Nearly 500 years ago there was a samurai named Isogai Taketsura, in the service of the Lord Kikuji, of Kyushu. But when the house of Kikuji came to ruin, Isogai found himself without a master, so he cut off his hair, and became a traveling priest, taking the Buddhist name of Kwairyo. But always, under the robe of the priest, Kwairyo had within him the heart of a samurai. He journeyed to preach the good Law in places where no other priest dared to go. For that age was an age of violence; and on the highways there was no security for a solitary traveler, even if he happened to be a priest.
One evening, as he was traveling through the mountains of Kai, darkness overcame him miles from any village, so he resigned himself to pass the night under the stars. Scarcely had he lain down when a woodcutter came along the road and said in a tone of great surprise: “What kind of a man can you be, good sir, that you dare to lie down alone in such a place as this? There are haunters about here, many of them. Are you not afraid of Hairy Things?”
“My friend,” answered Kwairyo cheerfully, “I am only a wandering priest, and I am not in the least afraid of ‘Hairy Things,’ if you mean goblin-foxes, or goblin-badgers, or any creatures of that kind. Lonesome places are suitable for meditation, and I have learned never to be anxious about my life.”
“This place has a bad name and I must assure you, sir, that it is very dangerous to sleep here. Although my house is only a wretched hut, let me beg of you to come home with me at once. There is a roof at least, and you can sleep without risk.”
Kwairyo, liking the man’s kindly tone, accepted this modest offer. The woodcutter guided him to a small thatched cottage, cheerfully lighted from within. As Kwairyo entered, he saw four men and women warming their hands at a little fire. They bowed low in the most respectful manner. Kwairyo wandered that persons so poor, and dwelling in such a solitude, should be aware of the polite forms of greeting.
“From your speech and manners, I imagine that you have not always been a woodcutter,” he said. “Perhaps you formerly belonged to one of the upper classes?”
The woodcutter smiled, “Sir, you are not mistaken. I was once a person of some distinction. My story is of a life ruined by my own fault. I used to be in the service of a master and my rank was not inconsiderable. But I loved women and wine too well; and under the influence of passion I brought about the ruin of our house, and caused the death of many persons. Retribution followed me; and I now I try to overcome the karma of my errors by repentance and helping those who are unfortunate.”
Kwairyo said to the woodcutter, “My friend, it is written in the holy sutras that those strongest in wrong-doing can become the strongest in right-doing. I do not doubt that you have a good heart. Tonight I shall recite the sutras for your sake, and pray that you may overcome the karma of past errors.”
Kwairyo’s host showed him to a very small side-room, where a bed had been made ready. All went to sleep except the priest, who began to read the sutras by the light of a paper lantern. Into the night Kwairyo read and prayed. After a time he felt thirsty and decided to tiptoe out for a drink of water. Very gently he pushed apart the sliding-screens that separated his room from the main apartment; and he saw, by the light of the lantern, five recumbent bodies – without heads!
For one instant he stood bewildered, imagining a crime. But quickly he saw that there was no blood, and that the headless necks did not look as if they had been cut. Then he thought to himself: “I have been lured into the dwelling of a Rokuro-Kubi, a goblin that can remove its head! Now, if these be Rokuro-Kubi, they mean me no good. It is written that if one finds the body of a Rokuro-Kubi without its head and removes it to another place, the head will never be able to join itself again to the neck. When the head comes back and finds that its body has been moved, it will bounce like a ball upon the floor three times, then pant in great fear, and then die.”
He seized the body of the woodcutter by the feet and dragged it out the window. While outside, he heard voices in a grove, so he stole from shadow to shadow. From behind a tree, he caught sight of the five heads flitting about and chatting as they ate worms and insects that they’d found.
After a while the head of the woodcutter stopped eating and said: “Ah, that fat traveling priest! When we eat him, our bellies will be well filled. I was foolish to talk to him as I did – it only set him to reciting the sutras on behalf of my soul! To go near him while he is reciting or praying would be difficult, but as it is nearly morning, perhaps he has gone to sleep. One of you go to the house and see what the fellow is doing.”
Immediately, the head of a young woman flitted to the house lightly as a bat. After a few minutes it came back, and cried out in a tone of great alarm: “That priest is gone! But that’s not the worst of the matter. He has taken the body of our aruji, our housemaster, and I do not know where he has put it.”
At this announcement the head of the aruji – distinctly visible in the moonlight – became frightful: it’s eyes opened monstrously; it’s hair stood up bristling; and its teeth gnashed. Then a cry burst from its lips; and – weeping tears of rage – it exclaimed:
“Since my body has been moved, to rejoin it is not possible! Then I must die! And all through the work of that priest! Before I die I will get at that priest! I will tear him! I will devour him! AND THERE HE IS – hiding behind that tree! The fat coward!”
In the same moment the head of the aruji, followed by the other four heads, sprang at Kwairyo. But the samurai-turned-priest had already armed himself by plucking up a young tree; and with that tree he struck the heads as they came, knocking them from him with tremendous blows. Four of them fled away. But the head of the aruji, though battered again and again, desperately continued to attack the priest, and at last caught him by the left sleeve of his robe. Kwairyo, however, quickly gripped the head of its topknot, and repeatedly struck it. It did not release its hold; but it uttered a long moan and ceased to struggle. In death its teeth still held the sleeve; for all his great strength, Kwairyo could not force open the jaws.
With the head still hanging to his sleeve he went back to the house, and there caught sight of the other four Rokuro-Kubi with bruised and bleeding heads reunited to their bodies. But when they saw him at the back-door, they screamed, “The priest! The priest!” and fled out into the woods.
The sky was brightening; day was about to dawn. Kwairyo knew that the power of the goblins was limited to the hours of darkness. He inspected the head clinging to his sleeve – its face fouled with blood, foam, and clay – and he laughed aloud as he thought to himself: “What a great souvenir, the head of a goblin!” before descending the mountain to continue his journey.
Into the main street of Suwa he solemnly strode with the head dangling at his elbow. Women fainted, and children screamed and ran away; and there was a great clamor until lawmen seized the priest and took him to jail. Kwairyo only smiled and said nothing when brought before the magistrates of the district. He was ordered to explain why he, a priest, had the head of a man fastened to his sleeve, and why he had shamelessly paraded his crime before people.
Kwairyo laughted long and loudly at these questions. “Sirs, I did not fasten the head to my sleeve: it fastened itself there, much against my will. And I have not committed any crime. For this is the head of a goblin, and I was simply taking precautions to assure my own safety.” And he laughed as he proceeded to tell of his encounter with the five heads.
But the magistrates did not laugh. They judged him to be a hardened criminal and his story an insult to their intelligence. Therefore, they decided to order his immediate execution, all of them except one, a very old man. After having heard the opinion of his colleagues, he said: “Let us first examine the head carefully. If the priest has spoken the truth, the head itself should bear witness for him. Bring the head here!”
So the head, still holding in its teeth the robe from Kwairyo’s shoulders, was put before the judges. The old man discovered that the edges of the neck nowhere presented the appearance of having been cut by any weapon. On the contrary, the line of severance was smooth as the line at which a falling leaf detaches itself from the stem. Then said the elder: “I am quite sure that the priest told us the truth. This is the head of a Rokuro-Kubi. It is well known that such goblins have been dwelling in the mountains of Kai from very ancient time . . . . But you, sir,” he exclaimed, turning to Kwairyo, — “what sort of sturdy priest may you be? You have the air of a soldier rather than a priest. Perhaps you once belonged to the samurai class?”
“You have guessed rightly, sir,” Kwairyo responded. “Before becoming a priest, my name was Isogai Taketsura of Kyushu: there may be some among you who remember it.” At the mention of that name, a murmur of admiration filled the courtroom, for there were many present who remembered it. And Kwairyo immediately found himself among friends instead of judges. When Kwairyo left Suwa, he was as happy as any priest is permitted to be in this transitory world. As for the head, he took it with him, jocularly insisting he intended it for a souvenir.
And now it only remains to tell what became of the head.
A day or two after leaving Suwa, Kwairyo met with a robber, who tried to rob him until he saw the goblin head hanging from his sleeve. “You!” he shouted, jumping backward. “What kind of a priest are you? Why, you are a worse man than I am! It is true that I have killed people; but I never walked about with anybody’s head fastened to my sleeve.” Deciding he could use the head to scare people, the bandit asked to buy it.
Kwairyo answered: “I shall let you have the head; but I must tell you that this is a goblin’s head. So, if you have trouble in consequence, please remember that you were not deceived by me.” And Kwairyo, loudly laughing, sold his robe with the goblin head and went upon his way.
Thus the robber got the head and the robe; and for some time he played goblin-priest upon the highways. But when his travels took him to the neighborhood of Suwa, he learned the true story of the head; and he then became afraid that the spirit of the Rokuro-Kubi might give him trouble. So he buried the head by itself in the grove behind the cottage; and he had a tombstone set up over the grave, and a funeral service performed on behalf of the Rokuro-Kubi’s spirit. And that was the end of that.