The Golden Hairpin
Here is a folk tale taking place in the northernmost reaches of Japan and set during a period when the samurai class is waning. It is at core a love story similar to that of the Peony Lantern but with a very different perspective and description of the ghostly apparition. Like so many of these old tales, the notion that a beloved artifact or object remains tied to the soul of the deceased and becomes a conduit through which the dead spirit once again enters the land of the living. Here the object is a golden hairpin which is exchanged between lovers at the beginning of what would become their sad and tragic relationship.
Up in the northern city of Sendai, whence come the best of Japanese soldiers, there lived a samurai named Hasunuma. Hasunuma was rich and hospitable, and consequently much thought of and well liked. Some thirty-five years ago his wife presented him with a beautiful daughter, their first child, whom they called 'Ko,' which means 'Small' when applied to a child, much as we say 'Little Mary or Little Jane.' Her full name was really 'Hasu-ko,' which means 'Little Lily'; but here we will call her 'Ko' for short.
Exactly on the same date, 'Saito,' one of Hasunuma's friends and also a samurai, had the good fortune to have a son. The fathers decided that, being such old friends, they would wed their children to each other when old enough to marry; they were very happy over the idea, and so were their wives. To make the engagement of the babies more binding, Saito handed to Hasunuma a golden hairpin which had long been in his family, and said:
'Here, my old friend, take this pin. It shall be a token of betrothal from my son, whose name shall be Kōnojō, to your little daughter Ko, both of whom are now aged two weeks only. May they live long and happy lives together.'
Hasunuma took the pin, and handed it to his wife to keep; then they drank saké to the health of each other, and to the bride and bridegroom of some twenty years thence.
A few months after this Saito, in some way, caused displeasure to his feudal lord, and, being dismissed from service, left Sendai with his family--whither no one knew.
Seventeen years later O Ko San was, with one exception, the most beautiful girl in all Sendai; the exception was her sister, O Kei, just a year younger, and as beautiful as herself.
Many were the suitors for O Ko's hand; but she would have none of them, being faithful to the engagement made for her by her father when she was a baby. True, she had never seen her betrothed, and (which seemed more curious) neither she nor her family had ever once heard of the Saito family since they had left Sendai, over sixteen years before; but that was no reason why she, a Japanese girl, should break the word of her father, and therefore O Ko San remained faithful to her unknown lover, though she sorrowed greatly at his non-appearance; in fact, she secretly suffered so much thereby that she sickened, and three months later died, to the grief of all who knew her and to her family's serious distress.
On the day of O Ko San's funeral her mother was seeing to the last attentions paid to corpses, and smoothing her hair with the golden pin given to Ko San or O Ko by Saito in behalf of his son Kōnojō. When the body had been placed in its coffin, the mother thrust the pin into the girl's hair, saying:
'Dearest daughter, this is the pin given as a memento to you by your betrothed, Kōnojō. Let it be a pledge to bind your spirits in death, as it would have been in life; and may you enjoy endless happiness, I pray.'
In thus praying, no doubt, O Ko's mother thought that Kōnojō also must be dead, and that their spirits would meet; but it was not so, for two months after these events Kōnojō himself, now eighteen years of age, turned up at Sendai, calling first on his father's old friend Hasunuma.
'Oh, the bitterness and misfortune of it all!' said the latter. 'Only two months ago my daughter Ko died. Had you but come before then she would have been alive now. But you never even sent a message; we never heard a word of your father or of your mother. Where did you all go when you left here? Tell me the whole story.'
'Sir,' answered the grief-stricken Kōnojō, 'what you tell me of the death of your daughter, whom I had hoped to marry, sickens my heart, for I, like herself, had been faithful, and I hoped to marry her, and thought daily of her. When my father took my family away from Sendai, he took us to Yedo; and afterwards we went north to Yezo Island, where my father lost his money and became poor. He died in poverty. My poor mother did not long survive him. I have been working hard to try and earn enough to marry your daughter Ko; but I have not made more than enough to pay my journey down to Sendai. I felt it my duty to come and tell you of my family's misfortune and my own.'
The old samurai was much touched by this story. He saw that the most unfortunate of all had been Kōnojō.
'Kōnojō,' he said, 'often have I thought and wondered to myself, Were you honest or were you not? Now I find that you have been truly faithful, and honest to your father's pledge. But you should have written--you should have written! Because you did not do so, sometimes we thought, my wife and I, that you must be dead; but we kept this thought to ourselves, and never told Ko San. Go to our Butsudan, open the doors of it, and burn a joss stick to Ko San's mortuary tablet. It will please her spirit. She longed and longed for your return, and died of that sane longing--for love of you. Her spirit will rejoice to know that you have come back for her.'
Kōnojō did as he was bid.
Bowing reverently three times before the mortuary tablet of O Ko San, he muttered a few words of prayer in her behalf, and then lit the incense-stick and placed it before the tablet.
After this exhibition of sincerity Hasunuma told the young fellow that he should consider him as an adopted son, and that he must live with them. He could have the small house in the garden. In any case, whatever his plans for the future might be, he must remain with them for the present.
This was a generous offer, worthy of a samurai. Kōnojō gratefully accepted it, and became one of the family. About a fortnight afterwards he settled himself in the little house at the end of the garden. Hasunuma, his wife, and their second daughter, O Kei, had gone, by command of the Daimio, to the Higan, a religious ceremony held in March; Hasunuma also always worshipped at his ancestral tombs at this time. Towards the dusk of evening they were returning in their palanquins. Kōnojō stood at the gate to see them pass, as was proper and respectful. The old samurai passed first, and was followed by his wife's palanquin, and then by that of O Kei. As this last passed the gate Kōnojō thought he heard something fall, causing a metallic sound. After the palanquin had passed he picked it up without any particular attention.
It was the golden hairpin; but of course, though Kōnojō's father had told him of the pin, Kōnojō had no idea that this was it, and therefore he thought nothing more than that it must be O Kei San's. He went back to his little house, closed it for the night, and was about to retire when he heard a knock at the door. 'Who is there?' he shouted. 'What do you want?' There came no answer, and Kōnojō lay down on his bed, thinking himself to have been mistaken. But there came another knock, louder than the first; and Kōnojō jumped out of bed, and lit the lamp 'If not a fox or a badger,' thought he, 'it must be some evil spirit come to disturb me.'
On opening the door, with the ando in one hand, and a stick in the other, Kōnojō looked out into the dark, and there, to his astonishment, he beheld a vision of female beauty the like of which he had never seen before. 'Who are you, and what do you want?' quoth he.
'I am O Kei San, O Ko's younger sister,' answered the vision. 'Though you have not seen me, I have several times seen you, and I have fallen so madly in love with you that I can think of nothing else but you. When you picked up my golden pin to-night on our return, I had dropped it to serve as an excuse to come to you and knock. You must love me in return; for otherwise I must die!'
This heated and outrageous declaration scandalised poor Kōnojō. Moreover, he felt that it would be doing his kind host Hasunuma a great injustice to be receiving his younger daughter at this hour of the night and make love to her. He expressed himself forcibly in these terms.
'If you will not love me as I love you, then I shall take my revenge,' said O Kei, 'by telling my father that you got me to come here by making love to me, and that you then insulted me.'
Poor Kōnojō! He was in a nice mess. What he feared most of all was that the girl would do as she said, that the samurai would believe her, and that he would be a disgraced and villainous person. He gave way, therefore, to the girl's request. Night after night she visited him, until nearly a month had passed. During this time Kōnojō had learned to love dearly the beautiful O Kei. Talking to her one evening, he said:
'My dearest O Kei, I do not like this secret love of ours. Is it not better that we go away? If I asked your father to give you to me in marriage he would refuse, because I was betrothed to your sister.'
'Yes,' answered O Kei: 'that is what, I also have been wishing. Let us leave this very night, and go to Ishinomaki, the place where (you have told me) lives a faithful servant of your late father's, called Kinzo.'
'Yes: Kinzo is his name, and Ishinomaki is the place. Let us start as soon as possible.'
Having thrust a few clothes into a bag, they started secretly and late that night, and duly arrived at their destination. Kinzo was delighted to receive them, and pleased to show how hospitable he could be to his late master's son and the beautiful lady.
They lived very happily for a year. Then one day O Kei said:
'I think we ought to return, to my parents now. If they were angry with us at first they will have got over the worst of it. We have never written. They must be getting anxious as to my fate as they grow older. Yes: we ought to go.'
Kōnojō agreed. Long had he felt the injustice he was doing Hasunuma.
Next day they found themselves back in Sendai, and Kōnojō could not help feeling a little nervous as he approached the samurai's house. They stopped at the outer gate, and O Kei said to Kōnojō, 'I think it will be better for you to go in and see my father and mother first. If they get very angry show them this golden pin.
Kōnojō stepped boldly up to the door, and asked for an interview with the samurai.
Before the servant had time to return, Kōnojō heard the old man shout, 'Kōnojō San! Why, of course! Bring the boy in at once,' and he himself came out to welcome him.
'My dear boy,' said the samurai, 'right glad am I to see you back again. I am sorry you did not find your life with us good enough. You might have said you were going. But there--I suppose you take after your father in these matters, and prefer to disappear mysteriously. You are welcome back, at all events.'
Kōnojō was astonished at this speech, and answered:
'But, sir, I have come to beg pardon for my sin.'
'What sin have you committed?' queried the samurai in great surprise, and drawing himself up, in a dignified manner.
Kōnojō then gave a full account of his love-affair with O Kei. From beginning to end he told it all, and as he proceeded the samurai showed signs of impatience.
'Do not joke, sir! My daughter O Kei San is not a subject for jokes and untruths. She has been as one dead for over a year--so ill that we have with difficulty forced gruel into her mouth. Moreover, she has spoken no word and shown no sign of life.'
'I am neither stating what is untrue nor joking,' said Kōnojō. 'If you but send outside, you will find O Kei in the palanquin, in which I left her.'
A servant was immediately sent to see, and returned, stating that there was neither palanquin nor any one at the gate.
Kōnojō, seeing that the samurai was now beginning to look perplexed and angry, drew the golden pin from his clothes, saying:
'See! if you doubt me and think I am lying, here is the pin which O Kei told me to give you!'
'Great Scott!' exclaimed O Kei's mother. 'How came this pin into your hands? I myself put it into Ko San's coffin just before it was closed.'
The samurai and Kōnojō stared at each other, and the mother at both. Neither knew what to think, or what to say or do. Imagine the general surprise when the sick O Kei walked into the room, having risen from her bed as if she had never been ill for a moment. She was the picture of health and beauty.
'How is this?' asked the samurai, almost shouting. 'How is it, O Kei, that you have come from your sickbed dressed and with your hair done and looking as if you had never known a moment of illness?'
'I am not O Kei, but the spirit of O Ko,' was the answer. 'I was most unfortunate in dying before the return of Kōnojō San, for had I lived until then I should have become quite well and been married to him. As it was, my spirit was unhappy. It took the form of my dear sister O Kei, and for a year has lived happily in her body with Kōnojō. It is appeased now, and about to take its real rest.'
'There is one condition, however, Kōnojō, which I must make,' said the girl, turning to him. 'You must marry my sister O Kei. If you do this my spirit will rest truly in peace, and then O Kei will become well and strong. Will you promise to marry O Kei?'
The old samurai, his wife, and Kōnojō were all amazed at this. The appearance of the girl was that of O Kei; but the voice and manners were those of O Ko. Then, there was the golden hairpin as further proof. The mother knew it well. She had placed it in Ko's hair just before the tub coffin was closed. Nobody could undeceive her on that point.
'But,' said the samurai at last, 'O Ko has been dead and buried for more than a year now. That you should appear to us puzzles us all. Why should you trouble us so?'
'I have explained already,' resumed the girl. 'My spirit could not rest until it had lived with Kōnojō, whom it knew to be faithful. It has done this now, and is prepared to rest. My only desire is to see Kōnojō marry my sister.'
Hasunuma, his wife, and Kōnojō held a consultation. They were quite prepared that O Kei should marry, and Kōnojō did not object.
All things being settled, the ghost-girl held out her hand to Kōnojō saying:
'This is the last time you will touch the hand of O Ko. Farewell, my dear parents! Farewell to you all! I am about to pass away.'
Then she fainted away, and seemed dead, and remained thus for half an hour; while the others, overcome with the strange and weird things which they had seen and heard, sat round her, hardly uttering a word.
At the end of half an hour the body came to life, and standing up, said:
'Dear parents, have no more fear for me. I am perfectly well again; but I have no idea how I got down from my sick-room in this costume, or how it is that I feel so well.'
Several questions were put to her; but it was quite evident that O Kei knew nothing of what had happened--nothing of the spirit of O Ko San, or of the golden hairpin!
A week later she and Kōnojō were married, and the golden hairpin was given to a shrine at Shiogama, to which, until quite recently, crowds used to go and worship.