I don’t think I’d ever heard a ghost story until I went to university in Japan. One evening, not long after I’d arrived in the country, there was a party in the Japanese girls’ dormitory. It went on all night, and when the beer and sake had run out, when the music had stopped, when the promise of dawn was on the trill of skylarks in the adjacent woodlands, I found myself sitting on the floor in candlelight with a few people. A couple of Japanese girls were regaling us with urban legends. ‘If children are out on the street after dark,’ one of them said with affected portent, ‘they might come across a woman wearing a surgical mask. The woman will ask the child, “Am I beautiful?” then pull away the mask to reveal that her mouth is slit from ear to ear.’ I appended the narrative with a jolting roar, prompting histrionic squeals from everyone. It was all unmistakably jokey.
But I went on to learn that specters lurked deep in the Japanese psyche.
Every Saturday I taught some English classes at the local municipal hall to earn a bit of extra cash. My last lesson of the day was to a dozen or so Japanese housewives. It was a mixed-ability conversation class and I let the women decide the topics for discussion. The subjects were light and uncontroversial, like foreign travel or film stars. I made a point of not speaking any Japanese to the ladies, insisting that only English be spoken during the lesson. It was surprising that some of them came back week after week as much of what I said went over their heads, but the hour-long session was always filled with laughter; it was more of a social event than a structured class.
One gloomy day in July, at the apogee of the rainy season, the ladies said they wanted to talk about Japanese festivals. There were myriad to choose from, like the Sapporo Snow Festival or the nationwide Doll Festival. I was aware that the next big festival to take place across the country was Obon in August, when families returned to their ancestral homes and visited the graves of their ancestors, but I was ignorant of the significance behind the occasion.
‘Okay, so let’s start with Obon,’ I said. ‘Why do Japanese celebrate this?’
All the ladies turned to look at Mrs Kuroki, who sat impassively in the back row. They always deferred to Mrs Kuroki when more complex English was required. She was the oldest in the class and also the quietest. I could tell she was well respected by the others judging by the depth of their bows when they greeted her each week. Whenever she spoke or reacted, it was with measure and calculation. The others would laugh at my stupid jokes, but Mrs Kuroki would give up a dim smile. The women would write down new vocabulary, but Mrs Kuroki would scrutinise me as I spelled out the words. There was something vaguely minatory about her; whenever I caught her gaze it felt like she might just spring out of her chair and pounce on me like a mantis.
‘When a person dies,’ Mrs Kuroki began, ‘their spirit leaves the body and enters purgatory until funeral rites have been performed. Only then can they join their ancestors. These spirits then protect the family they have left behind, and return to Earth every August during Obon to receive thanks from the family.’
The women nodded in apparent comprehension.
I was feeling a little mischievous. ‘What about those who haven’t had a proper funeral?’ I asked the group. ‘Does their spirit not watch over and protect their family?’
The ladies turned again to Mrs Kuroki, who retained her composed mien.
‘No,’ she said. ‘If the proper funeral rites haven’t been carried out, or if a person dies in sudden or violent circumstances, the spirit transforms into a ghost and can return to the physical world. It will forever haunt the Earth until the missing rituals are performed. Or until the emotional conflict tying it to our world is resolved.’
‘Do you all believe in ghosts?’ I asked.
The women nodded earnestly, some of them exchanging knowing glances. Mrs Kuroki regarded me like I was an oddity in a bric-a-brac shop. ‘It’s not a question of belief. We co-exist with spirits and ghosts - the benign and the tormented.’
I’d never been one to get spooked by the supernatural; I actually laughed watching The Exorcist. There had to be a rational explanation for everything, from the stars in the sky to the unusual ripples and shadows you saw in those grainy photographs of Loch Ness. The notion of wraiths made no sense to me, and I left the English class that day smugly amused by the ladies’ genuine conviction in the unearthly.
Early one evening at the end of the summer holidays, the shrill of cicadas raging against the relentless heat, some mates and I made the journey down the hill from university to the local bar. We hadn’t seen each other for a while; some had been travelling in Asia, others had visited family back in the UK or Australia. I’d stayed on campus all summer, happy to earn some money from my teaching jobs.
It was a typically bibulous evening involving cheap beer and salty conversation. At some point, after much carousing, I teetered between mellow cognizance and fuddled haze. If I didn’t leave soon, my friends would have to carry me back up the hill. I couldn’t be dealing with their protestations when I made to leave, so I slipped away through the side door.
The night was still and clammy. I staggered up the hill, the humidity almost palpable as I breathed in laden air. Approaching the top, the university came into view around a bend. The contours of the campus buildings conjoined to form a looming silhouette, like a slumbering giant.
My room was on the fourth floor of the foreign students’ dormitory. I cursed at the ‘out of order’ sign on the lift. The internal staircase was avoided by most in the name of laziness, and I only used it on rare occasions like this. I gripped the handrail and began the sluggish climb, my footsteps echoing up the cool concrete well.
As I turned to mount the penultimate flight I saw something that slapped me out of inebriety. The dim lighting caused me to squint hard at the sight before me, to fathom it. Up ahead, on the landing between the third and fourth floors, were two small boys squatting on their haunches side by side, arms resting on their upper legs and heads bent forward, dressed in what looked to be an elementary-school uniform of navy-blue shorts, knee-length socks and black shoes. They both wore yellow caps, which hid their faces.
‘Donai shitenno?’ I surprised myself by asking after them in the local dialect, which I’d never spoken before. They remained motionless. I walked the few steps up to the landing and was about to bend down to touch one of them on the arm when I realised my footfalls hadn’t echoed, as if I’d stepped on cotton wool. The air in the stairwell was all at once close and stale, and the crouching little boys, oddly reminiscent of medieval gargoyles, oozed a hint of menace.
I sidled past them and turned to climb the last flight of steps. Immediately I lurched forward as two small bodies leapt onto my back, clutching my shoulders, little legs scrambling for grip so as to hoist themselves further up onto me. I grasped the handrail with both hands, spinning around to face the landing as I went down hard on the steps. The beings were instantly gone from my back, and the landing, where the schoolboys had been moments before, was empty. I snapped my head around to see nothing but the few remaining steps leading up to the fourth floor. The stab of pain from where I had landed on my coccyx was almost numbed by a surging wave of panic that pricked my skin like a thousand hot needles.
I got to my feet with the falter of a newborn fawn and turned to hurry up the stairs. The bodies sprang onto my back again like jumping spiders, but this time their feet found a grip. They boosted themselves up and locked their cold little limbs around my neck. Something giggled in my ear, the carefree giggle of a content child. I spun around and at once the presences vanished from my back, but the landing remained mockingly bare. My throat burned where their arms had crushed my windpipe and a throbbing pulse screamed in my head.
Slowly I edged up the stairs backwards, my eyes rooted to the vacant landing. With each step I gripped the handrail hard, steadying myself for another ambush, but nothing happened. Once on the fourth floor I reversed out into the dormitory corridor, and the landing disappeared from view.
But I didn’t dare turn around.
I continued walking trance-like backwards, fixing my gaze straight ahead, until I arrived at my room. Once inside, with the door locked and lights on, I shuffled back towards to the bed, reaching behind until I felt the soft welcoming futon. It was cool to the touch as I lowered myself gently onto the cushioned fabric. The sun was already up when I drifted into a troubled sleep.
© Timothy Collard 2012