By Lafcadio Hearn
Boston; Houghton, Mifflin and Co.
With a view to self-protection I have been reading Dr. Howard's book, "Mosquitoes." I am persecuted by mosquitoes. There are several species in my neighborhood; but only one of them is a serious torment,--a tiny needly thing, all silver-speckled and silver-streaked. The puncture of it is sharp as an electric burn; and the mere hum of it has a lancinating quality of tone which foretells the quality of the pain about to come,--much in the same way that a particular smell suggests a particular taste. I find that this mosquito much resembles the creature which Dr. Howard calls Stegomyia fasciata, or Culex fasciatus: and that its habits are the same as those of the Stegomyia. For example, it is diurnal rather than nocturnal and becomes most troublesome in the afternoon. And I have discovered that it comes from the Buddhist cemetery,--a very old cemetery,--in the rear of my garden.
Dr. Howard's book declares that, in order to rid a neighborhood of mosquitoes, it is only necessary to pour a little petroleum, or kerosene oil, into the stagnant water where they breed. Once a week the oil should be used, "at the rate of once ounce for every fifteen square feet of water-surface, and a proportionate quantity for any less surface." ...But please to consider the conditions in my neighborhood!
I have said that my tormentors come from the Buddhist cemetery. Before nearly every tomb in that old cemetery there is a water-receptacle, or cistern, called mizutame. In the majority of cases this mizutame is simply an oblong cavity chiseled in the broad pedestal supporting the monument; but before tombs of a costly kind, having no pedestal-tank, a larger separate tank is placed, cut out of a single block of stone, and decorated with a family crest, or with symbolic carvings. In front of a tomb of the humblest class, having no mizutame, water is placed in cups or other vessels,--for the dead must have water. Flowers also must be offered to them; and before every tomb you will find a pair of bamboo cups, or other flower-vessels; and these, of course, contain water. There is a well in the cemetery to supply water for the graves. Whenever the tombs are visited by relatives and friends of the dead, fresh water is poured into the tanks and cups. But as an old cemetery of this kind contains thousands of mizutame, and tens of thousands of flower-vessels the water in all of these cannot be renewed every day. It becomes stagnant and populous. The deeper tanks seldom get dry;--the rainfall at Tokyo being heavy enough to keep them partly filled during nine months out of the twelve.
Well, it is in these tanks and flower-vessels that mine enemies are born: they rise by millions from the water of the dead;--and, according to Buddhist doctrine, some of them may be reincarnations of those very dead, condemned by the error of former lives to the condition of Jiki-ketsu-gaki, or blood-drinking pretas... Anyhow the malevolence of the Culex fasciatus would justify the suspicion that some wicked human soul had been compressed into that wailing speck of a body...
Now, to return to the subject of kerosene-oil, you can exterminate the mosquitoes of any locality by covering with a film of kerosene all stagnant water surfaces therein. The larvae die on rising to breathe; and the adult females perish when they approach the water to launch their rafts of eggs. And I read, in Dr. Howard's book, that the actual cost of freeing from mosquitoes one American town of fifty thousand inhabitants, does not exceed three hundred dollars!...
I wonder what would be said if the city-government of Tokyo--which is aggressively scientific and progressive--were suddenly to command that all water-surfaces in the Buddhist cemeteries should be covered, at regular intervals, with a film of kerosene oil! How could the religion which prohibits the taking of any life--even of invisible life--yield to such a mandate? Would filial piety even dream of consenting to obey such an order? And then to think of the cost, in labor and time, of putting kerosene oil, every seven days, into the millions of mizutame, and the tens of millions of bamboo flower-cups, in the Tokyo graveyards!... Impossible! To free the city from mosquitoes it would be necessary to demolish the ancient graveyards;--and that would signify the ruin of the Buddhist temples attached to them;--and that would mean the disparition of so many charming gardens, with their lotus-ponds and Sanscrit-lettered monuments and humpy bridges and holy groves and weirdly-smiling Buddhas! So the extermination of the Culex fasciatus would involve the destruction of the poetry of the ancestral cult,--surely too great a price to pay!...
Besides, I should like, when my time comes, to be laid away in some Buddhist graveyard of the ancient kind,--so that my ghostly company should be ancient, caring nothing for the fashions and the changes and the disintegrations of Meiji (1). That old cemetery behind my garden would be a suitable place. Everything there is beautiful with a beauty of exceeding and startling queerness; each tree and stone has been shaped by some old, old ideal which no longer exists in any living brain; even the shadows are not of this time and sun, but of a world forgotten, that never knew steam or electricity or magnetism or--kerosene oil! Also in the boom of the big bell there is a quaintness of tone which wakens feelings, so strangely far-away from all the nineteenth-century part of me, that the faint blind stirrings of them make me afraid,--deliciously afraid. Never do I hear that billowing peal but I become aware of a striving and a fluttering in the abyssal part of my ghost,--a sensation as of memories struggling to reach the light beyond the obscuration of a million million deaths and births. I hope to remain within hearing of that bell... And, considering the possibility of being doomed to the state of a Jiki-ketsu-gaki, I want to have my chance of being reborn in some bamboo flower-cup, or mizutame, whence I might issue softly, singing my thin and pungent song, to bite some people that I know.