Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 12)
The very next afternoon Mameha summoned me to her apartment. This time she was seated at the table waiting for me when the maid slid open the door. I was careful to bow properly before coming into the room and then to cross to the table and bow again.
“Mameha-san, I don’t know what has led you to this decision …” I began, “but I can’t express how grateful I am-”
“Don’t be grateful just yet,” she interrupted. “Nothing has happened. You’d better tell me what Mrs. Nitta said to you after my visit yesterday.”
“Well,” I said, “I think Mother was a little confused about why you’ve taken notice of me . . . and to tell the truth, so am I.” I hoped Mameha would say something, but she didn’t. “As for Hatsumomo-”
“Don’t even waste your time thinking about what she says. You already know she’d be thrilled to see you fail, just as Mrs. Nitta would.”
“I don’t understand why Mother should want me to fail,” I said, ‘considering she’ll make more money if I succeed.”
“Except that if you pay back your debts by the age of twenty, she’ll owe me a good deal of money. I made a sort of bet with her yesterday,” Mameha said, while a maid served us tea. “I wouldn’t have made the bet unless I felt certain you would succeed. But if I’m going to be your older sister, you may as well know that I have very strict terms.”
I expected her to tell them to me, but she only glowered and said:
“Really, Chiyo, you must stop blowing on your tea that way. You look like a peasant! Leave it on the table until it’s cool enough to drink.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t aware I was doing it.”
“It’s time you were; a geisha must be very careful about the image she presents to the world. Now, as I say, I have very strict terms. To begin with, I expect you to do what I ask without questioning me or doubting me in any way. I know you’ve disobeyed Hatsumomo and Mrs. Nitta from time to time. You may think that’s understandable; but if you ask me, you should have been more obedient in the first place and perhaps none of these unfortunate things would ever have happened to you.”
Mameha was quite right. The world has changed a good deal since; but when I was a child, a girl who disobeyed her elders was soon put in her place.
“Several years ago I took on two new younger sisters,” Mameha continued. “One worked very hard, but the other slacked off. I brought her here to my apartment one day and explained that I wouldn’t tolerate her making a fool of me any longer, but it had no effect. The following month I told her to go and find herself a new older sister.”
“Mameha-san, I promise you, such a thing will never happen with me,” I said. “Thanks to you, I feel like a ship encountering its first taste of the ocean. I would never forgive myself for disappointing you.”
“Yes, well, that’s all fine, but I’m not just talking about how hard you work. You’ll have to be careful not to let Hatsumomo trick you. And for heaven’s sake, don’t do anything to make your debts worse than they are. Don’t break even a teacup!”
I promised her I wouldn’t; but I must confess that when I thought of Hatsumomo tricking me again . . . well, I wasn’t sure how I could defend myself if she tried.
“There’s one more thing,” Mameha said. “Whatever you and I discuss must be kept private. You are never to tell any of it to Hatsumomo. Even if we’ve only talked about the weather, do you understand? If Hatsumomo asks what I said, you must tell her, ‘Oh, Hatsumomo- san, Mameha-san never says anything of interest! As soon as I’ve heard it, it slips right out of my mind. She’s the dullest person alive!'”
I told Mameha I understood.
“Hatsumomo is quite clever,” she went on. “If you give her the slightest hint, you’ll be surprised how much she’ll figure out on her own.”
Suddenly, Mameha leaned toward me and said in an angry voice, “What were you two talking about yesterday when I saw you on the street together?”
“Nothing, ma’am!” I said. And though she went on glaring at me, I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything further.
“What do you mean, nothing? You’d better answer me, you stupid little girl, or I’ll pour ink in your ear tonight while you’re sleeping!”
It took me a moment to understand that Mameha was trying to do an imitation of Hatsumomo. I’m afraid it wasn’t a very good imitation, but now that I understood what she was doing, I said, “Honestly, Hatsumomo-san, Mameha-san is always saying the dullest things! I can never remember a single one of them. They just melt away like snowflakes. Are you quite sure you saw us talking yesterday? Because if we talked at all, I can hardly remember it. …”
Mameha went on for a time, doing her poor imitation ofHatsumomo, and at the end said I had done an adequate job. I wasn’t as confident as she was. Being questioned by Mameha, even when she was trying to act like Hatsumomo, wasn’t the same thing as keeping up a facade in front of Hatsumomo herself.
In the two years since Mother had put an end to my lessons, I’d forgotten much of what I’d learned. And I hadn’t learned much to begin with, since my mind had been occupied with other things. This is why, when I went back to the school after Mameha agreed to be my older sister, I honestly felt I was beginning my lessons for the very first time.
I was twelve years old by then, and nearly as tall as Mameha. Having grown older may seem like an advantage, but I can assure you it wasn’t. Most of the girls at the school had begun their studies much younger, in some cases at the traditional age of three years and three days. Those few who’d started as young as this were mostly the daughters of geisha themselves, and had been raised in such a way that dance and tea ceremony formed as much a part of their daily life as swimming in the pond had for me.
I know I’ve described something of what it was like to study shamisen with Teacher Mouse. But a geisha must study a great many arts besides shamisen. And in fact, the “gei” of “geisha” means “arts,” so the word “geisha” really means “artisan” or “artist.” My first lesson in the morning was in a kind of small drum we call tsutsumi. You may wonder why a geisha should bother learning drums, but the answer is very simple. In a banquet or any sort of informal gathering in Gion, geisha usually dance to nothing more than the accompaniment of a shamisen and perhaps a singer. But for stage performances, such as Dances of the Old Capital every spring, six or more shamisen players join together as an ensemble, backed by various types of drums and also a Japanese flute we call fue. So you see, a geisha must try her hand at all of these instruments, even though eventually she’ll be encouraged to specialize in one or two.
As I say, my early-morning lesson was in the little drum we call tsutsumi, which is played in a kneeling position like all the other musical instruments we studied. Tsutsumi is different from the other drums because it’s held on the shoulder and played with the hand, unlike the larger okaiva, which rests on the thigh, or the largest drum of all, called taiho, which sits edgewise on a stand and is struck with fat drumsticks. I studied them all at one time or other. A drum may seem like an instrument even a child can play, but actually there are various ways of striking each of them, such as-for the big taiko-bringing the arm across the body and then swinging the drumstick backhand, you might say, which we call uchikomi; or striking with one arm while bringing the other up at the same moment, which we call sarashi. There are other methods as well, and each produces a different sound, but only after a great deal of practice. On top of this, the orchestra is always in view of the public, so all these movements must be graceful
and attractive, as well as being in unison- with the other players. Half the work is in making the right sound; the other half is in doing it the proper way.
Following drums, my next lesson of the morning was in Japanese flute, and after that in shamisen. The method in studying any of these instruments was more or less the same. The teacher began by playing something, and then the students tried to play it back. On occasion we sounded like a band of animals at the zoo, but not often, because the teachers were careful to begin simply. For example, in my first lesson on the flute, the teacher played a single note and we tried one at a time to play it back. Even after only
one note, the teacher still found plenty to say.
“So-and-so, you must keep your little finger down, not up in the air. And you, Such-and-such, does your flute smell bad? Well then, why do you wrinkle your nose that way!”
She was very strict, like most of the teachers, and naturally we were afraid of making mistakes. It wasn’t uncommon for her to take the flute from some poor girl in order to hit her on the shoulder with it.
After drums, flute, and shamisen, my next lesson was usually in singing. We often sing at parties in Japan; and of course, parties are mostly what men come to Gion for. But even if a girl can’t hold a tune and will never be asked to perform in front of others, she must still study singing to help her understand dance. This is because the dances are set to particular pieces of music, often performed by a singer accompanying herself on the shamisen.
There are many different types of songs-oh, far more than I could possibly count-but in our lessons we studied five different kinds. Some were popular ballads; some were long pieces from Kabuki theater telling a story; others were something like a short musical poem. It would be senseless for me to try describing these songs. But let me say that while I find most of them enchanting, foreigners often seem to think they sound more like cats wailing in a temple yard than music. It is true that traditional Japanese
singing involves a good deal of warbling and is often sung so far back in the throat that the sound comes out from the nose rather than the mouth. But it’s only a matter of what you’re accustomed to hearing.
In all of these classes, music and dance were only part of what we learned. Because a girl who has mastered the various arts will still come off badly at a party if she hasn’t learned proper comportment and behavior. This is one reason the teachers always insist upon good manners and bearing in their students, even when a girl is only scurrying down the hall toward the toilet. When you’re taking a lesson in shamisen, for example, you’ll be corrected for speaking in anything but the most proper language, or for speaking in a regional accent rather than in Kyoto speech, or for slouching, or walking in lumbering steps. In fact, the most severe scolding a girl is likely to receive probably won’t be for playing her instrument badly or failing to learn the words to a song, but rather for having dirty fingernails, or being disrespectful, or something of that sort.
Sometimes when I’ve talked with foreigners about my training, they’ve asked, “Well, when did you study flower arranging?” The answer is that I never did. Anyone who sits down in front of a man and begins to arrange flowers by way of entertaining him is likely to look up and find that he has laid his head down on the table to go to sleep. You must remember that a geisha, above all, is an entertainer and a performer. We may pour sake or tea for a man, but we never go and fetch another serving of pickles. And in fact, we geisha are so well pampered by our maids that we scarcely know how to look after ourselves or keep our own rooms orderly, much less adorn a room in a teahouse with flowers.
My last lesson of the morning was in tea ceremony. This is a subject many books are written about, so I won’t try to go into much detail. But basically, a tea ceremony is conducted by one or two people who sit before their guests and prepare tea in a very traditional manner, using beautiful cups, and whisks made from bamboo, and so forth. Even the guests are a part of the ceremony because they must hold the cup in a certain manner and drink from it just so. If you think of it as sitting down to have a nice cup of tea . . . well, it’s more like a sort of dance, or even a meditation, conducted while kneeling. The tea itself is made from tea leaves ground into a powder and then whisked with boiled water into a frothy green mix we call matcha, which is very unpopular with foreigners. I’ll admit it does look like green soapy water and has a bitter taste that takes a certain getting used to.
Tea ceremony is a very important part of a geisha’s training. It isn’t unusual for a party at a private residence to begin with a brief tea ceremony. And the guests who come to see the seasonal dances in Gion are first served tea made by geisha.
My tea ceremony teacher was a young woman of perhaps twenty-five who wasn’t a very good geisha, as I later learned; but she was so obsessed with tea ceremony that she taught it as if every movement was absolutely holy. Because of her enthusiasm I quickly learned to respect her teaching, and I must say it was the perfect lesson to have at the end of a long morning. The atmosphere was so serene. Even now, I find tea ceremony as enjoyable as a good night’s sleep.
What makes a geisha’s training- so difficult isn’t simply the arts she must learn, but how hectic her life becomes. After spending all morning in lessons, she is still expected to work during the afternoon and evening very much as she always has. And still, she sleeps no more than three to five hours every night. During these years of training, if I’d been two people my life would probably still have been too busy. I would have been grateful if Mother had freed me from my chores as she had Pumpkin; but considering
her bet with Mameha, I don’t think she ever considered offering me more time for practice. Some of my chores were given to the maids, but most days I was responsible for more than I could manage, while still being expected to practice shamisen for an hour or more during the afternoon. In winter, both Pumpkin and I were made to toughen up our hands by holding them in ice water until we cried from pain, and then practice outside in the frigid air of the courtyard. I know it sounds terribly cruel, but it’s the way things were done back then. And in fact, toughening the hands in this way really did help me play better. You see, stage fright drains the feeling from your hands; and when you’ve already grown accustomed to playing with hands that are numbed and miserable, stage fright presents much less of a problem.
In the beginning Pumpkin and I practiced shamisen together every afternoon, right after our hour-long lesson in reading and writing with Auntie. We’d studied Japanese with her ever since my arrival, and Auntie always insisted on good behavior. But while practicing shamisen during the afternoon, Pumpkin and I had great fun together. If we laughed out loud Auntie or one of the maids would come scold us; but as long as we made very little noise and plunked away at our shamisens while we talked, we could get away with spending the hour enjoying each other’s company. It was the time of day I looked forward to most.
Then one afternoon while Pumpkin was helping me with a technique for slurring notes together, Hatsumomo appeared in the corridor before us. We hadn’t even heard her come into the okiya.
“Why, look, it’s Mameha’s little-sister-to-be!” she said to me. She added the “to-be” because Mameha and I wouldn’t officially be sisters until the time of my debut as an apprentice geisha.
“I might have called you ‘Little Miss Stupid,’ ” she went on, “but after what I’ve just observed, I think I ought to save that for Pumpkin instead.”
Poor Pumpkin lowered her shamisen into her lap just like a dog putting its tail between its legs. “Have I done something wrong?” she asked.
I didn’t have to look directly at Hatsumomo to see the anger blooming on her face. I was terribly afraid of what would happen next.
“Nothing at all!” Hatsumomo said. “I just didn’t realize what a thoughtful person you are.”
“I’m sorry, Hatsumomo,” Pumpkin said. “I was trying to help Chiyo by-”
“But Chiyo doesn’t want your help. When she wants help with her shamisen, she’ll go to her teacher. Is that head of yours just a big, hollow gourd?”
And here Hatsumomo pinched Pumpkin by the lip so hard that the shamisen slid off her lap onto the wooden walkway where she was seated, and fell from there onto the dirt corridor below.
“You and I need to have a little talk,” Hatsumomo said to her. You’ll put your shamisen away, and I’ll stand here to make sure you don’t do anything else stupid.”
When Hatsumomo let go, poor Pumpkin stepped down to pick up her shamisen and begin disassembling it. She gave me a pitiful glanqe, and I thought she might calm down. But in fact her lip began to quiver; then her whole face trembled like the ground before an earthquake; and suddenly she dropped the pieces of her shamisen onto the walkway and put her hand to her lip-which had already begun to swell-while tears rolled down her cheeks. Hatsumomo’s face softened as if the angry sky had broken, and she turned to me with a satisfied smile.
“You’ll have to find yourself another little friend,” she said to me. “After Pumpkin and I have had our talk, she’ll know better than to speak a word to you in the future. Won’t you, Pumpkin?”
Pumpkin nodded, for she had no choice; but I could see how sorry she felt. We never practiced shamisen together again.
I reported this encounter to Mameha the next time I visited her apartment.
“I hope you took to heart what Hatsumomo said to you,” she told me. “If Pumpkin isn’t to speak a word to you, then you mustn’t speak a word to her either. You’ll only get her into trouble; and besides, she’ll have to tell Hatsumomo what you say. You may have trusted the poor girl in the past, but you mustn’t any longer.”
I felt so sad at hearing this, I could hardly speak for a long while. “Trying to survive in an okiya with Hatsumomo,” I said at last, “is like a pig trying to survive in a slaughterhouse.”
I was thinking of Pumpkin when I said this, but Mameha must have thought I meant myself. “You’re quite right,” she said. “Your only defense is to become more successful than Hatsumomo and drive her out.”
“But everyone says she’s one of the most popular geisha. I can’t imagine how I’ll ever become more popular than she is.”
“I didn’t say popular,” Mameha replied. “I said successful. Going to a lot of parties isn’t everything. I live in a spacious apartment with two maids of my own, while Hatsumomo-who probably goes to as many parties as I do-continues to live in the Nitta okiya. When I say successful, I mean a geisha who has earned her independence. Until a geisha has assembled her own collection of kimono-or until she’s been adopted as the daughter of an okiya, which is just about the same thing-she’ll be in someone else’s power all her life. You’ve seen some of my kimono, haven’t you? How do you suppose I came by them?”
“I’ve been thinking that perhaps you were adopted as the daughter of an okiya before you came to live in
this apartment. ”
“I did live in an okiya until about five years ago. But the mistress there has a natural daughter. She would never adopt another.”
“So if I might ask . . . did you buy your entire collection of kimono yourself?”
“How much do you think a geisha earns, Chiyo! A complete collection of kimono doesn’t mean two or three robes for each of the seasons. Some men’s lives revolve around Gion. They’ll grow bored if they see you in the same thing night after night.”
I must have looked every bit as puzzled as I felt, for Mameha gave a laugh at the expression on my face.
“Cheer up, Chiyo-chan, there’s an answer to this riddle. My danna is a generous man and bought me most of these robes. That’s why I’m more successful than Hatsumomo. I have a wealthy danna. She hasn’t had one in years.”
I’d already been in Gion long enough to know something of what Mameha meant by a danna. It’s the term a wife uses for her husband- or rather, it was in my day. But a geisha who refers to her danna isn’t talking about a husband. Geisha never marry. Or at least those who do no longer continue as geisha.
You see, sometimes after a party with geisha, certain men don’t feel satisfied with all the flirting and begin to long for something a bit more. Some of these men are content to make their way to places like Miyagawa-cho, where they’ll add the odor of their own sweat to the unpleasant houses I saw on the night I found my sister. Other men work up their courage to lean in bleary-eyed and whisper to the geisha beside them a question about what her “fees” might be. A lower-class geisha may be perfectly agreeable
to such an arrangement; probably she’s happy to take whatever income is offered her. A woman like this may call herself a geisha and be listed at the registry office; but I think you should take a look at how she dances, and how well she plays shamisen, and what she knows about tea ceremony before you decide whether or not she really is a proper geisha. A true geisha will never soil her reputation by making herself available to men on a nightly basis.
I won’t pretend a geisha never gives in casually to a man she finds attractive. But whether she does or not is her private affair. Geisha have passions like everyone else, and they make the same mistakes. A geisha who takes such a risk can only hope she isn’t found out. Her reputation is certainly at stake; but more important, so is her standing with her danna, if she has one. What’s more, she invites the wrath of the woman who runs her okiya. A geisha determined to follow her passions might take this risk; but she
certainly won’t do it for spending mone A she might just as easily earn in some legitimate way.
So you see, a geisha of the first or second tier in Gion can’t be bought for a single night, not by anyone. But if the right sort of man is interested in something else-not a night together, but a much longer time- and if he’s willing to offer suitable terms, well, in that case geisha will be happy to accept such an arrangement. Parties and so onj are all very nice; but the real money in Gion comes from having al danna, and a geisha without one-such as Hatsumomo-is like a stray cat on the street without a master to
You might expect that in the case of a beautiful woman like Ha- 1 tsumomo, any number of men would have been eager to propose them-1 selves as her danna; and I’m sure there were many who did. She had ir fact had a danna at one time. But somehow or other she’d so angerec the mistress of the Mizuki, which was her principal teahouse, that mer who made inquiries forever afterward were told she wasn’t available- which they probably took to mean she already had a danna, even thougf it wasn’t true. In damaging her relationship with the mistress, Ha-1 tsumomo had hurt no one so much as herself. As a very popular geisha I she made enough money to keep Mother happy; but as a geisha with- 1 out a danna, she didn’t make enough to gain her independence anc move out of the okiya once and for all. Nor could she simply change her! registration to another teahouse whose mistress might be more accom-l modating in helping her find a danna; none of the other mistresses would want to damage their relationships with the Mizuki.
Of course, the average geisha isn’t trapped in this way. Instead she spends her time charming men in the hopes that one of them will even-! tually make an inquiry with the mistress of the teahouse about herl Many of these inquiries lead nowhere; the man, when he’s investigated,! may be found to have too little money; or he may balk when someone suggests he give a gift of an expensive kimono as a gesture of goodwill! But if the weeks of negotiations come to a successful conclusion, the geisha and her new danna conduct a ceremony just like when two geisha become sisters. In most cases this bond will probably last six months orj so, perhaps longer-because of course, men tire so quickly of the same thing. The terms of the arrangement will probably oblige the danna to 1 1 pay off a portion of the geisha’s debts and cover many of her living expenses every month-such as the cost of her makeup and perhaps a portion of her lesson fees, and maybe her medical expenses as well. Things of that sort. Despite all these extravagant expenses, he’ll still continue to pay her usual hourly fee whenever he spends time with her, just as her other customers do. But he’s also entitled to certain “privileges.”
These would be the arrangements for an average geisha. But a very top geisha, of which there were probably thirty or forty in Gion, would expect much more. To begin with, she wouldn’t even consider tarnishing her reputation with a string of danna, but might instead have only one or two in her entire life. Not only will her danna cover all of her living expenses, such as her registration fee, her lesson fees, and her meals; what’s more, he’ll provide her with spending money, sponsor dance recitals for her, and buy
her gifts of kimono and jewelry. And when he spends time with her, he won’t pay her usual hourly fee; he’ll probably pay more, as a gesture of goodwill.
Mameha was certainly one of these top geisha; in fact, as I came to learn, she was probably one of the two or three best-known geisha in all of Japan. You may have heard something about the famous geisha Mametsuki, who had an affair with the prime minister of Japan shortly before World War I and caused something of a scandal. She was Mameha’s older sister- which is why they both had “Mame” in their names. It’s common for a young geisha to derive her name from the name of her older sister.
Having an older sister like Mametsuki was already enough to ensure Mameha a successful career. But in the early 19205, the Japan Travel Bureau began its first international advertising campaign. The posters showed a lovely photograph of the pagoda from the Toji Temple in southeastern Kyoto, with a cherry tree to one side and a lovely young apprentice geisha on the other side looking very shy and graceful, and exquisitely delicate. That apprentice geisha was Mameha.
It would be an understatement to say that Mameha became famous. The poster was displayed in big cities all over the world, with the words “Come and Visit the Land of the Rising Sun” in all sorts of foreign languages-not only English, but German, French, Russian, and … oh, other languages I’ve never even heard of. Mameha was only sixteen at the time, but suddenly she found herself being summoned to meet every head of state who came to Japan, and every aristocrat from England or Germany, and every
millionaire from the United States. She poured sake for the great German writer Thomas Mann, who afterward told her a long, dull story through an interpreter that went on and on for nearly an hour; as well as Charlie Chaplin, and Sun Yat-sen, and later Ernest Hemingway, who got very drunk and said the beautiful red lips on her white face made him think of blood in the snow. In the years since then, Mameha had grown only more famous by putting on a number of widely publicized dance recitals at the Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo, usually attended by the prime minister and a great many other luminaries.
When Mameha had announced her intention of taking me on as her younger sister, I hadn’t known any of these things about her, and it’s just as well. Probably I would have felt so intimidated, I couldn’t have done much more than tremble in her presence.
Mameha was kind enough to sit me down and explain much of this on that day in her apartment. When she was satisfied that I understood her, she said:
“Following your debut, you’ll be an apprentice geisha until the age of eighteen. After that you’ll need a danna if you’re to pay back your debts. A very substantial danna. My job will be to make sure you’re well known in Gion by then, but it’s up to you to work hard at becoming an accomplished dancer. If you can’t make it at least to the fifth rank by the age of sixteen, nothing I can do will help you, and Mrs. Nitta will be delighted to win her bet with me.”
“But, Mameha-san,” I said, “I don’t understand what dance has to do with it.”
“Dance has everything to do with it,” she told me. “If you look around at the most successful geisha in Gion, every one of them is a dancer.”
Dance is the most revered of the geisha’s arts. Only the most promising and beautiful geisha are encouraged to specialize in it, and nothing except perhaps tea ceremony can compare to the richness of its tradition. The Inoue School of dance, practiced by the geisha of Gion, derives from Noh theater. Because Noh is a very ancient art that has always been patronized by the Imperial court, dancers in Gion consider their art superior to the school of dance practiced in the Ponto-cho district across the river, which derives from Kabuki. Now, I’m a great admirer of Kabuki, and in fact I’ve been lucky enough to have as my friends a number of the most famous Kabuki actors of this century. But Kabuki is a relatively young art form; it didn’t exist before the 17005. And it has always been enjoyed by ordinary people rather than patronized by the Imperial court. There is simply no comparing the dance in Pontocho to the Inoue School of Gion.
All apprentice geisha must study dance, but, as I say, only the promising and attractive ones will be encouraged to specialize and go on to become true dancers, rather than shamisen players or singers.
Unfortunately, the reason Pumpkin, with her soft, round face, spent so much of her time practicing shamisen was because she hadn’t been selected as a dancer. As for me, I wasn’t so exquisitely beautiful that I was given no choice but to dance, like Hatsumomo. It seemed to me I would become a dancer only by demonstrating to my teachers that I was willing to work as hard as necessary.
Thanks to Hatsumomo, however, my lessons got off to a very bad start. My instructor was a woman of about fifty, known to us as Teacher Rump, because her skin gathered at her throat in such a way as to make a little rear end there beneath her chin. Teacher Rump hated Hatsumomo as much as anyone in Gion did. Hatsumomo knew this quite well; and so what do you think she did? She went to her-I know this because Teacher Rump told it to me some years later-and said:
“Teacher, may I be permitted to ask you a favor? I have my eye on one of the students in your class, who seems to me a very talented girl. I’d be extremely grateful if you could tell me what you think of her. Her name is Chiyo, and I’m very, very fond of her. I’d be greatly in your debt for any special help you might give her.”
Hatsumomo never needed to say another word after this, because Teacher Rump gave me all the “special help” Hatsumomo hoped she would. My dancing wasn’t bad, really, but Teacher Rump began at once to use me as an example of how things should not be done. For example, I remember one morning when she demonstrated a move to us by drawing her arm across her body just so and then stamping one foot on the mats. We were all expected to copy this move in unison; but because we were beginners, when we finished and stamped our feet, it sounded as if a platter stacked with beanbags had been spilled onto the floor, for not a single foot hit the mats at the same moment as any other. I can assure you I’d done no worse at this than anyone else, but Teacher Rump came and stood before me with that little rear end under her chin quivering, and tapped her folding fan against her thigh a few times before drawing it back and striking me on the side of the head with it.
“We don’t stamp at just any old moment,” she said. “And we don’t twitch our chins.”
In dances of the Inoue School, the face must be kept perfectly expressionless in imitation of the masks worn in Noh theater. But for her to complain about my chin twitching at the very moment when her own was trembling in anger . . . well, I was on the edge of tears because she’d struck me, but the other students burst out laughing. Teacher Rump blamed me for the outburst, and sent me out of the classroom in punishment.
I can’t say what might have become of me under her care, if Mameha hadn’t finally gone to have a talk with her and helped her to figure out what had really happened. However much Teacher Rump might have hated Hatsumomo beforehand, I’m sure she hated her all the more after learning how Hatsumomo had duped her. I’m happy to say she felt so terrible about the way she had treated me that I soon be- $ came one of her favorite students.
I won’t say I had any natural talent of any kind at all, in dance or in anything else; but I was certainly as determined as anyone to work single-mindedly until I reached my goal. Since meeting the Chairman on the street that day back in the spring, I had longed for nothing so much as the chance to become a geisha and find a place for myself in the world. Now that Mameha had given me that chance, I was intent on making good. But with all my lessons and chores, and with my high expectations, I felt completely
overwhelmed in my first six months of training. Then after that, I began to discover little tricks that made everything go more smoothly. For example, I found a way of practicing the shamisen while running errands. I did this by practicing a song in my mind while picturing clearly how my left hand should shift on the neck and how the plectrum should strike the string. In this way, when I put the real instrument into my lap, I could sometimes play a song quite well even though I had tried playing it only once before. Some people thought I’d learned it without practicing, but in fact, I’d practiced it all up and down the alleyways of Gion.
I used a different trick to learn the ballads and other songs we studied at the school. Since childhood I’ve always been able to hear a piece of music once and remember it fairly well the next day. I don’t know why, just something peculiar about my mind, I suppose. So I took to writing the words on a piece of paper before going to sleep. Then when I awoke, while my mind was still soft and impressionable, I read the page before even stirring from my futon. Usually this was enough, but with music that was more
difficult, I used a trick of finding images to remind me of the tune. For example, a branch falling from a tree might make me think of the sound of a drum, or a stream flowing over a rock might remind me of bending a string on the shamisen to make the note rise in pitch; and I would picture the song as a kind of stroll through a landscape.
But of course, the greatest challenge of all, and the most important one for me, was dance. For months I tried to make use of the various tricks I’d discovered, but they were of little help to me. Then one day Auntie grew furious when I spilled tea onto a magazine she was reading. The strange thing was that I’d been thinking kind thoughts toward her at the very moment she turned on me. I felt terribly sad afterward and found myself thinking of my sister, who was somewhere in Japan without me; and of my mother, who I hoped was at peace in paradise now; and of my father, who’d been so willing to sell us and live out the end of his life alone. As these thoughts ran through my head, my body began to grow heavy. So I climbed the stairs and went into the room where Pumpkin and I slept-for Mother had moved me there after Mameha’s visit to our okiya. Instead of laying myself down on the tatami mats and crying, I moved my arm in a sort of sweeping movement across my chest. I don’t know why I did it; it was a move from a dance we’d studied that morning, which seemed to me very sad. At the same time I thought about the Chairman and how my life would be so much better if I could rely on a man like him. As I watched my arm sweep through the air, the smoothness of its movement seemed to express these feelings of sadness and desire. My arm passed through the air with great dignity of movement-not like a leaf fluttering from a tree, but like an ocean liner gliding through the water. I suppose that by “dignity” I mean a kind of self-confidence, or certainty, such that a little puff of wind or the lap of a wave isn’t going to make any difference.
What I discovered that afternoon was that when my body felt heavy, I could move with great dignity. And if I imagined the Chairman observing me, my movements took on such a deep sense of feeling that sometimes each movement of a dance stood for some little interaction with him. Turning around with my head tipped at an angle might represent the question, “Where shall we spend our day together, Chairman?” Extending my arm and opening my folding fan told how grateful I felt that he’d honored me with his company. And when I snapped my fan shut again later in the dance, this was when I told him that nothing in life mattered more to me than pleasing him.