Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 22)

Chapter twenty-two

At this time in my life I didn’t even know where Hakone was- though I soon learned that it was in eastern Japan, quite some distance from Kyoto. But I had a most agreeable feeling of importance the rest of that week, reminding myself that a man as prominent as the Baron had invited me to travel from Kyoto to attend a party. In fact, I had trouble keeping my excitement from showing when at last I took my seat in a lovely second-class compartment-with Mr. Itchoda, Mameha’s dresser, seated on the aisle to discourage anyone from trying to talk with me. I pretended to pass the time by reading a magazine, but in fact I was only turning the pages, for I was occupied instead with watching out of the corner of my eye as people who passed down the aisle slowed to look at me. I found myself enjoying the attention; but when we reached Shizuoka shortly after noon and I stood awaiting the train to Hakone, all at once I could feel something unpleasant welling up inside me. I’d spent the day keeping it veiled from my awareness, but now I saw in my mind much too clearly the image of myself at another time, standing on another platform, taking another train trip-this one with Mr. Bekku-on the day my sister and I were taken from our home. I’m ashamed to admit how hard I’d worked over the years to keep from thinking about Satsu, and my father and mother, and our tipsy house on the sea cliffs. I’d been like a child with my head in a bag. All I’d seen day after day was Gion, so much so that I’d come to think Gion was everything, and that the only thing that mattered in the world was Gion. But now that I was outside Kyoto, I could see that for most people life had nothing to do with Gion at all; and of course, I couldn’t stop from thinking of the other life I’d once led. Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.

Late the following morning I was picked up at the little inn overlooking Mount Fuji, and taken by one of the Baron’s motorcars to his summer house amid lovely woods at the edge of a lake. When we pulled into a circular drive and I stepped out wearing the full regalia of an apprentice geisha from Kyoto, many of the Baron’s guests turned to stare at me. Among them I spotted a number of women, some in kimono and some in Western-style dresses. Later I came to realize they were mostly Tokyo geisha-for we were only a few hours from Tokyo by train. Then the Baron himself appeared, striding up a path from the woods with several other men.

“Now, this is what we’ve all been waiting for!” he said. “This lovely thing is Sayuri from Gion, who will probably one day be ‘the great Sayuri from Gion. ‘You’ll never see eyes like hers again, I can assure you. And just wait until you see the way she moves … I invited you here, Sayuri, so all the men could have a chance to look at you; so you have an important job. You must wander all around-inside the house, down by the lake, all through the woods, everywhere! Now go along and get working!”

I began to wander around the estate as the Baron had asked, past the cherry trees heavy with their blossoms, bowing here and there to the guests and trying not to seem too obvious about looking around for the Chairman. I made little headway, because every few steps some man or other would stop me and say something like, “My heavens! An apprentice geisha from Kyoto!” And then he would take out his camera and have someone snap a picture of us standing together, or else walk me along the lake to the little moon-viewing pavilion, or wherever, so his friends could have a look at me-just as he might have done with some prehistoric creature he’d captured in a net. Mameha had warned me that everyone would be fascinated with my appearance; because there’s nothing quite like an apprentice geisha from Gion, It’s true that in the better geisha districts of Tokyo, such as Shimbashi and Akasaka, a girl must master the arts if she expects to make her debut. But many of the Tokyo geisha at that time were very modern in their sensibilities, which is why some were walking around the Baron’s estate in Western-style clothing.

The Baron’s party seemed to go on and on. By midafternoon I’d practically given up any hope of finding the Chairman. I went into the house to look for a place to rest, but the very moment I stepped up into the entrance hall, I felt myself go numb. There he was, emerging from a tatami room in conversation with another man. They said good-bye to each other, and then the Chairman turned to me.

“Sayuri!” he said. “Now how did the Baron lure you here all the way from Kyoto? I didn’t even realize you were acquainted with him.”

I knew I ought to take my eyes off the Chairman, but it was like pulling nails from the wall. When I finally managed to do it, I gave him a bow and said:

“Mameha-san sent me in her place. I’m so pleased to have the honor of seeing the Chairman.”

“Yes, and I’m pleased to see you too; you can give me your opinion about something. Come have a look at the present I’ve brought for the Baron. I’m tempted to leave without giving it to him.”

I followed him into a tatami room, feeling like a kite pulled by a string. Here I was in Hakone so far- from anything I’d ever known, spending a few moments with the man I’d thought about more constantly than anyone, and it amazed me to think of it. While he walked ahead of me I had to admire how he moved so easily within his tailored wool suit. I could make out the swell of his calves, and even the hollow of his back like a cleft where the roots of a tree divide. He took something from the table and held it out for me to see. At first I thought it was an ornamented block of gold, but it turned out to be an antique cosmetics box for the Baron. This one, as the Chairman told me, was by an Edo period artist named Arata Gonroku. It was a pillow-shaped box in gold lacquer, with soft black images of flying cranes and leaping rabbits. When he put it into my hands, it was so dazzling I had to hold my breath as I looked at it.

“Do you think the Baron will be pleased?” he said. “I found it last week and thought of him at once, but-”

“Chairman, how can you even imagine that the Baron might not feel pleased?”

“Oh, that man has collections of everything. He’ll probably see this as third-rate.”

I assured the Chairman that no one could ever think such a thing; and when I gave him back the box, he tied it up in a silk cloth again and nodded toward the door for me to follow. In the entry way I helped him with his shoes. While I guided his foot with my fingertips, I found myself imagining that we’d spent the afternoon together and that a long evening lay ahead of us. This thought transported me into such a state, I don’t know how much time passed before I became aware of myself again. The Chairman showed no signs of impatience, but I felt terribly self-conscious as I tried to slip my feet into my okobo and ended up taking much longer than I should have.

He led me down a path toward the lake, where we found the Baron sitting on a mat beneath a cherry tree with three Tokyo geisha. They all rose to their feet, though the Baron had a bit of trouble. His face had red splotches all over it from drink, so that it looked as if someone had swatted him again and again with a stick.

“Chairman!” the Baron said. “I’m so happy you came to my party. I always enjoy having you here, do you know that? That corporation of yours just won’t stop growing, will it? Did Sayuri tell you Nobu came to my party in Kyoto last week?”

“I heard all about it from Nobu, who I’m sure was his usual self.”

“He certainly was,” said the Baron. “A peculiar little man, isn’t he?”

I don’t know what the Baron was thinking, for he himself was lit-tler than Nobu. The Chairman didn’t seem to like this comment, and narrowed his eyes.

“I mean to say,” the Baron began, but the Chairman cut him off.

“I have come to thank you and say good-bye, but first I have something to give you.” And here he handed over the cosmetics box. The Baron was too drunk to untie the silk cloth around it, but he gave it to one of the geisha, who did it for him.

“What a beautiful thing!” the Baron said. “Doesn’t everybody think so? Look at it. Why, it might be even lovelier than the exquisite creature standing beside you, Chairman. Do you know Sayuri? If not, let me introduce you.”

“Oh, we’re well acquainted, Sayuri and I,” the Chairman said.

“How well acquainted, Chairman? Enough for me to envy you?” The Baron laughed at his own joke, but no one else did. “Anyway, this generous gift reminds me that I have something for you, Sayuri. But I can’t give it to you until these other geisha have departed, because they’ll start wanting one themselves.

So you’ll have to stay around until everyone has gone home.”

“The Baron is too kind,” I said, “but really, I don’t wish to make a nuisance of myself.”

“I see you’ve learned a good deal from Mameha about how to say no to everything. Just meet me in the front entrance hall after my guests have left. You’ll persuade her for me, Chairman, while she walks you to your car.”

If the Baron hadn’t been so drunk, I’m sure it would have occurred to him to walk the Chairman out himself. But the two men said good-bye, and I followed the Chairman back to the house. While his driver held the door for him, I bowed and thanked him for all his kindness. He was about to get into the car, but he stopped.

“Sayuri,” he began, and then seemed uncertain how to proceed. “What has Mameha told you about the Baron?”

“Not very much, sir. Or at least. . . well, I’m not sure what the Chairman means.”

“Is Mameha a good older sister to you? Does she tell you the things you need to know?”

“Oh, yes, Chairman. Mameha has helped me more than I can say.” “Well,” he said, “I’d watch out, if I were you, when a man like the Baron decides he has something to give you.”

I couldn’t think of how to respond to this, so I said something about the Baron being kind to have thought of me at all.

“Yes, very kind, I’m sure. Just take care of yourself,” he said, looking at me intently for a moment, and then getting into his car.

I spent the next hour strolling among the few remaining guests, remembering again and again all the things the Chairman had said to me during our encounter. Rather than feeling concerned about the warning he had given me, I felt elated that he had spoken with me for so long. In fact, I had no space in my mind at all to think about my meeting with the Baron, until at last I found myself standing alone in the entrance hall in the fading afternoon light. I took the liberty of going to kneel in a nearby tatami room, where I gazed out at the grounds through a plate-glass window.

Ten or fifteen minutes passed; finally the Baron came striding into the entrance hall. I felt myself go sick with worry the moment I saw him, for he wore nothing but a cotton dressing robe. He had a towel in one hand, which he rubbed against the long black hairs on his face that were supposed to be a beard. Clearly he’d just stepped out of the bath. I stood and bowed to him.

“Sayuri, do you know what a fool I am!” he said to me. “I’ve had too much to drink.” That part was certainly true. “I forgot you were waiting for me! I hope you’ll forgive rne when you see what I’ve put

aside for you.”

The Baron walked down the hallway toward the interior of the house, expecting me to follow him. But I remained where I was, think- ing of what Mameha had said to me, that an apprentice on the point of having her mizuage was like a meal served on the table.

The Baron stopped. “Come along!” he said to me.

“Oh, Baron. I really mustn’t. Please permit me to wait here.”

“I have something I’d like to give you. Just come back into my quarters and sit down, and don’t be a silly girl.”

“Why, Baron,” I said, “I can’t help but be a silly girl; for that’s what I am!”

“Tomorrow you’ll be back under the watchful eyes of Mameha, eh? But there’s no one watching you here.”

If I’d had the least common sense at that moment, I would have thanked the Baron for inviting me to his lovely party and told him how much I regretted having to impose on him for the use of his motorcar to take me back to the inn. But everything had such a dreamlike quality … I suppose I’d gone into a state of shock. All I knew for certain was how afraid I felt.

“Come back with me while I dress,” said the Baron. “Did you drink much sake this afternoon?”

A long moment passed. I was very aware that my face felt as though it had no expression on it at all, but simply hung from my head.

“No, sir,” I managed to say at last.

“I don’t suppose you would have. I’ll give you as much as you like. Come along.”

“Baron,” I said, “please, I’m quite sure I’m expected back at the inn.”

“Expected? Who is expecting you?”

I didn’t answer this.

“I said, who is expecting you? I don’t see why you have to behave this way. I have something to give you. Would you rather I went and fetched it?”

“I’m very sorry,” I said.

The Baron just stared at me. “Wait here,” he said at last, and walked back into the interior of the house. A short time later he emerged holding something flat, wrapped in linen paper. I didn’t have to look closely to know it was a kimono.

“Now then,” he said to me, “since you insist on being a silly girl, I’ve gone and fetched your present. Does this make you feel better?”

I told the Baron I was sorry once again.

“I saw how much you admired this robe the other day. I’d like you to have it,” he said.

The Baron set the package down on the table and untied the strings to open it. I thought the kimono would be the one showing a landscape of Kobe; and to tell the truth, I felt as worried as I did hopeful, for I had no idea what I’d do with such a magnificent thing, or how I would explain to Mameha that the Baron had given it to me. But what I saw instead, when the Baron opened the wrapping, was a magnificent dark fabric with lacquered threads and embroidery in silver. He took the robe out and held it up by the shoulders. It was a kimono that belonged in a museum-made in the i86os, as the Baron told me, for the niece of the very last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The design on the robe was of silver birds flying against a night sky, with a mysterious landscape of dark trees and rocks rising up from the


‘You must come back with me and try it on,” he said. “Now don’t be a silly girl! I have a great deal of experience tying an obi with my own hands. We’ll put you back into your kimono so that no one will ever know.”

I would gladly have exchanged the robe the Baron was offering me for some way out of the situation. But he was a man with so much authority that even Mameha couldn’t disobey him. If she had no way of refusing his wishes, how could I? I could sense that he was losing patience; heaven knows he’d certainly been kind in the months since I’d made my debut, permitting me to attend to him while he ate lunch and allowing Mameha to bring me to the party at his Kyoto estate. And here he was being kind once again, offering me a stunning kimono.

I suppose I finally came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to obey him and pay the consequences, whatever they might be. I lowered my eyes to the mats in shame; and in this same dreamlike state I’d been feeling all along, I became aware of the Baron taking my hand and guiding me through the corridors toward the back of his house. A servant stepped’into the hallway at one point, but bowed and went back the moment he caught sight of us. The Baron never spoke a word, but led me along until we came to a spacious tatami room, lined along one wall with mirrors. It was his dressing room. Along the opposite wall were closets with all their doors closed.

My hands trembled with fear, but if the Baron noticed he made no comment. He stood me before the mirrors and raised my hand to his lips; I thought he was going to kiss it, but he only held the back of my hand against the bristles on his face and did something I found peculiar; he drew my sleeve above my wrist and took in the scent of my skin. His beard tickled my arm, but somehow I didn’t feel it. I didn’t seem to feel anything at all; it was as if I were buried beneath layers of fear, and confusion, and dread . . . And then the Baron woke me from my shock by stepping behind me and reaching around my chest to untie my obijime. This was the cord that held my obi in place.

I experienced a moment of panic now that I knew the Baron really intended to undress me. I tried saying something, but my mouth moved so clumsily I couldn’t control it; and anyway, the Baron only made noises to shush me. I kept trying to stop him with my hands, but he pushed them away and finally succeeded in removing my obijime. After this he stepped back and struggled a long while with the knot of the obi between my shoulderblades. I pleaded with him not to take it off-though my throat was so dry that several times when I tried to speak, nothing came out-but he didn’t listen to me and soon began to unwind the broad obi, wrapping and unwrapping his arms around my waist. I saw the Chairman’s handkerchief dislodge itself from the fabric and flutter to the ground. In a moment the Baron let the obi fall in a pile to the floor, and then unfastened the datejime-the waistband underneath. I felt the sickening sensation of my kimono releasing itself from around my waist. I clutched it shut with my arms, but the Baron pulled them apart. I could no longer bear to watch in the mirror. The last thing I recall as I closed my eyes was the heavy robe being lifted from around my shoulders with a rustle of fabric.

The Baron seemed to have accomplished what he’d set out to do; or at least, he went no further for the moment. I felt his hands at my waist, caressing the fabric of my underrobe. When at last I opened my eyes again, he stood behind me still, taking in the scent of my hair and my neck. His eyes were fixed on the mirror-fixed, it seemed to me, on the waistband that held my underrobe shut. Every time his fingers moved, I tried with the power of my mind to keep them away, but all too soon they began creeping like spiders across my belly, and in another moment had tangled themselves in my waistband and begun to pull. I tried to stop him several times, but the Baron pushed my hands away as he’d done earlier. Finally the waistband came undone; the Baron let it slip from his fingers and fall to the floor. My legs were trembling, and the room was nothing more than a blur to me as he took the seams of my underrobe in his hands and started to draw them open. I couldn’t stop myself from grabbing at his hands once again.

“Don’t be so worried, Sayuri!” the Baron whispered to me. “For heaven’s sake, I’m not going to do anything to you I shouldn’t do. I only want to have a look, don’t you understand? There’s nothing wrong in that. Any man would do the same.”

A shiny bristle from his face tickled against my ear as he said this, so that I had to turn my head to one side. I think he must have interpreted this as a kind of consent, because now his hands began to move with more urgency. He pulled my robe open. I felt his fingers on my ribs, almost tickling me as he struggled to untie the strings holding my kimono undershirt closed. A moment later he’d succeeded. I couldn’t bear the thought of what the Baron might see; so even while I kept my face turned away, I strained my eyes to look in the mirror. My kimono undershirt hung open, exposing a long strip of skin down the center of my chest.

By now the Baron’s hands had moved to my hips, where they were busy with my koshimaki. Earlier that day, when I had wrapped the koshimaki several times around me, I’d tucked it more tightly at the waist than I probably needed to. The Baron was having trouble finding the seam, but after several tugs he loosened the fabric, so that with one long pull he was able to draw the entire length of it out from beneath my underrobe. As the silk slid against my skin, I heard a noise coming out of my throat, something like a sob. My hands grabbed for the koshimaki, but the Baron pulled it from my reach and dropped it to the floor. Then as slowly as a man might peel the cover from a sleeping child, he drew open my underrobe in a long breathless gesture, as though he were unveiling something magnificent. I felt a burning in my throat that told me I was on the point of crying; but I couldn’t bear the thought that the Baron would see my nakedness and also see me cry. I held my tears back somehow, at the very edge of my vision, and watched the mirror so intently that for a long moment I felt as though time had stopped. I’d certainly never seen myself so utterly naked before. It was true that I still wore buttoned socks on my feet; but I felt more exposed now with the seams of my robe held wide apart than I’d ever felt even in a bathhouse while completely unclothed. I watched the Baron’s eyes linger here and there on my reflection in the mirror. First he drew the robe still farther open to take in the outline of my waist. Then he lowered his eyes to the darkness that had bloomed on me in the years since I’d come to Kyoto.

His eyes remained there a long while; but at length they rose up slowly, passing over my stomach, along my ribs, to the two plum-colored circles-first on one side, and then on the other. Now the Baron took away one of his hands, so that my underrobe settled against me on that side. What he did with his hand I can’t say, but I never saw it again. At one point I felt a moment of panic when I saw a naked shoulder protruding from his bathrobe. I don’t know what he was doing-and even though I could probably make an accurate guess about it now, I much prefer not to think about it. All I know is that I became very aware of his breath warming my neck. After that, I saw nothing more. The mirror became a blur of silver; I was no longer able to hold back my tears.

At a certain point the Baron’s breathing slowed again. My skin was hot and quite damp from fear, so that when he released my robe at last and let it fall, I felt the puff of air against my side almost as a breeze. Soon I was alone in the room; the Baron had walked out without my even realizing it. Now that he was gone, I rushed to dress myself with such desperation that while I knelt on the floor to gather up my undergarments, I kept seeing in my mind an image of a starving child grabbing at scraps of food.

I dressed again as best I could, with my hands trembling. But until I had help, I could go no further than to close my underrobe and secure it with the waistband. I waited in front of the mirror, looking with some concern at the smeared makeup on my face. I was prepared to wait there a full hour if I had to. But only a few minutes passed before the Baron came back with the sash of his bathrobe tight around his plump belly. He helped me into my kimono without a word, and secured it with my datejime just as Mr. Itchoda would have done. While he was holding my great, long obi in his arms, measuring it out in loops as he prepared to tie it around me, I began to feel a terrible feeling. I couldn’t make sense of it at first; but it seeped its way through me just as a stain seeps across cloth, and soon I understood. It was the feeling that I’d done something terribly wrong. I didn’t want to cry in front of the Baron, but I couldn’t help it-and anyway, he hadn’t looked me in the eye since coming back into the room. I tried to imagine I was simply a house standing in the rain with the water washing down the front of me. But the Baron must have seen, for he left the room and came back a moment later with a handkerchief bearing his

monogram. He instructed me to keep it, but after I used it, I left it there on a table.

Soon he led me to the front of the house and went away without speaking a word. In time a servant came, holding the antique kimono wrapped once again in linen paper. He presented it to me with a bow and then escorted me to the Baron’s motorcar. I cried quietly in the backseat on the way to the inn, but the driver pretended to take no notice. I was no longer crying about what had happened to me. Something much more frightful was on my mind-namely, what would happen when Mr. Itchoda saw my smeared makeup, and then helped me undress and saw the poorly tied knot in my obi, and then opened the package and saw the expensive gift I’d received. Before leaving the car I wiped my face with the Chairman’s handkerchief, but it did me little good. Mr. Itchoda took one look at me and then scratched his chin as though he understood everything that had happened. While he was untying my obi in the room upstairs, he said:

“Did the Baron undress your”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“He undressed you and looked at you in the mirror. But he didn’t enjoy himself with you. He didn’t touch you, or lie on top of you, did he?”

“No, sir.”

“That’s fine, then,” Mr. Itchoda said, staring straight ahead. Not another word was spoken between us.

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