In the summertime of old Japan, when the oppressive heat and humidity rendered daylight activity all but unbearable, people longed for the night and the scant relief brought by the setting sun. There, amidst a chorus of frogs and insects serenading the coming of the dance of the dead, the people played a game called, “A Gathering of 100 Ghostly Tales”, and silently the spirits would return.
100 lit candles were placed in a circle, and the players each told a ghoulish tale. As each tale ended, the storyteller doused a single candle. As the light slowly faded the tension rose. The game was said to be a ritual of evocation, the expiration of each story and each candle summoned more spiritual energy, transforming the room into a beacon for the dead. With the vanishing of the final light, someone or something terrible was found waiting in the darkness… This story is for the first lit candle…
You sit the garden near the Palace in the once Imperial City of Kyoto. It is a beautiful spring day. In fact, you are fortunate to have planned your visit to Japan the very day the cherry blossoms are at the most glorious. As you admire the scenery, a young woman happens by and sits on the bench near you. When she turns your way, she smiles sweetly and asks if you have ever heard the story of Tamamo-no-Mae? You shrug and tell her it is your first day in Japan and no you have never heard the story.
Again, the young woman smiles sweetly and gets a far off look in her eyes. This is when you see the smooth, black stone she holds in her hands. It has the glossy look of obsidian, the kind of rock thrown millennia before from the pit of Mount Fuji. You find it odd that the young woman is caressing the glossy stone as if it is a pet of some sort.
You’re not sure why, but a shiver runs up your spine at this particular moment. Your first inclination is to jump up and hurry back to your hotel. But you stay thinking how silly you are being on such a beautiful day with such a pleasant companion to talk to.
As the young woman continues to pet her stone, she begins to tell a story, of a priest named, Gennoh who decided to see the world, so the next morning he and his servant packed their belongings and left the city. One day on their journey, they were crossing a field when they saw a bird fall dead from the sky. They found out in the village that the bird had flown to near Nasuno, the death stone.
A village woman told the priest and his servant, “It is a good thing you did not go too close. You see, the stone steals the life from whatever touches it. Inside the stone is the spirit of Lady Tamamo-no-Mae.
“Who?” the priest asked, confused as to the significance of the spirit.
The woman shook her head and continued. “It is said that the spirit that resides inside the death rock once destroyed kings in both India and China and was later a consort to the Japanese Emperor, Toba. Tamamo-no-Mae was her name. She was both beautiful and wise, but her heart was filled with evil.
“Late one night during a concert at the end of autumn, all the lamps in the emperor’s garden suddenly blew out. To everyone’s horror and amazement, Tamamo-no-Mae began to glow like the full moon. Soon after this, Emperor Toba became deathly ill.
“His Astrologer cast the Emperor’s fortune and found that it was Tamamo-no-Mae who had caused the Emperor’s illness.
The Astrologer began an exorcism which in turn caused Tamamo-no-Mae to writhe in torment. To escape her punishment, she leaped into the air and landed far away on the Nasuno plain.
“But the Emperor sent warriors to find and destroy her. They chased her into a trench and shot arrows at her until her life drained away. It was then that she became the Death-Rock, which has killed all who come too close.”
The young woman sitting near to you smiles once again, but this time, you see a gleam in her dark eyes that can only be described as feral. Again, you shiver, but not from the cold.
The young woman rises from the bench. Her back is to you now, but she is still speaking. “That day, Gennoh, the priest did the second exorcism on the stone. The spirit of Tomama-no-Mae appeared, begging forgiveness, promising to do good all the rest of her days.”
Silence falls across the garden and you wait to hear the rest of the story. Instead, the young woman walks away. As she does, you see a swishing fox tail following directly behind her and a pale radiance like the moon glowing out from her body.
Much to your horror, your throat begins to feel tight as if someone’s fingers clench around your windpipe. You find that you can no longer draw a breath. In your desperation, you look down to see the black stone the young woman was holding now sits on the bench only a foot or so from you. You reach out as if to knock the rock to the ground. Instead, you collapse beneath the bench where only moments before you sat upright.
A couple, walking in the garden, sees your distress and hurries toward. You try to tell them not to come closer. You gesture toward the glistening black rock that seems to writhe as if alive. But the words stick in your throat. You hear jeering laughter like the wind whistling through the treetops. The next instant everything goes dark as the first candle is blown out…
Copyright 2011 by Ledia Runnels