Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 23)

Chapter twenty-three

I won’t say my emotions had settled themselves by the time the train pulled into Kyoto Station early the following morning. After all, when a stone is dropped into a pond, the water continues quivering even after the stone has sunk to the bottom. But when I descended the wooden stairs carrying us from the platform, with Mr. Itchoda one step behind me, I came upon such a shock that for a time I forgot everything else.

There in a glass case was the new poster for that season’s Dances of the Old Capital, and I stopped to have a look at it. Two weeks remained before the event. The poster had been distributed just the previous day, probably while I was strolling around the Baron’s estate hoping to meet up with the Chairman. The dance every year has a theme, such as “Colors of the Four Seasons in Kyoto,” or “Famous Places from Tale of the Heike.” This year the theme was “The Gleaming Light of the Morning Sun.” The poster, which of course was drawn by Uchida Kosaburo-who’d created nearly every poster since 1919- showed an apprentice geisha in a lovely green and orange kimono standing on an arched wooden bridge. I was exhausted after my long trip and had slept badly on the train; so I stood for a while before the poster in a sort of daze, taking in the lovely greens and golds of the background, before I turned my attention to the girl in the kimono. She was gazing directly into the bright light of the sunrise, and her eyes were a startling blue-gray. I had to put a hand on the railing to steady myself. I was the girl Uchida had drawn there on that bridge !

On the way back from the train station, Mr. Itchoda pointed out every poster we passed, and even asked the rickshaw driver to go out of his way so we could see an entire wall of them on the old Daimaru Department Store building. Seeing myself all over the city this way wasn’t quite as thrilling as I would have imagined; I kept thinking of the poor girl in the poster standing before a mirror as her obi was untied by an older man. In any case, I expected to hear all sorts of congratulations over the course of the following few days, but I soon learned that an honor like this one never comes without costs. Ever since Mameha had arranged for me to take a role in the seasonal dances, I’d heard any number of unpleasant comments about myself. After the poster, things only grew worse. The next morning, for example, a young apprentice who’d been friendly the week before now looked away when I gave a bow to greet her.

As for Mameha, I went to visit her in her apartment, where she was recovering, and found that she was as proud as if she herself had been the one in the poster. She certainly wasn’t pleased that I’d taken the trip to Hakone, but she seemed as devoted to my success as ever- strangely, perhaps even more so. For a while I worried she would view my horrible encounter with the Baron as a betrayal of her. I imagined Mr. Itchoda must have told her about it… but if he did, she never raised the subject between us. Neither did I.

Two weeks later the seasonal dances opened. On that first day in the dressing room at the Kaburenjo Theater, I felt myself almost overflowing with excitement, for Mameha had told me the Chairman and Nobu would be in the audience. While putting on my makeup, I tucked the Chairman’s handkerchief beneath my dressing robe, against my bare skin. My hair was bound closely to my head with a silk strip, because of the wigs I would be wearing, and when I saw myself in the mirror without the familiar frame of hair surrounding my face, I found angles in my cheeks and around my eyes that I’d never before seen. It may seem odd, but when I realized that the shape of my own face was a surprise to me, I had the sudden insight that nothing in life is ever as simple as we imagine.

An hour later I was standing with the other apprentices in the wings of the theater, ready for the opening dance. We wore identical kimono of yellow and red, with obis of orange and gold-so that we looked, each of us, like shimmering images of sunlight. When the music began, with that first thump of the drums and the twang of all the shamisens, and we danced out together like a string of beads-our arms outstretched, our folding fans open in our hands-I had never before felt so much a part of something.

After the opening piece, I rushed upstairs to change my kimono. The dance in which I was to appear as a solo performer was called “The Morning Sun on the Waves,” about a maiden who takes a morning swim in the ocean and falls in love with an enchanted dolphin. My costume was a magnificent pink kimono with a water design in gray, and I held blue silk strips to symbolize the rippling water behind me. The enchanted dolphin prince was played by a geisha named Umiyo; in addition, there were roles for geisha portraying wind, sunlight, and sprays of water-as well as a few apprentices in charcoal and blue kimono at the far reaches of the stage, playing dolphins calling their prince back to them.

My costume change went so quickly that I found myself with a few minutes to peek out at the audience. I followed the sound of occasional drumbeats to a narrow, darkened hallway running behind one of the two orchestra booths at the sides of the theater. A few other apprentices and geisha were already peering out through carved slits in the sliding doors. I joined them and managed to find the Chairman and Nobu sitting together-though it seemed to me the Chairman had given Nobu the better seat. Nobu was peering at the stage intently, but I was surprised to see that the Chairman seemed to be falling asleep. From the music I realized that it was the beginning of Mameha’s dance, and went to the end of the hallway where the slits in the doors gave a view of the stage.

I watched Mameha no more than a few minutes; and yet the impression her dance made on me has never been erased. Most dances of the Inoue School tell a story of one kind or another, and the story of this dance-called “A Courtier Returns to His Wife”-was based on a Chinese poem about a courtier who carries on a long affair with a lady in the Imperial palace. One night the courtier’s wife hides on the outskirts of the palace to find out where her husband has been spending his time. Finally, at dawn, she watches from the bushes as her husband takes leave of his mistress-but by this time she has fallen ill from the terrible cold and dies soon afterward.

For our spring dances, the story was changed to Japan instead of China; but otherwise, the tale was the same. Mameha played the wife who dies of cold and heartbreak, while the geisha Kanako played the role of her husband, the courtier. I watched the dance from the moment the courtier bids good-bye to his mistress. Already the setting was inspiringly beautiful, with the soft light of dawn and the slow rhythm of the shamisen music like a heartbeat in the background. The courtier performed a lovely dance of thanks to his mistress for their night together, and then moved toward the light of rising sun to capture its warmth for her. This was the moment when Mameha began to dance her lament of terrible sadness, hidden to one side of the stage out of view of the husband and mistress. Whether it was the beauty of Mameha’s dance or of the story, I cannot say; but I found myself feeling such sorrow as I watched her, I felt as if I myself had been the victim of that terrible betrayal. At the end of the dance, sunlight filled the stage. Mameha crossed to a grove of trees to dance her simple death scene. I cannot tell you what happened after that. I was too overcome to watch any further; and in any case, I had to return backstage to prepare for my own entrance.

While I waited in the wings, I had the peculiar feeling that the weight of the entire building was pressing down on me-because of course, sadness has always seemed to me an oddly heavy thing. A good dancer often wears her white, buttoned socks a size too small, so she can sense the seams in the wooden stage with her feet. But as I stood there trying to find the strength within myself to perform, I had the impression of so much weight upon me that I felt not only the seams in the stage, but even the fibers in the socks themselves. At last I heard the music of the drums and shamisen, and the whisking noise of the clothing as the other dancers moved quickly past me onto the stage; but it’s very hard for me to remember anything afterward. I’m sure I raised my arms with my folding fan closed and my knees bent- for this was the position in which I made my entrance. I heard no suggestion afterward that I’d missed- my cue, but all I remember clearly is watching my own arms with amazement at the sureness and evenness with which they moved. I’d practiced this dance any number of times; I suppose that must have been enough. Because although my mind had shut down completely, I performed my role without any difficulty or nervousness.

At every performance for the rest of that month, I prepared for my entrance in the same way, by concentrating on “The Courtier Returns to His Wife,” until I could feel the sadness laying itself over me. We human beings have a remarkable way of growing accustomed to things; but when I pictured Mameha dancing her slow lament, hidden from the eyes of her husband and his mistress, I could no more have stopped myself from feeling that sadness than you could stop yourself from smelling an apple that has been cut open on the table before you.

One day in the final week of performances, Mameha and I stayed late in the dressing room, talking with another geisha. When we left the theater we expected to find no one outside-and indeed the crowd had gone. But as we reached the street, a driver in uniform stepped out of a car and opened the rear door. Mameha and I were on the point of walking right past when Nobu emerged.

“Why, Nobu-san,” Mameha said, “I was beginning to worry that you no longer cared for Sayuri’s company! Every day this past month, we’ve hoped to hear something from you . . .”

“Who are you to complain about being kept waiting? I’ve been outside this theater nearly an hour.”

“Have you just come from seeing the dances again?” Mameha said. “Sayuri is quite a star.”

“I haven’t just come from anything,” Nobu said. “I’ve come from the dances a full hour ago. Enough time has passed for me to make a phone call and send my driver downtown to pick something up for me.”

Nobu banged on the window of the car with his one hand, and startled the poor driver so badly his cap fell off. The driver rolled down the window and gave Nobu a tiny shopping bag in the Western style, made of what looked like silver foil. Nobu turned to me, and I gave him a deep bow and told him how

happy I was to see him.

“You’re a very talented dancer, Sayuri. I don’t give gifts for no reason,” he said, though I don’t think this was in any way true. “Probably that’s why Mameha and others in Gion don’t like me as much as other men.”

“Nobu-san!” said Mameha. “Who has ever suggested such a thing?”

“I know perfectly well what you geisha like. So long as a man gives you presents you’ll put up with any sort of nonsense.”

Nobu held out the small package in his hand for me to take.

“Why, Nobu-san,” I said, “what nonsense is it that you are asking me to put up with?” I meant this as a joke, of course; but Nobu didn’t see it that way.

“Haven’t I just said I’m not like other men?” he growled. “Why don’t you geisha ever believe anything told to you? If you want this package, you’d better take it before I change my mind.”

I thanked Nobu and accepted the package, and he banged on the window of the car once again. The driver jumped out to hold the door for him.

We bowed until the car had turned the corner and then Mameha led me back into the garden of the Kaburenjo Theater, where we took a seat on a stone bench overlooking the carp pond and peered into the bag Nobu had given me. It contained only a tiny box, wrapped in gold-colored paper embossed with the name of a famous jewelry store and tied with a red ribbon. I opened it to find a simple jewel, a ruby as big as a peach pit. It was like a giant drop of blood sparkling in the sunlight over the pond. When I turned it in my fingers, the glimmer jumped from one face to another. I could feel each of the jumps in my chest.

“I can see how thrilled you are,” Mameha said, “and I’m very happy for you. But don’t enjoy it too much. You’ll have other jewels in your life, Sayuri-plenty of them, I should think. But you’ll never have this opportunity again. Take this ruby back to your okiya, and give it to Mother.”

To see this beautiful jewel, and the light that seeped out of it painting my hand pink, and to think of Mother with her sickly yellow eyes and their meat-colored rims . . . well, it seemed to me that giving this jewel to her would be like dressing up a badger in silk. But of course, I had to obey Mameha.

“When you give it to her,” she went on, “you must be especially sweet and say, ‘Mother, I really have no need for a jewel like this and would be honored if you’d accept it. I’ve caused you so much trouble over the years.’ But don’t say more, or she’ll think you’re being sarcastic.”

When I sat in my room later, grinding an ink stick to write a note of thanks to Nobu, my mood grew darker and darker. If Mameha herself had asked me for the ruby, I could have given it to her cheerfully . . . but to give it to- Mother! I’d grown fond of Nobu, and was sorry that his expensive gift would go to such a woman. I knew perfectly well that if the ruby had been from the Chairman, I couldn’t have given it up at all. In any case, I finished the note and went to Mother’s room to speak with her. She was sitting in the dim light, petting her dog and smoking.

“What do you want?” she said to me. “I’m about to send for a pot of tea.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mother. This afternoon when Mameha and I left the theater, President Nobu Toshikazu was waiting for me-”

“Waiting for Mameha-san, you mean.”

“I don’t know, Mother. But he gave me a gift. It’s a lovely thing, but I have no use for it.”

I wanted to say that I would be honored if she would take it, but Mother wasn’t listening to me. She put her pipe down onto the table and took the box from my hand before I could even offer it to her. I tried again to explain things, but Mother just turned over the box to dump the ruby into her oily fingers.

“What is this?” she asked.

“It’s the gift President Nobu gave me. Nobu Toshikazu, of Iwa-mura Electric, I mean.”

“Don’t you think I know who Nobu Toshikazu is?”

She got up from the table to walk over to the window, where she slid back the paper screen and held the ruby into the stream of late-afternoon sunlight. She was doing what I had done on the street, turning the gem around and watching the sparkle move from face to face. Finally she closed the screen again and came back.

“You must have misunderstood. Did he ask you to give it to Mameha?”

“Well, Mameha was with me at the time.”

I could see that Mother’s mind was like an intersection with too much traffic in it. She put the ruby onto the table and began to puff on her pipe. I saw every cloud of smoke as a little confused thought released into the air. Finally she said to me, “So, Nobu Toshikazu has an interest in you, does he?”

“I’ve been honored by his attention for some time now.”

At this, she put the pipe down onto the table, as if to say that the conversation was about to grow much more serious. “I haven’t watched you as closely as I should have,” she said. “If you’ve had any boyfriends, now is the time to tell me.”

“I’ve never had a single boyfriend, Mother.”

I don’t know whether she believed what I’d said or not, but she dismissed me just the same. I hadn’t yet offered her the ruby to keep, as Mameha had instructed me to do. I was trying to think of how to raise the subject. But when I glanced at the table where the gem lay on its side, she must have thought I wanted to ask for it back. I had no time to say anything further before she reached out and swallowed it up in her hand.

Finally it happened, one afternoon only a few days later. Mameha came to the okiya and took me into the reception room to tell me that the bidding for my mizuage had begun. She’d received a message from the mistress of the Ichiriki that very morning.

“I couldn’t be more disappointed at the timing,” Mameha said, “because I have to leave for Tokyo this afternoon. But you won’t need me. You’ll know if the bidding goes high, because things will start to happen.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “What sorts of things?” “All sorts of things,” she said, and then left without even taking a cup of tea.

She was gone three days. At first my heart raced every time I heard one of the maids approaching. But two days passed without any news. Then on the third day, Auntie came to me in the hallway to say that Mother wanted me upstairs.

I’d just put my foot onto the first step when I heard a door slide open, and all at once Pumpkin came rushing down. She came like water poured from a bucket, so fast her feet scarcely touched the steps, and midway down she twisted her finger on the banister. It must have hurt, because she let out a cry and stopped at the bottom to hold it.

“Where is Hatsumomo?” she said, clearly in pain. “I have to find her!”

“It looks to me as if you’ve hurt yourself badly enough,” Auntie said. “You have to go find Hatsumomo so she can hurt you more?”

Pumpkin looked terribly upset, and not only about her finger; but when I asked her what was the matter, she just rushed to the entryway and left.

Mother was sitting at the table when I entered her room. She began to pack her pipe with tobacco, but soon thought better of it and put it away. On top of the shelves holding the account books stood a beautiful European-style clock in a glass case. Mother looked at it every so often, but a few long minutes passed and still she said nothing to me. Finally I spoke up. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Mother, but I was told you wanted to see me.”

“The doctor is late,” she said. “We’ll wait for him.” I imagined she was referring to Dr. Crab, that he was coming to the okiya to talk about arrangements for my mizuage. I hadn’t expected such a thing and began to feel a tingling in my belly. Mother passed the time by patting Taku, who quickly grew tired of her attentions and made little growling noises.

At length I heard the maids greeting someone in the front entrance hall below, and Mother went down the stairs. When she came back a few minutes later she wasn’t escorting Dr. Crab at all, but a much younger man with smooth silver hair, carrying a leather bag. “This is the girl,” Mother said to him. I bowed to the young doctor, who bowed back to me. “Ma’am,” he said to Mother, “where shall we . . . ?”

Mother told him the room we were in would be fine. The way she closed the door, I knew something unpleasant was about to happen. She began by untying my obi and folding it on the table. Then she slipped the kimono from my shoulders and hung it on a stand in the corner. I stood in my yellow underrobe as calmly as I knew how, but in a moment Mother began to untie the waistband that held my underrobe shut. I couldn’t quite stop myself from putting my arms in her way-though she pushed them aside just as the Baron had done, which gave me a sick feeling. After she’d removed the waistband, she reached inside and pulled out my koshimaki-once again, just as it had happened in Hakone. I didn’t like this a bit, but instead of pulling open my robe as the Baron had, she refolded it around me and told me to lie down on the mats.

The doctor knelt at my feet and, after apologizing, peeled open my underrobe to expose my legs. Mameha had told me a little about mizuage, but it seemed to me I was about to learn more. Had the bidding ended, and this young doctor emerged the winner? What about Dr. Crab and Nobu? It even crossed my mind that Mother might be intentionally sabotaging Mameha’s plans. The young doctor adjusted my legs and reached between them with his hand, which I had noticed was smooth and graceful like the Chairman’s. I felt so humiliated and exposed that I had to cover my face. I wanted to draw my legs together, but I was afraid anything that made his task more difficult would only prolong the encounter. So I lay with my eyes pinched shut, holding my breath. I felt as little Taku must have felt the time he choked on a needle, and Auntie held his jaws open while Mother put her fingers down his throat. At one point I think the doctor had both of his hands between my legs; but at last he took them away, and folded my robe shut. When I opened my eyes, I saw him wiping his hands on a cloth.

“The girl is intact,” he said.

“Well, that’s fine news!” Mother replied. “And will there be much blood?”

“There shouldn’t be any blood at all. I only examined her visually.”

“No, I mean during mizuage.”

“I couldn’t say. The usual amount, I should expect.”

When the young silver-haired doctor had taken his leave, Mother helped me dress and instructed me to sit at the table. Then without any warning, she grabbed my earlobe and pulled it so hard I cried out. She held me like that, with my head close to hers, while she said:

“You’re a very expensive commodity, little girl. underestimated you. I’m lucky nothing has happened. But you may be very sure I’m going to watch you more closely in the future. What a man wants from you, a man will pay dearly to get. Do you follow me?”

“Yes, ma’am!” I said. Of course, I would have said yes to anything, considering how hard she was pulling on my ear.

“If you give a man freely what he ought to pay for, you’ll be cheating this okiya. You’ll owe money, and I’ll take it from you. And I’m not just talking about this!” Here Mother made a gruesome noise with her free hand-rubbing her fingers against her palm to make a squishing sound.

“Men will pay for that,” she went on. “But they’ll pay just to chat with you too. If I find you sneaking off to meet a man, even if it’s just for a little talk . . .”And here she finished her thought by giving another sharp tug on my earlobe before letting it go.

I had to work hard to catch my breath. When I felt I could speak again, I said, “Mother . . . I’ve done nothing to make you angry!”

“Not yet, you haven’t. If you’re a sensible girl, you never will.”

I tried to excuse myself, but Mother told me to stay. She tapped out her pipe, even though it was empty; and when she’d filled it and lit it, she said, “I’ve come to a decision. Your status here in the okiya is about to change.”

I was alarmed by this and began to say something, but Mother stopped me.

“You and I will perform a ceremony next week. After that, you’ll be my daughter just as if you’d been born to me. I’ve come to the decision to adopt you. One day, the okiya will be yours.”

I couldn’t think of what to say, and I don’t remember much of what happened next. Mother went on talking, telling me that as the daughter of the okiya I would at some point move into the larger room occupied by Hatsumomo and Pumpkin, who together would share the smaller room where I’d-lived up to now. I was listening with only half my mind, until I began slowly to realize that as Mother’s daughter, I would no longer have to struggle under Hatsumomo’s tyranny. This had been Mameha’s plan all along, and yet I’d never really believed it would happen. Mother went on lecturing me. I looked at her drooping lip and her yellowed eyes. She may have been a hateful woman, but as the daughter of this hateful woman, I would be up on a shelf out of Hatsumomo’s reach.

In the midst of all of this, the door slid open, and Hatsumomo herself stood there in the hallway.

“What do you want?” Mother said. “I’m busy.”

“Get out,” she said to me. “I want to talk with Mother.”

“If you want to talk with me,” Mother said, “you may ask Sayuri if she’ll be kind enough to leave.”

“Be kind enough to leave, Sayuri” Hatsumomo said sarcastically.

And then for the first time in my life, I spoke back to her without the fear that she would punish me for it.

“I’ll leave if Mother wants me to,” I told her.

“Mother, would you be kind enough to make Little Miss Stupid leave us alone?” Hatsumomo said.

“Stop making a nuisance of yourself!” Mother told her. “Come in and tell me what you want.”

Hatsumomo didn’t like this, but she came and sat at the table anyway. She was midway between Mother and me, but still so close that I could smell her perfume.

“Poor Pumpkin has just come running to me, very upset,” she began. “I promised her I’d speak with you. She told me something very strange. She said, ‘Oh, Hatsumomo! Mother has changed her mind!’ But I told her I doubted it was true.”

“I don’t know what she was referring to. I certainly haven’t changed my mind about anything recently.”

“That’s just what I said to her, that you would never go back on your word. But I’m sure she’d feel better, Mother, if you told her yourself.”

“Told her what?”

“That you haven’t changed your mind about adopting her.”

“Whatever gave her that idea? I never had the least intention of adopting her in the first place.”

It gave me a terrible pain to hear this, for I couldn’t help thinking of how Pumpkin had rushed down the stairs looking so upset . . . and no wonder, for no one could say anymore what would become of her in life. Hatsumomo had been wearing that smile that made her look like an expensive piece of porcelain, but Mother’s words struck her like rocks. She looked at me with hatred.

“So it’s true! You’re planning to adopt her. Don’t you remember, Mother, when you said you were going

to adopt Pumpkin? You asked me to tell her the news!”

“What you may have said to Pumpkin is none of my concern. Besides, you haven’t handled Pumpkin’s apprenticeship as well as I expected. She was doing well for a time, but lately …”

“You promised, Mother,” Hatsumomo said in a tone that frightened me.

“Don’t be ridiculous! You know I’ve had my eye on Sayuri for years. Why would I turn around and adopt Pumpkin?”

I knew perfectly well Mother was lying. Now she went so far as to turn to me and say this:

“Sayuri-san, when was the first time I raised the subject of adopting you? A year ago, perhaps?”

If you’ve ever seen a mother cat teaching its young to hunt-the way she takes a helpless mouse and rips it apart- well, I felt as though Mother was offering me the chance to learn how I could be just like her. All I had to do was lie as she lied and say, “Oh, yes, Mother, you mentioned the subject to me many times!” This would be my first step in becoming a yellow-eyed old woman myself one day, living in a gloomy room with my account books. I could no more take Mother’s side than Hatsumomo’s. I kept my eyes to the mats so I wouldn’t have to see either of them, and said that I didn’t remember.

Hatsumomo’s face was splotched red from anger. She got up and walked to the door, but Mother stopped her.

“Sayuri will be my daughter in one week,” she said. “Between now and then, you must learn how to treat her with respect. When you go downstairs, ask one of the maids to bring tea for Sayuri and me.”

Hatsumomo gave a little bow, and then she was gone.

“Mother,” I said, “I’m very sorry to have been the cause of so much trouble. I’m sure Hatsumomo is quite wrong about any plans you may have made for Pumpkin, but . . . may I ask? Wouldn’t it be possible to adopt both Pumpkin and me?”

“Oh, so you know something about business now, do you?” she replied. “You want to try telling me how to run the okiya?”

A few minutes later, a maid arrived bearing a tray with a pot of tea and a cup-not two cups, but only a single one. Mother didn’t seem to care. I poured her cup full and she drank from it, staring at me with her red-rimmed eyes.

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