During this week falls the Japanese festival of Obon. (It’s hard to pin down precisely what day it is — different towns seem to celebrate it at slightly different times, but it’s right around now, anyway.) It’s similar in some ways to Hallowe’en. It’s the time when the spirits of the dead return to visit their earthly homes, so in folk belief, the walls between the worlds are thin, and spirits roam. People go to the cemeteries and clean up the family graves — pulling weeds, sweeping up fallen leaves (so it’s kind of like Memorial Day, too). Buddhists pay special attention to the family altars in their homes, buying special offerings of expensive food to place there for the ancestors. Niigata Festival is going on this week, which always makes for an exciting atmosphere — different events go on every night for several days, including parades with traditional dancers, the extravagant fireworks display (tonight), and the launching of floating lanterns on the Shinano River. The streets are crowded; restaurants are packed at suppertime; pedestrians flock here and there, many wearing kimonos. There is no one specific center for the festival: things happen here and there, though primary focal points are the main shopping streets, the Shinto shrines, and in front of the train station. Flutes are shrilling and drums are pounding. I like to find the time sometime during this week to make a loop through the city on my bicycle after dark — it’s an enchanted world of sorts, particularly when the fireworks are lighting up the sky. (Tonight looks as if it’ll be rainy, though.)
Another midsummer/Obon custom is the telling of ghost stories. I’ve heard that the reasoning behind the timing is so that people can feel cooler in the hottest season. Seriously! People tell creepy stories, and when they’re shivering with chills and goosebumps, they forget the oppressive heat for a few minutes.
This is a time to tip our hats to Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). If you’ve read any traditional Japanese ghost stories, I’m quite sure that what you read came through Hearn’s pen. He was a westerner (born in the Greek Ionian Islands, grew up in Ireland, and moved to the U.S.A. as a young man) who moved to Japan, married a Japanese woman, and spent the end of his life here, collecting and translating and retelling the folklore of long-ago Japan. He became a nationalized citizen and took the name Koizumi Yakumo. It’s famously told that his wife helped him understand some of the stories and cultural concepts by miming or acting them out for him, and he wrote things down accordingly. Have you read “Houichi the Earless”? That’s from Hearn. “The Peony Lantern”? Hearn. “Rokuro-kubi”? Yep. Hearn single-handedly introduced old-time Japanese folklore to the western world. Perhaps his best-known book is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903). Kwaidan itself means “Weird Tales.” Five stars! Get it — read it — this is the season for it! I’m not responsible if it spooks you and you can’t sleep. But at least you should be able to turn off your air conditioner.
So what better time than this to tell you a ghost story? This relates to the previous post, too, in which I hinted at the possible existence of a ghost in my Illinois house . . . which perhaps is more than a case of wishful thinking.
First, here’s a very true story which may or may not be related to the ghost. This is the one paranormal experience which I can say for sure I’ve had: when I was in elementary school (I don’t remember how far along), one Saturday my mom and I were in the basement of our house looking for something — canning jars or something. [Isn’t “canning jars” an oxymoron? If the process is “canning,” why use jars?] My dad was at work at our bookstore. Suddenly my mom and I both heard, very distinctly, footsteps crossing the floor above our heads. This was no case of “old houses settling” or ambiguous creaking or popping. It was a clear, unmistakable procession of footfalls, tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp, across the main floor of the house. When we went upstairs, we found no one, and we were quite alone in the house. To this day I have no idea what caused that sound, but Mom and I both heard it and agreed that it could be nothing other than footsteps.
Since my Cousin Phil “went public” in his comment on the previous posting, I guess it’s fair game to relate his story here: one summer when he was visiting (again, we were somewhere in elementary school), he and I had gone to bed in my bedroom, and it was pitch black with the darkness one only gets in the country, far from the city lights, with branches rustling and the occasional pack of coyotes yelping. Just after we’d gone to bed and before we were asleep, Phil felt a hand cover his hand and press down. He was too terrified to open his eyes. After a moment, the hand withdrew. There’s no way it could have been a parent, because there was no light in the room to see by (a parent couldn’t have even seen us), and besides, you can hear parents coming a mile off. By the same reasoning, I don’t see how it could have been anyone human. It’s been so long ago that I don’t remember now whether Phil eventually poked me and we whispered about it that night, or whether he waited until the next morning to tell me. But I do know that even today we talk about the incident, and even as men in our forties, we both still sleep with our hands under the covers.
Was our ghost, perhaps, checking to see who this newcomer in our house was, and who was sleeping next to “her” boy? If so, why did none of my other friends who stayed over ever get their hands touched? Did the ghost recognize a family member? Could the touch have been a kind of greeting?
Now I’m going to turn you over to my dad. This is a little essay he wrote in spring 1991:
I have been giving considerable thought lately to why it is that two or more people can be in the same place, and one may see a spectre or U.F.O. WHILE THE OTHER SEES NOTHING. Is it possible that there may be a form of sight that is independent of the eye? I would like to present a personal example to illustrate the thought.
Back in the winter of 1985/86 our only child, our son, was away at college, so it was our custom to close off our bedroom on the colder, northwest corner of our house and sleep in his bedroom on the northeastern corner.
On the night in question, I had retired earlier than my wife. I could hear her in the bathroom, which separated the two bedrooms, bathing, preparing to retire also. As I lay there trying to get warm, I was lying on my right side, which enabled me to see the closet that filled the entire south wall of the bedroom. After a few minutes, I thought I heard my wife cross the small hallway outside of the bedroom and come into the room. I expected her to walk around to the north side of the bed and to get in. Instead, the figure I saw came directly toward me until it almost reached me and then turned to the right and seemingly entered the closet. I was jolted! After a few minutes, my wife actually did come to bed.
As I lay there perplexed, it suddenly came to me that I couldn’t have seen what I thought I had seen! It was my custom, on cold nights, to pull the covers up over my head until I got warm. Therefore, I couldn’t have seen the little old lady, dressed in brown, old-fashioned clothing, enter the closet. Not with my physical eyes.
If I saw her, it must have been through other means. I know I was not dreaming, as I was still too cold to be comfortable at the time.
A footnote to this story is that when my son was still in grade school, he reported seeing the same figure performing the same act. I might also add that the two bedrooms and bath were new additions to our house that were added on after we moved there. Where the little old spectre walks is outside of the original house. Who she is, or what her errand, could be anybody’s guess.
More on his reference to what I saw in a minute, but a few comments here are in order. One, you know how in Dragonfly, the main character is extremely relieved that her Uncle Henry hears the strange sounds from the basement, too? It was a big relief to me as a kid that my parents didn’t try to pretend the world was all well-lighted and quantifiable and sanitary.
Two, that room in Dad’s story, of course, is the same one where Phil felt the hand. Same bed (although in Phil’s incident, I was on the side of the bed toward the closet, and he was back on the “sheltered” side toward the toy shelves). Three, I remember a time many years later when Dad excitedly told me he’d felt a mysterious cold spot right at the door to my bedroom — just outside the room, as I recall. I was away at the time, either in college or in Japan, so I had no way of checking it out.
And four, here’s one more story about my dad which lends even further credence to his report. One summer when I was home, he went to bed (in the other bedroom — the one where he and Mom regularly slept), and Mom and I were still up in the kitchen, talking. A little while after he’d gone to bed, I had something (probably my dirty socks) that I wanted to throw into the laundry basket, which was in Mom and Dad’s room. So as not to disturb Dad, I went into his room without turning on the light (navigating by the light from the bathroom just outside). Very quietly I walked around his bed, put the socks into the basket, went back to the kitchen, and continued talking with my mom.
Well, a few minutes later, Dad came into the kitchen looking totally creeped out — his hair was almost standing on end, like in a cartoon — and he told us very seriously that he’d seen a vision of a young man come into the room and walk around the bed, then walk out again — a young man who looked like me! With embarrassment at having spooked him, I explained that it had been me, that I’d just been in there to put the socks in the basket. He was reluctant to believe me, since he knew I was in the kitchen talking, and he thought the figure he saw had been too quiet to be a real person. [Quite frequently I scare people without intending to because apparently I move quietly. Maybe it’s my traces of native American blood — I’m not sure — but in both countries, friends of mine have shrieked at the way I glide up behind them, and they turn around and see me. . . . Sorry, sorry!]
But anyway, I tell that story here because Dad’s reactions and ways of recounting his experiences don’t change: unwittingly, I provided a “control” if this were an experiment — I saw how he reacted to an incident that I could explain, and it was just how he reacted to what I couldn’t . . . which seems to suggest that there was something he perceived in the “old lady” sighting that seemed as real to him as when, years later, he saw “the ghost of me.”
But anyway, I no longer very clearly remember the experience of mine that started it all. I would have been in 3rd or 4th grade. The mental picture I have is of lying on my side, facing the closet, and noticing the way the moon was shining brightly through the open window, with the curtains billowing softly in a draft. For just the fraction of an instant, I had the image of a misty, transparent old lady moving in profile beside the bed, between me and the closet — gliding toward the window and angling upward, as if traveling on the moonbeams. But I can’t say for sure now whether I was awake or asleep, or whether I saw an actual shape or some trick of moonlight and/or the relaxing mind.
Finally, many years later, after I’d been in Japan for a long time, I had one possible encounter with the “ghost” (?), although this time it was fully inside a dream. I was home on summer vacation, visiting my parents. I know I was asleep this time, dreaming in my old bed in my old room. It was the type of dream that you’re aware is a dream while you’re having it; those are kind of comforting, like seeing a movie.
In the dream, I was in the kitchen in the middle of the night, and the whole house was dark. I opened the refrigerator, and in the frosty glow from inside it, I met the little old lady. She came from the direction of the living room or kitchenette, from my left. This time, she didn’t look ghost-like at all: she wasn’t transparent, and she was walking with solid feet on the floor. She had dark hair and dark brown clothes. Her face was soft and kind, perhaps a little sad, and she seemed confused.
In the dream I wasn’t alarmed. Rather, I felt like I wanted to help her, so I asked, “Can I help you? Are you looking for something?”
“My dresses,” she answered, looking forlornly around the kitchen. “I had a whole lot of old dresses here, and I can’t find a one of them.”
“Well, this is the kitchen,” I said. “We have some clothes in the closet. Let’s go look there.” I led the way to my parents’ bedroom [this is all a dream, remember] and opened the closet quietly, since my parents were asleep in bed. “Do any of these look familiar?” I whispered.
She shook her head sadly. “None of these are mine.”
And that was pretty much the end of the dream segment. So . . . you can put the pieces together however you like. Maybe we have a little old ghost who keeps track of the people who come and go, and who lived there in some other era — it’s an old house with a long history. During the year I lived alone there after my parents passed away, I saw no sign of her. One of my aunts asked me how I could possibly stand to stay there by myself after both my parents passed on (at different times) in that house. I just shrugged and said, “If there are ghosts here, they’re ghosts that love me.”
So that’s the news from Japan, during this Obon week.
I should also announce that I finished the rough draft of The Sacred Woods, and as of now I am 26% done with the line-edits! (The larger “chunk-editing” is done.) I’m pretty excited about this book.
Here’s a true story: on the very night I finished the first draft, just as I was writing some of the final words, we had an earthquake! It wasn’t a bad one, but it went on for about 30 seconds, gently shaking the building. (I don’t think there was any serious damage or loss of life this time, even in the mountain villages.) I hope that was a sign that this book will be monumental and Earth-shaking! That was Saturday, August 1, 2009. The book is at around 74,000 words.
Enjoy these wonderful August days and nights! (A student of mine recently asked what are “the dog days of August”? I explained with great relish.)