Memoirs of a Geisha ( Chapter 8)

Chapter eight

Hnatsumomo wasn’t the only one angry at me the following day, because Mother ordered that all the maids be denied servings of dried fish for six weeks as punishment for having tolerated Ha-tsumomo’s boyfriend in the okiya. I don’t think the maids could have been more upset with me if I’d actually stolen the food from their bowls with my own hands; and as for Pumpkin, she began to cry when she found out what Mother had ordered. But to tell the truth, I didn’t feel as uneasy as you ‘might imagine to have

everyone glowering at me, and to have the cost of an obi brooch I’d never seen or even touched added to my debts. Anything that made life more difficult for me only strengthened my determination to run away.

I don’t think Mother really believed I’d stolen the obi brooch, though she was certainly content to buy a new one at my expense if it would keep Hatsumomo happy. But she had no doubts at all that I’d left the okiya when I shouldn’t have, because Yoko confirmed it. I felt almost as though my life itself were slipping away from me when I learned that Mother had ordered the front door locked to prevent me from going out again. How would I escape from the okiya now? Only Auntie had a key, and she kept it around her neck even while she was sleeping. As an extra measure, the job of sitting by the door in the evenings was taken away from me and given to Pumpkin instead, who had to wake Auntie to have the door unlocked when Hatsumomo came home.

Every night I lay on my futon scheming; but as late as Monday, the very day before Satsu and I had arranged to run away, I’d come up with no plan for my escape. I grew so despondent I had no energy at all for my chores, and the maids chided me for dragging my cloth along the woodwork I was supposed to be polishing, and pulling a broom along the corridor I was supposed to be sweeping. I spent a long while Monday afternoon pretending to weed the courtyard while really only squatting on the stones and brooding. Then one of the maids gave me the job of washing the wood floor in the maids’ room, where Yoko was seated near the telephone, and something extraordinary happened. I squeezed a rag full of water onto the floor, but instead of snaking along toward the doorway as I would have expected, it ran toward one of the back corners of the room.

“Yoko, look,” I said. “The water’s running uphill.” Of course it wasn’t really uphill. It only looked that way to me. I was so startled by this that I squeezed more water and watched it run into the corner again. And then . . . well, I can’t say exactly how it happened; but I pictured myself flowing up the stairs to the second-floor landing, and from there up the ladder, through the trapdoor, and onto the roof beside the gravity-feed tank.

The roof! I was so astonished at the thought, I forgot my surroundings completely; and when the telephone near Yoko rang, I almost cried out in alarm. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I reached the roof, but if I could succeed in finding my way down from there, I might meet Satsu after all.

The following evening I made a great show of yawning when I went to bed and threw myself onto my futon as though I were a sack of rice. Anyone watching me would have thought I was asleep within a moment, but actually I could hardly have been more awake. I lay for a long while thinking of my house and wondering what expression would form itself on my father’s face when he looked up from the table to see me standing in the doorway. Probably the pockets at his eyes would droop down and he would start to cry, or else his mouth would take on that odd shape that was his way of smiling. I didn’t allow myself to picture my mother quite so vividly; just the thought of seeing her again was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

At length the maids settled down onto their futons beside me on the floor, and Pumpkin took up her position waiting for Hatsumomo. I listened to Granny chanting sutras, which she did every night before going to bed. Then I watched her through the partly opened door as she stood beside her futon and changed into her sleeping robe. I was horrified by what I saw when her robe slipped from her shoulders, for I’d never seen her completely naked before. It wasn’t just the chickenlike skin of her neck and

shoulders; her body made me think of a pile of wrinkled clothing. She looked strangely pitiful to me while she fumbled to unfold the sleeping robe she’d picked up from the table. Everything drooped from her, even her protruding nipples that hung like fingertips. The more I watched her, the more I came to feel that she must be struggling in that cloudy, old lady’s mind of hers with thoughts of her own mother and father-who had probably sold her into slavery when she was a little girl-just as I had been struggling with thoughts of my own parents. Perhaps she had lost a sister too. I’d certainly never thought of Granny in this way before. I found myself wondering if she’d started life much as I had. It made no difference that she was a mean old woman and I was just a struggling little girl. Couldn’t the wrong sort of living turn anyone mean? I remembered very well that one day back in Yoroido, a boy pushed me into a thorn bush near the pond. By the time I clawed my way out I was mad enough to bite through wood. If a few

minutes of suffering could make me so angry, what would years of it do? Even stone can be worn down with enough rain.

If I hadn’t already resolved to run away, I’m sure I would have been terrified to think of the suffering that probably lay in wait for me in Gion. Surely it would make me into the sort of old woman Granny had become. But I comforted myself with the thought that by the following day I could begin forgetting even my memories of Gion. I already knew how I would reach the roof; as to how I would climb from there to the street. . . well, I wasn’t at all sure. I would have no choice but to take my chances in the dark. Even if I did make it down without hurting myself, reaching the street would be only the beginning of my troubles. However much life in Gion was a struggle, life after running away would surely be more of a struggle. The world was simply too cruel; how could I survive? I lay on my futon in anguish for a while, wondering if I really had the strength to do it… but Satsu would be waiting for me. She would know what to do.

Quite some time passed before Granny settled down in her room. By then the maids were snoring loudly. I pretended to turn over on my futon in order to steal a glance at Pumpkin, kneeling on the floor not far away. I couldn’t see her face well, but I had the impression she was growing drowsy. Originally I’d planned to wait until she fell asleep, but I had no idea of the time any longer; and besides, Hatsumomo might come home at any moment. I sat up as quietly as I could, thinking that if anyone noticed me I would simply go to the toilet and come back again. But no one paid me any attention. A robe for me to wear on the following morning lay folded on the floor nearby. I took it in my arms and went straight for the stairwell.

Outside Mother’s door, I stood listening for a while. She didn’t usually snore, so I couldn’t judge anything from the silence, except that she wasn’t talking on the telephone or making any other sort of noise. Actually, her room wasn’t completely silent because her little dog, Taku, was wheezing in his sleep. The longer I listened, the more his wheezing sounded like someone saying my name: “CHI-yo! CHI-yo!” I wasn’t prepared to sneak out of the okiya until I’d satisfied myself Mother was asleep, so I decided to slide the door open and have a look. If she was awake, I would simply say I thought someone had called me. Like Granny, Mother slept with the lamp on her table illuminated; so when I opened the door a crack and peered in, I could see the parched bottoms of her feet sticking out of the sheets. Taku lay between her feet with his chest rising and falling, making that wheezy noise that sounded so much like my name.

I shut her door again and changed my clothes in the upstairs hallway. The only thing I lacked now was shoes-and I never considered running away without them, which ought to give you some idea how much I’d changed since the summer. If Pumpkin hadn’t been kneeling in the front entrance hall, I would have taken a pair of the wooden shoes used for walking along the dirt corridor. Instead I took the shoes reserved for use in the upstairs toilet. They were of a very poor quality, with a single leather thong

across the top to hold them in place on the foot. To make matters worse, they were much too big for me; but I had no other option.

After closing the trapdoor silently behind me, I stuffed my sleeping robe under the gravity-feed tank and managed to climb up and straddle my legs over the ridge of the roof. I won’t pretend I wasn’t frightened; the voices of people on the street certainly seemed a long way below me. But I had no time to waste being afraid, for it seemed to me that at any moment one of the maids, or even Auntie or Mother, might pop up through the trapdoor looking for me. I put the shoes onto my hands to keep from dropping them and began scooting my way along the ridge, which proved to be more difficult than I’d imagined. The roof tiles were so thick they made almost a small step where they overlapped, and they clanked against one another when I shifted my weight unless I moved very slowly. Every noise I made echoed off the roofs nearby.

I took several minutes to cross just to the other side of our okiya. The roof of the building next door was a step lower than ours. I climbed down onto it and stopped a moment to look for a path to the street; but despite the moonlight, I could see only a sheet of blackness. The roof was much too high and steep for me to consider sliding down it on a gamble. I wasn’t at all sure the next roof would be better; and I began to feel a bit panicky. But I continued along from ridge to ridge until I found myself, near the end of the block, looking down on one side into an open courtyard. If I could make my way to the gutter, I could scoot around it until I came to what I thought was probably a bath shed. From the top of the bath shed, I could climb down into the courtyard easily.

I didn’t relish the thought of dropping into the middle of someone else’s house. I had no doubt it was an okiya; all the houses along our block were. In all likelihood someone would be waiting at the front door for the geisha to return, and would grab me by the arm as I tried to run out. And what if the front door was locked just as ours was? I wouldn’t even have considered this route if I’d had any other choice. But I thought the path down looked safer than anything I’d seen yet.

I sat on the ridge a long while listening for any clues from the courtyard below. All I could hear was laughter and conversation from the street. I had no idea what I would find in the courtyard when I dropped in, but I decided I’d better make my move before someone in my okiya discovered me gone. If I’d had any idea of the damage I was about to do to my future, I would have spun around on that ridge as fast as I could have and scooted right back where I’d come from. But I knew nothing of what was at stake. I was just a child who thought she was embarking on a great adventure.

I swung my leg over, so that in a moment I was dangling along the slope of the roof, just barely clinging to the ridge. I realized with some panic that it was muc’h steeper than I’d thought it would be. I tried to scamper back up, but I couldn’t do it. With the toilet shoes on my hands, I couldn’t grab onto the ridge of the roof at all, but only hook my wrists over it. I knew I had committed myself, for I would never manage to climb back up again; but it seemed to me that the very moment I let go, I would slide down that roof out of control. My mind was racing with these thoughts, but before I’d made the decision to let go of the ridge, it let go of me. At first I glided down more slowly than I would have expected, which gave me some hope I might stop myself farther down, where the roof curved outward to form the eaves. But then my foot dislodged one of the roof tiles, which slid down with a clattering noise and shattered in the courtyard below. The next thing I knew, I lost my grip on one of the toilet shoes and it slid right past me.

I heard the quiet plop as it landed below, and then a much worse sound-the sound of footsteps coming down a wooden walkway toward the courtyard.

Many times I had seen the way flies stood on a wall or ceiling just as if they were on level ground. Whether they did it by having sticky feet, or by not weighing very much, I had no idea, but when I heard the sound of someone walking below, I decided that whatever I did I would find a way of sticking to that roof just as a fly might do, and I would find it right away. Otherwise I was going to end up sprawled in that courtyard in another few seconds. I tried digging my toes into the roof, and then my elbows and knees. As a final act of desperation I did the most foolish thing of all-I slipped the shoe from my other hand and tried to stop myself by pressing my two palms against the roof tiles. My palms must have been dripping with sweat, because instead of slowing down I began to pick up speed the moment I touched them to the roof. I heard myself skidding with a hissing sound; and then suddenly the roof was no longer there.

For a moment I heard nothing; only a frightening, empty silence. As I fell through the air I had time to form one thought clearly in my mind: I pictured a woman stepping into the courtyard, looking down to see the shattered tile on the ground, and then looking up toward the roof in time to see me fall out of the sky right on top of her; but of course this isn’t what happened. I turned as I fell, and landed on my side on the ground. I had the sense to bring an arm up to protect my head; but still I landed so heavily that I knocked myself into a daze. I don’t know where the woman was standing, or even if she was in the courtyard at the time I fell out of the sky. But she must have seen me come down off that roof, because as I lay stunned on the ground I heard her say:

“Good heavens! It’s raining little girls!”

Well, I would have liked to jump to my feet and run out, but I couldn’t do it. One whole side of my body felt dipped in pain. Slowly I became aware of two women kneeling over me. One kept saying something again and again, but I couldn’t make it out. They talked between themselves and then picked me up from the moss and sat me on the wooden walkway. I remember only one fragment of their conversation.

“I’m telling you, she came off the roof, ma’am.”

“Why on earth was she carrying toilet slippers with her? Did you go up there to use the toilet, little girl? Can you hear me? What a dangerous thing to do! You’re lucky you didn’t break into pieces when you fell!”

“She can’t hear you, ma’am. Look at her eyes.”

“Of course she can hear me. Say something, little girl!”

But I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was think about how

Satsu would be waiting for me opposite the Minamiza Theater, and I would never show up.

The maid was sent up the street to knock on doors until she found where I’d come from, while I lay curled up in a ball in a state of shock. I was crying without tears and holding my arm, which hurt terribly, when suddenly I felt myself pulled to my feet and slapped across the face.

“Foolish, foolish girl!” said a voice. Auntie was standing before me in a rage, and then she pulled me out of that okiya and behind her up the street. When we reached our okiya, she leaned me up against the wooden door and slapped me again across the face.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” she said to me, but I couldn’t answer. “What were you thinking! Well, you’ve ruined everything for yourself … of all the stupid things! Foolish, foolish girl!”

I’d never imagined Auntie could be so angry. She dragged me into the courtyard and threw me onto my stomach on the walkway. I began to cry in earnest now, for I knew what was coming. But this time instead of beating me halfheartedly as she had before, Auntie poured a bucket of water over my robe to make-the rod sting all the more, and then struck me so hard I couldn’t even draw a breath. When she was done beating me, she threw the rod onto the ground and rolled me over onto my back. “You’ll never be a

geisha now,” she cried. “I warned you not to make a mistake like this! And now there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to help you.”

I heard nothing more of what she said because of the terrible screams from farther up the walkway. Granny was giving Pumpkin a beating for not having kept a better eye on me.

As it turned out, I’d broken my arm landing as I had in that courtyard. The next morning a doctor came and took me to a clinic nearby. It was late afternoon already by the time I was brought back to the okiya with a plaster cast on my arm. I was still in terrible pain, but Mother called me immediately to her room. For a long while she sat staring at me, patting Taku with one hand and holding her pipe in her mouth with the other.

“Do you know how much I paid for you?” she said to me at last.

“No, ma’am,” I answered. “But you’re going to tell me you paid more than I’m worth.”

I won’t say this was a polite way to respond. In fact, I thought Mother might slap me for it, but I was beyond caring. It seemed to me nothing in the world would ever be right again. Mother clenched her teeth together and gave a few coughs in that strange laugh of hers.

“You’re right about that!” she said. “Half a yen might have been more than you’re worth. Well, I had the impression you were clever. But you’re not clever enough to know what’s good for you.”

She went back to puffing at her pipe for a while, and then she said, “I paid seventy-five yen for you, that’s what I paid. Then you went and ruined a kimono, and stole a brooch, and now you’ve broken your arm, so I’ll be adding medical expenses to your debts as well. Plus you have your meals and lessons, and just this morning I heard from the mistress of the Tatsuyo, over in Miyagawa-cho, that your older sister has run away. The mistress there still hasn’t paid me what she owes. Now she tells me she’s not going to do it! I’ll add that to your debt as well, but what difference will it make? You already owe more than you’ll ever repay.”

So Satsu had escaped. I’d spent the day wondering, and now I had my answer. I wanted to feel happy for her, but I couldn’t.

“I suppose you could repay it after ten or fifteen years as a geisha,” she went on, “if you happened to be a success. But who would invest another sen in a girl who runs away?”

I wasn’t sure how to reply to any of this, so I told Mother I was sorry. She’d been talking to me pleasantly enough until then, but after my apology, she put her pipe on the table and stuck out her jaw so much-from anger, I suppose-that she gave me the impression of an animal about to strike.

“Sorry, are you? I was a fool to invest so much money in you in the first place. You’re probably the most expensive maid in all of Gion! If I could sell off your bones to pay back some of your debts, why, I’d rip them right out of your body!”

With this, she ordered me out of the room and put her pipe back into her mouth.

My lip was trembling when I left, but I held my feelings in; for there on the landing stood Hatsumomo. Mr. Bekku was waiting to finish tying her obi while Auntie, with a handkerchief in her hand, stood in front of Hatsumomo, peering into her eyes.

“Well, it’s all smeared,” Auntie said. “There’s nothing more I can do. You’ll have to finish your little cry and redo your makeup afterward.”

I knew exactly why Hatsumomo was crying. Her boyfriend had stopped seeing her, now that she’d been barred from bringing him to the okiya. I’d learned this the morning before and felt certain Hatsumomo was going to blame her troubles on me. I was eager to get down the stairs before she spotted me, but it was already too late. She snatched the handkerchief from Auntie’s hand and made a gesture calling me over. I certainly didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t refuse.

“You’ve got no business with Chiyo,” Auntie said to her. “Just go into your room and finish your makeup.”

Hatsumomo didn’t reply, but drew me into her room and shut the door behind us.

“I’ve spent days trying to decide exactly how I ought to ruin your life,” she said to me. “But now you’ve tried to run away, and done it for me ! I don’t know whether to feel pleased. I was looking forward to doing it myself.”

It was very rude of me, but I bowed to Hatsumomo and slid open the door to let myself out without replying. She might have struck me for it, but she only followed me into the hall and said, “If you wonder what it will be like as a maid all your life, just have a talk with Auntie! Already you’re like two ends of the same piece of string. She has her broken hip; you have your broken arm. Perhaps one day you’ll even look like a man, just the way Auntie does!”

“There you go, Hatsumomo,” Auntie said. “Show us that famous charm of yours.”

Back when I was a little girl of five or six, and had never so much as thought about Kyoto once in all my life, I knew a little boy named Noboru in our village. I’m sure he was a nice boy, but he had a very unpleasant smell, and I think that’s why he was so unpopular. Whenever he spoke, all the other children paid him no more attention than if a bird had chirped or a frog had croaked, and poor Noboru often sat right down on the ground and cried. In the months after my failed escape, I came to understand just what life must have been like for him; because no one spoke to me at all unless it was to give me an order. Mother had always treated me as though I were only a puff of smoke, for she had more important things on her mind. But now all the maids, and the cook, and Granny did the same.

All that bitter cold winter, I wondered what had become of Satsu, and of my mother and father. Most nights when I lay on my futon I was sick with anxiety, and felt a pit inside myself as big and empty as if the whole world were nothing more than a giant hall empty of people. To comfort myself I closed my eyes and imagined that I was walking along the path beside the sea cliffs in Yoroido. I knew it so well I could picture myself there as vividly as if I really had run away with Satsu and was back at home again.

In my mind I rushed toward our tipsy house holding Satsu’s hand-though I had never held her hand before- knowing that in another few moments we would be reunited with our mother and father. I never did manage to reach the house in these fantasies; perhaps I was too afraid of what I might find there, and in any case, it was the trip along the path that seemed to comfort me. Then at some point I would hear the cough of one of the maids near me, or the embarrassing sound of Granny passing wind with a groan,

and in that instant the smell of the sea air dissolved, the coarse dirt of the path beneath my feet turned into the sheets of my futon once again, and I was left where I’d started with nothing but my own loneliness.

When spring came, the cherry trees blossomed in Maruyama Park, and no one in Kyoto seemed to talk about anything else. Hatsumomo was busier than usual during the daytime because of all the blossom- viewing parties. I envied her the bustling life I saw her prepare for every afternoon. I’d already begun to give up my hopes of awakening one night to find that Satsu had sneaked into our okiya to rescue me, or that in some other way I might hear word of my family in Yoroido. Then one morning as Mother and

Auntie were preparing to take Granny on a picnic, I came down the stairs to find a package on the floor of the front entrance hall. It was a box about as long as my arm, wrapped in heavy paper and tied up with frayed twine. I knew it was none of my business; but since no one was around to see me, I went over to read the name and address in heavy characters on the face. It said:

Sakamoto Chiyo

c/o Nitta Kayoko

Gion Tominaga-cho

City of Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture

I was so astonished that I stood a long while with my hand over my mouth, and I’m sure my eyes were as big around as teacups. The return address, beneath a patch of stamps, was from Mr. Tanaka. I had no idea what could possibly be in the package, but seeing Mr. Tanaka’s name there . . . you may find it absurd, but I honestly hoped perhaps he’d recognized his mistake in sending me to this terrible place, and had mailed me something to set me free from the okiya. I can’t imagine any package that might free a

little girl from slavery; I had trouble imagining it even then. But I truly believed in my heart that somehow when that package was opened, my life would be changed forever.

Before I could figure out what to do next, Auntie came down the stairs and shooed me away from the box, even though it had my name on it. I would have liked to open it myself, but she called for a knife to cut the twine and then took her time unwrapping the coarse paper. Underneath was a layer of canvas sacking stitched up with heavy fishermen’s thread. Sewn to the sacking by its corners was an envelope bearing my name. Auntie cut the envelope free and then tore away the sacking to reveal a dark wooden box. I began to get excited about what I might find inside, but when Auntie took off the lid, I felt myself all at once growing heavy. For there, nestled amid folds of white linen, lay the tiny mortuary tablets that had once stood before the altar in our tipsy house. Two of them, which I had never seen before, looked newer than the others and bore unfamiliar Buddhist names, written with characters I couldn’t understand. I was afraid even to wonder why Mr. Tanaka had sent them.

For the moment, Auntie left the box there on the floor, with the tablets lined up so neatly inside, and took the letter from the envelope to read it. I stood for what seemed a long while, full of my fears, and not daring even to think. Finally, Auntie sighed heavily and led me by the arm into the reception room. My hands were trembling in my lap as I knelt at the table, probably from the force of trying to keep all my terrible thoughts from rising to the surface of my mind. Perhaps it was really a hopeful sign that Mr. Tanaka had sent me the mortuary tablets. Wasn’t it possible that my family would be moving to Kyoto, that we would buy a new altar together and set up the tablets before it? Or perhaps Satsu had asked that they be sent to me because she was on her way back. And then Auntie interrupted my thoughts.

“Chiyo, I’m going to read you something from a man named Tanaka Ichiro,” she said in a voice that was strangely heavy and slow. I don’t think I all while she spread the paper out on the table.

Dear Chiyo:

Two seasons have passed since you left Yoroido, and soon the trees will give birth to a new generation of blossoms. Flowers that grow where old ones have withered serve to remind us that death will one day come to us all.

As one who was once an orphaned child himself, this humble person is sorry to have to inform you of the terrible burden you must bear. Six weeks after you left for your new life in Kyoto, the suffering of your honored mother came to its end, and only a few weeks afterward your honored father departed this world as well. This humble person is deeply sorry for your loss and hopes you will rest assured that the remains of both your honored parents are enshrined in the village cemetery. Services were conducted for them at the Hoko-ji Temple in Senzuru, and in addition the women in Yoroido have chanted sutras. This humble person feels confident that both your honored parents have found their places in paradise.

The training of an apprentice geisha is an arduous path. However, this humble person is filled with admiration for those who are able to recast their suffering and become great artists. Some years ago while visiting Gion, it was my honor to view the spring dances and attend a party afterward at a teahouse, and the experience has left the deepest impression. It gives me some measure of satisfaction to know that a safe place in this world has been found for you, Chiyo, and that you will not be forced to suffer through years of uncertainty. This humble person has been alive long enough to see two generations of children grow up, and knows how rare it is for ordinary birds to give birth to a swan. The swan who goes on living in its parents’ tree will die; this is why those who are beautiful and talented bear the burden of finding their own way in the world.

Your sister, Satsu, came through Yoroido late this past fall, but ran away again at once with the son of Mr. Sugi. Mr. Sugi fervently hopes to see his beloved son again in this lifetime, and asks therefore that you please notify him immediately if you receive word from your sister.

Most sincerely yours, Tanaka Ichiro

Long before Auntie had finished reading this letter, the tears had begun to flow out of me just like water from a pot that boils over. For it would have been bad enough to learn that my mother had died, or that my father had died. But to learn in a single moment that both my mother and my father had died and left me, and that my sister too was lost to me forever … at once my mind felt like a broken vase that would not stand. I was lost even within the room around me.

You must think me very naive for having kept alive the hope for so many months that my mother might still be living. But really I had so few things to hope for, I suppose I would have clutched at anything. Auntie was very kind to me while I tried to find my bearings. Again and again she said to me, “Bear up, Chiyo, bear up. There’s nothing more any of us can do in this world.”

When I was finally able to speak, I asked Auntie if she would set up the tablets someplace where I wouldn’t see them, and pray on my behalf-for it would give me too much pain to do it. But she refused, and told me I should be ashamed even to consider turning my back on my own ancestors. She helped me set the tablets up on a shelf near the base of the stairwell, where I could pray before them every morning. “Never forget them, Chiyo-chan,” she said. “They’re all that’s left of your childhood.”

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