Somewhere, in the twists of London, there was an alleyway shrine, dedicated to an old Japanese God. It was difficult to find, hidden behind mounds of black bags and the hisses of street cats. It was constructed out of an old cardboard box, with a cracked hand mirror placed on top with two toy fox figurines either side, the paint rubbed away on the sides. In front, in an old dish from the kitchen sat a squat candle with its wick almost burnt out. A ripped bin bag had been repurposed into a canvas over the top, collecting the rainwater into a swell that threatened to wash it all away. It sat right up against the wall, cosied in between the sides of two shops and the small, broken flats perched on top of them. One of those flats is where I live with my parents, just above the fish and chip shop, with the smells of fryer fat and cigarette smoke constantly drifting in through our windows and impregnating our furniture. The shrine was my own creation, a secret place that I built for the nostalgia of home but ended up losing in that same painful way.
We all originally come from Japan but, on the surface, my mother and father may as well have been from opposite ends on the compass. My mother grew up in an old linage dedicated to the faith of Shintō, a religion that fosters thousands of gods and goddesses, called kami in our language. She was trained in the grand Kyoto temple called Fushimi Inari Taisha as a miko, female priestesses who follow the male kannushi and who tend to the shrines. My father was bought up on a farm in the North, where his parents tended to cucumbers and a sprawling herb garden.
However, both my parents broke away from those lives to follow their own calling. My father’s story, as he told it to me, was that his parents were desperate for my father to take over the farm, but he couldn’t stop dreaming about the businessmen in the long-nosed cars he’d seen on a trip to Tokyo once. The more my parents forced him into the soil, the more he relented, until he tricked them by telling them he was fetching fertiliser from the Fujioka farm down the road. Instead he hopped on the only bus that day to the big city of Tokyo with small change that he had collected in a secret mason jar buried in the garden. When he had handed it over to the driver, he had been too giddy with excitement to notice the expression on her face, grimacing at his sweaty, clammy coins. When I asked him how such a young boy survived in such a big, unfamiliar city with no money, he would only shake his head and tell me to wait until I was older for that story.
I do not know my mother’s version, as she never spoke of it. All I know is that at some point, she moved to the Chūgoku area to tend to the country shrine at the base of Mount Daisen. Whenever a letter came for her from Kyoto in our Japanese home, she would leave it by the doorway and walk in the mountain forests until dusk.
Now both of my parents live here in England. They traded fields and incense for the smoggy, bloated rivers of London that run fat with schools of cars and buzzing motorcycles, weaving and stinging their passage through. My mother works at a local apothecary, tending to the old and aching while my father goes to a bank each day, leaving at the early light and only returning when the night has matured. Sometimes I catch him in the early hours of the morning, sitting on one of our mouldy couches. He sits with his head bowed towards the floor. His eyes are closed, listening to the traffic outside. I close my eyes too and imagine it as a giant taiko drum, hammering at his window with wild, bass laughter that rattles his aching bones. For me, I go to a school an hour away where I sit alone most days, unable to connect with others, thanks to my shaky grasp of the English language.
It didn’t take me long after moving here to sneak out one night and pull the cardboard box against the wall, and place the mirror I’d found lying on the street on top. My mother had taught me the ways of shrine worship as soon as I was able to walk, so the bows and claps came naturally, alleviating my homesickness with a nostalgia that tasted like sweet honey and a purpose that smouldered deep in my stomach. I made a routine of sneaking out just before dawn and dusk to perform the daily rituals, constructing a nusa, a large wand with paper streamers, out of a cardboard tube and old newspaper. I waved it to and fro each day to purify the space, ignoring the old gum and cigarette butts that crept back in after I swept the floor. I cleansed my hands and mouth with tap water in a plastic bottle before bowing and clapping twice. Then I would pray with clenched hands, and sneak back into my room, climbing the rusty ladder that led up to the window facing the alleyway, and pretend to have been studying. Each time my mother or father came in asking about the rattling noises they’d heard, I was desperately tempted to show them my secret, to try and ignite some old flame of love inside them. But I knew they would only ask me to take it down. My father, out of his love for the new, and my mother, out of her love for the old. Both, out of the pain of wanting something they felt they’d lost forever.
My father met my mother on a trip to Chūgoku to buy land for a wealthy client. He was a true modern man by then, a fizzling mix of East and West that clashed and often fell disharmonious. He tried to hold onto the Eastern part of him by going to the temple to pay respects, but the West had eroded through too much, causing him to fumble through the prayers, forgetting to bow, or knocking over the gourd of water at the tori by the entrance. The kannushi had regarded with him a withering tolerance, but eventually chased him out with the nusa after he snuck in with an open wound on his hand that dripped onto the floor. My mother had watched him from afar but only talked to him when he had tried to come back the next day. She was waiting for him, ready to turn him away, but he only smiled and asked that, since they were now talking, perhaps he could stop having to go to the temple to see her. Although I am sure my mother, the woman with a face of carved stone, must have met this line with a quiet silence, they began taking walks together among the wisteria trees. Soon enough, she fell pregnant with me and they married, with him moving into her little outhouse by the shrine, abandoning his city career for a part time job at the only shop in the village. Not long after I turned two, the shrine collapsed.
The officials from the city reported woodworm, but the other kannushi and miko blamed my mother, refusing her beyond the tori with closed faces. Suddenly, she was cast adrift, lost without her faith or the stable comfort of her home. She hid inside our little house, tending to me and an old aralia plant, when my father came home one day to announce he had been fired. It had been done in that silent, stubborn way the villagers had, slamming the door to the shop in his face with the keeper glaring at him from behind the glass, the fear of our Inari Ōkami fresh in the lines of his furrowed brow. My mother met this news as she always did, with a quiet transformation to a leaden ghost, grey and immovable from the floor. But my father took her by the shoulders and told her to smile, weaving stories of London in that fairy tale country across the ocean. He disappeared into the other room and came out with three worn and folded tickets in his hands. A client had given them to him when he announced his move to the country, telling him to redeem them if things turned out for the worst. A fall-back plan, he explained. My mother had nodded with a slight movement and turned back towards the open door to stare out at Mount Daisen while my father started to pack. We left before dawn the next day and caught the shuttle bus from just beyond the fields, just missing the villagers, who had come to raze our house to the ground that same day.
I heard this story only once, when my father was drunk one night after a particularly hard day at the office; it was this story which prompted my shrine building. Perhaps, if I could appease our angered Inari Ōkami, then our way back to Japan would be revealed, and we could return to those rolling hills and vivid wisterias. I diligently prayed day and night, asking for forgiveness and offering praise.
I had been doing this for three months when a woman happened upon my shrine. I was mid-bow on a frigid London night, with the rain drizzling into my hair and my clothes sticking against my skin, when I heard a scrambling coming from behind me. I turned to see a crouched figure behind the boxes, staring at me with flashing eyes that disappeared into folds of skin, and a belly that nearly reached the floor. The moment our eyes connected, she turned and ran into the darkness, leaving me with nothing but the fizzling sound of a raindrop quenching my candle. She returned the next evening, and the ones after that, always watching me from the boxes and running when I turned to face her. I ignored her at first, the urgency of my work forcing me to come back each day, but then, one dry and painted dusk, she came up behind me. I didn’t glance at her, concentrating on the shrine in front of me, but I became painfully aware of her presence as she loomed towards me. When she spoke, her voice rumbled in the dark, soft but low, like a man’s.
“Who are you praying to?” she said.
“The Inari Kami, an old god from my home,” I replied, keeping my eyes down.
“Does it hear you?” The question made me pause as I looked upon my homemade shrine.
“I hope so,” I said. The woman asked no more questions after that but sat down next to me, and watched me as I went through my rituals. I glanced at her under lowered eyelids whenever I could, able to see her better now she was closer to my candle. She was larger than I had originally thought, with a waist that strained against her clothing but small, delicate hands, soft and fleshy. Her hair was pulled back behind her head and her eyes were sunken low in her face, throwing shadows over the bruised skin underneath. At the bottom of her face, she had a long, winding line that seemed to run from ear to ear, twisted into a patient smile.
She kept coming and watching me from her position beside me, until one night she rested her hand on my shoulder. The nusa in my hands visibly trembled as she smiled at me.
“I’m sure it listens,” she said, in that same, rumbling voice.
“Thank you,” I whispered. She shifted towards me and her foot knocked the box of my shrine. It shifted with a harsh, glassy noise. The woman blinked, and looked down the side to find a translucent white bottle with Japanese letters down the side in red. It was full to the brim and, oddly, uncapped. Around where it lay, similar bottles crowded , a small collection hidden in the shadowy corner by my shrine; I hadn’t noticed them before. They were all uncapped, with the liquid kissing the neck. The woman’s eyes flickered back towards the street. She turned back to me.
“Is this part of what you do?” she asked.
“No. I don’t know what that is,” I lied. In truth, I had seen those bottles before, though not here, and I knew the letters. The woman sniffed at the top of one and frowned.
“Neither do I.” She looked around her again, glanced at me shyly, before taking a small, cautious sip. She swilled it around in her mouth, before swallowing with a gasp and smiling. “It’s good. I don’t know what it is, but it’s really good.”
She gazed down at the bottle for a moment, tracing the letters with her fingertip, before downing it in one movement. It dripped at the sides of her mouth, coming down her chin before she wiped it away with the back of her pillow hands. She grabbed another bottle, taking a swig before offering it to me. I shook my head mutely.
She worked her way fast through three more bottles, letting the alcohol swim through her blood into her head and blush her face. It must have been powerful, as she was soon swaying from side to side, and stood up only to crash into a black bag, spilling its contents into the alleyway. Laughing with a high, giddy noise, she began to dance, moving in cumbersome circles and squares, calling me to join her as I shrank against the wall. As she moved, the clouds above her parted to reveal a full moon, throwing her into a ghostly light that shone off her wet eyes. She continued to dance but reached up to the moon, hands outstretched.
“Pretty moon,” she cried. “Pretty, pretty moon… not like this ugly thing.” She whirled towards me and reached towards me. “Just like you, you pretty thing. You look just like the moon.”
I started to cry, but she didn’t notice as she turned away. I crawled back against the wall, taking one of the little fox figurines and curling it up in my fingers. She turned back to the bottles, draining them until the last one shattered on the floor beside her. There was a moment of stillness, where her face turned upwards towards the sky and her eyes closed. Then she began to shake and clutch at her stomach. Her mouth hung open in a silent movement, her eyes rolling towards me, but her body was paralysed with pain, moving only in spasms.
A scream burst from her lungs, deep and resonant like a bronze bull. She tore at her stomach, now lined with a dark network of heavy, bulbous lines that burst upon the impact of her fingers. She beat at herself and the ground she stood on with hands and feet. Her pain shook the alleyway at its very foundation and, as she shook her head, her hair came loose in long rat tails.
Her skin started to shrivel, like when fire eats through paper. It turned charcoal, then ashen grey, before floating to the ground in delicate flakes. Beneath her skin, scales winked in the moonlight, shifting with smooth movements as she writhed before me. When her skin had burnt up completely, her limbs shrank into withered sticks that fell to the ground and splintered. Her eyes rolled until they turned scarlet, with slit-like irises, and her mouth split until it reached her earlobes, revealing two narrow teeth that extended past her lips and down towards her chin. A flickering tongue whipped out, forked and tasting the night air. Soon only a snake was before me, thrashing beneath the moon, reducing my shrine to shredded cardboard.
I screamed and cowered in the corner, unable to look away. The sky turned from velvet to blood as the sun rose from behind the London skyline, and there, down the alley where the empty road began, sat a fox. It was still, watching the snake with dark eyes, its white fur washed in rose. The writhing snake took no notice. Bathed in the blood of morning its scales glowed, the light fragmenting through in a pattern like capillaries in flesh, then its whole body shattered into glassy shrapnel with a clap that tore at my eardrums. Scales exploded into the alleyway, burning litter and my skin and the remnants of my shrine.
The sun disappeared again behind the clouds and the unnatural daylight fell back into night. Roiling clouds gave way to thick, heavy rain that smothered the smoke and washed the scales down a nearby drain. I said nothing, made no move as the rain soaked me to the bone, I could only to stare at the place where that woman—no, that snake—had danced and screamed, the little fox figure still clutched in my grip. The other fox, the real one, watched me for a moment, before padding back into the road and out of my sight.
It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps, and then my parents were bundling me up in a thick wool blanket. I was carried back to the flat, settled down in my bed. They said nothing to me, choosing to not meet my eyes, and I returned their muteness. However, as soon as they had wrapped me in the duvet and left the room, I slipped out and crept to the door, inching it open. There, I saw my parents at the table, my father with his head in his hands and my mother with her stiff back. After a while, my mother reached out and touched his shoulder, making my father look up with red eyes. She returned his look, smiled, and drew him close into an embrace. My father fell into her arms and sobbed openly, while my mother rubbed her hands over his back in large, slow circles.
I never went back to that alleyway. I left my shrine in pieces, cardboard swelling with rainwater next to the smashed glass that floated down the storm drain. It wasn’t due to fear or anything so primal. Rather, I had become softer, like clay in warm hands, more malleable to the outside world. My English started to improve. I cut my hair. I took longer and longer routes home from school, choosing instead to wind through Hyde Park under arthritic trees and blue-washed skies.
And as my clay body folded and turned, the memories of that night faded, along with all the dreams and thoughts of the fox drenched in rosy light.
By Lydia Pauly