Japanese tale #56 – Silken strings

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Once upon a time, near a remote village, stood an old temple all thought to be haunted.

It was a lovely place, peaceful and quiet. While abandoned, its polished wooden floors still shone warmly in sunlight, its bronze lanterns remained untouched by moss.

Yet, for unfathomable reasons, any person who went there ended missing. Peasants, woodsmen and mere travelers who had strolled the temple grounds simply vanished, never again to be seen.

One day, the most boisterous man of the closest village had enough. Flexing his muscles, he bragged loudly:

– Look at you, all scared of shadows! If monster there is, I’ll get you all rid of it!

He put on his straw travelling coat and took the road to the temple.

The man had just exited the village that, nervously looking left and right, he took a sake flask from his package. And each and every steps along the way, he gulped down a sip.

By the time he reached the temple, the so-called monster hunter, cheeks flushed bright red, was merrily whistling, his gait far less assured than when he had left.

Tittering, he entered the deserted main hall and slurred:

– M-monster! Here I-I come!

Nothing happened.

The hunter pouted. Grumbling, he sat down, he took out a second sake flask, and started to drink. Dusk settled, painting the temple hall in bright hues.

A crystalline trill fell from the ceiling.

The man looked up and gaped : a single shamisen hung between two beams of the painting ceiling, the skin of its smooth body shiny as new, silken string giving silvery gleams in the setting sun.

Mesmerized, the hunter rose on tip-toe to catch it. His hands remained stuck to the shamisen.

Swearing, the man pulled and pulled until the instrument fell down. Hands still stuck to its body, he tried to kick it to free himself. His foot remained glue to the shamisen.

The hunter really started to panick:

– Is a-anybody here? Help! P-please, help me!

Suddenly, the shamisen let out another joyful chord and rose high in the air, as if lifted by invisible strings. And the man followed the move up, screaming.

The last thing he saw before everything went black was numerous eyes shining coldly in the dark behind the suspended ceiling beams.

Days and months passed and whispers about the monster lurking in the temple grew. They finally reached the ears of a travelling monk.

The holy man, well versed into fights against all kinds of evil, decided to give it a try.

– I’ll find what creeps in those shadows.

Villagers, who had seen their boldest man disappeared, tried to talk him out of it:

– No way we’ll let you go! You’ll end up as dead as the others!

The monk smiled and did all he could to persuade them. After long hour of talking, the farmers finally gave up and defeated, pointed him the way:

– You are but a mad man!

The monk, travelling briskly thanks to his trusty walking stick, quickly made it to the abandoned temple. Much like the late hunter, he entered the main hall and, surprised to see nothing at all, settled down there. The wait began.

Once again, the crystalline chord fell from the ceiling.

The monk looked up: the shamisen hung between the beams, beautiful and entrancing.

– What a strange vision… This looks far too tempting to be true…

Ignoring the instrument which played softly, the puzzled man took his walking stick and poked blindly into the painted suspended ceiling.

The monk poked and poked and suddenly a horrible screech echoed in the dark above him.

Paling, the man kept poking, again and again. The awful shrieks continued, slowly turning to wails until, after long hours, silence finally came back.

In the morning, a delegation of apprehensive villagers appeared by the temple grounds. They shyly called:

– Master? Master, are you still alive?

A weary voice answered:

– Your monster… Well, you should see by yourself.

Villagers entered the main hall and stopped dead in their tracks.

The false ceiling had crumbled down, weakened by the monk’s numerous assaults, pouring hundred and hundred of bones which now covered the floor.

Hunched up among them, laid a monstrous spider as big a tall man. In its legs, rested a beautiful shamisen missing its strings.

The monk took the instrument from its grip and sighted:

– This one will sure never sing ever again…


Notes:

This horror story depicts a monster named Jorogumo, a name also used to designate the golden-orb spider. Jorogumo are dangerous youkai who loved to lure humans, especially men, and then devour them. They appeared as partly or full humans, always taking the shape of beautiful and entrancing women.

Their name was originally written with kanji meaning “whore spider” which may explain the association often found in tales between them and classical yujo (prostitute) features and tools – such as the shamisen.

The shamisen is a string instrument of Chinese ancestry played using a plectrum. Traditionally in Japan, its body was made from cat skins and its 3 strings from silk. Shamisen was a well-loved instrument, used from Kabuki plays to banquets (for example by Yujo as stressed above) and popular setting (travelling musicians etc).

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3 ]

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