Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 3)
Back at home my mother seemed to have grown sicker in the day I’d been away. Or perhaps it was just that I’d managed to forget how ill she really was. Mr. Tanaka’s house had smelled of smoke and pine, but ours smelled of her illness in a way I can’t even bear to describe. Satsu was working in the village during the afternoon, so Mrs. Sugi came to help me bathe my mother. When we carried her out of the house, her rib cage was broader than her shoulders, and even the whites of her eyes were -cloudy. I could only endure seeing her this way by remembering how I’d once felt stepping out of the bath with her while she was strong and healthy, when the steam had risen from our pale skin as if we were two pieces of boiled radish. I found it hard to imagine that this woman, whose back I’d so often scraped with a stone, and whose flesh had always seemed firmer and smoother to me than Satsu’s, might be dead before even the end of summer.
That night while lying on my futon, I tried to picture the whole confusing situation from every angle to persuade myself that things would somehow be all right. To begin with, I wondered, how could we go on living without my mother? Even if we did survive and Mr. Tanaka adopted us, would my own family cease to exist? Finally I decided Mr. Tanaka wouldn’t adopt just my sister and me, but my father as well. He couldn’t expect my father to live alone, after all. Usually I couldn’t fall asleep until I’d managed to convince myself this was true, with the result that I didn’t sleep much during those weeks, and mornings were a blur.
On one of these mornings during the heat of the summer, I was on my way back from fetching a packet of tea in the village when I heard a crunching noise behind me. It turned out to be Mr. Sugi-Mr. Tanaka’s assistant-running up the path. When he reached me, he took a long while to catch his breath, huffing and holding his side as if he’d just run all the way from Senzuru. He was red and shiny like a snapper, though the day hadn’t grown hot yet. Finally he said:
“Mr. Tanaka wants you and your sister … to come down to the village … as soon as you can.”
I’d thought it odd that my father hadn’t gone out fishing that morning. Now I knew why: Today was the day.
“And my father?” I asked. “Did Mr. Tanaka say anything about him?”
“Just get along, Chiyo-chan,” he told me. “Go and fetch your sister.”
I didn’t like this, but I ran up to the house and found my father sitting at the table, digging grime out of a rut in the wood with one of his fingernails. Satsu was putting slivers of charcoal into the stove. It seemed as though the two of them were waiting for something horrible to happen.
I said, “Father, Mr. Tanaka wants Satsu-san and me to go down to the village.”
Satsu took off her apron, hung it on a peg, and walked out the door. My father didn’t answer, but blinked a few times, staring at the point where Satsu had been. Then he turned his eyes heavily toward the floor and gave a nod. I heard my mother cry out in her sleep from the back room.
Satsu was almost to the village before I caught up with her. I’d imagined this day for weeks already, but I’d never expected to feel as frightened as I did. Satsu didn’t seem to realize this trip to the village was any different from one she might have made the day before. She hadn’t even bothered to clean the charcoal off her hands; while wiping her hair away she ended up with a smudge on her face. I didn’t want her to meet Mr. Tanaka in this condition, so I reached up to rub off the mark as our mother might have done. Satsu knocked my hand away.
Outside the Japan Coastal Seafood Company, I bowed and said good morning to Mr. Tanaka, expecting he would be happy to see us. Instead he was strangely cold. I suppose this should have been my first clue that things weren’t going to happen just the way I’d imagined. When he led us to his horse-drawn wagon, I decided he probably wanted to drive us to his house so that his wife and daughter would be in the room when he told us about our adoption.
“Mr. Sugi will be riding in the front with me,” he said, “so you and Shizu-san had better get into the back.” That’s just what he said: “Shizu-san.” I thought it very rude of him to get my sister’s name wrong that way, but she didn’t seem to notice. She climbed into the back of the wagon and sat down among the empty fish baskets, putting one of her hands flat onto the slimy planks. And then with that same hand, she wiped a fly from her face, leaving a shiny patch on her cheek. I didn’t feel as indifferently about the slime as Satsu did. I couldn’t think about anything but the smell, and about how satisfied I would feel to wash my hands and perhaps even my clothes when we reached Mr. Tanaka’s house.
During the trip, Satsu and I didn’t speak a word, until we topped the hill overlooking Senzuru, when all of a sudden she said:
I looked out to see a train in the distance, making its way toward the town. The smoke rolled downwind in a way that made me think of the skin being shed from a snake. I thought this was clever and tried explaining it to Satsu, but she didn’t seem to care. Mr. Tanaka would have appreciated it, I thought, and so would Kuniko. I decided to explain it to both of them when we reached the Tanakas’ home.
Then suddenly I realized we weren’t headed in the direction of Mr. Tanaka’s home at all. The wagon came to a stop a few minutes later on a patch of dirt beside the train tracks, just outside the town. A crowd of people stood with sacks and crates piled around them. And there, to one side of them, was Mrs. Fidget, standing beside a peculiarly narrow man wearing a stiff kimono. He had soft black hair, like a cat’s, and held in one of his hands a cloth bag suspended from a string. He struck rne as out of place in Senzuru, particularly there beside the farmers and the fishermen with their crates, and an old hunched woman wearing a rucksack of yams. Mrs. Fidget said something to him, and when he turned and peered at us, I decided at once that I was frightened of him.
Mr. Tanaka introduced us to this man, whose name was Bekku. Mr. Bekku said nothing at all, but only looked closely at me and seemed puzzled by Satsu.
Mr. Tanaka said to him, “I’ve brought Sugi with me from Yoroido. Would you like him to accompany you? He knows the girls, and I can spare him for a day or so.”
“No, no,” said Mr. Bekku, waving his hand. I certainly hadn’t expected any of this. I asked where we were going, but no one seemed to hear me, so I came up with an answer for myself. I decided Mr. Tanaka had been displeased by what Mrs. Fidget had told him about us, and that this curiously narrow man, Mr. Bekku, planned to take us somewhere to have our fortunes told more completely. Afterward we would be returned to Mr. Tanaka.
While I tried my best to soothe myself with these thoughts, Mrs. Fidget, wearing a pleasant smile, led Satsu and me some distance down the dirt platform. When we were too far away for the others to hear us, her smile vanished and she said:
“Now listen to me. You’re both naughty girls!” She looked around to be sure no one was watching and then hit us on the tops of our heads. She didn’t hurt me, but I cried out in surprise. “If you do something to embarrass me,” she went on, “I’ll make you pay for it! Mr. Bekku is a stern man; you must pay attention to what he says! If he tells you to crawl under the seat of the train, you’ll do it. Understand?”
From the expression on Mrs. Fidget’s face, I knew I should answer her or she might hurt me. But I was in such shock I couldn’t speak. And then just as I’d feared, she reached out and began pinching me so hard on the side of my neck that I couldn’t even tell which part of me hurt. I felt as if I’d fallen into a tub of creatures that were biting me everywhere, and I heard myself whimper. The next thing I knew, Mr. Tanaka was standing beside us.
“What’s going on here?” he said. “If you have something more to say to these girls, say it while I’m standing here. There’s no cause for you to treat them this way.”
“I’m sure we have a great many more things to talk about. But the train is coming,” Mrs. Fidget said.
And it was true: I could see it curling around a turn not far in the distance. Mr. Tanaka led us back up the platform to where the farmers and old women were gathering up their things. Soon the train came to a stop before us. Mr. Bekku, in his stiff kimono, wedged himself between Satsu and me and led us by our elbows into the train car. I heard Mr. Tanaka say something, but I was too confused and upset to understand it. I couldn’t trust what I heard. It might have been: Mata yol “Well meet again!” Or this:
Matte yol “Wait!” Or even this: Ma… deyol” Well, let’s go!”
When I peered out the window, I saw Mr. Tanaka walking back toward his cart and Mrs. Fidget wiping her hands all over her kimono. After a moment, my sister said, “Chiyo-chan!” I buried my face in my hands; and honestly I would have plunged in anguish through the floor of the train if I could have. Because the way my sister said my name, she hardly needed to say anything more.
“Do you know where we’re going?” she said to me.
I think all she wanted was a yes or no answer. Probably it didn’t matter to her what our destination was- so long as someone knew what was happening. But, of course, I didn’t. I asked the narrow man, Mr. Bekku, but he paid me no attention. He was still staring at Satsu as if he had never seen anything like her before. Finally he squeezed his face into a look of disgust and said:
“Fish! What a stench, the both of you!”
He took a comb from his drawstring bag and began tearing it through her hair. I’m certain he must have hurt her, but I could see that watching the countryside pass by outside the window hurt her even more. In a moment Satsu’s lips turned down like a baby’s, and she began to cry. Even if she’d hit me and yelled at me, I wouldn’t have ached as much as I did watching her whole face tremble. Everything was my fault. An old peasant woman with her teeth bared like a dog’s came over with a carrot for Satsu, and after giving it to her asked where she was going.
“Kyoto,” Mr. Bekku answered.
I felt so sick with worry at hearing this, I couldn’t bring myself to look Satsu in the eye any longer. Even the town of Senzuru seemed a remote, faraway place. As for Kyoto, it sounded as foreign to me as Hong Kong, or even New York, which I’d once heard Dr. Miura talk about. For all I knew, they ground up children in Kyoto and fed them to dogs.
We were on that train for many hours, without food to eat. The sight of Mr. Bekku taking a wrapped-up lotus leaf from his bag, and unwrapping it to reveal a rice ball sprinkled with sesame seeds, certainly got my attention. But when he took it in his bony fingers and pressed it into his mean little mouth without so much as looking at me, I felt as if I couldn’t take another moment of torment. We got off the train at last in a large town, which I took to be Kyoto; but after a time another train pulled into the station, and we boarded it. This one did take us to Kyoto. It was much more crowded than the first train had been, so that we had to stand. By the time we arrived, as evening was approaching, I felt as sore as a rock must feel when the waterfall has pounded on it all day long.
I could see little of the city as we neared Kyoto Station. But then to my astonishment, I caught a glimpse of rooftops reaching as far as the base of hills in the distance. I could never have imagined a city so huge. Even to this day, the sight of streets and buildings from a train often makes me remember the terrible emptiness and fear I felt on that curious day when I first left my home.
Back then, around 1930, a fair number of rickshaws still operated in Kyoto. In fact, so many were lined up before the station that I imagined no one went anywhere in this big city unless it was in a rickshaw- which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Perhaps fifteen or twenty of them sat pitched forward onto their poles, with their drivers squatting nearby, smoking or eating; some of the drivers even lay curled up asleep right there in the filth of the street.
Mr. Bekku led us by our elbows again, as if we were a couple of buckets he was bringing back from the well. He probably thought I’d have run away if he’d let go of me a moment; but I wouldn’t have. Wherever he was taking us, I preferred it to being cast out alone into that great expanse of streets and buildings, as foreign to me as the bottom of the sea.
We climbed into a rickshaw, with Mr. Bekku squeezed tightly on the bench between us. He was a good deal bonier under that kimono even than I suspected. We pitched back as the driver raised the poles, and then Mr. Bekku said, “Tominaga-cho, in Gion.”
The driver said nothing in reply, but gave the rickshaw a tug to get it moving and then set off at a trot. After a block or two I worked up my courage and said to Mr. Bekku, “Won’t you please tell us where we’re going?”
He didn’t look as if he would reply, but after a moment he said, “To your new home.”
At this, my eyes filled with tears. I heard Satsu weeping on the other side of Mr. Bekku and was just about to let out a sob of my own when Mr. Bekku suddenly struck her, and she let out a loud gasp. I bit my lip and stopped myself so quickly from crying any further that I think the tears themselves may have come to a halt as they slid down my cheeks.
Soon we turned onto an avenue that seemed as broad as the whole village of Yoroido. I could hardly see the other side for all the people, bicycles, cars, and trucks. I’d never seen a car before. I’d seen photographs, but I remember being surprised at how . . . well, cruel, is the way they looked to me in my frightened state, as though they were designed more to hurt people than to help them. All my senses were assaulted. Trucks rumbled past so close I could smell the scorched rubber odor of their tires. I heard a horrible screech, which turned out to be a streetcar on tracks in the center of the avenue.
I felt terrified as evening settled in around us; but I was never so astonished by anything in my life as by my first glimpse of city lights. I’d never even seen electricity except during part of our dinner at Mr. Tanaka’s house. Here, windows were lit along the buildings upstairs and down, and the people on the sidewalks stood under puddles of yellow glow. I could see pinpoints even at the far reaches of the avenue. We turned onto another street, and I saw for the first time the Mi-namiza Theater standing on the opposite side of a bridge ahead of us. Its tiled roof was so grand, I thought it was a palace.
At length the rickshaw turned down an alleyway of wooden houses. The way they were all packed together, they seemed to share one continuous facade-which once again gave me the terrible feeling of being lost. I watched women in kimono rushing around in a great hurry on the little street. They looked very elegant to me; though, as I later learned, they were mostly maids.
When we came to a halt before a doorway, Mr. Bekku instructed me to get out. He climbed out behind me, and then as if the day hadn’t been difficult enough, the worst thing of all happened. For when Satsu tried to get out as well, Mr. Bekku turned and pushed her back with his long arm.
“Stay there,” he said to her. “You’re going elsewhere.”
I looked at Satsu, and Satsu looked at me. It may have been the first time we’d ever completely understood each other’s feelings. But it lasted only a moment, for the next thing I knew my eyes had welled up with tears so much I could scarcely see. I felt myself being dragged backward by Mr. Bekku; I heard women’s voices and quite a bit of commotion. I was on the point of throwing myself onto the street when suddenly Satsu’s mouth fell open at something she saw in the doorway behind me.
I was in a narrow entryway with an ancient-looking well on one side and a few plants on the other. Mr. Bekku had dragged me inside, and now he pulled me up onto my feet. There on the step of the entryway, just slipping her feet into her lacquered zori, stood an exquisitely beautiful woman wearing a kimono lovelier than anything I’d ever imagined. I’d been impressed with the kimono worn by the young bucktoothed geisha in Mr. Tanaka’s village of Senzuru; but this one was a water blue, with swirling lines in ivory to mimic the current in a stream. Glistening silver trout tumbled in the current, and the surface of the water was ringed with gold wherever the soft green leaves of a tree touched it. I had no doubt the gown was woven of pure silk, and so was the obi, embroidered in pale greens and yellows. And her clothing wasn’t the only extraordinary thing about her; her face was painted a kind of rich white, like the wall of a cloud when lit by the sun. Her hair, fashioned into lobes, gleamed as darkly as lacquer, and was decorated with ornaments carved out of amber, and with a bar from which tiny silver strips dangled, shimmering as she moved.
This was my first glimpse of Hatsumomo. At the time, she was one of the most renowned geisha in the district of Gion; though of course I didn’t know any of this then. She was a petite woman; the top of her hairstyle reached no higher than Mr. Bekku’s shoulder. I was so startled by her appearance that I forgot my manners-not that I had developed very good manners yet-and stared directly at her face. She was smiling at me, though not in a kindly way. And then she said:
“Mr. Bekku, could you take out the garbage later? I’d like to be on my way.”
There was no garbage in the entryway; she was talking about me. Mr. Bekku said he thought Hatsumomo had enough room to pass.
“You may not mind being so close to her,” said Hatsumomo. “But when I see filth on one side of the street, I cross to the other.”
Suddenly an older woman, tall and knobby, like a bamboo pole, appeared in the doorway behind her.
“I don’t know how anyone puts up with you, Hatsumomo-san,” said the woman. But she gestured for Mr. Bekku to pull me onto the street again, which he did. After this she stepped down into the entry-way very awkwardly-for one of her hips jutted out and made it difficult for her to walk-and crossed to a tiny cabinet on the wall. She took from it something that looked to me like a piece of flint, along with a rectangular stone like the kind fishermen use to sharpen their knives, and then stood behind Hatsumomo and struck the flint against the stone, causing a little cluster of sparks to jump onto Hatsumomo’s back. I didn’t understand this at all; but you see, geisha are more superstitious even than fishermen. A geisha will never go out for the evening until someone has sparked a flint on her back for good luck.
After this, Hatsumomo walked away, using such tiny steps that she seemed to glide along with the bottom of her kimono fluttering just a bit. I didn’t know that she was a geisha at the time, for she was worlds above the creature I’d seen in Senzuru a few weeks earlier. I decided she must be some sort of stage performer. We all watched her float away, and then Mr. Bekku handed me over to the older woman in the entryway. He climbed back into the rickshaw with my sister, and the driver raised the poles. But I never saw them leave, because I was slumped down in the entryway in tears.
The older woman must have taken pity on me; for a long while I lay there sobbing in my misery without anyone touching me. I even heard her shush up a maid who came from inside the house to speak with her. At length she helped me to my feet and dried my face with a handkerchief she took from one sleeve of her simple gray kimono.
“Now, now, little girl. There’s no need to worry so. No one’s going to cook you.” She spoke with the same peculiar accent as Mr. Bekku and Hatsumomo. It sounded so different from the Japanese spoken in my village that I had a hard time understanding her. But in any case, hers were the kindest words anyone had said to me all day, so I made up my mind to do what she advised. She told me to call her Auntie. And then she looked down at me, square in the face, and said in a throaty voice:
“Heavens! What startling eyes! You’re a lovely girl, aren’t you? Mother will be thrilled.”
I thought at once that the mother of this woman, whoever she was, must be very old, because Auntie’s hair, knotted tightly at the back of her head, was mostly gray, with only streaks of black remaining.
Auntie led me through the doorway, where I found myself standing on a dirt corridor passing between two closely spaced structures to a courtyard in the back. One of the structures was a little dwelling like my house in Yoroido-two rooms with floors of dirt; it turned out to be the maids’ quarters. The other was a small, elegant house sitting up on foundation stones in such a way that a cat might have crawled underneath it. The corridor between them opened onto the dark sky above, which gave me the feeling I was standing in something more like a miniature village than a house-especially since I could see several other small wooden buildings down in the courtyard at the end. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a very typical dwelling for the section of Kyoto in which it stood. The buildings in the courtyard, though they gave the impression of another group of tiny houses, were just a small shed for the toilets and a storehouse of two levels with a ladder on the outside. The entire dwelling fitted into an area smaller than
Mr. Tanaka’s home in the countryside and housed only eight people. Or rather nine, now that I had arrived.
After I took in the peculiar arrangement of all the little buildings, I noticed the elegance of the main house. In Yoroido> the wood structures were more gray than brown, and rutted by the salty air. But here the wood floors and beams gleamed with the yellow light of electric lamps. Opening off the front hallway were sliding doors with paper screens, as well as a staircase that seemed to climb straight up. One of these doors stood open, so that I was able to see a wood cabinet with a Buddhist altar. These elegant rooms turned out to be for the use of the family-and also Hatsumomo, even though, as I would come to understand, she wasn’t a family member at all. When family members wanted to go to the courtyard, they didn’t walk down the dirt corridor as the servants did, but had their own ramp of polished wood running along the side of the house. There were even separate toilets-an upper one for family and a lower one for servants.
I had yet to discover most of these things, though I would learn them within a day or two. But I stood there in the corridor a long while, wondering what sort of place this was and feeling very afraid. Auntie had disappeared into the kitchen and was talking in a hoarse voice to somebody. At length the somebody came out. She turned out to be a girl about my age, carrying a wooden bucket so heavy with water that she sloshed half of it onto the dirt floor. Her body was narrow; but her face was plump and almost perfectly round, so that she looked to me like a melon on a stick. She was straining to carry the bucket, and her tongue stuck out of her mouth just the way the stem comes out of the top of a. pumpkin. As I soon learned, this was a habit of hers. She stuck her tongue out when she stirred her miso soup, or scooped rice into a bowl, or even tied the knot of her robe. And her face was truly so plump and so soft, with that tongue curling out like a pumpkin stem, that within a few days I’d given her the nickname of “Pumpkin,” which everyone came to call her-even her customers many years later when she was a geisha in Gion.
When she had put down the bucket near me, Pumpkin retracted her tongue, and then brushed a strand of hair behind her ear while she looked me up and down. I thought she might say something, but she just went on looking, as though she were trying to make up her mind whether or not to take a bite of me. Really, she did seem hungry; and then at last she leaned in and whispered:
“Where on earth did you come from?”
I didn’t think it would help to say that I had come from Yoroido; since her accent was as strange to me as everyone else’s, I felt sure she wouldn’t recognize the name of my village. I said instead that I’d just arrived.
“I thought I would never see another girl my age,” she said to me. But what’s the matter with your eyes?”
Just then Auntie came out from the kitchen, and after shooing Pumpkin away, picked up the bucket and a scrap of cloth, and led me down to the courtyard. It had a beautiful mossy look, with stepping-stones leading to a storehouse in the back; but it smelled horrible because of the toilets in the little shed along one side. Auntie told me to undress. I was afraid she might do to me something like what Mrs. Fidget had done, but instead she only poured water over my shoulders and rubbed me down with the rag. Afterward she gave me a robe, which was nothing more than coarsely woven cotton in the simplest pattern of dark blue, but it was certainly more elegant than anything I’d ever worn before. An old woman who turned out to be the cook came down into the corridor with several elderly maids to peer at me. Auntie told them they would have plenty of time for staring another day and sent them back where they’d come from.
“Now listen, little girl,” Auntie said to me, when we were alone. “I don’t even want to know your name yet. The last girl who came, Mother and Granny didn’t like her, and she was here only a month. I’m too old to keep learning new names, until they’ve decided they’re going to keep you.”
“What will happen if they don’t want to keep me?” I asked.
“It’s better for you if they keep you.”
“May I ask, ma’am . . . what is this place?”
“It’s an okiya,” she said. “It’s where geisha live. If you work very hard, you’ll grow up to be a geisha yourself. But you won’t make it as far as next week unless you listen to me very closely, because Mother and Granny are coming down the stairs in just a moment to look at you. And they’d better like what they see. Your job is to bow as low as you can, and don’t look them in the eye. The older one, the one we call Granny, has never liked anyone in her life, so don’t worry about what she says. If she asks you a question, don’t even answer it, for heaven’s sake! I’ll answer for you. The one you want to impress is Mother. She’s not a bad sort, but she cares about only one thing.”
I didn’t have a chance to find out what that one thing was, for I heard a creaking noise from the direction of the front entrance hall, and soon the two women came drifting out onto the walkway. I didn’t dare look at them. But what I could see out of the corner of my eye made me think of two lovely bundles of silk floating along a stream. In a moment they were hovering on the walkway in front of me, where they sank down and smoothed their kimono across their knees.
“Umeko-san!” Auntie shouted-for this was the name of the cook. “Bring tea for Granny.”
“I don’t want tea,” I heard an angry voice say.
“Now, Granny,” said a raspier voice, which I took to be Mother’s. “You don’t have to drink it. Auntie only wants to be sure you’re comfortable.”
“There’s no being comfortable with these bones of mine,” the old woman grumbled. I heard her take in a breath to say something more, but Auntie interrupted.
“This is the new girl, Mother,” she said, and gave me a little shove, which I took as a signal to bow. I got onto my knees and bowed so low, I could smell the musty air wafting from beneath the foundation. Then I heard Mother’s voice again.
“Get up and come closer. I want to have a look at you.”
I felt certain she was going to say something more to me after I’d approached her, but instead she took from her obi, where she kept it tucked, a pipe with a metal bowl and a long stem made of bamboo. She set it down beside her on the walkway and then brought from the pocket of her sleeve a drawstring bag of silk, from which she removed a big pinch of tobacco. She packed the tobacco with her little finger, stained the burnt orange color of a roasted yam, and then put the pipe into her mouth and lit it with a match from a tiny metal box.
Now she took a close look at me for the first time, puffing on her pipe while the old woman beside her sighed. I didn’t feel I could look at Mother directly, but I had the impression of smoke seeping out of her face like steam from a crack in the earth. I was so curious about her that my eyes took on a life of their own and began to dart about. The more I saw of her, the more fascinated I became. Her kimono was yellow, with willowy branches bearing lovely green and orange leaves; it was made of silk gauze as delicate as a spider’s web. Her obi was every bit as astonishing to me. It was a lovely gauzy texture too, but heavier-looking, in russet and brown with gold threads woven through. The more I looked at her clothing, the less I was aware of standing there on that dirt corridor, or of wondering what had become of my sister-and my mother and father-and what would become of me. Every detail of this woman’s kimono was enough to make me forget myself. And then I came upon a rude shock: for there above the collar of her elegant kimono was a face so mismatched to the clothing that it was as though I’d been patting a cat’s body only to discover that it had a bulldog’s head. She was a hideous-looking woman, though much younger than Auntie, which I hadn’t expected. It turned out that Mother was actually Auntie’s younger sister-though they called each other “Mother” and “Auntie,” just as everyone else in the okiya did. Actually they weren’t really sisters in the way Satsu and I were. They hadn’t been born into the same family; but Granny had adopted them both.
I was so dazed as I stood there, with so many thoughts running through my mind, that I ended up doing the very thing Auntie had told me not to do. I looked straight into Mother’s eyes. When I did she took the pipe from her mouth, which caused her jaw to fall open like a trapdoor. And even though I knew I should at all costs look down again, her peculiar eyes were so shocking to me in their ugliness that I could do nothing but stand there staring at them. Instead of being white and clear, the whites of her eyes had a hideous yellow cast, and made me think at once of a toilet into which someone had just urinated. They were rimmed with the raw lip of her lids, in which a cloudy moisture was pooled; and all around them the skin was sagging.
I drew my eyes downward as far as her mouth, which still hung open. The colors of her face were all mixed up: the rims of her eyelids were red like meat, and her gums and tongue were gray. And to make things more horrible, each of her lower teeth seemed to be anchored in a little pool of blood at the gums. This was due to some sort of deficiency in Mother’s diet over the past years, as I later learned; but I couldn’t help feeling, the more I looked at her, that she was like a tree that has begun to lose its leaves. I was so shocked by the whole effect that I think I must have taken a step back, or let out a gasp, or in some way given her some hint of my feelings, for all at once she said to me, in that raspy voice of hers:
“What are you looking at!”
“I’m very sorry, ma’am. I was looking at your kimono,” I told her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”
This must have been the right answer-if there was a right answer-because she let out something of a laugh, though it sounded like a cough.
“So you like it, do you?” she said, continuing to cough, or laugh, I couldn’t tell which. “Do you have any idea what it cost?”
“More than you did, that’s for certain.”
Here the maid appeared with tea. While it was served I took the opportunity to steal a glance at Granny. Whereas Mother was a bit on the plump side, with stubby fingers and a fat neck, Granny was old and shriveled. She was at least as old as my father, but she looked as if she’d spent her years stewing herself into a state of concentrated meanness. Her gray hair made me think of a tangle of silk threads, for I could see right through them to her scalp. And even her scalp looked mean, because of patches where the skin was colored red or brown from old age. She wasn’t frowning exactly, but her mouth made the shape of a frown in its natural state anyway.
She took in a great big breath in preparation to speak; and then as she let it out again she mumbled, “Didn’t I say I don’t want any tea?” After this, she sighed and shook her head, and then said to me, “How old are you, little girl?”
“She’s the year of the monkey,” Auntie answered for me.
“That fool cook is a monkey,” Granny said.
“Nine years old,” said Mother. “What do you think of her, Auntie?”
Auntie stepped around in front of me and tipped my head back to look at my face. “She has a good deal of water.”
“Lovely eyes,” said Mother. “Did you see them, Granny?”
“She looks like a fool to me,” Granny said. “We don’t need another monkey anyway.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re right,” Auntie said. “Probably she’s just as you say. But she looks to me like a very clever girl, and adaptable; you can see that from the shape of her ears.”
“With so much water in her personality,” Mother said, “probably she’ll be able to smell a fire before it has even begun. Won’t that be nice, Granny? You won’t have to worry any longer about our storehouse burning with all our kimono in it.”
Granny, as I went on to learn, was more terrified of fire than beer is of a thirsty old man.
“Anyway, she’s rather pretty, don’t you think?” Mother added.
“There are too many pretty girls in Gion,” said Granny. “What we need is a smart girl, not a pretty girl. That Hatsumomo is as pretty as they come, and look at what a fool she is!”
After this Granny stood, with Auntie’s help, and made her way back up the walkway. Though I must say that to watch Auntie’s clumsy gait-because of her one hip jutting out farther than the other-it wasn’t at all obvious which of the two women had the easier time walking. Soon I heard the sound of a door in the front entrance hall sliding open and then shut again, and Auntie came back.
“Do you have lice, little girl?” Mother asked me.
“No,” I said.
“You’re going to have to learn to speak more politely than that. Auntie, be kind enough to trim her hair, just to be sure.”
Auntie called a servant over and asked for shears.
“Well, little girl,” Mother told me, “you’re in Kyoto now. You’ll learn to behave or get a beating. And it’s Granny gives the beatings around here, so you’ll be sorry. My advice to you is: work very hard, and never leave the okiya without permission. Do as you’re told; don’t be too much trouble; and you might begin learning the arts of a geisha two or three months from now. I didn’t bring you here to be a maid. I’ll throw you out, if it comes to that.”
Mother puffed on her pipe and kept her eyes fixed on me. I didn’t dare move until she told me to. I found myself wondering if my sister was standing before some other cruel woman, in another house somewhere in this horrible city. And I had a sudden image in my mind of my poor, sick mother propping herself on one elbow upon her futon and looking around to see where we had gone. I didn’t want Mother to see me crying, but the tears pooled in my eyes before I could think of how to stop them. With my vision glazed, Mother’s yellow kimono turned softer and softer, until it seemed to sparkle. Then she blew out a puff of her smoke, and it disappeared completely.