(Note: This story was written by my mother about 1965 not long after the event. I was about 10 at the time, and I remember clearly the night our landlord came by our remote summer place and told us this story. Leslie Helm)
By Barbara Schinzinger Helm
Sit with me by the window — lean your elbows on the sill
and breathe the cold fresh morning air. The lake is still–smooth like a mirror. In the distance mountains peak like gold. That long tongue of land that made our bay lies dark andslumbering across from us. The rest is shadow, promises of color.
I hear the squeaking of an oar — a man stands upright in his fishing boat, gently rocking with the rowing; fishing line is trailing. Ripples form a V behind the boat — the mirror and the silence broken. Elegant Mt. Nantai looms at right, somewhere beyond the dark expanse of Lake Chuzenji, a tiny village at its foot.
Look to the left: the gentle curve of bay, a narrow, shallow sickle of a beach, the fisherman’s boat riding si1ently at anchor. Trees leaning over water, rocks reflected in its cold.
This is our side of the lake: rocks, a stoneretaining wall, a level piece of ground, a tiny house, the dirt road and the mountains in the back.
Hold your breath – when sunlight touches leaves across the bay, the colors will explode. Glowing, flaming reds; yellows soft, so gentle; oranges and browns; greens too, so light, so airy, thick, dark, saturated. Spots and splotches, dabs and swirls of color. You have never seen the like. I haven’t either. Only here!
“Yeah, that was a good one,” sighed Julie. The children had spent the afternoon with my Japanese stepmother while I had taken a long walk with my father where he lived far away at the other end of the lake. My stepmother had read them a ghost story about a woman who turns into a snake in the middle of the night, steals raw eggs from the fridge and then searches for children to eat. The story had affected them strongly, and it had taken quite a while to reassure the children when we returned. We had looked out at the tranquil lake, and I had pointed out to them how calm, how beautiful and lacking in malevolence nature was. I had told the children that there was no such thing as a ghost. The only threat to us, I said, would be a burglar, and no burglar would venture out to our little house, the only house for miles around, aside from the old house next door where a very old fisherman and her wife lived. (note: Though we never saw the old fisherman in those early years, there was a huge large trident leaning against his house, and we assumed he must be fierce.) Looking from our beds at the clear light of the stars, we had fallen asleep.
Tonight, an autumn storm was blowing in bringing more anxiety. Earlier in the afternoon, I had asked the boys to pull the boat up higher on the sand so it wouldn’t drift away. They had also put away folding chairs and any other light items that might be picked up by the wind and blown into the windows of the house.
Now the oil lamp swung gently, and our shadows on the wall shifted as the draft played with the flame. Chris had a blanket draped over his shoulders against the chill, and as another gust of wind blew through the room and made the shadows jump, he drew it more tightly around himself. Leslie gave a start and quickly looked over his shoulder at the window, making sure that nobody noticed his uneasiness. The curtain billowed and sank back.
Suddenly the dogs, who had been lying quietly in the hall gave a low, menacing growl. Julie pulled her head under her covers. Her voice came, soft and frightened: “Mother, do you think there is such a thing a hebi-onna (snake woman.)
I laughed with a heartiness I did not quite feel, “Of course not, Julie.”
The dog growled again, a long, low rumble. Chris, his arm clasped around his legs, his chin on his knees, gave me a quick glance. Then we heard the footsteps, and a knock on the glass door.
A movement like an electric current went through the group. The glass door rattled again. Someone was trying to open it.
I looked at Chris: “Please go and see who is there.” He seemed reluctant to get; up and go into the dark hall, go I called out:
“Who is there?”
“Hiraishi” came the faint reply through the doors. I took the flashlight from the wall and went out into the dark. When I opened the sliding door, the wind blew rain into the house.
At the door stood young Hiraishi. His short, stocky figure looked even smaller as he stood bent against the wind and rain. Water dripped from his cap, and his black slicker and black rubber boots glistened wet in the beam of my flashlight. His round, usually so cheerful face was pale and his dark eyes were frightened. His mouth worked as if he were trying to say something. Wet hair streaked his forehead.
“Please come in,” I said, hoping he would close the door quickly. He stepped into the hall, bending to pat the dog, who was sniffling his boots. The dog, who was usually so friend1y, wag growling softly, and the hair on his back was bristling. Hiraishi-san turned and closed the door, muting the wine of the wind and rain. “Come in and warm yourself,” I said. He had to steady himself as he slipped out of his boots and onto the boards of the hallway. His face was drawn, and his hands shook as he took off his wet raincoat. “I’ll get you some beer,” I said as I opened the sliding door to the living room.
Finally I had Hiraishi—san settled. He was sitting tailor—fashion at the low table, a blanket covering his knees. He was sipping his beer, and his hands were steadier. He even attempted a smile at the children whose eyes were fixed on him expectantly, and with curiosity.
After the obligatory small talk I finally felt free to ask: “What happened?” I immediately noticed a general tensing, a rearranging of positions, and an anticipatory intake of breath from the children. Hiroshi’s face changed again; the fear was back.
He lowered his eyes and looked down at his tight1y clasped hands. “I saw them!” he said finally.
“Whom?” I asked, thinking back to the many stories he had told us on summer evenings in this room, at this table.
He stammered “The…the…the couple who committed suicide last summer!”
“That’s impossible!” It was almost a cry that came from Chris. Leslie looked pale as he said, frowning, “That can’t be. They’d be dead if they committed suicide.
I felt Julie shiver as she said in a quavering voice “You mean you saw dead people?”
“Or their ghosts,” added Leslie, as if explaining that dead people don’t walk about.
Hiraishi read the disbelief in our faces, and nodded emphatically. “Yes, I really saw them. Do you remember the story?”
I remembered the story. A young man, a college student, had fallen in love with the young wife of “one of his professors. They had started seeing each other, arranging to meet at one or another of the innumerable small coffee houses which can be found all over Tokyo. The young woman goon found that she had fallen in love with the young man. She knew it was impossible for her to leave her husband and bring disgrace on both their families. Preferring to die together rather than to live without each other, the young couple had decided to commit double suicide. On a beautiful, clear fall day last October, they took the train and bus to the lake. They walked to our bay, which is particularly beautiful in autumn. At the shallow beach on the far end of the bay they walked into the water together. The lake had claimed their bodies, and they had never been found. They had left a note on the sand, and that was all. Their pictures had been in all the papers. But how could Hiraishi—san possibly have seen them now? Today?
The children,too, remembered the story.
“How could you have seen them?” asked Chris. “They have been dead a long time.”
“Maybe he saw two shadows on the water,” suggested Leslie hopefully.
“Maybe he saw the hebi-onna,” mumbled Julie from the depths of her shelter.
Leslie turned toward her, “Don’t be silly. You know there is no such thing as a hebi-onna.”
“But Fusaesan’s grandmother saw one.”
“That was just her imagination,” said Chris firmly. Then he turned to Hiraishi—san again who was staring ahead without paying attention to us. When Chris persisted, “What do yod mean, you saw them?” he rubbed his hand across his forehead and sat quietly for another few moments. Then he turned to Chris, turned to me, and said, “I had decided to drive here to see whether you were alright in this storm, and to check on the boats
I thought how typical it was of him to show so much concern for us. The drive along the narrow, winding road is not easy under the best of circumstances, but under today’s conditions it must have been a tremendous strain. On one side, the road ends abruptly with a steep drop to the lake. On the other side the mountains come right down to the edge of the road. When two cars meet head on, one has to back up to the last turnout. I imagined his car creeping along the road, the headlights dimmed by the rain, lighting up low—hanging branches and dripping undergrowth. The road is full of potholes and rocks. The lights would be wavering, as the car bumped along.
Hiraishi-san continued, “Because of the rain, I was driving very slowly. Suddenly I saw two figures in the middle of the road. ‘Some foolish hikers caught in the rain,’I thought. When I got closer, I noticed that it was a young couple in city clothes.
They looked as if they might have set off from one of the many hotels, before the rain for an evening stroll and had gotten lost.
They had no coats or umbrellas, and their hair and clothes were streaming wet. I stopped the car and spoke to them, ‘Can I give you a lift?’ ‘Yes, please,” answered the young man in a curiously hollow voice. ‘We are going in the direction of the campground.” It never occurred to me at the time to wonder what they might want at the campground at night, in these clothes, without any equipment. I was just so concerned with their condition that I said, ‘jump in’ and opened the door for them. As they got in, I noticed how pale they were. The young woman’s black hair hung wet and heavy on her shoulders. Around her neck she had a long, bright red scarf that set off her pale skin. Somehow I had the feeling that I had seen them before. But as I drove on, I figured that they looked like so many other young couples who come to the lake in such great numbers.”
Hiraishi—san shook his head as if amazed at his own stupidity. Suddenly he turned to me, “Do you know that a part of the road, just before you get to the house, is under water and impassable? That spot is usually like a creek when it rains, but today it is like a raging river. When I got there, I realized I wouldn’t be able to drive on. I decided to leave the car and to try scrambling over the rocks to get the few yards to your house. I was sure you would be willing to give shelter to the young couple, at least until they were somewhat dry. They had been quiet since they had got into the car. I thought, they must be dead tired….” He shuddered as he said that and hunched his back as if to protect himself. I felt sorry for him. He was so obviously upset and disturbed. What had happened? Where was the young couple now? Why hadn’t they come with him? Were they hurt? Were they waiting in the car?
“Go on,” said Chris. “Tell us! What happened? Where are they now? Why didn’t you bring them with you?”
“Well…” Hiraishi-san turned his head and looked at us pleadingly, I don’t know!” His pale face twitched; his dark eyes swept the room; he looked at the window behind Chris, turned to look at the window behind his own back, and shuddered again. With shaking hands he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. He lit a match, and as he bent toward the light, a gust of wind swept through a crack in the wall and blew it out, Hiraishi—san shot up and looked around him wildly. When he saw that everything was all right he sat back again. Chris involuntarily moved away from the window and sat leaning against the door to the bedroom. Leslie followed Julie’s example and pulled his blanket over his head. “Best protection against ghosts,” he said with a crooked grin, and an unsuccessful attempt at nonchalance.
The wind blew a sheet of rain against the window. I heard the crunch of the boats on the gravelly beach as the wind rocked them on their keels. Did I hear footsteps? Was that the sound of voices? Nothing. The spring gurgled on. The waves kept on crashing against the rocks. The wind was whining.
Hiraishi-san was making a big thing of this incident I thought. And yet, his fear was genuine. I poured him another beer and he gulped it down. He pulled a big, white handkerchief out of his pocket and folded it carefully. Then slowly wiped his ace with it. He folded it again and put it but in his pocket. Then he picked up his cigarette, took one deep drag from it, and crushed it out in the ashtray. He pulled himself up straight and said determined to get it over with, “When I stopped the car and turned back to the couple they were gone. They weren’t in the car. All there was, were two puddles of water on the seats.”
A heavy silence fell over the room, The dog stirred, gave a soft yelp and settled down again. Even the wind had died down, and the rain had stopped. l heard the plunk, plunk of the water dripping from the roof into the puddles below. Suddenly I heard a soft moaning; then quiet again. I strained to hear, but everything was silent.
Finally Chris couldn’t stand the suspense any longer: you mean the couple just disappeared?”
Hiraishi nodded. “Yes, suddenly, without a sound.”
“Couldn’t they have opened the door and jumped out while you were concentrating on the road?” Chris kept trying to be realistic; and I must admit that I too was trying hard to think of a plausible explanation.
“But they couldn’t have! Not without my noticing it,” Hiraishi persisted, “1 have a two-door car. They couldn’t have gotten out without my knowing it.”
Again the dog yelped. Again we heard a soft, prolonged moaning. I felt cold and uncomfortable. The children were drawing closer together. We were no closer to solving the mystery of the vanished couple, and I decided to break the spell cast over us by Hiraishi-san’s story by announcing firmly, “Time to go to bed.”
“Awww, not now.”
“Not until we have figured out what happened. “
The children were excited and disappointed. Julie. sounding very tired, said, “Oh, Mother, I won’t be able to sleep a wink. It’s too spooky!”
“We’ll all sleep together in this room,” I announced, as I went into the next room to get another oil—lamp. Then I went into the hall to light the lamp there. The dog was shivering, and he came up to me to lick my hands.
Back in the living room I turned to Hiraishi, asking whether he felt all right about driving home tonight. He hesitated briefly, and then said courageously, his honest face serious and intent, “Yes, thank you. But are you sure that you will be all right by yourselves?” When I assured him that we could look after ourselves, he picked up his cap and got up slowly. “Well,” he said a bit reluctantly, “I’m warm again, and now that the rain has stopped the drive home will be much easier.”
In the hall, he slipped into his boots and pulled on his slicker. The moon had appeared from behind the clouds, and a soft light showed shimmering puddles on the road. Hiraishi turned in the door, “Thanks again. I feel much better now. He lingered in the doorway for a few moments and then stepped into the night. Pretty soon we heard the roar of his engine, his headlights briefly outlined the tall trees and he disappeared around the curve.
While Chris and Leslie laid out the bedding on the tatami mats in the living room, I heated some milk. We all had a cup of hot chocolate, sitting on, and in the case of Julie in, our beds.
“Ha! There are no ghosts,” said Leslie firmly, as he put his cup on the table and crawled into bed.
Chris was still very thoughtful. “I wonder what he did see though.” Then he, too, slid under the covers.
Julie hadn’t moved from her spot all night. I decided to let her sleep where she was. When I got up to put out the light, she raised her head and said pleadingly, “Can’t we leave the light on tonight?”
“Sure!” I knelt down beside her and put my arms around her.
“Sleep tight, sweetheart.” She gave me little smile, and as she cuddled up under the comforter, “I’m sooo tired.”
Thank God for that, ‘I thought,’ as I pulled up my covers and stretched out on my hard bedding.
After a brief goodnight, we all fell silent. We were too occupied with our own thoughts and too exhausted to talk.
All night I heard the children stirring restlessly in their sleep. Julie sat up once and cried out loudly in Japanese, “Go away! Go away! ” Finally, toward dawn, they fell into a deep sleep.
When we awoke the next morning, the tips of the mountains yere bathed in gold. Their outlines were reflected in the lake which was as smooth and clear as a mirror. The trees and bushes looked as if they had been washed clean, and their lush, green leaves shone. The sky was a deep, brilliant blue, and a few small white clouds hung around the top of Mt. Nantai.
I was sitting at the open window, breathing in the fresh air. Breakfast had been tense and quiet. The children spoke little. Julie looked pale and tired. The boys were deep in thought. And yet the events of the night before seemed unreal, almost as if they had never happened; almost as if it had just been bad dream. I decided to take the children to town today. A boat ride on this beautiful day, and a tasty Japanese lunch of fresh lake trout would dispel any lingering fears
As I looked down at the beach to see if our boat was still there, I saw something red amongst the pieces of wood and broken branches which the storm had washed onto the sand. It looked like a long strip of cloth, wound around a branch.
Suddenly I heard the sputtering of an engine, and a boat rounded the promontory and entered our bay. It was the water police boat; the police were obviously checking on the effects of the storm. I waved at the two men in the boat, and they waved back. The boat chugged along, past our house, past the sandy beach, and stopped. The men bent over the edge of the boat. I saw them straighten up, talk excitedly, and look into the water again. Then they circled the area a few times, headed the boat toward town, and took off at full speed I wondered what had happened, but I knew that I would find out as soon as I got into town.
A few minutes later we were on our way. As we got into the boat, I noticed the red cloth again. I bent down to look at it and found that it was a long, red scarf that had become entangled in a branch. It was worn and torn. Where had I recently seen or heard of a red scarf? The question didn’t bother me particularly, and soon we were tying up our boat at a pier in town.
As we stepped onto the sidewalk, we heard sirens screaming, and soon an ambulance speeded past us followed by two police cars. We watched them until they disappeared around a corner. People were stepping out of stores to look up and down the street. Not much happens here in Chuzenji, and every little happening causes great excitement.
Since we were near the ferry landing, we decided to look in on Hiraishi—san. Maybe he would know what had happened; and anyway, we wanted to hear how he had got home last night. But Hiraishi-san was not there, his boat had just left the pier a few minutes earlier.
Since it was such a gorgeous day, we decided to visit my father and join him and his family on their daily walk. They had gotten through the storm alright except for a few leaks in the roof, and we found my father emptying a bucket of rainwater which had been sitting in the middle of the bedroom.
We took a long, leisurely walk along the lake. The path was washed out in spots, and we had to climb over rocks and a few uprooted trees. The air smelled of fir trees, moss and damp wood, of wet ferns and bamboo grass.
Tired but exhilarated we returned to the waterfall where my father stays every summer. We were looking forward to a hot bowl of noodles at the souvenir shop by the falls. When we walked the few steps up to the waterfall viewing pavilion, we saw groups of people talking excitedly. We went up to Murone—san, my father’s landlord, and the owner of the souvenir shop. He saw us coming and walked toward us. “They have found them,” he said importantly. “The couple who committed suicide last summer. You remember the story, don’t you?” Our mouths must have dropped open, or we must have shown our shock and excitement in some way for my father looked at us in surprise. We were speechless so my father turned to Murone-san and said, “Yes, I do remember what happened. The young people were never found were they?”
Chris added hastily; “You mean they were found alive?” Alive, it shot through my mind, alive That would explain everything. I gave a sigh of relief; no ghosts after all.
But Murone-san was continuing excitedly, impatient with our stupidity: “Of course not alive. They committed suicide. There was no question about that. No, no! Their bodies were found this morning by the police in a patrol boat. They were over there in your bay near the sandy beach. Their bodies were clearly visible in the clear water. They looked as if they had just died—the cold of the deep water must have preserved them. They still had their arms about each other, and her long hair was entangled in the branches of a submerged tree. The storm must have broken loose the tree and brought the bodies to the surface. Yes. That must have happened last night in the storm.”