The forest tells of the man’s arrival long before he emerges in the clearing. Wakatoshi feels the footsteps atop the sodden autumn leaves as if they are an extension of his own body—which, really, is not that far from the truth.
This is Wakatoshi’s forest, and everything that dwells within it was born from him—that is to say, the forest belongs to him every bit as much as he belongs to it. Once upon a time there had been others that lived off this forest—humans who built villages at the outskirts and picked fruit from the trees, fished from the rivers, and danced and sung songs of gratitude for the forest god.
Wakatoshi so loved to listen to the humans sing. They erected a shrine in his honour and gathered ‘round the fire at night to tell stories of the forest god’s visage—skin of golden sunshine, eyes of rich brown like the soil that nourished their crops, and hair that cascaded over his shoulders like thunderous waterfalls. These legends were revered and passed from generation to generation, until Wakatoshi’s appearance truly took on that of which the humans believed.
This is, after all, how a deity is brought into creation—from stories born of love and carefully woven devotion, and in return Wakatoshi provided everything that the people needed to live in prosperity.
But as time passed, the new generations of villagers began to relocate once they were of age. Slowly but surely, the olden dances that had once filled the silence of the night faded away, legends of Wakatoshi’s divinity dissolved within the elders’ mouths and his shrine gathered dust within the clearing filled with weeds and overgrown shrubbery.
This is, after all, as close as a deity can get to dying—left forgotten by those who once worshipped him, with not even a song to prove that he had ever existed in the hearts of man.
And so, Wakatoshi was alone.
It is easy for an immortal to lose track of time—many a time he had curled up for an afternoon nap beside a young sapling only to wake and discover that it’d grown into a weathered, gnarled giant with roots that spanned kilometres deep into the soil while he slept. A humbling reminder that time stops for nobody—not even a god. Like this, Wakatoshi continued to exist in a space separate from the rest of the world, a solitary god without so much as a single believer, whose appearance slowly but surely begins to change as he forgot the form that the humans once gave him.
Skin of golden sunshine, eyes of rich brown, hair that cascaded over his shoulders—
He hums the stories to sleep but each night he finds himself stumbling over the words just a little more, until one day he peers at his reflection in the still freshwater and wonders if he always had the black antlers sprouting stiffly out of his hair, or if his ears used to be pointed at the tips like that. It mattered very little at this point, Wakatoshi supposes, idly running his fingers over the velvety bone protruding from his head.
Which leads him to now, discomfort rising in his chest as he realizes that the entity who has entered his forest is unmistakably heading his way, and its strides are filled with purpose as if it meant to come find him. He hasn’t the faintest idea how much time has passed since someone last approached his shrine, and his fingers curl tensely by his side as the footsteps draw closer.
The person who finally steps into the clearing is a thin, dainty looking thing—dressed in an elegant kinagashi of charcoal, silver furred ears twitching atop his head, with eyes that shine a brilliant gold and pupils that quickly narrow into slits in the sunlight.
A fox spirit.
“Lord Wakatoshi,” the spirit greets, bowing low until the light filtering in through the crown shyness above glints off of his pewter hair. When he straightens back up, his gaze is steady and piercing, but there is a glimmer of something else hidden on his expressionless face—Wakatoshi squints, nursing a feeling of curious familiarity despite the fact that he is certain he has never met the stranger before.
“Who are you?” Wakatoshi asks, finding himself rooted to the spot where he is seated on the rickety engawa that wraps around his shrine.
“I am yours,” the spirit answers immediately, with such a tone of sureness yet nonchalance as if he’d said the same words a million times prior to this instance. His response, however, provides no more an answer to Wakatoshi’s question than if he had said nothing at all. At the urging of Wakatoshi’s furrowed brow, he continues, “I was made and sent for you by the gods. They don’t wish to continue watching your divinity fade.”
“A needless act. It isn’t possible for me to die.”
“Not in a true sense,” the spirit counters carefully. “But you will lose yourself, my lord, without someone’s devotion. It is a god’s lifeblood.”
“And I take it that you are the one who will devote themself to me?” Wakatoshi stands, descending from the wooden platform and drawing closer to the spirit. He is somewhat surprised when the spirit doesn’t seem intimidated by the pressure of Wakatoshi’s aura in the least. Rather, the edges of his eyes appear to soften as Wakatoshi approaches him.
“Indeed.” The edges of the fox spirit’s lips quirk up just so, almost imperceptibly. “I am yours.”
The fox spirit is even smaller than he’d seemed from a distance. When Wakatoshi finally steps in front of him, his height looms over the spirit, who simply tips his head up to meet Wakatoshi’s gaze, waiting patiently for a response.
“What is your name?” Wakatoshi asks, transfixed by the way the fox spirit’s pupils dilate in the eclipse of Wakatoshi’s shadow.
“I haven’t yet been bestowed with a name,” he answers, blinking slowly. “If it pleases you, you may call me what you wish.”
In the centuries that have gone by since his last remaining follower passed on, the taste of devotion has long become foreign to Wakatoshi, which is about as pitiful a thing any god can admit to. Devotion, Wakatoshi knows, is not so simple a word to place one’s trust in. After all—the humans who’d so readily claimed their loyalty to him just as easily packed their belongings in horse drawn wagons and moved on, rebuilding their lives with a newfound piety for the river god to the east, or the mountain god up yonder.
In truth, the solitude that came after the fact was not so difficult to shoulder. Nor the feeling of his slowly fading divinity, or his reputation among the other gods. In retrospect, Wakatoshi knows that these so-called hardships were of little consequence to him.
But the feeling of being left behind is certainly not one that he would like to live through again if he can help it.
Yet, in spite of this unfading bruise still fresh after all these years and rejection on the tip of his tongue, Wakatoshi looks and sees the fox spirit standing so resolutely in front of him, the dilation of his slitted pupils, the reassurance of his steady gaze, and finds himself unable to send the spirit away. Devotion—Wakatoshi muses— trust .
I am yours .
“Then, Shinsuke ,” Wakatoshi says finally, and the flutter of the fox spirit’s silvery lashes as he closes his eyes in grateful acknowledgement is as close to a balm on Wakatoshi’s bruise as he has felt in a long time.
The adjustment to having Shinsuke around is not as jarring as one would think it’d be for a god who’d been alone for a few centuries now. Shinsuke appears in Wakatoshi’s clearing with his slitted golden eyes and silver furred ears and he slinks into Wakatoshi’s everyday just as nonchalantly, as if in another life he’d once occupied the sunny space on the engawa next to Wakatoshi where they sip at their tea cups in comfortable silence.
That is to say, not much changes at all, except everything that does.
For example, Wakatoshi is sitting in the same spot he always did around this time of day, only now there is tea, and a pretty assortment of wagashi laid out on a handcrafted ceramic plate that Wakatoshi only kind of recalls receiving as an offering sometime during his godhood, and there is Shinsuke.
For example, Wakatoshi takes his walk through the forest every day, only now, sometimes Shinsuke will ask to come along. At first Wakatoshi had been hesitant to agree—the time he spends in the forest is sacred, and the last thing he’d want is for someone to tarnish it with incessant chatter—however during their walks together, Shinsuke merely trails wordlessly beside him, tail swishing softly in the sunlight before stopping to allow a butterfly perch atop his outstretched finger.
For example, Wakatoshi makes rice in the morning to serve with breakfast as he always did, only on this particular morning Shinsuke steps into the room after hanging up the laundry and stares at him with wide eyes, blinking slowly before bemusedly telling him that there is rice already soaking in the donabe because he thought they could have okayu for breakfast. They make a point to split the house chores after that—diplomatically making mundane little decisions as they have their afternoon tea—Shinsuke will do the laundry, and scrub the bath, while Wakatoshi will wash the dishes and air out the futon.
They do the cooking together. Shinsuke chops spring onion with his left hand curled into a cat’s paw, his sleeves neatly tied back with a tasuki . At first they bump elbows, and accidentally reach for the same thing at the same time, and according to an unreliable source Wakatoshi had glowered when Shinsuke tried to add egg to the miso soup, even though Wakatoshi is rather sure he did no such thing.
(But egg objectively does not belong in miso soup, and he is a god after all so the universe is meant to obey his laws, be it within the realm of forest or soup ingredients.)
On another occasion, Wakatoshi walks into the kitchen one morning to find Shinsuke stretched up on his toes, his fingertips shaking as they brush against a ceramic bowl on the shelf, just out of reach. Without thinking, Wakatoshi presses close with Shinsuke’s back against his chest, and takes the bowl in hand. But then he looks down, realizes that he can see the hair whorl on the crown of Shinsuke’s head and the mole that peeks out from the edge of his collar, right on the back of his neck—and suddenly Wakatoshi feels like he can’t begin to fathom everything that has changed within him.
He was an entity trapped in stagnation, until Shinsuke stepped into the sunlight and started his time anew.
Seconds tick by— his time, or perhaps their time—before Wakatoshi snaps out of his daze and takes a step back, not knowing how much he would miss the warmth of Shinsuke’s back until it was not there anymore. It is strange, he thinks, how he is capable of longing for something he’d lived without until scant minutes ago.
“The bowl,” Wakatoshi says, and when Shinsuke turns to take it in hand his eyes are doing that thing where they soften at the corners and there is a faint blush dusting the bridge of his nose like powdered sugar.
“My thanks,” he says, turning to ladle what looks like braised bamboo shoots into the bowl.
Still, it is worth saying that Shinsuke simply adds to Wakatoshi’s pre-existing routine in the gentlest of ways, rather than attempt to derail him from his usual path. This is something Wakatoshi appreciates about him, and yet Wakatoshi cannot help but wonder why it is that Shinsuke is here. Though the gods have the ability to create life, they are not capable of controlling its will after it’s among the living.
That is to say—Shinsuke can do anything he chooses, go anywhere he wishes—and yet, here he is, sitting serenely in a beam of peach sunlight listening to Wakatoshi name all the flowers in the forest like a grocery list, with his eyes closed in concentration as if he plans to commit each of them to memory.
Wakatoshi’s chest lurches at the sight of such genuity, and it makes him wonder if the grilled fish they had for lunch earlier had gone sour earlier than expected.
“I will go for a walk,” he decides, rising to his feet, and his expression must communicate that he wishes to be alone because Shinsuke doesn’t even offer to come along. He simply bows his head respectfully and wishes Wakatoshi a safe journey.
Being in the forest is a meditative act for Wakatoshi. Here he has never felt like an abandoned god—it is the only place where he can feel connected to the world around him.He feels life teeming at his fingertips, everywhere from the wind to the water to the earth, and he often comes to converse when he isn’t able to put thoughts into words. Plants and animals don’t speak through words, after all, but Wakatoshi knows what they feel—he channels their serenity, their rhythm, and their acceptance of the world as it is.
By the time he returns to the shrine with a bundle of sweet pea flowers in his arms, the sun is just dipping beyond the treeline. Wakatoshi steps out into the clearing to find Shinsuke waiting for him by the front door, his hands clasped elegantly in front of him with a thick housecoat draped around his shoulders to shield from the early spring chill.
At the sight of him, Shinsuke’s shoulders slacken ever so slightly and the edges of his mouth raise in something just shy of a smile. They should really throw out whatever is leftover of the fish from lunchtime, because something stirs in Wakatoshi’s chest and he’s fairly sure it’s heartburn.
“My lord,” Shinsuke begins, and while Wakatoshi may be unused to inferring the emotions of another, he thinks there might be the faintest hint of disapproval hidden in the morning mist softness of his voice. “your appearance is disheveled.”
The capability to weave an entire lecture within the span of a few words is a talent that Shinsuke possesses in spades. He folds his arms across his chest sternly and his gaze drops as he casts a meaningful once-over at Wakatoshi’s garments—it is only then that Wakatoshi realizes the fabric of his kinagashi is covered in dirt from his walk through the forest.
“Ah, I shall go change,” Wakatoshi says slowly, watching carefully for Shinsuke’s reaction. He knows that he provided the right answer when the dip between Shinsuke’s brows disappears, and he bows his head slightly to step out of the way and allow Wakatoshi into the house. Before Wakatoshi passes, Shinsuke reaches out to take the bushel of flowers from his arms, gently cradling the purple blossoms to his chest before following Wakatoshi into the house.
After Wakatoshi is dressed in fresh clothing, he enters the living area to find a lone chair in the center of the room, with Shinsuke waiting patiently beside it, an ornately carved wooden comb grasped between his fingers.
“Please take a seat.” He gestures to the chair, and it only takes a moment of hesitation before Wakatoshi obediently draws closer to situate himself.
The moment he feels Shinsuke’s fingers in his hair, it’s such a foreign sensation to him that he startles, jerking away from the touch to turn and look at Shinsuke with wide eyes. Shinsuke doesn’t say a word—but he does smile, more apparent in his eyes than the barely-there curve of his lips. After a beat he reaches for Wakatoshi’s hair again, and though Wakatoshi can’t help but flinch, this time he doesn’t pull away.
Shinsuke’s fingers are gentle as they remove the small twigs and leaves snagged between the tangled tresses, running the ornate comb through his hair without ever tugging enough to hurt. Pinpricks run through Wakatoshi’s scalp down to his shoulders, making him shiver from sensitivity, but it is not an unpleasant feeling. After a while he finds himself leaning into it, relishing in the slow drag of Shinsuke’s fingers as they carefully section and twist his hair into intricate plaits.
He was wrong, Wakatoshi realizes—the forest is not the only place where he can connect to another.
When Shinsuke finishes, the soft fragrance of sweet pea flowers surrounds Wakatoshi. He pulls the long, perfectly done plait over his shoulder and realizes that Shinsuke had weaved the blossoms he brought back earlier between the sections of his hair, trailing down the braid in dainty spots of purple.
“Such an elegant image,” Wakatoshi says, lightly thumbing the edge of a velvety petal, “does not suit me.”
There is a moment of silence after he says this before Shinsuke steps in front of Wakatoshi and lowers himself to kneel on one leg, gazing up at Wakatoshi with softened eyes before he takes the plait in his own hand.
“No, my lord,” he smiles—a real one this time, with his lips fully curved like that of the crescent moon, “it suits you perfectly.”
It is here, like this, with Shinsuke’s golden eyes peering up at him in this position that Wakatoshi is graced with a realization like the sun rising at dawn. He reaches forth, noting the second that Shinsuke’s eyes close as Wakatoshi first touches him—just behind his right ear, the fur feeling soft as down against his calloused fingers.
“Shinsuke,” he says, scratching lightly against the silver fur, “you’ve returned.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
A playful chuckle bubbles out from Shinsuke’s lips when he opens his eyes, raising his brows bemusedly. “I was wondering how long it would take my lord to notice.”
Wakatoshi frowns. “Unreasonable. You are in a completely different form.”
“And still, you realized, with time.” The words are mingled with a sigh as Shinsuke presses further into Wakatoshi’s palm, and though it has been at least a few centuries since, Wakatoshi can recall the last time Shinsuke had done the exact motion.
A lonely forest god seated in the cool shade of a flowering plum tree, a silver furred fox curled peacefully in his lap as white blossoms drifted down around them, signaling the coming of a new season.
It was a setting fit for farewells.
Wakatoshi had run his hand through the soft fox fur, knowing that his companion would soon leave him, and though they had never exchanged a single word throughout their short time together, Wakatoshi could feel the fox’s emotions flow into his own spirit.
“I don’t want to be left behind,” Wakatoshi said, as he leaned his head back until it rested against the trunk of the plum tree behind him.
The fox peered up at him then, eyes aglow while he nuzzled into Wakatoshi’s palm, and without words, Wakatoshi knew he was being chided for his weakness. From the fox he could feel an acceptance of his fate, and yet in spite of that, a persistent desire to return to his lord’s side.
“I will wait for you,” Wakatoshi promised, soothing the fox with a gentle caress. “Sleep now, friend. May we meet again, if it is the will of the gods.”
And true to his word, or more fittingly the lack thereof, Shinsuke had returned, however long it took. There would be no more farewells—only a forest god, seated in a sunny patch of warm grass in front of a perfectly dusted shrine, with his fox spirit by his side as they named all the flowers growing in the field like a grocery list.
Perhaps, in time, a travelling tribe of humans would find the land on the outskirts of the forest to be teeming with nutritious soil, suitable for growing crops and feed for livestock—and so they would choose to settle there.
Perhaps, when that happens, the humans would gather ‘round the fire at night and tell stories of the benevolent forest god who provides them with all they need to live prosperously. As the legends go, the sweet pea flowers that grow plentifully in the forest are symbolic of everlasting devotion—and thus it became tradition for tribal lovers to do each other’s hair before their wedding ceremony, adorning their lover with sweet pea blossoms as a show of their loyalty to one another.
It is said—in hushed voices as the elders continue to tell of the stories passed on from generation to generation within the tribe—that should one venture deep into the forest and approach the forest god’s shrine during nights of the crescent moon, soft candlelight would illuminate the inside from behind the shoji .
And it is said, at that time one will see the silhouette of the forest god himself, having his hair lovingly combed out by another, with the lingering fragrance of sweet pea blossoms blowing in the wind.