The Ghost Who Was Thwarted
(Revised by BoSt)
Just in time for Halloween.
Once upon a time there lived a particularly bright young man who had successfully passed the State military examination, and had been ordered to go, by a specific date, to report for duty in another Province.
As it was the rainy season, he was dressed appropriately with his belongings wrapped in waterproof skins and loaded on horseback. Following the main highways, he rode and whenever possible, galloped with eagerness to reach his destination on time.
On this day the weather had not been particularly cooperative. Gusting winds and sudden downpours hindered his progress all along the way. Dusk was fast approaching and he was nowhere near a town or an inn where he could pass the night in relative comfort.
The buildup of ominous clouds above persuaded him to veer off onto a side road leading to a small village nestled in the woods. He needed to seek immediate accommodations before darkness blanketed the earth. He spotted a peasant, returning from fields at the end of the day’s work loaded with fresh fodder for the animals and inquired as to a possible night’s lodging.
The peasant shook his head, “It’s not that we are inhospitable, but there are only impoverished families in this village. You are certain not to find any room in any of the huts.” Then in conciliatory mood he directed the Soldier to an old dilapidated Temple still standing just outside of the village. At least there he could spend the night somewhat sheltered from the harsh elements.
The Soldier thanked the peasant and rode away. He eventually came upon the badly neglected structure, half buried in vines, runners and rampant vegetation. With some difficulty he pushed open the creaking door and stepped in. At once his lungs were assailed by a musky smell and dust lay inches high everywhere. Thick cobwebs hid most of the surfaces. In the niches he saw barely visible statues of gods so decayed through years of neglect that he could not distinguish one from the other.
The suffocating air forced the Soldier to go outside. He gasped and gasped then looked about him when he could breathe bit more easily. As night cloaked the premises he fetched a candle from his bundle and lit it. Going around the main temple structure he came upon a portion of the second story that was precariously attached, barely hanging on to the main structure. Following the trellises off to the side he found a protected alcove under an old flight of stone steps that ended abruptly, going nowhere.
“This will do for the night.” He grumbled under his breath then, fetching his knapsack, spread it out under the stone steps. He tied his horse to an old tree and placed some fodder before him. Next he took his flask from the saddle and wet his dry throat. He leaned back and began washing down some dry rations to satiate his sudden grumbling tummy. The rains came and went until the dark sky cleared of the ominous clouds which were replaced with scattered puffs that parted periodically to let the waning new moon peep through.
The Soldier, rather exhausted from travel, had just closed his eyes in sleep when a rustling sound in the temple startled him awake. What’s more, a sudden icy breeze swept over his face making him shudder involuntarily.
The moonlight just then revealed a chalk-faced woman dressed in a dirty old style red gown coming out of the temple. She stole past quietly as though she were afraid of being seen.
The Soldier quickly swallowed his fear. Lying perfectly still he pretended to be asleep and covertly watched her with half-closed eyes. Curiously, the woman drew a rope from her sleeve and looked at it for a time before instantly vanishing into thin air. This confirmed she was an apparition, most likely a ghost of one who had hung herself. He got up quietly and traced her steps.
Sure enough, she went into the village and when she came to a certain house she slipped into the courtyard through a crack in the door. As he was keen to find out her reason for haunting this premise, the Soldier abandoned propriety and leapt over the wall after her. Standing before him was a modest three roomed house. Crossing the rather empty courtyard, he reached the rear room where a lamp was burning dimly. The Soldier looked through the window into the room, and there he spotted a young woman of about twenty sitting on the bed, sighing deeply. Her kerchief however was soaked through with tears. Beside her in a crib lay a little child fast asleep.
The woman repeatedly looked up toward the beam of the ceiling. She appeared in great dismay, one moment she would weep and the next she would gently, lovingly, stroke the child. The Soldier, following her gaze positioned himself so as to see more clearly the object of her attention. His eyes avidly searched the high ceiling and finally he spotted the dark apparition sitting up on the beam. Momentarily she glowed. He could see clearly now as she, with an eerie smile, passed the rope around her neck and then, eyes bulging, tongue sticking out, she mimicked being hanged. Egging on the poor woman on, the ghost hissed with hostility one moment then in the next beckoned alluringly with a hand gesture.
Each time the young woman looked up as though drawn by an irresistible command, remained focused as if mesmerized, then snapped out of her reverie only when the child wiggled or gurgled. This went on for some time.
Unexpectedly the young woman in a resolute voice addressed the Ghost: “You say it would be best for me to die. Very well, then, I will die; but oh, I cannot bear to part with my baby!” Once more cupping her face, she burst into heart-wrenching tears, but the heartless ghost merely scoffed and threatened her. In an undecipherable communication the apparition next reached out softly in order to coax her.
When the exhausted young woman finally yielded to all that pressure and in resignation declared: “Enough, do not torture me any more… I’ll do as you wish, I will die. Just leave my baby in peace.”
The Soldier for a time was lost for what to do. He could make noise or force his way in to stop or at least impede the evil apparition’s aim. The very real consequence of being chastised or charged as trespasser however, made him hesitate.
“But can I just stand by and do nothing?” As he struggled to find the right course of action, the young lady meanwhile had gone over to her chest of clothes, put on new garments, and painted her face before the mirror. Then she drew up a bench and climbed up on it. She undid her girdle and knotted it to the beam. She had already stretched forth her neck and was about to tie the other end around her neck when the child suddenly awoke and began to cry.
To the Soldier’s relief, the woman aborted the suicide, climbed down and, taking the baby to her bosom, stroked the infant’s head and chest as she rocked her body slowly back and forth. Tears streamed from her eyes like a string of pearls and fell onto her child. She wept and wept. The irate ghost meanwhile heartlessly growled and hissed at this delay. She was so close to reaching her objective. She had haunted this young woman for many months wearing away her resolve. In a short while the child had again fallen asleep, and the woman once more began to look aloft. Then she rose, again climbed on the bench, and was about to lay the noose about her neck when the Soldier, risking all, began to call out loudly and drum on the window-pane to stop her. Then, with one hard punch, he broke through the pane and climbed into the room. The shocked and frightened woman fell to the ground unconscious while the ghost vanished into thin air.
Fortunately for him there was no other about. The Soldier picked up the unconscious woman and gently laid her on her bed. Then slapped her cheeks tried to bring her around. As she was about to regain consciousness, he drew away to a distance, intent on leaving. Suddenly however, something hanging down from the beam, like a cord without an end caught his eye. Knowing that it belonged to the ghost of the hanged woman he reached for it and tugged at it. Wrapping it into a coil he placed it in his inner pocket.
By this time the young woman had gained her full faculties. She trembled with fright at the perceived danger from an intruder.
The Soldier with a placating smile and in a soothing voice tried to reassure the young woman: “Forgive this intrusion. I mean you no harm, but I could not just simply stand by and have you throw your life away. Your child needs you to take good care of him! You have but one life to lose in this world!” And with that he made his hasty retreat outside.
He was fearful of the possible consequences and so he headed straight towards the Temple to retrieve his horse and his baggage and make his quick departure.
When he came out of the village he encountered the angry ghost, waiting for him on the road.
Barring his way, the ghost growled: “You have interrupted my plans and have thus wronged me terribly. I was the former wife of that faithless man; one so callously cast me aside in favour of that woman because of my inability to give him an offspring. His cold and cruel ways drove me in the end to suicide where I am now condemned to roam the Earth and suffer this vile existence for all eternity. He happens to be away for a long time and I used this opportunity to effect my revenge on him. She was blameless yes, but …” She appeared truly remorseful. “As you have interceded, there remains little for me to do now. Unfortunately I cannot depart without that thing I left behind me in my hurry. I know you have it, and so I implore you sir, please to return it to me.”
The Soldier showed her the rope, “Is this the thing you mean? I’m sorry for what has happened to you. But why exact revenge on an innocent being? Your grievance is with your husband not her. I fear if I were to give it back to you may once I’m gone try again to snuff out an innocent life. And that I cannot be party to.”
With these words he wound the rope around his arm and said: “Now be off with you!”
The ghost in her desperation now grew furious. Her face turned greenish-black, her hair fell in wild disorder down her neck, her eyes grew bloodshot, and her tongue hung far out of her mouth. She stretched forth both hands and tried to seize the Soldier, but he struck out at her with his clenched fist. By mistake he hit himself in the nose and it began to bleed. Then he sprinkled a few drops of blood in her direction and, since the ghosts cannot endure human blood, with a shrilling hiss she ceased her attack, moved off a few paces and began to abuse him. This she did for some time, until the cock in the village began to crow. Then the ghost let out a shrill cry and disappeared before the morning sun hit her.
In the meantime the farmer-folk of the village having been apprised of the happenings, had rushed forth to thank the Soldier. It seems that after he had left the woman, her husband had come home and asked his wife what had happened. And then for the first time he had learned of her long suffering ordeal and what had occurred that very night. So gathering some of the neighbours, they set out together along the road in order to look for the stranger.
When they found him he was still beating the air with his fists and talking wildly. So they called out to him and he told them what had taken place. The rope could still be seen on his bare arm; yet it had grown fast to it, and surrounded it in the shape of a red ring of flesh.
The day was just dawning, so the Soldier packed his belongings then swung himself into his saddle and continued his journey without a word.
(Note: This folk tale has been handed down traditionally.
Adapted from: The Chinese Fairy Book (1921) by Richard Wilhelm, translated by F. H. Martens LIII. “The Ghost Who Was Foiled”- Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License)