Bebe Taian: Astride the Corpse

October 7, 2013

Astride the Corpse

Astride the Corpse
From Konjaku Monogatarishuu, translated by Royall Tyler (Japanese Tales, 1987)

A man once abandoned his wife of many years and left her so grief-stricken that she fell ill and died. Alas, since the poor woman had no parents and no close friends there was no one to take her body. She just lay where she was. The neighbours who peeped in through a crack were frightened to see that her hair did not fall out and her bones stayed firmly knit together; and when they noticed that there was always a light in the house, and a sound of groaning, they got so afraid that they ran away.

The husband felt half dead with fear when he heard about all this. "How am I to avoid the ghost's curse?" he wondered. "She died hating me and she's bound to get me." In his difficulty he sought help from a ying-yang diviner.

The diviner agreed that this was a bad situation, but he promised to do his best. "Please be aware, though," he cautioned, "that the procedure is really terrifying. I want you to understand that clearly at the outset."

At sundown the diviner led the husband to the corpse's house. Just listening from the outside was enough to make the husband's hair stand on end, and the thought of going in was really more than he could bear, but under the diviner's guidance he went in after all. It was true: his wife's hair was still in place and her skeleton was still intact. The diviner sat him down on the skeleton's back, gave him the hair to hold, and warned him at all costs not to let go of it. Then he read some spells, announced he would have to leave, and reminded the husband again to expect a terrifying experience. The husband, more dead than alive, was left alone astride the corpse clutching its hair.

Darkness fell. In the middle of the night the corpse suddenly said, "Oof! What a weight!" Then it stood up and began to run around. "Now to go look for that brute!" it went on, and charged off. The husband never let go of the hair, and the corpse eventually returned to the house and lay down again. There are no words to describe the husband's terror, but he kept hold of the hair and stayed on the corpse till the cocks began to crow and the corpse fell silent.

At dawn the diviner came back. Having made sure the husband really had kept hold of the hair, he read some more spells over the corpse, then took the husband outside and told him he had nothing more to fear. The husband thanked him with tears of gratitude. Nothing ever did happen to him.

This happened not all that long ago, because the husband's grandchildren are supposed to be alive still, and so are the diviner's.

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