The Faint Spirits: On Ghosts, Grief, and Motherhood
I do not have flesh; I only have ghosts. In this story, the dead are only what I say they are. Does this make them less real?
This is a ghost story.
In English, it’s called the witching hour. We all know what happens during the witching hour: The mysteries emerge. The werewolves and vampires prowl. The sorcerers cast their spells, pulling from the magic that crescendos in the dead of night.
In Japan, it’s called the hour of the ox. We all know what happens during the hour of the ox: The fabric between the living and the dead is most permeable. In this liminal space and time, while most people sleep, the yokai—spirits, monsters, and other supernatural creatures—cavort, haunt, keen, and avenge.
The hour of the ox is actually two hours—between one and three in the morning—because in ancient Japan each day was divided into twelve segments, each corresponding to an animal from the zodiac. The hour of the ox is the hour I am most concerned with even still—the hour that all my fears come to bear.
When I was a teenager, my mother told me: Nothing good happens after midnight. She was referring to my curfew, though instead of carousing, I often spent the hour of the ox in bed praying that I’d fall asleep; my thoughts pulsing and crashing into each other.
She was right, though. The hour of the ox is the most night that night can be.
The hour of the ox was the time for yūrei (literally translated: faint spirits), according to Yanagita Kunio, the father of Japanese folklore studies. In general, the term refers to human souls that cannot cross peacefully into the afterlife. Sometimes it is because they did not receive the proper funeral rites; others, because they are tethered to the earth through strong emotions like anger or envy. They are a subcategory of yokai, the supernatural creatures of folklore I am so obsessed with.
A defining feature of yūrei—and one that distinguishes it from other yokai—is that they maintain their previous human shapes. They retain their memories, their personal histories, their demeanors, and their names. They primarily haunt people they know. There are many stories of someone meeting a friend in the street and having a perfectly normal conversation. Only later do they find out that the friend had died a week, a month, a year ago: They’d encountered a yūrei.
Before the hour of the ox, there are other, brighter hours. Last autumn, we moved back in with my family. When I say we, I mean my fledgling family—my husband, my infant daughter, and me. When I say moved in, I am exaggerating—it was an extended stay of just over two months. When I say my family, I mean my younger sister, who was working from home, and my youngest sister, who was on a leave of absence from her job. When I say my family, I mean my mother, who was taking care of all of us, and my father, who was dying, and then was dead.
The tales adapt to the context, but the context must adapt the tales. The stories stay alive only so long as people keep speaking them into the world.
But during most of our stay, he was alive. From Halloween until Christmas, the seven of us all lived in my parents’ house in a cul-de-sac called Heather Court. A circle unto ourselves.
During the day I pumped, I nursed, I napped. We watched The Lord of the Rings. We took turns lulling the baby into slumber. We ate the food that people dropped off on our porch. We told stories. We lay on the couch, all of us, heads leaning on shoulders. My father and I compared the vertical lines going down our bellies: his old surgery scars, bisecting his entire torso, and my fading linea nigra—the dark mark on my stomach that had appeared during pregnancy. My father’s face twisting with walls of pain that the morphine couldn’t break. We were so tired.
During the hour of the ox, between my daughter’s midnight and three a.m. feedings, while the rest of the house slept, my phone and I took an excursion into other people’s grief. The hashtags I searched: #infantloss. #stillbirth #stillborn. On Instagram, I looked at these mothers’ accounts—and they were always mothers—that had become de facto altars to their babies. I read the long captions, looked at the photos of the dead babies, felt very sad, and went to sleep.
This deeply problematic ritual partly stemmed from anxiety about the miscarriage I’d had previously, an anxiety that manifested in the belief that my daughter could die at any moment. I told myself I was looking at these images just in case, so that I would be prepared for the worst. But it was more like trauma porn: looking at others’ pain and despair precisely because I knew it was unlikely to happen to me. It was a comfort, this fear, because it allowed me to displace my anxiety and grief about my father dying, a certainty, onto my daughter, a strong improbability.
I pointedly did not look up any hashtags about cancer. I did not look up articles on how to prepare for your parents’ death. I came across one article on anticipatory grief by a twentysomething man whose mother was dying and it unspooled me. I could not finish; I clicked the X. I did not want to read stories like mine. I wanted to read about grief, but grief unlike mine: grief worse.
I tried to stop looking up these infant loss stories. But at night, I was drawn back and back and back, haunted not by the babies who’d passed away, but by their mothers who remained.
I wanted to fear something that would not happen, and thus control it.
In my parents’ house, we were separate from the world, steeped in the miasma of death and childbirth. We were an entity unto ourselves, just us and the television and the couch and his medicines and his jokes—always, until the end, his jokes—and my daughter, crying, and my father, crying, and all of us, crying, but also laughing. Not my daughter—she didn’t know how to laugh yet. But she would.
We were a circle unto ourselves not because the aura of death made us profane, but because it made us sacred.
On December 23rd, my father called us all into my parents’ bedroom and we climbed all of us into their bed and he told us he loved us and he told us thank you and then he kissed our foreheads and he said goodnight. I went to bed but not to sleep.
For five days, he was trapped between this world and the next. He could not speak. When we woke him on Christmas morning his eyes were wide, wild. We showed him our presents and his mouth gaped, and he made keening noises. The next day we kept the lights dark to not bother him, and then my mother said it didn’t matter. Those days were the worst of all—when we were hoping he would die.
When he died on December 28th, we were all shook free of that liminal space. We had to re-enter the world of the living.
But I forgot, this is supposed to be a story about ghosts.
Some ancient Catholics believed supernatural activity was highest in the middle of the night due to the lack of organized prayer at that time. Others believed it was because Jesus was crucified at three p.m., marking that hour as his, and so the opposite time, three a.m., belonged to the devil. A psychological study tried to prove that people sense “presences” most at three a.m. because that is when the body’s level of melatonin peaks, but the results were not significant.
My father also died at three a.m. This is only significant because I choose to make it so.
My daughter does not know my father. She does not remember him rocking her in his arms, leaning against the wall when he ran out of energy. She does not remember that he built her a cave of pillows or that he wanted her to call him Agon, the Taiwanese word for grandfather.
My daughter knows my mother in every bone of her tiny body. Say Grandma to her and she’ll shriek with joy, slapping her arms up and down. My mother is the warp running through the weft of our lives, keeping us stable, supported, warm. This is why she has no place in this ghost story.
I do my best to recreate him. For her first birthday, I transcribed the stories he made up for her. Accompanied by my sister’s illustrations, I had these printed into a little book: Just Agon Stories. By Charlie Ching-Guo Lin. Still, one board book is not a convincing simulacra for a grandfather.
She likes to look at the book, but doesn’t have the patience for the actual text. She glances at the last pages, the ones that show photos of her with my father and me, but the glances are brief. The coating on the pages protects them from my daughter’s yogurt smudges and my tears. They pool in fat droplets, like rain in a Pixar movie: like something trying too hard to be realistic. I worry about how I perform grief for my daughter. Do I speak of him enough? Am I too sad? Am I sad enough?
What do I want to do with this grief? Exorcise it? Or do I carry it with me like a totem?
The other problem is: I can only see through a veil. I want to know more about these yūrei, these ghosts, but I cannot read Japanese, and can only speak a little. I am yonsei, a fourth-generation Japanese American; my great-grandparents emigrated in the 1910s. When I read these stories, I know there are centuries of scholarship and criticism that I cannot access. Every tale is decontextualized. Every article is in translation.
In an essay about the writer, director, and playwright Terayama Shuji, critic Steven C. Ridgely writes: If myth and everyday life are not inseparable, then liberation cannot be found by . . . containing folklore through museumification; it can only be found by taking possession of the narratives by rewriting and remixing them.
In other words: If the ghosts in the stories are the ghosts in our dreams are the ghosts in our closets, we cannot put them behind a placard, inside a glass box. We must speak them and in our mouths they will shift and change. The further we get from the origin, the looser the narrative is. But perhaps what it loses in precision, it gains in expansiveness. The story is a different story. The story is the same story.
So when my ninety-one-year-old grandfather—my only remaining direct male ancestor—came to visit recently, I dug up the little picture book he made for me, a story based on his own childhood. It included an aside about him being afraid of the slough near his home in California because the obake—another term for ghosts—lived there. How did you know the obake lived there, Grandpa? I asked him. What stories did you hear about them?
Oh, he says, laughing, I don’t remember.
In lieu of his memories, I let my imagination wander, assembling snapshots from movies I’ve seen, fragments from books I’ve read—trying to create a scene to fill the gap where all the lost stories live.
So maybe this isn’t a story about ghosts, but a story about telling a story about ghosts. About how to remember while moving forward. I am drawn to these myths because they change. Unlike static texts, folklore, legends, and oral histories are living tales that transmogrify with each subsequent retelling. We understand and understand again based on contemporary lenses and critical frameworks.
The tales adapt to the context, but the context must adapt the tales. The stories stay alive only so long as people keep speaking them into the world.
Like my father, I believe in a God, a heaven; unlike my father, that belief doesn’t make me less afraid. Last year, my ghosts lurked in the middle of the night. This year, they lurk in the daytime. But maybe I only know what haunts me in retrospect, the same way a person can meet a friend in the street—have a normal conversation—and then later find out that they’d encountered a yūrei. Maybe only in hindsight can you accurately name your anxieties.
After my father’s death, I stopped being a voyeur of other people’s grief, the impulse overwritten by my own grief, my own dead. Or perhaps I am just too tired to see anything beyond taking care of my daughter, taking care of myself.
With my daughter, my eyes look forward. With my father, my eyes look back. Daily I struggle to remain focused, present. I try to utilize all three tenses and keep my syntax coherent.
But maybe I only know what haunts me in retrospect . . . Maybe only in hindsight can you accurately name your anxieties.
You will notice that in this story my father does not speak. He does not even appear—not really, not in any scenic way. I cannot describe his face or his smile or his laugh or the way his voice could—in an instant—bring my skittering heartbeat back to level. I worry that some will feel this as a lack. (It is a lack.)
But what do these characters look like? people always ask after reading my work. I can’t imagine her, they say, or: He doesn’t feel real. They say: I want them to be more fleshed-out.
To this I say: Me too. But I do not have flesh; I only have ghosts. In this story, the dead are only what I say they are. Does this make them less real?
Yasunaga Toshinobu writes: Yūrei maintain their past existences while constantly attempting to insinuate themselves into the surface of the present. This is not only a powerful rejection of the tendency among the living to forget the dead but also a desperate counter-strike against the living who would simply lay a beautiful veil over the past.
There are several ways a yūrei can move on. If all they are missing are the proper funeral rites, they can entreat someone into performing them. If it was an emotion or grudge that kept them from crossing over, sometimes the actions of a living person can satisfy them—having a descendant avenge their death, for example. In both cases, the soul, now at peace, can cross over to the afterlife.
Those are the positive outcomes. In other cases, yūrei lose their essential humanity, and can no longer be considered yūrei. Now, they are simply monsters.
Some yūrei are fated to stay yūrei forever. They will always belong to the hour of the ox.
The feelings of the living toward the dead are what perpetuate yūrei culture, yokai scholar Komatsu Kazuhiko explains, and what this portrays is actually the world of humans.
So: This is a ghost story.
Which book do you want, Charlotte, I ask my daughter. She is fifteen months old; my father has been dead for over a year. You want Moo Moo Hoot Hoot?This is Baby? I point to her favorite books. Just Agon Stories?
She crawls over to the bright teal board book and, with difficulty, lifts it up in the air.
I am delighted when she chooses the book, but she chooses the book because it is familiar, because I read it to her almost every day: nurture, not nature. I tell myself she does not have a true love of this book, it is a love I have put upon her, it isn’t natural. But what is natural: decomposition. Gradual decay. Things falling back into dust. The second law of thermodynamics: All closed systems tend towards entropy. If nurture can reverse this process, just a little, then so be it.
She sits on my lap, and I read the book to her. Where’s Agon, Charlotte? I ask, when we get to the photographs at the end. She peers at the picture of my father, her, and me, sitting on our brown couch. She slaps her hand on the page. Good, Char! I sing-song, though her slap is wild and non-committal; she could have been pointing at any of us. But in this question, like so many others, all the answers are correct.
Jami Nakamura Lin is the author of THE NIGHT PARADE (Mariner Books/HarperCollins and Scribe UK 2023), an illustrated memoir that uses yokai & other Japanese , Taiwanese, & Okinawan folklore to investigate what haunts us. A former Catapult columnist, she's written for the New York Times, Electric Literature, and other publications.
Jami has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts/Japan-US Friendship Commission, Yaddo, Sewanee, and We Need Diverse Books.