Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 21)

Chapter twenty-one

I ate one afternoon a week or so later, Mameha came up to me during a break in rehearsals, very excited about something. It seemed that on the previous day, the Baron had mentioned to her quite casually that he would be giving a party during the coming weekend for a certain kimono maker named Arashino. The Baron owned one of the best-known collections of kimono in all of Japan. Most of his pieces were antiques, but every so often he bought a very fine work by a living artist. His decision to purchase a piece by Arashino had prompted him to have a party.

“I thought I recognized the name Arashino,” Mameha said to me, “but when the Baron first mentioned it, I couldn’t place it. He’s one of Nobu’s very closest friends! Don’t you see the possibilities? I didn’t think of it until today, but I’m going to persuade the .Baron to invite both Nobu and the Doctor to his little party. The two of them are certain to dislike each other. When the bidding begins for your mizuage, you can be sure that neither will sit still, knowing the prize could be taken by the other.”

I was feeling very tired, but for Mameha’s sake I clapped my hands in excitement and said how grateful I was to her for coming up with such a clever plan. And I’m sure it was a clever plan; but the real evidence of her cleverness was that she felt certain she’d have no difficulty persuading the Baron to invite these two men to his party. Clearly they would both be willing to come-in Nobu’s case because the Baron was an investor in Iwamura Electric, though I didn’t know it at the time; and in Dr. Crab’s case because . . . well, because the Doctor considered himself something of an aristocrat, even though he probably had only one obscure ancestor with any aristocratic blood, and would regard it as his duty to attend any function the Baron invited him to. But as to why the Baron would agree to invite either of them, I don’t know. He didn’t approve of Nobu; very few men did. As for Dr. Crab, the Baron had never met him before and might as well have invited someone off the street.

But Mameha had extraordinary powers of persuasion, as I knew. The party was arranged, and she convinced my dance instructor to release me from rehearsals the following Saturday so I could attend it. The event was to begin in the afternoon and run through dinner- though Mameha and I were to arrive after the party was under way. So it was about three o’clock when we finally climbed into a rickshaw and headed out to the Baron’s estate, located at the base of the hills in the northeast of the city. It was my first visit to anyplace so luxurious, and I was quite overwhelmed by what I saw; because if you think of the attention to detail brought to bear in making a kimono, well, that same sort of attention had been brought to the design and care of the entire estate where the Baron lived. The main house dated back tothe time of his grandfather, but the gardens, which struck me as a giant brocade of textures, had been designed and built by his father. Apparently the house and gardens never quite fit together until the

Baron’s older brother-the year before his assassination-had moved the location of the pond, and also created a moss garden with stepping-stones leading from the moon- viewing pavilion on one side of the house. Black swans glided across the pond with a bearing so proud they made me feel ashamed to be such an ungainly creature as a human being.

We were to begin by preparing a tea ceremony the men would join when they were ready; so I was very puzzled when we passed through the main gate and made our way not to an ordinary tea pavilion, but straight toward the edge of the pond to board a small boat. The boat was about the size of a narrow room. Most of it was occupied with wooden seats along the edges, but at one end stood a miniature pavilion with its own roof sheltering a tatami platform. It had actual walls with paper screens slid open for air, and in the very center was a square wooden cavity filled with sand, which served as the brazier where Mameha lit cakes of charcoal to heat the water in a graceful iron teakettle. While she was doing this, I tried to make myself useful by arranging the implements for the ceremony. Already I was feeling quite nervous, and then Mameha turned to me after she had put the kettle on the fire and said:

“You’re a clever girl, Sayuri. I don’t need to tell you what will become of your future if Dr. Crab or Nobu should lose interest in you. You mustn’t let either of them think you’re paying too much attention to the other. But of course a certain amount of jealousy won’t do any harm. I’m certain you can manage it.”

I wasn’t so sure, but I would certainly have to try.

A half hour passed before the Baron and his ten guests strolled out from the house, stopping every so often to admire the view of the hillside from different angles. When they’d boarded the boat, the Baron guided us into the middle of the pond with a pole. Mameha made tea, and I delivered the bowls to each of the guests.

Afterward, we took a stroll through the garden with the men, and soon came to a wooden platform suspended above the water, where several maids in identical kimono were arranging cushions for the men to sit on, and leaving vials of warm sake on trays. I made a point of kneeling beside Dr. Crab, and was just trying to think of something to say when, to my surprise, the Doctor turned to me first.

“Has the laceration on your thigh healed satisfactorily?” he asked.

This was during the month of March, you must understand, and I’d cut my leg way back in November. In the months between, I’d seen Dr. Crab more times than I could count; so I have no idea why he waited until that moment to ask me about it, and in front of so many people. Fortunately, I didn’t think anyone had heard, so I kept my voice low when I answered.

“Thank you so much, Doctor. With your help it has healed completely.”

“I hope the injury-hasn’t left too much of a scar,” he said.

“Oh, no, just a tiny bump, really.”

I might have ended the conversation right there by pouring him more sake, perhaps, or changing the subject; but I happened to notice that he was stroking one of his thumbs with the fingers of his other hand. The Doctor was the sort of man who never wasted a single movement. If he was stroking his thumb in this way while thinking about my leg … well, I decided it would be foolish for me to change the subject.

“It isn’t much of a scar,” I went on. “Sometimes when I’m in the bath, I rub my finger across it, and . . . it’s just a tiny ridge, really. About like this.”

I rubbed one of my knuckles with my index finger and held it out for the Doctor to do the same. He brought his hand up; but then he hesitated. I saw his eyes jump toward mine. In a moment he drew his hand back and felt his own knuckle instead.

“A cut of that sort should have healed smoothly,” he told me.

“Perhaps it isn’t as big as I’ve said. After all, my leg is very . . . well, sensitive, you see. Even just a drop of rain falling onto it is enough to make me shudder!”

I’m not going to pretend any of this made sense. A bump wouldn’t seem bigger just because my leg was sensitive; and anyway, when was the last time I’d felt a drop of rain on my bare leg? But now that I understood why Dr. Crab was really interested in me, I suppose I was half-disgusted and half-fascinated as I tried to imagine what was going on in his mind. In any case, the Doctor cleared his throat and leaned toward me.

“And . . . have you been practicing?”

“Practicing?”

“You sustained the injury when you lost your balance while you were . . . well, you see what I mean. You don’t want that to happen again. So I expect you’ve been practicing. But how does one practice such a thing?”

After this, he leaned back and closed his eyes. It was clear to me he expected to hear an answer longer than simply a word or two.

“Well, you’ll think me very silly, but every night …” I began; and then I had to think for a moment. The silence dragged on, but the Doctor never opened his eyes. He seemed to me like a baby bird just waiting for the mother’s beak. “Every night,” I went on, “just before I step into the bath, I practice balancing in a variety of positions. Sometimes I have to shiver from the cold air against my bare skin; but I spend five or ten minutes that way.”

The Doctor cleared his throat, which I took as a good sign.

“First I try balancing on one foot, and then the other. But the trouble is . . .”

Up until this point, the Baron, on the opposite side of the platform from me, had been talking with his other guests; but now he ended his story. The next words I spoke were as clear as if I’d stood at a podium and announced them. “… when I don’t have any clothing on-” I clapped a hand over my mouth, but before I could think of what to do, the Baron spoke up. “My goodness!” he said. “Whatever you two are talking about over there, it certainly sounds more interesting than what we’ve been saying ! ”

The men laughed when they heard this. Afterward the Doctor was kind enough to offer an explanation.

“Sayuri-san came to me late last year with a leg injury,” he said. “She sustained it when she fell. As a result, I suggested she work at improving her balance.”

“She’s been working at it very hard,” Mameha added. “Those robes are more awkward than they look.”

“Let’s have her take them off, then!” said one of the men- though of course, it was only a joke, and everyone laughed.

“Yes, I agree!” the Baron said. “I never understand why women bother wearing kimono in the first place. Nothing is as beautiful as a woman without an item of clothing on her body.”

“That isn’t true when the kimono has been made by my good friend Arashino,” Nobu said.

“Not even Arashino’s kimono are as lovely as what they cover up,” the Baron said, and tried to put his sake cup onto the platform, though it ended up spilling. He wasn’t drunk, exactly-though he was certainly much further along in his drinking than I’d ever imagined him. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he went on. “I think Arashino’s robes are lovely. Otherwise he wouldn’t be sitting here beside me, now would he? But if you ask me whether I’d rather look at a kimono or a naked woman . . . well!”

“No one’s asking,” said Nobu. “I myself am interested to hear what sort of work Arashino has been up to lately.”

But Arashino didn’t have a chance to answer; because the Baron, who was taking a last slurp of sake, nearly choked in his hurry to interrupt.

“Mmm . . . just a minute,” he said. “Isn’t it true that every man on this earth likes to see a naked woman? I mean, is that what you’re saying, Nobu, that the naked female form doesn’t interest you?”

“That isn’t what I’m saying,” Nobu said. “What I’m saying is, I think it’s time for us to hear from Arashino exactly what sort of work he’s been up to lately.”

“Oh, yes, I’m certainly interested too,” the Baron said. “But you know, I do find it fascinating that no matter how different we men may seem, underneath it all we’re exactly the same. You can’t pretend you’re above it, Nobu-san. We know the truth, don’t we? There isn’t a man here who wouldn’t pay quite a bit of money just for the chance to watch Sayuri take a bath. Eh? That’s a particular fantasy of mine, I’ll admit. Now come on! Don’t pretend you don’t feel the same way I do.”

“Poor Sayuri is only an apprentice,” said Mameha. “Perhaps we ought to spare her this conversation.”

“Certainly not!” the Baron answered. “The sooner she sees the world as it really is, the better. Plenty of men act as if they don’t chase women just for the chance to get underneath all those robes, but you listen to me, Sayuri; there’s only one kind of man! And while we’re on this subject, here’s something for you to keep in mind: Every man seated here has at some point this afternoon thought of how much he would enjoy seeing you naked. What do you think of that?”

I was sitting with my hands in my lap, gazing down at the wooden platform and trying to seem demure. I had to respond in some way to what the Baron had said, particularly since everyone else was completely silent; but before I could think of what to say, Nobu did something very kind. He put his sake cup down onto the platform and stood up to excuse himself.

“I’m sorry, Baron, but I don’t know the way to the toilet,” he said. Of course, this was my cue to escort him.

I didn’t know the way to the toilet any better than Nobu; but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to remove myself from the gathering. As I rose to my feet, a maid offered to show me the way, and led me around the pond, with Nobu following along behind.

In the house, we walked down a long hallway of blond wood with windows on one side. On the other side, brilliantly lit in the sunshine, stood display cases with glass tops. I was about to lead Nobu down to the end, but he stopped at a case containing a collection of antique swords. He seemed to be looking at the display, but mostly he drummed the fingers of his one hand on the glass and blew air out his nose again and again, for he was still very angry. I felt troubled by what had happened as well. But I was also grateful to him for rescuing me, and I wasn’t sure how to express this. At the next case-a display of tiny netsuke figures carved in ivory-I asked him if he liked antiques.

“Antiques like the Baron, you mean? Certainly not.”

The Baron wasn’t a particularly old man-much younger than Nobu, in fact. But I knew what he meant; he thought of the Baron as a relic of the feudal age.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, “I was thinking of the antiques here in the case.”

“When I look at the swords over there, they make me think of the Baron. When I look at the netsuke here, they make me think of the Baron. He’s been a supporter of our company, and I owe him a great debt. But I don’t like to waste my time thinking about him when I don’t have to. Does that answer your question?”

I bowed to him in reply, and he strode off down the hallway to the toilet, so quickly that I couldn’t reach the door first to open it for him.

Later, when we returned to the water’s edge, I was pleased to see that the party was beginning to break up. Only a few of the men would remain for dinner. Mameha and I ushered the others up the path to the main gate, where their drivers were waiting for them on the side street. We bowed farewell to the last man, and I turned to find one of the Baron’s servants ready to show us into the house.

Mameha and I spent the next hour in the servants’ quarters, eating a lovely dinner that included tai no usugiri-paper-thin slices of sea bream, fanned out on a leaf-shaped ceramic plate and served with ponzu sauce. I would certainly have enjoyed myself if Mameha hadn’t been so moody. She ate only a few bites of her sea bream and sat staring out the window at the dusk. Something about her expression made me think she would have liked to go back down to the pond and sit, biting her lip, perhaps, and peering in anger at the darkening sky.

We rejoined the Baron and his guests already partway through their dinner, in what the Baron called the “small banquet room.” Actually, the small banquet room could have accommodated probably twenty or twenty-five people; and now that the party had shrunk in size, only Mr. Arashino, Nobu, and Dr. Crab remained. When we entered, they were eating in complete silence. The Baron was so drunk his eyes seemed to slosh around in their sockets.

Just as Mameha was beginning a conversation, Dr. Crab stroked a napkin down his mustache twice and then excused himself to use the toilet. I led him to the same hallway Nobu and I had visited earlier. Now that evening had come, I could hardly see the objects because of overhead lights reflected in the glass of the display cases. But Dr. Crab stopped at the case containing the swords and moved his head around until he could see them.

“You certainly know your way around the Baron’s house,” he said.

“Oh, no, sir, I’m quite lost in such a grand place. The only reason I can find my way is because I led Nobu-san along this hallway earlier.”

“I’m sure he rushed right through,” the Doctor said. “A man like Nobu has a poor sensibility for appreciating the items in these cases.”

I didn’t know what to say to this, but the Doctor looked at me pointedly.

“You haven’t seen much of the world,” he went on, “but in time you’ll learn to be careful of anyone with the arrogance to accept an invitation from a man like the Baron, and then speak to him rudely in his own house, as Nobu did this afternoon.”

I bowed at this, and when it was clear that Dr. Crab had nothing further to say, led him down the hallway to the toilet.

By the time we returned to the small banquet room, the men had fallen into conversation, thanks to the quiet skills of Mameha, who now sat in the background pouring sake. She often said the role of a geisha was sometimes just to stir the soup. If you’ve ever noticed the way miso settles into a cloud at the bottom of the bowl but mixes quickly with a few whisks of the chopsticks, this is what she meant.

Soon the conversation turned to the subject of kimono, and we all proceeded downstairs to the Baron’s underground museum. Along the walls were huge panels that opened to reveal kimono suspended on sliding rods. The Baron sat on a stool in the middle of the room with his elbows on his knees-bleary- eyed still-and didn’t speak a word while Mameha guided us through the collection. The most spectacular robe, we all agreed, was one designed to mimic the landscape of the city of Kobe, which is located on the side of a steep hill falling away to the ocean. The design began at the shoulders with blue sky and clouds; the knees represented the hillside; below that, the gown swept back into a long train showing the blue-green of the sea dotted with beautiful gold waves and tiny ships.

“Mameha,” the Baron said, “I think you ought to wear that one to my blossom-viewing party in Hakone next week. That would be quite something, wouldn’t it?”

“I’d certainly like to,” Mameha replied. “But as I mentioned the other day, I’m afraid I won’t be able to attend the party this year.”

I could see that the Baron was displeased, for his eyebrows closed down like two windows being shut. “What do you mean? Who has booked an engagement with you that you can’t break?”

“I’d like nothing more than to be there, Baron. But just this one year, I’m afraid it won’t be possible. I have a medical appointment that conflicts with the party.”

“A medical appointment? What on earth does that mean? These doctors can change times around. Change it tomorrow, and be at my party next week just like you always are.”

“I do apologize,” Mameha said, “but with the Baron’s consent, I scheduled a medical appointment some weeks ago and won’t be able to change it.”

“I don’t recall giving you any consent! Anyway, it’s not as if you need to have an abortion, or some such thing …”

A long, embarrassed silence followed. Mameha only adjusted her sleeves while the rest of us stood so quietly that the only sound was Mr. Arashino’s wheezy breathing. I noticed that Nobu, who’d been paying no attention, turned to observe the Baron’s reaction.

“Well,” the Baron said at last. “I suppose I’d forgotten, now that you mention it … We certainly can’t have any little barons running around, now can we? But really, Mameha, I don’t see why you couldn’t have reminded me about this in private …”

“I am sorry, Baron.”

“Anyway, if you can’t come to Hakone, well, you can’t! But what about the rest of you? It’s a lovely party, at my estate in Hakone next weekend. You must all come! I do it every year at the height of the cherry blossoms.”

The Doctor and Arashino were both unable to attend. Nobu didn’t reply; but when the Baron pressed him, he said, “Baron, you don’t honestly think I’d go all the way to Hakone to look at cherry blossoms.”

“Oh, the blossoms are just an excuse to have a party,” said the Baron. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’ll have that Chairman of yours. He comes every year.”

I was surprised to feel flustered at the mention of the Chairman, for I’d been thinking of him on and off throughout the afternoon. I felt for a moment as if my secret had been exposed.

“It troubles me that none of you will come,” the Baron went on. “We were having such a nice evening until Mameha started talking about things she ought to have kept private. Well, Mameha, I have the proper punishment for you. You’re no longer invited to my party this year. What’s more, I want you to send Sayuri in your place.”

I thought the Baron was making a joke; but I must confess, I thought at once how lovely it would be to stroll with the Chairman through the grounds of a magnificent estate, without Nobu or Dr. Crab, or even Mameha nearby.

“It’s a fine idea, Baron,” said Mameha, “but sadly, Sayuri is busy with rehearsals.”

“Nonsense,” said the Baron. “I expect to see her there. Why do you have to defy me every single time I ask something of you?”

He really did look angry; and unfortunately, because he was so drunk, a good deal of saliva came spilling out of his mouth. He tried to wipe it away with the back of his hand, but ended up smearing it into the long black hairs of his beard.

“Isn’t there one thing I can ask of you that you won’t disregard?” he went on. “I want to see Sayuri in Hakone. You could just reply, Yes, Baron,’ and be done with it.”

“Yes, Baron.”

“Fine,” said the Baron. He leaned back on his stool again, and took a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his face clean.

I was very sorry for Mameha. But it would be an understatement to say I felt excited at the prospect of attending the Baron’s party. Every time I thought of it in the rickshaw back to Gion, I think my ears turned red. I was terribly afraid Mameha would notice, but she just stared out to the side, and never spoke a word until the end of our ride, when she turned to me and said, “Sayuri, you must be very careful in Hakone.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will,” I replied.

“Keep in mind that an apprentice on the point of having her mizuage is like a meal served on the table. No man will wish to eat it, if he hears a suggestion that some other man has taken a bite.”

I couldn’t quite look her in the eye after she said this. I knew perfectly well she was talking about the Baron.

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