Once upon a time, there was a monk, known by the name of Yukei, who travelled across the whole country to share the Buddha’s words.
Followed by his two loyal retainers, the man had reached far away towns and remote hamlets. The little fellowship had adventurous hearts and had explored forests and mountains, never losing courage or faith.
One late autumn afternoon, Yukei and his friends found themselves near Adatara volcano. They had walked all day but had yet to cross any hunter or woodman’s sheds.
Hot springs draped the sky in mist and the heavy air was charged with sulfur fumes. Around them, dense grass, nearly as tall as a man, spread as far as the eye could see.
Despite the setting sun, the three man pushed forward, decided to progress as much as they could.
The moon was rising, pale and uncaring, when Yukei’s servant at last caught a glimmer in the dusk:
– Master! Over there!
The light came from a lone brazier, flickering in front of an humble shack. An old woman was spinning thread by the threshold, bent and broken, her face tan and wrinkled like a dried persimmon.
When she caught sight of the weary travellers, her gaze lit:
– Visitors! How unexpected! This inhospitable place is so far from everything. You must be tired and famished, come in, come in!
She rose gingerly, her old bones cracking, and led them inside while Yukei and his friends thanked her profusely.
The wooden shack was simple and bare, just three walls, a room closed by sliding door and a small yet welcoming hearth. The old woman chirped:
– I am so sorry, nobody ever visit me so I have not much to give. But you can sleep near the fire if you wish.
The three men had spent nights in far worse conditions. Smiling, they reassured their hostess that everything she offered was perfect. And the little gathering nestled near the sunken hearth, pleasantly sharing meal and stories.
– I was a wet nurse once yes. But that was so, so long ago, and life had not been kind to me since. Now, I spent my days alone by my spinning wheel. One cannot fight karma, isn’t it? I am happy like that.
Yukei put a compassionate hand on the old woman’s shoulder:
– There is not much more we can do in this life. I’ll pray for your next one to be kinder to you.
She let a teary smile. Then, willing to compose herself, she pointed to the dying fire:
– This one needs more wood. I’ll go gather some outside.
The old woman rose to her feet and opened the door. But, like on second thought, she paused and turned to her hosts:
– Please don’t look inside my room. I am old and I shamefully admit my bedside is not as tidy and clean as it should.
Yukei gave her a heartfelt promise, wishing to do all he could to put the old nanny at ease.
But, as the old woman went out rummaging in the dark, Yukei’s servant could not forget her strange warning. Something felt wrong yet he could not pinpointed exactly what.
The man sat by the hearth, feeling more and more restless. In the end he could not take it anymore.
He jumped to his feet and, before his master could stopped him, the servant opened the sliding door.
Yukei’s look of disapproval vanished as he caught sight of the bedroom.
Mountains of bones filled the dark room, old blood coating the walls, and floor, and bed. Ivory shattered skulls seemed to gloomily stared at the dumbfounded travelers.
The servant stuttered:
– Ogre! That old hag is nothing but a demon who eat people! We’ve gotta get out of here!
All three hastily caught their bags and hurried outside, running for their life in the night.
When the old woman came back, she quickly realised her hosts had not hold their promise. Her bundle of twigs scattered on the ground as her face suddenly distorted with rage:
– Liars! I won’t let you live with my secret!
Snarling, she pounced on the men’s trail, sniffing around and growling like a hunting dog.
The men were fleeing as fast as they could, but tall grass was hindering their steps. And soon, one of them stumbled over an hidden stone and fell, his ankle badly twisted.
Somewhere behind them, the old ogre was gaining ground.
Yukei shakily took out his rosary and, closing his eyes tight, he started to pray:
– Oh Kannon, I beseech you! Please, please help us!
His retainers joined their voices to his. Their chanting rose, louder and louder, strengthening prayer bead after prayer bead.
The ogre finally caught them up. Dishevelled white hair like a mane around her withering face, she barked:
– I’ll tear your heads off!
Baring her teeth, she tried to yank Yukei by his arm. But the monk and his retainers kept chanting, eyes shut, voices strong and unwavering. And the ogre hand only grasped thin air.
The beast yelped as her limbs faded, her evil spirit raising in the night like an eery mist. When it disappeared at last, the old woman’s body fell to the ground, dead.
Later, after sunlight had dispelled the fear of that terrible night, Yukei and his friends gathered her remains, light as a feather, and buried the old woman near her shack.
And never again travellers vanished in the grim Adatara hills.
This story relates the end of the famous crone of Adachigahara, also known as Kurozuka (warning: sad and bloody story ahead!). Kurozuka figure borrows motifs from several demon like creatures, like the yamanba (mountain witch) and the kijo/onibaba (female ogre), both cannibal monsters haunting desolated mountains and forests.
This version is similar to this noh play. With the presence of the buddhist monk Yukei and hints here and there about the sad past of Kurozuka, the play heavily stresses the weight of the wheel of karma.
Resentful, hurt women are often found in japanese ghost stories. One popular belief said a jealous woman could grow demon horns (hence Tsunokakushi bride veils which were supposed to hide them). In noh, women fearsome transformations into demons are symbolised by the hannya mask.
[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3 ]