This is a tale that my ancestor told me, a tale of mischief.
In the young days of Japan, the gods and the demons roamed the earth at will, rewarding and cursing as their whims called them. All manner of beings plagued and aided Humanity, Oni and Tengu, spirits and immortal deities.
Wonders were worked; for those were the days of wonders.
Among these spirits were the Kitsune, the fox spirits. Ah, there’s a conundrum…
Some of the most mischievous, most acerbic, and most noble of the spirits of the earth. Capable of malicious spite in the name of revenge and righteous sacrifice in the name of good. So many and varied were their acts that no one could place trust in them; for they were as the wind, calm and soothing one day, blistering and tormenting another.
Once, my old grandfather told me a tale of a Kitsune (for these were my favorite stories; even back then I had a fascination with the fox spirits) named Rain-shadow. A simple and strange name for such a character, and utterly opposite to his character.
Once my grandfather told me of a story of Rain-shadow wherein he found himself backed into a corner by Tiger and Viper, intent on taking his life for a recent theft of their winter stores.
“We have had enough of your mischief, Rain-shadow,” they growled together, claws and fangs bared, “You have stolen what is ours, and we will stand it no more.”
“Gentle Tiger, wise Viper, permit me leave to acquit myself of this crime!” cried Rain-shadow, mind racing.
“No, fool of a fox. We will not be deceived by your words. Prepare for the end!”
Tiger and Viper tensed to leap, but Rain-shadow cried aloud in the last remaining second, “And where is your unbroken coat, Tiger? Where is your beautiful emerald sheath, Viper?”
They gave pause.
“What do you mean by this, fox?” growled Tiger, looking up and down his coat, “My stripes have been where they are since a burning tree, lit by you, etched them in!”
“And I have not had my unbroken emerald color since you stole it off of me, to fashion into a ring for your paramour!” hissed Viper.
Rain-shadow put on his humblest face and bowed his head, much to the confusion of the other two; modesty was unheard-of from a Kitsune, much less Rain-shadow!
“I have done you great wrong by stealing your colors. Permit me, friends, to retrieve them for you!” he cried, falling to his knees and extending his hands to them.
Viper and Tiger looked at each other, completely bewildered by this sudden change of heart. Then the same though formed in their minds; They would have their colors, a vanity with some power behind it, retrieved for them, and the fox within their grasp.
Truly, these were two thankless animals. But more often than not, so was a fox.
“Very well, Kitsune. Bring us back our raiment, and we shall let you keep the food and live as well,” said Viper, putting on his sweetest smile and flicking his forked tongue through his teeth.
“My friends, I shall.”
They left him then, off to hunt in order to replenish their stores.
Rain-shadow returned home, resisting the urge not to caper with glee. His mate awaited him in his den, wearing the ring of Viper’s Emerald.
“My love, my dear, I must have that ring,” said Rain-shadow, pointing to the band on her finger.
“Why?” asked his wife, who was nobody’s fool.
“Why, to present it back to Viper! It was a great wrong of me to deprive him of this brilliant coloring, and I have come to make amends. May my love give me the ring back?”
She smiled, eyes twinkling. She knew what had very likely occurred; she was Rain-shadow’s wife, the only being who truly knew him. She took off the ring and handed it over, a spot of grass in the hand of the fox.
Rain-shadow then went to the back of his den, rummaging through a pile of trophies and artifacts.
Eventually he drew out a black ball of spice, which he had won from the Deities of the Floating Bridge of Heaven in a contest of tomfoolery and strength.
Taking the ball of spice and the ring, the Kitsune first ran to the house of Viper.
Viper admitted him cordially, eyeing the ring in the fox’s hand with a keen hunger.
“Brother Viper, here is your coloring. But permit me to make sure it will stay; you have been without it a long while, it may slip your body. This paste will secure it.”
He slathered the black powder like glue over the moist emerald coloring, now become a long coil of green in his hand.
Viper said nothing; the thoughts of vanity had consumed his mind, and his sole thought was of possessing a long-missing part of him.
When Rain-shadow had finished, he handed the sheath of emerald to the snake, who wriggled into it without a second thought.
Instantly the snake began to writhe with pain, the potent spice sinking into his skin, setting him on fire with agony.
His skin swelled up, and the second skin burst, Viper writhing free with a scream. Much of his color had been restored to him, but the pain of the divine spice still remained, a dull throbbing in his skin .
In the distance, Viper thought he saw the flick of a white tail, and the high, vicious yip-yip-yip! of an amused fox.
Thus it is that the descendants of Viper must shed their skins; for the pain of the heavenly spice becomes unbearable, and they must relieve themselves somehow.
Next Rain-shadow came to the lair of Tiger, the bones of many an unfortunate animal scattered around the entrance. The Kitsune walked bravely forward, grabbing the skull of another tiger as he proceeded.
He entered the lair of Tiger, and was nearly overcome by the stench of rot and meat. Tiger himself sat in the innards of his latest kill, lounging and asleep.
Rain-shadow knew that there was no way he would escape should Tiger awake. So he tiptoed forward, getting as close as he could with the spice and the skull.
He got within inches of the cat’s face, shivering at the fearsome sound of his breath. The Kitsune set the skull down, taking more of the spice and carefully applying it to the bone.
He worked it endlessly, forming the thin face of a starved tiger. The big cat still did not wake, despite the presence of his enemy.
Finally, Rain-shadow finished, and placed his hand lightly on Tiger’s flank.
Did I mention that Tiger’s markings were nowhere near as severe as we know them before this day?
The orange and tawny flowed off Tiger, deepening the blackness of his coat and lengthening the stripes.
Rain-shadow, holding back raucous laughter, took the color and applied it to the spice-tiger head, making it a masterful copy of a tiger’s head. Then he all but flew out of the den, kicking up a bone as he reached the mouth of the cave.
He stopped, listening with all his might. He heard Tiger bellow with surprise, heard a crunching sound that sent a wince through him, and laughed as he heard the roars of pain.
“KITSUNE! I WILL FIND YOU! I WILL EAT YOUR PUNY FOX FLESH! I WILL REND YOU AND TEAR YOU!” screamed Tiger’s pain-stricken voice, doubled in volume by the sight of his new coloring.
“Cherry blossoms are often picked, Tiger, but you’ll have to search far to find the fruit of Heaven!” Rain-shadow called over his shoulder, cackling and bounding off into the forest.
Thus it is that the tiger has the marks of flame and treachery along its flank, and it is for this that tigers and snakes hunt foxes whenever they have the chance.