One foggy night, long long ago, Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, was passing through the narrow streets of a small rural town on the banks of the river Mu. Smoke from cooking fires combined with the damp cold air to produce fevers and loud hacking coughs that shook the thin paper walls of the houses and caused the entire population to toss and turn in fretful sleep. Kwan Yin moved tirelessly from house to house laying cool fingers on hot foreheads, dripping her sweet balm onto the parched lips of sick children. With so much human misery voicing discomfort and fear it was astonishing that her ears picked up the faint whine of a distressed animal.
It was coming from beneath an old overturned rowboat on the banks of the river. A bent oarlock kept one side barely raised above the mud, while the other lay half-buried in muck. Bending down to peer beneath the boat, Kwan Yin spied two emerald green eyes glowering from a far corner. The smell of blood and urine and the sharp musk of fox told her all she needed to know. The animal had become trapped, who knows how many days ago; faced with starvation, unable to extricate itself, it had begun to gnaw at its own paw in a last desperate attempt at freedom.
“Hush,” she hummed. “Hush, now. Lie very still.”
Grasping the edge of the splintering wooden boat, the goddess heaved with all her strength, but he boat refused to budge. Dropping to her knees, she dug a small hole in the dirt. Placing her lips close to the ground she called softly, “Izanami, Sister Earth, can you hear me?”
The ground trembled beneath her knees.
“Please, dear sister. Grant your unworthy little sister this one small favor. You hold a rowboat, old and crumbling, painted blue, half-buried beside the River Mu. It holds one of your living creatures captive. I beg you to release the fox into my care.”
The sound of tumbling rocks grinding against each other rose out of the hole. Kwan Yin listened patiently to the familiar grumble. She knew the lecture by heart – “Stop interfering, taking every disaster to heart, attempting to change the natural course of things …”Finally, the lengthy tirade ground to a stop. The hole snapped shut as the river bank gave a convulsive twitch and flipped the row boat up in the air. It landed with a splash, half in and half out of the water, drenching Kwan Yin’s white kimono.
She shook out her wet robes and tore a strip off the bottom of her underskirt. The fox bared its teeth as her hand approached the mangled paw, but the fight went out of him at her touch. His heavy sigh, sounded like a sob, like giving up, and for a moment she thought him expired. Then his pink tongue, rough as a cat’s, licked feebly, twice across her fingers.
At that moment lights appeared at the end of the cobbled lane. Gongs sounded, men shouted, and cymbals clanged. A shaman’s voice rose above the crowd, exhorting the angry mob to search out the fox spirit who had brought sickness to their village. Scooping the fox up in her arms, Kwan Yin stepped quickly into the rowboat. The sudden redistribution of weight dislodged the boat from its loose mooring. A moment later a strong current seized them in its grip and bore them away.
Muffled in darkness with nothing to see or do, the unlikely companions soon fell fast asleep. They awoke in the midst of a snow-covered forest. The boat drifted along more slowly now, closer to the banks. Once or twice, Kwan Yin managed to snatch a branch of frozen berries from an overhanging bush. She fed them one by one to the fox along with mouthfuls of snow, melted in her cupped palms.
The fog had dissipated and though the days remained overcast, at night the skies cleared to reveal a strange star burning large, low and bright on the western horizon. The beautiful compelling light seemed to be guiding them. The two companions took to sleeping during the day and sitting awake at night to sing and yelp at the beautiful sight.
As the fox recovered, his red fur began to shine and his nose gleamed shiny and black. The green eyes sparkled with mischief and his scraggly tail fluffed out into a glorious bush. One day he spoke. “Tonight is the longest night,” he said conversationally,
Kwan Yin glanced at him, “You needed have bothered pretending not to talk. I can read minds and I speak the tongue of every sentient creature.”
The fox looked crestfallen for a second. “I knew there was something funny about you – you never eat or drink.”
“What do you mean – the longest night?”
“You mean you don’t know everything?”
She shook her head.
“It means the year is changing. Winter is coming, but at the same time the light returns, the days get longer. Tonight is a magical time of transition. Anything could happen. Perhaps, our journey will finally come to an end”
No sooner where the words out of the fox’s mouth when the boat bumped into the bank and stuck fast in a tangle of roots.
“It’s almost midnight, “whispered the fox.
“Somewhere, a baby’s being born, a radiant child, a special child. I can sense the mother’s labor pains and feel her joy,” replied Kwan Yin.
Above them the star flared. It shone on the snow shrouded trees where one bare branch burst into flower.
“Time to go,” said the fox. He jumped into Kwan Yin’s arms, licked her face and jumped. The snow flew up in flurries, sparkling in the moonlight. She blinked and he was gone.