The Head-Bearing Official

Gao Yan(高公岩), a man from Rugao(如臯), served as the magistrate of Gaoling in Shaanxi(陝西高陵令). One of his friends came to visit him but found it getting dusk while still about ten miles away from the city. Worried they wouldn’t make it to the city in time, they spotted an abandoned temple by the roadside. The main hall was closed and locked, but there were two rooms on the west side. There was a small door connecting these rooms to the main hall, also locked. Finding the rooms relatively tidy, they decided to stay the night there. They bought some wine, had a few drinks, undressed, and prepared for sleep. Their servant, meanwhile, went out to sleep in the ear room on the eastern side with the temple caretaker.

It was the 16th day of the lunar month, and the moonlight illuminated everything as bright as day. Gao Yan’s friend hadn’t slept for a long time when suddenly he heard footsteps in the main hall. The small door creaked open, revealing a person dressed in official attire, adorned with court beads, but this person had no head. They walked to the window and sat there, as if admiring the moon. Gao Yan’s friend was petrified, and when the figure turned as if seeing him, he hurriedly got up to escape. However, the lock outside had been turned upside down by his servant. He shouted loudly but couldn’t make a sound, and the servant didn’t respond. Left with no choice, he crawled out of the window. Outside the window was a high wall, and unable to climb over it, he saw a tall tree nearby, climbed it, and looked down towards the window. He saw the headless figure had come to the outer room, still sitting where it was before, placing its head on its knees. Slowly, it extended two fingers, brushed its eyebrows and eyes, then held the head and placed it on its neck. Its eyes were sharp and piercing. At this point, Gao Yan’s friend was so terrified that he fainted.

The next day, the servant entered the room but couldn’t find the master. After searching everywhere, they finally found him in the tree. They tried to pull his wrists, but he held onto the tree trunk tightly, refusing to let go. After a while, he regained consciousness but thought a ghost was trying to capture him. He asked the temple caretaker, who explained, “Twenty years ago, during a conflict in Ningxia(寧夏), there was a man from Chu(楚, somewhere about the location of Hubei and Hunan), a deputy magistrate, who, due to a delay in delivering provisions, was beheaded by the general. His family, while transporting the coffin back to their hometown, ran out of funds and temporarily left the coffin in the temple. Perhaps now, his spirit longs for home and appeared before you.” Later, Gao Yan’s friend recounted this incident to Gao Yan, who funded the transportation costs for the coffin and wrote a letter to the deceased’s son, asking him to come and claim his father’s coffin.

Translated from 《捧頭司馬》in 《子不語》:

如臯高公岩,為陝西高陵令,其友某往探之。去城十里許,日已薄暮,恐不能達,見道旁廢寺:正室封扃;西偏屋二楹,內有小門通正室,門亦封扃。某以屋尚整潔,遂借宿焉。沽酒少飲,解衣就寢。其僕出與守寺道人同宿東邊之耳房。

時當既望,月明如晝,某久不成寐。忽聞正室履聲橐橐,小門砉然頓開,見有補褂朝珠而無頭者就窗下坐,作玩月狀。某方驚,其人轉身內向,若有見於某者,旋即走還正室中。某急起開門遁,而門外鎖已為其僕倒扣去。某大呼,喑不能聲,其僕弗應。某無措,遂奪窗出。窗外有墻繚之,又不克越,近窗高樹一株,乃緣之而上。俯視窗下,則其人已捧頭而出,仍就前坐,以頭置膝,徐伸兩指拭其眉目,還以手捧之安置頂上,雙眸炯炯,寒光射人。是時,某已魂飛,不復省人事矣。
次晨僕入,不見主人,遍尋之,得於樹上。急撥其腕,交抱樹柯,堅不可解。久之始蘇,猶謂鬼之來攫己也。問之道人,云:「二十年前,寧夏用兵,有楚人為同知者,解糧誤期,為大帥所戮。柩行至此,資斧告絕,遂寄寺中。今或思歸,見形於客乎!」某白高,高因捐俸為賫柩資,並寓書於楚,令其子領歸。

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