Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 24)

Chapter twenty-four

Then Mameha returned to town the following day and learned that Mother had decided to adopt me, she didn’t seem as pleased as I would have expected. She nodded and looked satisfied, to be sure; but she didn’t smile. I asked if things hadn’t turned out exactly as she’d hoped.

“Oh, no, the bidding between Dr. Crab and Nobu went just as I’d hoped,” she told me, “and the final figure was a considerable sum. The moment I found out, I knew Mrs. Nitta would certainly adopt you. I couldn’t be more pleased!”

This is what she said. But the truth, as I came to understand in stages over the following years, was something quite different. For one thing, the bidding hadn’t been a contest between Dr. Crab and Nobu at all. It had ended up a contest between Dr. Crab and the Baron. I can’t imagine how Mameha must have felt about this; but I’m sure it accounts for why she was suddenly so cold to me for a short time, and why she kept to herself the story of what had really happened.

I don’t mean to suggest that Nobu was never involved. He did bid quite aggressively for my mizuage, but only during the first few days, until the figure passed ¥8000. When he ended up dropping out, it probably wasn’t because the bidding had gone too high. Mameha knew from the beginning that Nobu could bid against anyone, if he wanted to. The trouble, which Mameha hadn’t anticipated, was that Nobu had no more than a vague interest in my mizuage. Only a certain kind of man spends his time and money chasing after mizuage, and it turned out that Nobu wasn’t one of them. Some months earlier, as you may remember, Mameha had suggested that no man would cultivate a relationship with a fifteen-year-old apprentice unless he was interested in her mizuage. This was during the same discussion when she told me, “You can bet it isn’t your conversation he’s attracted to.” She may have been right about my conversation, I don’t know; but whatever attracted Nobu to me, it wasn’t my mizuage either.

As for Dr. Crab, he was a man who would probably have chosen suicide the old-fashioned way before allowing someone like Nobu to take a mizuage away from him. Of course he wasn’t really bidding against Nobu after the first few days, but he didn’t know that, and the mistress of the Ichiriki made up her mind not to tell him. She wanted the price to go as high as it could. So when she spoke to him on the telephone she said things like, “Oh, Doctor, I’ve just received word from Osaka, and an offer has come in for five thousand yen.” She probably had received word from Osaka-though it might have been from her sister, because the mistress never- liked to tell outright lies. But when she mentioned Osaka and an offer in the same breath, naturally Dr. Crab assumed the offer was from Nobu, even though it was actually from the Baron.

As for the Baron, he knew perfectly well his adversary was the Doctor, but he didn’t care. He wanted the mizuage for himself and pouted like a little boy when he began to think he might not win it. Sometime later a geisha told me about a conversation she’d had with him around this time. “Do you hear what has been happening?” the Baron said to her. “I’m trying to arrange a mizuage, but a certain annoying doctor keeps getting in my way. Only one man can be the explorer of an undiscovered region, and I want to be that man! But what am I to do? This foolish doctor doesn’t seem to understand that the numbers he throws about represent real money!”

As the bidding went higher and higher, the Baron began to talk about dropping out. But the figure had already come so close to a new record that the mistress of the Ichiriki made up her mind to push things still higher by misleading the Baron, just as she’d misled the Doctor. On the telephone she told him that the “other gentleman” had made a very high bid, and then added, “However, many people believe he’s the sort of gentleman who will go no higher.” I’m sure there may have been people who believed such a thing about the Doctor, but the mistress herself wasn’t one of them. She knew that when the Baron made his last bid, whatever it was, the Doctor would top it.

In the end, Dr. Crab agreed to pay ¥1 1,500 for my mizuage. Up to that time, this was the highest ever paid for a mizuage in Gion, and possibly in any of the geisha districts in Japan. Keep in mind that in those days, one hour of a geisha’s time cost about ¥4, and an extravagant kimono might have sold for ¥1500. So it may not sound like a lot, but it’s much more than, say, a laborer might have earned in a year.

I have to confess I don’t know much about money. Most geisha pride themselves on never carrying cash with them, and are accustomed to charging things wherever they go. Even now in New York City, I live just the same way. I shop at stores that know me by sight, where the clerks are kind enough to write down the items I want. When the bill comes at the end of the month, I have a charming assistant who pays it for me. So you see, I couldn’t possibly tell you how much money I spend, or how much more a bottle of perfume costs than a magazine. So I may be one of the worst people on earth to try explaining anything at all about money. However, I want to pass on to you something a close friend once told me- who I’m sure knows what he’s talking about, because he was Japan’s Deputy Minister of Finance for a time during the 19605. Cash, he said, is often worth less one year than it was the year before, and because of this, Mameha’s mizuage in 1929 actually cost more than mine in 1935, even though mine was ¥1 1,500 while Mameha’s was more like ¥7000 or ¥8000.

Of course, none of this mattered back at the time my mizuage was sold. As far as everyone was concerned I had set a new record, and it remained until 1951, when Katsumiyo came along-who in my opinion was one of the greatest geisha of the twentieth century. Still, according to my friend the Deputy Minister of Finance, the real record remained Mameha’s until the 19605. But whether the real record belonged to me, or to Katsumiyo, or to Mameha-or even to Mamemitsu back in the 18905-you can well imagine that Mother’s plump little hands began to itch when she heard about a record amount of cash.

It goes without saying that this is why she adopted me. The fee for my mizuage was more than enough to repay all my debts to the okiya. If Mother hadn’t adopted me, some of that money would have fallen into my hands-and you can imagine how Mother would have felt about this. When I became the daughter of the okiya, my debts ceased to exist because the okiya absorbed them all. But all of my profits went to the okiya as well, not only then, at the time of my mizuage, but forever afterward.

The adoption took place the following week. Already my given name had changed to Sayuri; now my family name changed as well. Back in my tipsy house on the sea cliffs, I’d been Sakamoto Chiyo. Now my name was Nitta Sayuri.

Of all the important moments in the life of a geisha, mizuage certainly ranks as high as any. Mine occurred in early July of 1935, when I was fifteen years old. It began in the afternoon when Dr. Crab and I drank sake in a ceremony that bound us together. The reason for this ceremony is that even though the mizuage itself would be over with quickly, Dr. Crab would remain my mizuage patron until the end of his life- not that it gave him any special privileges, you understand. The ceremony was performed at the Ichiriki Teahouse, in the presence of Mother, Auntie, and Mameha. The mistress of the Ichiriki attended as well, and Mr. Bekku, my dresser-because the dresser is always involved in ceremonies of this sort, representing the interests of the geisha. I was dressed in the most formal costume an apprentice wears, a black, five-crested robe and an underrobe of red, which is the color of new beginnings. Mameha instructed me to behave very sternly, as though I had no sense of humor at all. Considering my nervousness, I found it easy to look stern as I walked down the hallway of the Ichiriki Teahouse, with the train of my kimono pooled around my feet.

After the ceremony we all went to a restaurant known as Kitcho for dinner. This was a solemn event too, and I spoke little and ate even less. Sitting there at dinner, Dr. Crab had probably already begun thinking about the moment that would come later, and yet I’ve never seen a man who looked more bored. I kept my eyes lowered throughout the meal in the interests of acting innocent, but every time I stole a glance in his direction, I found him peering down through his glasses like a man at a business meeting.

When dinner was over, Mr. Bekku escorted me by rickshaw to a beautiful inn on the grounds of the Nanzen-ji Temple. He’d already visited there earlier in the day to arrange my clothing in an adjoining room. He helped me out of my kimono and changed me into a more casual one, with an obi that required no padding for the knot-since padding would be awkward for the Doctor. He tied the knot in such a way that it would come undone quite easily. After I was fully dressed, I felt so nervous that Mr. Bekku had to help me back into my room and arrange me near the door to await the Doctor’s arrival. When he left me there, I felt a horrible sense of dread, as if I’d been about to have an operation to remove my kidneys, or my liver, or some such thing.

Soon Dr. Crab arrived and asked that I order him sake while he bathed in the bath attached to the room. I think he may have expected me to help undress him, because he gave me a strange look. But my hands were so cold and awkward, I don’t think I could have done it. He emerged a few minutes later wearing a sleeping robe and slid open the doors to the garden, where we sat on a little wooden balcony, sipping sake and listening to the sound of the crickets and the little stream below us. I spilled sake on my kimono, but the Doctor didn’t notice. To tell the truth, he didn’t seem to notice much of anything, except a fish that splashed in the pond nearby, which he pointed out to me as if I might never have seen such a thing. While we were there, a maid came and laid out both our futons, side by side.

Finally the Doctor left me on the balcony and went inside. I shifted in such a way as to watch him from the corner of my eye. He unpacked two white towels from his suitcase and set them down on the table, arranging them this way and that until they were just so. He did the same with the pillows on one of the futons, and then came and stood at the door until I rose from my knees and followed him.

While I was still standing, he removed my obi and told me to make myself comfortable on one of the futons. Everything seemed so strange and frightening to me, I couldn’t have been comfortable no matter what I’d done. But I lay down on my back and used a pillow stuffed with beans to prop up my neck. The Doctor opened my robe and took a long while to loosen each of the garments beneath it step by step, rubbing his hands over my legs, which I think was supposed to help me relax. This went on for a long time, but at last he fetched the two white towels he’d unpacked earlier. He told me to raise my hips and then spread them out beneath me.

“These will absorb the blood,” he told me.

Of course, a mizuage often involves a certain amount of blood, but no one had explained to me exactly why. I’m sure I should have kept quiet or even thanked the Doctor for being so considerate as to put down towels, but instead I blurted out, “What blood?” My voice squeaked a little as I said it, because my throat was so dry. Dr. Crab began explaining how the “hymen”-though I didn’t know what that could possibly be-frequently bled when torn . . . and this, that, and the other … I think I became so anxious hearing it all that I rose up a little from the futon, because the Doctor put his hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me back down.

I’m sure this sort of talk would be enough to quash some men’s appetite for what they were about to do; but the Doctor wasn’t that sort of man. When he’d finished his explanation, he said to me, “This is the second time I will have the opportunity of collecting a specimen of your blood. May I show you?”

I’d noticed that he’d arrived with not only his leather overnight bag, but also a small wooden case. The Doctor fetched a key ring from the pocket of his trousers in the closet and unlocked the case. He brought it over and swung it open down the middle to make a kind of freestanding display. On both sides were shelves with tiny glass vials, all plugged with corks and held in place by straps. Along the bottom shelf were a few instruments, such as scissors and tweezers; but the rest of the case was crowded with these glass vials, perhaps as many as forty or fifty of them. Except for a few empty ones on the top shelf, they all held something inside, but I had no idea what. Only when the Doctor brought the lamp from the table was I able to see white labels along the tops of each vial, marked with the names of various geisha. I saw Mameha’s name there, as well as the great Mamekichi’s. I saw quite a number of other familiar names as well, including Hatsu-momo’s friend Korin.

“This one,” the Doctor said as he removed one of the vials, “belongs to you.”

He’d written my name wrong, with a different character for the “ri” of Sayuri. But inside the vial was a shriveled-looking thing I thought resembled a pickled plum, though it was brownish rather than purple. The Doctor removed the cork and used tweezers to take it out.

“This is a cotton swab that was drenched in your blood,” he said, “from the time you cut your leg, you’ll recall. I don’t normally save the blood of my patients, but I was . . . very taken with you. After collecting this sample, I made up my mind that I would be your mizuage patron. I think you’ll agree it will make an unusual specimen, to possess not just a sample of your blood collected at mizuage, but also a sample taken from a laceration on your leg quite a number of months earlier.”

I hid my disgust while the Doctor went on to show me several other vials, including Mameha’s. Hers contained not a cotton swab, but a small wadding of white fabric that was stained the color of rust and had grown quite stiff. Dr. Crab seemed to find all these samples fascinating, but for my part . . . well, I pointed my face in their direction in order to be polite, but when the Doctor wasn’t watching, I looked elsewhere.

Finally he closed his case and set it aside before taking off his glasses, folding them and putting them on the table nearby. I was afraid the moment had come, and indeed, Dr. Crab moved my legs apart and arranged himself on his knees between them. I think my heart was beating at about the same speed as a mouse’s. When the Doctor untied the sash of his sleeping robe, I closed my eyes and brought a hand up to cover my mouth, but I thought better of it at the last moment in case I should make a bad impression, and let my hand settle near my head instead.

The Doctor’s hands burrowed around for a while, making me very uncomfortable in much the same way as the young silver-haired doctor had a few weeks earlier. Then he lowered himself until his body was poised just above mine. I put all the force of my mind to work in making a sort of mental barrier between the Doctor and me, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from feeling the Doctor’s “eel,” as Mameha might have called it, bump against the inside of my thigh. The lamp was still lit, and I searched the shadows on the ceiling for something to distract me, because now I felt the Doctor pushing so hard that my head shifted on the pillow. I couldn’t think what to do with my hands, so I grabbed the pillow with them and squeezed my eyes tighter. Soon there was a great deal of activity going on above me, and I could feel all sorts of movement inside me as well. There must have been a very great deal of blood, because the air had an unpleasant metallic smell. I kept reminding myself how much the Doctor had paid for this privilege; and I remember hoping at one point that he was enjoying himself more than I was. I felt no more pleasure there than if someone had rubbed a file over and over against the inside of my thigh until I bled.

Finally the homeless eel marked its territory, I suppose, and the Doctor lay heavily upon me, moist with sweat. I didn’t at all like being so close to him, so I pretended to have trouble breathing in the hopes he would take his weight off me. For a long while he didn’t move, but then all at once he got to his knees and was very businesslike again. I didn’t watch him, but from the corner of my eye I couldn’t help seeing that he wiped himself off using one of the towels beneath me. He tied the sash of his robe, and then put on his glasses, not noticing a little smear of blood at the edge of one lens, and began to wipe between my legs using towels and cotton swabs and the like, just as though we were back in one of the treatment rooms at the hospital. The worst of my discomfort had passed by this time, and I have to admit I was almost fascinated lying there, even with my legs spread apart so revealingly, as I watched him open the wooden case and take out the scissors. He cut away a piece of the bloody towel beneath me and stuffed it, along with a cotton ball he’d used, into the glass vial with my misspelled name on it. Then he gave a formal bow and said, “Thank you very much.” I couldn’t very well bow back while lying down, but it made no difference, because the Doctor stood at once and went off to the bath again.

I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been breathing very quickly from nervousness. Now that it was over and I was able to catch my breath, I probably looked as though I were in the middle of being operated upon, but I felt such relief I broke into a smile. Something about the whole experience seemed so utterly ridiculous to me; the more I thought about it, the funnier it seemed, and in a moment I was laughing. I had to keep quiet because the Doctor was in the next room. But to think that the course of my entire future had been altered by this? I imagined the mistress of the Ichiriki making telephone calls to Nobu and the Baron while the bidding was under way, all the money that had been spent, and all the trouble. How strange it would have been with Nobu, since I was beginning to think of him as a friend. I didn’t even want to wonder what it might have been like with the Baron.

While the Doctor was still in the bath, I tapped on the door to Mr. Bekku’s room. A maid rushed in to change the bedsheets, and Mr. Bekku came to help me put on a sleeping robe. Later, after the Doctor had fallen asleep, I got up again and bathed quietly. Mameha had instructed me to stay awake all night, in case the Doctor should awaken and need something. But even though I tried not to sleep, I couldn’t help drifting off. I did manage to awaken in the morning in time to make myself presentable before the Doctor saw me.

After breakfast, I saw Dr. Crab to the front door of the inn and helped him into his shoes. Just before he walked away, he thanked me for the evening and gave me a small package. I couldn’t make up my mind whether it might be a jewel like Nobu had given me or a few cuttings from the bloody towel of the night before! But when I worked up my courage to open it back in the room, it turned out to be a package of Chinese herbs. I didn’t know what to make of them until I asked Mr. Bekku, who said I should make tea once a day with the herbs to discourage pregnancy. “Be cautious with them, because they’re very costly,” he said. “But don’t be too cautious.They’re still cheaper than an abortion.”

It’s strange and very hard to explain, but the world looked different to me after mizuage. Pumpkin, who hadn’t yet had hers, now seemed inexperienced and childlike to me somehow, even though she was older. Mother and Auntie, as well as Hatsumomo and Mameha had all been through it, of course, and I was probably much more aware than they were of having this peculiar thing in common with them. After mizuage an apprentice wears her hair in a new style, and with a red silk band at the base of the pincushion bun, rather than a patterned one. For a time

I was so aware of which apprentices had red hair bands and which had patterned ones that I scarcely seemed to notice anything else while walking along the street, or in the hallways of the little school. I had a new respect for the ones who had been through mizuage, and felt much more worldly than the ones who hadn’t.

I’m sure all apprentices feel changed by the experience of mizuage in much the same way I did. But for me it wasn’t just a matter of seeing the world differently. My day-to-day life changed as well, because of Mother’s new view of me. She was the sort of person, I’m sure you realize, who noticed things only if they had price tags on them. When she walked down the street, her mind was probably working like an abacus: “Oh, there’s little Yukiyo, whose stupidity cost her poor older sister nearly a hundred yen last year! And here comes Ichimitsu, who must be very pleased at the payments her new danna is making.” If Mother were to walk alongside the Shirakawa Stream on a lovely spring day, when you could almost see beauty itself dripping into the water from the tendrils of the cherry trees, she probably wouldn’t even notice any of it-unless … I don’t know . . . she had a plan to make money from selling the trees, or some such thing.

Before my mizuage, I don’t think it made any difference to Mother that Hatsumomo was causing trouble for me in Gion. But now that I had a high price tag on me, she put a stop to Hatsumomo’s trou- blemaking without my even having to ask it of her. I don’t know how she did it. Probably she just said, “Hatsumomo, if your behavior causes problems for Sayuri and costs this okiya money, you’ll be the one to pay it!” Ever since my mother had grown ill, my life had certainly been difficult; but now for a time, things became remarkably uncomplicated. I won’t say I never felt tired or disappointed; in fact, I felt tired much of the time. Life in Gion is hardly relaxing for the women who make a living there. But it was certainly a great relief to be freed from the threat of Hatsumomo. Inside the okiya too, life was almost pleasurable. As the adopted daughter, I ate when I wanted. I chose my kimono first instead of waiting for Pumpkin to choose hers-and the moment I’d made my choice, Auntie set to work sewing the seams to the proper width, and basting the collar onto my underrobe, before she’d touched even Hatsumomo’s. I didn’t mind when Hatsumomo looked at me with resentment and hatred because of the special treatment I now received. But when Pumpkin passed me in the okiya with a worried look, and kept her eyes averted from mine even when we were face-to-face, it caused me terrible pain. I’d always had the feeling our friendship would have grown if only circumstances hadn’t come between us. I didn’t have that feeling any longer.

With my mizuage behind me, Dr. Crab disappeared from my life almost completely. I say “almost” because even though Mameha and I no longer went to the Shirae Teahouse to entertain him, I did run into him occasionally at parties in Gion. The Baron, on the other hand, I never saw again. I didn’t yet know about the role he’d played in driving up the price of my mizuage, but as I look back I can understand why Mameha may have wanted to keep us apart. Probably I would have felt every bit as uncomfortable around the Baron as Mameha would have felt having me there. In any case, I can’t pretend I missed either of these men.

But there was one man I was very eager to see again, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you I’m talking about the Chairman. He hadn’t played any role in Mameha’s plan, so I didn’t expect my relationship with him to change or come to an end just because my mizuage was over. Still, I have to admit I felt very relieved a few weeks afterward to learn that Iwamura Electric had called to request my company once again. When I arrived that evening, both the Chairman and Nobu were present. In the past I would certainly have gone to sit beside Nobu; but now that Mother had adopted me, I wasn’t obliged to think of him as my savior any longer. As it happened, a space beside the Chairman was vacant, and so with a feeling of excitement I went to take it. The Chairman was very cordial when I poured him sake, and thanked me by raising his cup in the air before drinking it; but all evening long he never looked at me. Whereas Nobu, whenever I glanced in his direction, glared back at me as though I were the only person in the room he was aware of. I certainly knew what it was like to long for someone, so before the evening was over I made a point of going to spend a bit of time with him. I was careful never to ignore him again after this.

A month or so pass-ed, and then one evening during a party, I happened to mention to Nobu that Mameha had arranged for me to appear in a festival in Hiroshima. I wasn’t sure he was listening when I told him, but the very next day when Ireturned to the okiya after my lessons, I found in my room a new wooden travel trunk he’d sent me as a gift. The trunk was much finer even than the one I’d borrowed from Auntie for the Baron’s party in Hakone. I felt terribly ashamed of myself for having thought I could simply discard Nobu now that he was no longer central to any plans Mameha might have had. I wrote him a note of thanks, and told him I looked forward to expressing my gratitude in person when I saw him the following week, at a large party Iwamura Electric had planned some months in advance.

But then a peculiar thing happened. Shortly before the party I received a message that my company wouldn’t be needed after all. Yoko, who worked at the telephone in our okiya, was under the impression the party had been canceled. As it happened, I had to go to the Ichiriki that night anyway for another party. Just as I was kneeling in the hallway to enter, I saw the door to a large banquet room down at the end slide open, and a young geisha named Katsue came out. Before she closed the door, I heard what I felt certain was the sound of the Chairman’s laughter coming from inside the room. I was very puzzled by this, so I rose from my knees and went to catch Katsue before she left the teahouse.

“I’m very sorry to trouble you,” I said, “but have you just come from the party given by Iwamura Electric?”

“Yes, it’s quite lively. There must be twenty-five geisha and nearly fifty men …”

“And . . . Chairman Iwamura and Nobu-san are both there?” I asked her.

“Not Nobu. Apparently he went home sick this morning. He’ll be very sorry to have missed it. But the Chairman is there; why do you ask?”

I muttered something-I don’t remember what it was-and she left.

Up until this moment I’d somehow imagined that the Chairman valued my company as much as Nobu did. Now I had to wonder whether it had all been an illusion, and Nobu was the only one who cared.

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