Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 13)

Chapter thirteen

During the spring of 1934, after I’d been in training for more than two 1 1 years, Hatsumomo and Mother decided that the time had come for 1/ Pumpkin to make her debut as an apprentice geisha. Of course, no one told me anything about it, since Pumpkin was on orders not to speak with me, and Hatsumomo and Mother wouldn’t waste their time even considering such a thing. I found out about it only when Pumpkin left the okiya early one afternoon and came back at the end of the day wearing the hairstyle of a young geisha- the so-called momaware, meaning “split peach.” When I took my first look at her as she stepped up into the entrance hall, I felt sick with disappointment and jealousy. Her eyes never met mine for more than a flicker of an instant; probably she couldn’t help thinking of the effect her debut was having on me. With her hair swept back in an orb so beautifully from her temples, rather than tied at the neck as it had always been, she looked very much like a young woman, though still with her same babyish face. For years she and I had envied the older girls who wore their hair so elegantly. Now Pumpkin would be setting out as a geisha while I remained behind, unable even to ask about her new life.

Then came the day Pumpkin dressed as an apprentice geisha for the first time and went with Hatsumomo to the Mizuki Teahouse, for the ceremony to bind them together as sisters. Mother and Auntie went, though I wasn’t included. But I did stand among them in the formal entrance hall until Pumpkin came down the stairs assisted by the maids. She wore a magnificent black kimono with the crest of the Nitta okiya and a plum and gold obi; her face was painted white for the very first time. You might expect that with the ornaments in her hair and the brilliant red of her lips, she should have looked proud and lovely; but I thought she looked more worried than anything else. She had great difficulty walking; the regalia of an apprentice geisha is so cumbersome. Mother put a camera into Auntie’s hands and told her to go outside and photograph Pumpkin having a flint sparked on her back for good luck the very first time. The rest of us remained crowded inside the entrance hall, out of view. The maids held Pumpkin’s arms while she slipped her feet into the tall wooden shoes we call okobo, which an apprentice geisha always wears. Then Mother went to stand behind Pumpkin and struck a pose as though she were about to spark a flint, even though, in reality, it was always Auntie or one of the maids who did the job. When at last the photograph was taken, Pumpkin stumbled a few steps from the door and turned to look back. The others were on their way out to join her, but I was the one she looked at, with an expression that seemed to say she was very sorry for the way things had turned out.

By the end of that day, Pumpkin was officially known by her new geisha name of Hatsumiyo. The “Hatsu” came from Hatsumomo, and even though it ought to have helped Pumpkin to have a name derived from a geisha as well known as Hatsumomo, in the end it didn’t work that way. Very few people ever knew her geisha name, you see; they just called her Pumpkin as we always had.

I was very eager to tell Mameha about Pumpkin’s debut. But she’d been much busier than usual lately, traveling frequently to Tokyo at the request of her danna, with the result that we hadn’t set eyes on each other in nearly six months. Another few weeks passed before she finally had time to summon me to her apartment. When I stepped inside, the maid let out a gasp; and then a moment later Mameha came walking out of the back room and let out a gasp as well. I couldn’t think what was the matter. And then when I got on my knees to bow to Mameha and tell her how honored I was to see her again, she paid me no attention at all.

“My goodness, has it been so long, Tatsumi?” she said to her maid. “I hardly recognize her.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it, ma’am,” Tatsumi replied. “I thought something had gone wrong with my eyes!”

I certainly wondered at the time what they were talking about. But evidently in the six months since I’d last seen them, I’d changed more than I realized. Mameha told me to turn my head this way and that, and kept saying over and over, “My goodness, she’s turned into quite a young woman!” At one point Tatsumi even made me stand and hold my arms out so she could measure my waist and hips with her hands, and then said to me, “Well, there’s no doubt a kimono will fit your body just like a sock fits a foot.” I’m sure she meant this as a compliment, for she had a kindly look on her face when she said it.

Finally Mameha asked Tatsumi to take me into the back room and put me into a proper kimono. I’d arrived in the blue and white cotton robe I’d worn that morning to my lessons at the school, but Tatsumi changed me into a dark blue silk covered with a design of tiny carriage wheels in shades of brilliant yellow and red. It wasn’t the most beautiful kimono you would ever see, but when I looked at myself in the full-length mirror as Tatsumi was tying a bright green obi into place around my waist, I found that except for my plain hairstyle, I might have been taken for a young apprentice geisha on her way to a party. I felt quite proud when I walked out of the room, and thought Mameha would gasp again, or something of-the sort. But she only rose to her feet, tucked a handkerchief into her sleeve, and went directly to the door, where she slipped her feet into a green pair of lacquered zori and looked back over her shoulder at me.

“Well?” she said. “Aren’t you coming?”

I had no idea where we were going, but I was thrilled at the thought of being seen on the street with Mameha. The maid had put out a pair of lacquered zori for me, in a soft gray. I put them on and followed Mameha down the dark tunnel of the stairwell. As we stepped out onto the street, an elderly woman slowed to bow to Mameha and then, in almost the same movement, turned to bow to me. I scarcely knew what to think of this, for hardly anyone ever took notice of me on the street. The bright sunlight had blinded my eyes so much, I couldn’t make out whether or not I knew her. But I bowed back, and in a moment she was gone. I thought probably she was one of my teachers, but then an instant later the same thing happened again-this time with a young geisha I’d often admired, but who had never so much as glanced in my direction before.

We made our way up the street with nearly everyone we passed saying something to Mameha, or at the very least bowing to her, and then afterward giving me a little nod or bow as well. Several times stopped to bow back, with the result that I fell a step or two behind Mameha. She could see the difficulty I was having, and took me to a quiet alleyway to show me the proper way of walking. My trouble, she explained, was that I hadn’t learned to move the upper half of my body independently of the lower half. When I needed to bow to someone, I stopped my feet. “Slowing the feet is a way of showing respect,” she said. “The more you slow up, the greater the respect. You might stop altogether to bow to one of your teachers, but for anyone else, don’t slow more than you need to, for heaven’s sake, or you’ll never get anywhere. Go along at a constant pace when you can, taking little steps to keep the bottom of your kimono fluttering. When a woman walks, she should give the impression of waves rippling over a sandbar.”

I practiced walking up and down the alley as Mameha had described, looking straight toward my feet to see if my kimono fluttered as it should. When Mameha was satisfied, we set out again.

Most of our greetings, I found, fell into one of two simple patterns. Young geisha, as we passed them, usually slowed or even stopped completely and gave Mameha a deep bow, to which Mameha responded with a kind word or two and a little nod; then the young geisha would give me something of a puzzled look and an uncertain bow, which I would return much more deeply-for I was junior to every woman we encountered. When we passed a middle-aged or elderly woman, however, Mameha nearly always bowed first; then the woman returned a respectful bow, but not as deep as Mameha’s, and afterward looked me up and down before giving me a little nod. I always responded to these nods with the deepest bows I could manage while keeping my feet in motion.

I told Mameha that afternoon about Pumpkin’s debut; and for months afterward I hoped she would say the time had come for my apprenticeship to begin as well. Instead, spring passed and summer too, without her saying anything of the sort. In contrast with the exciting life Pumpkin was now leading, I had only my lessons and my chores, as well as the fifteen or twenty minutes Mameha spent with me during the afternoons several times a week. Sometimes I sat in her apartment while she taught me about something I needed to know; but most often she dressed me in one of her kimono and walked me around Gion while running errands or calling on her fortune-teller or wig maker. Even when it rained and she had no errands to run, we walked under lacquered umbrellas, making our way from store to store to check ,when the new shipment of perfume would arrive from Italy, or whether a certain kimono repair was finished though it wasn’t scheduled to be completed for another week.

At first I thought perhaps Mameha took me with her so that she could teach me things like proper posture-for she was constantly rapping me on the back with her closed folding fan to make me stand straighter-and about how to behave toward people. Mameha seemed to know everyone, and always made a point of smiling or saying something kind, even to the most junior maids, because she understood well that she owed her exalted position to the people who thought highly of her. But then one day as we were walking out of a bookstore, I suddenly realized what she was really doing. She had no particular interest in going to the bookstore, or the wig maker, or the stationer. The errands weren’t especially important; and besides, she could have sent one of her maids instead of going herself. She ran these errands only so that people in Gion would see us strolling the streets together. She was delaying my debut to give everyone time to take notice of me.

One sunny October afternoon we set out from Mameha’s apartment and headed downstream along the banks of the Shirakawa, watching the leaves of the cherry trees flutter down onto the water. A great many other people were out strolling for just the same reason, and as you would expect, all of them greeted Mameha. In nearly every case, at the same time they greeted Mameha, they greeted me.

“You’re getting to be rather well known, don’t you think?” she said to me.

“I think most people would greet even a sheep, if it were walking alongside Mameha-san.”

“Especially a sheep,” she said. “That would be so unusual. But really, I hear a great many people asking about the girl with the lovely gray eyes. They haven’t learned your name, but it makes no difference. You won’t be called Chiyo much longer anyway.”

“Does Mameha-san mean to say-”

“I mean to say that I’ve been speaking with Waza-san”-this was the name of her fortune-teller- “and he has suggested the third day in November as a suitable time for your debut.”

Mameha stopped to watch me as I stood there still as a tree and with my eyes the size of rice crackers. I didn’t cry out or clap my hands, but I was so delighted I couldn’t speak. Finally I bowed to Mameha and thanked her.

“You’re going to make a fine geisha,” she said, “but you’ll make an even better one if you put some thought into the sorts of statements you make with your eyes.”

“I’ve never been aware of making any statement with them at all,” I said.

“They’re the most expressive part of a woman’s body, especially in your case. Stand here a moment, and I’ll show you.”

Mameha walked around the corner, leaving me alone in the quiet alleyway. A moment later she strolled out and walked right past me with her eyes to one side. I had the impression she felt afraid of what might happen if she looked in my direction.

“Now, if you were a man,” she said, “what would you think?”

“I’d think you were concentrating so hard on avoiding me that you couldn’t think about anything else.”

“Isn’t it possible I was just looking at the rainspouts along the base of the houses?”

“Even if you were, I thought you were avoiding looking at me.”

“That’s just what I’m saying. A girl with a stunning profile will never accidentally give a man the wrong message with it. But men are going to notice your eyes and imagine you’re giving messages with them even when you aren’t. Now watch me once more.”

Mameha went around the corner again, and this time came back with her eyes to the ground, walking in a particularly dreamy manner. Then as she neared me her eyes rose to meet mine for just an instant, and very quickly looked away. I must say, I felt an electric jolt; if I’d been a man, I would have thought she’d given herself over very briefly to strong feelings she was struggling to hide.

“If I can say things like this with ordinary eyes like mine,” she told me, “think how much more you can say with yours. It wouldn’t surprise me if you were able to make a man faint right here on the street.”

“Mameha-san!” I said. “If I had the power to make a man faint, I’m sure I’d be aware of it by now.”

“I’m quite surprised you aren’t. Let’s agree, then, that you’ll be ready to make your debut as soon as you’ve stopped a man in his tracks just by flicking your eyes at him.”

I was so eager to make my debut that even if Mameha had challenged me to make a tree fall by looking at it, I’m sure I would have tried. I asked her if she would be kind enough to walk with me while I experimented on a few men, and she was happy to do it. My first encounter was with a man so old that, really, he looked like a kimono full of bones. He was making his way slowly up the street with the help of a cane, and his glasses were smeared so badly with grime that it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had

walked right into the corner of a building. He didn’t notice me at all; so we continued toward Shijo Avenue. Soon I saw two businessmen in Western suits, but I had no better luck with them. I think they recognized Mameha, or perhaps they simply thought she was prettier than I was, for in any case, they never took their eyes off her.

I was about to give up when I saw a delivery boy of perhaps twenty, carrying a tray stacked with lunch boxes. In those days, a number of the restaurants around Gion made deliveries and sent a boy around during the afternoon to pick up the empty boxes. Usually they were stacked in a crate that was either carried by hand or strapped to a bicycle; I don’t know why this young man was using a tray. In any case, he was half a block away, walking toward me. I could see that Mameha was looking right at him, and

then she said:

“Make him drop the tray.”

Before I could make up my mind whether she was joking, she turned up a side street and was gone. I don’t think it’s possible for a girl of fourteen-or for a woman of any age-to make a young man drop something just by looking at him in a certain way; I suppose such things may happen in movies and books. I would have given up without even trying, if I hadn’t noticed two things. First, the young man was already eyeing me as a hungry cat might eye a mouse; and second, most of the streets in Gion didn’t have curbs, but this one did, and the delivery boy was walking in the street not far from it. If I could crowd him-so that he had to step up onto the sidewalk and stumble over the curb, he might drop the tray.

I began by keeping my gaze to the ground in front of me, and then tried to do the very thing Mameha had done to me a few minutes earlier. I let my eyes rise until they met the young man’s for an instant, and then I quickly looked away. After a few more steps I did the same thing again. By this time he was watching me so intently that probably he’d forgotten about the tray on his arm, much less the curb at his feet. When we were very close, I changed my-course ever so slightly to begin crowding him, so that he wouldn’t be able to pass me without stepping over the curb onto the sidewalk, and then I looked him right in the eye. He was trying to move out of my way; and just as I had hoped, his feet tangled themselves on the curb, and he fell to one side scattering the lunch boxes on the sidewalk. Well, I couldn’t help laughing! And I’m happy to say that the young man began to laugh too. I helped him pick up his boxes, gave him a little smile before he bowed to me more deeply than any man had ever bowed to me before, and then went on his way.

I met up with Mameha a moment later, who had seen it all.

“I think perhaps you’re as ready now as you’ll ever need to be, she said. And with that, she led me across the main avenue to the apartment of Waza-san, her fortune-teller, and set him to work finding auspicious dates for all the various events that would lead up to my debut-such as going to the shrine to announce my intentions to the gods, and having my hair done for the first time, and performing the ceremony that would make sisters of Mameha and me.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. What I had wanted for so long had finally come to pass, and oh, how my stomach churned! The idea of dressing in the exquisite clothing I admired and presenting myself to a roomful of men was enough to make my palms glisten with sweat. Every time I thought of it, I felt a most delicious nervousness that tingled all the way from my knees into my chest. I imagined myself inside a teahouse, sliding open the door of a tatami room. The men turned their heads to look at me; and

of course, I saw the Chairman there among them. Sometimes I imagined him alone in the room, wearing not a Western-style business suit, but the Japanese dress so many men wore in the evenings to relax. In his fingers, as smooth as driftwood, he held a sake cup; more than anything else in the world, I wanted to pour it full for him and feel his eyes upon me as I did.

I may have been no more than fourteen, but it seemed to me I’d lived two lives already. My new life was still beginning, though my old life had come to an end some time ago. Several years had passed since I’d learned the sad news about my family, and it was amazing to me how completely the landscape of my mind had changed. We all know that a winter scene, though it may be covered over one day, with even the trees dressed in shawls of snow, will be unrecognizable the following spring. Yet I had never

imagined such a thing could occur within our very selves. When I first learned the news of my family, it was as though I’d been covered over by a blanket of snow. But in time the terrible coldness had melted away to reveal a landscape I’d never seen before or even imagined. I don’t know if this will make sense to you, but my mind on the eve of my debut was like a garden in which the flowers have only begun to poke their faces up through the soil, so that it is still impossible to tell how things will look. I was brimming with excitement; and in this garden of my mind stood a statue, precisely in the center. It was an image of the geisha I wanted to become.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: