It's a kitsune story, inevitably. Equally inevitably, the kitsune is a Mitsubishi Zero pilot in the Battle of Midway. I'm very pleased with how this one turned out and delighted it was accepted for publication.
(If you were at ConFuzzled, this is the story that Kandrel read aloud for me at the Bedtime Stories event.)
Counting kept the fox in its place. Takeo had learned the trick as a small boy, when he first had to go to school with a fox cub’s skinny tail wriggling indignantly in his shorts leg. Later, he discovered that aviation manuals and technical specifications quieted the animal inside him, too.
So as he hurried across the carrier deck, Takeo counted off the aircraft already in the sky and heading towards the enemy fleet. Ten B5N torpedo bombers and six Type 0 fighters, plus his own and Nobu’s still on the deck. That made sixteen; two eights. A lucky number.
An hour before, he had counted off eighteen of the Type 99 dive bombers and six Type 0s; three eights. Lucky again, although not for the ones who hadn’t returned.
He ran his gloved hand along the rim of the cockpit, caressing it, as he climbed in. The Zero-fighter was a sleek, cold tube. Men had designed and built every part of it. It had no spirit, until it swallowed its pilot.
The canopy slid shut, muffling the noises of a big, busy ship in motion. He heard the crack of the starter cartridge, and the propeller blurred. Straight away the plane tried to pull itself forward along the deck, but he held back, waiting for the signal to take off.
Once he was cleared, there could be no hesitation. Throttle open, he pointed the howling plane at the spot where the grey deck stopped dead. Before he reached the void, his Zero wobbled into the air and began to climb steadily. The fox gave an anxious wriggle.
“My plane has a skin of aluminium alloy,” he told it. “It is powered by the Prosperity engine of the Nakajima Aircraft Company.”
The fox settled.
Takeo had not dreamed that he would love to fly. Joining the Air Service of the Imperial Navy had felt like a matter in which he had no choice, but he soon understood that the choice had been right for him. The higher he climbed, the lighter his heart. Concentrating on the controls lulled his fox, and he took pride in being one of his squadron’s best pilots. After a lifetime spent longing to be ordinary, the desire to excel had surprised him during his training.
The sky, with its few high clouds, had a liquid clarity that made him feel closer to the unseen stars and gods. He thanked them both when he saw that Nobu had also completed his takeoff successfully, and was rising to join him.
Takeo got on fine with the rest of the squadron. They teased him, not only about his need to count everything, but for the way Hana, their mascot, barked and growled when he came near; his pointed face, said to be the shape girls found most attractive; his bottomless appetite for fried tofu. Takeo recognised it as their way of showing friendship, and it pleased him. They might call him a prude because he always insisted on bathing alone, in private, but a prude was better than a coward. Either was better than a demon.
Nobu, though, quietly religious in an old-fashioned way, and quick to blush...Nobu was special. His home village was close to where Takeo had grown up, and Nobu’s discovery of the fact early in their training had bonded them. Wherever Takeo flew, Nobu took up the wingman’s position, just astern and to the side. The urge to look after Nobu was a pull in Takeo’s stomach sharper and more painful than the pull of gravity in a steep dive.
They formed up with the rest of the fighter escort, above the slower B5Ns with their torpedoes slung beneath them. Takeo had eaten before takeoff, but he was already ravenous again. The carrier shrank in the distance, a toy boat on a painted ocean brushed in long strokes of blue and white. He unwrapped one of the rice cakes Mother sent him as often as she could—something else the other boys teased him for—and munched it as he steered one-handed. Nobu bobbed up on his right wing, pointing and laughing at his greedy friend. Takeo waved and turned the Zero’s nose towards the horizon, and the unseen enemy.
The flavour and texture of bean paste in his mouth recalled Mother so strongly he could almost hear her voice, the day he left for training.
“You could live to be a thousand years old. You could learn to make the foxfire; you could talk to gods and stars. You could fly with no need for a plane, if that’s what you want. But you’re going to war,” she said.
“With everyone else in my class. I want to be like the others.” She knew he had to go; she, too, would have felt the tug that summoned him. But mothers had to protest, and she wanted to be an ordinary mother as much as he wanted to be an ordinary son.
“You’re not like the others, Takeo-baby. You realise that once you leave home, you can’t just be the fox whenever you want?”
“I can’t do that now.”
“You’ve always had a safe place here. Out there in the world, you’ll be concealing yourself from everyone. You’ll sleep alone; bathe alone. There’s no going back, once you make the choice. Man or fox.”
She had made that choice once, when she fell in love with Father. Takeo tried to picture her as a playful cub herself, but she had worn the disguise for so long that it was impossible. She wouldn’t even show him her tail, now, though he had played with it long ago, shifting from cub to toddler as he rolled and bit.
This was the first time she had ever seemed unhappy with her decision.
He didn’t tell her that he had said goodbye to the fox earlier that day, as he scampered through fields with the wet grass brushing his belly, rolled in the dappled sunlight of the woods, and ate a fresh offering of hot fried tofu laid on the mossy stones of the ancient shrine. Then he locked away the swiftness, the keen senses, the lithe little four-footed, furry body.
“I’ve made up my mind,” he said, fiercely. “Like you did.”
She leaned close. “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable as a girl?” she whispered. “You could still switch. If you do it now.”
“Mother!” He turned his head away to hide his pink cheeks. “A girl can’t be a pilot!”
“Exactly,” she said.
She knelt to hold him tightly, her arms squeezing his shoulders and waist. No—it was the harness, holding him back in his seat as the plane turned, and Takeo was at war.
You can buy the anthology here; quicker and cheaper than Amazon, I'm told, though it will be on both the UK and US sites soon.