A Ghostly Lover tale from Southeast Asia

A tale told by Mark Seng Yang, who kindly allowed me to post it here.

800px Stilt house at Kalibo Aklan Philippines

Here’s a classic tale from SE Asia:

A man leaving to study abroad promised his lover he would return one day to marry her. Reluctantly, she agreed and waited for him. But as the years passed, her lover didn’t show and it was believed she died of a broken heart. A dilapidated house now stood where once a beautiful maiden waited for her knight.

As fate would have it, one day the man did come back and as he passed by his lover’s house, he could see her through the window combing her long, dark hair. Ecstatic as he was, the man decided to go home and clean up from the long journey. Imagine his surprise when his parents told him a peculiar thing.

“I’m told she’s dead and all that’s left is a ghost of her memory,” his parents said of his girlfriend.

The man scoffed. “Nonsense. I passed by her home. She was in the window, combing her hair.”

In fact, everyone the man met in the village said the same; that his beloved had not been seen for years. However, this didn’t deter him.

“I don’t believe any of you,” he contested. She lives all alone deep in the woods, self-sufficient; and you all say she’s dead.”

By evening, he was in his best clothes and on a narrow path to his girlfriend’s house. When he arrived, however, it was not as he remembered. The house was in poor condition and not a light was to be seen. Confused yet undeterred, the man knocked on the door. After a brief silence, the door opened and the moonlight revealed the silhouette of a woman with long, flowing hair.

“Come in,” she whispered.

The house felt cold, as he stepped inside, but the man dismissed all negative thoughts. He only longed to embrace his true love once again. He caught her in his arms and felt an unnatural coldness that froze deep within. Immediately, she withdrew as if it was evident to both of them.

“It gets cold in here,” she apologized.

A tad of doubt was brewing in his mind, but he managed to ask: “It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen each other. Can we make a fire, so I can see your face?”

She only nodded.

He went to work gathering wood and lighting the match, but each time the flames began to kindle, she would put it out with her cold breathe. Time and again, this occurred until one brief moment when the he was able to catch a glimpse of her face. It was deathly pale, and not at all human. The pit of his stomach hurt.

“Enough of this. Let’s go to bed now,” she insisted.

She led him to a bamboo cot where they both got under the blanket. Though the blanket was old and dusty, it was warm except when he his host touched him with her icy fingers. Instinctively, he recoiled. “They were right.” He told himself. “She was a ghost!”

“You act like I’m dead or something.” She laughed.

He wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic.

“I need the outhouse,” he objected. “I haven’t gone since getting back.”

Her voice became serious. “Don’t think you can leave me again.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” He faked a laugh. “I just really need to go.”

He began to shake his legs incessantly and begged over again until she gave in.

“Fine! But only if I can tie a rope to you, so I know for sure you’re coming back.”

In the outhouse, he frantically sought an escape plan. An empty pot with a small hole gave him an idea. He quietly tip-toed to a water jar and filled the pot, then tilted it so water could be heard draining. The rope he carefully untied and ran like the wind.

Back in the house, she finally heard the sound of urinating and relaxed. He would be back soon, she figured. Yet, it went on longer and longer until she felt apprehensive. When it finally stopped, she pulled and pulled but nothing came except an empty rope. Like a bat out of hell, she burst out.

“Get back here!” He could hear her screaming far behind. His head-start evaporated and in no time she was on him. But before she was about to grab hold, he turned into a sugar cane field and was surprised when she didn’t follow. Like an angry tiger, she paced back and forth at the edge shouting, “You promised! You promised!”

He continued to run and never looked back.

I love this story. Most ghostly lover tales I’ve heard go like this: a man comes across a lover whom he abandoned many years before. She is exactly how he remembers her, and the two of them rekindle their relationship. In the morning, the man awakens to discover that he spent the night with a corpse. In many versions, this discovery drives him mad.

The “escape by going to the bathroom” ploy in Mark’s version is new to me. I like it! When Mark posted this story to Facebook, one of the other readers pointed out that there is a version of Little Red Riding Hood where Red makes a similar escape. The version I linked to — very close to an original oral variant, apparently — is from Paul Delarue’s “Les contes merveilleux de perrault et la tradition populaire” Bulletin folklorique de I’lle-de-France, 1951), and reproduced by Jack Zipes. It’s something.

The werewolf became impatient and said: “Are you making a load out there? Are you making a load?”

And if you enjoyed Mark’s voice and his way of telling this tale, do check out his collection of tales from the Hmong, Mystic Jungle: Tales from Southeast Asia.

Some other versions of Ghostly Lover

Lafcadio Hearn’s “The Reconciliation” is the first version of this tale that I ever read.

There is another lovely variation in Akinari Ueda’s Ugetsu Monogatari: “Asaji ga Yado”, or “The House among the Reeds”. I found a translation of the story by Alex Anaya, here; the translation is aimed at younger children, and the story itself begins on page seven. I also recommend Anthony Chambers’ translation of Ugetsu Monogatari; his version is called “The Reed-choked House”.

And here’s a Sioux version of the same story.

In the Botan Doro variation, the man doesn’t realize that he is sleeping with a ghost until many many nights have passed. Sometimes this version has a happy ending, as the lovers reunite in the afterlife — but not in Lafcadio Hearn’s version, “A Passional Karma”.

Photo: Stilt house at Kalibo, Aklan, Philippines. User Paolobon140, Wikipedia.

6 thoughts on “A Ghostly Lover tale from Southeast Asia

  1. Very interesting.
    I hadn’t either heard this story with that “escape by going to the bathroom” twist, but I have read other Japanese stories with a similar escape form. They usually are about a Yamamba or some witch-like creature that lives in the mountain; a boy living in the local temple goes to the mountain and is captured, but thanks to some talismans that the monk had given him he manages to escape (when going to the bathroom, one of the talismans remains in place and answers the yamamba when she asks if he’s done.

    1. I have not come across the Yamamba stories before. Thanks for pointing me to something new! I think I’ve heard the “object answers for the person who is escaping” before. I remember it as being drops of blood. Maybe it was a Vasalisa vs Baba Yaga story? At any rate, it seems familiar.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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