Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 20)

Chapter twenty

Looking back, I can see that this conversation with Mameha marked a shift in my view of the world. Beforehand I’d known nothing about mizuage; I was still a naive girl with little understanding. But afterward I could begin to see what a man like Dr. Crab wanted from all the time and money he spent in Gion. Once you know this sort of thing, you can never unknow it. I couldn’t think about him again in quite the same way.

Back at the okiya’later that night, I waited in my room for Hatsu-momo and Pumpkin to come up the stairs. It was an hour or so after midnight when they finally did. I could tell Pumpkin was tired from the way her hands slapped on the steps-because she sometimes came up the steep stairway on all fours like a dog. Before closing the door to their room, Hatsumomo summoned one of the maids and asked for a beer.

“No, wait a minute,” she said. “Bring two. I want Pumpkin to join me.”

“Please, Hatsumomo-san,” I heard Pumpkin say. “I’d rather drink spit.”

“You’re going to read aloud to me while I drink mine, so you might as well have one. Beside, I hate when people are too sober. It’s sickening.”

After this, the maid went down the stairs. When she came up a short time later, I heard glasses clinking on the tray she carried.

For a long while I sat with my ear to the door of my room, listening to Pumpkin’s voice as she read an article about a new Kabuki actor. Finally Hatsumomo stumbled out into the hallway and rolled open the door to the upstairs toilet.

“Pumpkin!” I heard her say. “Don’t you feel like a bowl of noodles?”

“No, ma’am.”

“See if you can find the noodle vendor. And get some for yourself so you can keep me company.”

Pumpkin sighed and went right down the stairs, but I had to wait for Hatsumomo to return to her room before creeping down to follow. I might not have caught up with Pumpkin, except that she was so exhausted she couldn’t do much more than wander along at about the speed mud oozes down a hill, and with about as much purpose. When I finally found her, she looked alarmed to see me and asked what was the matter.

“Nothing is the matter,” I said, “except … I desperately need your help.”

“Oh, Chiyo-chan,” she said to me-I think she was the only person who still called me that-“I don’t have any time! I’m trying to find noodles for Hatsumomo, and she’s going to make me eat some too. I’m afraid I’ll throw up all over her.”

“Pumpkin, you poor thing,” I said. “You look like ice when it has begun to melt.” Her face was drooping with exhaustion, and the weight of all her clothing seemed as if it might pull her right onto the ground. I told her to go and sit down, that I would find the noodles and bring them to her. She was so tired she didn’t even protest, but simply handed me the money and sat down on a bench by the Shirakawa Stream.

It took me some time to find a noodle vendor, but at last I returned carrying two bowls of steaming noodles. Pumpkin was sound asleep with her head back and her mouth open as though she were hoping to catch raindrops. It was about two in the morning, and a few people were still strolling around. One group of men seemed to think Pumpkin was the funniest thing they’d seen in weeks-and I admit it was odd to see an apprentice in her full regalia snoring on a bench.

When I’d set the bowls down beside her and awakened her as gently as I knew how, I said, “Pumpkin, I want so much to ask you a favor, but. . . I’m afraid you won’t be happy when you hear what it is.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Nothing makes me happy anymore.”

“You were in the room earlier this evening when Hatsumomo talked with the Doctor. I’m afraid my whole future may be affected by that conversation. Hatsumomo must have told him something about me that isn’t true, because now the Doctor doesn’t want to see me any longer. ”

As much as I hated Hatsumomo-as much as I wanted to know what she’d done that evening-I felt sorry at once for having raised the subject with Pumpkin. She seemed in such pain that the gentle nudge I gave her proved to be too much. All at once several teardrops came spilling onto her big cheeks as if she’d been filling up with them for years.

“I didn’t know, Chiyo-chan!” she said, fumbling in her obi for a handkerchief. “I had no idea!”

“You mean, what Hatsumomo was going to say? But how could anyone have known?”

“That isn’t it. I didn’t know anyone could be so evil! I don’t understand it … She does things for no reason at all except to hurt people. And the worst part is she thinks I admire her and want to be just like her. But I hate her! I’ve never hated anyone so much before.”

By now poor Pumpkin’s yellow handkerchief was smeared with white makeup. If earlier she’d been an ice cube beginning to melt, now she was a puddle.

“Pumpkin, please listen to me,” I said. “I wouldn’t ask this of you if I had any other alternative. But I don’t want to go back to being a maid all my life, and that’s just what will happen if Hatsumomo has her way. She won’t stop until she has me like a cockroach under her foot. I mean, she’ll squash me if you don’t help me to scurry away ! ”

Pumpkin thought this was funny, and we both began to laugh. While she was stuck between laughing and crying, I took her handkerchief and tried to smooth the makeup on her face. I felt so touched at seeing the old Pumpkin again, who had once been my friend, that my eyes grew watery as well, and we ended up in an embrace.

“Oh, Pumpkin, your makeup is such a mess,” I said to her afterward.

“It’s all right,” she told me. “I’ll just say to Hatsumomo that a drunken man came up to me on the street and wiped a handkerchief all over my face, and I couldn’t do anything about it because I was carrying two bowls of noodles.”

I didn’t think she would say anything further, but finally she sighed heavily.

“I want to help you, Chiyo,” she said, “but I’ve been out too long. Hatsumomo will come looking for me if I don’t hurry back. If she finds us together …”

“I only have to ask a few questions, Pumpkin. Just tell me, how did Hatsumomo find out I’ve been entertaining the Doctor at the Shirae Teahouse?”

“Oh, that,” said Pumpkin. “She tried to tease you a few days ago about the German Ambassador, but you didn’t seem to care what she said. You looked so calm, she thought you and Mameha must have some scheme going. So she went to Awajiumi at the registry office and asked what teahouses you’ve been billing at. When she heard the Shirae was one of them, she got this look on her face, and we started going there that same night to look for the Doctor. We went twice before we finally found him.”

Very few men of consequence patronized the Shirae. This is why Hatsumomo would have thought of Dr. Crab at once. As I was now coming to understand, he was renowned in Gion as a “mizuage specialist.” The moment Hatsumomo thought of him, she probably knew exactly what Mameha was up to.

“What did she say to him tonight? When we called on the Doctor after you left, he wouldn’t even speak with us.”

“Well,” Pumpkin said, “they chatted for a while, and then Hatsumomo pretended that something had reminded her of a story. And she began it, ‘There’s a young apprentice named Sayuri, who lives in my okiya . . .When the Doctor heard your name . . . I’m telling you, he sat up like a bee had stung him. And he said, ‘You know her?’ So Hatsumomo told him, ‘Well, of course I know her, Doctor. Doesn’t she live in my okiya?’ After this she said something else I don’t remember, and then, ‘I shouldn’t talk about Sayuri because . . . well, actually, I’m covering up an important secret for her.’ ”

I went cold when I heard this. I was sure Hatsumomo had thought of something really awful.

“Pumpkin, what was the secret?”

“Well, I’m not sure I know,” Pumpkin said. “It didn’t seem like much. Hatsumomo told him there was a young man who lived near the okiya and that Mother had a strict policy against boyfriends. Hatsumomo said you and this boy were fond of each other, and she didn’t mind covering up for you because she thought Mother was too strict. She said she even let the two of you spend time together alone in her room when Mother was out. Then she said something like, ‘Oh, but . . . Doctor, I really shouldn’t have told you! What if it gets back to Mother, after all the work I’ve done to keep Sayuri’s secret!’ But the Doctor said he was grateful for what Hatsumomo had told him, and he would be certain to keep it to himself.”

I could just imagine how much Hatsumomo must have enjoyed her little scheme. I asked Pumpkin if there was anything more, but she said no.

I thanked her many times for helping me, and told her how sorry I was that she’d had to spend these past few years as a slave to Hatsumomo.

“I guess some good has come of it,” Pumpkin said. “Just a few days ago, Mother made up her mind to adopt me. So my dream of having someplace to live out my life may come true.”

I felt almost sick when I heard these words, even as I told her how happy I was for her. It’s true that I was pleased for Pumpkin; but I also knew that it was an important part of Mameha’s plan that Mother adopt me instead.

In her apartment the next day, I told Mameha what I’d learned. The moment she heard about the boyfriend, she began shaking her head in disgust. I understood it already, but she explained to me that Hatsumomo had found a very clever way of putting into Dr. Crab’s mind the idea that my “cave” had already been explored by someone else’s “eel,” so to speak.

Mameha was even more upset to learn about Pumpkin’s upcoming adoption.

“My guess,” she said, “is that we have a few months before the adoption occurs. Which means that the time has come for your mizuage, Sayuri, whether you’re ready for it or not.”

Mameha went to a confectioner’s shop that same week and ordered on my behalf a kind of sweet-rice cake we call ekubo, which is the Japanese word for dimple. We call them ekubo because they have a dimple in the top with a tiny red circle in the center; some people think they look very suggestive. I’ve always thought they looked like tiny pillows, softly dented, as if a woman has slept on them, and smudged red in the center from her lipstick, since she was perhaps too tired to take it off before she went to bed. In any case, when an apprentice geisha becomes available for mizuage, she presents boxes of these ekubo to the men who patronize her. Most apprentices give them out to at least a dozen men, perhaps many more; but for me there would be only Nobu and the Doctor-if we were lucky. I felt sad, in a way, that I wouldn’t give them to the Chairman; but on the other hand, the whole thing seemed so distasteful, I wasn’t entirely sorry he would be left out of it.

Presenting ekubo to Nobu was easy. The mistress of the Ichiriki arranged for him to come a bit early one evening, and Mameha and I met him in a small room overlooking the entrance courtyard. I thanked him for all his thoughtfulness-for he’d been extremely kind to me over the past six months, not only summoning me frequently to entertain at parties even when the Chairman was absent, but giving me a variety of gifts besides the ornamental comb on the night Hatsumomo came. After thanking him, I

picked up the box of ekubo, wrapped in unbleached paper and tied with coarse twine, then bowed to him and slid it across the table. He accepted it, and Mameha and I thanked him several more times for all his kindness, bowing again and again until I began to feel almost dizzy. The little ceremony was brief, and

Nobu carried his box out of the room in his one hand. Later when I entertained at his party, he didn’t refer to it. Actually, I think the encounter made him a bit uncomfortable.

Dr. Crab, of course, was another matter. Mameha had to begin by going around to the principal teahouses in Gion and asking the mistresses to notify her if the Doctor should show up. We waited a few nights until word came that he’d turned up at a teahouse named Yashino, as the guest of another man. I rushed to Mameha’ s apartment to change my clothing and then set out for the Yashino with the box of ekubo wrapped up in a square of silk.

The Yashino was a fairly new teahouse, built in a completely Western style. The rooms were elegant in their own way, with dark wooden beams and so on; but instead of tatami mats and tables surrounded by cushions, the room into which I was shown that evening had a floor of hardwood, with a dark Persian rug, a coffee table, and a few overstuffed chairs. I have to admit it never occurred to me to sit on one of the chairs. Instead I knelt on the rug to wait for Mameha, although the floor was terribly hard on my

knees. I was still in that position a half hour later when she came in.

“What are you doing?” she said to me. “This isn’t a Japanese-style room. Sit in one of these chairs and try to look as if you belong.”

I did as Mameha said. But when she sat down opposite me, she looked every bit as uncomfortable as I probably did.

The Doctor, it seemed, was attending a party in the next room. Mameha had been entertaining him for some time already. “I’m pouring him lots of beer so he’ll have to go to the toilet,” she told me. “When he does, I’ll catch him in the hallway and ask that he step in here. You must give him the ekubo right away. I don’t know how he’ll react, but it will be our only chance to undo the damage Hatsumomo has done.”

Mameha left, and I waited in my chair a long while. I was hot and nervous, and I worried that my perspiration would cause my white makeup to turn into a crumpled-looking mess as bad as a futon after being slept in. I looked for something to distract myself; but the best I could do was stand from time to time to catch a glimpse of my face in a mirror hanging on the wall.

Finally I heard voices, then a tapping at the door, and Mameha swung it open.

“Just one moment, Doctor, if you please,” she said. I could see Dr. Crab in the darkness of the hallway, looking as stern as those old portraits you see in the lobbies of banks. He was peering at me through his glasses. I wasn’t sure what to do; normally I would have bowed on the mats, so I went ahead and knelt on the rug to bow in the same way, even though I was certain Mameha would be unhappy with me for doing it. I don’t think the Doctor even looked at me.

“I prefer to get back to the party,” he said to Mameha. “Please excuse me.”

“Sayuri has brought something for you, Doctor,” Mameha told him. “Just for a moment, if you please.”

She gestured for him to come into the room and saw that he was seated comfortably in one of the overstaffed chairs. After this, I think she must have forgotten what she’d told me earlier, because we both knelt on the rug, one of us at each of Dr. Crab’s knees. I’m sure the Doctor felt grand to have two such ornately dressed women kneeling at his feet that way.

“I’m sorry that I haven’t seen you in several days,” I said to him. “And already the weather is growing warm. It seems to me as if an entire season has passed!”

The Doctor didn’t respond, but just peered back at me.

“Please accept these ekubo, Doctor,” I said, and after bowing, placed the package on a side table near his hand. He put his hands in his lap as if to say he wouldn’t dream of touching it.

“Why are you giving me this?”

Mameha interrupted. “I’m so sorry, Doctor. I led Sayuri to believe you might enjoy receiving ekubo from her. I hope I’m not mistaken?”

“You are mistaken. Perhaps you don’t know this girl as well as you think. I regard you highly, Mameha- san, but it’s a poor reflection on you to recommend her to me.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she said. “I had no idea you felt that way. I’ve been under the impression you were fond of Sayuri.”

“Very well. Now that everything is clear, I’ll go back to the party.”

“But may I ask? Did Sayuri offend you somehow? Things seem to have changed so unexpectedly.”

“She certainly did. As I told you, I’m offended by people who mislead me.”

“Sayuri-san, how shameful of you to mislead the Doctor!” Mameha said to me. “You must have told him something you knew was untrue. What was it?”

“I don’t know!” I said as innocently as I could. “Unless it was a few weeks ago when I suggested that the weather was getting warmer, and it wasn’t really …”

Mameha gave me a look when I said this; I don’t think she liked it.

“This is between the two of you,” the Doctor said. “It is no concern of mine. Please excuse me.”

“But, Doctor, before you go,” Mameha said, “could there be some misunderstanding? Sayuri’s an honest girl and would never knowingly mislead anyone. Particularly someone who’s been so kind to her.”

“I suggest you ask her about the boy in her neighborhood,” the Doctor said.

I was very relieved he’d brought up the subject at last. He was such a reserved man, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d refused to mention it at all.

“So that’s the problem!” Mameha said to him. “You must have been talking with Hatsumomo.”

“I don’t see why that matters,” he said.

“She’s been spreading this story all over Gion. It’s completely untrue! Ever since Sayuri was given an important role on the stage in Dances of the Old Capital, Hatsumomo has spent all her energy trying to disgrace her.”

Dances of the Old Capital was Gion’s biggest annual event. Its opening was only six weeks away, at the beginning of April. All the dance roles had been assigned some months earlier, and I would have felt honored to take one. A teacher of mine had even suggested it, but as far as I knew, my only role would be in the orchestra and not on the stage at all. Mameha had insisted on this to avoid provoking Hatsumomo.

When the Doctor glanced at me, I did my best to look like someone who would be dancing an important role and had known it for some time.

“I’m afraid to say this, Doctor, but Hatsumomo is a known liar,” Mameha went on. “It’s risky to believe anything she says.”

“If Hatsumomo is a liar, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“No one would dream of telling you such a thing,” Mameha said, speaking in a quiet voice as though she really were afraid of being overheard. “So many geisha are dishonest! No one wants to be the first to make accusations. But either I’m lying to you now or else Hatsu-momo was lying when she told you the story. It’s a matter of deciding which of us you know better, Doctor, and which of us you trust more.”

“I don’t see why Hatsumomo would make up stories just because Sayuri has a role on the stage.”

“Surely you’ve met Hatsumomo’s younger sister, Pumpkin. Hatsumomo hoped Pumpkin would take a certain role, but it seems Sayuri has ended up with it instead. And I was given the role Hatsumomo wanted! But none of this matters, Doctor. If Sayuri’s integrity is in doubt, I can well understand that you might prefer not to accept the ekubo she has presented to you.”

The Doctor sat a long while looking at me. Finally he said, “I’ll ask one of my doctors from the hospital to examine her.”

“I’d like to be as cooperative as I can,” Mameha replied, “but I’d have difficulty arranging such a thing, since you haven’t yet agreed to be Sayuri’s mizuage patron. If her integrity is in doubt . . . well, Sayuri will be presenting ekubo to a great many men. I’m sure most will be skeptical of stories they hear from Hatsumomo.”

This seemed to have the effect Mameha wanted. Dr. Crab sat in silence a moment. Finally he said, “I hardly know the proper thing to do. This is the first time I’ve found myself in such a peculiar position.”

“Please accept the ekubo, Doctor, and let’s put Hatsumomo’s foolishness behind us.”

“I’ve often heard of dishonest girls who arrange mizuage for the time of month when a man will be easily deceived. I’m a doctor, you know. I won’t be fooled so readily.”

“But no one is trying to fool you!”

He sat just a moment longer and then stood with his shoulders hunched to march, elbow-first, from the room. I was too busy bowing good-bye to see whether he took the ekubo with him; but happily, after he and Mameha had left, I looked at the table and saw they were no longer there.

When Mameha mentioned my role on the stage, I thought she was making up a story on the spot to explain why Hatsumomo might lie about me. So you can imagine my surprise the next day when I learned she’d been telling the truth. Or if it wasn’t exactly the truth, Mameha felt confident that it would be true before the end of the week.

At that time, in the mid-1950s, probably as many as seven or eight hundred geisha worked in Gion; but because no more than sixty were needed each spring for the production of Dances of the Old Capital, the competition for roles destroyed more than a few friendships over the years. Mameha hadn’t been truthful when she said that she’d taken a role from Hatsumomo; she was one of the very few geisha in Gion guaranteed a solo role every year. But it was quite true that Hatsumomo had been desperate to see

Pumpkin on the stage. I don’t know where she got the idea such a thing was possible; Pumpkin may have earned the apprentice’s award and received other honors besides, but she never excelled at dance. However, a few days before I presented ekubo to the Doctor, a seventeen-year-old apprentice with a solo role had fallen down a flight of stairs and hurt her leg. The poor girl was devastated, but every other apprentice in Gion was happy to take advantage of her misfortune by offering to fill the role. It was this

role that in the end went to me. I was only fifteen at the time, and had never danced on the stage before- which isn’t to say I wasn’t ready to. I’d spent so many evenings in the okiya, rather than going from party to party like most apprentices, and Auntie often played the shamisen so that I could practice dance. This was why I’d already been promoted to the eleventh level by the age of fifteen, even though I probably possessed no more talent as a dancer than anyone else. If Mameha hadn’t been so determined to keep me hidden from the public eye because of Hatsumomo, I might even have had a role in the seasonal dances the previous year.

This role was given to me in mid-March, so I had only a month or so to rehearse it. Fortunately my dance teacher was very helpful and often worked with me privately during the afternoons. Mother didn’t find out what had happened-Hatsumomo certainly wasn’t going to tell her-until several days afterward, when she heard the rumor during a game of mah-jongg. She came back to the okiya and asked if it was true I’d been given the role. After I told her it was, she walked away with the sort of puzzled look she might have worn if her dog Taku had added up the columns in her account books for her.

Of course, Hatsumomo was furious, but Mameha wasn’t concerned about it. The time had come, as she put it, for us to toss Hatsumomo from the ring.

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