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Yama Hime

NamidaSelection from Chapter 5

Scavengers were hard at work this night. The battle had left bodies strewn across the narrow valley, now groups of men, some with wives and children in tow, flocked like crows to get at the remains. The burning pitch of torches sent shadows sweeping across the ground and flickers of light leaping like sprites into branches. The flames coming from all directions stirred the darkness into a dizzying confusion where the trees, the stones, even the dead, appeared to be moving. The scavengers faltered and stumbled, spoke in whispers, and cut the throats of the wounded to keep from hearing their cries. It is an awful business. Everything about it frightens them. They are afraid of the dead and of the dying. They are afraid of ghosts, of obake, of shiryou, jikininki, buruburu, and kubikajiri, afraid of vampires, kyonshi and hone-onna, and demons, oni and tengu. As far as they’re concerned the war-torn valley is so populated with supernatural beings associated with death that it is hardly less dangerous than when the actual fighting was going on. And now, to make matters worse, it is being whispered around that someone has seen the Yama-hime.*

The Yama-hime, as everyone in the district knew, was a yurei, a ghost who appeared as a young woman during the day, but at nightfall transformed into a monstrous witch. They said her father was an evil Mountain King, an aragami who had been murdered by the child he abused. And they said the scars on her face were from the flames of hell where she had been held by a demon until she killed him to escape. They said that she could draw men’s souls from their bodies with her breath, that she could stretch her neck like an arm and grab with her teeth. They said that she had no feet. In daytime if the strange, white-haired woman approached a farm or village the people threw stones or sent out a priest to hurl curses and drive her away. No one gave her food and no one gave her shelter, but they knew she didn’t need those things. And they said that in the aftermath of a battle she would be there, walking among the bodies, conjuring their ghosts, using them to work revenge for whatever evils had been done to her.

To Lady Námida the setting had become familiar. Dead and wounded, scattered in some places, in others heaped and tangled like snags on a riverbank. Most of them were peasant conscripts, pike soldiers, hardly different from the scavengers. They knew nothing, not even why or who they had been fighting. But a few were professional warriors, bushi, in the employ of the various contending families. These were the ones she was looking for, the tsuwamono who might have information that could lead her to Atsumori. Several months before, a wounded officer had told her about a warrior from Heian-kyô who had taken the name Kagetora because he was on the run after committing an unforgivable crime against a prominent lady. The officer didn’t know what the renegade's true name was, but allowed that it could just as well been Atsumori as anything else. Following a battle in Hitachi a warrior with exquisite black armor and a pike in his chest informed her that Kagetora switched sides and now was with a Minamoto faction in the Shimôsa district. He might have given her more information but a grubby man with blood on his hands and a good eye for quality, pushed her aside to get the armor. From there she continued traveling wherever the rumors of war led. In the aftermath of a battle in Shimôsa, while searching for anyone who was still alive and not too grievously wounded to talk, she first noticed that the spirits of soldiers seemed to hover briefly over their corpses. At the time she hadn’t had anything to eat for longer than she could remember, and cold endless rains had kept her from sleeping at night. Everything was looking strange, and she was suspecting that some of the things she saw might not really be there. So when she saw a spirit actually rise up out of a body like a wisp of smoke, then float there as if reluctant to go any farther, she ignored it. But it didn’t ignore her. While it appeared to be oblivious to everything else, it acknowledged her. When she passed by, it seemed to speak. She thought it asked her if it was dead. She told it that it was, then it vanished.

On this night she was again looking for signs of life, for breathing or wounds that still bled. All around her she could hear the whispering of scavengers, groans of the wounded, and now the forlorn laments of spirits giving up their ruined bodies and disappearing into the darkness. Other sounds came to her, the customary sounds of night in the countryside, the chatter of frogs and crickets, the shrill piping of a mountain owl, the chirping of a nightjar, all as if nothing unusual had happened in this place, as if the killing and destruction had no connection to their natural world. Then a voice, quite clear: “I know who you are.” It came from a soldier lying partway in a ditch. She thought he might have stumbled there during the battle, or maybe his horse had thrown him; there was a horse nearby with arrows in its neck. She knelt beside him. A boy on the prowl for loot saw them, stopped and watched nervously. From the light of the boy’s torch Lady Námaida could see that the soldier was on his back with no visible wounds, and the quality of his armor made it clear he was someone important. The armor was beautifully laced with a deep blue threads, it didn’t seem to be at all damaged, but so much blood had run into the ditch that the water looked black. She assumed he had been struck from behind.
“Has someone told you about me?” she asked. He didn’t answer that.
“You’re looking for Kagetora,” he said
“Yes.”
“He’s with Fujiwara-no-Hidesato, camped at Choshi. You’ll go there?”
“I will,”
“Good. He’ll be pleased to see you. I want you to give him a message.” Lady Námida leaned her head close to his lips. “Tell him that Gohiro sends his regards. We fought together many times. He was a good friend. Tell him that I applaud his honor.”
Then the voice went silent, and she knew that he had nothing more to say. As she stepped back the boy rushed over to begin stripping off the armor. He planted the end of his torch in the ground, drew a knife out of his sash and brandished it as a warning. There was no danger from the soldier — obviously dead and probably had been for some time. But the woman with the scars on her face, there was something that wasn’t right about her. When he looked up she was watching him, the knife didn’t seem to phase her. Then he realized, of course, the knife would be useless. As he felt the panic start to take hold he grabbed the torch, hurled it at the woman, then ran off to tell his father about a narrow escape from the Yama-hime.

* Lady Námida is a ghost story and so lots of ghosts get themselves mentioned throughout. Ghosts and other supernatural beings were vastly abundant in old Japan, and distinctions between one type and another can be confusing. The peasant farmers scavenging the battlefields no doubt had their own understandings of what was what since their descriptions of the yama-hime incorporate a number of inconsistencies. The list below covers the spooks and goblins named in this selection. Definitions are brief and probably not reliably accurate.

obake - the broadest category of supernatural or ghostly beings
yôkai - a class of obake with particular powers - demons, ghosts, monsters, imps
yama-hime - mountain princess, a yôkai (similar to yama-uba, mountain witch)
yurei - wandering ghost with unfinished business
kubikajiri - head eating ghost
jikininki - corpse eating ghost
shiryou - ghosts of those who died violently
buruburu - ghost that kills with fear
hone-onna - skeleton vampire
kyonshi - hopping vampire
oni - ogre or demon
tengu - the Mountain Demon
aragami - a Shinto spirit, or kami, gone bad.

The terms bushi and tsuwamono refer to trained warriors. The word samurai for warriors did not come into usage until later during the Sengoku era. Tsuwamono translates into something like big-tough-guy, they were the elites, often the sons of prominent families. They fought from horseback and their principal weapon was the bow and arrow.

An excellent illustrated primer on Japanese ghosts by Tim Screech of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies can be found at: http://www.mangajin.com/mangajin/samplemj/ghosts/ghosts.htm

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