Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 4)
During those first few days in that strange place, I don’t think I could 1 1 have felt worse if I’d lost my arms and legs, rather than my family V and my home. I had no doubt life would never again be the same. All I could think of was my confusion and misery; and I wondered day after day when I might see Satsu again. I was without my father, without my mother-without even the clothing I’d always worn. Yet somehow the thing that startled me most, after a week or two had passed, was that I had in fact survived.I remember one moment drying rice bowls in the kitchen, when all at once I felt so disoriented I had to stop what I was doing to stare for a long while at my hands; for I could scarcely understand that this person drying the bowls was actually me. Mother had told me I could begin my training within a few months if I worked hard and behaved myself. As I learned from Pumpkin, beginning my training meant going to a school in another section of Gion to take lessons in things like music, dance, and tea ceremony. All the girls studying to be geisha took classes at this same school. I felt sure I’d find Satsu there when I was finally permitted to go; so by the end of my first week, I’d made up my mind to be as obedient as a cow following along on a rope, in the hopes that Mother would send me to the school right away.
Most of my chores were straightforward. I stowed away the futons in the morning, cleaned the rooms, swept the dirt corridor, and so forth. Sometimes I was sent to the pharmacist to fetch ointment for the cook’s scabies, or to a shop on Shijo Avenue to fetch the rice crackers Auntie was so fond of. Happily the worst jobs, such as cleaning the toilets, were the responsibility of one of the elderly maids. But even though I worked as hard as I knew how, I never seemed to make the good impression I hoped to, because my chores every day were more than I could possibly finish; and the problem was made a good deal worse by Granny.
Looking after Granny wasn’t really one of my duties-not as Auntie described them to me. But when Granny summoned me I couldn’t very well ignore her, for she had more seniority in the okiya than anyone else. One day, for example, I was about to carry tea upstairs to Mother when I heard Granny call out:
“Where’s that girl! Send her in here!”
I had to put down Mother’s tray and hurry into the room where Granny was eating her lunch.
“Can’t you see this room is too hot?” she said to me, after I’d bowed to her on my knees. “You ought to have come in here and opened the window.”
“I’m sorry, Granny. I didn’t know you were hot.”
“Don’t I look hot?”
She was eating some rice, and several grains of it were stuck to her lower lip. I thought she looked more mean than hot, but I went directly to the window and opened it. As soon as I did, a fly came in and began buzzing around Granny’s food.
“What’s the matter with you?” she said, waving at the fly with her chopsticks. “The other maids don’t let in flies when they open the window!”
I apologized and told her I would fetch a swatter.
“And knock the fly into my food? Oh, no, you won’t! You’ll stand right here while I eat and keep it away from me.”
So I had to stand there while Granny ate her food, and listen to her tell me about the great Kabuki actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIV, who had taken her hand during a moon- viewing party when she was only fourteen. By the time I was finally free to leave, Mother’s tea had grown so cold I couldn’t even deliver it. Both the cook and Mother were angry with me.
The truth was, Granny didn’t like to be alone. Even when she needed to use the toilet, she made Auntie stand just outside the door and hold her hands to help her balance in a squatting position. The odor was so overpowering, poor Auntie nearly broke her neck trying to get her head as far away from it as possible. I didn’t have any jobs as bad as this one, but Granny did often call me to massage her while she
cleaned her ears with a tiny silver scoop; and the task of massaging her was a good deal worse than you might think. I almost felt sick the first time she unfastened her robe and pulled it down from her shoulders, because the skin there and on her neck was bumpy and yellow like an uncooked chicken’s. The problem, as I later learned, was that in her geisha days she’d used a kind of white makeup we call
“China Clay,” made with a base of lead. China Clay turned out to be poisonous, to begin with, which probably accounted in part for Granny’s foul disposition. But also as a younger woman Granny had often gone to the hot springs north of Kyoto. This would have been fine except that the lead-based makeup was very hard to remove; traces of it combined with some sort of chemical in the water to make a dye that ruined her skin. Granny wasn’t the only one afflicted by this problem. Even during the early years of World War II, you could still see old women on the streets in Gion with sagging yellow necks.
One day after I’d been in the okiya about three weeks, I went upstairs much later than usual to straighten Hatsumomo’s room. I was terrified of Hatsumomo, even though I hardly saw her because of the busy life she led. I worried about what might happen if she found me alone, so I always tried to clean her room the moment she left the okiya for her dance lessons. Unfortunately, that morning Granny had kept me busy until almost noon.
Hatsumomo’s room was the largest in the okiya, larger in floor space than my entire house in Yoroido. I couldn’t think why it should be so much bigger than everyone else’s until one of the elderly maids told me that even though Hatsumomo was the only geisha in the okiya now, in the past there’d been as many as three or four, and they’d all slept together in that one room. Hatsumomo may have lived alone, but she certainly made enough mess for four people. When I went up to her room that day, in addition to the usual magazines strewn about, and brushes left on the mats near her tiny makeup stand, I found an apple core and an empty whiskey bottle under the table. The window was open, and the wind must have knocked down the wood frame on which she’d hung her kimono from the night before-or perhaps she’d tipped it over before going to bed drunk and hadn’t yet bothered to pick it up. Usually Auntie would have fetched the kimono by now, because it was her responsibility to care for the clothing in the okiya, but for some reason she hadn’t. Just as I was standing the frame erect again, the door slid open all at once, and I turned to see Hatsumomo standing there.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. “I thought I heard a little mousie or something. I see you’ve been straightening my room! Are you the one who keeps rearranging all my makeup jars? Why do you insist on doing that?”
“I’m very sorry, ma’am,” I said. “I only move them to dust underneath.”
“But if you touch them,” she said, “they’ll start to smell like you. And then the men will say to me, “Hatsumomo-san, why do you stink like an ignorant girl from a fishing village?’ I’m sure you understand that, don’t you? But let’s have you repeat it back to me just to be sure. Why don’t I want you to touch my
I could hardly bring myself to say it. But at last I answered her. “Because it will start to smell like me.”
“That’s very good! And what will the men say?” “They’ll say, ‘Oh, Hatsumomo-san, you smell just like a girl from a fishing village.'”
“Hmm . . . there’s something about the way you said it that I don’t like. But I suppose it will do. I can’t see why you girls from fishing villages smell so bad. That ugly sister of yours was here looking for you the other day, and her stench was nearly as bad as yours.”
I’d kept my eyes to the floor until then; but when I heard these words, I looked Hatsumomo right in the face to see whether or not she was telling me the truth.
“You look so surprised!” she said to me. “Didn’t I mention that she came here? She wanted me to give you a message about where she’s living. Probably she wants you to go find her, so the two of you can run away together.”
“You want me to tell you where she is? Well, you’re going to have to earn the information. When I think how, I’ll tell you. Now get out.” I didn’t dare disobey her, but just before leaving the room I stopped, thinking perhaps I could persuade her.
“Hatsumomo-san, I know you don’t like me,” I said. “If you would be kind enough to tell me what I want to know, I’ll promise never to bother you again.”
Hatsumomo looked very pleased when she heard this and came walking toward me with a luminous happiness on her face. Honestly, I’ve never seen a more astonishing-looking woman. Men in the street sometimes stopped and took their cigarettes from their mouths to stare at her. I thought she was going to come whisper in my ear; but after she’d stood over me smiling for a moment, she drew back her hand and slapped me.
“I told you to get out of my room, didn’t I?” she said.
I was too stunned to know how to react. But I must have stumbled out of the room, because the next thing I knew, I was slumped on the wood floor of the hallway, holding my hand to my face. In a moment Mother’s door slid open.
“Hatsumomo!” Mother said, and came to help me to my feet. “What have you done to Chiyo?”
“She was talking about running away, Mother. I decided it would be best if I slapped her for you. I thought you were probably too busy to do it yourself.”
Mother summoned a maid and asked for several slices of fresh ginger, then took me into her room and seated me at the table while she finished a telephone call. The okiya’s only telephone for calling outside Gion was mounted on the wall of her room, and no one else was permitted to use it. She’d left the earpiece lying on its side on the shelf, and when she took it up again, she seemed to squeeze it so hard with her stubby fingers that I thought fluid might drip onto the mats.
“Sorry,” she said into the mouthpiece in her raspy voice. “Hatsumomo is slapping the maids around again.”
During my first few weeks in the okiya I felt an unreasonable affection for Mother-something like what a fish might feel for the fisherman who pulls the hook from its lip. Probably this was because I saw her no more than a few minutes each day while cleaning her room. She was always to be found there, sitting at the table, usually with an account book from the bookcase open before her and the fingers of one hand flicking the ivory beads of her abacus. She may have been organized about keeping her account books, but in every other respect she was messier even than Hatsumomo. Whenever she put her pipe down onto the table with a click, flecks of ash and tobacco flew out of it, and she left them wherever they lay. She didn’t like anyone to touch her futon, even to change the sheets, so the whole room smelled like dirty linen. And the paper screens over the windows were stained terribly on account of her smoking, which gave the room a gloomy cast.
While Mother went on talking on the telephone, one of the elderly maids came in with several strips of freshly cut ginger for me to hold against my face where Hatsumomo had slapped me. The com-rnotion of the door opening and closing woke Mother’s little dog, Taku, who was an ill-tempered creature with a smashed face. He seemed to have only three pastimes in life-to bark, to snore, and to bite people who
tried to pet him. After the maid had left again, Taku came and laid himself behind me. This was one of his little tricks; he liked to put himself where I would step on him by accident, and then bite me as soon as I did it. I was beginning to feel like a mouse caught in a sliding door, positioned there between
Mother and Taku, when at last Mother hung up the telephone and came to sit at the table. She stared at me with her yellow eyes and finally said:
“Now you listen to me, little girl. Perhaps you’ve heard Hatsu-momo lying. Just because she can get away with it doesn’t mean you can. I want to know . . . why did she slap you?”
“She wanted me to leave her room, Mother,” I said. “I’m terribly sorry.”
Mother made me say it all again in a proper Kyoto accent, which I found difficult to do. When I’d finally said it well enough to satisfy her, she went on:
“I don’t think you understand your job here in the okiya. We all of us think of only one thing-how we can help Hatsumomo be successful as a geisha. Even Granny. She may seem like a difficult old woman to you, but really she spends her whole day thinking of ways to be helpful to Hatsumomo.”
I didn’t have the least idea what Mother was talking about. To tell the truth, I don’t think she could have fooled a dirty rag into believing Granny was in any way helpful to anyone.
“If someone as senior as Granny works hard all day to make Ha-tsumomo’s job easier, think how much harder you have to work.” “Yes, Mother, I’ll continue working very hard.” “I don’t want to hear that you’ve upset Hatsumomo again. The other little girl manages to stay out of her way; you can do it too.”
“Yes, Mother . . . but before I go, may I ask? I’ve been wondering if anyone might know where my sister is. You see, I’d hoped to send a note to her.”
Mother had a peculiar mouth, which was much too big for her face and hung open much of the time; but now she did something with it I’d never seen her do before, which was to pinch her teeth together as though she wanted me to have a good look at them. This was her way of smiling-though I didn’t realize it until she began to make that coughing noise that was her laugh.
“Why on earth should I tell you such a thing?” she said. After this, she gave her coughing laugh a few more times, before waving her hand at me to say that I should leave the room.
When I went out, Auntie was waiting in the upstairs hall with a chore for me. She gave me a bucket and sent me up a ladder through a trapdoor onto the roof. There on wooden struts stood a tank for collecting rainwater. The rainwater ran down by gravity to flush the little second-floor toilet near Mother’s room, for we had no plumbing in those days, even in the kitchen. Lately the weather had been dry, and the toilet had begun to stink. My task was to dump water into the tank so that Auntie could flush the toilet a few times to clear it out.
Those tiles in the noonday sun felt like hot skillets to me; while I emptied the bucket, I couldn’t help but think of the cold water of the pond where we used to swim back in our village on the seashore. I’d been in that pond only a few weeks earlier; but it all seemed so far away from me now, there on the roof of the okiya. Auntie called up to me to pick the weeds from between the tiles before I came back down. I looked out at the hazy heat lying on the city and the hills surrounding us like prison walls. Somewhere under one of those rooftops, my sister was probably doing her chores just as I was. I thought of her when I bumped the tank by accident, and water splashed out and flowed toward the street.
About a month after I’d arrived in the okiya, Mother told me the time had come to begin my schooling. I was to accompany Pumpkin the following morning to be introduced to the teachers. Afterward, Hatsumomo would take me to someplace called the “registry office,” which I’d never heard of, and then late in the afternoon I would observe her putting on her makeup and dressing in kimono. It was a tradition in the okiya for a young girl, on the day she begins her training, to observe the most senior geisha in this way. When Pumpkin heard she would be taking me to the school the following morning, she grew very nervous.
“You’ll have to be ready to leave the moment you wake up,” she told me. “If we’re late, we may as well drown ourselves in the sewer …”
I’d seen Pumpkin scramble out of the okiya every morning so early her eyes were still crusty; and she often seemed on the point of tears when she left. In fact, when she clopped past the kitchen window in her wooden shoes, I sometimes thought I could hear her crying. She hadn’t taken to her lessons well-not well at all, as a matter of fact. She’d arrived in the okiya nearly six months before me, but she’d only
begun attending the school a week or so after my arrival. Most days when she came back around noon, she hid straightaway in the maids’ quarters so no one would see her upset.
The following morning I awoke even earlier than usual and dressed for the first time in the blue and white robe students wore. It was nothing more than unlined cotton decorated with a childlike design of squares; I’m sure I looked no more elegant than a guest at an inn looks wearing a robe on the way to the bath. But I’d never before worn anything nearly so glamorous on my body. Pumpkin was waiting for me in the entryway with a worried look. I was just about to slip my feet into my shoes when Granny called me to her room.
“No!” Pumpkin said under her breath; and really, her face sagged like wax that had melted. “I’ll be late again. Let’s just go and pretend we didn’t hear her!”
I’d like to have done what Pumpkin suggested; but already Granny was in her doorway, glowering at me across the formal entrance hall. As it turned out, she didn’t keep me more than ten or fifteen minutes; but by then tears were welling in Pumpkin’s eyes. When we finally set out, Pumpkin began at once to walk so fast I could hardly keep up with her.
“That old woman is so cruel!” she said. “Make sure you put your hands in a dish of salt after she makes you rub her neck.”
“Why should I do that?”
“My mother used to say to me, ‘Evil spreads in the world through touch.’And I know it’s true too, because my mother brushed up against a demon that passed her on the road one morning, and that’s why she died. If you don’t purify your hands, you’ll turn into a shriveled-up old pickle, just like Granny.”
Considering that Pumpkin and I were the same age and in the same peculiar position in life, I’m sure we would have talked together often, if we could have. But our chores kept us so busy we hardly had time even for meals-which Pumpkin ate before me because she was senior in the okiya. I knew that Pumpkin had come only six months before me, as I’ve mentioned. But I knew very little else about her. So I asked:
“Pumpkin, are you from Kyoto? Your accent sounds like you are.”
“I was born in Sapporo. But then my mother died when I was five, and my father sent me here to live with an uncle. Last year my uncle lost his business, and here I am.”
“Why don’t you run away to Sapporo again?”
“My father had a curse put on him and died last year. I can’t run away. I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“When I find my sister,” I said, “you can come with us. We’ll run away together.”
Considering what a difficult time Pumpkin was having with her lessons, I expected she would be happy at my offer. But she didn’t say anything at all. We had reached Shijo Avenue by now and crossed it in silence. This was the same avenue that had been so crowded the day Mr. Bekku had brought Satsu and me from the station. Now, so early in the morning, I could see only a single streetcar in the distance and a few bicyclists here and there. When we reached the other side, we continued up a narrow street, and then Pumpkin stopped for the first time since we’d left the okiya.
“My uncle was a very nice man,” she said. “Here’s the last thing I heard him say before he sent me away.
‘Some girls are smart and some girls are stupid,’ he told me. ‘You’re a nice girl, but you’re one of the stupid ones. You won’t make it on your own in the world. I’m sending you to a place where people will tell you what to do. Do what they say, and you’ll always be taken care of.’ So if you want to go out on your own, Chiyo-chan, you go. But me, I’ve found a place to spend my life. I’ll work as hard as I have to so they don’t send me away. But I’d sooner throw myself off a cliff than spoil my chances to be a geisha like Ha-tsumomo.”
Here Pumpkin interrupted herself. She was looking at something behind me, on the ground. “Oh, my goodness, Chiyo-chan,” she said, “doesn’t it make you hungry?”
I turned to find myself looking into the entry way of another okiya. On a shelf inside the door sat a miniature Shinto shrine with an offering of a sweet-rice cake. I wondered if this could be what Pumpkin had seen; but her eyes were pointed toward the ground. A few ferns and some moss lined the stone path leading to the interior door, but I could see nothing else there. And then my eye fell upon it. Outside the entry way, just at the edge of the street, lay a wooden skewer with a single bite of charcoal-roasted squid remaining. The vendors sold them from carts at night. The smell of the sweet basting sauce was a torment to me, for maids like us were fed nothing more than rice and pickles at most meals, with soup once a day, and small portions of dried fish twice a month. Even so, there was nothing about this piece of squid on the ground that I found appetizing. Two flies were walking around in circles on it just as casually as if they’d been out for a stroll in the park.
Pumpkin was a girl who looked as if she could grow fat quickly, given the chance. I’d sometimes heard her stomach making noises from hunger that sounded like an enormous door rolling open. Still, I didn’t think she was really planning to eat the squid, until I saw her look up and down the street to be sure no one was coming.
“Pumpkin,” I said, “if you’re hungry, for heaven’s sake, take the sweet-rice cake from that shelf. The flies have already claimed the squid.”
“I’m bigger than they are,” she said. “Besides, it would be sacrilege to eat the sweet-rice cake. It’s an offering.”
And after she said this, she bent down to pick up the skewer.
It’s true that I grew up in a place where children experimented with eating anything that moved. And I’ll admit I did eat a cricket once when I was four or five, but only because someone tricked me. But to see Pumpkin standing there holding that piece of squid on a stick, with grit from the street stuck to it, and the flies walking around . . . She blew on it to try to get rid of them, but they just scampered to keep their balance.
“Pumpkin, you can’t eat that,” I said. “You might as well drag your tongue along on the paving stones!”
“What’s so bad about the paving stones?” she said. And with this-I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself-Pumpkin got down on her knees and stuck out her tongue, and gave it a long, careful scrape along the ground. My mouth fell open from shock. When Pumpkin got to her feet again, she looked as though she herself couldn’t quite believe what she’d done. But she wiped her tongue with the palm of her hand, spat a few times, and then put that piece of squid between her teeth and slid it off the skewer.
It must have been a tough piece of squid; Pumpkin chewed it the whole way up the gentle hill to the wooden gate of the school complex. I felt a knot in my stomach when I entered, because the garden seemed so grand to me. Evergreen shrubs and twisted pine trees surrounded a decorative pond full of carp. Across the narrowest part of the pond lay a stone slab. Two old women in kimono stood on it, holding lacquered umbrellas to block the early-morning sun. As for the buildings, I didn’t understand what I was seeing at the moment, but I now know that only a tiny part of the compound was devoted to the school. The massive building in the back was actually the Kaburenjo Theater-where the geisha of Gion perform Dances of the Old Capital every spring.
Pumpkin hurried to the entrance of a long wood building that I thought was servants’ quarters, but which turned out to be the school. The moment I stepped into the entryway, I noticed the distinctive smell of roasted tea leaves, which even now can make my stomach tighten as though I’m on my way to lessons once again. I took off my shoes to put them into the cubby nearest at hand, but Pumpkin stopped me; there was an unspoken rule about which cubby to use. Pumpkin was among the most junior of all the girls, and had to climb the other cubbies like a ladder to put her shoes at the top. Since this was my very first morning I had even less seniority; I had to use the cubby above hers.
“Be very careful not to step on the other shoes when you climb,” Pumpkin said to me, even though there were only a few pairs. “If you step on them and one of the girls sees you do it, you’ll get a scolding so bad your ears will blister.”
The interior of the school building seemed to me as old and dusty as an abandoned house. Down at the end of the long hallway stood a group of six or eight girls. I felt a jolt when I set eyes on them, because I thought one might be Satsu; but when they turned to look at us I was disappointed. They all wore the same hairstyle-the wareshinobu of a young apprentice geisha-and looked to me as if they knew much more about Gion than either Pumpkin or I would ever know.
Halfway down the hall we went into a spacious classroom in the traditional Japanese style. Along one wall hung a large board with pegs holding many tiny wooden plaques; on each plaque was written a name in fat, black strokes. My reading and writing were still poor; I’d attended school in the mornings in Yoroido, and since coming to Kyoto had spent an hour every afternoon studying with Auntie, but I could read very few of the names. Pumpkin went to the board and took, from a shallow box on the mats, a plaque bearing her own name, which she hung on the first empty hook. The board on the wall, you see, was like a sign-up sheet.
After this, we went to several other classrooms to sign up in just the same way for Pumpkin’s other lessons. She was to have four classes that morning-shamisen, dance, tea ceremony, and a form of singing we call nagauta. Pumpkin was so troubled about being the last student in all of her classes that she began to wring the sash of her robe as we left the school for breakfast in the okiya. But just as we
slipped into our shoes, another young girl our age came rushing across the garden with her hair in disarray. Pumpkin seemed calmer after seeing her.
We ate a bowl of soup and returned to the school as quickly as we could, so that Pumpkin could kneel in the back of the classroom to assemble her shamisen. If you’ve never seen a shamisen, you might find it a peculiar-looking instrument. Some people call it a Japanese guitar, but actually it’s a good deal smaller than a guitar, with a thin wooden neck that has three large tuning pegs at the end. The body is just a little wooden box with cat skin stretched over the top like a drum. The entire instrument can be taken apart and put into a box or a bag, which is how it is carried about. In any case, Pumpkin assembled her shamisen and began to tune it with her tongue poking out, but I’m sorry to say that her ear was very poor, and the notes went up and down like a boat on the waves, without ever settling down where they were supposed to be. Soon the classroom was full of girls with their shamisens, spaced out as neatly as chocolates in a box. I kept an eye on the door in the hopes that Satsu would walk through it, but she didn’t.
A moment later the teacher entered. She was a tiny old woman with a shrill voice. Her name was Teacher Mizumi, and this is what we called her to her face. But her surname of Mizumi sounds very close to nezumi-” mouse”; so behind her back we called her Teacher Nezumi-Teacher Mouse.
Teacher Mouse knelt on a cushion facing the class and made no effort at all to look friendly. When the students bowed to her in unison and told her good morning, she just glowered back at them without speaking a word. Finally she looked at the board on the wall and called out the name of the first student.
This first girl seemed to have a very high opinion of herself. After she’d glided to the front of the room, she bowed before the teacher and began to play. In a minute or two Teacher Mouse told the girl to stop and said all sorts of unpleasant things about her playing; then she snapped her fan shut and waved it at the girl to dismiss her. The girl thanked her, bowed again, and returned to her place, and Teacher Mouse called the name of the next student.
This went on for more than an hour, until at length Pumpkin’s name was called. I could see that Pumpkin was nervous, and in fact, the moment she began to play, everything seemed to go wrong. First Teacher Mouse stopped her and took the shamisen to retune the strings herself. Then Pumpkin tried again, but all the students began looking at one another, for no one could tell what piece she was trying to play. Teacher Mouse slapped the table very loudly and told them all to face straight ahead; and then she used her folding fan to tap out the rhythm for Pumpkin to follow. This didn’t help, so finally Teacher Mouse began to work instead on Pumpkin’s manner of holding the plectrum. She nearly sprained every one of Pumpkin’s fingers, it seemed to me, trying to make her hold it with the proper grip. At last she gave up even on this and let the plectrum fall to the mats in disgust. Pumpkin picked it up and came back to her place with tears in her eyes.
After this I learned why Pumpkin had been so worried about being the last student. Because now the girl with the disheveled hair, who’d been rushing to the school as we’d left for breakfast, came to the front of the room and bowed.
“Don’t waste your time trying to be courteous to me!” Teacher Mouse squeaked at her. “If you hadn’t slept so late this morning, you might have arrived here in time to learn something.”
The girl apologized and soon began to play, but the teacher paid no attention at all. She just said, “You sleep too late in the mornings. How do you expect me to teach you, when you can’t take the trouble to come to school like the other girls and sign up properly? Just go back to your place. I don’t want to be bothered with you.”
The class was dismissed, and Pumpkin led me to the front of the room, where we bowed to Teacher Mouse.
“May I be permitted to introduce Chiyo to you, Teacher,” Pumpkin said, “and ask your indulgence in instructing her, because she’s a girl of very little talent.”
Pumpkin wasn’t trying to insult me; this was just the way people spoke back then, when they wanted to be polite. My own mother would have said it the same way.
Teacher Mouse didn’t speak for a long while, but just looked me over and then said, “You’re a clever girl. I can see it just from looking at you. Perhaps you can help your older sister with her lessons.”
Of course she was talking about Pumpkin. “Put your name on the board as early every morning as you can,” she told me. “Keep quiet in the classroom. I tolerate no talking at all! And your eyes must stay to the front. If you do these things, I’ll teach you as best I can.”
And with this, she dismissed us. In the hallways between classes, I kept my eyes open for Satsu, but I didn’t find her. I began to worry that perhaps I would never see her again, and grew so upset that one of the teachers, just before
beginning the class, silenced everyone and said to me:
“You, there! What’s troubling yourl”
“Oh, nothing, ma’am. Only I bit my lip by accident,” I said. And to make good on this-for the sake of the girls around me, who were staring-I gave a sharp bite on my lip and tasted blood.
It was a relief to me that Pumpkin’s other classes weren’t as painful to watch as the first one had been. In the dance class, for example, the students practiced the moves in unison, with the result that no one stood out. Pumpkin wasn’t by any means the worst dancer, and even had a certain awkward grace in the way she moved. The singing class later in the morning was more difficult for her since she had a poor
ear; but there again, the students practiced in unison, so Pumpkin was able to hide her mistakes by moving her mouth a great deal while singing only softly.
At the end of each of her classes, she introduced me to the teacher. One of them said to me, “You live in the same okiya as Pumpkin, do you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, “the Nitta okiya,” for Nitta was the family name of Granny and Mother, as well as Auntie.
“That means you live with Hatsumomo-san.”
“Yes, ma’am. Hatsumomo is the only geisha in our okiya at present.”
“I’ll do my best to teach you about singing,” she said, “so long as you manage to stay alive!”
After this the teacher laughed as though she’d made a great joke, and sent us on our way.