February 3, 2011

Lafcadio Hearn

A reader recently queried me about the ghost story I purloined from Lafcadio Hearn and used in The Book of Flying. I'd forgotten which one it was, so had to order the book through inter-library loan. It was in an essay called "The Chief City of the Province of the Gods." Here it is:

"In Nakabaramachi there is an ameya, or little shop in which midzu-ame is sold,―the amber-tinted syrup, made of malt, which is given to children when milk cannot be obtained for them. Every night at a late hour there came to that shop a very pale woman, all in white, to buy one rin worth of midzu-ame. The ame-seller wondered that she was so thin and pale, and often questioned her kindly; but she answered nothing. At last one night he followed her, out of curiosity. She went to the cemetery; and he became afraid and returned.

"The next night the woman came again, but bought no midzu-ame, and only beckoned to the man to go with her. He followed her, with friends, into the cemetery. She walked to a certain tomb, and there disappeared; and they heard, under the ground, the crying of a child. Opening the tomb, they saw within it the corpse of the woman who nightly visited the ameya, with a living infant, laughing to see the lantern light, and beside the infant a little cup of midzu-ame. For the mother had been prematurely buried; the child was born in the tomb, and the ghost of the mother had thus provided for it,―love being stronger than death.

Hearn had an interesting life. His father was Irish, his mother Greek. He moved to the States at nineteen, and became a writer. He was apparently pretty odd-looking. He'd lost an eye in an accident, and the other was enlarged. He was also very short. Perhaps due to his "monstrous" appearance, he was fascinated by the macabre, reporting on crime, and interested in ghosts. He married (illegally at the time) a black woman, was forced from his position as a journalist when that was discovered, and then divorced her. He wrote about New Orleans and Martinique, but found his calling in Japan, where he married a Japanese woman, became a teacher, and settled down. His writings on Japan are just wonderful. They are in the public domain, and may be downloaded here.


After I posted this, another reader wondered if Shel Silverstein's lion was named after Hearne. I'm not sure if he was directly, but Hearne was apparently the first person to bear the name, which was taken from Lefkada, the Greek island where he was born.

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