Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 14)

Chapter fourteen

I’ve heard it said that the week in which a young girl prepares for her debut as an apprentice geisha is like when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. It’s a charming idea; but for the life of me I can’t imagine why anyone ever thought up such a thing. A caterpillar has only to spin its cocoon and doze off for a while; whereas in my case, I’m sure I never had a more exhausting week. The first step was to have my hair done in the manner of an apprentice geisha, in the “split peach” style, which I’ve mentioned. Gion had quite a number of hairdressers in those days; Mameha’s worked in a terribly crowded room above an eel restaurant. I had to spend nearly two hours waiting my turn with six or eight geisha kneeling here and there, even out on the landing of the stairwell. And I’m sorry to say that the smell of dirty hair was overpowering. The elaborate hairstyles geisha wore in those days required so much effort and expense that no one went to the hairdresser more than once a week or so; by the end of that time, even the perfumes they put in their hair weren’t of much help.

When at last my turn came, the first thing the hairdresser did was put me over a large sink in a position that made me wonder if he was going to chop off my head. Then he poured a bucket of warm water over my hair and began to scrub it with soap. Actually “scrub” isn’t a strong enough word, because what he did to my scalp using his fingers is more like what a workman does to a field using a hoe. Looking back on it, I understand why. Dandruff is a great problem among geisha, and very few things are more unattractive and make the hair look more unclean. The hairdressermay have had the best motives, but after a while my scalp felt so raw, I was almost in tears from the pain. Finally he said to me, “Go ahead and cry if you have to. Why do you think I put you over a sink!”

I suppose this was his idea of a clever joke, because after he’d said it he laughed out loud. When he’d had enough of scraping his fingernails across my scalp, he sat me on the mats to one side and tore a wooden comb through my hair until the muscles of my neck were sore from pulling against him. At length he satisfied himself that the knots were gone, and then combed camellia oil into my hair, which gave it a lovely sheen. I was starting to think the worst was over; but then he took out a bar of wax. And I must tell you that even with camellia oil as a lubricant and a hot iron to keep the wax soft, hair and wax were never meant to go together. It says a great deal about how civilized we human beings are, that a young girl can willingly sit and allow a grown man to comb wax through her hair without doing anything more than whimpering quietly to herself. If you tried such a thing with a dog, it would bite you so much you’d be able to see through your hands.

When my hair was evenly waxed, the hairdresser swept the forelock back and brought the rest up into a large knot like a pincushion on the top of the head. When viewed from the back, this pincushion has a split in it, as if it’s cut in two, which gives the hairstyle its name of “split peach.”

Even though I wore this split-peach hairstyle for a number of years, there’s something about it that never occurred to me until quite some time later when a man explained it. The knot- what I’ve called the “pincushion”-is formed by wrapping the hair around a piece of fabric. In back where the knot is split, the fabric is left visible; it might be any design or color, but in the case of an apprentice geisha-after a certain point in her life, at least-it’s always red silk. One night a man said to me:

“Most of these innocent little girls have no idea how provocative the ‘split peach’ hairstyle really is! Imagine that you’re walking along behind a young geisha, thinking all sorts of naughty thoughts about what you might like to do to her, and then you see on her head this split-peach shape, with a big splash of red inside the cleft . . . And what do you think of?”

Well, I didn’t think of anything at all, and I told him so.

“You aren’t using your imagination!” he said.

After a moment I understood and turned so red he laughed to see it. On my way back to the okiya, it didn’t matter to me that my poor scalp felt the way clay must feel after the potter has scored it with a sharp stick. Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass of a shop, I felt I was someone to be taken seriously; not a girl anymore, but a young woman. When I reached the okiya, Auntie made me model my hair for her and said all sorts of kind things. Even Pumpkin couldn’t resist walking once around me admiringly-though Hatsumomo would have been angry if she’d known. And what do you suppose Mother’s reaction was? She stood on her tiptoes to see better-which did her little good, because already I was taller than she was-and then complained that I probably ought to have gone to Hatsumomo’s hairdresser rather than Mameha’s.

Every young geisha may be proud of her hairstyle at first, but she comes to hate it within three or four days. Because you see, if a girl comes home exhausted from the hairdresser and lays her head down on a pillow for a nap just as she did the night before, her hair will be flattened out of shape. The moment she awakens, she’ll have to go right back to the hairdresser again. For this reason, a young apprentice geisha must learn a new way of sleeping after her hair is styled for the first time. She doesn’t use an ordinary pillow any longer, but a taka-makura-which I’ve mentioned before. It’s not so much a pillow as a cradle for the base of the neck. Most are padded with a bag of wheat chaff, but still they’re not much better than putting your neck on a stone. You lie there on-your futon with your hair suspended in the air, thinking everything is fine until you fall asleep; but when you wake up, you’ve shifted somehow so that your head has settled back on the mats, and your hairstyle is as flat as if you hadn’t bothered to use a tall pillow in the first place. In my case, Auntie helped me to avoid this by putting a tray of rice flour on the mats beneath my hair. Whenever my head drooped back while I slept, my hair sank into the rice flour, which stuck to the wax and ruined my hairstyle. I’d already watched Pumpkin go through this ordeal. Now it was my turn. For a time I woke up every morning with my hair ruined and had to wait in line at the hairdresser for my chance to be tortured.

Every afternoon during the week leading up to my debut, Auntie dressed me in the complete regalia of an apprentice geisha and made me walk up and down the dirt corridor of the okiya to build up my strength. In the beginning I could scarcely walk at all, and worried that I might tip over backward. Young girls dress much more ornately than older women, you see, which means brighter colors and showier fabrics, but also a longer obi. A mature woman will wear the obi tied in back in a manner we call the “drum knot,” because it makes a tidy little box shape; this doesn’t require very much fabric. But a girl younger than around twenty or so wears her obi in a showier fashion. In the case of an apprentice geisha, this means the most dramatic fashion of all, a darari-obi-” dangling obi”-knotted almost as high as the shoulder blades, and with the ends hanging nearly to the ground. No matter how brightly colored a kimono might be, the obi is nearly always brighter. When an apprentice geisha walks down the street in

front of you, you notice not her kimono but rather her brilliantly colored, dangling obi- with just a margin of kimono showing at the shoulders and on the sides. To achieve this effect the obi must be so long that it stretches all the way from one end of a room to the other. But it isn’t the length of the obi that makes it hard to wear; it’s the weight, for it’s nearly always made of heavy silk brocade. Just to carry it up the stairs is exhausting, so you can imagine how it feels to wear it-the thick band of it squeezing your middle like one of those awful snakes, and the heavy fabric hanging behind, making you feel as if someone has strapped a traveling trunk to your back.

To make matters worse, the kimono itself is also heavy, with long, swinging sleeves. I don’t mean sleeves that drape over the hand onto the ground. You may have noticed that when a woman is wearing kimono and stretches out her arms, the fabric below the sleeve hangs down to form something like a pocket. This baggy pocket, which we call the/wn, is the part that’s so long on the kimono of an apprentice geisha. It can easily drag along the ground if a girl isn’t careful; and when she dances, she will certainly trip over her sleeves if she doesn’t wrap them many times around the forearm to keep them out of the way.

Years later a famous scientist from Kyoto University, when he was very drunk one night, said something about the costume of an apprentice geisha that I’ve never forgotten. “The mandrill of central Africa is often considered the showiest of primates,” he said. “But I believe the apprentice geisha of Gion is perhaps the most brilliantly colored primate of all!”

Finally the day came when Mameha and I were to perform the ceremony binding us as sisters. I bathed early and spent the rest of the morning dressing. Auntie helped me with the finishing touches on my makeup and hair. Because of the wax and makeup covering my skin, I had the strange sensation of having lost all feeling in my face; every time I touched my cheek, I could feel only a vague sense of pressure from my finger. I did it so many times Auntie had to redo my makeup. Afterward as I studied myself in the mirror, a most peculiar thing happened. I knew that the person kneeling before the makeup stand was me, but so was the unfamiliar girl gazing back. I actually reached out to touch her. She wore the magnificent makeup of a geisha. Her lips were flowering red on a stark white face, with her cheeks tinted a soft pink. Her hair was ornamented with silk flowers and sprigs of un-husked rice. She wore a formal kimono of black, with the crest of the Nitta okiya. When at last I could bring myself to stand, I

went into the hall and looked in astonishment at myself in the full-length mirror. Beginning at the hem of my gown, an embroidered dragon circled up the bottom of the robe to the middle of my thigh. His mane was woven in threads lacquered with a beautiful reddish tint. His claws and teeth were silver, his eyes gold-real gold. I- couldn’t stop tears from welling up in my eyes, and had to look straight up at the ceiling to keep them from rolling onto my cheeks. Before leaving the okiya, I took the handkerchief the Chairman had given me and tucked it into my obi for good luck.

Auntie accompanied me to Mameha’s apartment, where I expressed my gratitude to Mameha and pledged to honor and respect her. Then the three of us walked to the Gion Shrine, where Mameha and I clapped our hands and announced to the gods that we would soon be bound as sisters. I prayed for their favor in the years ahead, and then closed my eyes and thanked them for having granted me the wish I’d pleaded for three and a half years earlier, that I should become a geisha.

The ceremony was to take place at the Ichiriki Teahouse, which is certainly the best-known teahouse in all of Japan. It has quite a history, partly because of a famous samurai who hid himself there in the early 17005. If you’ve ever heard the story of the Forty-seven Ronin- who avenged their master’s death and afterward killed themselves by seppuku-well, it was their leader who hid himself in the Ichiriki Teahouse while plotting revenge. Most of the first-class teahouses in Gion are invisible from the street, except for their simple entrances, but the Ichiriki is as obvious as an apple on a tree. It sits at a prominent corner of Shijo Avenue, surrounded by a smooth, apricot-colored wall with its own tiled roof. It seemed like a palace to me.

We were joined there by two of Mameha’s younger sisters, as well as by Mother. When we had all assembled in the exterior garden, a maid led us through the entrance hall and down a beautiful meandering corridor to a small tatami room in the back. I’d never been in such elegant surroundings before. Every piece of wood trim gleamed; every plaster wall was perfect in its smoothness. I smelled the sweet, dusty fragrance of kuroyaki-” char-black” -a sort of perfume made by charring wood and grinding it into a soft gray dust. It’s very old-fashioned, and even Mameha, who was as traditional a geisha as you would find, preferred something more Western. But all the kuroyaki worn by generations of geisha still haunted the Ichiriki. I have some even now, which I keep in a wooden vial; and when I smell it, I see myself back there once again.

The ceremony, which was attended by the mistress of the Ichiriki, lasted only about ten minutes. A maid brought a tray with several sake cups, and Mameha and I drank together. I took three sips from a cup, and then passed it to her and she took three sips. We did this with three different cups, and then it was over. From that moment on, I was no longer known as Chiyo. I was the novice geisha Sayuri. During the first month of apprenticeship, a young geisha is known as a “novice” and cannot perform dances or

entertain on her own without her older sister, and in fact does little besides watching and learning. As for my name of Sayuri, Mameha had worked with her fortune-teller a long while to choose it. The sound of a name isn’t all that matters, you see; the meaning of the characters is very important as well, and so is the number of strokes used to write them-for there are lucky and unlucky stroke counts. My new name came from “sa,” meaning “together,” “yu,” from the zodiac sign for the Hen-in order to balance other elements in my personality-and “ri,” meaning “understanding.” All the combinations involving an element from Mameha’s name, unfortunately, had been pronounced inauspicious by the fortune-teller.

I thought Sayuri was a lovely name, but it felt strange not to be known as Chiyo any longer. After the ceremony we went into another room for a lunch of “red rice,” made of rice mixed with red beans. I picked at it, feeling strangely unsettled and not at all like celebrating. The mistress of the teahouse asked me a question, and when I heard her call me “Sayuri,” I realized what was bothering me. It was as if the little (girl named Chiyo, running barefoot from the pond to her tipsy house, no longer existed. I felt that this new girl, Sayuri, with her gleaming white face and her red lips, had destroyed her. Mameha planned to spend the early afternoon taking me around Gion to introduce me to the mistresses of the various teahouses and okiya with which she had relationships. But we didn’t head out the moment lunch was done. Instead she took me into a room at the Ichiriki and asked me to sit. Of course, a geisha never really “sits” while wearing kimono; what we call sitting is probably what other people would call kneeling. In any case, after I’d done it, she made a face at me and told me to do it again. The robes were so awkward it took me several tries to manage it properly. Mameha gave me a little ornament in the shape of a gourd and showed me how to wear it dangling on my obi. The gourd, being hollow and light, is thought to offset the heaviness of the body, you see, and many a clumsy young apprentice has relied upon one to help keep her from falling down.

Mameha talked with me a while, and then just when we were ready to leave, asked me to pour her a cup of tea. The pot was empty, but she told me to pretend to pour it anyway. She wanted to see how I held my sleeve out of the way when I did it. I thought I knew exactly what she was looking for and tried my best, but Mameha was unhappy with me.

“First of all,” she said, “whose cup are you filling?”

“Yours!” I said.

“Well, for heaven’s sake, you don’t need to impress me. Pretend I’m someone else. Am I a man or a woman?”

“A man,” I said.

“All right, then. Pour me a cup again.”

I did so, and Mameha practically broke her neck trying to peer up my sleeve as I held my arm out.

“How do you like that?” she asked me. “Because that’s exactly what’s going to happen if you hold your arm so high.”

I tried pouring again with my arm a bit lower. This time, she pretended to yawn and then turned and began a conversation with an imaginary geisha sitting on the other side of her.

“I think you’re trying to tell me that I bored you,” I said. “But how can I bore you just pouring a cup of tea?”

“You may not want me looking up your sleeve, but that doesn’t mean you have to act prissy! A man is interested in only one thing. Believe me, you’ll understand all too soon what I’m talking about. In the meantime, you can keep him happy by letting him think he’s permitted to see parts of your body no one else can see. If an apprentice geisha acts the way you did just then-pouring tea just like a maid would-the poor man will lose all hope. Try it again, but first show me your arm.”

So I drew my sleeve up above my elbow and held my arm out for her to see. She took it and turned it in her hands to look at the top and the bottom.

“You have a lovely arm; and beautiful skin. You should make sure every man who sits near you sees it at least once.”

Sol went on, pouring tea again and again, until Mameha felt satisfied that I drew my sleeve out of the way enough to show my arm without being too obvious what I was doing. I looked laughable if I hiked my sleeve up to my elbow; the trick was to act like I was merely pulling it out of the way, while at the same time drawing it a few finger- widths above my wrist to give a view of my forearm. Mameha said the prettiest part of the arm was the underside, so I must always be sure to hold the teapot in such a way that the man saw the bottom of my arm rather than the top.

She asked me to do it again, this time pretending I was pouring tea for the mistress of the Ichiriki. I showed my arm in just the same way, and Mameha made a face at once.

“For heaven’s sake, I’m a woman,” she said. “Why are you showing me your arm that way? Probably you’re just trying to make me angry.”

“Angry?”

“What else am I supposed to think? You’re showing me how youthful and beautiful you are, while I’m already old and decrepit. Unless you were doing it just to be vulgar . . .”

“How is it vulgar?”

“Why else have you made such a point of letting me see the underside of your arm? You may as well show me the bottom of your foot or the inside of your thigh. If I happen to catch a glimpse of something here or there, well, that’s all right. But to make such a point of showing it to me!”

Sol poured a few more times, until I’d learned a more demure and suitable method. Whereupon Mameha announced that we were ready to go out into Gion together.

Already by this time, I’d been wearing the complete ensemble of an apprentice geisha for several hours. Now I had to try walking all around Gion in the shoes we call okobo. They’re quite tall and made of wood, with lovely, lacquered thongs to hold the foot in place. Most people think it very elegant the way they taper down like a wedge, so that the footprint at the bottom is about half the size of the top. But I found it hard to walk delicately in them. I felt as if I had roof tiles strapped to the bottoms of my feet.

Mameha and I made perhaps twenty stops at various okiya and teahouses, though we spent no more than a few minutes at most of them. Usually a maid answered the door, and Mameha asked politely to speak with the mistress; then when the mistress came, Mameha said to her, “I’d like to introduce my new younger sister, Sayuri,” and then I bowed very low and said, “I beg your favor, please, Mistress.” The mistress and Mameha would chat for a moment, and then we left. At a few of the places we were asked in for tea and spent perhaps five minutes. But I was very reluctant to drink tea and only wet my lips instead. Using the toilet while wearing kimono is one of the most difficult things to learn, and I wasn’t at all sure I’d learned it adequately just yet.

In any case, within an hour I was so exhausted, it was all I could do to keep from groaning as I walked along. But we kept up our pace. In those days, I suppose there were probably thirty or forty first-class teahouses in Gion and another hundred or so of a somewhat lower grade. Of course we couldn’t visit them all. We went to the fifteen or sixteen where Mameha was accustomed to entertaining. As for okiya, there must have been hundreds of those, but we went only to the few with which Mameha had some sort of relationship.

Soon after three o’clock we were finished. I would have liked nothing better than to go back to the okiya to fall asleep for a long while. But Mameha had plans for me that very evening. I was to attend my first engagement as a novice geisha.

“Go take a bath,” she said to me. “You’ve been perspiring a good deal, and your makeup hasn’t held up.”

It was a warm fall day, you see, and I’d been working very hard.

Back at the okiya, Auntie helped me undress and then took pity on me by letting me nap for a half hour. I was back in her good graces again, now that my foolish mistakes were behind me and my future seemed even brighter than Pumpkin’s. She woke me after my nap, and I rushed to the bathhouse as quickly as I could. By five, I had finished dressing and applying my makeup. I felt terribly excited, as you can imagine, because for years I’d watched Hatsumomo, and lately Pumpkin, go off in the afternoons and evenings looking beautiful, and now at last my turn had come. The event that evening, the first I would ever attend, was to be a banquet at the Kansai International Hotel. Banquets are stiffly

formal affairs, with all the guests arranged shoulder to shoulder in a sort of U-shape around the outside of a big tatami room, and trays of food sitting on little stands in front of them. The geisha, who are there to entertain, move around the center of the room-inside the U-shape made by all the trays, I mean-and spend only a few minutes kneeling before each guest to pour sake and chat. It isn’t what you’d call an exciting affair; and as a novice, my role was less exciting even than Mameha’s. I stayed to one side of her like a shadow. Whenever she introduced herself, I did the same, bowing very low and saying, “My name is Sayuri. I’m a novice and beg your indulgence.” After that I said nothing more, and no one said anything to me.

Toward the end of the banquet, the doors at one side of the room were slid open, and Mameha and another geisha performed a dance together, known as Chi-yo no Tomo-“Friends Everlasting.” It’s a lovely piece about two devoted women meeting again after a long absence. Most of the men sat picking their teeth through it; they were executives of a large company that made rubber valves, or some such thing, and had gathered in Kyoto for their annual banquet. I don’t think a single one of them would have

known the difference between dancing and sleepwalking. But for my part, I was entranced. Geisha in Gion always use a folding fan as a prop when dancing, and Mameha in particular was masterful in her movements. At first she closed the fan and, while turning her body in a circle, waved it delicately with her wrist to suggest a stream of water flowing past. Then she opened it, and it became a cup into which her companion poured sake for her to drink. As I say, the dance was lovely, and so was the music, which was played on the shamisen by a terribly thin geisha with small, watery eyes.

A formal banquet generally lasts no more than two hours; so by eight o’clock we were out on the street again. I was just turning to thank Mameha and bid her good night, when she said to me, “Well, I’d thought of sending you back to bed now, but you seem to be so full of energy. I’m heading to the Komoriya Teahouse. Come along with me and have your first taste of an informal party. We may as well start showing you around as quickly as we can.”

I couldn’t very well tell her I felt too tired to go; so I swallowed my real feelings and followed her up the street.

The party, as she explained to me along the way, was to be given by the man who ran the National Theater in Tokyo. He knew all the important geisha in nearly every geisha district in Japan; and although he would probably be very cordial when Mameha introduced me, I shouldn’t expect him to say much. My only responsibility was to be sure I always looked pretty and alert. “Just be sure you don’t let anything happen to make you look bad,” she warned.

We entered the teahouse and were shown by a maid to a room on the second floor. I hardly dared to look inside when Mameha knelt and slid open the door, but I could see seven or eight men seated on cushions around a table, with perhaps four geisha. We bowed and went inside, and afterward knelt on the mats to close the door behind us-for this is the way a geisha enters a room. We greeted the other geisha first, as Mameha had told me to do, then the host, at one comer of the table, and afterward the other guests.

“Mameha-san!” said one of the geisha. “You’ve come just in time to tell us the story about Konda-san the wig maker.”

“Oh, heavens, I can’t remember it at all,” Mameha said, and everyone laughed; I had no idea what the joke was. Mameha led me around the table and knelt beside the host. I followed and positioned myself to one side.

“Mr. Director, please permit me to introduce my new younger sister,” she said to him.

This was my cue to bow and say my name, and beg the director’s indulgence, and so on. He was a very nervous man, with bulging eyes and a kind of chicken-bone frailty. He didn’t even look at me, but only flicked his cigarette in the nearly full ashtray before him and said:

“What is all the talk about Konda-san the wig maker? All evening the girls keep referring to it, and not a one of them will tell the story.”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t know!” Mameha said.

“Which means,” said another geisha, “that she’s too embarrassed to tell it. If she won’t, I suppose I’ll have to.”

The men seemed to like this idea, but Mameha only sighed.

“In the meantime, I’ll give Mameha a cup of sake to calm her nerves,” the director said, and washed out his own sake cup in a bowl of water on the center of the table-which was there for that very reason- before offering it to her.

“Well,” the other geisha began, “this fellow Konda-san is the best wig maker in Gion, or at least everyone says so. And for years Mameha-san went to him. She always has the best of everything, you know. Just look at her and you can tell.”

Mameha made a mock-angry face.

“She certainly has the best sneer,” said one of the men.

“During a performance,” the geisha went on, “a wig maker is always backstage to help with changes of costume. Often while a geisha is taking off a certain robe and putting on another one, something will slip here or there, and then suddenly … a naked breast! Or … a little bit of hair! You know, these things happen. And anyway-”

“All these years I’ve been working in a bank,” said one of the men. “I want to be a wig maker!”

“There’s more to it than just gawking at naked women. Anyway, Mameha-san always acts very prim and goes behind a screen to change-”

“Let me tell the story,” Mameha interrupted. “You’re going to give me a bad name. I wasn’t being prim. Konda-san was always staring at me like he couldn’t wait for the next costume change, so I had a screen brought in. It’s a wonder Konda-san didn’t burn a hole in it with his eyes, trying to see through it the way he did.”

“Why couldn’t you just give him a little glimpse now and then,” the director interrupted. “How can it hurt you to be nice?”

“I’ve never thought of it that way,” Mameha said. “You’re quite right, Mr. Director. What harm can a little glimpse do? Perhaps you want to give us one right now?”

Everyone in the room burst out laughing at this. Just when things were starting to calm down, the director started it all over by rising to his feet and beginning to untie the sash of his robe.

“I’m only going to do this,” he said to Mameha, “if you’ll give me a glimpse in return . . .”

“I never made such an offer,” Mameha said.

“That isn’t very generous of you.”

“Generous people don’t become geisha,” Mameha said. “They become the patrons of geisha.”

“Never mind, then,” the director said, and sat back down. I have to say, I was very relieved he’d given up; because although all the others seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously, I felt embarrassed.

“Where was I?” Mameha said. “Well, I had the screen brought in one day, and I thought this was enough to keep me safe from Konda-san. But when I hurried back from the toilet at one point, I couldn’t find him anywhere. I began to panic, because I needed a wig for my next entrance; but soon we found him sitting on a chest against the wall, looking very weak and sweating. I wondered if there was something wrong with his heart! He had my wig beside him, and when he saw me, he apologized and helped put it on me. Then later that afternoon, he handed me a note he’d written . . .”

Here Mameha’s voice trailed off. At last one of the men said, “Well? What did it say?”

Mameha covered her eyes with her hand. She was too embarrassed to continue, and everyone in the room broke into laughter.

“All right, I’ll tell you what he wrote,” said the geisha who’d begun the story. “It was something like this: “Dearest Mameha. You are the very loveliest geisha in all of Gion,’ and so forth. After you have worn wig, I always cherish it, and keep it in my workshop to put my face into it and smell the scent of your hair many times a day. But today when you rushed to the toilet, you gave me the greatest moment of my life.

While you were inside, I hid myself at the door, and the beautiful tinkling sound, more lovely than a waterfall-‘ ”

The men laughed so hard that the geisha had to wait before going on. “and the beautiful tinkling sound, more lovely than a waterfall, made me hard and stiff where I myself tinkle-‘ ”

“He didn’t say it that way,” Mameha said. “He wrote, ‘the beautiful tinkling sound, more lovely than a waterfall, caused me to swell and bulge at the knowledge that your body was bare

“Then he told her,” the other geisha said, “that he was unable to stand afterward because of the excitement. And he hoped that one day he would experience such a moment again.”

Of course, everyone laughed, and I pretended to laugh too. But the truth is, I was finding it difficult to believe that these men- who had paid so considerably to be there, among women wrapped in beautiful, expensive robes-really wanted to hear the same sorts of stories children back in the pond in Yoroido might have told. I’d imagined feeling out of my depth in a conversation about literature, or Kabuki, or something of that sort. And of course, there were such parties in Gion; it just happened that my first was

of the more childish kind.

All through Mameha’s story, the man beside me had sat rubbing his splotchy face with his hands and paying little attention. Now he looked at me a long while and then asked, “What’s the matter with your eyes? Or have I just drunk too much?”

He certainly had drunk too much-though I didn’t think it would be proper to tell him. But before I could answer, his eyebrows began to twitch, and a moment later he reached up and scratched his head so much that a little cloud of snow spilled onto his shoulders. As it turned out, he was known in Gion as “Mr. Snowshowers” because of his terrible dandruff. He seemed to have forgotten the question he’d asked me- or maybe he never expected me to answer it-because now he asked my age. I told him I was fourteen.

“You’re the oldest fourteen-year-old I’ve ever seen. Here, take this,” he said, and handed me his empty sake cup.

“Oh, no, thank you, sir,” I replied, “for I’m only a novice . . .” This was what Mameha had taught me to say, but Mr. Snowshowers didn’t listen. He just held the cup in the air until I took it, and then lifted up a vial of sake to pour for me.

I wasn’t supposed to drink sake, because an apprentice geisha- particularly one still in her novitiate- should appear childlike. But I couldn’t very well disobey him. I held the sake cup out; but he scratched his head again before he poured, and I was horrified to see a few flecks settle into the cup. Mr. Snowshowers filled it with sake and said to me, “Now drink up. Go on. First of many.”

I gave him a smile and had just begun to raise the cup slowly to my lips-not knowing what else I could do-when, thank heavens, Mameha rescued me.

“It’s your first day in Gion, Sayuri. It won’t do for you to get drunk,” she said, though she was speaking for the benefit of Mr. Snow-showers. “Just wet your lips and be done with it.”

So I obeyed her and wet my lips with the sake. And when I say that I wet my lips, I mean I pinched them shut so tightly I nearly sprained my mouth, and then tipped the sake cup until I felt the liquid against my skin. Then I put the cup down on the table hurriedly and said, “Mmm! Delicious!” while reaching for the handkerchief in my obi. I felt very relieved when I patted my lips with it, and I’m happy to say that Mr. Snowshowers didn’t even notice, for he was busy eyeing the cup as it sat there full on the table before him. After a moment he picked it up in two fingers and poured it right down his throat, before standing and excusing himself to use the toilet.

An apprentice geisha is expected to walk a man to the toilet and back, but no one expects a novice to do it. When there isn’t an apprentice in the room, a man will usually walk himself to the toilet, or sometimes one of the geisha will accompany him. But Mr. Snowshowers stood there gazing down at me until I realized he was waiting for me to stand.

I didn’t know my way around the Komoriya Teahouse, but Mr. Snowshowers certainly did. I followed him down the hall and around a corner. He stepped aside while I rolled open the door to the toilet for him. After I had closed it behind him and was waiting there in the hallway, I heard the sound of someone coming up the stairs, but I thought nothing of it. Soon Mr. Snowshowers was done and we made our way back. When I entered the room, I saw that another geisha had joined the party, along with an apprentice. They had their backs to the door, so that I didn’t see their faces until I’d followed Mr. Snowshowers around the table and taken up my place once again. You can imagine how shocked I felt when I saw them; for there, on the other side of the table, was the one woman I would have given anything to avoid. It was Hatsumomo, smiling at me, and beside her sat Pumpkin.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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: