Short story or parable about a samurai and a supernatural loophole
September 6, 2016 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out where I read this short ghost story.

I have no idea where I read it (I'm pretty sure it was read, rather than from a movie, TV, or told in person. It may not have been in a novel) but I've been ruminating on it lately. I don't think I have all the details completely right, but paraphrased, the story goes as follows.
A samurai in feudal Japan has captured several bandits and brought them to the home of the local lord to be tried. The proceedings are held outside in the garden. Each bandit is sentenced in turn to death. As there is no executioner available, the job of beheading them falls to the samurai.

Most of the bandits accept their sentences with stoicism and kneel before being killed cleanly, but one man doesn't. He cries out that he is innocent, that he doesn't deserve to die. He struggles against his bonds. He weeps and grovels, and when none of this moves the lord to mercy he swears that he will come back from death to haunt everyone present.

The lord and his courtiers are alarmed by this threat. The lord quietly confers with the samurai. "Maybe it would be wiser not to execute him," offers the lord. He knows that even if the man doesn't come back as a ghost, the superstitious among his staff and citizens will be afraid, rumors will spread, and his position could be at risk.

The samurai thinks for a moment, then tells the lord that he has a plan. Loudly, so that everyone can hear him, he challenges the man. "If you can really come back from death, prove it to us. Give us a sign. When I take your head, if you can roll it into that pond," he says, gesturing to a garden pond some distance from the killing ground, " I'll accept that your ghost will haunt me".

The man goes quite at this, and stops struggling. He is lead to the execution spot, made to kneel, and without ceremony the samurai beheads him with a single stroke. And indeed the man's head rolls and bounces over the ground in a most unnatural way before finally coming to rest, face up, in the very pond the samurai had pointed at.

The courtiers are terrified, and the lord is both angry that the samurai has made the situation this much worse, and - it must be said - quite uneasy about his impending haunting.

The samurai quiets the group and shares his clever plan. It's known, he explains, that a ghost is only created when someone holds a single strong desire at the moment of death, and the ghost will remain until that desire is met. Rather than focusing on revenge as he died, the man had instead focused all his will into rolling his severed head into a pond. With that accomplished, his ghost was already gone, and so no one was in danger of being haunted.
That's the gist of it. I have no other details, and I'm not even completely sure the setting was Japan.
posted by figurant to Media & Arts (2 answers total)
Google books turns up the story in a book called "A Gathering of Spirits: Japan's Ghost Story Tradition" in a story called The Ghost That Did Nothing.
posted by PussKillian at 6:50 PM on September 6, 2016

That's definitely the story, although I don't think I read it in that particular collection. Still, knowing how to find it again was really what I was after. Thanks!
posted by figurant at 6:56 PM on September 6, 2016

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