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Bloom Creative Writing: Hungry Ghosts

Beginning with this story, Bloom will publish original fiction or poetry by writers who either published their first book at 40 or after, or who have yet to publish a book. Writers interested in submitting work should see our guidelines.

by Beth O’Halloran

Beth O’Halloran
(photo by Fionn McCann)

There is a mountain in Japan where it is believed hungry ghosts live in vaporous shadows. And if you, as a hapless hiker, should wander there without sealing your soul’s portals, one such ghost might latch on and suck the life right out of you before you could even zip your anorak.

Helen thinks of this imaginary hiker and his emptied husk as, lately, even the most casual encounter fills her with dread. While walking, if a figure appears on the footpath, she crosses to the other side.

photo by Beth O’Halloran

In her mother’s last days, Helen would walk the boulevard loop of bay near the house. Each morning, she walked so fast for the first mile, she almost ran. At the water’s edge, there was a day when rain pelted. Droplets hit the surface and shot right back up again. It’s raining up, she’d thought. And where the horizon should have been, there was only haze. It was in this neither-water-nor-air place where Helen could put a shape on her mother’s shift from restless solid to breathless mystery. Tiny humming particles, the physicists say.

The mountain in Japan is known as Osorezan — Mount Fear. It hovers at the northern tip of Japan’s main island. At the summit of a dormant volcano, the air still hisses and the ground belches sulfuric stinks. Hot yellow-tinged water trickles in vein-like streams. 

Today Helen is riding her bicycle on streets she knew as a child. And a newlywed. Each corner flicks past with a memory. There she is at eight picking up litter to earn a school sticker. There’s her sister at a piano lesson behind gauzy curtains. Now she’s ten trying to fish a thrown clog from the branches of a tree. These things that stay with us when so many vital things slip.

It’s September. She can’t remember being this tired before. A scooter whines past. For the first time this year she wishes she’d worn a scarf. Helen is looking for the office of her ‘marital dissolution’ lawyer. Her tires must be low as she feels she is on an incline yet the road looks flat.

How does a hiker seal his soul’s portal? And what happens if you can’t shake the hungry ghost?

She went to a full-moon circle once. She is still unclear as to what it meant, but a woman with long black hair greeted her as she arrived at the wooded place. She held a smoking clump of sage leaves and waggled it around Helen’s frame. Four other women sat around a fire in the darkness. There were prayers said and hopes voiced. Helen didn’t think much about it. In fact, she remembers wanting a grilled-cheese sandwich for most of the ceremony. But afterwards, a woman she’d never met before said she couldn’t take her eyes off the ghost who had sat at Helen’s side for the whole night — the ghost had a bald head and sat happily in a full lotus. Surely her long gone eldest sister, thought Helen. The sister who trained as a monk in Japan. The one she still whispers questions to in her overwhelmed moments.

Her bicycle seems to know where it is going. She turns and she’s on the lane beside her childhood house. Her toddler self is eating a yogurt. Elvis is dead, said the radio.

There are happy-go-lucky people who can climb haunted mountains without the slightest chill. She’s sure to be late getting to this lawyer’s place, a place she least wants to get to. She stops to re-check the office’s address. Daily actions, like keeping track of time and where she’s left things, have become an effort. How often she arrives in a room asking herself why she’s come in here. An icy bite has spread from her ears to her chest with a clench. She has to study the screen’s map for a long time, unable to connect the street name to its place, despite its familiarity. Running late, she will now not be able to avoid the road where her husband works.

It was after the full moon whatever-it-was that the woman with long black hair waggled more smoking herb and told Helen she was sealing her aura back up. Is that what it takes? 

photo by Beth O’Halloran

“You’re such a sponge,” she’s been told by many. 

She’s on the big road now – the one too fancy for buses to go up and down. Every second townhouse has an embassy flag flapping out front. This is the road she and her soon-to-be-ex-husband walked when their girl was a newborn. He unhitched her starfish shape to show her the sweep of sky. “Welcome to the world,” he said, his dimples doubling his grin. 

There’s a plume of chimney smoke with a smell of burning wood. Hazelnuts have dropped in spiky parcels like claws. 

They are like the fingers of a sari-wrapped Indian healer she once encountered in a semi-D where every house looked exactly the same. She was known as the healers’ healer and Helen was sent her way after a back injury. 

Her hands looked like a snake’s shed skin: “When I heal them, some of their sickness must stay with me.” Helen stared at the woman’s hands and felt uneasy that she had come to have her take the pain from her spine. Helen lay on her raised table. When she tilted her head, she could see bits of twisted wood and crystals on a windowsill. Incense made her sleepy. She heard the tiny woman move around her but didn’t feel her touch. But she did feel something – like the air shifting to a solid. Or like swimming in the sea and encountering a current of warm water. She worried at the traces of pain she might leave on the kind woman’s hands. But after the session, the healer’s eyes were set on a space to Helen’s side. She bowed to someone Helen could not see and said, “Today I received a healing too.” Helen could swear the woman whispered her late sister’s name.

Every July, on Mount Osorezan, there is a festival for the bereaved. It is overseen by mediums known as the Itako — blind women who have undergone spiritual training since childhood. It is believed the Itako can connect grieving visitors with their lost loved ones by slipping themselves into deep, prolonged trances. 

Days after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, there was a period of confusion as people struggled to reach loved ones, first by phone and later, as the waters receded, by frantic scouring through debris. Some looked for weeks, months, even years, as the toll of the dead and missing rose toward 20,000.

Survivors of the disaster began seeing and feeling ghostly presences. Near Mount Fear, a taxi driver picked up a fare dressed in summer clothes in the depth of winter, only to find that the passenger disappeared mid-journey. A woman answered a knock on her door to a businessman soaked to the skin. She hurried off for a towel and returned to an entire saturated group, which dissolved before her eyes. Then there was a deceased elderly woman who continued to come to drink tea with old friends, leaving a damp patch on the tatami when she left. A toy truck, belonging to a young boy drowned in the tsunami, pushed itself haltingly around the room. What is the thing they — and the ghouls on the mountain —  are so hungry for? Solidness?

An anthropologist said ghost stories reflect the disorientation that comes with rapid change. It is said that they float through walls confused by their new surroundings.

photo by Beth O’Halloran

Helen has been taking sleeping pills for almost a year. When she goes to the pharmacy to collect her prescription, she banters in a high-pitched voice, seared by the shame of not being able to do the most natural thing. 

On Mount Osorezan, compasses spin. This is how the hikers lose their way. The place is long regarded as an entrance to the underworld: A place neither for the living or the dead. Warm vapors waft from the rough, rocky terrain, through the fine-graveled courtyard and cavernous wooden buildings of a Buddhist temple complex, Bodai-ji, run by the Sōtō Zen sect. Sulfur and incense mix in the air. An in-between state pulsing with ancient grief. 

A pedestrian light yammers. Her ears ache from the cold. Legs heavy from pushing the reluctant pedals. A taxi leans too close. Some of those Japanese taxi drivers have gotten used to their phantom passengers. The more comfortable drivers even talk to them as they would with the living: listening to what they have to say, taking them where they need to go.The healers, the blind women, the sage-wagglers, the taxi-drivers.

Helen’s bicycle has taken her to the crossroads she avoids. It is near where her soon-to-be-ex-husband works. The route to the lawyer’s office includes this. She carefully checks the cloud of figures outside his building, sucking cigarettes. He’s not there. Her chest feels vacuum-packed and her nose runs in a single stream. She stands on her pedals to cross a steep bridge. There is pause as she reaches the crest — the water spray of the canal is a green-grey fog. She stands on the pedals and heaves to clear the hill and to push beyond the remembering that a poet once stood in this very spot and wrote the lines which were voiced at her wedding.

The bike speeds down the hill. Cold has wound its way down her front with the feeling of an enormous hand pressing against her. 

Although now living in Dublin, Beth O’Halloran spent her early life in Maine. She is a visual artist and college lecturer in Fine Art at The National College of Art & Design. Publications include The Ogham Stone Literary Journal 2020. Twice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, she won The Irish Times First Fiction Award 2019 for her story, “Vortex.” Her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times and The Dubliner MagazineA memoir, A Patch of Blue, is under publisher review. 



One thought on “Bloom Creative Writing: Hungry Ghosts

  1. Two of my grandchildren were born in Japan, very close to the region of the tsunami. I have never been to Japan, but through your descriptive imagery I felt I got a glimpse of time and place, and of a particular time and place as I remembered how on the day of the Tsunami we held our breath waiting to hear of the safety of our extended family. The delicate symbolism of the customs and traditions of that culture, as a back-drop to the day in the life of Helen makes a most moving story. Thank you Beth.

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