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Ingwa-banashi Post by :freebie Category :Short Stories Author :Lafcadio Hearn Date :September 2011 Read :1424

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The daimyo's wife was dying, and knew that she was dying. She had not been able to leave her bed since the early autumn of the tenth Bunsei. It was now the fourth month of the twelfth Bunsei, --the year 1829 by Western counting; and the cherry-trees were blossoming. She thought of the cherry-trees in her garden, and of the gladness of spring. She thought of her children. She thought of her husband's various concubines,--especially the Lady Yukiko, nineteen years old.

"My dear wife," said the daimyo, "you have suffered very much for three long years. We have done all that we could to get you well,--watching beside you night and day, praying for you, and often fasting for your sake, But in spite of our loving care, and in spite of the skill of our best physicians, it would now seen that the end of your life is not far off. Probably we shall sorrow more than you will sorrow because of your having to leave what the Buddha so truly termed 'this burning-house of the world. I shall order to be performed--no matter what the cost--every religious rite that can serve you in regard to your next rebirth; and all of us will pray without ceasing for you, that you may not have to wander in the Black Space, but nay quickly enter Paradise, and attain to Buddha-hood."

He spoke with the utmost tenderness, pressing her the while. Then, with eyelids closed, she answered him in a voice thin as the voice of in insect:--

"I am grateful--most grateful--for your kind words.... Yes, it is true, as you say, that I have been sick for three long years, and that I have been treated with all possible care and affection.... Why, indeed, should I turn away from the one true Path at the very moment of my death?... Perhaps to think of worldly matters at such a time is not right;--but I have one last request to make,--only one.... Call here to me the Lady Yukiko;--you know that I love her like a sister. I want to speak to her about the affairs of this household."

Yukiko came at the summons of the lord, and, in obedience to a sign from him, knelt down beside the couch. The daimyo's wife opened her eyes, and looked at Yukiko, and spoke:--"Ah, here is Yukiko!... I am so pleased to see you, Yukiko!... Come a little closer,--so that you can hear me well: I am not able to speak loud.... Yukiko, I am going to die. I hope that you will be faithful in all things to our dear lord;--for I want you to take my place when I am gone.... I hope that you will always be loved by him,--yes, even a hundred times more than I have been,--and that you will very soon be promoted to a higher rank, and become his honored wife.... And I beg of you always to cherish our dear lord: never allow another woman to rob you of his affection.... This is what I wanted to say to you, dear Yukiko.... Have you been able to understand?"

"Oh, my dear Lady," protested Yukiko, "do not, I entreat you, say such strange things to me! You well know that I am of poor and mean condition:--how could I ever dare to aspire to become the wife of our lord!"

"Nay, nay!" returned the wife, huskily,--"this is not a time for words of ceremony: let us speak only the truth to each other. After my death, you will certainly be promoted to a higher place; and I now assure you again that I wish you to become the wife of our lord--yes, I wish this, Yukiko, even more than I wish to become a Buddha!... Ah, I had almost forgotten!--I want you to do something for me, Yukiko. You know that in the garden there is a yae-zakura,(2) which was brought here, the year before last, from Mount Yoshino in Yamato. I have been told that it is now in full bloom;--and I wanted so much to see it in flower! In a little while I shall be dead;--I must see that tree before I die. Now I wish you to carry me into the garden--at once, Yukiko,--so that I can see it.... Yes, upon your back, Yukiko;--take me upon your back...."

While thus asking, her voice had gradually become clear and strong,--as if the intensity of the wish had given her new force: then she suddenly burst into tears. Yukiko knelt motionless, not knowing what to do; but the lord nodded assent.

"It is her last wish in this world," he said. "She always loved cherry-flowers; and I know that she wanted very much to see that Yamato-tree in blossom. Come, my dear Yukiko, let her have her will."

As a nurse turns her back to a child, that the child may cling to it, Yukiko offered her shoulders to the wife, and said:--

"Lady, I am ready: please tell me how I best can help you."

"Why, this way!"--responded the dying woman, lifting herself with an almost superhuman effort by clinging to Yukiko's shoulders. But as she stood erect, she quickly slipped her thin hands down over the shoulders, under the robe, and clutched the breasts of the girl,, and burst into a wicked laugh.

"I have my wish!" she cried-"I have my wish for the cherry- bloom,(3)--but not the cherry-bloom of the garden!... I could not die before I got my wish. Now I have it!--oh, what a delight!"

And with these words she fell forward upon the crouching girl, and died.

The attendants at once attempted to lift the body from Yukiko's shoulders, and to lay it upon the bed. But--strange to say!--this seemingly easy thing could not be done. The cold hands had attached themselves in some unaccountable way to the breasts of the girl,--appeared to have grown into the quick flesh. Yukiko became senseless with fear and pain.

Physicians were called. They could not understand what had taken place. By no ordinary methods could the hands of the dead woman be unfastened from the body of her victim;--they so clung that any effort to remove them brought blood. This was not because the fingers held: it was because the flesh of the palms had united itself in some inexplicable manner to the flesh of the breasts!

At that time the most skilful physician in Yedo was a foreigner, --a Dutch surgeon. It was decided to summon him. After a careful examination he said that he could not understand the case, and that for the immediate relief of Yukiko there was nothing to be done except to cut the hands from the corpse. He declared that it would be dangerous to attempt to detach them from the breasts. His advice was accepted; and the hands' were amputated at the wrists. But they remained clinging to the breasts; and there they soon darkened and dried up,--like the hands of a person long dead.

Yet this was only the beginning of the horror.

Withered and bloodless though they seemed, those hands were not dead. At intervals they would stir--stealthily, like great grey spiders. And nightly thereafter,--beginning always at the Hour of the Ox,(4)--they would clutch and compress and torture. Only at the Hour of the Tiger the pain would cease.

Yukiko cut off her hair, and became a mendicant-nun,--taking the religious name of Dassetsu. She had an ibai (mortuary tablet) made, bearing the kaimyo of her dead mistress,--"Myo-Ko-In-Den Chizan-Ryo-Fu Daishi";--and this she carried about with her in all her wanderings; and every day before it she humbly besought the dead for pardon, and performed a Buddhist service in order that the jealous spirit might find rest. But the evil karma that had rendered such an affliction possible could not soon be exhausted. Every night at the Hour of the Ox, the hands never failed to torture her, during more than seventeen years,-- according to the testimony of those persons to whom she last told her story, when she stopped for one evening at the house of Noguchi Dengozayemon, in the village of Tanaka in the district of Kawachi in the province of Shimotsuke. This was in the third year of Kokwa (1846). Thereafter nothing more was ever heard of her.


(1) Lit., "a tale of ingwa." Ingwa is a Japanese Buddhist term for evil karma, or the evil consequence of faults committed in a former state of existence. Perhaps the curious title of the narrative is best explained by the Buddhist teaching that the dead have power to injure the living only in consequence of evil actions committed by their victims in some former life. Both title and narrative may be found in the collection of weird stories entitled Hyaku-Monogatari.

(2) Yae-zakura, yae-no-sakura, a variety of Japanese cherry-tree that bears double-blossoms.

(3) In Japanese poetry and proverbial phraseology, the physical beauty of a woman is compared to the cherry-flower; while feminine moral beauty is compared to the plum-flower.

(4) In ancient Japanese time, the Hour of the Ox was the special hour of ghosts. It began at 2 A.M., and lasted until 4 A.M.--for the old Japanese hour was double the length of the modern hour. The Hour of the Tiger began at 4 A.M.

(The end)
Lafcadio Hearn's short story: Ingwa-Banashi

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