Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 6)
I hatever any of us may have thought about Hatsumomo, she was like an empress in our okiya since she earned the income by which we all lived. And being an empress she would have been very displeased, upon returning late at night, to find her palace dark and all the servants asleep. That is to say, when she came home too drunk to unbutton her socks, someone had to unbutton them for her; and if she felt hungry, she certainly wasn’t going to stroll into the kitchen to prepare something by herself-such as an
umeboshi ochazuke, which was a favorite snack of hers, made with leftover rice and pickled sour plums, soaked in hot tea. Actually, our okiya wasn’t at all unusual in this respect. The job of waiting up to bow and welcome the geisha home almost always fell to the most junior of the “cocoons”-as the young geisha-in-training were often called. And from the moment I began taking lessons at the school, the most junior cocoon in our okiya was me. Long before midnight, Pumpkin and the two elderly maids were
sound asleep on their futons only a meter or so away on the wood floor of the entrance hall; but I had to go on kneeling there, struggling to stay awake until sometimes as late as two o’clock in the morning. Granny’s room was nearby, and she slept with her light on and her door opened a crack. The bar of light that fell across my empty futon made me think of a day, not long before Satsu and I were taken away from our village, when I’d peered into the back room of our house to see my mother asleep there. My
father had draped fishing nets across the paper screens to darken the room, but it looked so gloomy I decided to open one of the windows; and when I did, a strip of bright sunlight fell across my mother’s futon and showed her hand so pale and bony. To see the yellow light streaming from Granny’s room onto my futon … I had to wonder if my mother was still alive. We were so much alike, I felt sure I would have known if she’d died; but of course, I’d had no sign one way or the other.
One night as the fall was growing cooler, I had just dozed off leaning against a post when I heard the outside door roll open. Hatsumomo would be very angry if she found me sleeping, so I tried my best to look alert. But when the interior door opened, I was surprised to see a man, wearing a traditional, loose- fitting workman’s jacket tied shut at the hip and a pair of peasant trousers-though he didn’t look at all like a workman or a peasant. His hair was oiled back in a very modern manner, and he wore a closely trimmed beard that gave him the air of an intellectual. He leaned down and took my head in his hands to look me square in the face.
“Why, you’re a pretty one,” he said to me in a low voice. “What’s your name?”
I felt certain he must be a workman, though I couldn’t think why he’d come so late at night. I was frightened of answering him, but I managed to say my name, and then he moistened a fingertip with his tongue and touched me on the cheek-to take off an eyelash, as it turned out.
“Yoko is still here?” he asked. Yoko was a young woman who spent every day from midafternoon until late evening sitting in our maids’ room. Back in those days the okiya and teahouses in Gion were all linked by a private telephone system, and Yoko was kept busier than almost anyone in our okiya, answering that telephone to book Hatsu-momo’s engagements, sometimes for banquets or parties six months to a year in advance. Usually Hatsumomo’s schedule didn’t fill up completely until the morning before, and calls continued through the evening from teahouses whose customers wanted her to drop in if she had time. But the telephone hadn’t been ringing much tonight, and I thought probably Yoko had fallen asleep just as I had. The man didn’t wait for me to answer, but gestured for me to keep quiet, and showed himself down the dirt corridor to the maids’ room.
The next thing I heard was Yoko apologizing-for she had indeed fallen asleep-and then she carried on a long conversation with the switchboard operator. She had to be connected with several teahouses before she at last located Hatsumomo and left a message that the Kabuki actor Onoe Shikan had come to town. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was no Onoe Shikan; this was just a code.
After this, Yoko left for the night. She didn’t seem worried that a man was waiting in the maids’ room, so I made up my mind to say nothing to anyone. This turned out to be a good thing, because when Hatsumomo appeared twenty minutes later, she stopped in the entrance hall to say to me:
“I haven’t tried to make your life really miserable yet. But if you ever mention that a man came here, or even that I stopped in before the end of the evening, that will change.”
She was standing over me as she said this, and when she reached into her sleeve for something, I could see even in the dim light that her forearms were flushed. She went into the maids’ room and rolled the door shut behind her. I heard a short muffled conversation, and then the okiya was silent. Occasionally I thought I heard a soft whimper or a groan, but the sounds were so quiet, I couldn’t be sure. I won’t say I knew just what they were doing in there, but I did think of my sister holding up her bathing dress for the Sugi boy. And I felt such a combination of disgust and curiosity that even if I’d been free to leave my spot, I don’t think I could have.
Once a week or so, Hatsumomo and her boyfriend-who turned out to be a chef in a nearby noodle restaurant-came to the okiya and shut themselves in the maids’room. They met other times in other places as well. I know because Yoko was often asked to deliver messages, and I sometimes overheard. All the maids knew what Hatsumomo was doing; and it’s a measure of how much power she had over us that no one spoke a word to Mother or Auntie or Granny. Hatsumomo would certainly have been in
trouble for having a boyfriend, much less for bringing him back to the okiya. The time she spent with him earned no revenue, and even took her away from parties at teahouses where she would otherwise have been making money. And besides, any wealthy man who might have been interested in an expensive, long-term relationship would certainly think less of her and even change his mind if he knew she was carrying on with the chef of a noodle restaurant.
One night just as I was coming back from taking a drink of water at the well in the courtyard, I heard the outside door roll open and slam against the door frame with a bang.
“Really, Hatsumomo-san,” said a deep voice, “you’ll wake everyone I’d never really understood why Hatsumomo took the risk of bringing her boyfriend back to the okiya- though probably it was the risk itself that excited her. But she’d never before been so careless as to make a lot of noise. I hurried into my position on my knees, and in a moment Hatsumomo was in the formal entrance hall, holding two packages wrapped in linen paper. Soon another geisha stepped in behind her, so tall that she had to stoop to pass through the low doorway. When she stood erect and looked down on me, her lips looked unnaturally big and heavy at the bottom of her long face. No one would have called her pretty.
“This is our foolish lower maid,” said Hatsumomo. “She has a name, I think, but why don’t you just call her ‘Little Miss Stupid.'”
“Well, Little Miss Stupid,” said the other geisha. “Go and get your big sister and me something to drink, why don’t you?” The deep voice I’d heard was hers, and not the voice of Hatsumomo’s boyfriend after all.
Usually Hatsumomo liked to drink a special kind of sake called amakuchi- which was very light and sweet. But amakuchi was brewed only in the winter, and we seemed to have run out. I poured two glasses of beer instead and brought them out. Hatsumomo and her friend had already made their way down to the courtyard, and were standing in wooden shoes in the dirt corridor. I could see they were very drunk, and Hatsumomo’s friend had feet much too big for our little wooden shoes, so that she could hardly walk a step without the two of them breaking out in laughter. You may recall that a wooden walkway ran along the outside of the house. Hatsumomo had just set her packages down onto that walkway and was about to open one of them when I delivered the beer.
“I’m not in the mood for beer,” she said, and bent down to empty both glasses underneath the foundation of the house.
“I’m in the mood for it,” said her friend, but it was already too late. “Why did you pour mine out?”
“Oh, be quiet, Korin!” Hatsumomo said. “You don’t need more to drink anyway. Just look at this, because you’re going to die from happiness when you see it!” And here, Hatsumomo untied the strings holding shut the linen paper of one package, and spread out upon the walkway an exquisite kimono in different powdery shades of green, with a vine motif bearing red leaves. Really, it was a glorious silk gauze-though of summer weight, and certainly not appropriate for the fall weather. Hatsumomo’s friend,
Korin, admired it so much that she drew in a sharp breath and choked on her own saliva-which caused them both to burst out laughing again. I decided the time had come to excuse myself. But Hatsumomo said:
“Don’t go away, Little Miss Stupid.” And then she turned to her friend again and told her, “It’s time for some fun, Korin-san. Guess whose kimono this is!”
Korin was still coughing a good deal, but when she wras able to speak, she said, “I wish it belonged to me!”
“Well, it doesn’t. It belongs to none other than the geisha we both hate worse than anyone else on earth.”
“Oh, Hatsumomo . . . you’re a genius. But how did you get Satoka’s kimono?”
“I’m not talking about Satoka! I’m talking about. . . Miss Perfect!”
“Miss Tm-So-Much-Better-Than-You-Are’ . . . that’s who!”
There was a long pause, and then Korin said, “Mameha! Oh, my goodness, it is Mameha’s kimono. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize it! How did you manage to get your hands on it?”
“A few days ago I left something at the Kaburenjo Theater during a rehearsal,” Hatsumomo said. “And when I went back to look for it, I heard what I thought was moaning coming up from the basement stairs. So I thought, ‘It can’t be! This is too much fun!’ And when I crept down and turned on the light, guess who I found lying there like two pieces of rice stuck together on the floor?”
“I can’t believe it! Mameha?”
“Don’t be a fool. She’s much too prissy to do such a thing. It was her maid, with the custodian of the theater. I knew she’d do anything to keep me from telling, so I went to her later and told her I wanted this kimono of Mameha’s. She started crying when she figured out which one I was describing.”
“And what’s this other one?” Korin asked, pointing to the second package that lay on the walkway, its strings still tied.
“This one I made the girl buy with her own money, and now it belongs to me.”
“Her own money?” said Korin. “What maid has enough money to buy a kimono?”
“Well, if she didn’t buy it as she said, I don’t want to know where it came from. Anyway, Little Miss Stupid is going to put it away in the storehouse for me.”
“Hatsumomo-san, I’m not allowed in the storehouse,” I said at once.
“If you want to know where your older sister is, don’t make me say anything twice tonight. I have plans for you. Afterward you may ask me a single question, and I’ll answer it.”
I won’t say that I believed her; but of course, Hatsumomo had the power to make my life miserable in any way she wanted. I had no choice but to obey. She put the kimono-wrapped in its linen paper-into my arms and walked me down to the storehouse in the courtyard. There she opened the door and flipped a light switch with a loud snap. I could see shelves stacked with sheets and pillows, as well as several locked chests and a few folded futons. Hatsumomo grabbed me by the arm and pointed up a ladder along the outside wall.
“The kimono are up there,” she said.
I made my way up and opened a sliding wooden door at the top. The storage loft didn’t have shelves like the ground-floor level. Instead the walls were lined with red lacquered cases stacked one on top of the next, nearly as high as the ceiling. A narrow corridor passed between these two walls of cases, with slatted windows at the ends, covered over with screens for ventilation. The space was lit harshly just as below, but much more brightly; so that when I had stepped inside, I could read the black characters carved into the fronts of the cases. They said things like Kata-Komon, ~Ro-” Stenciled Designs, Open- Weave Silk Gauze”; and Kuromontsuki, Awase-“Black-Crested Formal Robes with Inner Lining.” To tell the truth, I couldn’t understand all the characters at the time, but I did manage to find the case with Ha-tsumomo’s name on it, on a top shelf. I had trouble taking it down, but finally I added the new kimono to the few others, also wrapped in linen paper, and replaced the case where I’d found it. Out of curiosity, I opened another of the cases very quickly and found it stacked to the top with perhaps fifteen kimono, and the others whose lids I lifted were all the same. To see that storehouse crowded with cases, I understood at once why Granny was so terrified of fire. The collection of kimono was probably twice as valuable as the entire villages of Yoroido and Senzuru put together. And as I learned much later, the most expensive ones were in storage somewhere else. They were worn only by apprentice geisha; and since Hatsumomo could no longer wear them, they were kept in a rented vault for safekeeping until they were needed again.
By the time I returned to the courtyard, Hatsumomo had been up to her room to fetch an inkstone and a stick of ink, as well as a brush for calligraphy. I thought perhaps she wanted to write a note and slip it inside the kimono when she refolded it. She had dribbled some water from the well onto her inkstone and was now sitting on the walkway grinding ink. When it was good and black, she dipped a brush in it and smoothed its tip against the stone-so that all the ink was absorbed in the brush and none of it would drip. Then she put it into my hand, and held my hand over the lovely kimono, and said to me: “Practice your calligraphy, little Chiyo.”
This kimono belonging to the geisha named Mameha-whom I’d never heard of at the time-was a work of art. Weaving its way from the hem up to the waist was a beautiful vine made of heavily lacquered threads bunched together like a tiny cable and sewn into place. It was a part of the fabric, yet it seemed so much like an actual vine growing there, I had the feeling I could take it in my fingers, if I wished, and tear it away like a weed from the soil. The leaves curling from it seemed to be fading and drying in the
autumn weather, and even taking on tints of yellow.
“I can’t do it, Hatsumomo-san!” I cried.
“What a shame, little sweetheart,” her friend said to me. “Because if you make Hatsumomo tell you again, you’ll lose the chance to find your sister.”
“Oh, shut up, Korin. Chiyo knows she has to do what I tell her. Write something on the fabric, Miss Stupid. I don’t care what it is.”
When the brush first touched the kimono, Korin was so excited she let out a squeal that woke one of the elderly maids, who leaned out into the corridor with a cloth around her head and her sleeping robe sagging all around her. Hatsumomo stamped her foot and made a sort of lunging motion, like a cat, which was enough to make the maid go back to her futon. Korin wasn’t happy with the few uncertain strokes I’d made on the powdery green silk, so Hatsumomo instructed me where to mark the fabric and what sorts of marks to make. There wasn’t any meaning to them; Hatsumomo was just trying in her own way to be artistic. Afterward she refolded the kimono in its wrapping of linen and tied the strings shut again. She and Korin went back to the front entryway to put their lacquered zori back on their feet. When they rolled open the door to the street, Hatsumomo told me to follow. “Hatsumomo-san, if I leave the okiya without permission, Mother will be very angry, and-”
“I’m giving you permission,” Hatsumomo interrupted. “We have to return the kimono, don’t we? I hope you’re not planning to keep me waiting.”
Sol could do nothing but step into my shoes and follow her up the alleyway to a street running beside the narrow Shiralcawa Stream. Back in those days, the streets and alleys in Gion were still paved beautifully with stone. We walked along in the moonlight for a block or so, beside the weeping cherry trees that drooped down over the black water, and finally across a wooden bridge arching over into a section of Gion I’d never seen before. The embankment of the stream was stone, most of it covered with patches of moss. Along its top, the backs of the teahouses and okiya connected to form a wall. Reed screens over the windows sliced the yellow light into tiny strips that made me think of what the cook had done to a pickled radish earlier that day. I could hear the laughter of a group of men and geisha. Something very funny must have been happening in one of the teahouses, because each wave of laughter was louder than the one before, until they finally died away and left only the twanging of a shamisen from another party. For the moment, I could imagine that Gion was probably a cheerful place for some people. I couldn’t help wondering if Satsu might be at one of those parties, even though Awajiumi, at the Gion Registry Office, had told me she wasn’t in Gion at all.
Shortly, Hatsumomo and Korin came to a stop before a wooden door.
“You’re going to take this kimono up the stairs and give it to the maid there,” Hatsumomo said to me.
“Or if Miss Perfect herself answers the door, you may give it to her. Don’t say anything; just hand it over. We’ll be down here watching you. ”
With this, she put the wrapped kimono into my arms, and Korin rolled open the door. Polished wooden steps led up into the darkness. I was trembling with fear so much, I could go no farther than halfway up them before I came to a stop. Then I heard Korin say into the stairwell in a loud whisper:
“Go on, little girl! No one’s going to eat you unless you come back down with the kimono still in your hands-and then we just might. Right, Hatsumomo- san?”
Hatsumomo let -out a sigh at this, but said nothing. Korin was squinting up into the darkness, trying to see me; but Hatsumomo, who stood not much higher than Korin’s shoulder, was chewing on one of her fingernail and paying no attention at all. Even then, amid all my fears, I couldn’t help noticing how extraordinary Hatsumomo’s beauty was. She may have been as cruel as a spider, but she was more lovely chewing on her fingernail than most geisha looked posing for a photograph. And the contrast with her friend Korin was like comparing a rock along the roadside with a jewel. Korin looked uncomfortable in her formal hairstyle with all its lovely ornaments, and her kimono seemed to be always in her way. Whereas Hatsumomo wore her kimono as if it were her skin. On the landing at the top of the stairs, I knelt in the black darkness and called out:
“Excuse me, please!”
I waited, but nothing happened. “Louder,” said Korin. “They aren’t expecting you.”
So I called again, “Excuse me!”
“Just a moment!” I heard a muffled voice say; and soon the door rolled open. The girl kneeling on the other side was no older than Satsu, but thin and nervous as a bird. I handed her the kimono in its wrapping of linen paper. She was very surprised, and took it from me almost desperately.
“Who’s there, Asami-san?” called a voice from inside the apartment. I could see a single paper lantern on an antique stand burning beside a freshly made futon. The futon was for the geisha Mameha; I could tell because of the crisp sheets and the elegant silk cover, as well as the takamakura-“tall pillow”-just like the kind Hatsumomo used. It wasn’t really a pillow at all, but a wooden stand with a padded cradle for the neck; this was the only way a geisha could sleep without ruining her elaborate hairstyle.
The maid didn’t answer, but opened the wrapping around the kimono as quietly as she could, and tipped it this way and that to catch the reflection of the light. When she caught sight of the ink marring it, she gasped and covered her mouth. Tears spilled out almost instantly onto her cheeks, and then a voice called:
“Asami-san! Who’s there?”
“Oh, no one, miss!” cried the maid. I felt terribly sorry for her as she dried her eyes quickly against one sleeve. While she was reaching up to slide the door closed, I caught a glimpse of her mistress. I could see at once why Hatsumomo called Mameha “Miss Perfect.” Her face was a perfect oval, just like a doll’s, and as smooth and delicate-looking as a piece of china, even without her makeup. She walked toward the doorway, trying to peer into the stairwell, but I saw no more of her before the maid quickly
rolled the door shut.
The next morning after lessons, I came back to the okiya to find that Mother, Granny, and Auntie were closed up together in the formal reception room on the first floor. I felt certain they were talking about the kimono; and sure enough, the moment Hatsumomo came in from the street, one of the maids went to tell Mother, who stepped out into the entrance hall and stopped Hatsumomo on her way up the stairs.
“We had a little visit from Mameha and her maid this morning,” she said.
“Oh, Mother, I know just what you’re going to say. I feel terrible about the kimono. I tried to stop Chiyo before she put ink on it, but it was too late. She must have thought it was mine! I don’t know why she’s hated me so from the moment she came here … To think she would ruin such a lovely kimono just in the hopes of hurting me!”
By now, Auntie had limped out into the hall. She cried, “Matte mashita!” I understood her words perfectly well; they meant “We’ve waited for you!” But I had no idea what she meant by them. Actually, it was quite a clever thing to say, because this is what the audience sometimes shouts when a great star makes his entrance in a Kabuki play.
“Auntie, are you suggesting that I had something to do with ruining that kimono?” Hatsumomo said.
“Why would I do such a thing?”
“Everyone knows how you hate Mameha,” Auntie told her. “You hate anyone more successful than you.”
“Does that suggest I ought to be extremely fond of you, Auntie, since you’re such a failure?”
“There’ll be none of that,” said Mother. “Now you listen to me, Hatsumomo. You don’t really think anyone is empty-headed enough to believe your little story. I won’t have this sort of behavior in the okiya, even from you. I have great respect for Mameha. I don’t want to hear of anything like this happening again. As for the kimono, someone has to pay for it. I don’t know what happened last night, but there’s no dispute about who was holding the brush. The maid saw the girl doing it. The girl will pay,” said Mother, and put her pipe back into her mouth.
Now Granny came out from the reception room and called a maid to fetch the bamboo pole.
“Chiyo has enough debts,” said Auntie. “I don’t see why she should pay Hatsumomo’s as well.”
“We’ve talked about this enough,” Granny said. “The girl should be beaten and made to repay the cost of the kimono, and that’s that. Where’s the bamboo pole?”
“I’ll beat her myself,” Auntie said. “I won’t have your joints flaring up again, Granny. Come along, Chiyo.”
Auntie waited until the maid brought the pole and then led me down to the courtyard. She was so angry her nostrils were bigger than usual, and her eyes were bunched up like fists. I’d been careful since coming to the okiya not to do anything that would lead to a beating. I felt hot suddenly, and the stepping- stones at my feet grew blurry. But instead of beating me, Auntie leaned the pole against the storehouse and then limped over to say quietly to me:
“What have you done to Hatsumomo? She’s bent on destroying you. There must be a reason, and I want to know what it is.”
“I promise you, Auntie, she’s treated me this way since I arrived. I don’t know what I ever did to her.”
“Granny may call Hatsumomo a fool, but believe me, Hatsumomo is no fool. If she wants to ruin your career badly enough, she’ll do it. Whatever you’ve done to make her angry, you must stop doing it.”
“I haven’t done anything, Auntie, I promise you.”
“You must never trust her, not even if she tries to help you. Already she’s burdened you with so much debt you may never work it off. ”
“I don’t understand …” I said, “about debt’?”
“Hatsumomo’s little trick with that kimono is going to cost you more money than you’ve ever imagined in your life. That’s what I mean about debt.”
“But. . . how will I pay?”
“When you begin working as a geisha, you’ll pay the okiya back for it, along with everything else you’ll owe-your meals and lessons; if you get sick, your doctor’s fees. You pay all of that yourself. Why do you think Mother spends all her time in her room, writing numbers in those little books? You owe the okiya even for the money it cost to acquire you.”
Throughout my months in Gion, I’d certainly imagined that money must have changed hands before Satsu and I were taken from our home. I often thought of the conversation I’d overheard between Mr. Tanaka and my father, and of what Mrs. Fidget had said about Satsu and me being “suitable.” I’d wondered with horror whether Mr. Tanaka had made money by helping to sell us, and how much we had cost. But I’d never imagined that I myself would have to repay it.
“You won’t pay it back until you’ve been a geisha a good long time,” she went on. “And you’ll never pay it back if you end up a failed geisha like me. Is that the way you want to spend your future?”
At the moment I didn’t much care how I spent my future.
“If you want to ruin your life in Gion, there are a dozen ways to do it,” Auntie said. “You can try to run away. Once you’ve done that, Mother will see you as a bad investment; she’s not going to put more money into someone who might disappear at any time. That would mean the end of your lessons, and you can’t be a geisha without training. Or you can make yourself unpopular with your teachers, so they won’t give you the help you need. Or you can grow up to be an ugly woman like me. I wasn’t such an
unattractive girl when Granny bought me from my parents, but I didn’t turn out well, and Granny’s always
hated me for it. One time she beat me so badly for something I did that she broke one of my hips. That’s when I stopped being a geisha. And that’s the reason I’m going to do the job of beating you myself, rather than letting Granny get her hands on you.”
She led me to the walkway and made me lie down on my stomach there. I didn’t much care whether she beat me or not; it seemed to me that nothing could make my situation worse. Every time my body jolted under the pole, I wailed as loudly as I dared, and pictured Ha-tsumomo’s lovely face smiling down at me. When the beating was over, Auntie left me crying there. Soon I felt the walkway tremble under someone’s footsteps and sat up to find Hatsumomo standing above me.
“Chiyo, I would be ever so grateful if you’d get out of my way.”
“You promised to tell me where I could find my sister,Hatsumomo,” I said to her.
“So I did!” She leaned down so that her face was near mine. I thought she was going to tell me I hadn’t done enough yet, that when she thought of more for me to do, she would tell me. But this wasn’t at all what happened.
“Your sister is in ajorou-ya called Tatsuyo,” she told me, “in the district of Miyagawa-cho, just south of Gion.”
When she was done speaking, she gave me a little shove with her foot, and I stepped down out of her way.