Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 27)
Chapter twenty- seven
During the summer of that year, 1939, 1 was so busy with engagements, occasional meetings with the General, dance performances, 1/ and the like, that in the morning when I tried to get up from my futon, I often felt like a bucket filled with nails. Usually by midafter-noon I managed to forget my fatigue, but I often wondered how much I was earning through all my efforts. I never really expected to find out, however, so I was quite taken aback when Mother called me into her room one afternoon and told me I’d earned more in the past six months than both Hatsumomo and Pumpkin combined.
“Which means,” she said, “that it’s time for you to exchange rooms with them.”
I wasn’t as pleased to hear this as you might imagine. Hatsumomo and I had managed to live side by side these past few years by keeping away from each other. But I regarded her as a sleeping tiger, not a defeated one. Hatsumomo certainly wasn’t going to think of Mother’s plan as “exchanging rooms”; she was going to feel that her room had been taken away from her.
When I saw Mameha that evening, I told her what Mother had said to me, and mentioned my fears that the fire inside Hatsumomo might flare up again.
“Oh, well, that’s fine,” said Mameha. “That woman won’t be beaten once and for all until we see blood. And we haven’t seen it yet. Let’s give her a bit of a chance and see what sort of a mess she makes for herself this time.”
Early the next morning, Auntie came upstairs in the okiya to lay down the rules for moving our belongings. She began by taking me into Hatsumomo’s room and announcing that a certain corner now belonged to me; I could put anything I wanted there, and no one else could touch it. Then she brought Hatsumomo and Pumpkin into my smaller room and set up a similar space for the two of them. After we’d swapped all our belongings, the move would be complete.
I set to work that very afternoon carrying my things through the hall. I wish I could say I’d accumulated a collection of beautiful objects as Mameha probably had by my age; but the mood of the nation had changed greatly. Cosmetics and permanents had recently been banned as luxuries by the military government-though of course those of us in Gion, as playthings of the men in power, still did more or less as we pleased. Lavish gifts, however, were almost unheard of, so I’d accumulated nothing more over the years than a few scrolls, inkstones, and bowls, as well as a collection of-stereoscopic photos of famous views, with a lovely viewer made of sterling silver, which the Kabuki actor Onoe Yoegoro XVII had given to me. In any case, I carried these things across the hail-along with my makeup, undergarments, books, and magazines-and piled them in the corner of the room. But as late as the following evening, Hatsumomo and Pumpkin still hadn’t begun moving their things out. On the way back from my lessons at noon on the third day, I made up my mind that if Hatsumomo’s bottles and ointments were still crowded together on the makeup stand, I would go ask Auntie to help me.
When I reached, the top of the stairs, I was surprised to see both Hatsumomo’s door and mine standing open. A jar of white ointment lay broken on the hallway floor. Something seemed to be amiss, and when I stepped into my room, I saw what it was. Hatsumomo was sitting at my little table, sipping at what looked like a small glass of water- and reading a notebook that belonged to me!.
Geisha are expected to be discreet about the men they know; so you may be puzzled to hear that several years earlier while still an apprentice, I’d gone into a paper store one afternoon and bought a beautiful book of blank pages to begin keeping a diary about my life. I wasn’t foolish enough to write down the sorts of things a geisha is never expected to reveal. I wrote only about my thoughts and feelings. When I had something to say about a particular man, I gave him a code name. So for example, I referred to
Nobu as “Mr. Tsu,” because he sometimes made a little scornful noise with his mouth that sounded like “Tsu!” And I referred to the Chairman as “Mr. Haa,” because on one occasion he’d taken in a deep breath and let it out slowly in a way that sounded like “Haa,” and I’d imagined him waking up beside me as he said it- so of course, it made a strong impression on me. But I’d never thought for a moment that anyone would see the things I’d written.
“Why, Sayuri, I’m so pleased to see you!” Hatsumomo said. “I’ve been waiting to tell you how much I’m enjoying your diary. Some of the entries are most interesting . . . and really, your writing style is
charming! I’m not much impressed with your calligraphy, but-”
“Did you happen to notice the interesting thing I wrote on the front page?”
“I don’t think I did. Let’s see … ‘Private. ‘Well, now here’s an example of what I’m talking about with your calligraphy.”
“Hatsumomo, please put the book down on the table and leave my room.”
“Really! I’m shocked at you, Sayuri. I’m only trying to be helpful! Just listen for a moment, and you’ll see. For example: Why did you choose to give Nobu Toshikazu the name ‘Mr. Tsu’? It doesn’t suit him at all. I think you should have called him ‘Mr. Blister’ or maybe ‘Mr. One- Arm.’ Don’t you agree? You can change it if you want, and you don’t even have to give me any credit.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Hatsumomo. I haven’t written anything about Nobu at all.”
Hatsumomo sighed, as if to tell me what an inept liar I was, and then began paging through my journal. “If it isn’t Nobu you were writing about, I want you to tell me the name of the man you’re referring to here. Let’s see … ah, here it is: ‘Sometimes I see Mr. Tsu’s face blooming with anger when a geisha has been staring at him. But for my part, I can look at him as long as I want, and he seems to be pleased by it. I think his fondness for me grows from his feeling that I don’t find the look of his skin and his missing
arm as strange and frightening as so many girls do.’ So I guess what you’re telling me is that you know someone else who looks just like Nobu. I think you should introduce them! Think how much they’ll have in common. ”
By this time I was feeling sick at heart-I can’t think of any better way of describing it. For it’s one thing to find your secrets suddenly exposed, but when your own foolishness has exposed them . . . well, if I was prepared to curse anyone, it was myself for keeping the journal in the first place and stowing it where Hatsumomo could find it. A shopkeeper who leaves his window open can hardly be angry at the rainstorm for ruining his wares.
I went to the table to take the journal from Hatsumomo, but she clutched it to her chest and stood. In her other hand she picked up the glass of what I’d thought was water. Now that I stood close to her I could smell the odor of sake. It wasn’t water at all. She was drunk.
“Sayuri, of course you want your journal back, and of course I’m going to give it to you,” she said. But she was walking toward the door as she said it. “The trouble is, I haven’t finished reading it. So I’ll take it back to my room . . . unless you’d rather I took it to Mother. I’m sure she’ll be pleased to see the passages you’ve written about her.”
I mentioned earlier that a broken bottle of ointment lay on the floor of the hallway. This was how Hatsumomo did things, making a mess and not even bothering to tell the maids. But now as she left my room, she got what she deserved. Probably she’d forgotten about the bottle because she was drunk; in any case she stepped right into the broken glass and let out a little shriek. I saw her look at her foot a moment and make a gasping noise, but then she kept on going.
I felt myself panicking as she stepped into her room. I thought of trying to wrestle the book from her hands . . . but then I remembered Mameha’s realization at the sumo tournament. To rush after Hatsumomo was the obvious thing. I’d be better off to wait until she began to relax, thinking she’d won, and then take the journal from her when she wasn’t expecting it. This seemed to me a fine idea . . . until a moment later when I had an image of her hiding it in a place I might never find.
By now she’d closed the door. I went to stand outside it and called out quietly, ” Hatsumomo- san, I’m sorry if I seemed angry. May I come in?”
“No, you may not,” she said.
I slid the door open anyway. The room was in terrible disarray, because Hatsumomo had put things everywhere in her efforts at moving. The journal was sitting on the table while Hatsumomo held a towel against her foot. I had no idea how I would distract her, but I certainly didn’t intend to leave the room without the journal.
She may have had the personality of a water rat, but Hatsumomo was no fool. If she’d been sober, I wouldn’t even have tried to outsmart her right then. But considering her state at the moment … I looked around the floor at the piles of underclothing, bottles of perfume, and all the other things she’d scattered in disarray. The closet door was open, and the tiny safe where she kept her jewelry stood ajar; pieces were spilling out onto the mats as though she’d sat there earlier in the morning drinking and trying them on. And then one object caught my eye as clearly as a single star burning in a black sky.
It was an emerald obi brooch, the very one Hatsumomo had accused me of stealing years earlier, on the night I’d found her and her boyfriend in the maids’ room. I’d never expected to see it again. I walked directly to the closet and reached down to pluck it from among the jewelry lying there.
“What a wonderful idea!” Hatsumomo said. “Go ahead and steal a piece of my jewelry. Truthfully, I’d rather have the cash you’ll have to pay me.”
“I’m so pleased you don’t mind!” I told her. “But how much cash will I have to pay for this?”
As I said these words, I walked over and held the brooch up before her. The radiant smile she’d worn now faded, just as the darkness fades from a valley when the sun rises on it. In that moment, while Hatsumomo sat stunned, I simply reached down to the table with my other hand and took the journal away.
I had no notion how Hatsumomo would react, but I walked out the door and closed it behind me. I thought of going straight to Mother to show her what I’d found, but of course, I couldn’t very well go there with the journal in my hand. As quickly as I could, I slid open the door to the closet where in- season kimono were kept and stashed the journal on a shelf between two robes wrapped in tissue paper. It took no more than a few seconds; but all the while my back tingled from the sensation that at any moment Hatsumomo might open her door and spot me. After I’d shut the closet door again, I rushed into my room and began opening and closing the drawers to my makeup stand to give Hatsumomo the impression I’d hid the journal there.
When I came out into the hallway, she was watching me from the doorway of her room, wearing a little smile as though she found the whole situation amusing. I tried to look worried- which wasn’t too difficult- and carried the brooch with me into Mother’s room to lay it on the table before her. She put aside the magazine she was reading and held it up to admire it.
“This is a lovely piece,” she said, “but it won’t go far on the black market these days. No one pays much for jewels like this one.”
“I’m sure Hatsumomo will pay very dearly for it, Mother,” I said. “Do you remember the brooch I’m supposed to have stolen from her years ago, the one that was added to my debts? This is it. I’ve just found it on the floor near her jewelry box.”
“Do you know,” said Hatsumomo, who had come into the room and now stood behind me. “I believe Sayuri is right. That is the brooch I lost! Or at least, it looks like it. I never thought I’d see it again!”
“Yes, it’s very difficult to find things when you’re drunk all the time,” I said. “If only you’d looked in your jewelry box more closely.”
Mother put the brooch down on the table and went on glowering at Hatsumomo.
“I found it in her room,” Hatsumomo said. “She’d hidden it in her makeup stand.”
“Why were you looking through her makeup stand?” Mother said.
“I didn’t want to have to tell you this, Mother, but Sayuri left something on her table and I was trying to hide it for her. I know I should have brought it to you at once, but . . . she’s been keeping a journal, you see. She showed it to me last year. She’s written some very incriminating things about certain men, and . . . truthfully, there are some passages about you too, Mother.”
I thought of insisting it wasn’t true; but none of it mattered in any case. Hatsumomo was in trouble, and nothing she was going to say would change the situation. Ten years earlier when she had been the okiya’s principal earner, she probably could have accused me of anything she’d wanted. She could have claimed I’d eaten the tatami mats in her room, and Mother would have charged me the cost of new ones. But now at last the season had changed; Hatsumomo’s brilliant career was dying on the branch, while mine had begun to blossom. I was the daughter of the okiya and its prime geisha. I don’t think Mother even cared where the truth lay.
“There is no journal, Mother,” I said. “Hatsumomo is making it up.”
“Am I?” said Hatsumomo. “I’ll just go find it, then, and while Mother reads through it, you can tell her how I made it up.”
Hatsumomo went to my room, with Mother following. The hallway floor was a terrible mess. Not only had Hatsumomo broken a bottle and then stepped on it, she’d tracked ointment and blood all around the upstairs hall-and much worse, onto the tatami mats in her own room, Mother’s room, and now mine as well. She was kneeling at my dressing table when I looked in, closing the drawers very slowly and looking a bit defeated.
“What journal is Hatsumomo talking about?” Mother asked me. “If there’s a journal, I’m certain Hatsumomo will find it,” I said. At this, Hatsumomo put her hands into her lap and gave a little laugh as
though the whole thing had been some sort of game, and she’d been cleverly outwitted.
“Hatsumomo,” Mother said to her, “you’ll repay Sayuri for the brooch you accused her of stealing. What’s more, I won’t have the tatami in this okiya defiled with blood. They’ll be replaced, and at your expense. This has been a very costly day for you, and it’s hardly past noon. Shall I hold off calculating the total, just in case you’re not quite finished?”
I don’t know if Hatsumomo heard what Mother said. She was too busy glaring at me, and with a look on her face I wasn’t accustomed to seeing.
If you’d asked me, while I was still a young woman, to tell you the turning point in my relationship with Hatsumomo, I would have said it was my mizuage. But even though it’s quite true that my mizuage lifted me onto a high shelf where Hatsumomo could no longer reach me, she and I might well have gone on living side by side until we were old women, if nothing else had happened between us. This is why the real turning point, as I’ve since come to see it, occurred the day when Hatsumomo read my journal,
and I discovered the obi brooch she’d accused me of stealing.
By way of explaining why this is so, let me tell you something Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku once said during an evening at the Ichiriki Teahouse. I can’t pretend I was well acquainted with Admiral Yamamoto-who’s usually described as the father of the Japanese Imperial Navy-but I was privileged to attend parties with him on a number of occasions. He was a small man; but keep in mind that a stick of dynamite is small too. Parties always grew noisier after the Admiral arrived. That night, he and another
man were in the final round of a drinking game, and had agreed that the loser would go buy a condom at the nearest pharmacy-just for the embarrassment of it, you understand; not for any other purpose. Of course, the Admiral ended up winning, and the whole crowd broke into cheers and applause.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t lose, Admiral,” said one of his aides. “Think of the poor pharmacist looking up to find Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku on the other side of the counter!”
Everyone thought this was very funny, but the Admiral replied that he’d never had any doubt about winning.
“Oh, come now!” said one of the geisha. “Everyone loses from time to time! Even you, Admiral!”
“I suppose it’s true that everyone loses at some time,” he said. “But never me.”
Some in the room may have considered this an arrogant thing to say, but I wasn’t one of them. The Admiral seemed to me the sort of man who really was accustomed to winning. Finally someone asked him the secret of his success.
“I never seek to defeat the man I am fighting,” he explained. “I seek to defeat his confidence. A mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory. Two men are equals-true equals-only when they both have equal confidence.”
I don’t think I realized it at the time, but after Hatsumomo and I quarreled over my journal, her mind-as the Admiral would have put it-began to be troubled by doubt. She knew that under no circumstances would Mother take her side against me any longer; and because of that, she was like a fabric taken from its warm closet and hung out of doors where the harsh weather will gradually consume it.
If Mameha were to hear me explaining things in this way, she would certainly speak up and say how much she disagreed. Her view of Hatsumomo was quite different from mine. She believed Hatsumomo was a woman bent on self-destruction, and that all we needed to do was to coax her along a path she was certain to follow in any case. Perhaps Mameha was right; I don’t know. It’s true that in the years since my mizuage, Hatsumomo had gradually been afflicted by some sort of disease of the character-if such a thing exists. She’d lost all control over her drinking, for example, and of her bouts of cruelty too. Until her life began to fray, she’d always used her cruelty for a purpose, just as a samurai draws his sword-not for slashing at random, but for slashing at enemies. But by this time in her life, Hatsumomo seemed to have lost sight of who her enemies were, and sometimes struck out even at Pumpkin. From time to time
during parties, she even made insulting comments to the men she was entertaining. And another thing: she was no longer as beautiful as ‘she’d once been. Her skin was waxy-looking, and her features puffy. Or perhaps I was only seeing her that way. A tree may look as beautiful as ever; but when you notice the insects infesting it, and the tips of the branches that are brown from disease, even the trunk seems to lose some of its magnificence.
Everyone knows that a wounded tiger is a dangerous beast; and for this reason, Mameha insisted that we follow Hatsumomo around Gion during the evenings over the next few weeks. Partly, Mameha wanted to keep an eye on her, because neither of us would have been surprised if she’d sought out Nobu to tell him about the contents of my journal, and about all my secret feelings for “Mr. Haa,” whom Nobu might have recognized as the Chairman. But more important, Mameha wanted to make Hatsumomo’s life difficult for her to bear.
“When you want to break a board,” Mameha said, “cracking it in the middle is only the first step. Success comes when you bounce up and down with all your weight until the board snaps in half.”
So every evening, except when she had an engagement she couldn’t miss, Mameha came to our okiya around dusk and waited to walk out the door behind Hatsumomo. Mameha and I weren’t always able to stay together, but usually at least one of us managed to follow her from engagement to engagement for a portion of the evening. On the first night we did this, Hatsumomo pretended to find it amusing. But by the end of the fourth night she was looking at us through squinted, angry eyes, and had difficulty acting cheerful around the men she tried to entertain. Then early the following week, she suddenly wheeled around in an alleyway and came toward us.
“Let me see now,” she said. “Dogs follow their owners. And the two of you are following me around, sniffing and sniffing. So I guess you want to be treated like dogs! Shall I show you what I do with dogs I don’t like?”
And with this, she drew back her hand to strike Mameha on the side of the head. I screamed, which must have made Hatsumomo stop to think about what she was doing. She stared at me a moment with eyes burning before the fire went out of them and she walked away. Everyone in the alley had noticed what was happening, and a few came over to see if Mameha was all right. She assured them she was fine and then said sadly:
“Poor Hatsumomo! It must be just as the doctor said. She really does seem to be losing her mind.”
There was no doctor, of course, but Mameha’s words had the effect she’d hoped for. Soon a rumor had spread all over Gion that a doctor had declared Hatsumomo mentally unstable.
For years Hatsumomo had been very close to the famous Kabuki actor Bando Shojiro VI. Shojiro was what we call an onna-gata, which means that he always played women’s roles. Once, in a magazine interview, he said that Hatsumomo was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and that on the stage he often imitated her gestures to make himself seem more alluring. So you can well imagine that whenever Shojiro was in town, Hatsumomo visited him.
One afternoon I learned that Shojiro would attend a party later that evening at a teahouse in the geisha district of Pontocho, on the other side of the river from Gion. I heard this bit of news while preparing a tea ceremony for a group of naval officers on leave. Afterward I rushed back to the okiya, but Hatsumomo had already dressed and snuck out. She was doing what I’d once done, leaving early so that no one would follow her. I was very eager to explain to Mameha what I’d learned, so I went straight to
her apartment. Unfortunately, her maid told me she’d left a half hour earlier “to worship.” I knew exactly what this meant: Mameha had gone to a little temple just at the eastern edge of Gion to pray before the three tiny jizo statues she’d paid to have erected there. A jizo, you see, honors the soul of a departed child; in Mameha’s case, they were for the three children she’d aborted at the Baron’s request. Under other circumstances I might have gone searching for her, but I couldn’t possibly disturb her in such a private moment; and besides, she might not have wanted me to know even that she’d gone there. Instead I sat in her apartment and permitted Tatsumi to serve me tea while I waited. At last, with something of a weary look about her, Mameha came home. I didn’t want to raise the subject at first, and so for a time we chatted about the upcoming Festival of the Ages, in which Mameha was scheduled to portray Lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. Finally Mameha looked up with a smile from her cup of brown tea-Tatsumi had been roasting the leaves when I arrived-and I told her what I’d discovered during the course of the afternoon.
“How perfect!” she said. “Hatsumomo’s going to relax and think she’s free of us. With all the attention Shojiro is certain to give her at the party, she may feel renewed. Then you and I will come drifting in like some sort of horrid smell from the alleyway, and ruin her evening completely.”
Considering how cruelly Hatsumomo had treated me over the years, and how very much I hated her, I’m sure I ought to have been elated at this plan. But somehow conspiring to make Hatsumomo suffer wasn’t the pleasure I might have imagined. I couldn’t help remembering one morning as a child, when I was swimming in the pond near our tipsy house and suddenly felt a terrible burning in my shoulder. A wasp had stung me and was struggling to free itself from my skin. I was too busy screaming to think of what to do, but one of the boys pulled the wasp off and held it by the wings upon a rock, where we all gathered to decide exactly how to murder it. I was in great pain because of the wasp, and certainly felt no kindness toward it. But it gave me a terrible sensation of weakness in my chest to know that this tiny struggling creature could do nothing to save itself from the death that was only moments away. I felt the same sort of pity toward Hatsumomo.
During evenings when we trailed her around Gion until she returned to the okiya just to get away from us, I felt almost as though we were torturing her.
In any case, around nine o’clock that night, we crossed the river to the Pontocho district. Unlike Gion, which sprawls over many blocks, Pontocho is just a single long alleyway stretched out along one bank of the river. People call it an “eel’s bed” because of its shape. The autumn air was a bit chilly that night, but Shojiro’s party was outdoors anyway, on a wooden verandah standing on stilts above the water. No one paid us much attention when we stepped out through the glass doors. The verandah was beautifully lit with paper lanterns, and the river shimmered gold from the lights of a restaurant on the opposite bank. Everyone was listening to Shojiro, who was in the middle of telling a story in his singsong voice; but you should have seen the way Hatsumomo’s expression soured when she caught sight of us. I couldn’t help remembering a damaged pear I’d held in my hand the day before, because amid the cheerful faces, Hatsumomo’s expression was like a terrible bruise.
Mameha went to kneel on a mat right beside Hatsumomo, which I considered very bold of her. I knelt toward the other end of the verandah, beside a gentle-looking old man who turned out to be the koto player Tachibana Zensaku, whose scratchy old records I still own. Tachibana was blind, I discovered that night. Regardless of my purpose in coming, I would have been content to spend the evening just chatting with him, for he was such a fascinating, endearing man. But we’d hardly begun to talk when suddenly everyone burst out laughing.
Shojiro was quite a remarkable mimic. He was slender like the branch of a willow, with elegant, slow- moving fingers, and a very long face he could move about in extraordinary ways; he could have fooled a group of monkeys into thinking he was one of them. At that moment he was imitating the geisha beside him, a woman in her fifties. With his effeminate gestures-his pursed lips, his rolls of the eyes-he managed to look so much like her that I didn’t know whether to laugh or just sit with my hand over my
mouth in astonishment. I’d seen Shojiro on the stage, but this was something much better.
Tachibana leaned in toward me and whispered, “What’s he doing?”
“He’s imitating an older geisha beside him.”
“Ah,” said Tachibana. “That would be Ichiwari.” And then he tapped me with the back of his hand to make sure he had my attention. “The director of the Minamiza Theater,” he said, and held out his little finger below the table where no one else could see it. In Japan, you see, holding up the little finger means “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” Tachibana was telling me that the older geisha, the one named Ichi- wari, was the theater director’s mistress. And in fact the director was there too, laughing louder than anyone.
A moment later, still in the midst of his mimicry, Shojiro stuck one of his fingers up his nose. At this, everyone let out a laugh so loud you could feel the verandah trembling. I didn’t know it at the time, but picking her nose was one of Ichiwari’s well-known habits. She turned bright red when she saw this, and held a sleeve of her kimono over her face, and Shojiro, who had drunk a good bit of sake, imitated her even then. People laughed politely, but only Hatsumomo seemed to find it really funny; for at this point Shojiro was beginning to cross the line into cruelty. Finally the theater director said, “Now, now, Shojiro- san, save some energy for your show tomorrow! Anyway, don’t you know you’re sitting near one of Gion’s greatest dancers? I propose that we ask for a performance.”
Of course, the director was talking about Mameha. “Heavens, no. I don’t want to see any dancing just now,” Shojiro said. As I came to understand over the years, he preferred to be the center of attention himself. “Besides, I’m having fun.”
“Shojiro-san, we mustn’t pass up an opportunity to see the famous Mameha,” the director said, speaking” this time without a trace of humor. A few geisha spoke up as well, and finally Shojiro was persuaded to ask her if she would perform, which he did as sulkily as a little boy Already I could see Hatsumomo looking displeased. She poured more sake for Shojiro, and he poured more for her. They exchanged a long look as if to say their party had been spoiled.
A few minutes passed while a maid was sent to fetch a shamisen and one of the geisha tuned it and prepared to play. Then Mameha took her place against the backdrop of the teahouse and performed a few very short pieces. Nearly anyone would have agreed that Mameha was a lovely woman, but very few people would have found her more beautiful than Hatsumomo; so I can’t say exactly what caught Shojiro’s eye. It may have been the sake he’d drunk, and it may have been Mameha’s extraordinary dancing-for Shojiro was a dancer himself. Whatever it was, by the time Mameha came back to join us at the table, Shojiro seemed quite taken with her and asked that she sit beside him. When she did, he poured her a cup of sake, and turned his back on Hatsumomo as if she were just another adoring apprentice.
Well, Hatsumomo’s mouth hardened, and her eyes shrank to about half their size. As for Mameha, I never saw her flirt with anyone more deliberately than she did with Shojiro. Her voice grew high and soft, and her eyes swished from his chest to his face and back again. From time to time she drew the fingertips of her hand across the base of her throat as though she felt self-conscious about the splotchy blush that had appeared there. There wasn’t really any blush, but she acted it so convincingly, you
wouldn’t have known it without looking closely. Then one of the geisha asked Shojiro if he’d heard from Bajiru-san.
“Bajiru-san,” said Shojiro, in his most dramatic manner, “has abandoned me!”
I had no idea who Shojiro was talking about, but Tachibana, the old koto player, was kind enough to explain in a whisper that “Bajiru-san” was the English actor Basil Rathbone-though I’d never heard of him at the time. Shojiro had taken a trip to London a few years earlier and staged a Kabuki performance there. The actor Basil Rathbone had admired it so much that with the help of an interpreter the two of them had developed something of a friendship. Shojiro may have lavished attention on women like
Hatsumomo or Mameha, but the fact remained that he was homosexual; and since his trip to England, he’d made it a running joke that his heart was destined to be broken because Bajiru-san had no interest in men.
“It makes me sad,” said one of the geisha quietly, “to witness the death of a romance.”
Everyone laughed except for Hatsumomo, who went on glowering at Shojiro.
“The difference between me and Bajiru-san is this. I’ll show you,” Shojiro said; and with this he stood and asked Mameha to join him. He led her off to one side of the room, where they had a bit of space.
“When I do my work, I look like this,” he said. And he sashayed from one side of the room to the other, waving his folding fan with a most fluid wrist, and letting his head roll back and forth like a ball on a seesaw. “Whereas when Bajiru-san does his work, he looks like this.” Here he grabbed Mameha, and you should have seen the astonished expression on her face when he dipped her toward the floor in what looked like a passionate embrace, and planted kisses all over her face. Everyone in the room cheered and
clapped. Everyone except Hatsumomo, that is. “What is he doing?” Tachibana asked me quietly. I didn’t think anyone else had heard, but before I could reply, Hatsumomo cried out:
“He’s making a fool of himself! That’s what he’s doing.”
“Oh, Hatsumomo-san,” said Shojiro, “you’re jealous, aren’t you!”
“Of course she is!” said Mameha. “Now you must show us how the two of you make up. Go on, Shojiro- san. Don’t be shy ! You must give her the very same kisses you gave to me ! It’s only fair. And in the same way.”
Shojiro didn’t have an easy time of it, but soon he succeeded in getting Hatsumomo to her feet. Then with the crowd behind him, he took her in his arms and bent her back. But after only an instant, he jerked upright again with a shout, and grabbed his lip. Hatsumomo had bitten him; not enough to make him bleed, but certainly enough to give him a shock. She was standing with her eyes squinted in anger and her teeth exposed; and then she drew back her hand and slapped him. I think her aim must have been
bad from all the sake she’d drunk, because she hit the side of his head rather than his face.
“What happened?” Tachibana asked me. His words were as clear in the quiet of the room as if someone had rung a bell. I didn’t answer, but when he heard Shojiro’s whimper and the heavy breathing of Hatsumomo, I’m sure he understood.
“Hatsumomo-san, please,” said Mameha, speaking in a voice so calm it sounded completely out of place, “as a favor to me … Jo try to calm down.”
I don’t know if Mameha’s words had the precise effect she was hoping for, or whether Hatsumomo’s mind had already shattered. But Hatsumomo threw herself at Shojiro and began hitting him everywhere. I do think that in a way she went crazy. It wasn’t just that her mind seemed to have fractured; the moment itself seemed disconnected from everything else. The theater director got up from the table and rushed over to restrain her. Somehow in the middle of all this, Mameha slipped out and returned a moment later with the mistress of the teahouse. By that time the theater director was holding Hatsumomo from behind. I thought the crisis was over, but then Shojiro shouted at Hatsumomo so loudly, we heard it echo off the buildings across the river in Gion.
“You monster!” he screamed. “You’ve bitten me!”
I don’t know what any of us would have done without the calm thinking of the mistress. She spoke to Shojiro in a soothing voice, while at the same time giving the theater director a signal to take
Hatsumomo away. As I later learned, he didn’t just take her inside the teahouse; he took her downstairs to the front and shoved her out onto the street.
Hatsumomo didn’t return to the okiya at all that night. When she did come back the following day, she smelled as if she had been sick to her stomach, and her hair was in disarray. She was summoned at once to Mother’s room and spent a long while there.
A few days afterward, Hatsumomo left the okiya, wearing a simple cotton robe Mother had given her, and with her hair as I’d never seen it, hanging in a mass around her shoulders. She carried a bag containing her belongings and jewelry, and didn’t say good-bye to any of us, but just walked out to the street. She didn’t leave voluntarily; Mother had thrown her out. And in fact, Mameha believed Mother had probably been trying to get rid of Hatsumomo for years. Whether or not this is true, I’m sure Mother
was pleased at having fewer mouths to feed, since Hatsumomo was no longer earning what she once had, and food had never been more difficult to come by.
If Hatsumomo hadn’t been renowned for her wickedness, some other okiya might have wanted her even after what she’d done to Shojiro. But she was like a teakettle that even on a good day might still scald the hand of anyone who used it. Everyone in Gion understood this about her.
I don’t know for sure what ever became of Hatsumomo. A few years after the war, I heard she was making a living as a prostitute in the Miyagawa-cho district. She couldn’t have been there long, because on the night I heard it, a man at the same party swore that if Hatsumomo was a prostitute, he would find her and give her some business of his own. He did go looking for her, but she was nowhere to be found. Over the years, she probably succeeded in drinking herself to death. She certainly wouldn’t have been the first geisha to do it.
In just the way that a man can grow accustomed to a bad leg, we’d all grown accustomed to having Hatsumomo in our okiya. I don’t think we quite understood all the ways her presence had afflicted us until long after she’d left, when things that we hadn’t realized were ailing slowly began to heal. Even when Hatsumomo had been doing nothing more than sleeping in her room, the maids had known she was there, and that during the course of the day she would abuse them. They’d lived with the kind of tension you feel if you walk across a frozen pond whose ice might break at any moment. And as for Pumpkin, I think she’d grown to be dependent on her older sister and felt strangely lost without her.
I’d already become the okiya’s principal asset, but even I took some time to weed out all the peculiar habits that had taken root because of Hatsumomo. Every time a man looked at me strangely, I found myself wondering if he’d heard something unkind about me from her, even long after she was gone. Whenever I climbed the stairs to the second floor of the okiya, I still kept my eyes lowered for fear that Hatsumomo would be waiting there on the landing, eager for someone to abuse. I can’t tell you how many times I reached that last step and looked up suddenly with the realization that there was no Hatsumomo, and there never would be again. I knew she was gone, and yet the very emptiness of the hall seemed to suggest something of her presence. Even now, as an older woman, I sometimes lift the brocade cover on the mirror of my makeup stand, and have the briefest flicker of a thought that I may find her there in the glass, smirking at me.