Life A Ghost Story
I do not dislike the old, and I definitely want to die like them—old. But, admittedly, I do hold an idea about old people, about their place in the human world, their role in the family, that they may not appreciate. This idea is best expressed in a Japanese ghost story collected and preserved by Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century writer who was born in Europe, lived in America, and spent the last 14 years of his life turning Japanese—he moved to Japan in 1890 and found its society to be the best fit for his personality. The world remembers Hearn, whose Japanese name is Koizumi Yakumo, for Kwaidan, a book of ghost stories that was made into a beautiful film (by Masaki Kobayashi) that has an equally beautiful soundtrack (by Toru Takemitsu).
Let’s get down to the story, which can be found in either In Ghostly Japan or Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (if I’m correct, kwaidan means weird or strange happenings—another quick note, anything by Hearn on Japanese society is worth reading for the content and not for the writing itself, which is mediocre).
The story goes like this: An old woman is dying, and sitting next to her, taking care of her, is a young woman (in her late teens). Feeling the end is near, the old woman, who is in bed, asks the young woman to take her outside to see a cherry blossom tree that’s blooming. The young woman offers the support of her shoulders to the old woman, and the old woman stands, places her old hands on the young woman’s shoulders, and is led to the tree in the garden. Once under the tree, with its falling pink petals, the old woman’s hands suddenly let go of the shoulders, violently reach over and around the young woman, grab each of her breasts, squeezes them with the remaining energy in her long life, and dies, clinging to the breasts.
The young woman screams in horror.
Members of her family run outside, see what has happened, and attempt to remove the dead woman’s old hands from her breasts. But the fingers wont separate. With the cloth, the old woman’s flesh has somehow fused with the young woman’s flesh. When a finger is pulled from a breast, the fused flesh tears apart and begins bleeding. At the end of the day there is only one solution left: they cut the old woman’s wrists and hope the fixed hands eventually rot and drop off. But this never happens, and the young woman is forced to live with the old hands on her breasts.
And that is what comes to my mind when I think about old people. That is my image (those old hands and those young breasts), my symbol of their condition—or, more broadly, the human condition.