Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 19)

Chapter nineteen

That startling month in which I first came upon the Chairman again-and met Nobu, and Dr. Crab, and Uchida Kosaburo-made me feel something like a pet cricket that has at last escaped its wicker cage. For the first time in ages I could go to bed at night believing I might not always draw as little notice in Gion as a drop of tea spilled onto the mats. I still had no understanding of Mameha’s plan, or of how it would lead me to success as a geisha, or whether success as a geisha would ever lead me to the Chairman. But every night I lay on my futon with his handkerchief pressed against my cheek, reliving again and again my encounter with him. I was like a temple bell that resonates long after it has been struck.

Some weeks passed without word from any of the men, and Mameha and I began to worry. But at last one morning a secretary from Iwamura Electric phoned the Ichiriki Teahouse to request my company for that evening. Mameha was delighted at this news, because she hoped the invitation had come from Nobu. I was delighted too; I hoped it was from the Chairman. Later that day, in Hatsumomo’s presence, I told Auntie I would be entertaining Nobu and asked her to help me choose a kimono ensemble. To my

astonishment Hatsumomo came along to lend a hand. I’m sure that a stranger seeing us would have imagined we were members of a close family. Hatsumomo never snickered, or made sarcastic comments, and in fact she was helpful. I think Auntie felt as puzzled as I did. We ended up settling on a powdery green kimono with a pattern of leaves in silver and vermilion, and a gray obi with gold threads. Hatsumomo promised to stop by so she could see Nobu and me together.

That evening I knelt in the hallway of the Ichiriki feeling that my whole life had led me to this moment. I listened to the sounds of muffled laughter, wondering if one of the voices was the Chairman’s; and when I opened the door and saw him there at the head of the table, and Nobu with his back to me . . . well, I was so captivated by the Chairman’s smile-though it was really only the residue of laughter from a moment earlier-that I had to keep myself from smiling back at him. I greeted Mameha first, and then the few other geisha in the room, and finally the six or seven men. When I arose from my knees, I went straight to Nobu, as Mameha expected me to do. I must have knelt closer to him than I realized, however, because he immediately slammed his sake cup onto the table in annoyance and shifted a little distance away from me. I apologized, but he paid me no attention, and Mameha only frowned. I spent the rest of the time feeling out of sorts. Later, as we were leaving together, Mameha said to me:

“Nobu-san is easily annoyed. Be more careful not to irritate him in the future.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Apparently he isn’t as fond of me as you thought …”

“Oh, he’s fond of you. If he didn’t like your company, you’d have left the party in tears. Sometimes his temperament seems as gentle as a sack of gravel, but he’s a kind man in his way, as you’ll discover.”

I was invited to the Ichiriki Teahouse again that week by Iwamura Electric and many times over the weeks that followed-and not always with Mameha. She cautioned me not to stay too long for fear of making myself look unpopular; so after an hour or so I always bowed and excused myself as though I were on my way to another party. Often while I was dressing for these evenings, Hatsumomo hinted she might stop by, but she never did. Then one afternoon when I wasn’t expecting it, she informed me she had some free time that evening and would be absolutely certain to come.

I felt a bit nervous, as you can imagine; but things seemed still worse when I reached the Ichiriki and found that Nobu was absent. It was the smallest party I’d attended yet in Gion, with only two other geisha and four men. What if Hatsumomo should arrive and find me entertaining the Chairman without Nobu? I’d made no headway in thinking what to do, when suddenly the door slid open, and with a surge of anxiety I saw Hatsumomo there on her knees in the hallway.

My only recourse, I decided, was to act bored, as though the company of no one but Nobu could possibly interest me. Perhaps this would have been enough to save me that night; but by good fortune Nobu arrived a few minutes afterward in any case. Hatsumomo’s lovely smile grew the moment Nobu entered the room, until her lips were as rich and full as drops of blood beading at the edge of a wound. Nobu made himself comfortable at the table, and then at once, Hatsumomo suggested in an almost

maternal way that I go and pour him sake. I went to settle myself near him and tried to show all the signs of a girl enchanted. Whenever he laughed, for example, I flicked my eyes toward him as though I couldn’t resist. Hatsumomo was delighted and watched us so openly that she didn’t even seem aware of all the men’s eyes upon her-or more likely, she was simply accustomed to the attention. She was captivatingly beautiful that evening, as she always was; the young man at the end of the table did little more than smoke cigarettes and watch her. Even the Chairman, who sat with his fingers draped gracefully around a sake cup, stole glimpses of her from time to time. I had to wonder if men were so blinded by beauty that they would feel privileged to live their lives with an actual demon, so long as it a beautiful demon. I had a sudden image in my mind of the Chairman stepping up into the formal entrance hall of our okiya late one night to meet Hatsumomo, holding a fedora in his hand and smiling down at me as he began to unbutton his overcoat. I didn’t think he’d ever really be so entranced by her beauty as to overlook the traces of cruelty that would show themselves. But one thing was certain: if Hatsumomo ever understood my feelings for him, she might very well try to seduce him, if for no other reason than to cause me pain.

Suddenly it seemed urgent to me that Hatsumomo leave the party. I knew she was there to observe the “developing romance,” as she put it; so I made up my mind to show her what she’d come to see. I began by touching my fingertips to my neck or my hairstyle every so often, in order to seem worried about my appearance. When my fingers brushed one of my hair ornaments inadvertently, I came up with an idea. I waited until someone made a joke, and then while laughing and adjusting my hair, I leaned toward

Nobu. Adjusting my hair was a strange thing for me to do, I’ll admit, since it was waxed into place and hardly needed attention. But my purpose was to dislodge one of my hair ornaments-a cascade of yellow and orange safflowers in silk- and let it fall into Nobu’s lap. As it turned out, the wooden spine holding the ornament in my hair was embedded farther than I’d realized; but I managed to slip it out at last, and it bounced against Nobu’s chest and fell onto the tatami between his crossed legs. Most everyone noticed, and no one seemed to know what to do. I’d planned to reach into his lap and reclaim it with girlish embarrassment, but I couldn’t bring myself to reach between his legs.

Nobu picked it up himself, and turned it slowly by its spine. “Fetch the young maid who greeted me,” he said. “Tell her I want the package I brought.”

I did as Nobu asked and returned to the room to find everyone waiting. He was still holding my hair ornament by the spine, so that the flowers dangled down above the table, and made no effort to take the package from me when I offered it to him. “I was going to give it to you later, on your way out. But it looks as if I’m meant to give it to you now,” he said, and nodded toward the package in a way that suggested I should open it. I felt very embarrassed with everyone watching, but I unfolded the paper

wrapping and opened the little wooden box inside to find an exquisite ornamental comb on a bed of satin. The comb, in the shape of a half-circle, was a showy red color adorned with bright flowers.

“It’s an antique I found a few days ago,” Nobu said.

The Chairman, who was gazing wistfully at the ornament in its box on the table, moved his lips, but no sound came out at first, until he cleared his throat and then said, with a strange sort of sadness, “Why, Nobu-san, I had no idea you were so sentimental.”

Hatsumomo rose from the table; I thought I’d succeeded in ridding myself of her, but to my surprise she came around and knelt near me. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, until she removed the comb from the box and carefully inserted it into my hair just at the base of the large pincushionlike bun. She held out her hand, and Nobu gave her the ornament of dangling safflowers, which she replaced in my hair as carefully as a mother tending to a baby. I thanked her with a little bow.

“Isn’t she just the loveliest creature?” she said, speaking pointedly to Nobu. And then she gave a very theatrical sigh, as though these few moments were as romantic as any she’d experienced, and left the party as I’d hoped she would.

It goes without saying that men can be as distinct from each other as shrubs that bloom in different times of the year. Because although Nobu and the Chairman seemed to take an interest in me within a few weeks of the sumo tournament, several months passed and still we heard nothing from Dr. Crab or Uchida. Mameha was very clear that we ought to wait until we heard from them, rather than finding some pretext for approaching them again, but at length she could bear the suspense no longer and went to check on Uchida one afternoon.

It turned out that shortly after we’d visited him, his cat had been bitten by a badger and within a few days was dead from infection. Uchida had fallen into another drinking spell as a result. For a few days Mameha visited to cheer him up. Finally when his mood seemed to be turning the corner, she dressed me in an ice-blue kimono with multicolored ribbons embroidered at the hem-with only a touch of Western-style makeup to “accentuate the angles,” as she put it- and sent me to him bearing a present of a pearl-white kitten that had cost her I don’t know how much money. I thought the kitten was adorable, but Uchida paid it little attention and instead sat squinting his eyes at me, shifting his head this way and that. A few days later, the news came that he wanted me to model in his studio. Mameha cautioned me not to speak a word to him, and sent me off chaperoned by her maid Tatsumi, who spent the afternoon nodding off in a drafty corner while Uchida moved me from spot to spot, frantically mixing his inks and painting a bit on rice paper before moving me again.

If you were to go around Japan and see the various works Uchida produced while I modeled for him during that winter and the years that followed-such as one of his only surviving oil paintings, hanging in the boardroom of the Sumitomo Bank in Osaka-you might imagine it was a glamorous experience to have posed for him. But actually nothing could have been duller. Most of the time I did little more than sit uncomfortably for an hour or more. Mainly I remember being thirsty, because Uchida never once offered me anything to drink. Even when I took to bringing my own tea in a sealed jar, he moved it to the other side of the room so it wouldn’t distract him. Following Mameha’s instructions, I tried never to speak a word, even one bitter afternoon in the middle of February when I probably should have said something and didn’t. Uchida had come to sit right before me and stare at my eyes, chewing on the mole in the corner of his mouth. He had a handful of ink sticks and some water that kept icing over, but no matter how many times he ground ink in various combinations of blue and gray, he was never quite satisfied with the color and took it outside to spill it into the snow. Over the course of the afternoon as his eyes bored into me, he became more and more angry and finally sent me away. I didn’t hear a word from him for more than two weeks, and later found out he’d fallen into another drinking spell. Mameha blamed me for letting it happen.

As for Dr. Crab, when I first met him he’d as much as promised to see Mameha and me at the Shirae Teahouse; and yet as late as six weeks afterward, we hadn’t heard a word from him. Mameha’s concern grew as the weeks passed. I still knew nothing of her plan for catching Hatsu-momo off-balance, except that it was like a gate swinging on two hinges, one of which was Nobu and the other of which was Dr. Crab. What she was up to with Uchida, I couldn’t say, but it struck me as a separate scheme-certainly not

in the very center of her plans.

Finally in late February, Mameha ran into Dr. Crab at the Ichiriki Teahouse and learned that he’d been consumed with the opening of a new hospital in Osaka. Now that most of the work was behind him, he hoped to renew my acquaintance at the Shirae Teahouse the following week. You’ll recall that Mameha had claimed I would be overwhelmed with invitations if I showed my face at the Ichiriki; this was why Dr. Crab asked that we join him at the Shirae instead. Mameha’s real motive was to keep clear of Hatsumomo, of course; and yet as I prepared to meet the Doctor again, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy that Hatsumomo might find us anyway. But the moment I set eyes on the Shirae I nearly burst out laughing, for it was certainly a place Hatsumomo would go out of her way to avoid. It made me think of one shriveled little blossom on a tree in full bloom. Gion continued to be a bustling community even during the last years of the Depression, but the Shirae Teahouse, which had never been important to begin with, had only withered further. The only reason a man as wealthy as Dr. Crab patronized such a place is that he hadn’t always been so wealthy. During his early years the Shirae was probably the best he could do. Just because the Ichiriki finally welcomed him didn’t mean he was free to sever his bond with the Shirae. When a man takes a mistress, he doesn’t turn around and divorce his wife.

That evening in the Shirae, I poured sake while Mameha told a story, and all the while Dr. Crab sat with his elbows sticking out so much that he sometimes bumped one of us with them and turned to nod in apology. He was a quiet man, as I discovered; he spent most of his time looking down at the table through his little round glasses, and every so often slipped pieces of sashimi underneath his mustache in a way that made me think of a boy hiding something beneath a floor covering. When we finally left that

evening I thought we’d failed and wouldn’t see much of him-because normally a man who’d enjoyed himself so little wouldn’t bother coming back to Gion. But as it turned out, we heard from Dr. Crab the next week, and nearly every week afterward over the following months.

Things went along smoothly with the Doctor, until one afternoon in the middle of March when I did something foolish and very nearly ruined all Mameha’s careful planning. I’m sure many a young girl has spoiled her prospects in life by refusing to do something expected of her, or by behaving badly toward an important man, or some such thing; but the mistake I made was so trivial I wasn’t even aware I’d done anything.

It happened in the okiya during the course of about a minute, not long after lunch one cold day while I knelt on the wooden walkway with my shamisen. Hatsumomo was strolling past on her way to the toilet. If I’d had shoes I would have stepped down onto the dirt corridor to get out of her way. But as it was, I could do nothing but struggle to get up from my knees, with my legs and arms nearly frozen. If I’d been quicker Hatsumomo probably wouldn’t have bothered speaking to me. But during that moment while I

rose to my feet, she said:

“The German Ambassador is coming to town, but Pumpkin isn’t free to entertain him. Why don’t you ask Mameha to arrange for you to take Pumpkin’s place?” After this she let out a laugh, as if to say the idea of my doing such a thing was as ridiculous as serving a dish of acorn shells to the Emperor.

The German Ambassador was causing quite a stir in Gion at the time. During this period, in 1935, a new government had recently come to power in Germany; and though I’ve never understood much about politics, I do know that Japan was moving away from the United States during these years and was eager to make a good impression on the new German Ambassador. Everyone in Gion wondered who would be given the honor of entertaining him during his upcoming visit.

When Hatsumomo spoke to me, I ought to have lowered my head in shame and made a great show of lamenting the misery of my life compared with Pumpkin’s. But as it happened, I had just been musing about how much my prospects seemed to have improved and how successfully Mameha and I had kept her plan from Hatsumomo- whatever her plan was. My first instinct when Hatsumomo spoke was to smile, but instead I kept my face like a mask, and felt pleased with myself that I’d given nothing away. Hatsumomo gave me an odd look; I ought to have realized right then that something had passed through her mind. I stepped quickly to one side, and she passed me. That was the end of it, as far as I was concerned.

Then a few days later, Mameha and I went to the Shirae Teahouse to meet Dr. Crab once again. But as we rolled open the door, we found Pumpkin slipping her feet into her shoes to leave. I was so startled to see her, I wondered what on earth could possibly have brought her there. Then Hatsumomo stepped down into the entryway as well, and of course I knew: Hatsumomo had outsmarted us somehow.

“Good evening, Mameha-san,” Hatsumomo said. “And look who’s with you! It’s the apprentice the Doctor used to be so fond of. ”

I’m sure Mameha felt as shocked as I did, but she didn’t show it. “Why, Hatsumomo-san,” she said, “I scarcely recognize you . . . but my goodness, you’re aging well!”

Hatsumomo wasn’t actually old; she was only twenty-eight or twenty-nine. I think Mameha was just looking for something nasty to say.

“I expect you’re on your way to see the Doctor,” Hatsumomo said. “Such an interesting man! I only hope he’ll still be happy to see you. Well, good-bye.” Hatsumomo looked cheerful as she walked away, but in the light from the avenue I could see a look of sorrow on Pumpkin’s face.

Mameha and I slipped out of our shoes without speaking a word; neither of us knew what to say. The Shirae’s gloomy atmosphere seemed as thick as the water in a pond that night. The air smelled of stale makeup; the damp plaster was peeling in the corners of the rooms. I would have given anything to turn around and leave.

When we slid open the door from the hallway, we found the mistress of the teahouse keeping Dr. Crab company. Usually she stayed a few minutes even after -we’d arrived, probably to charge the Doctor for her time. But tonight she excused herself the moment we entered and didn’t even look up as she passed. Dr. Crab was sitting with his back facing us, so we skipped the formality of bowing and went instead to join him at the table.

“You seem tired, Doctor,” Mameha said. “How are you this evening

Dr. Crab didn’t speak. He just twirled his glass of beer on the table to waste time – even though he was an efficient man and never wasted a moment if he could help it.

“Yes, I am rather tired,” he said at last. “I don’t feel much like talking.”

And with that, he drank down the last of his beer and stood to leave. Mameha and I exchanged looks. When Dr. Crab reached the door to the room, he faced us and said, “I certainly do not appreciate when people I have trusted turn out to have misled me.”

Afterward he left without closing the door.

Mameha and I were too stunned to speak. At length she got up and slid the door shut. Back at the table, she smoothed her kimono and then pinched her eyes closed in anger and said to me, “All right, Sayuri. What exactly did you say to Hatsumomo?”

“Mameha-san, after all this work? I promise you I would never do anything to ruin my own chances.”

“The Doctor certainly seems to have thrown you aside as though you’re no better than an empty sack. I’m sure there’s a reason . . . but we won’t find it out until we know what Hatsumomo said to him tonight.”

“How can we possibly do that?”

“Pumpkin was here in the room. You must go to her and ask.”

I wasn’t at all sure Pumpkin would speak with me, but I said I would try, and Mameha seemed satisfied with this. She stood and prepared to leave, but I stayed where I was until she turned to see what was

keeping me.

” Mameha- san, may I ask a question?” I said. “Now Hatsumomo knows I’ve been spending time with the Doctor, and probably she understands the reason why. Dr. Crab certainly knows why. You know hy. Even Pumpkin may know why ! I’m the only one who doesn’t.

Won’t you be kind enough to explain your plan to me?”

Mameha looked as if she felt very sorry I’d asked this question. For a long moment she looked everywhere but at me, but she finally let out a sigh and knelt at the table again to tell me what I wanted to know.

“You know perfectly well,” she began, “that Uchida-san looks at you with the eyes of an artist. But the Doctor is interested in something else, and so is Nobu. Do you know what is meant by ‘the homeless eel’?”

I had no idea what she was talking about, and I said so.

“Men have a kind of … well, an ‘eel’ on them,” she said. “Women don’t have it. But men do. It’s located-”

“I think I know what you’re talking about,” I said, “but I didn’t know it was called an eel.”

“It isn’t an eel, really,” Mameha said. “But pretending it’s an eel makes things so much easier to understand. So let’s think of it that way.

Here’s the thing: this eel spends its entire life trying to find a home, and what do you think women have inside them? Caves, where the eels like to live. This cave is where the blood comes from every month when the ‘clouds pass over the moon,’ as we sometimes say.”

I was old enough to understand what Mameha meant by the passage of clouds over the moon, because I’d been experiencing it for a few years already. The first time, I couldn’t have felt more panicked if I’d sneezed and found pieces of my brain in the handkerchief. I really was afraid I might be dying, until Auntie had found me washing out a bloody rag and explained that bleeding was just part of being a woman.

“You may not know this about eels,” Mameha went on, “but they’re quite territorial. When they find a cave they like, they wriggle around inside it for a while to be sure that . . . well, to be sure it’s a nice cave, I suppose. And when they’ve made up their minds that it’s comfortable, they mark the cave as their territory … by spitting. Do you understand?”

If Mameha had simply told me what she was trying to say, I’m sure I would have been shocked, but at least I’d have had an easier time sorting it all out. Years later I discovered that things had been explained to Mameha in exactly the same way by her own older sister.

“Here’s the part that’s going to seem very strange to you,” Mameha went on, as if what she’d already told me didn’t. “Men actually like doing this. In fact, they like it very much. There are even men who do little in their lives besides search for different caves to let their eels live in. A woman’s cave is particularly special to a man if no other eel has ever been in it before. Do you understand? We call this ‘mizuage! ”

“We call what ‘mizuage”?”

“The first time a woman’s cave is explored by a man’s eel. That is what we call mizuage.”

Now, mizu means “water” and age means “raise up” or “place on”; so that the term mizuage sounds as if it might have something to do with raising up water or placing something on the water. If you get three geisha in a room, all of them will have different ideas about where the term comes from. Now that Mameha had finished her explanation, I felt only more confused, though I tried to pretend it all made a certain amount of sense.

“I suppose you can guess why the Doctor likes to play around in Gion,” Mameha continued. “He makes a great deal of money from his hospital. Except for what he needs to support his family, he spends it in the pursuit of mizuage. It may interest you to know, Sayuri-san, that you are precisely the sort of young girl he likes best. I know this very well, because I was one myself.”

As I later learned, a year or two before I’d first come to Gion, Dr. Crab had paid a record amount for Mameha’s mizuage-maybe ¥7000 or ¥8000. This may not sound like much, but at that time it was a sum that even someone like Mother-whose every thought was about money and how to get more of it-might see only once or twice in a lifetime. Mameha’s mizuage had been so costly partly because of her fame; but there was another reason, as she explained to me that afternoon. Two very wealthy men had bid against each other to be her mizuage patron. One was Dr. Crab. The other was a businessman named Fujikado. Ordinarily men didn’t compete this way in Gion; they all knew each other and preferred to reach agreement on things. But Fujikado lived on the other side of the country and came to Gion only occasionally. He didn’t care if he offended Dr. Crab. And Dr. Crab, who claimed to have some aristocratic blood in him, hated self-made men like Fujikado- even though, in truth, he was a self-made man too, for the most part.

When Mameha noticed at the sumo tournament that Nobu seemed taken with me, she thought at once of how much Nobu resembled Fujikado- self-made and, to a man like Dr. Crab, repulsive. With Hatsumomo chasing me around like a housewife chasing a cockroach, I certainly wasn’t going to become famous the way Mameha had and end up with an expensive mizuage as a result. But if these two men found me appealing enough, they might start a bidding war, which could put me in the same position to repay my debts as if I’d been a popular apprentice all along. This was what Mameha had meant by “catching Hatsumomo off-balance.” Hatsumomo was delighted that Nobu found me attractive; what she didn’t realize was that my popularity with Nobu would very likely drive up the price of my


Clearly we had to reclaim Dr. Crab’s affections. Without him Nobu could offer what he wanted for my mizuage-that is, if he turned out to have any interest in it at all. I wasn’t sure he would, but Mameha assured me that a man doesn’t cultivate a relationship with a fifteen-year-old apprentice geisha unless he has her mizuage in mind.

“You can bet it isn’t your conversation he’s attracted to,” she told me.

I tried to pretend I didn’t feel hurt by this.

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