Memoirs Of A Geisha (Chapter 2)
The following morning, to take my mind off my troubles, I went swimming in the pond just inland from our house amid a grove of pine trees. The children from the village went there most mornings when the weather was right. Satsu came too sometimes, wearing a scratchy bathing dress she’d made from our father’s old fishing clothes. It wasn’t a very good bathing dress, because it sagged at her chest whenever she bent over, and one of the boys would scream, “Look! You can see Mount Fuji!” But she wore it just the same.
Around noontime, I decided to return home for something to eat. Satsu had left much earlier with the Sugi boy, who was the son of Mr. Tanaka’s assistant. She acted like a dog around him. When he went somewhere, he looked back over his shoulder to signal that she should follow, and she always did. I didn’t expect to see her again until dinner-time, but as I neared the house I caught sight of her on the path ahead of me, leaning against a tree. If you’d seen what was happening, you might have understood it right away; but I was only a little girl. Satsu had her scratchy bathing dress up around her shoulders and the Sugi boy was playing around with her “Mount Fujis,” as the boys called them.
Ever since our mother first became ill, my sister had grown a bit pudgy. Her breasts were every bit as unruly as her hair. What amazed me most was that their unruliness appeared to be the very thing the Sugi boy found fascinating about them. He jiggled them with his hand, and pushed them to one side to watch them swing back and settle against her chest. I knew I shouldn’t be spying, but I couldn’t think what else to do with myself while the path ahead of me was blocked. And then suddenly I heard a man’s voice behind me say:
“Chiyo-chan, why are you squatting there behind that tree?”
Considering that I was a little girl of nine, coming from a pond where I’d been swimming; and considering that as yet I had no shapes or textures on my body to conceal from anyone . . . well, it’s easy to guess what I was wearing.
When I turned-still squatting on the path, and covering my nakedness with my arms as best I could-there stood Mr. Tanaka. I could hardly have been more embarrassed.
“That must be your tipsy house over there,” he said. “And over there, that looks like the Sugi boy. He certainly looks busy! Who’s that girl with him?”
“Well, it might be my sister, Mr. Tanaka. I’m waiting for them to leave.”
Mr. Tanaka cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, and then I heard the sound of the Sugi boy running away down the path. My sister must have run away too, for Mr. Tanaka told me I could go home and get some clothes now. “When you see that sister of yours,” he said to me, “I want you to give her this.”
He handed me a packet wrapped in rice paper, about the size of a fish head. “It’s some Chinese herbs,” he told me. “Don’t listen to Dr. Miura if he tells you they’re worthless. Have your sister make tea with them and give the tea to your mother, to ease the pain. They’re very precious herbs. Make sure not to waste them. ”
“I’d better do it myself in that case, sir. My sister isn’t very good at making tea.”
Dr. Miura told me your mother is sick,” he said. “Now you tell me your sister can’t even be trusted to make tea! With your father so old, what will become of you, Chiyo-chan? Who takes care of you even now?”
I suppose I take care of myself these days.”
I know a certain man. He’s older now, but when he was a boy about your age, his father died. The very next year his mother died, and then his older brother ran away to Osaka and left him alone. Sounds a bit like you, don’t you think?”
Mr. Tanaka gave me a look as if to say that I shouldn’t dare to disagree.
“Well, that man’s name is Tanaka Ichiro,” he went on. “Yes, me . . . although back then my name was Morihashi Ichiro. I was taken in by the Tanaka family at the age of twelve. After I got a bit older, I was married to the daughter and adopted. Now I help run the family’s seafood company. So things turned out all right for me in the end, you see. Perhaps something like that might happen to you too.”
I looked for a moment at Mr. Tanaka’s gray hair and at the creases in his brow like ruts in the bark of a tree. He seemed to me the wisest and most knowledgeable man on earth. I believed he knew things I would never know; and that he had an elegance I would never have; and that his blue kimono was finer than anything I would ever have occasion to wear. I sat before him naked, on my haunches in the dirt, with my hair tangled and my face dirty, with the smell of pond water on my skin.
“I don’t think anyone would ever want to adopt me,” I said.
“No? You’re a clever girl, aren’t yourl Naming your house a ‘tipsy house.’ Saying your father’s head looks like an egg ! ”
“But it does look like an egg.”
“It wouldn’t have been a clever thing to say otherwise. Now run along, Chiyo-chan,” he said. “You want lunch, don’t you? Perhaps if your sister’s having soup, you can lie on the floor and drink what she spills.”
From that very moment on, I began to have fantasies that Mr. Tanaka would adopt me. Sometimes I forget how tormented I felt during this period. I suppose I would have grasped at anything that offered me comfort. Often when I felt troubled, I found my mind returning to the same image of my mother, long before she ever began groaning in the mornings from the pain’s inside her. I was four years old, at the obon festival in our village, the time of year when we welcomed back the spirits of the dead. After a few evenings of ceremonies in the graveyard, and fires outside the entrances of the houses to guide the spirits home, we gathered on the festival’s final night at our Shinto shrine, which stood on rocks overlooking the inlet. Just inside the gate of the shrine was a clearing, decorated that evening with colored paper lanterns strung on ropes between the trees. My mother and I danced together for a while with the rest of the villagers, to the music of drums and a flute; but at last I began to feel tired and she cradled me in her lap at the edge of the clearing. Suddenly the wind came up off the cliffs and one of the lanterns caught fire. We watched the flame burn through the cord, and the lantern came floating down, until the wind caught it again and rolled it through the air right toward us with a trail of gold dust streaking into the sky. The ball of fire seemed to settle on the ground, but then my mother and I watched as it rose up on the current of the wind, floating straight for us. I felt my mother release me, and then all at once she threw her arms into the fire to scatter it. For a moment we were both awash in sparks and flames; but then the shreds of fire drifted into the trees and burned out, and no one-not even my mother- was hurt.
A week or so later, when my fantasies of adoption had had plenty of time to ripen, I came home one afternoon to find Mr. Tanaka sitting across from my father at the little table in our house. I knew they were talking about something serious, because they didn’t even notice me when I stepped into our entryway. I froze there to listen to them.
“So, Sakamoto, what do you think of my proposal?”
“I don’t know, sir,” said my father. “I can’t picture the girls living anywhere else.”
“I understand, but they’d be much better off, and so would you. Just see to it they come down to the village tomorrow afternoon.”
At this, Mr. Tanaka stood to leave. I pretended I was just arriving so we would meet at the door.
“I was talking with your father about you, Chiyo-chan,” he said to me. “I live across the ridge in the town of Senzuru. It’s bigger than Yoroido. I think you’d like it. Why don’t you and Satsu-san come there tomorrow? You’ll see my house and meet my little daughter. Perhaps you’ll stay the night? Just one night, you understand; and then I’ll bring you back to your home again. How would that be?”
I said it would be very nice. And I did my best to pretend no one had suggested anything out of the ordinary to me. But in my head it was as though an explosion had occurred. My thoughts were in fragments I could hardly piece together. Certainly it was true that a part of me hoped desperately to be adopted by Mr. Tanaka after my mother died; but another part of me was very much afraid. I felt horribly ashamed for even imagining I might live somewhere besides my tipsy house. After Mr. Tanaka had left, I tried to busy myself in the kitchen, but I felt a bit like Satsu, for I could hardly see the things before me. I don’t know how much time passed. At length I heard my father making a sniffling noise, which I took to be crying and which made my face burn with shame. When I finally forced myself to glance his way, I saw him with his hands already tangled up in one of his fishing nets, but standing at the doorway leading into the back room, where my mother lay in the full sun with the sheet stuck to her like skin.
The next day, in preparation for meeting Mr. Tanaka in the village, I scrubbed my dirty ankles and soaked for a while in our bath, which had once been the boiler compartment from an old steam engine someone had abandoned in our village; the top had been sawed off and the inside lined with wood. I sat a long while looking out to sea and feeling very independent, for I was about to see something of the world outside our little village for the first time in my life.
When Satsu and I reached the Japan Coastal Seafood Company, we watched the fishermen unloading their catches at the pier. My father was among them, grabbing fish with his bony hands and dropping them into baskets. At one point he looked toward me and Satsu, and then afterward wiped his face on the sleeve of his shirt. Somehow his features looked heavier to me than usual. The men carried the full baskets to Mr. Tanaka’s horse-drawn wagon and arranged them in the back. I climbed up on the wheel to watch. Mostly, the fish stared out with glassy eyes, but every so often one would move its mouth, which seemed to me like a little scream. I tried to reassure them by saying:
“You’re going to the town of Senzuru, little fishies! Everything will be okay.”
I didn’t see what good it would do to tell them the truth. At length Mr. Tanaka came out into the street and told Satsu and me to climb onto the bench of the wagon with him. I sat in the middle, close enough to feel the fabric of Mr. Tanaka’s kimono against my hand. I couldn’t help blushing at this. Satsu was looking right at me, but she didn’t seem to’ notice anything and wore her usual muddled expression.
I passed much of the trip looking back at the fish as they sloshed around in their baskets. When we climbed up over the ridge leaving Yoroido, the wheel passed over a rock and the wagon tipped to one side quite suddenly. One of the sea bass was thrown out and hit the ground so hard it was jolted back to life. To see it flopping and gasping was more than I could bear. I turned back around with tears in my eyes, and though I tried to hide them from Mr. Tanaka, he noticed them anyway. After he had retrieved the fish and we were on our way again, he asked me what was the matter. “The poor fish!” I said.
“You’re like my wife. They’re mostly dead when she sees them, but if she has to cook a crab, or anything else still alive, she grows teary-eyed and sings to them.”
Mr. Tanaka taught me a little song-really almost a sort of prayer-that I thought his wife had invented. She sang it for crabs, but we changed the words for the fish:
Suzuki yo suzuki!
Jobutsu shite kure!
Little bass, oh little bass!
Speed yourself to Buddhahood!
Then he taught me another song, a lullaby I’d never heard before. We sang it to a flounder in the back lying in a low basket by itself, with its two button-eyes on the side of its head shifting around.
Nemure yo, ii karei yo!
Niwa ya makiba ni
Tori mo hitsuji mo
Hoshi wa mado kara
Gin no hikari o
Sosogu, kono yorul
Go to sleep, you good flounder!
When all are sleeping-
Even the birds and the sheep
In the gardens and in the fields-
The stars this evening
Will pour their golden light
From the window.
We topped the ridge a few moments later, and the town of Senzuru came into view below us. The day was drab, everything in shades of gray. It was my first look at the world outside Yoroido, and I didn’t think I’d missed much. I could see the thatched roofs of the town around an inlet, amid dull hills, and beyond them the metal-colored sea, broken with shards of white. Inland, the landscape might have been attractive but for the train tracks running across it like a scar.
Senzuru was mainly a dirty, smelly town. Even the ocean had a terrible odor, as if all the fish in it were rotting. Around the legs of the Pier, pieces of vegetables bobbed like the jellyfish in our little inlet.
The boats were scratched up, some of their timbers cracked; they looked to me as if they’d been fighting with one another.
Satsu and I sat a long while on the pier, until at length Mr. Tanaka called us inside the Japan Coastal Seafood Company’s headquarters and led us down a long corridor. The corridor couldn’t have smelled more strongly of fish guts if we had actually been inside a fish. But down at the end, to my surprise, was an office, lovely to my nine-year-old eyes. Inside the doorway, Satsu and I stood in our bare feet on a slimy floor of stone. Before us, a step led up to a platform covered with tatami mats. Perhaps this is what impressed me so; the raised flooring made everything look grander. In any case, I considered it the most beautiful room I’d ever seen-though it makes me laugh now to think that the office of a fish wholesaler in a tiny town on the Japan Sea could have made such an impression on anyone.
On the platform sat an old woman on a cushion, who rose when she saw us and came down to the edge to arrange herself on her knees. She was old and cranky-looking, and I don’t think you could ever meet anyone who fidgeted more. When she wasn’t smoothing her kimono, she was wiping something from the corner of her eye or scratching her nose, all the while sighing as though she felt very sorry there was so much fidgeting to be done.
Mr. Tanaka said to her, “This is Chiyo-chan and her older sister, Satsu-san.”
I gave a little bow, to which Mrs. Fidget responded with a nod. Then she gave the biggest sigh she’d given yet, and began to pick with one hand at a crusty patch on her neck. I would have liked to look away, but her eyes were fixed on mine.
“Well! You’re Satsu-san, are you?” she said. But she was still looking right at me.
“I’m Satsu,” said-my sister. “When were you born?”
Satsu still seemed unsure which of us Mrs. Fidget was addressing, so I answered for her. “She’s the year of the cow,” I said.
The old woman reached out and patted me with her fingers. But she did it in a most peculiar way, by poking me several times in the jaw. I knew she meant it as a pat because she wore a kindly look.
“This one’s rather pretty, isn’t she? Such unusual eyes! And you can see that she’s clever. Just look at her forehead.” Here she turned to my sister again and said, “Now, then. The year of the cow; fifteen years old; the planet Venus; six, white. Hmm . . . Come a bit closer.”
Satsu did as she was told. Mrs. Fidget began to examine her face, not only with her eyes but with her fingertips. She spent a long while checking Satsu’s nose from different angles, and her ears. She pinched the lobes a number of times, then gave a grunt to indicate she was done with Satsu and turned to me.
“You’re the year of the monkey. I can tell it just looking at you. What a great deal of water you have! Eight, white; the planet Saturn. And a very attractive girl you are. Come closer.”
Now she proceeded to do the same thing to me, pinching my ears and so on. I kept thinking of how she’d scratched at the crusty patch on her neck with these same fingers. Soon she got to her feet and came down onto the stone floor where we stood. She took a while getting her crooked feet into her zori, but finally turned toward Mr. Tanaka and gave him a look he seemed to understand at once, because he left the room, closing the door behind him.
Mrs. Fidget untied the peasant shirt Satsu was wearing and removed it. She moved Satsu’s bosoms around a bit, looked under her arms, and then turned her around and looked at her back. I was in such a state of shock, I could barely bring myself to watch. I’d certainly seen Satsu naked before, but the way Mrs. Fidget handled her body seemed even more indecent to me than when Satsu had held her bathing dress up for the Sugi boy. Then, as if she hadn’t done enough already, Mrs. Fidget yanked Satsu’s pants to the floor, looked her up and down, and turned her around facing front again.
“Step out of your pants,” she said.
Satsu’s face was more confused than I’d seen it in a long while, but she stepped out of her pants and left them on the slimy stone floor. Mrs. Fidget took her by the shoulders and seated her on the platform.
Satsu was completely naked; I’m sure she had no more idea why she should be sitting there than I did. But she had no time to wonder about it either, for in an instant Mrs. Fidget had put her hands on Satsu’s knees and spread them apart. And without a moment’s hesitation she reached her hand between Satsu’s legs. After this I could no longer bring myself to watch. I think Satsu must have resisted, for Mrs. Fidget gave a shout, and at the same moment I heard a loud slap, which was Mrs. Fidget smacking Satsu on the leg-as I could tell later from the red mark there. In a moment Mrs. Fidget was done and told Satsu to put her clothes back on. While she was dressing, Satsu gave a big sniff. She may have been crying, but I didn’t dare look at her.
Next, Mrs. Fidget came straight at me, and in a moment my own pants were down around my knees, and my shirt was taken off me just as Satsu’s had been. I had no bosoms for the old woman to move around, but she looked under my arms just as she’d done with my sister, and turned me around too, before seating me on the platform and pulling my pants off my legs. I was terribly frightened of what she would do, and when she tried to spread my knees apart, she had to slap me on the leg just as she’d slapped Satsu, which made my throat begin to burn from holding back my tears. She put a finger between my legs and gave what felt to me like a pinch, in such a way that I cried out. When she told me to dress again, I felt as a dam must feel when it’s holding back an entire river. But I was afraid if Satsu or I began to sob like little children, we might look bad in Mr. Tanaka’s eyes.
“The girls are healthy,” she said to Mr. Tanaka when he came back into the room, “and very suitable. Both of them are intact. The older one has far too much wood, but the younger one has a good deal of water. Pretty too, don’t you think? Her older sister looks like a peasant beside her!”
“I’m sure they’re both attractive girls in their way,” he said. “Why don’t we talk about it while I walk you out? The girls will wait here for me.”
When Mr. Tanaka had closed the door behind them, I turned to see Satsu sitting on the edge of the platform, gazing upward toward the ceiling. Because of the shape of her face, tears were pooled along the tops of her nostrils, and I burst into tears myself the moment I saw her upset. I felt myself to blame for what had happened, and wiped her face with the corner of my peasant shirt.
“Who was that horrible woman?” she said to me.
“She must be a fortune-teller. Probably Mr. Tanaka wants to learn as much about us as he can …”
“But why should she look at us in that horrible way!”
“Satsu-san, don’t you understand?” I said. “Mr. Tanaka is planning to adopt us.”
When she heard this, Satsu began to blink as if a bug had crawled into her eye. “What are you talking about?” she said. “Mr. Tanaka can’t adopt us.”
“Father is so old . . . and now that our mother is sick, I think Mr. Tanaka is worried about our future.
There won’t be anyone to take care of us.”
Satsu stood, she was so agitated to hear this. In a moment her eyes had begun to squint, and I could see she was hard at work willing herself to believe that nothing was going to take us from our tipsy house.
She was squeezing out the things I’d told her in the same way you might squeeze water from a sponge.
Slowly her face began to relax again, and she sat down once more on the edge of the platform. In a moment she was gazing around the room as if we’d never had the conversation at all.
Mr. Tanaka’s house lay at the end of a lane just outside the town. The glade of pine trees surrounding it smelled as richly as the ocean back on the seacliffs at our house; and when 1 thought of the ocean and how I would be trading one smell for another, I felt a terrible emptiness I had to pull myself away from, just as you might step back from a cliff after peering over it. The house was grander than anything in Yoroido, with enormous eaves like our village shrine. And when Mr. Tanaka stepped up into his entryway he left his shoes right where he walked out of them, because a maid came and stowed them on a shelf for him. Satsu and I had no shoes to put away, but just as I was about to walk into the house, I felt something strike me softly on my backside, and a pine cone fell onto the wood floor between my feet. I turned to see a young girl about my age, with very short hair, running to hide behind a tree. She peered out to smile at me with a triangle of empty space between her front teeth and then ran away, looking back over her shoulder so I’d be certain to chase her. It may sound peculiar, but I’d never had the experience of actually meeting another little girl. Of course I knew the girls in my village, but we’d grown up together and had never done anything that might be called “meeting.” But Kuniko-for that was the name of Mr. Tanaka’s little daughter-was so friendly from the first instant I saw her, I thought it might be easy for me to move from one world into another.
Kuniko’s clothing was much more refined than mine, and she wore zori; but being the village girl I was, I chased her out into the woods barefoot until I caught up to her at a sort of playhouse made from the sawed-off branches of a dead tree. She’d laid out rocks and pine cones to make rooms. In one she pretended to serve me tea out of a cracked cup; in another we took turns nursing her baby doll, a little boy named Taro who was really nothing more than a canvas bag stuffed with dirt. Taro loved strangers, said Kuniko, but he was very frightened of earthworms; and by a most peculiar coincidence, so was Kuniko. When we encountered one, Kuniko made sure I carried it outside in my fingers before poor Taro should burst into tears.
I was delighted at the prospect of having Kuniko for a sister. In fact, the majestic trees and the pine smell-even Mr. Tanaka-all began to seem almost insignificant to me in comparison. The difference between life here at the Tanakas’ house and life in Yoroido was as great as the difference between the odor of something cooking and a mouthful of delicious food.
As it grew dark, we washed our hands and feet at the well, and went inside to take our seats on the floor around a square table. I was amazed to see steam from the meal we were about to eat rising up into the rafters of a ceiling high above me, with electric lights hanging down over our heads. The brightness of the room was startling; I’d never seen such a thing before. Soon the servants brought our dinner-grilled salted sea bass, pickles, soup, and steamed rice-but the moment we began to eat, the lights went out. Mr. Tanaka laughed; this happened quite often, apparently. The servants went around lighting lanterns that hung on wooden tripods.
No one spoke very much as we ate. I’d expected Mrs. Tanaka to be glamorous, but she looked like an older version of Satsu, except that she smiled a good deal. After dinner she and Satsu began playing a game of go, and Mr. Tanaka stood and called a maid to bring his kimono jacket. In a moment Mr. Tanaka was gone, and after a short delay, Kuniko gestured to me to follow her out the door. She put on straw zori and lent me an extra pair. I asked her where we were going.
“Quietly!” she said. “We’re following my daddy. I do it every time he goes out. It’s a secret.”
We headed up the lane and turned on the main street toward the town of Senzuru, following some distance behind Mr. Tanaka. In a few minutes we were walking among the houses of the town, and then Kuniko took my arm and pulled me down a side street. At the end of a stone walkway between two houses, we came to a window covered with paper screens that shone with the light inside. Kuniko put her eye to a hole torn just at eye level in one of the screens. While she peered in, I heard the sounds of laughter and talking, and someone singing to the accompaniment of a shamisen. At length she stepped aside so I could put my own eye to the hole. Half the room inside was blocked from my view by a folding screen, but I could see Mr. Tanaka seated on the mats with a group of three or four men. An old man beside him was telling a story about holding a ladder for a young woman and peering up her robe; everyone was laughing except Mr. Tanaka, who gazed straight ahead toward the part of the room blocked from my view. An older woman in kimono came with a glass for him, which he held while she poured beer. Mr. Tanaka struck me as an island in the midst of the sea, because although everyone else was enjoying the story-even the elderly woman pouring the beer-Mr. Tanaka just went on staring at the other end of the table. I took my eye from the hole to ask Kuniko what sort of place this was.
“It’s a teahouse,” she told me, “where geisha entertain. My daddy comes here almost every night. I don’t know why he likes it so. The women pour drinks, and the men tell stories-except when they sing songs. Everybody ends up drunk.”
I put my eye back to the hole in time to see a shadow crossing the wall, and then a woman came into view. Her hair was ornamented with the dangling green bloom of a willow, and she wore a soft pink kimono with white flowers like cutouts all over it. The broad obi tied around her middle was orange and yellow. I’d never seen such elegant clothing. None of the women in Yoroido owned anything more sophisticated than a cotton robe, or perhaps linen, with a simple pattern in indigo. But unlike her clothing, the woman herself wasn’t lovely at all. Her teeth protruded so badly that her lips didn’t quite cover them, and the narrowness of her head made me wonder if she’d been pressed between two boards as a baby. You may think me cruel to describe her so harshly; but it struck me as odd that even though no one could have called her a beauty, Mr. Tanaka’s eyes were fixed on her like a rag on a hook. He went on watching her while everyone else laughed, and when she knelt beside him to pour a few more drops of beer into his glass, she looked up at him in a way that suggested they knew each other very well.
Kuniko took another turn peeking through the hole; and then we went back to her house and sat together in the bath at the edge of the pine forest. The sky was extravagant with stars, except for the half blocked by limbs above me. I could have sat much longer trying to understand all I’d seen that day and the changes confronting me . . . but Kuniko had grown so sleepy in the hot water that the servants soon came to help us out.
Satsu was snoring already when Kuniko and I lay down on our futons beside her, with our bodies pressed together and our arms intertwined. A warm feeling of gladness began to swell inside me, and I whispered to Kuniko, “Did you know I’m going to come and live with you?” I thought the news would shock her into opening her eyes, or maybe even sitting up. But it didn’t rouse her from her slumber. She let out a groan, and then a moment later her breath was warm and moist, with the rattle of sleep in it.