fish says she wants to fly, too.”
Raven started to say, “That worked out so well last week,” but was interrupted by the approach of a frantic old woman.
“Mei! Where are you?”
“Granny!” Mei hopped up and ran to her grandmother. “Come meet my new friends!” Mei dragged her grandmother over to the tree and looked around, confused. “Where’d she go?” She turned in a circle, then announced, “Ah! Fox is playing hide and seek!”
Her grandmother frowned at the flash of six red tails behind a tree. “Come, Mei. We need to go home now.”
“And Crow and Raven are up there in the tree!”
“That’s nice, dear. Now come along.” She was looking around anxiously, holding Mei close to her as she ushered the child away from the park.
Crow watched them go, head cocked to one side. “Let’s follow them. I sense a story.”
“As you wish,” answered Raven.
It was easy to follow Mei. Her bright clothing, combined with her constant chatter, provided an excellent beacon. Crow’s entourage of common crows was digging through trash bags and scavenging litter, useful as additional eyes and ears. She and Raven glided from streetlight to signpost through the streets of the Shibuya ward and up to a three–story house. They landed on the second-story balcony. Crow peered through the window while Raven pecked at a wind chime with his beak.
Crow hopped down next to a planter to get a closer look into the living room. “Shush.”
“It’s supposed to keep evil spirits away. They’ve been used around here for centuries – although not that much anymore,” said Raven a bit wistfully. He tugged at one of the metal chimes.
“Does it work?” she asked as she watched Mei and her grandmother come upstairs.
“That depends on how you define evil.” The chime refused to be liberated and clattered loudly as it sprang out of his beak.
Crow cast him a disapproving look and hid under a chair. “Keep up that noise and they’ll come drive you off. Would be proof of your evilness, and the chimes would have done their work.”
As the grandmother put away the groceries in the kitchen, Mei ran over to her doll shrine set up near the balcony windows. She adjusted the Emperor and Empress as an excuse to touch the smooth silk clothing and cool porcelain. Then she threw open the balcony doors. The birds scattered for cover; Raven flew up to the roof while Crow hopped into the shadow of the table. Mei, oblivious to her feathered audience, climbed up on a chair and leaned out over the railing, dangling Fish over the side.
“I see the mailman!” She waved.
“Mei!” her grandmother cried, “Get down from there before you fall.”
Crow breathed a mental sigh of relief when Mei jumped down and ran inside. She hopped out from her hiding place and flew up onto the railing to resume her surveillance.
Raven glided down next to her. “That was close. I thought for a moment I’d have to swoop in and rescue you.”
“I would have gotten away,” Crow said absently; as she spoke, a glint of gold just inside the window caught her eye. She hopped closer to the window to get a better look.
The shrine was a three-tiered platform covered in red cloth. The lower two levels were currently unoccupied. Two dolls sat on the top level, one male and one female, dressed in traditional kimonos, made of fine silks with gold thread woven in elaborate designs.
“Yes, dear.” Raven preened his feathers. “If you say so.”
“Though a distraction might have been handy, dear heart,” she conceded.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Sunlight glinted off the gold paint on the dolls. “What has caught your eye this time?”
“Do you know where to find those dolls?”
Raven bobbed his head. “Indeed. Those are the Emperor and Empress dolls. They are part of a traditional set put out in honor of the annual doll festival called Hina Matsuri. You can purchase them in most stores this time of year.”
“And they are all that shiny?”
“Oh yes. They are dressed in costumes typical of the Heian period court.”
Crow looked at him blankly. “Heian?”
“Yes. The doll shrine custom originated then, about a thousand years ago, and, being creatures of tradition, they’ve continued to use dolls in the style of that time.” Raven was just warming up to his history lecture when the phone rang.
Crow said, “You can finish your lecture later, love. I want to hear this.”
Raven ruffled his feathers. “As you wish. Although I’ll point out I never do have the opportunity to finish one as you always seem to have something else that requires your attention.”
Crow shushed him. “Quiet.”
Mei ran to answer it. “Hello?”
“Hello, my cherry blossom,” said the voice on the phone.
“Papa! Guess what?”
“You’ve grown ten feet taller?” teased her father.
“No,” She giggled. “I learned to juggle today! My friend Fox is teaching me. I met her at the park.”
As Grandmother came back upstairs from getting the mail, she asked, “Who are you talking to?”
“It’s Papa.” Mei handed her the phone.
“Michi?” Grandmother asked, “Where are you?”
“I’m still in Chicago, Mother. Did the new doll arrive?”
“Yes. I was just giving it to Mei.” She handed a package from the mail to the girl.
Mei carefully pulled the tissue paper open and picked up the porcelain doll. She was dressed in a red and white kimono and holding a sake tray. “Oooh… pretty. She can have tea with Fish!”
Grandmother said, “No, her job is to serve the Emperor and Empress. Go put her on the shrine in the middle of the second row of the display.” She waited until Mei had run off before saying, “That doll won’t solve the fox spirit problem.”
“Fox spirit? What are you talking about?”
“That creature teaching Mei to juggle! Trouble is what it is. She’s taken an interest in Mei. I don’t like it.” She sounded worried.
“What does this fox look like?” Michi sounded more amused than worried.
“It has six tails.” She checked on Mei; the girl was still playing with the doll shrine. The new doll was serving tea to the Emperor and Empress.
Michi was silent for a moment. “Maybe you need to get your eyes checked…”
“It’s true! One fox with six tails. It was a spirit!”
He sighed, changing tactic. “I thought the dolls averted evil spirits.”
“Only if you float them down the river on the 3rd day of March.”
“You aren’t floating those dolls down the river!” Michi sounded exasperated. He drew a deep breath and continued more calmly, “They are a collector set. I’m adding one a year for her. Just… don’t do anything with them. I’ll take care of this when I get home.”
“Oh, I know you won’t let go of those fancy dolls,” Grandmother said irritably. “That’s why I made a rag doll. I’ll trap the fox spirit in it come morning and we’ll go to the river.”
“Don’t you be so dismissive,” she hissed. “I saw that fox today at the park. She lured Mei away from me with a shiny ball. When I went to fetch her, the fox slipped off into the forest but I saw that she had six tails! Mean’s she’s a fair bit powerful. But don’t worry; I’ll take care of it.”
“Very well. Just be careful. I need to go; the band is ready to do a sound check.”
She hung up the phone and called Mei over. “I have something to show you, child.” She took the new ragdoll from her sewing basket. It looked like Fish, though much cleaner and dressed in a blue kimono. White cloth talismans imprinted with symbols for protection were sewn into panels of the cloth.
Mei reached for the new doll. “Is that a sister for Fish?”
Her grandmother said quickly, “She’s just visiting for today. She’s on an adventure and needs to sail away on her boat in the morning. We’ll see her off at the river.”
Crow flew up into the sky and turned back to the park. “We need to warn Fox.”
Raven pulled at the wind chime once more. Cords snapped and the chimes fell to the ground in a cacophony of clangs and tinkles. He took wing and followed after Crow.
Copyright 2013, Kimberley Long-Ewing, all rights reserved