Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 9)
Around the time of my sixty-fifth birthday, a friend sent me an article she’d found somewhere, called “The Twenty Greatest Geisha of Gion’s Past.” Or maybe it was the thirty greatest geisha, I don’t remember. But there I was on the list with a little paragraph telling some things about me, including that I’d been born in Kyoto-which of course I wasn’t. I can assure you I wasn’t one of Gion’s twenty greatest geisha either; some people have difficulty telling the difference between something great and something
they’ve simply heard of. In any case, I would have been lucky to end up as nothing more than a bad geisha and an unhappy one, like so many other poor girls, if Mr. Tanaka had never written to tell me that my parents had died and that I would probably never see my sister again.
I’m sure you’ll recall my saying that the afternoon when I first met Mr. Tanaka was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst. Probably I don’t need to explain why it was the worst; but you may be wondering how I could possibly imagine that anything good ever came of it. It’s true that up until this time in my life Mr. Tanaka had brought me nothing but suffering; but he also changed my horizons forever. We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course. If I’d never met Mr. Tanaka, my life would have been a simple stream flowing from our tipsy house to the ocean. Mr. Tanaka changed all that when he sent me out into the world. But being sent out into the world isn’t necessarily the same as leaving your home behind you. I’d been in Gion more than six months by the time I received Mr. Tanaka’s letter; and yet during that time, I’d never for a moment given up the belief that I would one day find a better life elsewhere, with at least part of the family I’d always known. I was living only half in Gion; the other half of me lived in my dreams of going home. This is why dreams can be such dangerous things: they smolder on like a fire does, and sometimes consume us completely.
During the rest of the spring and all that summer following the letter, I felt like a child lost on a lake in the fog. The days spilled one after another into a muddle. I remember only snippets of things, aside from a constant feeling of misery and fear. One cold evening after winter had come, I sat a long while in the maids’ room watching snow falling silently into the okiya’s little courtyard. I imagined my father coughing at the lonely table in his lonely house, and my mother so frail upon her futon that her body scarcely sank into the bedding. I stumbled out into the courtyard to try to flee my misery, but of course we can never flee the misery that is within us.
Then in early spring, a full year after the terrible news about my family, something happened. It was the following April, when the cherry trees were in blossom once again; it may even have been a year to the day since Mr. Tanaka’s letter. I was almost twelve by then and was beginning to look a bit womanly, even though Pumpkin still looked very much like a little girl. I’d grown nearly as tall as I would ever grow. My body would remain thin and knobby like a twig for a year or two more, but my face had already given up its childish softness and was now sharp around the chin and cheekbones, and had broadened in such a way as to give a true almond shape to my eyes. In the past, men had taken no more notice of me on the streets than if I had been a pigeon; now they were watching me when I passed them. I found it strange to be the object of attention after being ignored for so long.
In any case, very early one morning that April, I awoke from a most peculiar dream about a bearded man. His beard was so heavy that his features were a blur to me, as if someone had censored them from the film. He was standing before me saying something I can’t remember, and then all at once he slid open the paper screen over a window beside him with a loud clack. I awoke thinking I’d heard a noise in the room. The maids were sighing in their sleep. Pumpkin lay quietly with her round face sagging onto
the pillow. Everything looked just as it always did, I’m sure; but my feelings were strangely different. I felt as though I were looking at a world that was somehow changed from the one I’d seen the night before-peering out, almost, through the very window that had opened in my dream.
I couldn’t possibly have explained what this meant. But I continued thinking about it while I swept the stepping-stones in the courtyard that morning, until I began to feel the sort of buzzing in my head that comes from a thought circling and circling with nowhere to go, just like a bee in ajar. Soon I put down the broom and went to sit in the dirt corridor, where the cool air from beneath the foundation of the main house drifted soothingly over my back. And then something came to mind that I hadn’t thought about
since my very first week in Kyoto.
Only a day or two after being separated from my sister, I had been sent to wash some rags one afternoon, when a moth came fluttering down from the sky onto my arm. I flicked it off, expecting that it would fly away, but instead it sailed like a pebble across the courtyard and lay there upon the ground. I didn’t know if it had fallen from the sky already dead or if I had killed it, but its little insect death touched me. I admired the lovely pattern on its wings, and then wrapped it in one of the rags I was washing and hid it away beneath the foundation of the house.
I hadn’t thought about this moth since then; but the moment it came to mind I got on my knees and looked under the house until I found it. So many things in my life had changed, even the way I looked; but when I unwrapped the moth from its funeral shroud, it was the same startlingly lovely creature as on the day I had entombed it. It seemed to be wearing a robe in subdued grays and browns, like Mother wore when she went to her mah-jongg games at night. Everything about it seemed beautiful and perfect,
and so utterly unchanged. If only one thing in my life had been the same as during that first week in Kyoto … As I thought of this my mind began to swirl like a hurricane. It struck me that we-that moth and I- were two opposite extremes. My existence was as unstable as a stream, changing in every way; but the moth was like a piece of stone, changing not at all. While thinking this thought, I reached out a finger to feel the moth’s velvety surface; but when I brushed it with my fingertip, it turned all at once into a pile of ash without even a sound, without even a moment in which I could see it crumbling. I was so astonished I let out a cry. The swirling in my mind stopped; I felt as if I had stepped into the eye of a storm. I let the tiny shroud and its pile of ashes flutter to the ground; and now I understood the thing that had puzzled me all morning. The stale air had washed away. The past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it. But I suppose that for the past year I’d been dead in a way too. And my sister . . . yes, she was gone; but I wasn’t gone. I’m not sure this will make sense to you, but I felt as though I’d turned around to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward toward the past, but forward toward the future. And now the question confronting me was this: What would that future be?
The moment this question formed in my mind, I knew with as much certainty as I’d ever known anything that sometime during that day I would receive a sign. This was why the bearded man had opened the window in my dream. He was saying to me, “Watch for the thing that will show itself to you. Because that thing, when you find it, will be your future.”
I had no time for another thought before Auntie called out to me:
“Chiyo, come here!”
Well, I walked up that dirt corridor as though I were in a trance. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Auntie had said, “You want to know about your future? All right, listen closely …” But instead she just held out two hair ornaments on a squ-are of white silk.
“Take these,” she said to me. “Heaven knows what Hatsumomo was up to last night; she came back to the okiya wearing another girl’s ornaments. She must have drunk more than her usual amount of sake. Go find her at the school, ask whose they are, and return them.”
When I took the ornaments, Auntie gave me a piece of paper with a number of other errands written on it as well and told me to come back to the okiya as soon as I had done them all.
Wearing someone else’s hair ornaments home at night may not sound so peculiar, but really it’s about the same as coming home in someone else’s underwear. Geisha don’t wash their hair every day, you see, because of their fancy hairstyles. So a hair ornament is a very intimate article. Auntie didn’t even want to touch the things, which is why she was holding them on a square of silk. She wrapped them up to give them to me, so that they looked just like the bundled-up moth I’d been holding only a few minutes earlier. Of course, a sign doesn’t mean anything unless you know how to interpret it. I stood there staring at the silk bundle in Auntie’s hand until she said, “Take it, for heaven’s sake ! ” Later, on my way to the school, I unfolded it to have another look at the ornaments. One was a black lacquer comb shaped like the setting sun, with a design of flowers in gold around the outside; the other was a stick of blond wood with two pearls at the end holding in place a tiny amber sphere.
I waited outside the school building until I heard the don of the bell signaling the end of classes. Soon girls in their blue and white robes came pouring out. Hatsumomo spotted me even before I spotted her, and came toward me with another geisha. You may wonder why she was at the school at all, since she was already an accomplished dancer and certainly knew everything she needed to know about being a geisha. But even the most renowned geisha continued to take advanced lessons in dance throughout their careers, some of them even into their fifties and sixties.
“Why, look,” Hatsumomo said to her friend. “I think it must be a weed. Look how tall it is!” This was her way of ridiculing me for having grown a finger’s-width taller than her.
“Auntie has sent me here, ma’am,” I said, “to find out whose hair ornaments you stole last night.”
Hatsumomo’s smile faded. She snatched the little bundle from my hand and opened it.
“Why, these aren’t mine …” she said. “Where did you get them?”
“Oh, Hatsumomo-san!” said the other geisha. “Don’t you remember? You and Kanako took out your hair ornaments while the two of you were playing that foolish game with Judge Uwazumi. Kanako must have gone home with your hair ornaments, and you went home with hers.”
“How disgusting,” said Hatsumomo. “When do you think Kanako last washed her hair? Anyway, her okiya is right next to yours. Take them for me, would you? Tell her I’ll come to fetch mine later, and she’d better not try to keep them.”
The other geisha took the hair ornaments and left.
“Oh, don’t go, little Chiyo,” Hatsumomo said to me. “There’s something I want to show you. It’s that young girl over there, the one walking through the gate. Her name is Ichikimi.”
I looked at Ichikimi, but Hatsumomo didn’t seem to have any more to say about her. “I don’t know her,” I said.
“No, of course not. She’s nothing special. A bit stupid, and as awkward as a cripple. But I just thought you’d find it interesting that she’s going to be a geisha, and you never will.”
I don’t think Hatsumomo could have found anything cruder to say to me. For a year and a half now, I’d been condemned to the drudgery of a maid. I felt my life stretching out before me like a long path leading nowhere. I won’t say I wanted to become a geisha; but I certainly didn’t want to remain a maid. I stood in the garden of the school a long while, watching the young girls my age chat with one another as they streamed past. They may only have been heading back for lunch, but to me they were going from
one important thing to another with lives of purpose, while I on the other hand would go back to nothing more glamorous than scrubbing the stones in the courtyard. When the garden emptied out, I stood worrying that perhaps this was the sign I’d waited for-that other young girls in Gion would move ahead in their lives and leave me behind. This thought gave me such a fright I couldn’t stay alone in the garden any longer. I walked down to Shijo Avenue and turned toward the Kamo River. Giant banners on the
Minamiza Theater announced the performance of a Kabuki play that afternoon entitled Shibaraku, which is one of our most famous plays, though I knew nothing about Kabuki at the time. Crowds streamed up the steps into the theater. Among the men in their dark Western-style suits or kimono, several geisha stood out in brilliant coloring just like autumn leaves on the murky waters of a river. Here again, I saw life in all its noisy excitement passing me by. I hurried away from the avenue, down a side street leading
along the Shi-rakawa Stream, but even there, men and geisha were rushing along in their lives so full of purpose. To shut out the pain of this thought I turned toward the Shirakawa, but cruelly, even its waters glided along with purpose-toward the Kamo River and from there to Osaka Bay and the Inland Sea. It seemed the same message waited for me everywhere. I threw myself onto the little stone wall at the edge of the stream and wept. I was an abandoned island in the midst of the ocean, with no past, to be sure, but no future either. Soon I felt myself coming to a point where I thought no human voice could reach me- until I heard a man’s voice say this:
“Why it’s too pretty a day to be so unhappy.”
Ordinarily a man on the streets of Gion wouldn’t notice a girl like me, particularly while I was making a fool of myself by crying. If he did notice me, he certainly wouldn’t speak to me, unless it was to order me out of his way, or some such thing. Yet not only had this man bothered to speak to me, he’d actually spoken kindly. He’d addressed me in a way that suggested I might be a young woman of standing-the daughter of a good friend, perhaps. For a flicker of a moment I imagined a world completely different from the one I’d always known, a world in which I was treated with fairness, even kindness-a world in which fathers didn’t sell their daughters. The noise and hubbub of so many people living their lives of purpose around me seemed to stop; or at least, I ceased to be aware of it. And when I raised myself to look at the man who’d spoken, I had a feeling of leaving my misery behind me there on the stone wall.
I’ll be happy to try to describe him for you, but I can think of only one way to do it-by telling you about a certain tree that sj:ood at the edge of the sea cliffs in Yoroido. This tree was as smooth as driftwood because of the wind, and when I was a little girl of four or five I found a man’s face on it one day. That is to say, I found a smooth patch as broad as a plate, with two sharp bumps at the outside edge for cheekbones. They cast shadows suggesting eye sockets, and beneath the shadows rose a gentle bump of a nose. The whole face tipped a bit to one side, gazing at me quizzically; it looked to me like a man with as much certainty about his place in this world as a tree has. Something about it was so meditative, I imagined I’d found the face of a Buddha.
The man who’d addressed me there on the street had this same kind of broad, calm face. And what was more, his features were so smooth and serene, I had the feeling he’d go on standing there calmly until I wasn’t unhappy any longer. He was probably about forty-five years old, with gray hair combed straight back from his forehead. But I couldn’t look at him for long. He seemed so elegant to me that I blushed and looked away.
Two younger men stood to one side of him; a geisha stood to the other. I heard the geisha say to him quietly:
“Why, she’s only a maid! Probably she stubbed her toe while running an errand. I’m sure someone will come along to help her soon.”
“I wish I had your faith in people, Izuko-san,” said the man.
“The show will be starting in only a moment. Really, Chairman, I don’t think you should waste any more time …”
While running errands in Gion, I’d often heard men addressed by titles like “Department Head” or occasionally “Vice President.” But only rarely had I heard the title “Chairman.” Usually the men addressed as Chairman had bald heads and frowns, and swaggered down the street with groups of junior executives scurrying behind. This man before me was so different from the usual chairman that even though I was only a little girl with limited experience of the world, I knew his company couldn’t be a
terribly important one. A man with an important company wouldn’t have stopped to talk to me.
“You’re trying to tell me it’s a waste of time to stay here and help her,” said the Chairman.
“Oh, no,” the geisha said. “It’s more a matter of having no time to waste. We may be late for the first scene already.”
“Now, Izuko-san, surely at some time you yourself have been in the same state this little girl is in. You can’t pretend the life of a geisha is always simple. I should think you of all people-”
“I’ve been in the state she’s in? Chairman, do you mean . . . making a public spectacle of myself?”
At this, the Chairman turned to the two younger men and asked that they take Izuko ahead to the theater. They bowed and went on their way while the Chairman remained behind. He looked at me a long while, though I didn’t dare to look back at him. At length I said:
“Please, sir, what she says is true. I’m only a foolish girl . . . please don’t make yourself late on my account.”
“Stand up a moment,” he told me.
I didn’t dare disobey him, though I had no idea what he wanted. As it turned out, all he did was take a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe away the grit that had stuck to my face from the top of the stone wall. Standing so close before him, I could smell the odor of talc on his smooth skin, which made me recall the day when the Emperor Taisho’s nephew had come to our little fishing village. He’d done nothing more than step out of his car and walk to the inlet and back, nodding to the crowds that knelt before him, wearing a Western-style business suit, the first I’d ever seen-for I peeked at him, even though I wasn’t supposed to. I remember too-that his mustache was carefully groomed, unlike the hair on the faces of the men in our village, which grew untended like weeds along a path. No one of any importance had ever been in our village before that day. I think we all felt touched by nobility and greatness.
Occasionally in life we come upon things we can’t understand because we have never seen anything similar. The Emperor’s nephew certainly struck me that way; and so did the Chairman. When he had wiped away the grit and tears from my face, he tipped my head up.
“Here you are … a beautiful girl with nothing on earth to be ashamed of,” he said. “And yet you’re afraid to look at me. Someone has been cruel to you … or perhaps life has been cruel.”
“I don’t know, sir,” I said, though of course I knew perfectly well.
“We none of us find as much kindness in this world as we should,” he told me, and he narrowed his eyes a moment as if to say I should think seriously about what he’d just said.
I wanted more than anything to see the smooth skin of his face once more, with its broad brow, and the eyelids like sheaths of marble over his gentle eyes; but there was such a gulf in social standing between us. I did finally let my eyes flick upward, though I blushed and looked away so quickly that he may never have known I met his gaze.
But how can I describe what I saw in that instant? He was looking at me as a musician might look at his instrument just before he begins to play, with understanding and mastery. I felt that he could see into me as though I were a part of him. How I would have loved to be the instrument he played!
In a moment he reached into his pocket and brought something out.
“Do you like sweet plum or cherry?” he said.
“Sir? Do you mean … to eat?”
“I passed a vendor a moment ago, selling shaved ice with syrup on it. I never tasted one until I was an adult, but I’d have liked them as a child. Take this coin and buy one. Take my handkerchief too, so you can wipe your face afterward,” he said. And with this, he pressed the coin into the center of the handkerchief, wrapped it into a bundle, and held it out to me.
From the moment the Chairman had first spoken to me, I’d forgotten that I was watching for a sign about my future. But when I saw the bundle he held in his hand, it looked so much like the shrouded moth, I knew I’d come upon the sign at last. I took the bundle and bowed low to thank him, and tried to tell him how grateful I was- though I’m sure my words carried none of the fullness of my feelings. I wasn’t thanking him for the coin, or even for the trouble he’d taken in stopping to help me. I was thanking him for . . . well, for something I’m not sure I can explain even now. For showing me that something besides cruelty could be found in the world, I suppose.
I watched him walk away with sickness in my heart-though it was a pleasing kind of sickness, if such a thing exists. I mean to say that if you have experienced an evening more exciting than any in your life, you’re sad to see it end; and yet you still feel grateful that it happened. In that brief encounter with the Chairman, I had changed from a lost girl facing a lifetime of emptiness to a girl with purpose in her life. Perhaps it seems odd that a casual meeting on the street could have brought about such change. But sometimes life is like that, isn’t it? And I really do think if you’d been there to see what I saw, and feel what I felt, the same might have happened to you.
When the Chairman had disappeared from sight, I rushed up the street to search for the shaved ice vendor. The day wasn’t especially hot, and I didn’t care for shaved ice; but eating it would make my encounter with the Chairman linger. So I bought a paper cone of shaved ice with cherry syrup on it, and went to sit again on the same stone wall. The taste of the syrup seemedstartling and complex, I think only because my senses were so heightened. If I were a geisha like the one named Izuko, I thought, a man like the Chairman might spend time with me. I’d never imagined myself envying a geisha. I’d been brought to Kyoto for the purpose of becoming one, of course; but up until now I’d have run away in an instant if I could have. Now I understood the thing I’d overlooked; the point wasn’t to become a geisha, but to be one. To become a geisha . . . well, that was hardly a purpose in life. But to be a geisha … I could see it now as a stepping-stone to something else. If I was right about the Chairman’s age, he was probably no more than forty-five. Plenty of geisha had achieved tremendous success by the age of twenty. The geisha Izuko was probably no more than twenty-five herself. I was still a child, nearly twelve . . . but in another twelve years I’d be in my twenties. And what of the Chairman? He would be no older by that time than Mr. Tanaka was already.
The coin the Chairman had given me was far more than I’d needed for a simple cone of shaved ice. I held in my hand the change from the vendor-three coins of different sizes. At first I’d thought of keeping them forever; but now I realized they could serve a far more important purpose.
I rushed to Shijo Avenue and ran all the way to its end at the eastern edge of Gion, where the Gion Shrine stood. I climbed the steps, but I felt too intimidated to walk beneath the great two-story entrance gate with its gabled roof, and walked around it instead. Across the gravel courtyard and up another flight of steps, I passed through the torii gate to the shrine itself. There I threw the coins into the offertory box- coins that might have been enough to take me away from Gion- and announced my presence to the gods by clapping three times and bowing. With my eyes squeezed tightly shut and my hands together, I prayed that they permit me to become a geisha somehow. I would suffer through any training, bear up under any hardship, for a chance to attract the notice of a man like the Chairman again.
When I opened my eyes, I could still hear the traffic on Higashi-Oji Avenue. The trees hissed in a gust of wind just as they had a moment earlier. Nothing had changed. As to whether the gods had heard me, I had no way of knowing. I could do nothing but tuck the Chairman’s handkerchief inside my robe and carry it with me back to the okiya.