Ghost Among Ghosts by Cathy Ulrich

Ghost Among Ghosts

If I were a ghost in Japan, I would be a quiet ghost. No moaning, no clattering of plates. I would be filled with regret.

If I were a ghost in Japan, I would manifest in the twelve-tatami apartment I had shared with my Japanese boyfriend. He would have a butsudan set up in the corner of our apartment (I would still think of it as our apartment, not his, not his alone), where he would burn incense to soothe my restless spirit. The butsudan would be new since my death, placed in my honor, containing an ihai memorial tablet, my name rendered on it in katakana. He would have a framed photograph of me on a stand there, the best photograph. He would have taken my picture that day, would have said: You look so pretty.

He would have said: Say chizu.

Chizu, I would have said, and still been trying to smile when the flash finally went off.

If I were a ghost in Japan, I wouldn’t want to haunt my Japanese boyfriend. It would be one of those things I couldn’t help, like my ichthyophobia, my half-brown half-green eyes, the way I didn’t always remember to say itadakimasu before a meal.

I would watch him quietly, the way I had done sometimes before I died, the way he played with his hair when he was nervous, kept adjusting his glasses, massaging the bridge of his nose.

My Japanese boyfriend wouldn’t even know I was there, would light the incense, rub his hand over the ihai tablet, thinking he was performing an empty ritual.

If I were a ghost in Japan, I would watch my Japanese boyfriend leave our apartment for work, his tie crooked. I would watch him from the window until he was gone.

Through the window, I would see other ghosts in other apartments. I would see them wispy on the street. There would be so many of them. There would be so many of us.

I would stand at my window and watch the other ghosts. The other yurei. In Japan, ghosts aren’t ghosts. They are yurei. There would be sad yurei, angry ones, lost ones. There would be more of them, of us, than anything else. More than the windows in buildings, more than the thin trees on the boulevard.

Jibakurei tethered to a particular place, funayurei still dripping with sea water, ubume wailing for their lost children, onryo seeking revenge, yurei like me, insubstantial as cloud-spit.

If I were a ghost in Japan, I would curl my fingers, the dream of my fingers, the memory of them, in a gesture to the other ghosts, in a wave. They wouldn’t look,wouldn’t see me. I would be a ghost even to the other ghosts, American ghost among the yurei, no white kimono, no long black hair.

Hello, I would call to the others, hello, hello.

If I were a ghost in Japan, my Japanese boyfriend would come home from work, take his shoes off at the entrance the way he had always done, one hand on the doorway, loosen his crooked tie. I would feel so nostalgic when I watched him, if I could feel anything at all. If I weren’t an insubstantial shadow, if I weren’t the thing I had been before.

Okaeri. I would greet him this way, even though he couldn’t hear me, would never hear me. Welcome home.

If I were a ghost in Japan, I would watch my Japanese boyfriend light the incense, rub his hand over the katakana of my name. He would cry, maybe, or whisper something softly.

He would say: Naze?

He would say: Why?

I would reach for him as if I could somehow touch him, somehow comfort him. I would reach for him as if I were somehow still real.


ghost among ghosts


Cathy Ulrich would like to live in Japan, but maybe not be a ghost there. Her Japan stories have been published in various journals, including Wigleaf, Booth, Lunch Ticket and apt.

Also by Cathy Ulrich These Clouds Are Not the Same Clouds; This Sky Is Not the Same SkyWhen the Children Return


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Image: Katsushika Hokusai