Muso Kokushi was a priest of the Zen sect. One day, when he was journeying alone, Muso lost his way in a remote mountain-district. For a long time he wandered helplessly; and he was beginning to despair of finding shelter helplessly; and he was beginning to despair of finding shelter for the night, when he saw, on the top of a hill lit by the last rays of the sun, one of those little hermitages called anjitsu, which are built for solitary priests. It seemed to be in a ruinous condition; but he hastened to it eagerly, and found that it was inhabited by an aged priest, from whom he begged the favor of a night’s lodging. This the old man harshly refused; but he directed Muso to a hamlet in a nearby valley where lodging and food could be obtained.
Muso found his way to the hamlet and he was kindly received at the village leader’s dwelling. Forty or fifty persons were assembled in the principal apartment, but Muso was shown into a separate room and supplied with food and bedding. Being very tired, he lay down to rest, but a little before midnight he was awakened by loud weeping in the next apartment. Soon, the sliding-screens were gently opened and a young man carrying a lantern respectfully saluted him.
“Reverent sir,” he began, “it is my painful duty to tell you that I am now the head of this house. Yesterday I was only the eldest son. But when you came here, tired as you were, we did not wish that you should feel embarrassed in any way: therefore we did not tell you that father had died only a few hours before. The people assembled here are going to another village, about three miles off – for by our custom, we make the proper offerings and prayers, then we leave the corpse alone. No one may remain in this village during the night after a death has taken place, because strange things always happen, so we think that it will be better for your to come away with us. But perhaps, as you are a priest, you have no fear of demons or evil spirits. If so, you will be very welcome to use our poor house. However, I must tell you that nobody, except a priest, would dare to remain here tonight.”
Muso responded: “For your kind intention and your generous hospitality I am deeply grateful. But I am sorry that you did not tell me of your father’s death when I arrived, so I could have done my duty as a priest before your departure. As it is, I shall perform the service after you have gone away; and I shall stay by the body until morning. I am not afraid of ghosts or demons, so please feel no anxiety on my account.”
The young man expressed his gratitude in fitting words. Then the assembled villagers came to thank him, after which the master of the house spoke. “Now, reverent sir, much as we regret to leave you alone, we must bid you farewell. We beg, kind sir, that you will take every care. And if you happen to hear or see anything strange, please tell us when we return in the morning.”
All then left the priest, who went to the room where the dead body was lying. The usual offerings had been set before the corpse; and a small lamp was burning. The priest performed the funeral ceremonies, after which he entered into meditation. So meditating he remained through several silent hours. But when the hush of the nigh was at its deepest, there noiselessly entered a Shape, a vague and vast; and in the same moment Muso found himself without power to move or speak. He watched the Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, and devour it more quickly than a cat devours a rat: beginning at the had, and eating everything – the hair and the bones and even the shroud. And the monstrous Thing, having thus consumed the body, turned to the offerings, and ate them also. Then it went away, as mysteriously as it had come.
When the villagers returned next morning, they found the priest awaiting them at the door of the dwelling. All in turn saluted him; and when they looked about the room, no one expressed any surprise at the disappearance of the corpse and the offerings. “Reverent sir,” said the master of the house, “you have probably seen unpleasant things during the night. All of us were anxious about you. But now we are very happy to find you alive and unharmed. Gladly we would have stayed with you, but whenever the village law has been broken, some great misfortune has followed. Whenever it was obeyed, the corpse and the offerings disappear during our absence. Perhaps you have seen the cause.”
Then Muso told of the dim and awful Shape that had entered the death-chamber to devour the body. No person seemed to be surprised by his narration; and the master of the house said: “What you have told us, reverent sir, agrees with what has been said about this matter from ancient time.”
“Does not the priest on the hill sometimes perform the funeral service for your dead?” asked Muso.
“What priest?’ the young man asked.
“The priest who yesterday evening directed me to this village,” answered Muso. “I called at his anjitsu on the hill yonder. He refused me lodging, but told me the way here.”
The listeners looked at each other in astonishment; and the master of the house said: “Reverent sir, there is no priest and there is no anjitsu on the hill. For the time of many generations there has not been any resident-priest in this neighborhood.”
Muso said nothing more on the subject; for it was evident that his kind hosts supposed him to have been deluded by some goblin. But after bidding them farewell, he decided to look again for the hermitage on the hill. He found the anjitsu without any difficulty; and, this time, its aged occupant invited him to enter. When he had done so, the hermit humbly bowed down before him, exclaiming: “Ah! I am very much ashamed! I am exceedingly ashamed!”
“You need not be ashamed for having refused me shelter,” said Muso. “You directed me to a village where I was very kindly treated, and I thank you for that favor.”
“I can give no man shelter,” the recluse said, “and it is not for the refusal that I am ashamed. I am ashamed only that you should have seen me in my real shape – for it was I who devoured the corpse and the offerings last night before your eyes. Know, reverent sir, that I am jikininki, an eater of human flesh. Have pity upon me, and suffer me to confess the secret fault by which I became reduced to this condition.
“A long, long time ago, I was a priest in this desolate region. There was no other priest for many miles around, so the bodies of the mountain-folk who died were brought here, sometimes from great distances, in order that I might repeat over them the holy service. But I repeated the service and performed the rites only as a matter of business – I thought only of the food and the clothes that my sacred profession enabled me to gain. And because of this selfish impiety I was reborn, immediately after my death, into the state of a jikininki. Since then I have been obliged to feed upon the corpses of the people who die in this district: every one of them I must devour in the way that you saw last night. Now, reverent sir, let me beseech you to perform a cleansing ritual for me: help me by your prayers, I beg you, so that I may escape from this horrible state of existence.”
When the hermit uttered this prayer he disappeared; and the hermitage also at the same instant. And Muso Kokushi found himself kneeling alone in the high grass, beside an ancient and moss-grown tomb, which seemed to be that of a priest.