Excerpt

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura

Christine Wunnicke, trans. Philip Boehm

March 7, 2019 
The following is from Christine Wunnicke's novel The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, which follows Dr. Shimamura across Japan and Europe as he tries to cure an epidemic of fox possession. Christine Wunnicke lives in Munich, Germany. She has published four award-winning novels, a biography, and several translations.

The fishmonger’s house lay in a shady mountain hollow high above the sea. It was a beautiful home, almost princely. Here the fish weren’t wares to be hawked but inventory that was managed in lucrative fashion, and the fishmonger, as it turned out, was a prince among fishmongers, although Shimamura and the student never learned how that had come about, or why fish and their management were so greatly valued there. The climb had been taxing, and the young student had repeatedly rendered yeoman service. He found natural footholds in the stone for the exhausted neurologist, and once even saved the older man from falling—out of fatigue and also from a kind of despair—off a cliff.

No exorcists or receptacles were loitering beside the steep bank. No children followed them. It was very quiet, very hot. Here and there a plucked bit of white could be seen hanging in the branches—tufts or fur from something scampering by. Now and then they felt a light air, and Shimamura would take off his hat to cool his head, but it wasn’t a sea breeze, it was a waft of something sticky and stifling, almost like smoke from something burnt.

“Do you remember when we were little,” the student asked, “how we always had to leave out the number four whenever we counted, because it summons death? One, two, three, five, six, seven? Do you remember, Sensei?”

The student was wearing only a loincloth. The peasant tunic which the fox patients had been snatching at for two weeks was now completely in tatters, and the young man had wrapped it around his head, so that the sleeves flapped down over his ears onto his shoulders. Shimamura said nothing   as he watched the man’s naked bottom dance through the scrub brush on top of the cliff. The student was now carrying Shimamura’s medicine bag in addition to the photographic apparatus. Shimamura took off his hat and put it on again. A dragonfly went purring by. Shimamura remembered the number four and the god of death. He felt himself succumbing to fear—to an old, ancient fear.

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The wealthy fishmonger did not live in his beautiful home.

Perhaps he’d never lived there. Perhaps he’d only built it to house his possessed child along with her mother, a few aunts, and a number of maids and caretakers, and then run off somewhere. Shimamura and the student never found that out, either.

Dr. Shimamura had set aside one hour for his final assessment. Instead it went on for two and a half weeks. And during all that time his calendar, where he kept a daily log for Professor Sakaki, showed not a single entry: for the days spent with the girl Kiyo it was completely blank.

*

Her guardians made the doctor wait a long time before taking him to see the patient, who looked to be about sixteen. A blossoming beauty, with long hair done up in a pile of twists. She was sitting by herself at a small table in a large room flooded with sunlight, her legs crossed, playing with a tattered magazine called La Vie Parisienne.

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“Sensei!” she called out to Shimamura’s silence. “I beg your pardon!” The magazine slipped from her hands as she stepped in front of the table and sank to her knee in a deep bow.

Because he didn’t know the most appropriate response, Shimamura, too, knelt down, keeping a far greater distance than called for. He regretted he’d been so ashamed of the naked student that he had confined him to the garden instead of bringing him inside. Still bowing deeply and with- out moving, Kiyo peered vaguely at Shimamura through her eyelashes and a loose strand of hair. Sakaki must have pulled her from some theater, he thought, she’s really the young diva of a highly modern female troupe from Tokyo, and Professor Sakaki sent her to Shimane just to irritate me. Half-bent and wholly cramped, he observed his new patient, while wondering whether he himself wasn’t displaying some paranoid tendencies he’d never noticed before.

Kiyo’s back began to rise and fall. Her breathing grew deeper, then faster. And faster. Pumping like an insect. “Pardon us,” she said in a strained whisper, still bowing, and then shot her head straight up into the air, rolled back, and screamed. Howled. First a sharp yap then a throaty baying that wouldn’t stop. For such a small person her lungs could evidently hold an amazing amount of air. Still on her knees, she arched backwards, bending over in a kind of reverse bow, until her head was nearly touching the floor mat, only on the wrong side. The screaming did not let up.

All the women closed their mouths and covered their noses and ran out.

Shimamura had jumped to his feet. He stood there. And watched. With her backwards half somersault, Kiyo had exposed most of her upper body, and he could not help looking at the white skin stretched over her ribs, and at two tiny dark nipples that seemed to have slipped alarmingly close to her neck. Herwhole body seemed to have slipped out of joint. Her shoulders and elbows had shifted into places that human anatomy could not foresee. And where were her hands? Were they clenched inside the hollows of her knees? Bent backwards at the knuckles? Was she now going to turn herself inside out, like a glove? Shimamura did not try to help her. Her face flushed a deep red, her neck was distended, and as she rolled over sideways, still screaming, her sash started coming unwound. Under her kimono—a beautiful, pale-colored girl’s kimono adorned with an appropriate fish pattern—he noticed several tightly wound bandages. The household probably expected her to lose her dress in the course of the day, and therefore made sure her underparts were well wrapped every morning.

The throaty yapping tipped back into a shrill yip, then began to quiver and finally faded off in a deep wheeze. Kiyo stretched out her neck. Her eyes rolled back. For a hopeful moment Shimamura had the impression a classic tonic seizure was about to occur as part of a normal epileptic contortion, but instead Kiyo lay down on her side, pulled her feet neatly under the hem of her kimono, propped her cheek on her hand and looked Shimamura straight in the face, exhausted and a little reproachful, as if all this debilitating commotion were his fault.

Dr. Shimamura heard himself exclaiming “Please come help your daughter.” But the words came out small and hoarse, and no one came.

“Go on,” said Kiyo mildly, “have a look.”

She rolled over on her back and took off more clothing. She went so far as to gather the bandages together a bit, just below her hips, to the beginning of her pubic hair, and pulled the fish pattern wide apart, exposing her thighs.

And there came the fox.

While at rest the animal evidently resided right below Kiyo’s underwraps—at least that was where he seemed to be working his way out. It was a small fox, two or three hand lengths, depending on whether he was stretched out or balled up, and in his cramped quarters just under Kiyo’s tender white skin he moved a bit like a caterpillar. Kiyo traced his movements with her finger: across her stomach slowly up into her chest, into her right armpit and then the left and then with a jerk into her left upper arm, where the creature pushed nearly all the way to her elbow, until this swelled and swelled to the point of bursting. Shimamura thought he heard teeth gnashing. He stood stone still. Kiyo panted. She seemed to be in great pain, her forehead broke out in a sweat and her eyes filled with tears, but she did not utter another cry. And all the time her reproachful look: I’m putting up with all of this for you, Sensei, just for you.

Shun’ichi Shimamura kept one eye on himself as he witnessed the outline of a perfectly formed small fox appear, slanted, just below Kiyo’s collarbone. After a short rest the fox dodged to the side, then climbed into her neck and tried to force his way into her mouth. Kiyo pressed her lips together, then pressed her hands to her mouth to contain the fox. Her cheeks swelled up, and a few tiny bubbles of pink foam oozed out between her fingers. Was it the fox’s muzzle knocking against her teeth? Or had it turned around and was now pressing its strong tail against her lips? Kiyo was choking. Her body was shaking and twitching. Shimamura realized he had been muttering to himself the whole time—he hoped he hadn’t been saying a prayer. Then the thing turned around and moved away from the mouth, down the throat, across the chest, and back into its lair under the white bandages. Kiyo stretched out and gave a gentle moan. Perhaps like a bear. Or a bear sow. A deeply satisfied moan or drone that sounded far too low to be her own came out of the girl’s bloody lips:

Paroxysm,” said the fox.

The voice was gnarled, wise, ancient. He lay there in the form of a girl, all four legs stretched out, surrounded by the pale fish-patterned cloth and the tattered pages of a French magazine. Shun’ichi Shimamura peered into the elliptically shaped pupils encased in the dark, amber-colored eyes and met a gaze that was half interested, half bored.

*

Shimamura spent the better part of two and a half weeks in that bright room—or at least so his brain reconstructed. He sat beside the women, kneeling in his stocking feet, sweating and fanning himself, waiting to be granted an audience. When the women covered their noses and mouths with their kerchiefs and ran outside as if on command—because as much as they may have loved the girl, they had no desire to take over her fox—Shimamura would stand up and move closer to the mats in the middle of the room, near to Kiyo’s little table.

New clothes had been found for the student, who now assisted occasionally—or often—or always, depending on what Shimamura remembered. Which meant that the youth also stood by and watched. Because watching was all Shimamura did. Only one version of his memory, and not a very reliable one at that, showed him descending on the girl with percussion hammer and specula, when she once lost consciousness and was reliably human, so that he could examine her eagerly, excitedly, but without success.

The student took photographs. They happily put up with that—they being Kiyo and her illness, which to the shame of all Japan was still known as fox possession, although it was surely hiding somewhere in Professor Griesinger’s manual, even if Shimamura couldn’t find it, since he was evidently not a good enough doctor and was perhaps suffering from heat stroke or possibly some folie à deux.

The student must have shot one roll of film after the other using Professor Sakaki’s very modern English camera. Shimamura didn’t remember anything else about him, no superstitious acts, no fraternizing with the patient, not even Kiyo crying on his chest. Kiyo’s mania, her sheer existence had in one swoop turned the student from a fox exorcist back into the boy from Tokyo who for inexplicable reasons was following around a doctor of neurology.

The bright room, the fish-pattern garment, the marvel of Kiyo’s anatomy: a photographic godsend. And on top of that she made conversation. Polite speech: about the weather, the flowers, the songbirds in the garden—what a consolation for the spirit—and the market risk of flatfish, horse mackerel, and monkfish. The girl’s bright young voice and Shimamura’s “indeed?”—and meanwhile the fox had carefully twisted Kiyo’s hands into an obscene gesture she could not undo, so that Shimamura could not possibly forget its presence despite all the polite chitchat.

Now and then the fox called him “little uncle.” More often, though, it was “my dear colleague.” Even the occasional sexual proposition—like from some old whorish fox-woman. Then Kiyo would lower her head and excuse herself and clap her small white hands in front of her mouth to muffle her giggling, this bright, dumb little girl’s giggle.

Shimamura pestered Kiyo’s mother and aunts and servants as to why they didn’t arrange for an exorcist. He combed the garden between Kiyo’s favorite little flowers and songbirds, scouting for anything that might help—priests, magic pennants, receptacles. That was something he remembered exactly, running up to the steep bank by himself to look for receptacles. And that he would have gladly used his own bare hands to stuff tofu into the toothless maw of a desperate, leprous receptacle, just so that the damned fox would take a bite. And almost certainly shouting all alone into the quiet sunlight, between the dragonflies and the plucked fur in the branches: A receptacle! Please! Over here! I need you!

“She isn’t getting exorcized because there’s nothing to exorcize,” said the student, poking around in his pipe. “There isn’t any fox raging inside the girl. There’s nothing to drive out. A fox doesn’t live inside a fox. The fox is the girl’s soul. Better to leave it inside. Oh, Sensei, you’ve got it all wrong! In my family, four hundred years ago, people used to know about these things.”

Shimamura was certain his memories of these speeches were all wrong. In which case was it really true that Kiyo had been allowed to play with the student in the garden, when she was doing better, with tops and shuttlecocks, and that they laughed and laughed?

*

On the next to last evening in the fishmonger’s house a storm approached but did not erupt.

“What a shame,” said Kiyo. “It would have cooled things down. Are you going back home to Tokyo soon, Sensei? Will you write me letters? Will you send me my photographs? Will you send me a new French magazine? The last one is so horribly chewed up . . .”

Shimamura remembered everyone eating together in the evening, the student, the women, Kiyo and himself, at a spot on the veranda where there was a little more air. And that the sky was electric, black and electric, and someone—the student, one of the women, Shimamura—remarked “Ideal weather for ball lightning.”

*

Dr. Shimamura hadn’t slept for two weeks, and that night was no exception. He lay down, sat up, lay back down, sat on the porch and fanned himself. There was no ball lightning. The moon was nearly full, clouds went drifting by, and Shimamura gazed up at the roof with the fish ornament standing on its head. Every night he looked at the fish. Its mouth was open, its tailfin spread wide, and against the moonlight it looked like a crooked fountain.

Then he saw the girl crossing the roof on all fours, silently creeping along the ridge, hand over hand, toe over toe. In the middle of the roof, where the eaves widened, she stopped. And groomed herself, first licking her little paws before using them to wipe her face. The moon came and went, the broad fishtail and the girl both silhouetted against the light. Then she took off her clothes. She removed her nightgown, the bedsheet, whatever it was she wore when she went out on the roof at night. She took off her human skin as well, through a smooth opening on her stomach, and shook off her human hair, and after she had freed herself she groomed her ears.  

A whorl of fur above the collarbone. Around the jaws and down the sternum the color went from gold to white, and a linea alba ran down the entire golden tail all the way to the tip. Then Shimamura saw someone approach her. Someone who had been hanging on the eaves and now with painstaking effort scaled the ridge, a clumsy person who couldn’t control his hands and feet and who slipped when he tried to nuzzle her, then went rolling over the shingles like a wet sack.

Who was it? The student? Shimamura himself? An animal? For a while she let the person dangle there. She laughed and barked. Then she helped him up. And the moon hid behind a cloud.

*

The next morning Shun’ichi Shimamura woke up with a pharyngeal spasm and discovered that the student had disappeared. The spasm was quickly remedied with a cup of water; the student did not resurface. At first they thought he’d gone to the cliffs to enjoy the view or that he’d set off to Saiwa, but when the camera was found half disassembled in the anteroom of the kitchen, people began to wonder. The entire household knew how much the student loved his camera, why would he leave without taking it?

Shun’ichi Shimamura couldn’t remember what efforts he made to track down the student. He only remembered the fever that set off the spasm and how the women were suddenly clinging to him like leeches, with complaints, requests, questions, confessions and offers.

*

“And that’s how it’s been ever since,” Shimamura said to the housemaid when she once again brought the morning water bucket and furtively stared at the bedridden retiree, as though he were the most beautiful thing in the world. “That’s how it’s been, Luise, to this very day. My fever. My allure for women. And the student was never seen again.”

*

After he’d decided for better or worse to return home by himself, Shimamura paid Kiyo one last visit. She had been moved from the bright room into a dark chamber, because she couldn’t stand the light. He found her emaciated, apathetic, with poor circulation and unclean skin. He tapped the facial nerve in front of the ear lobe. Kiyo cried. She, too, clung somewhat to Shimamura, but soon let him go. She whined after her stuffed monkey. She whined after tofu. Nothing satisfied her. Then she fell asleep. Shimamura told the women to mix egg and honey and feed it to the girl. Now her fox was gone as well.

*

In the rickshaw, halfway to Tokyo, he wrote his last diagnosis for Professor Sakaki: hysteria.

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm.

__________________________________

From The Fox and Dr. Shimamura. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Christine Wunnicke.




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