There’s a story that every freshman hears. You know the kind. There’s a girl, something happens. Something bad. It’s probably because of a boy. (It’s always because of a boy.) It takes weeks for them to find her. The elements turn her body into something else. Nobody recognizes her body. They have to identify her by her teeth. So white and pearly amongst the rest of her turned into something wrong. You know that they almost couldn’t tell the cracks, the fissures in the white. Her teeth were so strong. Only her teeth stayed true. They tell you that it was murder or that it was suicide or maybe it was an accident. Every storyteller tells it just a little different, just a little less true, and each time it’s retold it becomes a little less believable. You think to yourself that there are no such things as ghosts, as a smile waiting in the dark for you to find it, and those teeth, those teeth can’t possibly still be able to cut. I heard the story in my freshman year. It wasn’t until my junior year that, of course, inevitably, I found out how teeth stay true and so, so sharp.
There was a young man who was loved by a young woman. This was in the province of — I set the book down. Everything I’d been reading had been about love. It seemed strange in light of my current situation, Alex still calling me every few minutes. He was always so apologetic.
I was majoring in East Asian Studies. He was Pre-Med. My mother said he was my knight in shining armor, that I should never let him go, and that he would support me. I assumed that she was implying that I’d never make money. I thought that she was probably right, though I had more chance than an English major.
I thought about calling him. Our relationship lately had been a volleying of apologies and their acceptances, and it seemed like it was my turn to serve. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other – I think we still did at that point. I like to think so at least.
If I loved him, it makes it feel like I had a reason.
I opened the book back up. My paper on folktales was due in less than three hours, and I wasn’t even sure what to write about.
There was a young man who was loved by a young woman. This was in the province of ———. The young man did not, however, return her affections. He would not even look upon the face of the girl. He would turn from her whenever they passed each other in the road. The young woman began to believe herself hideous. She soon began to refuse food or drink. Her body began wasting away until finally she succumbed to death’s embrace. The young man did not notice that there was now no longer a woman who he turned from when out on his walks.
One day, though, the young man was out walking and noticed a snake crawling along beside him, matching his pace exactly. The sight was so curious and the snake so beautifully marked that he could not tear his gaze from the creature. The young man did not realize it, but he had soon followed the snake far off of his normal walking path. He walked and walked and the snake led him further and further away, until it was night and the young man was far from home. He stopped walking, exhausted, and looked around, confused. He did not notice that beside him the snake was slowly growing larger and larger, large enough to swallow a young man whole.
I stared at the book for a second. The ending felt strangely incomplete even for a setsuwa. I expected some note of conclusion: the young man to be eaten or forgiven by the snake woman. But there was nothing, just the note of pre-dread without any satisfaction.
My phone rang.
“Hey, have you heard about the Roof Woman?” Shelly asked. She’s the type of girl who always hears about things later than everyone else. She probably even learned facts about herself only after other people had.
“Yeah, Freshman year. They tell it to everyone in the dorms.”
“I know that. But I mean about the new sightings?”
“New sightings? Shell. That’s an urban legend.”
Shelly shrugged. “I don’t know. They say she’s on the lookout for someone new.”
I didn’t know what she meant. I turned to stare at her and noticed the way she was staring at my arm where my sleeve had become slightly rolled up, five deep bruises like marks of ash upon my skin.
This was in the year ———. There was a young man who was to be married to a young woman from his village. She was kind and gentle, but not beautiful. The young man felt his parents were being unfair in their desire for him to marry her. One morning, while he was out walking in the forest, he came upon a woman sitting on the forest floor weeping. He asked her what was wrong. The woman turned, and she was more beautiful than anything the young man had ever seen. He immediately forgot of his betrothal to the kind and gentle girl.
He proposed on the spot to the sad but lovely woman. She said yes, but only upon the condition that he follow her to the house of her parents to get her father’s blessing. The young man agreed and followed her. They walked for some time before coming to a small cave. She motioned for him to go in first. The young man, so blinded by beauty, crawled right into the darkness. There was no person around to hear his screams as the foxes devoured him. He would have done well to have stuck with kind and gentle.
I set the book down. There was a noise from outside my door. I lived in an old apartment building just off of campus and the two things I hated most about it were the paper-thin walls and the lack of a security door at the entrance. I walked up and peered out the peephole. I always used to have a strange sense of dread whenever I looked out peepholes, always half expecting there to be some hideous face looking in at me.
There was nothing that I could see, but still I heard the noise. It was a sort of dragging, like someone pulling an injured foot behind them. Drag. Stop. Drag. Stop.
I opened the door a crack. There was no one in the hallway. The sound had stopped and, in the room, my phone began to ring again.
I took a shower and was surprised at how quickly the bruises had faded this time. There were just hints of strangely pastel colors scattered across my skin. Light greens on my thighs, dull purples across my chest, dust gray on my arms. They were almost pretty, almost as if I had become someone’s colored chalk work of art. Almost pretty until I brushed against the marks and they still sent sharp little waves of ache up to my head.
The phone rang as I was stepping out from under the water and this time, instinctively, I picked up.
On my way out of the bathroom, I caught the tiniest bit of my reflection in the mirror; I looked like someone I had never thought I could become.
“Babe, I’m so sorry. You know I didn’t mean it. I never mean it.”
I forgave him because I was so tired from not forgiving him. He cried into the phone, his voice shaking. I never cried.
I fell asleep holding the phone next to me, even long after he had hung up, as if I could take back everything if I just held it long enough. He didn’t mean it, I told myself. He never meant it.
“So, the way I heard it was that she was upset over her boyfriend cheating. So she offed herself up on the roof.”
“I heard that she was killed by the boyfriend. That he beat her to death up there.”
“I heard it was an accident. She tripped up there or something. She was waiting for him.”
“Why is her mouth messed up?”
“It’s where she fell. Her lip split open.”
“I don’t get it. What does she do? What’s so scary about her?”
A young monk was visiting the province of ——— in the year of ———. He went to the local temple which was said to be very beautifully adorned, though no one visited it any longer. It was indeed a beautiful temple and the young monk wondered at why no one would go there. He sat for a few moments inside, enjoying the silence around him. After a few minutes, though, he heard the soft shuffling of feet from behind him.
The monk turned around to find a young woman walking towards him. She had her face covered by an embroidered piece of cloth. The monk found it curious for even her eyes were covered and yet she managed to walk in a direct path towards him. He asked her who she was but she did not respond, just sighed. He asked her if she was alright. Again she did not answer, just sighed. Finally, unsure how to go on, he asked her if he could see her face. The woman nodded once, her sigh slowly twisting its way into a sharp giggle, and let the cloth fall. She had no features. Her face was just blankness. Just endless blankness.
I was told this story by the cousin of this monk. I have heard since that he has gone quite mad.
I used to get irritated by how women were always the dangerous spirits in folktales: the evil stepmother, the vengeful lover, the sirens pulling men down to watery graves. I was also more afraid of female villains. I knew, somewhere inside me that it was the wolves and the Bluebeards who I should be looking out for, but it was always the witch in her cottage who made me sleep with the lights on as a child. Nibble, nibble, at my house. Could it be a little mouse?
The phone rang. Alex wanted to come over, and I said yes before my mind was able to say no.
The first time it happened, it was barely anything at all. Just one hand enclosing around my wrist a little too hard, just one little yank. It hurt enough to sting, make me gasp, but it was such a small thing. Such a small, small thing. He told me he didn’t mean it; it wasn’t anything.
In the village of ——— during the war, there were two children who loved each other greatly. They were not sisters, but they treated each other as such. One day, one of them disappeared. The other looked everywhere but couldn’t find her dear, dear friend. So, she grew up and became a beautiful young woman. Many men courted her, and one of them eventually won her heart. Her parents thought it was a good marriage as the young man came from a respectable family.
It was not long into the marriage however that the young man became cold to his new wife. He began to treat her cruelly and the woman feared seeing her parents in case they would discover her dreadful secret. One night, her husband came home from hours of gambling and drinking sake. He raged as he had never raged before. She cowered and asked for help, help from anyone. From the dark, came a tiny child’s voice. Her sister, her friend, coming from the nowhere to save her.
I set the book down, confused again. The themes in this story weren’t like any setsuwa I had ever read. There were issues that were just never mentioned in early folk tales.
There was a knock on the door. Alex.
The story told most often is about how she looks. It changes slightly with each teller but there are certain details which they all agree upon. She wears a white sun dress, stained with water, with blood dried into a brownish red. Her hair hangs, forever wet and tangled over her face. She walks with a slight limp, one of her ankle bones protruding through her skin just slightly. And there is something about her face, something wrong, though no one knows what it is. She only shows her face to people who won’t talk about it again.
It started innocently enough. We were talking on the couch. Alex was trying to talk me back towards loving him. Maybe, he sensed my forgiveness was slightly less than fully given. For the first time, I held something back. I said something, I can’t remember what. Maybe, it was just no.
The first time, it was to my face. I hit the ground, tried to scramble away from him. He grabbed my hair. I never thought of screaming. I always thought screaming was weak. My head smashed into the table; I felt my lip burst open. I didn’t cry. I just thought that this was it.
But he let go, just for a second, and I struggled away, to the door, into the hallway. Into the hallway, and the lights went out. Down the corridor, all of the lights, one by one. I huddled against the wall. I heard him swear, confused. And I heard the shuffling of feet, moving slowly towards me.
When I looked up in the pitch black, somehow, I could still see her. A tall woman, dark hair over her face. I saw her face – the ways her lips had been ripped open by something, some act that someone might have claimed was love. And teeth. I saw her teeth. The better to eat you with, my dear.
“Am I pretty?” she asked me.
I stared at her and stared at her. Then I nodded. She reached out and touched my face, ran an ice-dipped finger over my bleeding lips. I noticed how the knuckles on her hands were swollen; there were scratches on her skin. Sometimes fighting back doesn’t save you.
“He?” she asked me.
I nodded, pointed to my apartment. She nodded, smiled, and her face split open with it.
She walked inside. I could hear one foot dragging softly against the carpet.
“Am I pretty?” I heard her ask him.
There’s a story I don’t tell. A story about how I got the scar on my lower lip, the one I don’t bother covering with lipstick. People sometimes ask, but I never say.
I stayed in the same city that I went to college in. Occasionally, I hear stories about the Roof Woman. People say how frightening she looks, how hideously destroyed. I say nothing, though I know that to me she wasn’t hideous. I know that nobody who could speak of seeing her would ever think her hideous.
In the hallway I had looked up at her and, to me, she seemed just as beautiful as the darkness.