This week’s story comes from The Japanese Fairy Book, collected by Yei Theodora Ozaki. Many travellers have disappeared on the plain of Adachigahara, and rumour spreads of a terrible goblin that lures the unwary to their deaths. Not unexpectedly, people begin to avoid the spot. One Buddhist pilgrim is unfortunate enough not to get the memo and happens to reach the plain just as the sun is setting. Tired, hungry and cold, he walks for hours before spotting a light through a copse of trees. It belongs to a tumbledown cottage, which in turn belongs to an elderly woman. She sits just inside the door, spinning busily. When appealed to by the pilgrim for a night’s lodging, she reluctantly permits him inside.
After her initial reserve, she becomes very hospitable, ushering her guest solicitously close to the fire and whipping up supper for them both. The pilgrim is delighted at his luck. When the fire begins to die down he offers to go out and fetch more wood, but the old lady insists on doing it herself. Her only requirement is that he stay where he is and not go poking about the house while she’s gone. Whatever else he does, he must not look into the inner room.
Until then he had not even thought of looking in that room, but now of course that’s exactly what he wants to do. For a long time he remains obediently still, but the old lady is away so long that at last he can’t resist. Creeping towards the forbidden room, he pushes the door and peers inside.
Inside is a slaughterhouse. The walls are splashed with blood, the floor heaped with human bones. The smell alone strikes the pilgrim with such force that he faints, and despite his terror, for some time he is in such a state of shock he can’t move. Coming to himself at last, he snatches up his things and pelts out into the night.
He has not gone far when a voice calls out for him to stop. The old lady – or rather, the goblin – is on his trail. “Stop!” she cries. “Stop, you wicked man, why did you look into the forbidden room?” Her moral standards may be a bit skewed. On the kind of adrenaline rush only possible when you are being pursued by a carnivorous monster, the pilgrim powers across the plain, praying frantically, but still she gains. She is close enough now that he can see she is carrying a large, bloody carving knife.
Just when it seems she must finally catch him, the first rays of dawn break across the plain and the goblin disappears. The pilgrim gabbles grateful devotions and sets off for a different part of the country, where it is less probable he will be eaten.
I’ve written before about fairy tales in which husbands butcher their wives, but a female Bluebeard is far less common. It’s worth noting, though, that there is not the same degree of intimacy in her association with the pilgrim, and that the story doesn’t blame him for being fooled. In fact, the plot doesn’t really hold together at all. First she almost refuses him lodging, then she leaves him for ages with the knowledge there’s something hidden in her house. What did she expect to happen? Perhaps she was trying to quit cannibalism and simply could not resist an unsuspecting pilgrim when he arrived on her doorstep. At least she didn’t try to marry him.