Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 11)

Chapter eleven

I should explain just what Mameha meant by “older sister,” even though at the time, I hardly knew much about it myself. By the time a girl is finally ready to make her debut as an apprentice, she needs to have established a relationship with a more experienced geisha. Mameha had mentioned Hatsumomo’s older sister, the great Tomi-hatsu, who was already an old woman when she trained Hatsumomo; but older sisters aren’t always so senior to the geisha they train. Any geisha can act as older-sister to a younger girl, as long as she has at least one day’s seniority.

When two girls are bound together as sisters, they perform a ceremony like a wedding. Afterward they see each other almost as members of the same family, calling each other “Older Sister” and “Younger Sister” just as real family members do. Some geisha may not take the role as seriously as they should, but an older sister who does her job properly becomes the most important figure in a young geisha’s life. She does a great deal more than just making sure her younger sister learns the proper way of blending embarrassment and laughter when a man tells a naughty joke, or helping her select the right grade of wax to use under her makeup. She must also make sure her younger sister attracts the notice of people she’ll need to know. She does this by taking her around Gion and presenting her to the mistresses of all

the proper teahouses, to the man who makes wigs for stage performances, to the chefs at the important restaurants, and so on.

There’s certainly plenty of work in all of this. But introducing her younger sister around Gion during the day is only half of what an older sister must do. Because Gion is like a faint star that comes out in its fullest beauty only after the sun has set. At night the older sister must take her younger sister with her to entertain, in order to introduce her to the customers and patrons she’s come to know over the years. She says to them, “Oh, have you met my new younger sister, So-and-so? Please be sure to remember her name, because she’s going to be a big star! And please permit her to call on you the next time you visit Gion.” Of course, few men pay high fees to spend the evening chatting with a fourteen-year-old; so this customer probably won’t, in fact, summon the young girl on his next visit. But the older sister and the mistress of the teahouse will continue to push her on him until he does. If it turns out he doesn’t like her for some reason . . . well, that’s another story; but otherwise, he’ll probably end up a patron of hers in good time, and very fond of her too-just as he is of her older sister.

Taking on the role of older sister often feels about like carrying a sack of rice back and forth across the city. Because not only is a younger sister as dependent on her older sister as a passenger is on the train she rides; but when the girl behaves badly, it’s her older sister who must bear responsibility. The reason a busy and successful geisha goes to all this trouble for a younger girl is because everyone in Gion benefits when an apprentice succeeds. The apprentice herself benefits by paying off her debts over time, of course; and if she’s lucky, she’ll end up mistress to a wealthy man. The older sister benefits by receiving a portion of her younger sister’s fees-as do the mistresses of the various teahouses where the girl entertains. Even the wigmaker, and the shop where hair ornaments are sold, and the sweets shop where the apprentice geisha will buy gifts for her patrons from time to time . . . they may never directly receive a portion of the girl’s fees; but certainly they all benefit by the patronage of yet another successful geisha, who can bring customers into Gion to spend money.

It’s fair to say that, for a young girl in Gion, nearly everything depends on her older sister. And yet few girls have any say over who their older sisters will be. An established geisha certainly won’t jeopardize her reputation by taking on a younger sister she thinks is dull or someone she thinks her patrons won’t like. On the other hand, the mistress of an okiya that has invested a great deal of money in training a certain apprentice won’t sit quietly and just wait for some dull geisha to come along and offer to train her. So as a result, a successful geisha ends up with far more requests than she can manage. Some she can turn away, and some she can’t . . . which brings me to the reason why Mother probably did feel-just as Mameha suggested-that not a single geisha in Gion would be willing to act as my older sister.

Back at the time I first came to the okiya, Mother probably had in mind for Hatsumomo to act as my older sister. Hatsumomo may have been the sort of woman who would bite a spider right back, but nearly any apprentice would have been happy to be her younger sister. Hatsumomo had already been older sister to at least two well-known young geisha in Gion. Instead of torturing them as she had me, she’d behaved herself well. It was her choice to take them on, and she did it for the money it would bring her. But in my case, Hatsumomo could no more have been counted on to help me in Gion and then be content with the few extra yen it would bring her than a dog can be counted on to escort a cat down the street without taking a bite out of it in the alley. Mother could certainly have compelled Hatsumomo to be my older sister-not only because Hatsumomo lived in our okiya, but also because she had so few kimono of her own and was dependent on the okiya’s collection. But I don’t think any force on earth could have compelled Hatsumomo to train me properly. I’m sure that on the day she was asked to take me to the Mizuki Teahouse and introduce me to the mistress there, she would have taken me instead to the banks of the river and said, “Kamo River, have you met my new younger sister?” and then pushed me right in.

As for the idea of another geisha taking on the task of training me . . . well, it would mean crossing paths with Hatsumomo. Few geisha in Gion were brave enough to do such a thing.

Late one morning a few weeks after my encounter with Mameha, I was serving tea to Mother and a guest in the reception room when Auntie slid open the door.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Auntie said, “but I wonder if you would mind excusing yourself for just a moment, Kayoko-san.” Kayoko was Mother’s real name, you see, but we rarely heard it used in our okiya. “We have a visitor at the door.”

Mother gave one of her coughing laughs when she heard this. “You must be having a dull day, Auntie,” she said, “to come announce a visitor yourself. The maids don’t work hard enough as it is, and now you’re doing their jobs for them.”

“I thought you’d rather hear from me,” Auntie said, “that our visitor is Mameha.”

I had begun to worry that nothing would come of my meeting with Mameha. But to hear that she had suddenly appeared at our okiya . . . well, the blood rushed to my face so intensely that I felt like a lightbulb just switched on. The room was perfectly quiet for a long moment, and then Mother’s guest said, “Mameha-san . . . well! I’ll run along, but only if you promise to tell me tomorrow just what this is all about.”

I took my opportunity to slip out of the room as Mother’s guest was leaving. Then in the formal entrance hall, I heard Mother say something to Auntie I’d never imagined her saying. She was tapping her pipe into an ashtray she’d brought from the reception room, and when she handed the ashtray to me, she said,

“Auntie, come here and fix my hair, please.” I’d never before known her to worry in the least about her appearance. It’s true she wore elegant clothing. But just as her room was filled with lovely objects and yet was hopelessly gloomy, she herself may have been draped in exquisite fabrics, but her eyes were as oily as a piece of old, smelly fish . . . and really, she seemed to regard her hair the way a train regards its smokestack: it was just the thing that happened to be on top.

While Mother was answering the door, I stood in the maids’ room cleaning out the ashtray. And I worked so hard to overhear Mameha and Mother that it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had strained all the muscles in my ears.

First Mother said, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Mameha-san. What an honor to have a visit from you!”

Then Mameha said, “I hope you’ll forgive me for calling so unexpectedly, Mrs. Nitta.” Or something equally dull. And it went on this way for a while. All my hard work in overhearing it was about as rewarding to me as a man who lugs a chest up the hill only to learn that it’s full of rocks.

At last they made their way through the formal entrance hall to the reception room. I was so desperate to overhear their conversation that I grabbed a rag from the maids’ room and began polishing the floor of the entrance hall with it. Normally Auntie wouldn’t have permitted me to work there while a guest was in the reception room, but she was as preoccupied with eavesdropping as I was. When the maid came out after serving tea, Auntie stood to one side where she wouldn’t be seen and made sure the door was

left open a crack so she could hear. I listened so closely to their small talk that I must have lost track of everything around me, for suddenly I looked up to see Pumpkin’s round face staring right into mine. She was on her knees polishing the floor, even though I was already doing it and she wasn’t expected to do chores anymore.

“Who is Mameha?” she whispered to me.

Obviously she had overheard the maids talking among themselves; I could see them huddled together on the dirt corridor just at the edge of the walkway.

“She and Hatsumomo are rivals,” I whispered back. “She’s the one whose kimono Hatsumomo made me put ink on.”

Pumpkin looked like she was about to ask something else, but then we heard Mameha say, “Mrs. Nitta, I do hope you’ll forgive me for disturbing you on such a busy day, but I’d like to talk with you briefly about your maid Chiyo.”

“Oh, no,” Pumpkin said, and looked into my eyes to show how sorry she felt for the trouble I was about to be in.

“Our Chiyo can be a bit of a nuisance,” Mother said. “I do hope she hasn’t been troubling you.”

“No, nothing like that,” Mameha said. “But I noticed she hasn’t been attending the school these past few weeks. I’m so accustomed to running into her from time to time in the hallway . . . Just yesterday I realized she must be terribly ill! I’ve recently met an extremely capable doctor. I wonder, shall I ask him to stop by?”

“It’s very kind of you,” said Mother, “but you must be thinking of a different girl. You couldn’t have run into our Chiyo in the hallway at the school. She hasn’t attended lessons there for two years.”

“Are we thinking of the same girl? Quite pretty, with startling blue-gray eyes?”

“She does have unusual eyes. But there must be two such girls in Gion . . . Who would have thought it!”

“I wonder if it’s possible that two years have passed since I saw her there,” Mameha said. “Perhaps she made such a strong impression it still seems very recent. If I may ask, Mrs. Nitta … is she quite well?”

“Oh, yes. As healthy as a young sapling, and every bit as unruly, if I do say so.”

“Yet she isn’t taking lessons any longer? How puzzling.”

“For a young geisha as popular as you, I’m sure Gion must seem an easy place to make a living. But you know, times are very difficult. I

can’t afford to invest money in just anyone. As soon as I realized how poorly suited Chiyo was-”

“I’m quite sure we’re thinking of two different girls,” Mameha said. “I can’t imagine that a businesswoman as astute as you are, Mrs. Nitta, would call Chiyo ‘poorly suited’. . .”

“Are you certain her name is Chiyo?” Mother asked.

None of us realized it, but as she spoke these words, Mother was rising from the table and crossing the little room. A moment later she slid open the door and found herself staring directly into Auntie’s ear. Auntie stepped out of the way just as though nothing had happened; and I suppose Mother was content to pretend the same, for she did nothing more than look toward me and say, “Chiyo-chan, come in here a moment.”

By the time I slid the door shut behind me and knelt on the tatami mats to bow, Mother had already settled herself at the table again.

“This is our Chiyo,” Mother said.

“The very girl I was thinking of!” said Mameha. “How do you do, Chiyo-chan? I’m happy that you look so healthy! I was just saying to Mrs. Nitta that I’d begun to worry about you. But you seem quite well.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am, very well,” I answered.

“Thank you, Chiyo,” Mother told me. I bowed to excuse myself, but before I could rise to my feet, Mameha said:

“She’s really quite a lovely girl, Mrs. Nitta. I must say, at times I’ve thought of coming to ask your permission to make her my younger sister. But now that she’s no longer in training …”

Mother must have been shocked to hear this, because although she’d been on the point of taking a sip of tea, her hand stopped on its way to her mouth and remained motionless there during the time it took me to leave the room. I was nearly back to my place on the floor of the entrance hall when she finally responded.

“A geisha as popular as you, Mameha-san . . . you could have any apprentice in Gion as your younger sister.”

“It’s true I’m often asked. But I haven’t taken on a new younger sister in more than a year. You’d think that with this terrible Depression, customers would have slowed to a trickle, but really, I’ve never been so busy. I suppose the rich just go right on being rich, even in a time like this.”

“They need their fun more than ever now,” Mother said. “But you were saying …”

“Yes, what was I saying? Well, it makes no difference. I mustn’t take any more of your time. I’m pleased that Chiyo is quite healthy after all.”

“Very healthy, yes. But, Mameha-san, wait a moment before you leave, if you don’t mind. You were saying you’d almost considered taking on Chiyo as your younger sister?”

“Well, by now she’s been out of training so long …” Mameha said. “Anyway, I’m sure you have an excellent reason for the decision you’ve made, Mrs. Nitta. I wouldn’t dare second-guess you.”

“It’s heartbreaking, the choices people are forced to make in these times. I just couldn’t afford her training any longer! However, if you feel she has potential, Mameha-san, I’m sure any investment you

might choose to make in her future would be amply repaid.”

Mother was trying to take advantage of Mameha. No geisha ever paid lesson fees for a younger sister.

“I wish such a thing were possible,” Mameha said, “but with this terrible Depression …”

“Perhaps there’s some way I could manage it,” Mother said. “Though Chiyo is a bit headstrong, and her debts are considerable. I’ve often thought how shocking it would be if she ever managed to repay them.”

“Such an attractive girl? I’d find it shocking if she couldn’t.” “Anyway, there’s more to life than money, isn’t there?” Mother said. “One wants to do one’s best for a girl like Chiyo. Perhaps I could see my way to investing a bit more in her . . . just for her lessons, you understand. But where would it all lead?”

“I’m sure Chiyo’s debts are very considerable,” Mameha said. “But even so, I should think she’ll repay them by the time she’s twenty.” “Twenty!” said Mother. “I don’t think any girl in Gion has ever done such a thing. And in the midst of this Depression …” “Yes, there is the Depression, it’s true.”

“It certainly seems to me our Pumpkin is a safer investment,” Mother said. “After all, in Chiyo’s case, with you as her older sister, her debts will only grow worse before they get better.” Mother wasn’t just talking about my lesson fees; she was talking about fees she would have to pay to Mameha. A geisha of Mameha’ s standing commonly takes a larger portion of her younger sister’s earnings than an ordinary geisha would.

“Mameha-san, if you have a moment longer,” Mother went on, “I wonder if you would entertain a proposal. If the great Mameha says Chiyo will repay her debts by the age of twenty, how can I doubt it’s true? Of course, a girl like Chiyo won’t succeed without an older sister such as yourself, and yet our little okiya is stretched to its limits just now. I can’t possibly offer you the terms you’re accustomed to. The best I could offer from Chiyo’s future earnings might be only half what you’d ordinarily expect.”

“Just now I’m entertaining several very generous offers,” Mameha said. “If I’m going to take on a younger sister, I couldn’t possibly afford to do it at a reduced fee.”

“I’m not quite finished, Mameha-san,” Mother replied. “Here’s my proposal. It’s true I can afford only half what you might usually expect. But if Chiyo does indeed manage to repay her debts by the age of twenty, as you anticipate, I would turn over to you the remainder of what you ought to have made, plus an additional thirty percent. You would make more money in the long run.”

“And if Chiyo turns twenty without having repaid her debts?” Mameha asked.

“I’m sorry to say that in such a case, the investment would have been a poor one for both of us. The okiya would be unable to pay the fees owed to you.”

There was a silence, and then Mameha sighed.

“I’m very poor with numbers, Mrs. Nitta. But if I understand correctly, you’d like me to take on a task you think may be impossible, for fees that are less than usual. Plenty of promising young girls in Gion would make fine younger sisters to me at no risk whatever. I’m afraid I must decline your proposal.”

“You’re quite right,” said Mother. “Thirty percent is a bit low. I’ll offer you double, instead, if you succeed.”

“But nothing if I fail.”

“Please don’t think of it as nothing. A portion of Chiyo’s fees would have gone to you all along. It’s simply that the okiya would be unable to pay you the additional amount you would be owed.”

I felt certain Mameha was going to say no. Instead she said, “I’d like to find out first how substantial Chiyo’s debt really is.”

“I’ll fetch the account books for you,” Mother told her.

I heard nothing more of their conversation, for at this point Auntie ran out of patience for my eavesdropping, and sent me out of the okiya with a list of errands. All that afternoon, I felt as agitated as a pile of rocks in an earthquake; because, of course, I had no idea how things would turn out. If Mother and Mameha couldn’t come to an agreement, I would remain a maid all my life just as surely as a turtle remains a turtle, When I returned to the okiya, Pumpkin was kneeling on the walkway near the courtyard, making terrible twanging noises with her shamisen. She looked very pleased when she caught sight of me, and called me over.

“Find some excuse to go into Mother’s room,” she said. “She’s been in there all afternoon with her abacus. I’m sure she’ll say something to you. Then you have to run back down here and tell me!”

I thought this was a fine idea. One of my errands had been to buy some cream for the cook’s scabies, but the pharmacy had been out of it. So I decided to go upstairs and apologize to Mother for having come back to the okiya without it. She wouldn’t care, of course; probably she didn’t even know I’d been sent to fetch it. But at least it would get me into her room.

As it turned out, Mother was listening to a comedy show on the radio. Normally if I disturbed her at a time like this, she would wave me in and go right on listening to the radio-looking over her account books and puffing at her pipe. But today, to my surprise, she turned off the radio and slapped the account book shut the moment she saw me. I bowed to her and went to kneel at the table.

“While Mameha was here,” she said, “I noticed you in the formal entrance hall polishing the floor. Were you trying to overhear our conversation?”

“No, ma’am. There was a scratch on the floorboards. Pumpkin and I were doing what we could to buff it out.”

“I only hope you turn out to be a better geisha than you are a liar,” she said, and began to laugh, but without taking her pipe out of her mouth, so that she accidentally blew air into the stem and caused ashes to shoot up out of the little metal bowl. Some of the flecks of tobacco were still burning when they came down onto her kimono. She put the pipe down onto the table and whacked herself with her palm until she was satisfied they’d all been snuffed out.

“Now, Chiyo, you’ve been here in the okiya more than a year,” she said.

“More than two years, ma’am.”

“In that time I’ve hardly taken any notice of you. And then today, along comes a geisha like Mameha, to say she wants to be your older sister! How on earth am I to understand this?”

As I saw it, Mameha was actually more interested in harming Hatsumomo than in helping me. But I certainly couldn’t say such a thing to Mother. I was about to tell her I had no idea why Mameha had taken an interest in me; but before I could speak, the door to Mother’s room slid open, and I heard Hatsumomo’s voice say:

“I’m sorry, Mother, I didn’t know you were busy scolding the maid!”

“She won’t be a maid much longer,” Mother told her. “We’ve had a visit today that may interest you.”

“Yes, I gather Mameha has come and plucked our little minnow out of the aquarium,” Hatsumomo said. She drifted over and knelt at the table, so close that I had to scoot away to make room for both of us.

“For some reason,” Mother said, “Mameha seems to think Chiyo will repay her debts by the age of twenty.”

Hatsumomo’s face was turned toward mine. To see her smile, you might have thought she was a mother looking adoringly at a baby. But this is what she said:

“Perhaps, Mother, if you sold her to a whorehouse …”

“Stop it, Hatsumomo. I didn’t invite you in here to listen to this sort of thing. I want to know what you’ve done to Mameha lately to provoke her.”

“I may have ruined Miss Prissy’s day by strolling past her on the street, perhaps, but other than that I haven’t done a thing.”

“She has something in mind. I’d like to know what it is.”

“There’s no mystery at all, Mother. She thinks she can get at me by going through Little Miss Stupid.”

Mother didn’t respond; she seemed to be considering what Hatsumomo had told her. “Perhaps,” she said at last, “she really does think Chiyo will be a more successful geisha than our Pumpkin and would like to make a bit of money off her. Who can blame her for that?”

“Really, Mother . . . Mameha doesn’t need Chiyo in order to make money. Do you think it’s an accident she’s chosen to waste her time on a girl who happens to live in the same okiya I do? Mameha would probably establish a relationship with your little dog if she thought it would help drive me out of Gion.”

“Come now, Hatsumomo. Why would she want to drive you out of Gion?”

“Because I’m more beautiful. Does she need a better reason? She wants to humiliate me by telling everyone, ‘Oh, please meet my new younger sister. She lives in the same okiya as Hatsumomo, but she’s such a jewel they’ve entrusted her to me for training instead.'”

“I can’t imagine Mameha behaving that way,” Mother said, almost under her breath.

“If she thinks she can make Chiyo into a more successful geisha than Pumpkin,” Hatsumomo went on,

“she’s going to be very surprised. But f m delighted that Chiyo will be dressed up in a kimono and paraded around. It’s a perfect opportunity for Pumpkin. Haven’t you ever seen a kitten attacking a ball of string? Pumpkin will be a much better geisha after she’s sharpened her teeth on this one.”

Mother seemed to like this, for she raised the edges of her mouth in a sort of smile.

“I had no idea what a fine day this would be,” she said. “This morning when I woke up, two useless girls were living in the okiya. Now they’ll be fighting it out . . . and with a couple of the most prominent geisha in Gion ushering them along ! “

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