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Okuri Inu, or the sending-off dog demon

Japanese legends say you will meet your dark dog like a friend,
like a man too concerned for your welfare, like a host
with a wooden lantern who can only light part of your way together,
sending you off only so far as it is safe. But unlike a host who returns home,
certain he knows good girls and bad, certain how soft the road is,
certain nothing dire could ever come to you because
you don’t deserve it, the dark dog follows.
The dark dog does not talk of deserving, he grins and growls for all,
metacarpals matching you tread for tread, pad-fall for footfall,
bushy tail wagging behind like a wolf’s. Perhaps he is a cute puppy
who follows as if in love, as if trailing to make sure you get home.
Chi, chi, chi trills the yosuzume, bird-certain that a slavering
heavy beast follows you through the dark, urging you not to stumble.
Twisted roots conspire to catch toes and heels on each step on the path,
the canopy of what people don’t want to see at night
blocking the stars, the moon. Few could believe someone
so kindly as he’s been, has teeth. Then you slip,
and the world is as black as the inside of a closed mouth,
hot and sticky with blood from a bitten tongue.
The night is as frantic as the breath through your nostrils.
As rapid-fire as the word no. Nonononono.
The lore advises to fake the fall if you stumble, pretend intent,
rest your panic out until you can keep going. But little sister
I can only tell you what I know: I did not keep my steps perfect.
I met his eyes with my knife, and complicit silence
with anger. I became more than his mouthful.
Because you know and I know what real friends do,
and by the dog’s body still lying on the road,
what he did was not it.

Inspired by corresponding entry in the Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits: an Encyclopedia of Mononoke and Magic by Matthew Meyer.

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Betsy Aoki

Elizabeth (Betsy) Aoki is a poet, short story writer and game producer. Her work has appeared / is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction, and anthologized in Climbing Lightly Through Forests (Ursula K. Le Guin tribute poetry anthology). In 2021 she won the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize Honoring Jake Adam York, as selected by Jericho Brown.
Her first poetry collection, Breakpoint, is a 2019 National Poetry Series Finalist and received the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. Breakpoint is forthcoming from Tebot Bach in 2022. You can find her tweeting at @baoki or contact her via her website at betsyaoki.com.

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