Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 18)
Now that I knew the identity of the Chairman, I began that very night to read every discarded news magazine I could find in the hopes of learning more about him. Within a week I’d accumulated such a stack of them in my room that Auntie gave me a look as if I’d lost my mind. I did find mention of him in a number of articles, but only in passing, and none told me the sorts of things I really wanted to know. Still, I went on picking up every magazine I found poking out of a trash basket, until one day I came upon a stack of old papers tied in a bundle behind one of the teahouses. Buried in it was a two-year-old issue of a news magazine that happened to feature an article on Iwa-mura Electric.
It seemed that Iwamura Electric had celebrated its twentieth anniversary in April of 1931. It astonishes me even now to think of it, but this was the same month when I met the Chairman on the banks or the Shirakawa Stream; I would have seen his face in all the magazines, if only I’d looked in them. Now that I knew a date to search for, I managed over the course of time to find many more articles about the anniversary. Most of them came from a collection of junk thrown out after the death of the old granny
who lived in an okiya across the alley.
The Chairman had been born in 1890, as I learned, which meant that despite his gray hair he’d been a little over forty when I met him. I’d formed the impression that day he was probably chairman of an unimportant company, but I was quite wrong. Iwamura Electric wasn’t as big as Osaka Electric-its chief rival in western Japan, according to all the articles. But the Chairman and Nobu, because of their celebrated partnership, were much better known than the chiefs of much larger companies. In any case, Iwamura Electric was considered more innovative and had a better reputation.
At seventeen the Chairman had gone to work at a small electric company in Osaka. Soon he was supervising the crew that installed wiring for machinery at factories in the area. The demand for electric lighting in households and offices was growing at this time, and during the evenings the Chairman designed a fixture to allow the use of two lightbulbs in a socket built for only one. The director of the company wouldn’t build it, however, and so at the age of twenty-two, in 1912, shortly after marrying, the Chairman left to establish his own company.
For a few years things were difficult; then in 1914, the Chairman’s new company won the electrical wiring contract for a new building on a military base in Osaka. Nobu was still in the military at this time, since his war wounds made it difficult for him to find a job anywhere else. He was given the task of overseeing the work done by the new Iwamura Electric Company. He and the Chairman quickly became friends, and when the Chairman offered him a job the following year, Nobu took it.
The more I read about their partnership, the more I understood just how well suited they really were to each other. Nearly all the articles showed the same photograph of them, with the Chairman in a stylish three-piece suit of heavy wool, holding in his hand the ceramic two-bulb socket that had been the company’s first product. He looked as if someone had just handed it to him and he hadn’t yet decided what he was going to do with it. His mouth was slightly open, showing his teeth, and he stared at the camera with an almost menacing look, as though he were about to throw the fixture. By contrast, Nobu stood beside him, half a head shorter and at full attention, with his one hand in a fist at his side. He wore a morning coat and pin-striped trousers. His scarred face was completely without expression, and his eyes looked sleepy. The Chairman-perhaps because of his prematurely gray hair and the difference in their sizes-might almost have been Nobu’s father, though he was only two years older. The articles said that while the Chairman was responsible for the company’s growth and direction,
Nobu was responsible for managing it. He was the less glamorous man with the less glamorous job, but apparently he did it so well that the Chairman often said publicly that the company would never have survived several crises without Nobu’s talents. It was Nobu who’d brought in a group of investors and saved the company from ruin in the early 19205. “I owe Nobu a debt I can never repay,” the Chairman was quoted more than once as saying.
Several weeks passed, and then one day I received a note to come to Mameha’s apartment the following afternoon. By this time I’d grown accustomed to the priceless kimono ensembles that Mameha’s maid usually laid out for me; but when I arrived and began changing into an autumn- weight silk of scarlet and yellow, which showed leaves scattered in a field of golden grasses, I was taken aback to find a tear in the back of the gown large enough to put two fingers through. Mameha hadn’t yet returned, but I took the robe in my arms and went to speak with her maid.
“Tatsumi-san,” I said, “the most upsetting thing . . . this kimono is ruined.”
“It isn’t ruined, miss. It needs to be repaired is all. Mistress borrowed it this morning from an okiya down the street.”
“She must not have known,” I said. “And with my reputation for ruining kimono, she’ll probably think-”
“Oh, she knows it’s torn,” Tatsumi interrupted. “In fact, the under-robe is torn as well, in just the same place.” I’d already put on the cream-colored underrobe, and when I reached back and felt in the area of my thigh, I saw that Tatsumi was right.
“East year an apprentice geisha caught it by accident on a nail,” Tatsumi told me. “But Mistress was very clear that she wanted you to put it on.”
This made very little sense to me; but I did as Tatsumi said. When at last Mameha rushed in, I went to ask her about it while she touched up her makeup.
“I told you that according to my plan,” she said, “two men will be important to your future. You met Nobu a few weeks ago. The other man has been out of town until now, but with the help of this torn kimono, you re about to meet him. That sumo wrestler gave me such a wonderful idea! I can hardly wait to see how Hatsumomo reacts when you come back from the dead. Do you know what she said to me the other day? She couldn’t thank me enough for taking you to the exhibition. It was worth all her trouble getting there, she said, just to see you making big eyes at ‘Mr. Lizard.’ I’m sure she’ll leave you alone when you entertain him, unless it’s to drop by and have a look for herself. In fact, the more you talk about Nobu around her, the better-though you’re not to mention a word about the man you’ll meet this afternoon.”
I began to feel sick inside when I heard this, even as I tried to seem pleased at what she’d said; because you see, a man will never have an intimate relationship with a geisha who has been the mistress of a close associate. One afternoon in a bathhouse not many months earlier, I’d listened as a young woman tried to console another geisha who’d just learned that her new danna would be the business partner of the man she’d dreamed about. It had never occurred to me as I watched her that I might one day be in the same position myself.
“Ma’am,” I said, “may I ask? Is it part of your plan that Nobu-san will one day become my danna?”
Mameha answered me by lowering her makeup brush and staring at me in the mirror with a look that I honestly think would have stopped a train. “Nobu-san is a fine man. Are you suggesting you’d be ashamed to have him for a danna?” she asked.
“No, ma’am, I don’t mean it that way. I’m just wondering …”
“Very well. Then I have only two things to say to you. First, you’re a fourteen-year-old girl with no reputation whatever. You’ll be very fortunate ever to become a geisha with sufficient status for a man like Nobu to consider proposing himself as your danna. Secondly, Nobu-san has never found a geisha he likes well enough to take as a mistress. If you’re the first, I expect you to feel very flattered.”
I blushed with so much heat in my face I might almost have caught fire. Mameha was quite right; whatever became of me in the years ahead, I would be fortunate even to attract the notice of a man like Nobu. If Nobu’was beyond my reach, how much more unreach-able the Chairman must be. Since finding him again at the sumo exhibition, I’d begun to think of all the possibilities life presented to me. But now after Mameha’s words I felt myself wading through an ocean of sorrow.
I dressed in a hurry, and Mameha led me up the street to the okiya where she’d lived until six years earlier, when she’d gained her independence. At the door we were greeted by an elderly maid, who smacked her lips and gave her head a shake.
“We called the hospital earlier,” the maid said. “The Doctor goes home at four o’clock today. It’s nearly three-thirty already, you know.
“We’ll phone him before we go, Kazuko-san,” Mameha replied. “I’m sure he’ll wait for me.”
“I hope so. It would be terrible to leave the poor girl bleeding.”
“Who’s bleeding?” I asked in alarm; but the maid only looked at me with a sigh and led us up the stairs to a crowded little hallway on the second floor. In a space about the size of two tatami mats were gathered not only Mameha and me, as well as the maid who’d shown us up, but also three other young women and a tall, thin cook in a crisp apron. They all looked at me warily, except for the cook, who draped a towel over her shoulder and began to whet a knife of the sort used to chop the heads off fish. I felt like a slab of tuna the grocer had just delivered, because I could see now that I was the one who was going to do the bleeding.
“Mameha-san …” I said.
“Now, Sayuri, I know what you’re going to say,” she told me- which was interesting, because I had no idea myself what I was going to say. “Before I became your older sister, didn’t you promise to do exactly as I told you?”
“If I’d known it would include having my liver cut out-”
“No one’s going to cut out your liver,” said the cook, in a tone that was supposed to make me feel much better, but didn’t.
“Sayuri, we’re going to put a little cut in your skin,” Mameha said. “Just a little one, so you can go to the hospital and meet a certain doctor. You know the man I mentioned to you? He’s a doctor.”
“Can’t I just pretend to have a stomachache?”
I was perfectly serious when I said this, but everyone seemed to think I’d made a clever joke, for they all laughed, even Mameha.
“Sayuri, we all have your best interests at heart,” Mameha said. “We only need to make you bleed a little, just enough so the Doctor will be willing to look at you.”
In a moment the cook finished sharpening the knife and came to stand before me as calmly as if she were going to help me with my makeup-except that she was holding a knife, for heaven’s sake. Kazuko, the elderly maid who had shown us in, pulled my collar aside with both hands. I felt myself beginning to panic; but fortunately Mameha spoke up.
“We’re going to put the cut on her leg,” she said.
“Not the leg,” said Kazuko. “The neck is so much more erotic.”
“Sayuri, please turn around and show Kazuko the hole in the back of your kimono,” Mameha said to me. When I’d done as she asked, she went on, “Now, Kazuko-san, how will we explain this tear in the back of her kimono if the cut is on her neck and not her leg?”
“How are the two things related?” Kazuko said. “She’s wearing a torn kimono, and she has a cut on her neck.”
“I don’t know what Kazuko keeps gabbing on about,” the cook said. “Just tell me where you want me to cut her, Mameha-san, and I’ll cut her.”
I’m sure I should have been pleased to hear this, but somehow I wasn’t.
Mameha sent one of the young maids to fetch a red pigment stick of the sort used for shading the lips, and then put it through the hole in my kimono and swiftly rubbed a mark high up on the back of my thigh.
“You must place the cut exactly there,” Mameha said to the cook.
I opened my mouth, but before I could even speak, Mameha told me, “Just lie down and be quiet, Sayuri. If you slow us down any further, I’m going to be very angry.”
I’d be lying if I said I wanted to obey her; but of course, I had no choice. So I lay down on a sheet spread out on the wooden floor and closed my eyes while Mameha pulled my robe up until I was exposed almost to the hip.
“Remember that if the cut needs to be deeper, you can always do it again,” Mameha said. “Start with the shallowest cut you can make.”
I bit my lip the moment I felt the tip of the knife. I’m afraid I may have let out a little squeal as well, though I can’t be sure. In any case, I felt some pressure, and then Mameha said:
“Not that shallow. You’ve scarcely cut through the first layer of skin.”
“It looks like lips,” Kazuko said to the cook. “You’ve put a line right in the middle of a red smudge, and it looks like a pair of lips. The Doctor’s going to laugh.”
Mameha agreed and wiped off the makeup after the cook assured her she could find the spot. In a moment I felt the pressure of the knife again.
I’ve never been good at the sight of blood. You may recall how I fainted after cutting my lip the day I met Mr. Tanaka. So you can probably imagine how I felt when I twisted around and saw a rivulet of blood snaking down my leg onto a towel Mameha held against the inside of my thigh. I lapsed into such a state when I saw it that I have no memory at all of what happened next-of being helped into the rickshaw, or of anything at all about the ride, until we neared the hospital and Mameha rocked my head from side to side to get my attention.
“Now listen to me! I’m sure you’ve heard over and over that your job as an apprentice is to impress other geisha, since they’re the ones who will help you in your career, and not to worry about what the men think. Well, forget about all that! It isn’t going to work that way in your case. Your future depends on two men, as I’ve told you, and you’re about to meet one of them. You must make the right impression. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, ma’am, every word,” I muttered.
“When you’re asked how you cut your leg, the answer is, you were trying to go to the bathroom in kimono, and you fell onto something sharp. You don’t even know what it was, because you fainted. Make up all the details you want; just be sure to sound very childish. And act helpless when we go inside. Let me see you do it.”
Well, I laid my head back and let my eyes roll up into my head. I suppose that’s how I was really feeling, but Mameha wasn’t at all pleased.
“I didn’t say act dead. I said act helpless. Like this …”
Mameha put on a dazed look, as if she couldn’t make up her mind even where she should point her eyes, and kept her hand to her cheek as though she were feeling faint. She made me imitate that look until she was satisfied. I began my performance as the driver helped me to the entrance of the hospital. Mameha walked beside me, tugging my robe this way and that to be sure I still looked attractive.
We entered through the swinging wooden doors and asked for the hospital director; Mameha said he was expecting us. Finally a nurse showed us down a long hallway to a dusty room with a wooden table and a plain folding screen blocking the windows. While we waited, Mameha took off the towel she’d wrapped around my leg and threw it into a wastebasket.
“Remember, Sayuri,” she nearly hissed, “we want the Doctor to see you looking as innocent and as helpless as possible. Lie back and try to look weak.”
I had no difficulty at all with this. A moment later the door opened and in came Dr. Crab. Of course, his name wasn’t really Dr. Crab, but if you’d seen him I’m sure the same name would have occurred to you, because he had his shoulders hunched up and his elbows sticking out so much, he couldn’t have done a better imitation of a crab if he’d made a study of it. He even led with one shoulder when he walked, just like a crab moving along sideways. He had a mustache on his face, and was very pleased to see
Mameha, though more with an expression of surprise in his eyes than with a smile.
Dr. Crab was a methodical and orderly man. When he closed the door, he turned the handle first so the latch wouldn’t make noise, and then gave an extra press on the door to be sure it was shut. After this he took a case from his coat pocket and opened it very cautiously, as though he might spill something if he wasn’t careful; but all it contained was another pair of glasses. When he’d exchanged the glasses he wore, he replaced the case in his pocket and then smoothed his coat with his hands. Finally he peered at me and gave a brisk little nod, whereupon Mameha said:
“I’m so sorry to trouble you, Doctor. But Sayuri has such a bright future before her, and now she’s had the misfortune of cutting her leg! What with the possibility of scars, and infections and the like, well, I thought you were the only person to treat her.”
“Just so,” said Dr. Crab. “Now perhaps I might have a look at the injury?”
“I’m afraid Sayuri gets weak at the sight of blood, Doctor,” Mameha said. “It might be best if she simply turned away and let you examine the wound for yourself. It’s on the back of her thigh.”
“I understand perfectly. Perhaps you’d be kind enough to ask that she lie on her stomach on the examination table?”
I couldn’t understand why Dr. Crab didn’t ask me himself; but to seem obedient, I waited until I’d heard the words from Mameha. Then the Doctor raised my robe almost to my hips, and brought over a cloth and some sort of smelly liquid, which he rubbed on my thigh before saying, “Sayuri-san, please be kind enough to tell me how the wound was inflicted.”
I took a deep, exaggerated breath, still doing my best to seem as weak as possible. “Well, I’m rather embarrassed,” I began, “but the truth is that I was . . . drinking a good deal of tea this afternoon-”
“Sayuri has just begun her apprenticeship,” Mameha said. “I was introducing her around Gion. Naturally, everyone wanted to invite her in for tea.”
“Yes, I can imagine,” the Doctor said.
“In any case,” I went on, “I suddenly felt that I had to … well, you know …”
“Drinking excessive amounts of tea can lead to a strong urge to relieve the bladder,” the Doctor said.
“Oh, thank you. And in fact. . . well, ‘strong urge’ is an understatement, because I was afraid that in another moment everything would begin to look yellow to me, if you know what I mean …”
“Just tell the Doctor what happened, Sayuri,” said Mameha.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just mean to say that I had to use the toilet very bad … so bad that when I finally reached it … well, I was struggling with my kimono, and I must have lost my balance. When I fell, my leg came against something sharp. I don’t even know what it was. I think I must have fainted.”
“It’s a wonder you didn’t void your bladder when you lost consciousness,” said the Doctor.
All this time I’d been lying on my stomach, holding my face up off the examination table for fear of smudging my makeup, and talking while the Doctor looked at the back of my head. But when Dr. Crab made this last comment, I looked over my shoulder at Mameha as best I could. Happily, she was thinking faster than I was, because she said:
“What Sayuri means is that she lost her balance when she tried to stand once again from a squatting position.”
“I see,” the Doctor said. “The cut was made by a very sharp object. Perhaps you fell on broken glass or a strip of metal.”
“Yes, it certainly felt very sharp,” I said. “As sharp as a knife!”
Dr. Crab said nothing more, but washed the cut as though he wanted to see how much he could make it hurt, and then afterward used more of the smelly liquid to remove the blood that had dried all down my leg. Finally he told me the cut would need nothing more than cream and a bandage, and gave me instructions on caring for it over the next few days. With this, he rolled my robe down and put away his glasses as though he might break them if he handled them too roughly.
“I’m very sorry you’ve ruined such a fine kimono,” he said. “But I’m certainly happy at the chance to have met you. Mameha-san knows I’m always interested in new faces.”
“Oh, no, the pleasure is all mine, Doctor,” I said.
“Perhaps I’ll see you one evening quite soon at the Ichiriki Teahouse.”
“To tell the truth, Doctor,” Mameha said, “Sayuri is a bit of a … special property, as I’m sure you can imagine. She already has more admirers than she can handle, so I’ve been keeping her away from the Ichiriki as much as I can. Perhaps we might visit you at the Shirae Teahouse instead?”
“Yes, I would prefer that myself,” Dr. Crab said. And then he went through the whole ritual of changing his glasses again so that he could look through a little book he took from his pocket. “I’ll be there … let me see . . . two evenings from now. I do hope to see you.”
Mameha assured him we would stop by, and then we left.
In the rickshaw on our way back to Gion, Mameha told me I’d done very well.
“But, Mameha-san, I didn’t do anything!”
“Oh? Then how do you account for what we saw on the Doctor’s forehead?”
“I didn’t see anything but the wooden table right in front of my face.”
“Let’s just say that while the Doctor was cleaning the blood from your leg, his forehead was beaded with sweat as if we’d been in the heat of summer. But it wasn’t even warm in the room, was it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, then!” Mameha said.
I really wasn’t sure what she was talking about-or exactly what her purpose had been in taking me to meet the Doctor, for that matter. But I couldn’t very well ask, because she’d already made it clear she wouldn’t tell me her plan. Then just as the rickshaw driver was pulling us across the Shijo Avenue Bridge into Gion once again, Mameha interrupted herself in the middle of a story.
“You know, your eyes really are extraordinarily lovely in that kimono, Sayuri. The scarlets and yellows . . . they make your eyes shine almost silver! Oh, heavens, I can’t believe I haven’t thought of this idea sooner. Driver!” she called out. “We’ve gone too far. Stop here, please.”
“You told me Gion Tominaga-cho, ma’am. I can’t drop the poles in the middle of a bridge.”
“You may either let us out here or finish crossing the bridge and then take us back over it again. Frankly, I don’t see much point in that.”
The driver set down his poles where we were, and Mameha and I stepped out. A number of bicyclists rang their bells in anger as they passed, but Mameha didn’t seem in the least concerned. I suppose she was so certain of her place in the world, she couldn’t imagine anyone being troubled by a little matter like her blocking traffic. She took her time, holding up one coin after another from her silk change purse until she’d paid the exact fare, and then led me back across the bridge in the direction we’d come.
“We’re going to Uchida Kosaburo’s studio,” she announced. “He s a marvelous artist, and he’s going to take a liking to your eyes, I’m sure of it. Sometimes he gets a little . . . distracted, you might say. And his studio is a mess. It may take him a while to notice your eyes, but just keep them pointed where he can see them.”
I followed Mameha through side streets until we came to a little alley. At the end stood a bright red Shinto gate, miniature in size, pressed tightly between two houses. Beyond the gate, we passed between several small pavilions to a flight of stone steps leading up through trees in their brilliant fall coloring. The air wafting from the dank little tunnel of the steps felt as cool as water, so that it seemed to me I was entering a different world altogether. I heard a swishing sound that reminded me of the tide washing the beach, but it turned out to be a man with his back to us, sweeping water from the top step with a broom whose bristles were the color of chocolate.
“Why, Uchida-san!” Mameha said. “Don’t you have a maid to tidy up for you?”
The man at the top stood in full sunlight, so that when he turned to peer down at us, I doubt he saw anything more than a few shapes under the trees. I could see him well, however, and he was quite a peculiar-looking man. In one corner of his mouth was a giant mole like a piece of food, and his eyebrows were so bushy they looked like caterpillars that had crawled down out of his hair and gone to sleep there. Everything about him was in disarray, not only his gray hair, but his kimono, which looked as if he’d slept in it the night before.
“Who is that?” he said.
“Uchida-san! After all these years you still don’t recognize my voice?”
“If you’re trying to make me angry, whoever you are, you’re off to a good start. I’m in no mood for interruptions! I’ll throw this broom at you, if you don’t tell me who you are.”
Uchida-san looked so angry I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d bit off the mole from the corner of his mouth and spat it at us. But Mameha just continued right up the stairs, and I followed her- though I was careful to stay behind so she would be the one struck by the broom.
“Is this how you greet visitors, Uchida-san?” Mameha said as she stepped up into the light.
Uchida squinted at her. “So it’s you. Why can’t you just say who you are like everyone else? Here, take this broom and sweep the steps. No one’s coming into my house until I’ve lit incense. Another of my mice has died, and the place smells like a coffin. ”
Mameha seemed amused at this and waited until Uchida had left before leaning the broom against a tree.
“Have you ever had a boil?” she whispered to me. “When Uchida’s work goes badly, he gets into this terrible mood. You have to make him blow up, just like lancing a boil, so that he’ll settle down again. If you don’t give him something to get angry about, he’ll start drinking and only get worse.”
“Does he keep pet mice?” I whispered. “He said another of his mice had died.”
“Heavens, no. He leaves his ink sticks out, and the mice come and eat them and then die from poisoning. I gave him a box to put his inks in, but he won’t use it.”
Just then Uchida’s door rolled partway open-for he’d given it a shove and gone right back inside. Mameha and I slipped out of our shoes. The interior was a single large room in the style of a farmhouse. I could see incense burning in a far corner, but it hadn’t done any good yet, because the smell of dead mouse struck me with as much force as if someone had stuck clay up my nose. The room was even messier than Hatsumomo’s at its worst. Everywhere were long brushes, some broken or gnawed, and big wooden boards with half-finished drawings in black-and-white. In the midst of it all was an unmade futon with ink stains on the sheets. I imagined that Uchida would have ink stains all over himself as well, and when I turned to find out, he said to me:
“What are you looking at?”
“Uchida-san, may I present my younger sister, Sayuri,” Mameha said. “She’s come with me all the way from Gion for the honor of meeting you.”
All the way from Gion wasn’t really very far; but in any case, I knelt on the mats and went through the ritual of bowing and begging Uchida’s favor, although I wasn’t convinced he’d heard a word of what Mameha had told him.
“I was having a fine day until lunchtime,” he said, “and then look what happened!” Uchida crossed the room and held up a board. Fastened onto it with pins was a sketch of a woman from the back, looking to one side and holding an umbrella-except that a cat had evidently stepped in ink and walked across it, leaving perfectly formed paw prints. The cat himself was curled up asleep at the moment in a pile of dirty clothes.
“I brought him in-here for the mice and look!” he went on. “I’ve a mind to throw him out.”
“Oh, but the paw prints are lovely,” said Mameha. “I think they improve the picture. What do you think, Sayuri?”
I wasn’t inclined to say anything, because Uchida was looking very upset at Mameha’s comment. But in a moment I understood that she was trying to “lance the boil,” as she’d put it. So I put on my most enthusiastic voice and said:
“I’m surprised at how attractive the paw prints are! I think the cat may be something of an artist.”
“I know why you don’t like him,” said Mameha. “You’re jealous of his talent.”
“Jealous, am I?” Uchida said. “That cat’s no artist. He’s a demon if he’s anything!”
“Forgive me, Uchida-san,” Mameha replied. “It’s just as you say. But tell me, are you planning to throw the picture away? Because if so, I’d be pleased to have it. Wouldn’t it look charming in my apartment, Sayuri?”
When Uchida heard this, he tore the picture from the board and said, “You like it, do you? All right, I’ll make you two presents of it!” And then he tore it into two pieces and gave them to her, saying, “Here’s one! And here’s the other! Now get out!”
“I so wish you hadn’t done that,” Mameha said. “I think it was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever produced.”
“Oh, Uchida-san, I can’t possibly! I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t straighten your place a bit before leaving.”
At this, Uchida himself stormed out of the house, leaving the door wide open behind him. We watched him kick the broom Mameha had left leaning against the tree and then nearly slip and fall as he started down the wet steps. We spent the next half hour straightening up the studio, until Uchida came back in a much improved mood, just as Mameha had predicted. He still wasn’t what I would call cheerful; and in fact, he had a habit of chewing constantly at the mole in the corner of his mouth, which gave him the look of being worried. I think he felt embarrassed at his earlier behavior, because he never looked directly at either of us. Soon it became apparent that he wasn’t going to notice my eyes at all, and so Mameha said to him:
“Don’t you think Sayuri is just the prettiest thing? Have you even bothered to look at her?”
It was an act of desperation, I thought, but Uchida only flicked his eyes at me like brushing a crumb from a table. Mameha seemed very disappointed. The afternoon light was already beginning to fade, so we both rose to leave. She gave the most abbreviated bow in saying good-bye. When we stepped outside, I couldn’t help stopping a moment to take in the sunset, which painted the sky behind the distant hills in rusts and pinks as striking as the loveliest kimono-even more so, because no matter how magnificent a kimono is, your hands will never glow orange in its light. But in that sunset my hands seemed to have been dipped in some sort of iridescence. I raised them up and gazed at them for a long moment.
“Mameha-san, look,” I said to her, but she thought I was talking about the sunset and turned toward it with indifference. Uchida was standing frozen in the entryway with an expression of concentration on his face, combing one hand through a tuft of his gray hair. But he wasn’t looking at the sunset at all. He was looking at me. If you’ve ever seen Uchida Kosaburo’s famous ink painting of the young woman in a kimono standing in
a rapturous state and with her eyes aglow . . . well, from the very beginning he insisted the idea came from what he saw that afternoon. I’ve never really believed him. I can’t imagine such a beautiful painting could really be based on just a girl staring foolishly at her hands in the sunset.