Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 15)

Chapter fifteen

Hnatsumomo smiled when she was happy, like everybody else; and she was never happier than when she was about to make someone suffer. This is why she wore such a beautiful smile on her face when she said:

“Oh, my goodness! What a peculiar coincidence. Why, it’s a novice! I really shouldn’t tell the rest of this story, because I might embarrass the poor thing.”

I hoped Mameha would excuse herself and take me with her. But she only gave me an anxious glance. She must have felt that leaving Hatsumomo alone with these men would be like running away from a house on fire; we’d be better off to stay and control the damage.

“Really, I don’t think there’s anything more difficult than being a novice,” Hatsumomo was saying. “Don’t you think so, Pumpkin?”

Pumpkin was a full-fledged apprentice now; she’d been a novice six months earlier. I glanced at her for sympathy, but she just stared at the table with her hands in her lap. Knowing her as I did, I understood that the little wrinkle at the top of her nose meant she felt upset.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said.

“Such a difficult time of life,” Hatsumomo went on. “I can still remember how hard I found it… What is your name, little novice?”

Happily, I didn’t have to respond, because Mameha spoke up.

“You’re certainly right about it being a difficult time of life for you, Hatsumomo-san. Though of course, you were more awkward than most.”

“I want to hear the rest of the story,” said one of the men.

“And embarrass the poor novice who’s just joined us?” Hatsumomo said. “I’ll tell it only if you promise that you won’t think about this poor girl as you listen. Be sure to picture some other girl in your mind.”

Hatsumomo could be ingenious in her devilishness. The men might not have pictured the story happening to me earlier, but they certainly would now.

“Let’s see, where was I?” Hatsumomo began. “Oh, yes. Well, this novice I mentioned … I can’t remember her name, but I ought to give her one to keep you from confusing her with this poor girl. Tell

me, little novice . . . what is your name?”

“Sayuri, ma’am,” I said. And my face felt so hot from nervousness that I wouldn’t have been surprised if my makeup had simply melted and begun to drip onto my lap.

“Sayuri. How lovely! Somehow it doesn’t suit you. Well, let’s call this novice in the story ‘Mayuri.’ Now then, one day I was walking along Shijo Avenue with Mayuri, on our way to her older sister’s okiya. There was a terrible wind, the sort that rattles the windows, and poor Mayuri had so little experience with kimono. She was no heavier than a leaf, and those big sleeves can be just like sails, you know. As we were about to cross the street, she disappeared, and I heard a little sound from behind me, like ‘Ah … ah,’ but very faint. . .”

Here Hatsumomo turned to look at me.

“My voice isn’t high enough,” she said. “Let me hear you say it. ‘Ah . . . ah . . .'”

Well, what could I do? I tried my best to make the noise.

“No, no, much higher . . . oh, never mind!” Hatsumomo turned to the man beside her and said under her breath, “She isn’t very bright, is she?” She shook her head for a moment and then went on. “Anyway, when I turned around, poor Mayuri was being blown backward up the street a full block behind me, with her arms and legs flailing so much she looked like a bug on its back. I nearly tore my obi laughing, but then all of a sudden she stumbled right off the curb into a busy intersection just as a car came zooming

along. Thank heavens she was blowr A onto the hood! Her legs flew up … and then if you can picture this, the wind blew right up her kimono, and . . . well, I don’t need to tell you what happened.”

“You certainly do!” one of the men said.

“Don’t you have any imagination?” she replied. “The wind blew her kimono right up over her hips. She didn’t want everyone to see her naked; so to preserve her modesty, she flipped herself around and ended up with her legs pointing in two different directions, and her private parts pressed against the windshield, right in the driver’s face …”

Of course, the men were in hysterics by now, including the director, who tapped his sake cup on the tabletop like a machine gun, and said, “Why doesn’t anything like this ever happen to me?”

“Really, Mr. Director,” Hatsumomo said. “The girl was only a novice! It’s not as if the driver got to see anything. I mean, can you imagine looking at the private parts of this girl across the table?” She was talking about me, of course. “Probably she’s no different from a baby!”

“Girls sometimes start getting hair when they’re only eleven,” said one of the men.

“How old are you, little Sayuri-san?” Hatsumomo asked me.

“I’m fourteen, ma’am,” I told her, just as politely as I could. “But I’m an old fourteen.”

Already the men liked this, and Hatsumomo’s smile hardened a bit.

“Fourteen?” she said. “How perfect! And of course, you don’t have any hair …”

“Oh, but I do. A good deal of it!” And I reached up and patted one hand against the hair on my head.

I guess this must have been a clever thing to do, although it didn’t seem particularly clever to me. The men laughed harder than they’d laughed even at Hatsumomo’s story. Hatsumomo laughed too, I suppose because she didn’t want to seem as if the joke had been on her.

As the laughter died down, Mameha and I left. We hadn’t even closed the door behind us before we heard Hatsumomo excusing herself as well. She and Pumpkin followed us down the stairway.

“Why, Mameha-san,” Hatsumomo said, “this has simply been too much fun! I don’t know why we haven’t entertained together more often!”

“Yes, it has been fun,” said Mameha. “I just relish the thought of what the future holds!”

After this, Mameha gave me a very satisfied look. She was relishing the thought of seeing Hatsumomo destroyed.

That night after bathing and removing my makeup, I was standing in the formal entrance hall answering Auntie’s questions about my day, when Hatsumomo came in from the street and stood before me. Normally she wasn’t back so early, but I knew the moment I saw her face that she’d come back only for the purpose of confronting me. She wasn’t even wearing her cruel smile, but had her lips pressed together in a way that looked almost unattractive. She stood before me only a moment, and then drew back her hand and slapped me across the face. The last thing I saw before her hand struck me was a glimpse of her clenched teeth like two strings of pearls.

I was so stunned, I can’t recall what happened immediately afterward. But Auntie and Hatsumomo must have begun to argue, because the next thing I heard was Hatsumomo saying, “If this girl embarrasses me in public again, I’ll be happy to slap the other side of her face!”

“How did I embarrass you-?” I asked her.

“You knew perfectly well what I meant when I wondered if you had hair, but you made me look like a fool. I owe you a favor, little Chiyo. I’ll return it soon, I promise.”

Hatsumomo’s anger seemed to close itself up, and she walked back out of the okiya, where Pumpkin was waiting on the street to bow to her.

I reported this to Mameha the following afternoon, but she hardly paid any attention.

“What’s the problem?” she said. “Hatsumomo didn’t leave a mark on your face, thank heavens. You didn’t expect she’d be pleased at your comment, did you?”

“I’m only concerned about what might happen the next time we run into her,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what will happen. We’ll turn around and leave. The host may be surprised to see us walk out of a party we’ve just walked into, but it’s better than giving Hatsumomo another chance to humiliate you. Anyway, if we run into her, it will be a blessing.”

“Really, Mameha-san, I can’t see how it could be a blessing.”

“If Hatsumomo forces us to leave a few teahouses, we’ll drop in on more parties, that’s all. You’ll be known around Gion much faster that way.”

I felt reassured by Mameha’s confidence. In fact, when we set out into Gion later, I expected that at the end of the night I would take off my,makeup and find my skin glowing with the satisfaction of a long evening. Our first stop was a party for a young film actor, who looked no older than eighteen but had not a single hair on his head, not even eyelashes or eyebrows. He went on to become very famous a few years later, but only because of the manner of his death. He killed himself with a sword after murdering

a young waitress in Tokyo. In any case, I thought him very strange until I noticed that he kept glancing at me; I’d lived so much of my life in the isolation of the okiya that I must admit I relished the attention.

We stayed more than an hour, and Ha-tsumomo never showed up. It seemed to me that my fantasies of success might indeed come to pass.

Next we stopped at a party given by the chancellor of Kyoto University. Mameha at once began talking with a man she hadn’t seen in some time, and left me on my own. The only space I could find at the table was beside an old man in a stained white shirt, who must have been very thirsty because he was drinking

continually from a glass of beer, except when he moved it away from his mouth to burp. I knelt beside him and was about to introduce myself when I heard the door slide open. I expected to see a maid delivering another round of sake, but there in the hallway knelt Hatsumomo and Pumpkin.

“Oh, good heavens!” I heard Mameha say to the man she was entertaining. “Is your wristwatcaccurate?”

“Very accurate,” he said. “I set it every afternoon by the clock at the train station.”

“I’m afraid Sayuri and I have no choice but to be rude and excuse ourselves. We were expected elsewhere a half hour ago ! ”

And with that, we stood and slipped out of the party the very moment after Hatsumomo and Pumpkin entered it.

As we were leaving the teahouse, Mameha pulled me into an empty tatami room. In the hazy darkness I couldn’t make out her features, but only the beautiful oval shape of her face with its elaborate crown of hair. If I couldn’t see her, then she couldn’t see me; I let my jaw sag with frustration and despair, for it seemed I would never escape Hatsumomo.

“What did you say to that horrid woman earlier today?” Mameha said to me.

“Nothing at all, ma’am!”

“Then how did she find us here?”

“I didn’t know we would be here myself,” I said. “I couldn’t possibly have told her.”

“My maid knows about my engagements, but I can’t imagine . . . Well, we’ll go to a party hardly anyone knows about. Naga Teruomi was just appointed the new conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic last week. He’s come into town this afternoon to give everyone a chance to idolize him. I don’t much want to go,

but … at least Hatsumomo won’t be there.”

We crossed Shijo Avenue and turned down a narrow alley that smelled of sake and roasted yams. A sprinkle of laughter fell down onto us from the second-story windows brightly lit overhead. Inside the teahouse, a young maid showed us to a room on the second floor, where we found the conductor sitting with his thin hair oiled back and his fingers stroking a sake cup in anger. The other men in the room were in the midst of a drinking game with two geisha, but the conductor refused to join. He talked with

Mameha for a while, and soon asked her to put on a dance. I don’t think he cared about the dance, really; it was just a way to end the drinking games and encourage his guests to begin paying attention to him again. Just as the maid brought a shamisen to hand to one of the geisha-even before Mameha had taken

up her pose-the door slid open and . . . I’m sure you know what I’m going to say. They were like dogs that wouldn’t stop following us. It was Hatsumomo and Pumpkin once again.

You should have seen the way Mameha and Hatsumomo smiled at each other. You’d almost have thought they were sharing a private joke-whereas in fact, I’m sure Hatsumomo was relishing her victory in finding us, and as for Mameha . . . well, I think her smile was just a way of hiding her anger. During her dance, I could see her jaw jutting out and her nostrils flared. She didn’t even come back to the table afterward, but just said to the conductor:

“Thank you so much for permitting us to drop in! I’m afraid it’s so late . . . Sayuri and I must excuse ourselves now …”

I can’t tell you how pleased Hatsumomo looked as we closed the door behind us. I followed Mameha down the stairs. On the bottom step she came to a halt and waited. At last a young

maid rushed into the formal entrance hall to see us out-the very same maid who’d shown us up the stairs earlier.

“What a difficult life you must have as a maid!” Mameha said to her. “Probably you want so many things and have so little money to spend. But tell me, what will you do with the funds you’ve just

earned?”

“I haven’t earned any funds, ma’am,” she said. But to see her swallowing so nervously, I could tell she was lying.

“How much money did Hatsumomo promise you?”

The maid’s gaze fell at once to the floor. It wasn’t until this moment that I understood what Mameha was thinking. As we learned some time afterward, Hatsumomo had indeed bribed at least one of the maids in every first-class teahouse in Gion. They were asked to call Yoko-the girl who answered the telephone in

our okiya- whenever Mameha and I arrived at a party. Of course, we didn’t know about Yoko’s involvement at the time; but Mameha was quite right in assuming that the maid in this teahouse had passed a message to Hatsumomo somehow or other.

The maid couldn’t bring herself to look at Mameha. Even when Mameha lifted her chin, the girl still pointed her eyes downward just as if they weighed as much as two lead balls. When we left the teahouse, we could hear Hatsumomo’s voice coming from the window above-for it was such a narrow alleyway that everything echoed.

“Yes, what was her name?” Hatsumomo was saying.

“Sayuko,” said one of the men.

“Not Sayuko. Sayuri,” said another.

“I think that’s the one,” Hatsumomo said. “But really, it’s too embarrassing for her … I mustn’t tell you! She seems like a nice girl . . .”

“I didn’t get much of an impression,” one man said. “But she’s very pretty.”

“Such unusual eyes!” said one of the geisha.

“You know what I heard a man say about her eyes the other day?” Hatsumomo said. “He told me they were the color of smashed worms.”

“Smashed worms . . . I’ve certainly never heard a color described that way before.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what I was going to say about her,” Hatsumomo went on, “but you must promise not to repeat it. She has some sort of disease, and her bosoms look just like an old lady’s-all droopy and wrinkled-really, it’s dreadful! I saw her in a bathhouse once . . .”

Mameha and I had stopped to listen, but when we heard this, she gave me a little push and we walked out of the alley together. Mameha stood for a while looking up and down the street and then said:

“I’m trying to think where we can go, but… I can’t think of a single place. If that woman has found us here, I suppose she can find us anywhere in Gion. You may as well go back to your okiya, Sayuri, until we come up with a new plan.”

One afternoon during World War II, some years after these events I’m telling you about now, an officer took his pistol out of its holster during a party beneath the boughs of a maple tree and laid it on the straw mat to impress me. I remember being struck by its beauty. The metal had a dull gray sheen; its curves were perfect and smooth. The oiled wood handle was richly grained. But when I thought of its real purpose as I listened to his stories, it ceased to be beautiful at all and became something monstrous instead.

This is exactly what happened to Hatsumomo in my eyes after she brought my debut to a standstill. That isn’t to say I’d never considered her monstrous before. But I’d always envied her loveliness, and now I no longer did. While I ought to have been attending banquets every night, and ten or fifteen parties besides,

I was forced instead to sit in the okiya practicing dance and shamisen just as though nothing in my life had changed from the year before. When Hatsumomo walked past me down the corridor in her full regalia, with her white makeup glowing above her dark robe just like the moon in a hazy night sky, I’m sure that even a blind man would have found her beautiful. And yet I felt nothing but hatred, and heard my pulse hissing in my ears.

I was summoned to Mameha’s apartment several times in the next few days. Each time I hoped she was going to say she’d found a way around Hatsumomo; but she only wanted me to run errands she couldn’t entrust to her maid. One afternoon I asked if she had any idea what would become of me.

“I’m afraid you’re an exile, Sayuri-san, for the moment,” she replied. “I hope you feel more determined than ever to destroy that wicked woman! But until I’ve thought of a plan, it will do you no good to follow me around Gion.”

Of course I was disappointed to hear it, but Mameha was quite right. Hatsumomo’s ridicule would do me such harm in the eyes of men, and even in the eyes of women in Gion, that I would be better off staying home.

Happily, Mameha was very resourceful and did manage to find engagements from time to time that were safe for me to attend. Hatsumomo may have closed off Gion from me, but she couldn’t close off the entire world beyond it. When Mameha left Gion for an engagement, she often invited me along. I went on a day trip by train to Kobe, where Mameha cut the ribbon for a new factory. On another occasion I joined her to accompany the former president of Nippon Telephone & Telegraph on a tour of Kyoto by limousine. This tour made quite an impression on me, for it was my first time seeing the vast city of Kyoto that lay beyond the bounds of our little Gion, not to mention my first time riding in a car. I’d never really understood how desperately some people lived during these years, until we drove along the river south of the city and saw dirty women nursing their babies under the trees along the railroad tracks, and men squatting in tattered straw sandals among the weeds. I won’t pretend poor people never came to Gion, but we rarely saw anyone like these starving peasants too poor even to bathe. I could never have imagined that I-a slave terrorized by Hatsu-momo’s wickedness-had lived a relatively fortunate life

through the Great Depression. But that day I realized it was true.

Late one morning I returned from the school to find a note telling me to bring my makeup and rush to Mameha’s apartment. When I arrived, Mr. Itchoda, who was a dresser just like Mr. Bekku, was in the back room tying Mameha’s obi before a full-length mirror.

“Hurry up and put on your makeup,” Mameha said to me. “I’ve laid a kimono out for you in the other room.”

Mameha’s apartment was enormous by the standards of Gion. In addition to her main room, which measured six tatami mats inarea, she had two other smaller rooms-a dressing area that doubled as a maids’ room, and a room in which she slept. There in her bedroom was a freshly made-up futon, with a complete kimono ensemble on top of it that her maid had laid out for me. I was puzzled by the futon. The sheets certainly weren’t the ones Mameha had slept in the night before, for they were as smooth as

fresh snow. I wondered about it while changing into the cotton dressing robe I’d brought. When I went to begin applying my makeup, Mameha told me why she had summoned me.

“The Baron is back in town,” she said. “He’ll be coming here for lunch. I want him to meet you.”

I haven’t had occasion to mention the Baron, but Mameha was referring to Baron Matsunaga Tsuneyoshi- her danna. We don’t have barons and counts in Japan any longer, but we did before World War II, and Baron Matsunaga was certainly among the wealthiest. His family controlled one of Japan’s large banks

and was very influential in finance. Originally his older brother had inherited the title of baron, but he had been assassinated while serving as finance minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Inukai.

Mameha’s danna, already in his thirties at that time, had not only inherited the title of baron but all of his brother’s holdings, including a grand estate in Kyoto not too far from Gion. His business interests kept him in Tokyo much of the time; and something else kept him there as well-for I learned many years later that he had another mistress, in the geisha district of Akasaka in Tokyo. Few men are wealthy enough to afford one geisha mistress, but Baron Matsunaga Tsuneyoshi had two.

Now that I knew Mameha would be spending the afternoon with her danna, I had a much better idea why the futon in her bedroom had been made up with fresh sheets.

I changed quickly into the clothing Mameha had set out for me-an underrobe of light green, and a kimono in russet and yellow with a design of pine trees at the hem. By this time one of Mameha’s maids was just returning from a nearby restaurant with a big lacquer box holding the Baron’s lunch. The foods inside it, on plates and bowls, were ready to be served just as in a restaurant. The largest was a flat lacquer dish with two grilled, salted ayu poised on their bellies as though they were swimming down the

river together. To one side stood two tiny steamed crabs of the sort that are eaten whole. A trail of streaked salt curved along the black lacquer to suggest the sand they had crossed.

A few minutes later the Baron arrived. I peeked out through a crack at the edge of the sliding door and saw him standing just outside on the landing while Mameha untied his shoes. My first impression was of an almond or some other kind of nut, because he was small and very round, with a certain kind of heaviness, particularly around his eyes. Beards were very fashionable at that time, and the Baron wore a number of long, soft hairs on his face that I’m sure were supposed to resemble a beard, but looked to me more like some sort of garnish, or like the thin strips of seaweed that are sometimes sprinkled onto a bowl of rice.

“Oh, Mameha . . . I’m exhausted,” I heard him say. “How I hate these long train rides!”

Finally he stepped out of his shoes and crossed the room with brisk little steps. Earlier in the morning, Mameha’s dresser had brought an overstuffed chair and a Persian rug from a storage closet across the hall and arranged them near the window. The Baron seated himself there; but as for what happened afterward, I can’t say, because Mameha’s maid came over to me and bowed in apology before giving the door a gentle push to slide it the rest of the way closed.

I stayed in Mameha’s little dressing room for an hour or more while the maid went in and out serving the Baron’s lunch. I heard the murmur of Mameha’s voice occasionally, but mainly the Baron did the talking. At one point I thought he was angry with Mameha, but finally I overheard enough to understand that he was only complaining about a man he’d met the day before, who’d asked him personal questions that made him angry. At last when the meal was over, the maid carried out cups of tea, and Mameha

asked for me. I went out to kneel before the Baron, feeling very nervous-for I’d never met an aristocrat before. I bowed and begged his favor, and thought perhaps he would say something to me. But he seemed to be looking around the apartment, hardly taking notice of me at all.

“Mameha,” he said, “what happened to that scroll you used to have in the alcove? It was an ink painting of something or other- much better than the thing you have there now.”

“The scroll there now, Baron, is a poem in Matsudaira Koichi’s own hand. It has hung in that alcove nearly four years.”

“Four years? Wasn’t the ink painting there when I came last month?”

“It wasn’t . . . but in any case, the Baron hasn’t honored me with a visit in nearly three months.”

“No wonder I’m feeling so exhausted. I’m always saying I ought to spend more time in Kyoto, but . . . well, one thing leads to another. Let’s have a look at that scroll I’m talking about. I can’t believe it’s been four years since I’ve seen it.”

Mameha summoned her maid and asked her to bring the scroll from the closet. I was given the job of unrolling it. My hands were trembling so much that it slipped from my grasp when I held it up for the Baron to have a look.

“Careful, girl!” he said.

I was so embarrassed that even after I’d bowed and apologized, I couldn’t help glancing at the Baron again and again to see if he seemed angry with me. While I held the scroll up, he seemed to look at me more than at it. But it wasn’t a reproachful stare. After a while I realized it was curiosity, which only made me feel more self-conscious.

“This scroll is much more attractive than the one you have in the alcove now, Mameha,” he said. But he still seemed to be looking at me, and made no effort to look away when I glanced at him. “Calligraphy is so old-fashioned anyway,” he went on. “You ought to take that thing in the alcove down, and put up this landscape painting again.”

Mameha had no choice but to do as the Baron suggested; she even managed to look as if she thought it was a fine idea. When the maid and I had finished hanging the painting and rolling up the other scroll, Mameha called me over to pour tea for the Baron. To look at us from above, we formed a little triangle- Mameha, the Baron, and me. But of course, Mameha and the Baron did all the talking; as for me, I did nothing more useful than to kneel there, feeling as much out of my element as a pigeon in a nest of

falcons. To think I’d ever imagined myself worthy of entertaining the sorts of men Mameha entertained- not only grand aristocrats like the Baron, but the Chairman as well. Even the theater director from several nights earlier . . . he’d hardly so much as glanced at me. I won’t say I’d felt worthy of the Baron’s company earlier; but now I couldn’t help realizing once again that I was nothing more than an ignorant girl from a fishing village. Hatsumomo, if she

had her way, would keep me down so low, every man who visited Gion would remain forever out of my reach. For all I knew I might never see Baron Matsunaga again, and never come upon the Chairman. Wasn’t it possible Mameha would realize the hopelessness of my cause and leave me to languish in the

okiya like a little-worn kimono that had seemed so lovely in the shop? The Baron-who I was beginning to realize was something of a nervous man-leaned over to scratch at a mark on the surface of Mameha’s table, and made me think of my father on the last day I’d seen him, digging grime out of ruts in the wood with his fingernails. I wondered what he would think if he could see me kneeling here in Mameha’s apartment, wearing a robe more expensive than anything he’d ever laid eyes on, with a baron across from me and one of the most famous geisha in all of Japan at my side. I was hardly worthy of these surroundings. And then I became aware of all the magnificent silk wrapped about my body, and had the feeling I might drown in beauty. At that moment, beauty itself struck me as a kind of painful melancholy.

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