Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 17)

Chapter seventeen

I had seen the Chairman during only one brief moment in my life; but I’d spent a great many moments since then imagining him. He was like a song I’d heard once in fragments but had been singing in my mind ever since. Though of course, the notes had changed a bit over time-which is to say that I expected his forehead to be higher and his gray hair not so thick. When I saw him, I had a flicker of uncertainty whether he was really the Chairman; but I felt so soothed, I knew without a doubt I had found him.

While Mameha was greeting the two men, I stood behind awaiting my turn to bow. What if my voice, when I tried to speak, should sound like a rag squeaking on polished wood? Nobu, with his tragic scars, was watching me, but I wasn’t sure whether the Chairman had even noticed me there; I was too timid to glance in his direction. When Mameha took her place and began to smooth her kimono over her knees, I saw that the Chairman was looking at me with what I took to be curiosity. My feet actually went cold

from all the blood that came rushing into my face.

“Chairman Iwamura . . . President Nobu,” Mameha said, “this is my new younger sister, Sayuri.”

I’m certain you’ve heard of the famous Iwamura Ken, founder of Iwamura Electric. And probably you’ve heard of Nobu Toshikazu as well. Certainly no business partnership in Japan was ever more famous than theirs. They were like a tree and its roots, or like a shrine and the gate that stands before it. Even as a fourteen-year-old girl I’d heard of them. But I’d never imagined for a moment that Iwamura Ken might be the man I’d met on the banks of the Shirakawa Stream. Well, I lowered myself to my knees and

bowed to them, saying all the usual things about begging their indulgence and so forth. When I was done, I went to kneel in the space between them. Nobu fell into conversation with a man beside him, while the Chairman, on the other side of me, sat with his hand around an empty teacup on a tray at his knee. Mameha began talking to him; I picked up a small teapot and held my sleeve out of the way to pour. To my astonishment, the Chairman’s eyes drifted to my arm. Of course, I was eager to see for myself exactly what he was seeing. Perhaps because of the murky light in the Exhibition Hall, the underside of my arm seemed to shine with the gleaming smoothness of a pearl, and was a beautiful ivory color. No part of my body had ever struck me as lovely in this way before. I was very aware that the Chairman’s eyes weren’t moving; as long as he kept looking at my arm, I certainly wasn’t going to take it away. And then suddenly Mameha fell silent. It seemed to me she’d stopped talking because the Chairman was watching my arm instead of listening to her. Then I realized what was really the matter.

The teapot was empty. What was more, it had been empty even when I’d picked it up. I’d felt almost glamorous a moment earlier, but now I muttered an apology and put the pot down as quickly as I could. Mameha laughed. “You can see what a determined girl she is, Chairman,” she said. “If there’d been a single drop of tea in that pot, Sayuri would have gotten it out.”

“That certainly is a beautiful kimono your younger sister is wearing, Mameha,” the Chairman said. “Do I recall seeing it on you, back during your days as an apprentice?”

If I felt any lingering doubts about whether this man was really the Chairman, I felt them no longer after hearing the familiar kindness of his voice.

“It’s possible, I suppose,” Mameha replied. “But the Chairman has seen me in so many different kimono over the years, I can’t imagine he remembers them all. ”

“Well, I’m no different from any other man. Beauty makes quite an impression on me. When it comes to these sumo wrestlers, I can’t tell one of them from the next.”

Mameha leaned across in front of the Chairman and whispered to me, “What the Chairman is really saying is that he doesn’t particularly like sumo.”

“Now, Mameha,” he said, “if you’re trying to get me into trouble with Nobu . . .”

“Chairman, Nobu-san has known for years how you feel!”

“Nevertheless. Sayuri, is this your first encounter with sumo?”

I’d been waiting for some excuse to speak with him; but before I’d so much as taken a breath, we were all startled by a tremendous boom that shook the great building. Our heads turned and the crowd fell silent; but it was nothing more than the closing of one of the giant doors. In a moment we could hear hinges creaking and saw the second door straining its way around in an arc, pushed by two of the wrestlers. Nobu had his head turned away from me; I couldn’t resist peering at the terrible burns on the side of his face and his neck, and at his ear, which was misshapen. Then I saw that the sleeve of his jacket was empty. I’d been so preoccupied, I hadn’t noticed it earlier; it was folded in two and fastened to his shoulder by a long silver pin.

I may as well tell you, if you don’t know it already, that as a young lieutenant in the Japanese marines, Nobu had been severely injured in a bombing outside Seoul in 1910, at the time Korea was being annexed to Japan. I knew nothing about his heroism when I met him-though in fact, the story was familiar all over Japan. If he’d never joined up with the Chairman and eventually become president of Iwamura Electric, probably he would have been forgotten as a war hero. But as it was, his terrible injuries made the story of his success that much more remarkable, so the two were often mentioned together.

I don’t know too much about history-for they taught us only arts at the little school-but I think the Japanese government gained control over Korea at the end of the Russo-Japanese War, and a few years afterward made the decision to incorporate Korea into the growing empire. I’m sure the Koreans didn’t much like this. Nobu went there as part of a small force to keep things under control. Eate one afternoon he accompanied his commanding officer on a visit to a village near Seoul. On the way back to the spot where their horses were tied up, the members of the patrol came under attack. When they heard the horrible shrieking noise of an incoming shell, the commanding officer tried to climb down into a ditch, but he was an old man and moved at about the speed of a barnacle inching its way down a rock. Moments before the shell struck he was still trying to find a foothold. Nobu laid himself over the commanding officer in an effort to save him, but the old man took this badly and tried to climb out. With some effort he raised his head;

Nobu tried to push it back down, but the shell struck, killing the commanding officer and injuring Nobu severely. In surgery later that year, Nobu lost his left arm above the elbow.

The first time I saw his pinned sleeve, I couldn’t help averting my eyes in alarm. I’d never before seen anyone who’d lost a limb-though when I was a little girl, an assistant of Mr. Tanaka’s had lost the tip of his finger one morning while cleaning a fish. In Nobu’s case, many people felt his arm to be the least of his problems, because his skin was like an enormous wound. It’s hard to describe the way he looked, and probably it would be cruel for me even to try. I’ll just repeat what I overheard another geisha say about him once: “Every time I look at his face, I think of a sweet potato that has blistered in the fire.”

When the huge doors were closed, I turned back to the Chairman to answer his question. As an apprentice I was free to sit as quietly as an arrangement of flowers, if I wanted to; but I was determined not to let this opportunity pass. Even if I made only the slightest impression on him, like a child’s foot might make on a dusty floor, at least it would be a start.

“The Chairman asked if this is my first encounter with sumo,” I said. “It is, and I would be very grateful for anything the Chairman might be kind enough to explain to me.”

“If you want to know what’s going on,” said Nobu, “you’d better talk to me. What is your name, apprentice? I couldn’t hear well with the noise of the crowd.”

I turned away from the Chairman with as much difficulty as a hungry child turns away from a plate of food.

“My name is Sayuri, sir,” I said.

“You’re Mameha’s younger sister; why aren’t you ‘Mame’ something-or-other?” Nobu went on. “Isn’t that one of your foolish traditions?”

“Yes, sir. But all the names with ‘Mame’ turned out to be inauspicious for me, according to the fortune- teller.”

“The fortune-teller,” Nobu said with contempt. “Is he the one who picked your name for you?”

“I’m the one who picked it,” Mameha said. “The fortune-teller doesn’t pick names; he only tells us if they’re acceptable.”

“One day, Mameha,” Nobu replied, “you’ll grow up and stop listening to fools.”

“Now, now, Nobu-san,” said the Chairman, “anyone hearing you talk would think you’re the most modern man in the nation. Yet I’ve never known anyone who believes more strongly in destiny than you do.”

“Every man has his destiny. But who needs to go to a fortuneteller to find it? Do I go to a chef to find out if I’m hungry?” Nobu said.

“Anyway, Sayuri is a very pretty name-though pretty names and pretty girls don’t always go together.”

I was beginning to wonder if his next comment would be something like, “What an ugly younger sister you’ve taken on, Mameha!” or some such thing. But to my relief, he said:

“Here’s a case where the name and the girl go together. I believe she may be even prettier than you, Mameha!”

“Nobu-san! No woman likes to hear that she isn’t the prettiest creature around.”

“Especially you, eh? Well, you’d better get used to it. She has especially beautiful eyes. Turn toward me, Sayuri, so I can have another look at them.”

I couldn’t very well look down at the mats, since Nobu wanted to see my eyes. Nor could I stare directly back at him without seeming too forward. So after my gaze slipped around a little, like trying to find a footing on ice, I finally let it settle in the region of his chin. If I could have willed my eyes to stop seeing, I would certainly have done it; because Nobu’s features looked like poorly sculpted clay. You must remember that I knew nothing as yet about the tragedy that had disfigured him. When I wondered what had happened to him, I couldn’t stop that terrible feeling of heaviness.

“Your eyes certainly do shimmer in a most startling way,” he said.

At that moment a small door opened along the outside of the hall, and a man entered wearing an exceptionally formal kimono with a high black cap on his head, looking as if he’d stepped directly out of a painting of the Imperial court. He made his way down the aisle, leading a procession of wrestlers so huge they had to crouch to pass through the doorway.

“What do you know about sumo, young girl?” Nobu asked me.

“Only that the wrestlers are as big as whales, sir,” I said. “There’s a man working in Gion who was once a sumo wrestler.”

“You must mean Awajiumi. He’s sitting just over there, you know.” With his one hand, Nobu pointed toward another tier where Awajiumi sat, laughing about something, with Korin next to him. She must have spotted me, for she gave a little smile and then leaned in to say something to Awajiumi, who looked in our direction.

“He was never much of a wrestler,” Nobu said. “He liked to slam his opponents with his shoulder. It never worked, stupid man, but it broke his collarbone plenty of times.”

By now the wrestlers had all entered the building and stood around the base of the mound. One by one their names were announced, and they climbed up and arranged themselves in a circle facing the audience. Later, as they made their way out of the hall again so the wrestlers of the opposing side could begin their procession, Nobu said to me:

“That rope in a circle on the ground marks the ring. The first wrestler to be shoved outside it, or to touch the mound with anything but his feet, is the loser. It may sound easy, but how would you like to try pushing one of those giants over that rope?”

“I suppose I could come up behind him with wooden clappers,” I said, “and hope to scare him so badly he’d jump out.”

“Be serious,” Nobu said.

I won’t pretend this was a particularly clever thing for me to have said, but it was one of my first efforts at joking with a man. I felt so embarrassed, I couldn’t think what to say. Then the Chairman leaned toward me.

“Nobu-san doesn’t joke about sumo,” he said quietly.

“I don’t make jokes about the three things that matter most in life,” Nobu said. “Sumo, business, and war.”

“My goodness, I think that was a sort of joke,” Mameha said. “Does that mean you’re contradicting yourself?”

“If you were watching a battle,” Nobu said to me, “or for that matter sitting in the midst of a business meeting, would you understand what was happening?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I could tell from his tone that he expected me to say no. “Oh, not at all,” I answered.

“Exactly. And you can’t expect to understand what’s going on in sumo, either. So you can laugh at Mameha’s little jokes or you can listen to me and learn what it all means.”

“He’s tried to teach me about it over the years,” the Chairman said quietly to me, “but I’m a very poor student.”

“The Chairman is a brilliant man,” Nobu said. “He’s a poor student of sumo because he doesn’t care about it. He wouldn’t even be here this afternoon, except that he was generous enough to accept my proposal that Iwamura Electric be a sponsor of the exhibition.”

By now both teams had finished their ring-entering ceremonies. Two more special ceremonies followed, one for each of the two yokozuna. A yokozuna is the very highest rank in sumo-“just like Mameha’s position in Gion,” as Nobu explained it to me. I had no reason to doubt him; but if Mameha ever took half as much time entering a party as these yokozuna took entering the ring, she’d certainly never be invited back. The second of the two was short and had a most remarkable face-not at all flabby, but chiseled like stone, and with a jaw that made me think of the squared front end of a fishing boat. The audience cheered him so loudly I covered my ears. His name was Miyagiyama, and if you know sumo at all, you’ll understand why they cheered as they did.

“He is the greatest wrestler I have ever seen,” Nobu told me.

Just before the bouts were ready to begin, the announcer listed the winner’s prizes. One was a considerable sum of cash offered by Nobu Toshikazu, president of the Iwamura Electric Company. Nobu seemed very annoyed when he heard this and said, “What a fool! The money isn’t from me, it’s from Iwamura Electric. Iapologize, Chairman. I’ll call someone over to have the announcer correct his mistake.”

“There’s no mistake, Nobu. Considering the great debt I owe you, it’s the least I can do.”

“The Chairman is too generous,” Nobu said. “I’m very grateful.” And with this, he passed a sake cup to the Chairman and filled it, and the two of them drank together.

When the first wrestlers entered the ring, I expected the bout to begin right away. Instead they spent five minutes or more tossing salt on the mound and squatting in order to tip their bodies to one side and raise a leg high in the air before slamming it down. From time to time they crouched, glowering into each other’s eyes, but just when I thought they were going to charge, one would stand and stroll away to scoop up another handful of salt. Finally, when I wasn’t expecting it, it happened. They slammed into each other, grabbing at loincloths; but within an instant, one had shoved the other off balance and the match was over. The audience clapped and shouted, but Nobu just shook his head and said, “Poor technique.”

During the bouts that followed, I often felt that one ear was linked to my mind and the other to my heart; because on one side I listened to what Nobu told me-and much of it was interesting. But the sound of the Chairman’s voice on the other side, as he went on talking with Mameha, always distracted me.

An hour or more passed, and then the movement of a brilliant color in Awajiumi’s section caught my eye. It was an orange silk flower swaying in a woman’s hair as she took her place on her knees. At first I thought it was Korin, and that she had changed her kimono. But then I saw it wasn’t Korin at all; it was

Hatsumomo.

To see her there when I hadn’t expected her … I felt a jolt as if I’d stepped on an electric wire. Surely it was only a matter of time before she found a way of humiliating me, even here in this giant hall amid hundreds of people. I didn’t mind her making a fool of me in front of a crowd, if it had to happen; but I couldn’t bear the thought of looking like a fool in front of the Chairman. I felt such a hotness in my throat, I could hardly even pretend to listen when Nobu began telling me something about the two wrestlers climbing onto the mound. When I looked at Mameha, she flicked her eyes toward Hatsumomo, and then said, “Chairman, forgive me, I have to excuse myself. It occurs to me Sayuri may want to do the same.”

She waited until Nobu was done with his story, and then I followed her out of the hall.

“Oh, Mameha-san . . . she’s like a demon,” I said.

“Korin left more than an hour ago. She must have found Hatsumomo and sent her here. You ought to feel flattered, really, considering that Hatsumomo goes to so much trouble just to torment you.”

“I can’t bear to have her make a fool of me here in front of … well, in front of all these people.”

“But if you do something she finds laughable, she’ll leave you alone, don’t you think?”

“Please, Mameha-san . . . don’t make me embarrass myself.”

We’d crossed a courtyard and were just about to climb the steps into the building where the toilets were housed; but Mameha led me some distance down a covered passageway instead. When we were out of earshot of anyone, she spoke quietly to me.

“Nobu-san and the Chairman have been great patrons of mine over the years. Heaven knows Nobu can be harsh with people he doesn’t like, but he’s as loyal to his friends as a retainer is to a feudal lord; and you’ll never meet a more trustworthy man. Do you think Hatsumomo understands these qualities? All she sees when she looks at Nobu is … ‘Mr. Lizard.’ That’s what she calls him. ‘Mameha-san, I saw you with Mr. Lizard last night! Oh, goodness, you look all splotchy. I think he’s rubbing off on you.’ That sort of thing. Now, I don’t care what you think of Nobu-san at the moment. In time you’ll come to see what a good man he is: But Hatsumomo may very well leave you alone if she thinks you’ve taken a strong liking to him.”

I couldn’t think how to respond to this. I wasn’t even sure just yet what Mameha was asking me to do.

“Nobu-san has been talking to you about sumo for much of the afternoon,” she went on. “For all anyone knows, you adore him. Now put on a show for Hatsumomo’s benefit. Let her think you’re more charmed by him than you’ve ever been by anyone. She’ll think it’s the funniest thing she’s ever seen. Probably she’ll want you to stay on in Gion just so she can see more of it.”

“But, Mameha-san, how am I going to make Hatsumomo think I’m fascinated by him?”

“If you can’t manage such a thing, I haven’t trained you properly,” she replied.

When we returned to our box, Nobu had once again fallen into conversation with a man nearby. I couldn’t interrupt, so I pretended to be absorbed in watching the wrestlers on the mound prepare for their bout. The audience had grown restless; Nobu wasn’t the only one talking. I felt such a longing to turn to the Chairman and ask if he recalled a day several years ago when he’d shown kindness to a young girl . . . but of course, I could never say such a thing. Besides, it would be disastrous for me to focus my attention on him while Hatsumomo was watching.

Soon Nobu turned back to me and said, “These bouts have been tedious. When Miyagiyama comes out, we’ll see some real skill.”

This, it seemed to me, was my chance to dote on him. “But the wrestling I’ve seen already has been so impressive!” I said. “And the things President Nobu has been kind enough to tell me have been so interesting, I can hardly imagine we haven’t seen the best already.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Nobu. “Not one of these wrestlers deserves to be in the same ring as Miyagiyama.”

Over Nobu’s shoulder, I could see Hatsumomo in a far tier. She was chatting with Awajiumi and didn’t appear to be looking at me.

“I know this may seem a very foolish thing to ask,” I said, “but how can a wrestler as small as Miyagiyama be the greatest?” And if you had seen my face, you might have thought no subject had ever interested me more. I felt ridiculous, pretending to be absorbed by something so trivial; but no one who saw us would have known that we weren’t talking about the deepest secrets of our souls. I’m happy to say that at that very moment, I caught a glimpse of Hatsumomo turning her head toward me.

“Miyagiyama only looks small because the others are so much fatter,” Nobu was saying. “But he’s very vain about his size. His height and weight were printed in the newspaper perfectly correctly a few years ago; and yet he was so offended he had a friend hit him on top of the head with a plank, and then gorged himself on sweet potatoes and water, and went down to the newspaper to show them they were wrong.”

Probably I would have laughed at nearly anything Nobu had said-for Hatsumomo’s benefit, I mean. But in fact, it really was quite funny to imagine Miyagiyama squinting his eyes shut and waiting for the plank to come banging down. I held that image in my mind and laughed as freely as I dared, and soon Nobu began to laugh with me. We must have looked like the best of friends to Hatsumomo, for I saw her clapping her hands in delight.

Soon I struck upon the idea of pretending that Nobu himself was the Chairman; every time he spoke, I overlooked his gruffness and tried to imagine gentleness instead. Gradually I found myself able to look at his lips and block from my mind the discoloring and the scars, and imagine that they were the Chairman’s lips, and that every nuance in his voice was some comment on his feelings about me. At one point I think I convinced myself I wasn’t even in the Exhibition Hall, but in a quiet room kneeling beside the Chairman. I hadn’t felt such bliss in as long as I could remember. Like a ball tossed in the air that seems to hang motionless before it falls, I felt myself suspended in a state of quiet timelessness. As I glanced around the hall, I saw only the beauty of its giant wooden timbers and smelled the aroma of the sweet-rice cakes. I thought this state might never end; but then at some point I made a comment I don’t even remember, and Nobu responded:

“What are you talking about? Only a fool could think such an ignorant thing!”

My smile fell before I could stop it, just as if the strings holding it had been cut. Nobu was looking me square in the eye. Of course, Hatsumomo sat far away, but I felt certain she was watching us. And then it occurred to me that if a geisha or a young apprentice grew teary-eyed in front of a man, wouldn’t mosfanyone take it for infatuation? I might have responded to his harsh comment with an apology; instead I tried to imagine it was the Chairman who had spoken to me so abruptly, and in a moment my lip was trembling. I lowered my head and made a great show of being childish.

To my surprise, Nobu said, “I’ve hurt you, haven’t I?”

It wasn’t difficult for me to sniff theatrically. Nobu went on looking at me for a long moment and then said, “You’re a charming girl.” I’m sure he intended to – say something further, but at that moment Miyagiyama came into the hall and the crowd began to roar.

For a long while, Miyagiyama and the other wrestler, whose name was Saiho, swaggered around the mound, scooping up salt and tossing it into the ring, or stamping their feet as sumo wrestlers do. Every time they crouched, facing each other, they made me think of two boulders on the point of tipping over. Miyagiyama always seemed to lean forward a bit more than Saiho, who was taller and much heavier. I thought when they slammed into each other, poor Miyagiyama would certainly be driven back; I couldn’t imagine anyone dragging Saiho across that ring. They took up their position eight or nine times without either of the men charging; then Nobu whispered to me:

“Hataki komi! He’s going to use hataki komi. Just watch his eyes.”

I did what Nobu suggested, but all I noticed was that Miyagiyama never looked at Saiho. I don’t think Saiho liked being ignored in this way, because he glowered at his opponent as ferociously as an animal. His jowls were so enormous that his head was shaped like a mountain; and from anger his face had begun to turn red. But Miyagiyama continued to act as though he scarcely noticed him.

“It won’t last much longer,” Nobu whispered to me.

And in fact, the next time they crouched on their fists, Saiho charged. To see Miyagiyama leaning forward as he did, you’d have thought he was ready to throw his weight into Saiho. But instead he used the force of Saiho’s charge to stand back up on his feet. In an instant he swiveled out of the way like a swinging door, and his hand came down onto the back of Saiho’s neck. By now Saiho’s weight was so far forward, he looked like someone falling down the stairs. Miyagiyama gave him a push with all his force, and Saiho brushed right over the rope at his feet. Then to my astonishment, this mountain of a man flew past the lip of the mound and came sprawling right into the first row of the audience. The spectators tried to scamper out of the way; but when it was over, one man stood up gasping for air, because one of Saiho’s shoulders had crushed him.

The encounter had scarcely lasted a second. Saiho must have felt humiliated by his defeat, because he gave the most abbreviated bow of all the losers that day and walked out of the hall while the crowd was still in an uproar.

“That,” Nobu said to me, “is the move called hataki komi.”

“Isn’t it fascinating,” Mameha said, in something of a daze. She didn’t even finish her thought.

“Isn’t what fascinating?” the Chairman asked her.

“What Miyagiyama just did. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Yes, you have. Wrestlers do that sort of thing all the time.”

“Well, it certainly has got me thinking …” Mameha said.

Later, on our way back to Gion, Mameha turned to me excitedly in the rickshaw. “That sumo wrestler gave me a most marvelous idea,” she said. “Hatsumomo doesn’t even know it, but she’s just been thrown off-balance herself. And she won’t even find it out until it’s too late.”

“You have a plan? Oh, Mameha-san, please tell it to me!” “Do you think for a moment I would?” she said. “I’m not even going to tell it to my own maid. Just be very sure to keep Nobu-san interested in you. Everything depends on him, and on one other man as well.”

“What other man?”

“A man you haven’t met yet. Now don’t talk about it any further! I’ve probably said more than I should already. It’s a great thing you met Nobu-san today. He may just prove to be your rescuer.”

I must admit I felt a sickness inside when I heard this. If I was to have a rescuer, I wanted it to be the Chairman and no one else.

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