Suggested by, ‘101 Zen Koans,’ by Secret of Zen.
Riku’s young wife, Yuuna, became ill. The doctor’s tried everything but told Riku to prepare, her death was nigh. Riku loved Yuuna deeply. Seeing her suffer tortured him. He gladly tended to her smallest need until she was gone.
When she became too weak to stand, she said, “I may not last the night. But I’ll always be with you. Promise me, you won’t find another woman. If you do, I’ll haunt your memories and bring you trouble all your days.”
Yuuna passed away that night. Riku mourned her and respected her last wish. For several months he grieved her so deeply, his friends feared he might follow Yuuna into death. Riku stopped going out for anything but basic needs. He spent long hours in his library, where he read into the night. Some mornings, he awakened with his head on an open book for a pillow.
His library housed Riku’s books on almost every topic. His collection had outgrown the shelves. They spilled into the hallway and lay stacked in the corners of other rooms. After a lifetime of buying, and loathe to discard even one, Riku had no clue how many he owned. He bragged he had read them all.
One morning Riku realized he could no longer stand his loneliness. He missed Yuuna terribly, but he needed companionship. He felt his isolation affected his health. He desired friendship. Nothing more.
Shopping for his dinner at the open market, he reached for a melon. But a pretty woman grabbed it first. Shocked at her assertiveness, he turned away. But a pattern emerged. Every time he reached for some treat, that woman got hold of it.
His survival instinct aroused, Riku moved to another part of the market. He selected a basket of Brussels sprouts and from nowhere, she tried to pull it away. This time, he refused to let go. She persisted. With neither party willing to release the vegetables, a tug-o-war ensued. The commotion drew a crowd. People took sides cheering for Riku or the other struggling shopper.
In a flash of inspiration, Riku held up his finger and they paused.
“My name is Riku. You seem to like the same food as me. Let’s share a meal. Perhaps we’ll discover other things we have in common.”
Intrigued, she released the basket and smiled. She said, “Okay. You buy. I’ll cook.”
He nodded. “Agreed.”
They bowed to each other. Riku paid for the groceries. She told him her address.
Miruka’s cooking was delicious. She laughed at his jokes. They relaxed together. Her apartment was comfortable. He admired her books. They had fun.
They began meeting for a standing weekly dinner date. They enjoyed each other’s company. Soon they met twice per week. Then three. Riku began to give Miruka gifts.
A problem arose for Riku. He had no clear solution. He had grown to love Miruka. She obviously returned the affection. Though their mutual attachment grew stronger, each time he thought of proposing marriage, Riku stopped himself.
What began as vague anxiety gained definition and intensity. Despite his love for Miruka, Riku couldn’t shake it off. He couldn’t talk about it.
Once, over dinner, Miruka asked him, “Is something bothering you, Riku? Are you upset with me?”
“Of course not, Miruka. You are the love of my life.”
“I want to believe you. But lately, you seem troubled.” She took his hand. “Please tell me. People need to share their feelings, good or bad.”
Riku felt cornered. He didn’t know how to talk about Yuuna’s threat. It was long ago.
He told her, “I’m sorry I’ve been distracted. It’s nothing.”
Miruka dropped it. But she felt his distance.
When Riku returned home that night, he shut the door and turned the latch. A chill raised the hairs on his neck. He turned to see Yuuna’s ghost standing by, watching him. She looked alive. But he didn’t want to touch her.
The apparition spoke. “Why are you afraid, Riku? Have you broken your promise? I’m keeping mine.”
In mocking tones, and in detail, she recounted his dinner conversation with Miruka. The ghost described his gifts for Miruka and how he shopped for her. Riku felt ashamed of betraying Yuuna’s dying wish.
The phantom faded to nothing and left him alone again. Uncomfortable in his own skin, Riku lay in bed, unable to sleep. Restless, he tried reading, but couldn’t concentrate. He gave up after flipping through several books. He spent the night staring, wanting to leave, and expecting Yuuna’s ghost to return.
Days passed. Riku began to act in stealth. When going out, he pulled up his hood, to avoid recognition. He feared Yuuna might be following him. Even nights when he didn’t see Miruka, he’d take dark alleys. Arriving home, he always found Yuuna’s spirit awaiting him. She always described what he’d said and done that day. And to whom.
Though free to walk anywhere, any time, he remained Yuuna’s prisoner. The wraith waited in the shadows, watching everything he did.
Desperate, Riku finally told Miruka about his situation. With tears streaming down his face, he described his encounters with Yuuna’s ghost. She had begun appearing every night, haunting him until dawn. He’d barely slept in days.
Miruka listened intently. “You describe this as a problem. But you are still attached. I wish I had known. I wouldn’t have wasted so much time…”
Riku protested, “Miruka, I love you. You must believe I want only you.”
She smiled doubtfully. “Do you laugh with her? Do you kiss? What is Yuuna’s best dish?” Riku stared at her. “Oh, she no longer cooks for you? Then, how do you pass the time together? Don’t tell me. I’d rather not know. But I’m curious, what’s her favorite wine?”
Riku sat in silence. Her words stung but he knew he had hurt Miruka more. He’d hurt her and Yuuna. He felt hopeless.
Miruka saw how Riku felt. She didn’t want to lose what she hoped they had.
She squeezed his hand. “Riku, I know you were married. You loved Yuuna. You should keep your memories. But her time is passed. You and I can make new history, if you want.” Riku nodded. Miruka continued. “I won’t try to replace her. I can’t. No one will. People aren’t interchangeable. You aren’t a car in need of a clutch. Yet, you cling to her.”
Riku wiped his eyes. Miruka hugged him.
“What you and I share, is ours. No one else’s.”
They held each other, without speaking, for a long while.
Later that moonless night, Riku walked home down an alley, preoccupied and exhausted. In the darkness, he bumped into a blind man walking the other way.
The blind man held up a dark lantern and yelled, “Hey! Watch your step! Don’t you see my light?”
Riku said, “Your lantern isn’t lit, friend. It’s out of oil.”
The blind man asked, “Then why didn’t you see me with yours?”
“I don’t need a lantern. I’m not blind.”
“I see,” said the blind man. He laughed loud as he turned away.
Riku scoffed and went on. But before reaching home, an idea lightened his steps.
He entered his house and saw Yuuna’s ghost standing by. He smiled and invited it to join him in his library. He sat behind his desk.
“You know everything about me, Yuuna...”
It replied, “Though you cried about me tonight, you also enjoyed sushi with Miruka. And you stumbled into a blind man.”
“You know what I do, what I say, and my gifts to Miruka. You are wise, Yuuna. How could I not admire you?
The ghost waited.
“You know everything. Answer one question for me, and I promise to remain single. I’ll never see Miruka again.”
Yuuna grinned. “What is your question?”
“How many books are in my library?”
Before his voice died away, Riku saw he spoke to an empty room. No ghost remained to answer the question. It never haunted him again.
He and Miruka married in the spring.