Gently unbarring the door, Kwairyo made his way to the garden, and proceeded with all possible caution to the grove beyond it. He heard voices talking in the grove; and he went in the direction of the voices, stealing from shadow to shadow, until he reached a good hiding-place. Then, from behind a trunk, he caught sight of the heads—all five of them—flitting about, and chatting as they flitted. They were eating worms and insects which they found on the ground or among the trees.
Presently the head of the chieftain stopped eating and said, "Ah, that travelling priest who came tonight—how fat all his body is! When we shall have eaten him, our bellies will be well filled. I was foolish to talk to him as I did; it only set him to reciting the sutras on behalf of my soul. To go near him while he is reciting would be difficult, and we cannot touch him so long as he is praying. But as it is now nearly morning, perhaps he has gone to sleep. One of you go to the house and see what the fellow is doing."
Another head—the head of a young woman—immediately rose up and flitted to the house, lightly as a bat. After a few minutes it came back, and cried out huskily, in a tone of great alarm, "That travelling priest is not in the house. He is gone! But that is not the worst of the matter. He has taken the body of our chieftain; and I do not know where he has put it."
At this announcement the head of the chieftain—distinctly visible in the moonlight—assumed a frightful aspect: its eyes opened monstrously; its hair stood up bristling; and its teeth gnashed. Then a cry burst from its lips; and, weeping tears of rage, it exclaimed, "Since my body has been moved, to rejoin it is not possible. Then I must die! And all through the work of that priest. Before I die I will get at that priest! I will tear him! I will devour him! And there he is behind that tree!—hiding behind that tree! See him—the fat coward!"
In the same moment the head of the chieftain, followed by the other four heads, sprang at Kwairyo. But the strong priest had already armed himself by plucking up a branch, and with that branch he struck the heads as they came, knocking them from him with tremendous blows. Four of them fled away. But the head of the chieftain, though battered again and again, desperately continued to bound at the priest, and at last caught him by the left sleeve of his robe. Kwairyo, however, as quickly gripped the head by its topknot, and repeatedly struck it. It did not release its hold; but it uttered a long moan, and thereafter ceased to struggle. It was dead. But its teeth still held the sleeve; and, for all his great strength, Kwairyo could not force open the jaws.
With the head still hanging to his sleeve he went back to the house, and there caught sight of the other four Rokuro-Kubi squatting together, with their bruised and bleeding heads reunited to their bodies. But when they perceived him at the back door all screamed, "The priest! the priest!" and fled through the other doorway out into the woods.
* * *
Notice that Hearn calls it a rokuro-kubi, rokuro being the Japanese word for a potter's wheel and kubi meaning neck. Technically (if folktales can ever be subject to technical analysis) the word rokuro-kubi ought to describe another Japanese goblin that sends out its head by night on the end of a long stretching neck, like Mister Fantastic, and the proper term for one of these things with a fully detachable head is nuke-kubi. I'm not sure that a Japanese storyteller would bother with the distinction, though. Hearn certainly didn't.
Less viscerally terrifying than the penanggalan this may certainly be, but I prefer it. Like a lot of Japanese folklore it's more dreamlike, less shlock-horrific and so far creepier. Hence it was the nuke-kubi that I used in Lords of the Rising Sun - as brilliantly illustrated here by Russ.