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》: