Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 16)
One afternoon as Mameha and I were strolling across the Shijo Avenue Bridge to pick up some new hair ornaments in the Pontocho district-for Mameha never liked the shops selling hair ornaments in Gion-she came to a stop suddenly. An old tugboat was puffing its way beneath the bridge; I thought Mameha was just concerned about the black fumes, but after a moment she turned to me with an expression I couldn’t quite understand.
“What is it, Mameha-san?” I asked.
“I may as well tell you, because you’ll only hear it from someone else,” she said. “Your little friend Pumpkin has just won the apprentice’s award. It’s expected she’ll win it a second time as well.”
Mameha was referring to an award for the apprentice who’d earned the most during the previous month. It may seem strange that such an award existed, but there’s a very good reason. Encouraging apprentices to earn as much as possible helps shape them into the sort of geisha who will be most appreciated in Gion-that is to say, the ones who will earn a lot not only for themselves but for everyone else too.
Several times Mameha had predicted that Pumpkin would struggle along for a few years and end up the sort of geisha with a few loyal customers-none of them wealthy-and little else. It was a sad pic- ture, and I was pleased to learn that Pumpkin was doing better than that. But at the same time I felt anxiety prickling at my stomach. Pumpkin now seemed to be one of the most popular apprentices in Gion, while I remained one of the most obscure. When I began to wonder what it might mean for my future, the world around me honestly seemed to grow dark.
The most astonishing thing about Pumpkin’s success, as I stood there on the bridge thinking about it, was that she’d managed to surpass an exquisite young girl named Raiha, who’d won the award the past several months. Raiha’s mother had been a renowned geisha, and her father was a member of one of Japan’s most illustrious families, with almost limitless wealth. Whenever Raiha strolled past me, I felt as a simple smelt must feel when a silver salmon glides by. How had Pumpkin managed to outdo her?
Hatsumomo had certainly pushed her from the very day of her debut, so much that she’d begun to lose weight lately and hardly looked herself. But regardless of how hard Pumpkin may have worked, could she really have grown more popular than Raiha?
“Oh, now, really,” said Mameha, “don’t look so sad. You ought to be rejoicing!”
“Yes, it’s very selfish of me,” I said.
“That isn’t what I mean. Hatsumomo and Pumpkin will both pay dearly for this apprentice’s award. In five years, no one will remember who Pumpkin is.”
“It seems to me,” I said, “that everyone will remember her as the girl who surpassed Raiha.”
“No one has surpassed Raiha. Pumpkin may have earned the most money last month, but Raiha is still the most popular apprentice in Gion. Come, I’ll explain.”
Mameha led me to a tearoom in the Pontocho district and sat me down.
In Gion, Mameha said, a very popular geisha can always make sure her younger sister earns more than anyone else-if she is willing to risk hurting her own reputation. The reason has to do with the way ohana, flower fees,” are billed. In the old days, a hundred years or more ago, every time a geisha arrived at a party to entertain, the mistress of the teahouse lit a stick of one-hour incense-called one ohana, or “flower.” The geisha’s fees were based on how many sticks of incense had burned by the time she left.
The cost of one ohana has always been fixed by the Gion Registry Office. While I was an apprentice, it was ¥3, which was about the cost of two bottles of liquor, perhaps. It may sound like a lot, but an unpopular geisha earning one ohana per hour has a grim life. Probably she spends most evenings sitting around the charcoal brazier waiting for an engagement; even when she’s busy, she may earn no more than ¥10 in a night, which won’t be enough even to pay back her debts. Considering all the wealth that
flows into Gion, she’s nothing more than an insect picking at the carcass-compared with Hatsumomo or Mameha, who are magnificent lionesses feasting at the kill, not only because they have engagements all night long every night, but because they charge a good deal more as well. In Hatsumomo’s case, she charged one ohana every fifteen minutes, rather than one every hour. And in the case of Mameha . . . well, there was no one else in Gion quite like her: she charged one ohana every five minutes.
Of course, no geisha keeps all her earnings, not even Mameha. The teahouse where she earned the fees takes a portion; then a much smaller portion goes to the geisha association; and a portion to her dresser; and right on down the line, including a fee she might pay to an okiya in exchange for keeping her account books and tracking her engagements. She probably keeps only a little more than half of what she earns. Still, it’s an enormous sum when compared with the livelihood of an unpopular geisha, who
every day sinks deeper and deeper into a pit.
Here’s how a geisha like Hatsumomo could make her younger sister seem more successful than she really was.
To begin with, a popular geisha in Gion is welcome at nearly any party, and will drop in on many of them for only five minutes. Her customers will be happy to pay the fees, even though she’s only saying hello. They know that the next time they visit Gion, she’ll probably join them at the table for a while to give them the pleasure of her company. An apprentice, on the other hand, can’t possibly get away with such behavior. Her role is to build relationships. Until she becomes a full-fledged geisha at the age of eighteen, she doesn’t consider flitting from party to party. Instead she stays for an hour or more, and only then telephones her okiya to ask her older sister’s whereabouts, so she can go to another teahouse and be introduced to a new round of guests. While her popular older sister might drop in on as many-as twenty parties during an evening, an apprentice probably attends no more than five. But this isn’t what Hatsumomo was doing. She was taking Pumpkin with her everywhere she went.
Until the age of sixteen, an apprentice geisha bills one-half ohana per hour. If Pumpkin stayed at a party only five minutes, the host was billed the same as if she’d stayed a full hour. On the other hand, no one expected Pumpkin to stay only five minutes. Probably the men didn’t mind that Hatsumomo brought her younger sister for only a brief visit one night, or even two. But after a while they must have begun to wonder why she was too busy to stay longer; and why her younger sister didn’t remain behind as she was expected to do. Pumpkin’s earnings may have been high, you see- perhaps as high as three or four ohana every hour. But she was certain to pay for it with her reputation, and so was Hatsumomo.
“Hatsumomo’s behavior only shows us how desperate she is,” Mameha concluded. “She’ll do anything to make Pumpkin look good. And you know why, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure, Mameha-san.”
“She wants Pumpkin to look good so Mrs. Nitta will adopt her. If Pumpkin is made the daughter of the okiya, her future is assured, and so is Hatsumomo’s. After all, Hatsumomo is Pumpkin’s sister; Mrs. Nitta certainly wouldn’t throw her out. Do you understand what I’m saying? If Pumpkin is adopted, you’ll never be free of Hatsumomo . . . unless it’s you who is thrown out.”
I felt as the waves of the ocean must feel when clouds have blocked the warmth of the sun.
“I’d hoped to see you as a popular young apprentice before long,” Mameha went on, “but Hatsumomo certainly has gotten in our way.”
“Yes, she has!”
“Well, at least you’re learning how to entertain men properly. You’re lucky to have met the Baron. I may not have found a way around Hatsumomo just yet, but to tell the truth-” And here she stopped herself.
“Ma’am?” I said.
“Oh, never mind, Sayuri. I’d be a fool to share my thoughts with you.”
I was hurt to hear this. Mameha must have noticed my feelings at once, for she was quick to say, “You’re living under the same roof as Hatsumomo, aren’t you? Anything I say to you could get back to her.”
“I’m very sorry, Mameha-san, for whatever I’ve done to deserve your low opinion of me,” I told her. “Can you really imagine I’ll run back to the okiya and tell anything to Hatsumomo?”
“I’m not worried about what you’ll do. Mice don’t get eaten because they run over to where the cat is sleeping and wake it up. You know perfectly well how resourceful Hatsumomo is. You’ll just have to trust me, Sayuri.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied; for really, there was nothing else I could say.
“I will tell you one thing,” Mameha said, leaning forward a bit, from what I took as excitement. “You and I will be going to an engagement together in the next two weeks at a place Hatsumomo will never find us.”
“May I ask where?”
“Certainly not! I won’t even tell you when. Just be prepared. You’ll find out everything you need to know when the proper time comes.”
When I returned to the okiya that afternoon, I hid myself upstairs to look through my almanac. A variety of days in the next two weeks stood out. One was the coming Wednesday, which was a favorable day for traveling westward; I thought perhaps Mameha planned to take me out of the city. Another was the following Monday, which also happened to be tai-an-the most auspicious day of the six-day Buddhist week. Finally, the Sunday after had a curious reading: “A balance of good and bad can open the door to destiny.” This one sounded most intriguing of all.
I heard nothing from Mameha on Wednesday. A few afternoons later she did summon me to her apartment-on a day my almanac said was unfavorable-but only to discuss a change in my tea ceremony class at the school. After this an entire week passed without a word from her. And then on Sunday around noon, I heard the door of the okiya roll open and put my shamisen down onto the walkway, where I’d been practicing for an hour or so, to rush to the front. I expected to see one of Mameha’s maids, but it was only a man from the druggist’s making a delivery of Chinese herbs for Auntie’s arthritis. After one of our elderly maids took the packet, I was about to return to my shamisen when I noticed the delivery man trying to get my attention. He was holding a piece of paper in one hand so that only I could see it. Our maid was about to roll the door shut, but he said to me, “I’m sorry to trouble you, miss, but would you mind throwing this away for me?” The maid thought it odd, but I took the paper and pretended to throw it away in the maids’ room. It was a note, unsigned, in Mameha’s hand.
“Ask Auntie’s permission to leave. Tell her I have work for you to do in my apartment and come here no later than one o’clock. Don’t let anyone else know where you’re going.”
I’m sure Mameha’s precautions were very sensible, but in any case, Mother was lunching with a friend, and Hatsumomo and Pumpkin had gone to an afternoon engagement already. No one remained in the okiya but Auntie and the maids. I went straight up to Auntie’s room to find her draping a heavy cotton blanket across her futon, preparing for a nap. She stood shivering in her sleeping robe while I spoke to her. The moment she heard that Mameha had summoned me, she didn’t even care to know the reason. She just gave a wave of her hand and crawled beneath the blanket to go to sleep.
Mameha was still attending a morning engagement when I arrived at her apartment, but her maid showed me into the dressing room to help me with my makeup, and afterward brought in the kimono ensemble Mameha had set out for me. I’d grown accustomed to wearing Mameha’s kimono, but in fact, it’s unusual for a geisha to lend out robes from her collection this way. Two friends in Gion might trade kimono for a night or two; but it’s rare for an older geisha to show such kindness to a young girl. And in fact, Mameha was going to a great deal of trouble on my behalf; she no longer wore these long-sleeved robes herself and had to retrieve them from storage. I often wondered if she expected to be repaid somehow.
The kimono she’d laid out for me that day was the loveliest yet- an orange silk with a silver waterfall pouring from the knee into a slate-blue ocean. The waterfall was split by brown cliffs, with knotted driftwood at the base embroidered in lacquered threads. I didn’t realize it, but the robe was well known in Gion; people who saw it probably thought of Mameha at once. In permitting me to wear it, I think she was rubbing some of her aura off onto me.
After Mr. Itchoda had tied the obi-a russet and brown highlighted with gold threads-I put the final touches on my makeup and the ornaments in my hair. I tucked the Chairman’s handkerchief- which I’d brought from the okiya as I often did-inside my obi, and stood before the mirror gaping at myself.
Already it was amazing to me that Mameha had arranged for me to look so beautiful; but to top it off, when she returned to her apartment, she herself changed into a fairly plain kimono. It was a robe the color of a mountain potato, covered with soft gray hatchmarks, and her obi was a simple pattern of black diamonds on a background of deep blue. She had the understated brilliance of a pearl, as she always did; but when we walked down the street together, the women who bowed at Mameha were looking at me.
From the Gion Shrine, we rode north in a rickshaw for a half hour, into a section of Kyoto I’d never seen. Along the way, Mameha told me we would be attending a sumo exhibition as the guests of Iwa- mura Ken, the founder of Iwamura Electric in Osaka- which, incidentally, was the manufacturer of the heater that had killed Granny. Iwamura’s right-hand man, Nobu Toshikazu, who was president of the company, would also be attending. Nobu was quite a fan of sumo and had helped organize the exhibition
“I should tell you,” she said to me, “that Nobu is … a bit peculiar-looking. You’ll make a great impression on him by behaving well when you meet him.” After she said this, she gave me a look as if to say she would be terribly disappointed in me if I didn’t.
As for Hatsumomo, we wouldn’t have to worry about her. Tickets to the exhibition had been sold out weeks before.
At last we climbed out of the rickshaw at the campus of Kyoto University. Mameha led me up a dirt path lined with small pine trees. Western-style buildings closed in on both sides of us, with windows chopped into tiny glass squares by strips of painted wood. I hadn’t realized how much Gion seemed like home to me, until I noticed myself feeling out of place at the university. All around us were smooth- skinned young men with their hair parted, some wearing suspenders to keep up their pants. They seemed to find Mameha and me so exotic that they stopped to watch as we strolled past, and even made jokes to one another. Soon we passed through an iron gate with a crowd of older men and a number of women, including quite a few geisha. Kyoto had few places a sumo exhibition could be held indoors, and one was Kyoto University’s old Exhibition Hall. The building no longer stands today; but at that time it fit with the Western structures around it about like a shriveled old man in kimono fits with a group of businessmen. It was a big box of a building, with a roof that didn’t seem quite substantial enough, but made me think of a lid fitted onto the wrong pot. The huge doors on one side were so badly warped, they bulged against the iron rods fastened across them. Its ruggedness reminded me so much of my tipsy house that I felt sad for a moment.
As I made my way up the stone steps into the building, I spotted two geisha strolling across the gravel courtyard, and bowed to them. They nodded to me in return, and one said something to the other. I thought this very odd-until I looked at them more closely. My heart sank; one of the women was Hatsumomo’s friend Korin. I gave her another bow, now that I recognized her, and did my best to smile. The moment they looked away, I whispered to Mameha:
“Mameha-san! I’ve just seen a friend of Hatsumomo’s!”
“I didn’t know Hatsumomo had any friends.”
“It’s Korin. She’s over there … or at least, she was a moment ago, with another geisha.”
“I know Korin. Why are you so worried about her? What can she possibly do?”
I didn’t have an answer to this question. But if Mameha wasn’t concerned, I could think of no reason why I ought to be. My first impression upon entering the Exhibition Hall was of an enormous empty space reaching up to the roof, beneath which sunlight poured in through screened windows high overhead. The huge expanse was filled with the noise of the crowd, and with smoke from the sweet-rice cakes roasted with miso paste on the grills outside. In the center was a square mound where the wrestlers would compete, dominated by a roof in the style of a Shinto shrine. A priest walked around on it, chanting blessings and shaking his sacred wand adorned with folded paper strips.
Mameha led me down to a tier in the front, where we removed our shoes and began to walk across in our split-toed socks on a little margin of wood. Our hosts were in this row, but I had no idea who they were until I caught sight of a man waving his hand to Mameha; I knew at once that he was Nobu. There was no doubt why Mameha had warned me about his appearance. Even from a distance the skin of his face looked like a melted candle. At some time in his life he had suffered terrible burns; his whole
appearance was so tragic-looking, I couldn’t imagine the agony he must have endured. Already I was feeling strange from running into Korin; now I began to worry that when I met Nobu, I might make a fool of myself without quite understanding why. As I walked along behind Mameha, I focused my attention not on Nobu but on a very elegant man seated beside him on the same tatami mat, wearing a pinstripe men’s kimono. From the moment I set eyes on this man I felt a strange stillness settling over me. He was talking with someone in another box, so that I could see only the back of his head. But he was so familiar to me that for a moment I could make no sense of what I saw. All I knew was that he was out of place there in the Exhibition Hall. Before I could even think why, I saw an image in my mind of him turning toward me on the streets of our little village . . .
And then I realized: it was Mr. Tanaka!
He’d changed in some way I couldn’t have described. I watched him reach up to smooth his gray hair and was struck by the graceful way he moved his fingers. Why did I find it so peculiarly soothing to look at him? Perhaps I was in a daze at seeing him and hardly knew how I really felt. Well, if I hated anyone in this world, I hated Mr. Tanaka; I had to remind myself of this. I wasn’t going to kneel beside him and say, “Why, Mr. Tanaka, how very honored I am to see you again! What has brought you to Kyoto?” Instead I would find some way of showing him my true feelings, even if it was hardly the proper thing for an apprentice to do. Actually, I’d thought of Mr. Tanaka very little these last few years. But still I owed it to myself not to be kind to him, not to pour his sake into his cup if I could spill it on his leg instead. I would smile at him as I was obliged to smile; but it would be the smile I had so often seen on Hatsumomo’s face; and then I would say, “Oh, Mr. Tanaka, the strong odor offish … it makes me so homesick to sit here beside you!” How shocked he would be! Or perhaps this: “Why, Mr. Tanaka, you look . . . almost distinguished!” Though in truth, as I looked at him-for by now we’d nearly reached the box in which he sat-he did look distinguished, more distinguished than I could ever have imagined. Mameha was just arriving, lowering herself to her knees to bow. Then he turned his head, and for the first time I saw his broad face and the sharpness of his cheekbones . . . and most of all, his eyelids folded so tightly in the corners and so smooth and flat. And suddenly everything around me seemed to grow quiet, as if he were the wind that blew and I were just a cloud carried upon it.
He was familiar, certainly-more familiar in some ways than my own image in the mirror. But it wasn’t Mr. Tanaka at all. It was the Chairman.