This poem came out of the October 4, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired and sponsored by marina_bonomi. It began with a reference to a Chinese belief about how ghosts can get trapped. I threw in a lot of other tidbits from Buddism and related traditions, concerning how souls move through life.
Once there was a wise young monk
who was murdered by a thief.
The monk's ghost was trapped
at the crossroads where he had died,
unable to move along the Wheel
until his allotted time had passed
or he found someone else to take his place.
So the ghost sat beside the road
and watched the people go by,
whistling the tune of his favorite hymn.
On sunny days, an old man also
came to sit beside the road
and watch the people go by.
He had a habit of sharing his rice balls
with the ghost, who was always hungry,
and sometimes they made up stories
about the people who traveled the roads.
Soon they became good friends,
always sharing the same bench
under the same tree where birds sang.
Curious, the old man asked his friend
why he was stuck haunting the crossroads.
The monk told him about the murdering thief and
how his own ghost was trapped until the end of his time
unless he could put someone else in his place.
"Have you never seen that murdering thief again?"
the old man asked. "You might change places with him."
The ghost sighed. "I do not wish to kill anyone
who values his own life, and the thief surely does that."
A transparent hand pointed across the road.
"There he is. See how fat he is? He loves his life,
though I cannot see that he has done any good with it."
"I see," the old man said. "That is a sad story."
One day, the sun came out but the old man did not.
The ghost watched and waited to no avail.
Days passed before the old man finally returned,
and when he did, he seemed weary and worn,
his steps dragging all the way to his favorite bench.
"My dear friend, whatever is wrong?"
the ghost exclaimed.
"I have been unwell," the old man said.
"The doctor says that I will not recover,
but it may take me some time to die.
Soon I will lack the strength even to sit out here in the sun.
I will miss that very much. I love watching people.
I would be happy to do nothing else to the end of my days."
"Then so you shall," said the ghost.
With that, he stood up and passed his hand
through a branch of the tree that shaded their bench.
It fell upon the old man, killing him instantly.
Then the monk's spirit was free to travel the Wheel,
while the old man's ghost gladly sat by the crossroads.
The days passed, and the birds in the tree
hatched the eggs in their nest.
Soon the fledgings grew big enough
to fly away, and so they did -- all but one.
The ghost smiled when he heard the little bird
begin to whistle a familiar hymn
and he knew that his friend had returned
to sit with him and watch the people go by.