This week, leading up to Halloween, I’m posting some modernized versions of the Japanese ghost stories documented by Lafcadio Hearn in a 1903 book of short stories, called Kwaidan. Today, “Of a Mirror and a Bell.”
Nine hundred years ago, some old priests in modern-day Shizuoka wanted to improve their temple by adding a giant bell. What a bell it would be, they cried. A bell for the ages! A bell for the children and the poor! People would climb mountains to see such a bell. They’d look in awe and wonder at the size of it, this bell of the heavens, this prince of pewter, a beacon of bronze.
Being old men caught up in a schoolgirl bronze-bell fever, the priests demanded the women of the prefecture gather up their old bronze mirrors* to be melted into a bell. The beauty of the bell would transcend the beauty of the women, the priests explained, and all of you are wretched hags, and we are old men who cannot touch you anyway, so destroy your mirrors and stop forcing us to look at such beautiful faces. We’ll transform our lust for youth into a lust for bells!
A young woman, the wife of a local farmer, gathered up her mirrors and brought them to the temple. But she regretted giving her last mirror away. It had been in her family for centuries, from her mother and grandmother and grandmother’s mother, and she remembered the sight of it smiling back to herself on her wedding day. She had no photos – they hadn’t been invented. She just longed to look in the mirror and imagine her younger, happier self looking back.
The priests said they would sell the mirror back to her, but she was broke. She could see the mirror lying in the courtyard in a pile. The back of it had been emblazoned with the emblems of lucky charms, pine, bamboo, and plums, the words her mother had taught her first.
She schemed to steal the mirror back, but no opportunity came. A mirror is the soul of a women, the old saying said, and even the Chinese would write “soul” on the back of their mirrors. She despaired. She felt weird about how much she liked that mirror, and now she was annoyed at the priests not just for taking her mirror, but for making her feel weird about wanting it back, and for dissing her for being poor, too. So she didn’t say a word to anyone.
All the mirrors were piled up to the giant mirror-smashing ceremony. The priests got drunk on sake and stomped with wooden sandals on the mirrors of the townsfolk, who looked on feeling like it was kind of weird but hey, what could they do? These were priests and priests knew what they were doing, and the bell did sound pretty damn cool.
The priests were stomping and smashing all night long, then throwing the bronze into a fire and melting it into sheets, and it was getting annoying. Most people weren’t paying attention, thinking about rice and old umbrellas and the daily distractions of townsfolk in Japan from a thousand years ago, when collectively everyone snapped back out of it and into the realization that these priests had been smashing a single mirror for an hour and a half.
Finally the soberest priest sorted it out for himself and stopped the other priests from bashing the thing. He turned to the sleepy crowd.
“Guys. Did one of you give us this mirror with less than 100% of your heart?”
The woman knew she’d been outed. She had no idea that was part of the contract. Hell, she even told the priests she wanted the damn thing back. Which now, if they weren’t so piss-drunk, they could probably think back and remember and then she’d be publically humiliated.
“Yes,” she said, standing. “It’s mine. I told you that already.”
“Your selfish soul is too cold to melt this bronze!”
The bored crowd went up in a muted groan. This was gonna extend the ceremony, they worried. What a bitch!
“Just shut up and give your heart unselfishly to the bell!” cried a man. A chorus of “yeahs!” mindlessly followed. The woman, embarrassed by the stupidity of the whole thing and still weirdly obsessed with this mirror, went to the river and drowned herself. But first, she wrote a note.
“When I am dead, it will not be difficult to melt the mirror and to cast the bell. But, to the person who breaks that bell by ringing it, great wealth will be given by my ghost.”
Now, everybody knows that the last wish of anybody who dies in anger or even mild annoyance is given a bit of a supernatural force to carry out that wish after they’ve died. So when the mirror was melted and bell was finished, everyone cheered, grateful that the selfish old hag had just up and offed herself already so the town could have this totally awesome bell.
Plus, there was some legend about some ghost who would give a reward to anyone who broke the bell. So as soon as the bell was built, everyone started smashing the thing too hard, annoying the priests with all the god-damned clanging.
But it was a good bell, and it was a brave bell, and it took all the manhandling it was given. People tried their damnedest and finally the priests were so sick of the bell that they put the thing in a giant crate and dropped it into a swamp. They sat around for the rest of their too-long and bored lives half-heartedly indulging in hare-brained schemes to draw tourists to the town, but no one ever cared.
But the legend of the bell persisted. Though no one could get to the bell at the bottom of the swamp, there was a kind of old Japanese magic called “nazoraeru,” a kind of alchemy, or voodoo. In this ritual, you make a substitute object, and you use the substitute to achieve magic results.
So if you cannot afford to build a temple for the Buddha, you lay a pebble at the feet of a Buddha statue. If you do it with the spirit of a man who would build a temple, then for Buddha, that stone is just as good.
You get karma for the act, almost as if you’d built a temple. Can’t say the Heart Sutra six thousand times? Write it on a can and spin the can around. Every rotation is like you’re reading it. Make four cans and spin them, it’s like reading it four times. Spin’em and run around it, every time you run around times four. You get me.
In olden times, people made dolls and set them on fire so that their enemies would burn or suffer misfortune. Or if a thief came, they’d find a footprint and pour melted wax in it, and the real thief’s foot would get burned.
So with the bell at the bottom of the swamp, but a reward still out for anyone who broke it, a lot of nazoraeru schemes were hatched. People started breaking all sorts of stuff to see if it brought good luck. It was an epidemic, because some people would get arbitrary good luck, not connected to bell magic, and not really be sure if they ghost had honored the substitute object, or just got lucky. After a while people just thought they may as well break things, just to be sure.
One woman, Umagae, was traveling with her cousin, a famous warrior. But they’d spent all their money, and were desperate. Umagae remembered hearing about the legend of the bell, so she took one of her washbowls and beat it against a rock while screaming about money.
Her cousin thought she was a bit hysterical, and when a guest at the hotel complained about the bronze-banging and screaming, the clerk, some 16-year-old who didn’t give a shit about customer service, sent the guest to Umagae. Umagae explained the story and the guest, feeling bad, gave them a couple of bucks. Umagae was blown away by how well the ruse worked, and spent the money on a sake bender, where she came home singing the first girl-power anthem in Japan:
“If, by smashing my wash-basin / I could make some money / then I would negotiate / for all the freedom / of my ladies.” The song is still sung today in folk dances: “Umegae no chozubachi tataite / O-kane ga deru naraba / Mina San mi-uke wo / Sore tanomimasu.”
So even though the priests had been sick of all the bell-clanging, which is why they’d buried the bell in the first place, they had a big problem: People kept coming and smashing metal wash basins at their temple. That isn’t what they had in mind for an urban development plan.
One day a broke farmer, having lived a party lifestyle, realized he had no cash and that inexplicably his whole garden had been turned into mud, probably thanks to his idiot son. He got drunk, got some mud, and made some clay. He made a clay bell, and then smashed the failed pottery experiment against the wall while screaming about how he wanted some damned money.
He went outside to look longingly at his scarecrow when he noticed the mud swirling around. Slowly a woman, dressed in white, emerged from the hole, and floated over to him. She was holding a covered jar.
“I have come to answer your prayer. Take this jar.”
The farmer took the jar, and the woman instantly disappeared.
The farmer ran inside, and placed the heavy jar on the table. He called over his wife and his idiot son. Together, they slowly uncovered the jar, and found that it was filled to the brim.
“Holy shit,” said the farmer.
The end. Yes, that’s really how this story ends. In the original version the author writes, “But I’d better not tell you what’s inside the jar.”
I didn’t say these were good ghost stories. I mean, the rest of them have better endings. Promise.
* You can still find this practice today at temples, where shards of broken glass are laid before statues of the Buddha.