Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 25)
Mameha may already have won her bet with Mother, but she still had quite a stake in my future. So during the next few years she worked to make my face familiar to all her best customers, and to the other geisha in Gion as well. We were still emerging from the Depression at this time; formal banquets weren’t as common as Mameha would have liked. But she took me to plenty of informal gatherings, not only parties in the teahouses, but swimming excursions, sightseeing tours, Kabuki plays, and so on. During the heat of summer when everyone felt most relaxed, these casual gatherings were often quite a lot of fun, even for those of us supposedly hard at work entertaining. For example, a group of men sometimes decided to go floating in a canal boat along the Kamo River, to sip sake and dangle their feet in the water. I was too young to join in the carousing, and often ended up with the job of shaving ice to make snow cones, but it was a pleasant change nevertheless.
Some nights, wealthy businessmen or aristocrats threw geisha parties just for themselves. They spent the evening dancing and singing, and drinking with the geisha, often until well after midnight. I remember on one of these occasions, the wife of our host stood at the door to hand out envelopes containing a generous tip as we left. She gave Mameha two of them, and asked her the favor of delivering the second to the geisha Tomizuru, who had “gone home earlier with a headache,” as she put it. Actually she knew as well as we did that Tomizuru was her husband’s mistress, and had gone with him to another wing of the house to keep him company for the night.
Many of the glamorous parties in Gion were attended by famous artists, and writers, and Kabuki actors, and sometimes they were very exciting events. But I’m sorry to tell you that the average geisha party was something much more mundane. The host was likely to be the division head of a small company, and the guest of honor one of his suppliers, or perhaps one of his employees he’d just promoted, or something along those lines. Every so often, some well-meaning geisha admonished me that as an apprentice, my responsibility-besides trying to look pretty-was to sit quietly and listen to conversations in the hopes of one day becoming a clever conversationalist myself. Well, most of the conversations I heard at these parties didn’t strike me as very clever at all. A man might turn to the geisha beside him and say, “The weather certainly is unusually warm, don’t you think?” And the geisha would reply with something like, “Oh, yes, very warm!” Then she’d begin playing a drinking game with him, or try to get all the men singing, and soon the man who’d spoken with her was too drunk to remember he wasn’t having as good a time as he’d hoped. For my part, I always considered this a terrible waste. If a man has come to Gion just for the purpose of having a relaxing time, and ends up involved in some childish game such as paper- scissors-stone . . . well, in my view he’d have been better off staying at home and playing with his own children or grandchildren-who, after all, are probably more clever than this poor, dull geisha he was so unfortunate as to sit beside.
Every so often, though, I was privileged to overhear a geisha who really was clever, and Mameha was certainly one of these. I learned a great deal from her conversations. For example, if a man said to her, “Warm weather, don’t you think?” she had a dozen replies ready. If he was old and lecherous, she might say to him, “Warm? Perhaps it’s just the effect on you of being around so many lovely women!” Or if he was an arrogant young businessman who didn’t seem to know his place, she might take him off his guard by saying, “Here you are sitting with a half-dozen of the best geisha in Gion, and all you can think to talk about is the weather.” One time when I happened to be watching her, Mameha knelt beside a very young man who couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty; he probably wouldn’t have been at a geisha party at all if his father hadn’t been the host. Of course, he didn’t know what to say or how to behave around geisha, and I’m sure he felt nervous; but he turned to Mameha very bravely and said to her, “Warm, isn’t it?” She lowered her voice and answered him like this:
“Why, you’re certainly right about it being warm. You should have seen me when I stepped out of the bath this morning! Usually when I’m completely naked, I feel so cool and relaxed. But this morning, there were little beads of sweat covering my skin all the way up my body- along my thighs, and on my stomach, and . . . well, other places too.”
When that poor boy set his sake cup down on the table, his fingers were trembling. I’m sure he never forgot that geisha party for the rest of his life.
If you ask me why most of these parties were so dull, I think probably there are two reasons. First, just because a young girl has been sold by her family and raised from an early age to be a geisha doesn’t mean she’ll turn out to be clever, or have anything interesting to say. And second, the same thing goes for the men. Just because a man has made enough money to come to Gion and waste it however he chooses doesn’t mean he’s fun to be around. In fact, many of the men are accustomed to being treated with a great deal of respect. Sitting back with their hands on their knees and big frowns on their faces is about as much work as they plan to do in the way of being entertaining. One time I listened to Mameha spend an entire hour telling stories to a man who never even looked in her direction, but just watched the others in the room while she talked. Oddly enough, this was just what he wanted, and he always asked for Mameha when he came to town.
After two more years of parties and outings-all the while continuing with my studies and participating in dance performances whenever I could-I made the shift from being an apprentice to being a geisha. This was in the summer of 1938, when I was eighteen years old. We call this change “turning the collar,” because an apprentice wears a red collar while a geisha wears a white one. Though if you were to see an apprentice and a geisha side by side, their collars would be the last thing you’d notice. The apprentice, with her elaborate, long-sleeved kimono and dangling obi, would probably make you think of a Japanese doll, whereas the geisha would look simpler, perhaps, but also more womanly.
The day I turned my collar was one of the happiest days of Mother’s life; or at least, she acted more pleased than I’d ever seen her. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it’s perfectly clear to me now what she was thinking. You see, a geisha, unlike an apprentice, is available to a man for more than just pouring his tea, provided the terms are suitable. Because of my connection with Mameha and my popularity in Gion, my standing was such that Mother had plenty of cause for excitement-excitement being, in Mother’s case, just another word for money.
Since moving to New York I’ve learned what the word “geisha” really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I’ve been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don’t turn up quite as they should. She has no idea what to say ! And then the burden of conversation falls to the man or woman who has introduced us-because I’ve never really learned much English, even after all these years. Of course, by this time there’s little point even in trying, because this woman is thinking, “My goodness … I’m talking with a prostitute …” A moment later she’s rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can’t sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day, so was I.
I’m sure there are a great many things I don’t know about these young women in their splendid dresses, but I often have the feeling that without their wealthy husbands or boyfriends, many of them would be struggling to get by and might not have the same proud opinions of themselves. And of course the same thing is true for a first-class geisha. It is all very well for a geisha to go from party to party and be popular with a great many men; but a geisha who wishes to become a star is completely dependent on having a danna. Even Mameha, who became famous on her own because of an advertising campaign, would soon have lost her standing and been just another geisha if the Baron hadn’t covered the expenses to advance her career.
No more than three weeks after I turned my collar, Mother came to me one day while I was eating a quick lunch in the reception room, and sat across the table a long while puffing on her pipe. I’d been reading a magazine, but I stopped out of politeness-even though Mother didn’t seem at first to have much to say to me. After a time she put down her pipe and said, “You shouldn’t eat those yellow pickles. They’ll rot your teeth. Eook at what they did to mine.”
It had never occurred to me that Mother believed her stained teeth had anything to do with eating pickles. When she’d finished giving me a good view of her mouth, she picked up her pipe again and took in a puff of smoke.
“Auntie loves yellow pickles, ma’am,” I said, “and her teeth are fine.”
“Who cares if Auntie’s teeth are fine? She doesn’t make money from having a pretty little mouth. Tell the cook not to give them to you. Anyway, I didn’t come here to talk with you about pickles. I came to tell you that this time next month you’ll have a danna.”
“A danna? But, Mother, I’m only eighteen …”
“Hatsumomo didn’t have a danna until she was twenty. And of course, that didn’t last. . . You ought to be very pleased.”
“Oh, I am very pleased. But won’t it require a lot of my time to keep a danna happy? Mameha thinks I should establish my reputation first, just for a few years.”
“Mameha! What does she know about business? The next time I want to know when to giggle at a party, I’ll go and ask her.”
Nowadays young girls, even in Japan, are accustomed to jumping up from the table and shouting at their mothers, but in my day we bowed and said, “Yes, ma’am,” and apologized for having been troublesome; and that’s exactly how I responded.
“Leave the business decisions to me,” Mother went on. “Only a fool would pass up an offer like the one Nobu Toshikazu has made.”
My heart nearly stopped when I heard this. I suppose it was obvious that Nobu would one day propose himself as my danna. After all, he’d made an offer for my mizuage several years earlier, and since then had certainly asked for my company more frequently than any other man. I can’t pretend I hadn’t thought of this possibility; but that isn’t to say I’d ever believed it was the course my life would really take. On the day I first met Nobu at the sumo tournament, my almanac reading had been, “A balance of good and bad can open the door to destiny.” Nearly every day since, I’d thought of it in one way or another. Good and bad . . . well, it was Mameha and Hatsumomo; it was my adoption by Mother and the mizuage that had brought it about; and of course it was the Chairman and Nobu. I don’t mean to suggest I disliked Nobu. Quite the opposite. But to become his mistress would have closed off my life from the Chairman forever.
Mother must have noticed something of the shock I felt at hearing her words-or in any case, she wasn’t pleased at my reaction. But before she could respond we heard a noise in the hallway outside like someone suppressing a cough, and in a moment Hatsumomo stepped into the open doorway. She was holding a bowl of rice, which was very rude of her-she never should have walked away from the table with it. When she’d swallowed, she let out a laugh.
“Mother!” she said. “Are you trying to make me choke?” Apparently she’d been listening to our conversation while she ate her lunch. “So the famous Sayuri is going to have Nobu Toshikazu for her danna,” she went on. “Isn’t that sweet!”
“If you’ve come here to say something useful, then say it,” Mother told her.
“Yes, I have,” Hatsumomo said gravely, and she came and knelt at the table. “Sayuri-san, you may not realize it, but one of the things that goes on between a geisha and her danna can cause the geisha to become pregnant, do you understand? And a man will become very upset if his mistress gives birth to another man’s child. In your case, you must be especially careful, because Nobu will know at once, if the child should happen to have two arms like the rest of us, that it can’t possibly be his!”
Hatsumomo thought her little joke was very funny.
“Perhaps you should cut off one of your arms, Hatsumomo,” said Mother, “if it will make you as successful as Nobu Toshikazu has been.”
“And probably it would help, too, if my face looked like this!” she said, smiling, and picked up her rice bowl so we could see what was in it. She was eating rice mixed with red adzuki beans and, in a sickening way, it did look like blistered skin.
As the afternoon progressed I began to feel dizzy, with a strange buzzing in my head, and soon made my way to Mameha’s apartment to talk with her. I sat at her table sipping at my chilled barley tea-for we were in the heat of summer-and trying not to let her see how I felt. Reaching the Chairman was the one hope that had motivated me all through my training. If my life would be nothing more than Nobu, and dance recitals, and evening after evening in Gion, I couldn’t think why I had struggled so.
Already Mameha had waited a long while to hear why I’d come, but when I set my glass of tea down on the table, I was afraid my voice would crack if I tried to speak. I took a few more moments to compose myself, and then finally swallowed and managed to say, “Mother tells me that within a month it’s likely I’ll have a danna.”
“Yes, I know. And the danna will be Nobu Toshikazu.”
By this time I was concentrating so hard on holding myself back from crying, I could no longer speak at all.
“Nobu-san is a good man,” she said, “and very fond of you.”
“Yes, but, Mameha-san … I don’t know how to say it … this was never what I imagined!”
“What do you mean? Nobu-san has always treated you kindly.”
“But, Mameha-san, I don’t want kindness!”
“Don’t you? I thought we all wanted kindness. Perhaps what you mean is that you want something more than kindness. And that is something you’re in no position to ask.”
Of course, Mameha was quite right. When I heard these words, my tears simply broke through the fragile wall that had held them, and with a terrible feeling of shame, I laid my head upon the table and let them drain out of me. Only when I’d composed myself afterward did Mameha speak.
“What did you expect, Sayuri?” she asked.
“Something besides this!”
“I understand you may find Nobu difficult to look at, perhaps But-”
” Mameha- san, it isn’t that. Nobu-san is a good man, as you say. It’s just that-”
“It’s just that you want your destiny to be like Shizue’s. Is that it?”
Shizue, though she wasn’t an especially popular geisha, was considered by everyone in Gion to be the most fortunate of women. For thirty years she’d been the mistress of- a pharmacist. He wasn’t a wealthy man, and she wasn’t a beauty; but you could have looked all over Kyoto and not found two people who enjoyed each other’s company as they did. As usual, Mameha had come closer to the truth than I wanted to admit.
“You’re eighteen years old, Sayuri,” she went on. “Neither you nor I can know your destiny. You may never know it! Destiny isn’t always like a party at the end of the evening. Sometimes it’s nothing more than struggling through life from day to day.”
“But, Mameha-san, how cruel!”
“Yes, it is cruel,” she said. “But none of us can escape destiny.”
“Please, it isn’t a matter of escaping my destiny, or anything of that sort. Nobu-san is a good man, just as you say. I know I should feel nothing but gratitude for his interest, but . . . there are so many things I’ve dreamed about.”
“And you’re afraid that once Nobu has touched you, after that they can never be? Really, Sayuri, what did you think life as a geisha would be like? We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.”
“Oh, Mameha-san . . . please . . . have I really been so foolish to keep my hopes alive that perhaps one day-”
“Young girls hope all sorts of foolish things, Sayuri. Hopes are like hair ornaments. Girls want to wear too many of them. When they become old women they look silly wearing even one.”
I was determined not to lose control of my feelings again. I managed to hold in all my tears except the few that squeezed out of me like sap from a tree.
“Mameha-san,” I said, “do you have . . . strong feelings for the Baron?”
“The Baron has been a good danna to me.”
“Yes, of course that’s true, but do you have feelings for him as a man? I mean, some geisha do have feelings for their danna, don’t they?”
“The Baron’s relationship with me is convenient for him, and very beneficial to me. If our dealings were tinged with passion . . . well, passion can quickly slip over into jealousy, or even hatred. I certainly can’t afford to have a powerful man upset with me. I’ve struggled for years to carve out a place for myself in Gion, but if a powerful man makes up his mind to destroy me, well, he’ll do it! If you want to be successful, Sayuri, you must be sure that men’s feelings remain always under your control. The Baron may be hard to take at times, but he has plenty of money, and he’s not afraid to spend it. And he doesn’t want children, thank heavens. Nobu will certainly be a challenge for you. He knows his own mind much too well. I won’t be surprised if he expects more of you than the Baron has expected of me.”
“But, Mameha-san, what about your own feelings? I mean, hasn’t there ever been a man …”
I wanted to ask if there had ever been a man who brought out feelings of passion in her. But I could see that her irritation with me, if it had been only a bud until then, had burst into full bloom now. She drew herself up with her hands in her lap; I think she was on the point of rebuking me, but I apologized for my rudeness at once, and she settled back again.
“You and Nobu have an en, Sayuri, and you can’t escape it,” she said.
I knew even then that she was right. An en is a karmic bond lasting a lifetime. Nowadays many people seem to believe their lives are entirely a matter of choice; but in my day we viewed ourselves as pieces of clay that forever show the fingerprints of everyone who has touched them. Nobu’s touch had made a deeper impression on me than most. No one could tell me whether he would be my ultimate destiny, but I had always sensed the en between us. Somewhere in the landscape of my life Nobu would always be present. But could it really be that of all the lessons I’d learned, the hardest one lay just ahead of me? Would I really have to take each of my hopes and put them away where no one would ever see them again, where not even I would ever see them?
“Go back to the okiya, Sayuri,” Mameha told me. “Prepare for the evening ahead of you. There’s nothing like work for getting over a disappointment.”
I looked up at her with the idea of making one last plea, but when I saw the expression on her face, I thought better of it. I can’t say what she was thinking; but she seemed to be peering into nothingness with her perfect oval face creased in the corners of her eyes and mouth from strain. And then she let out a heavy breath, and gazed down into her teacup with what I took as a look of bitterness.
A woman living in a grand house may pride herself on all her lovely things; but the moment she hears the crackle of fire she decides very quickly which are the few she values most. In the days after Mameha and I had spoken, I certainly came to feel that my life was burning down around me; and yet when I struggled to find even a single thing that would still matter to me after Nobu had become my danna, I’m sorry to say that I failed. One evening while I was kneeling at a table in the Ichiriki Teahouse, trying not to think too much about my feelings of misery, I had a sudden thought of a child lost in the snowy woods; and when I looked up at the white-haired men I was entertaining, they looked so much like snowcapped trees all around me that I felt for one horrifying moment I might be the sole living human in all the world.
The only parties at which I managed to convince myself that my life might still have some purpose, however small, were the ones attended by military men. Already in 1938, we’d all grown accustomed to daily reports about the war in Manchuria; and we were reminded every day of our troops overseas by things like the so-called Rising Sun Lunch Box-which was a pickled plum in the center of a box of rice, looking like the Japanese flag. For several generations, army and navy officers had come to Gion to relax. But now they began to tell us, with watery eyes after their seventh or eighth cup of sake, that nothing kept their spirits up so much as their visits to Gion. Probably this was the sort of thing military officers say to the women they talk with. But the idea that I-who was nothing more than a young girl from the seashore-might truly be contributing something important to the nation … I won’t pretend these parties did anything to lessen my suf- fering; but they did help remind me just how selfish my suffering really was.
A few weeks passed, and then one evening in a hallway at the Ichiriki, Mameha suggested the time had come to collect on her bet with Mother. I’m sure you’ll recall that the two of them had wagered about whether my debts would be repaid before I was twenty. As it turned out, of course, they’d been repaid already though I was only eighteen. “Now that you’ve turned your collar,” Mameha said to me, “I can’t see any reason to wait longer.”
This is what she said, but I think the truth was more complicated. Mameha knew that Mother hated settling debts, and would hate settling them still more when the stakes went higher. My earnings would go up considerably after I took a danna; Mother was certain to grow only more protective of the income. I’m sure Mameha thought it best to collect what she was owed as soon as possible, and worry about future earnings in the future.
Several days afterward, I was summoned downstairs to the reception room of our okiya to find Mameha and Mother across the table from each other, chatting about the summer weather. Beside Mameha was a gray-haired woman named Mrs. Okada, whom I’d met a number of times. She was mistress of the okiya where Mameha had once lived, and she still took care of Mameha’s accounting in exchange for a portion of the income. I’d never seen her look more serious, peering down at the table with no interest in the conversation at all.
“There you are!” Mother said to me. “Your older sister has kindly come to visit, and has brought Mrs. Okada with her. You certainly owe them the courtesy of joining us.”
Mrs. Okada spoke up, with her eyes still on the tabletop. “Mrs. Nitta, as Mameha may have mentioned on the telephone, this is more a business call than a social call. There’s no need for Sayuri to join us. I’m sure she has other things to do.”
“I won’t have her showing disrespect to the two of you,” Mother replied. “She’ll join us at the table for the few minutes you’re here.”
So I arranged myself beside Mother, and the maid came in to serve tea. Afterward Mameha said, “You must be very proud, Mrs. Nitta, of how well your daughter is doing. Her fortunes have surpassed expectations! Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Well now, what do I know about your expectations, Mameha-san?” said Mother. After this she clenched her teeth and gave one of her peculiar laughs, looking from one of us to the other to be sure we appreciated her cleverness. No one laughed with her, and Mrs. Okada just adjusted her glasses and cleared her throat. Finally Mother added, “As for my own expectations, I certainly wouldn’t say Sayuri has surpassed them.”
“When we first discussed her prospects a number of years ago,” Mameha said, “I had the impression you didn’t think much of her. You were reluctant even to have me take on her training.”
“I wasn’t sure it was wise to put Sayuri’s future in the hands of someone outside the okiya, if you’ll forgive me,” said Mother. “We do have our Hatsumomo, you know.”
“Oh, come now, Mrs. Nitta!” Mameha said with a laugh. “Hatsumomo would have strangled the poor girl before she’d have trained her!”
“I admit Hatsumomo can be difficult. But when you spot a girl like Sayuri with something a little different, you have to be sure to make the right decisions at the right times-such as the arrangement you and I made, Mameha-san. I expect you’ve come here today to settle our account?”
“Mrs. Okada has been kind enough to write up the figures,” Mameha replied. “I’d be grateful if you would have a look at them.”
Mrs. Okada straightened her glasses and took an accounting book from a bag at her knee. Mameha-and I sat in silence while she opened it on the table and explained her columns of figures to Mother. “These figures for Sayuri’s earnings over the past year,” Mother interrupted. “My goodness, I only wish we’d been so fortunate as you seem to think! They’re higher even than the total earnings for our okiya.”
“Yes, the numbers are most impressive,” Mrs. Okada said, “but I do believe they are accurate. I’ve kept careful track through the records of the Gion Registry Office.”
Mother clenched her teeth and laughed at this, I suppose because she was embarrassed at having been caught in her lie. “Perhaps I haven’t watched the accounts as carefully as I should have,” she said. After ten or fifteen minutes the two women agreed on a figure representing how much I’d earned since my debut. Mrs. Okada took a small abacus from her bag and made a few calculations, writing down numbers on a blank page of the account book. At last she wrote down a final figure and underscored it.
“Here, then, is the amount Mameha-san is entitled to receive.”
“Considering how helpful she has been to our Sayuri,” Mother said, “I’m sure Mameha-san deserves even more. Unfortunately, according to our arrangements, Mameha agreed to take half of what a geisha in her position might usually take, until after Sayuri had repaid her debts. Now that the debts are repaid, Mameha is of course entitled to the other half, so that she will have earned the full amount.”
“My understanding is that Mameha did agree to take half wages,” Mrs. Okada said, “but was ultimately to be paid double. This is why she agreed to take a risk. If Sayuri had failed to repay her debts, Mameha would have received nothing more than half wages. But Sayuri has succeeded, and Mameha is entitled to double.”
“Really, Mrs. Okada, can you imagine me agreeing to such terms?” Mother said. “Everyone in Gion knows how careful I am with money. It’s certainly true that Mameha has been helpful to our Sayuri. I can’t possibly pay double, but I’d like to propose offering an additional ten percent. If I may say so, it seems generous, considering that our okiya is hardly in a position to throw money around carelessly.”
The word of a woman in Mother’s position should have been assurance enough-and with any woman but Mother, it certainly would have been. But now that she’d made up her mind to lie … well, we all sat in silence a long moment. Finally Mrs. Okada said, “Mrs. Nitta, I do find myself in a difficult position. I remember quite clearly what Mameha told me.”
“Of course you do,” Mother said. “Mameha has her memory of the conversation, and I have mine. What we need is a third party, and happily, we have one here with us. Sayuri may only have been a girl at the time, but she has quite a head for numbers.”
“I’m sure her memory is excellent,” Mrs. Okada remarked. “But one can hardly say she has no personal interest. After all, she is the daughter of the okiya.”
“Yes, she is,” said Mameha; and this was the first time she’d spoken up in quite a while. “But she’s also an honest girl. I’m prepared to accept her answer, provided that Mrs. Nitta will accept it too.”
“Of course I will,” Mother said, and put down her pipe. “Now then, Sayuri, which is it?”
If I’d been given a choice between sliding off the roof to break my arm again just the way I did as a child, or sitting in that room until I came up with an answer to the question they were asking me, I certainly would have marched right up the stairs and climbed the ladder onto the roof. Of all the women in Gion, Mameha and Mother were the two most influential in my life, and it was clear to me I was going to make one of them angry. I had no doubt in my mind of the truth; but on the other hand, I had to go on living in the okiya with Mother. Of course, Mameha had done more for me than anyone in Gion. I could hardly take Mother’s side against her.
“Well?” Mother said to me.
“As I recall, Mameha did accept half wages. But you agreed to pay her double earnings in the end, Mother. I’m sorry, but this is the way I remember it.”
There was a pause, and then Mother said, “Well, I’m not as young as I used to be. It isn’t the first time my memory has misled me.”
“We all have these sorts of problems from time to time,” Mrs. Okada replied. “Now, Mrs. Nitta, what was this about offering Mameha an additional ten percent? I assume you meant ten percent over the double you originally agreed to pay her.”
“If only I were in a position to do such a thing,” Mother said.
“But you offered it only a moment ago. Surely you haven’t changed your mind so quickly?”
Mrs. Okada wasn’t gazing at the tabletop any longer, but was staring directly at Mother. After a long moment she said, “I suppose we’ll let it be. In any case, we’ve done enough for one day. Why don’t we meet another time to work out the final figure?”
Mother wore a stern expression on her face, but she gave a little bow of assent and thanked the two of them for coming.
“I’m sure you must be very pleased,” Mrs. Okada said, while putting away her abacus and her accounting book, “that Sayuri will soon be taking a danna. And at only eighteen years of age! How young to take such a big step.”
“Mameha would have done well to take a danna at that age herself,” Mother replied.
“Eighteen is a bit young for most girls,” Mameha said, “but I’m certain Mrs. Nitta has made the right decision in Sayuri’s case.”
Mother puffed on her pipe a moment, peering at Mameha across the table. “My advice to you, Mameha- san,” she said, “is that you stick to teaching Sayuri about that pretty way of rolling her eyes. When it comes to business decisions, you may leave them to me.”
“I would never presume to discuss business with you, Mrs. Nitta. I’m convinced your decision is for the best. . . But may I ask? Is it true the most generous offer has come from Nobu Toshikazu?”
“His has been the only offer. I suppose that makes it the most generous.”
“The only offer? What a pity . . . The arrangements are so much more favorable when several men compete. Don’t you find it so?”
“As I say, Mameha-san, you can leave the business decisions to me. I have in mind a very simple plan for arranging favorable terms with Nobu Toshikazu.”
“If you don’t mind,” Mameha said, “I’d be very eager to hear it.”
Mother put her pipe down on the table. I thought she was going to reprimand Mameha, but in fact she said, “Yes, I’d like to tell it to you, now that you mention it. You may be able to help me. I’ve been thinking that Nobu Toshikazu will be more generous if he finds out an Iwamura Electric heater killed our Granny. Don’t you think so?”
“Oh, I know very little about business, Mrs. Nitta.”
“Perhaps you or Sayuri should let it slip in conversation the next time you see him. Let him know what a terrible blow it was. I think he’ll want to make it up to us.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s a good idea,” Mameha said. “Still, it’s disappointing … I had the impression another man had expressed interest in Sayuri.”
“A hundred yen is a hundred yen, whether it comes from this man or that one.”
“That would be true in most cases,” Mameha said. “But the man I’m thinking of is General Tottori Junnosuke …”
At this point in the conversation, I lost track of what the two of them were saying; for I’d begun to realize that Mameha was making an effort to rescue me from Nobu. I certainly hadn’t expected such a thing. I had no idea whether she’d changed her mind about helping me, or whether she was thanking me for taking her side against Mother … Of course, it was possible she wasn’t really trying to help me at all, but had some other purpose. My mind went on racing with these thoughts, until I felt Mother tapping my arm with the stem of her pipe.
“Well?” she said.
“I asked if you know the General.”
“I’ve met him a few times, Mother,” I said. “He comes to Gion often.”
I don’t know why I gave this response. The truth is, I’d met the General more than a few times. He came to parties in Gion every week, though always as the guest of someone else. He was a bit on the small side-shorter than I was, in fact. But he wasn’t the sort of person you could overlook, any more than you could overlook a machine gun. He moved very briskly and was always puffing on one cigarette after another, so that wisps of smoke drifted in the air around him like the clouds around a train idling on the tracks. One evening while slightly drunk, the General had talked to me for the longest time about all the various ranks in the army and found it very funny that I kept mixing them up. General Tottori’s own rank was sho-jo, which meant “little general”-that is to say, the lowest of the generals-and foolish girl that I was, I had the impression this wasn’t very high. He may have played down the importance of his rank from modesty, and I didn’t know any better than to believe him.
By now Mameha was telling Mother that the General had just taken a new position. He’d been put in charge of something called “military procurement” -though as Mameha went on to explain it, the job sounded like nothing more than a housewife going to the market. If the army had a shortage of ink pads, for example, the General’s job was to make sure it got the ink pads it needed, and at a very favorable price.
“With his new job,” said Mameha, “the General is now in a position to take a mistress for the first time. And I’m quite sure he has expressed an interest in Sayuri.”
“Why should it matter to me if he’s expressed an interest in Sayuri?” Mother said. “These military men never take care of a geisha the way a businessman or an aristocrat does.”
“That may be true, Mrs. Nitta. But I think you’ll find that General Tottori’s new position could be of great help to the okiya.”
“Nonsense! I don’t need help taking care of the okiya. All I need is steady, generous income, and that’s the one thing a military man can’t give me.”
“Those of us in Gion have been fortunate so far,” Mameha said. “But shortages will affect us, if the war continues.”
“I’m sure they would, if the war continued,” Mother said. “This war will be over in six months.”
“And when it is, the military will be in a stronger position than ever before. Mrs. Nitta, please don’t forget that General Tottori is the man who oversees all the resources of the military. No one in Japan is in a better position to provide you with everything you could want, whether the war continues or not. He approves every item passing through all the ports in Japan.”
As I later learned, what Mameha had said about General Tottori wasn’t quite true. He was in charge of only one of five large administrative areas. But he was senior to the men who oversaw the other districts, so he may as well have been in charge. In any case, you should have seen how Mother behaved after Mameha had said this. You could almost see her mind at work as she thought about having the help of a man in General Tottori’s position. She glanced at the teapot, and I could just imagine her thinking,
“Well, I haven’t had any trouble getting tea; not yet. . . though the price has gone up . . .” And then probably without even realizing what she was doing, she put one hand inside her obi and squeezed her silk bag of tobacco as if to see how much remained.
Mother spent the next week going around Gion and making one phone call after another to learn as much as she could about General Tottori. She was so immersed in this task that sometimes when I spoke to her, she didn’t seem to hear me. I think she was so busy with her thoughts, her mind was like a train pulling too many cars.
During this period I continued seeing Nobu whenever he came to Gion, and did my best to act as though nothing had changed. Probably he’d expected I would be his mistress by the middle of July. Certainly I’d expected it; but even when the month came to a close, his negotiations seemed to have led nowhere. Several times during the following weeks I noticed him looking at me with puzzlement. And then one night he greeted the mistress of the Ichiriki Teahouse in the cur-test manner I’d ever seen, by strolling past without so much as a nod. The mistress had always valued Nobu as a customer, and gave me a look that seemed surprised and worried all at once. When I joined the party Nobu was giving, I couldn’t help noticing signs of anger-a rippling muscle in his jaw, and a certain briskness with which he tossed sake into his mouth. I can’t say I blamed him for feeling as he did. I thought he must consider me heartless, to have repaid his many kindnesses with neglect. I fell into a gloomy spell thinking these thoughts, until the sound of a sake cup set down with a tick startled me out of it. When I looked up, Nobu was watching me. Guests all around him were laughing and enjoying themselves, and there he sat with his eyes fixed on me, as lost in his thoughts as I had been in mine. We were like two wet spots in the midst of burning charcoal.