Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 29)

Chapter twenty-nine

You may think that because I was a successful young geisha with a I great many admirers, someone else might have stepped forward to I rescue me even if Nobu hadn’t. But a geisha in need is hardly like a jewel dropped on the street, which anyone might be happy to pick up.

Every one of the hundreds of geisha in Gion was struggling to find a nest from the war in those final weeks, and only a few were lucky enough to find one. So you see, every day I lived with the Arashino family, I felt myself more and more in Nobu’s debt.

I discovered how fortunate I really was during the spring of the following year, when I learned that the geisha Raiha had been killed in the firebombing of Tokyo. It was Raiha who’d made us laugh by saying that nothing was as bleak as the future except the past. She and her mother had been prominent geisha, and her father was a member of a famous merchant family; to those of us in Gion, no one had seemed more likely to survive the war than Raiha. At the time of her death she was apparently reading a book to one of her young nephews on her father’s estate in the Denenchofu section of Tokyo, and I’m sure she probably felt as safe there as she had in Kyoto. Strangely, the same air raid that killed Raiha also killed the great sumo wrestler Miyagiyama. Both had been living in relative comfort. And yet Pumpkin, who had seemed so lost to me, managed to survive the war, though the lens factory where she was working on the outskirts of Osaka was bombed five or six times. I learned that year that nothing is so unpredictable as who will survive a war and who won’t. Mameha survived, working in a small hospital in Fukui Prefecture as a nurse’s assistant; but her maid Ta-tsumi was killed by the terrible bomb that fell on Nagasaki, and her dresser, Mr. Itchoda, died of a heart attack during an air raid drill. Mr. Bekku, on the other hand, worked on a naval base in Osaka and yet survived somehow. So did General Tottori, who lived in the Suruya Inn until his death in the mid-1950s, and the Baron too-though I’m sorry to say that in the early years of the Allied Occupation, the Baron drowned himself in his splendid pond after his title and many of his holdings were taken away. I don’t think he could face a world in which he was no longer free to act on his every whim.

As for Mother, there was never a moment’s doubt in my mind that she would survive. With her highly developed ability to benefit from other people’s suffering, she fell so naturally into work in the gray market that it was as if she’d done it all along; she spent the war growing richer instead of poorer by buying and selling other people’s heirlooms. Whenever Mr. Arashino sold a kimono from his collection in order to raise cash, he asked me to contact Mother so she could recover it for him. Many of the kimono sold in Kyoto passed through her hands, you see. Mr. Arashino probably hoped Mother would forgo her profit and hold his kimono a few years until he could buy them back again; but she never seemed able to find them-or at least, that was what she said.

The Arashinos treated me with great kindness during the years I lived in their home. In the daytime, I worked with them sewing parachutes. At night I slept alongside their daughter and grandson on futons spread out on the floor of the workshop. We had so little charcoal, we burned compressed leaves for warmth-or newspapers and magazines; anything we could find. Of course food had grown still more scarce; you can’t imagine some of the things we learned to eat, such as soybean dregs, usually given to livestock, and a hideous thing called -nukapan, made by frying rice bran in wheat flour. It looked like old, dried leather, though I’m sure leather would probably have tasted better. Very occasionally we had small quantities of potatoes, or sweet potatoes; dried whale meat; sausage made from seals; and sometimes sardines, which we Japanese had never regarded as anything more than fertilizer. I grew so thin during these years that no one would have recognized me on the streets of Gion. Some days the Arashinos’ little grandson, Juntaro, cried from hunger-which is when Mr. Arashino usually decided to sell a kimono from his collection. This was what we Japanese called the “onion life”-peeling away a layer at a time and crying all the while. One night in the spring of 1944, after I’d been living with the Arashino family no more than three or four months, we witnessed our first air raid. The stars were so clear, we could see the silhouettes of the bombers as they droned overhead, and also the shooting stars- as they seemed to us-that flew up from the earth and exploded near them. We were afraid we would hear the horrible whistling noise and watch Kyoto burst into flames all around us; and if it had, our lives would have ended right then, whether we had died or not-because Kyoto is as delicate as a moth’s wing; if it had been crushed, it could never have recovered as Osaka and Tokyo, and so many other cities, were able to do. But the bombers passed us over, not only that night but every night. Many evenings we watched the moon turn red from the fires in Osaka, and sometimes we saw ashes floating through the air like falling leaves-even there in Kyoto, fifty kilometers away. You can well imagine that I worried desperately about the Chairman and Nobu, whose company was based in Osaka, and who both had homes there as well as in Kyoto. I wondered too what would become of my sister, Satsu, wherever she was. I don’t think I’d ever been consciously aware of it, but since the very week she’d run away, I’d carried a belief shrouded somewhere in the back of my mind that the courses of our lives would one day bring us together again. I thought perhaps she might send a letter to me in care of the Nitta okiya, or else come back to Kyoto looking for me. Then one afternoon while I was taking little Juntaro for a walk along the river, picking out stones from the edge of the water and throwing them back in, it occurred to me that Satsu never would come back to Kyoto to find me. Now that I was living an impoverished life myself, I could see that traveling to some far-off city for any reason at all was out of the question. And in any case, Satsu and I probably wouldn’t recognize each other on the street even if she did come. As for my fantasy that she might write me a letter . . . well, I felt like a foolish girl again; had it really taken me all these years to understand that Satsu had no way of knowing the name of the Nitta okiya? She couldn’t write me if she wanted to-unless she contacted Mr. Tanaka, and she would never do such a thing. While little Juntaro went on throwing stones into the river, I squatted beside him and trickled water onto my face with one hand, smiling at him all the while and pretending I’d done it to cool myself.

My little ruse must have worked, because Juntaro seemed to have no idea that anything was the matter.

Adversity is like a strong wind. I don’t mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be. Mr. Arashino’s daughter, for example, suffered the death of her husband during the war, and afterward poured herself into two things: caring for her little boy and sewing parachutes for the soldiers. She seemed to live for nothing else. When she grew thinner and thinner, you knew where every gram of her was going. By the war’s end, she clutched at that child as though he were the cliffs edge that kept her from falling to the rocks below.

Because I’d lived through adversity once before, what I learned about myself was like a reminder of something I’d once known but had nearly forgotten-namely, that beneath the elegant clothing, and the accomplished dancing, and the clever conversation, my life had no complexity at all, but was as simple as a stone falling toward the ground. My whole purpose in everything during the past ten years had been to win the affections of the Chairman. Day after day I watched the swift water of the Kamo River shallows rushing below the workshop; sometimes I threw a petal into it, or a piece of straw, knowing that it would be carried all the way to Osaka before washing out into the sea. I wondered if perhaps the Chairman, sitting at his desk, might look out his window one afternoon and see that petal or that straw and perhaps think of me. But soon I began to have a troubling thought. The Chairman might see it, perhaps, though I doubted he would; but even if he did, and he leaned back in his chair to think of the hundred things the petal might bring to mind, I might not be one of them. He had often been kind to me, it was true; but he was a kind man. He’d never shown the least sign of recognizing that I had once been the girl he’d comforted, or that I cared for-him, or thought of him.

One day I came to a realization, more painful in some ways even than my sudden understanding that Satsu and I were unlikely to be reunited. I’d spent the previous night nursing a troubling thought, wondering for the first time what might happen if I reached the end of my life and still the Chairman had never taken any special notice of me. That next morning I looked carefully at my almanac in the hopes of finding some sign that my life wouldn’t be lived without purpose. I was feeling so dejected that even Mr. Arashino seemed to recognize it, and sent me on an errand to purchase sewing needles at the dry goods store thirty minutes away. On my walk back, strolling along the roadside as the sun was setting, I was nearly run down by an army truck. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being killed. Only the next morning did I notice that my almanac had warned against travel in the direction of the Rat, precisely the direction in which the dry goods store lay; I’d been looking only for a sign about the Chairman, and hadn’t noticed. From this experience I understood the danger of focusing only on what isn’t there. What if I came to the end of my life and realized that I’d spent every day watching for a man who would never come to me? What an unbearable sorrow it would be, to realize I’d never really tasted the things I’d eaten, or seen the places I’d been, because I’d thought of nothing but the Chairman even while my life was drifting away from me. And yet if I drew my thoughts back from him, what life would I have? I would be like a dancer who had practiced since childhood for a performance she would never give.

The war ended for us in August of 1945. Most anyone who lived in Japan during this time will tell you that it was the very bleakest moment in a long night of darkness. Our country wasn’t simply defeated, it was destroyed-and I don’t mean by all the bombs, as horrible as those were. When your country has lost a war and an invading army pours in, you feel as though you yourself have been led to the execution ground to kneel, hands bound, and wait for the sword to fall. During a period of a year or more, I never

once heard the sound of laughter-unless it was little Juntaro, who didn’t know any better. And when Juntaro laughed, his grandfather waved a hand to shush him. I’ve often observed that men and women who were young children during these years have a certain seriousness about them; there was too little laughter in their childhoods.

By the spring of 1946, we’d all come to recognize that we would live through the ordeal of defeat. There were even those who believed Japan would one day be renewed. All the stories about invading American soldiers raping and killing us had turned out to be wrong; and in fact, we gradually came to realize that the Americans on the whole were remarkably kind. One day an entourage of them came riding through the area in their trucks. I stood watching them with the other women from the neighborhood. I’d learned during my years in Gion to regard myself as the inhabitant of a special world that separated me from other women; and in fact, I’d felt so separated all these years that I’d only rarely wondered how other women lived-even the wives of the men I’d entertained. Yet there I stood in a pair of torn work pants, with my stringy hair hanging along my back. I hadn’t bathed in several days, for we had no fuel to heat the water more than a few times each week. To the eyes of the American soldiers who drove past, I looked no different

from the women around me; and as I thought of it, who could say I was any different? If you no longer have leaves, or bark, or roots, can you go on calling yourself a tree? “I am a peasant,” I said to myself, “and not a geisha at all any longer.” It was a frightening feeling to look at my hands and see their roughness. To draw my mind away from my fears, I turned my attention again to the truckloads of soldiers driving past. Weren’t these the very American soldiers we’d been taught to hate, who had bombed our cities with such horrifying weapons? Now they rode through our neighborhood, throwing pieces of candy to the children.

Within a year after the surrender, Mr. Arashino had been encouraged to begin making kimono once again. I knew nothing about kimono except how to wear them, so I was given the task of spending my days in the basement of the workshop annex, tending to the vats of dye as they boiled. This was a horrid job, partly because we couldn’t afford any fuel but tadon, which is a kind of coal dust held together by tar; you cannot imagine the stench when it burns. Over time Mr. Arashino’s wife taught me how to gather the proper leaves, stems, and bark to make the dyes myself, which may sound like something of a promotion. And it might have been, except that one of the materials-I never found out which- had the strange effect of pickling my skin. My delicate dancer’s hands, which I’d once nurtured with the finest creams, now began to peel like the papery outside of an onion, and were stained all over the color of a bruise. During this time-impelled probably by my own loneliness-I became involved in a brief romance with a young tatami maker named Inoue. I thought he looked quite handsome, with his soft eyebrows like smudges on his delicate skin and a perfect smoothness to his lips. Every few nights during the course of several weeks, I sneaked into the annex to let him in. I didn’t-realize quite how gruesome my hands looked until one night when the fire under the vats was burning so brightly we could see each other. After Inoue caught a glimpse of my hands, he wouldn’t let me touch him with them!

To allow my skin some relief, Mr. Arashino gave me the task of gathering spiderworts during the summertime. The spiderwort is a flower whose juice is used for painting the silks before they’re masked with starch and then dyed. They tend to grow around the edges of ponds and lakes during the rainy season. I thought gathering them sounded like a pleasant job, so one morning in July, I set out with my rucksack, ready to enjoy the cool, dry day; but soon I discovered that spiderworts are devilishly clever flowers. As far as I could tell, they’d enlisted every insect in western Japan as an ally. Whenever I tore off a handful of flowers, I was attacked by divisions of ticks and mosquitoes; and to make matters worse, one time I stepped on a hideous little frog. Then after I’d spent a miserable week gathering the flowers, I took on what I thought would be a much easier task, of squeezing them in a press to extract their juices. But if you’ve never smelled the juice of a spiderwort . . . well, I was very glad at the end of the week to go back to boiling dyes once again.

I worked very hard during those years. But every night when I went to bed, I thought of Gion. All the geisha districts in Japan had reopened within a few months of the surrender; but I wasn’t free to go back until Mother summoned me. She was making quite a good living selling kimono, artwork, and Japanese swords to American soldiers. So for the time being, she and Auntie remained on the little farm west of Kyoto where they had set up shop, while I continued to live and work with the Arashino family.

Considering that Gion was only a few kilometers away, you may think I visited there often. And yet in the nearly five years I lived away, I went only once. It was one afternoon during the spring, about a year after the end of the war, while I was on my way back from picking up medicine for little Juntaro at the Kamigyo Prefectural Hospital. I took a walk along Kawaramachi Avenue as far as Shijo and crossed the bridge from there into Gion. I was shocked to see whole families crowded together in poverty along the river’s edge.

In Gion I recognized a number of geisha, though of course they didn’t recognize me; and I didn’t speak a word to them, hoping for once to view the place as an outsider might. In truth, though, I could scarcely see Gion at all as I strolled through it; I saw instead only my ghostly memories. When I walked along the banks of the Shirakawa Stream, I thought of the many afternoons Mameha and I had spent walking there. Nearby was the bench where Pumpkin and I had sat with two bowls of noodles on the night I asked for her help. Not far away was the alleyway where Nobu had chastened me for taking the General as my danna. From there I walked half a block to the corner of Shijo Avenue where I’d made the young delivery man drop the lunch boxes he was carrying. In all of these spots, I felt I was standing on a stage many hours after the dance had ended, when the silence lay as heavily upon the empty theater as a blanket of snow. I went to our okiya and stared with longing at the heavy iron padlock on the door. When I was locked in, I wanted to be out. Now life had changed so much that, finding myself locked out, I wanted to be inside again. And yet I was a grown woman-free, if I wished, to stroll out of Gion at that very moment and never come back.

One bitter cold afternoon in November, three years after the end of the war, I was warming my hands over the dye vats in the annex when Mrs. Arashino came down to say that someone wished to see me. I could tell from her expression that the visitor wasn’t just another of the women from the neighborhood. But you can imagine my surprise when I reached the top of the stairs and saw Nobu. He was sitting in the workshop with Mr. Arashino, holding an empty teacup as though he’d been there chatting for some time already. Mr. Arashino stood when he saw me.

“I have some work in the next room, Nobu-san,” he said. “You two can stay here and talk. I’m delighted you’ve come to see us.”

“Don’t fool yourself, Arashino,” Nobu replied. “Sayuri is the person I’ve come to see.”

I thought this an unkind thing for Nobu to have said, and not at all funny; but Mr. Arashino laughed when he heard it and rolled the door of the workshop closed behind him.

“I thought the whole world had changed,” I said. “But it can’t be so, for Nobu-san has stayed exactly the same.”

“I never change,” he said. “But I haven’t come here to chat. I want to know what’s the matter with you.”

“Nothing is the matter. Hasn’t Nobu-san been receiving my letters?”

“Your letters all read like poems! You never talk about anything but ‘the beautiful, trickling water’ or some such nonsense.”

“Why, Nobu-san, I’ll never waste another letter on you!”

“I’d rather you didn’t, if that’s how they sound. Why can’t you just tell me the things I want to know, such as when you’re coming back to Gion? Every month I telephone the Ichiriki to ask about you, and the mistress gives some- excuse or other. I thought I might find you ill with some horrible disease. You’re skinnier than you were, I suppose, but you look healthy enough to me. What’s keeping you?”

“I certainly think of Gion every day.”

“Your friend Mameha came back a year or more ago. Even Michizono, as old as she is, showed up the day it reopened. But no one has been able to tell me why Sayuri won’t come back.”

“To tell the truth, the decision isn’t mine. I’ve been waiting for Mother to reopen the okiya. I’m as eager to get back to Gion as Nobu-san is to have me there.”

“Then call that mother of yours and tell her the time has come. I’ve been patient the past six months. Didn’t you understand what I was telling you in my letters?”

“When you said you wanted me back in Gion, I thought you meant that you hoped to see me there soon.”

“If I say I want to see you back in Gion, what I mean is, I want you to pack your bags and go back to Gion. I don’t see why you need to wait for that mother of yours anyway ! If she hasn’t had the sense to go back by now, she’s a fool.”

“Few people have anything good to say about her, but I can assure you she’s no fool. Nobu-san might even admire her, if he came to know her. She’s making a fine living selling souvenirs to American soldiers.”

“The soldiers won’t be here forever. You tell her your good friend Nobu wants you back in Gion.” At this, he took a little package with his one hand and tossed it onto the mats next to me. He didn’t say a word afterward, but only sipped at his tea and looked at me.

“What is Nobu-san throwing at me?” I said.

“It’s a gift I’ve brought. Open it.”

“If Nobu-san is giving me a gift, first I must bring my gift for him.”

I went to the corner of the room, where I kept my trunk of belongings, and found a folding fan I’d long ago decided to give to Nobu. A fan may seem a simple gift for the man who’d saved me from life in the factories. But to a geisha, the fans we use in dance are like sacred objects-and this wasn’t just an ordinary dancer’s fan, but the very one my teacher had given me when I reached the level of shisho in the Inoue School of dance. I’d never before heard of a geisha parting with such a thing-which was the very reason I’d decided to give it to him.

I wrapped the fan in a square of cotton and went back to present it to him. He was puzzled when he opened it, as I knew he would be. I did my best to explain why I wanted him to have it.

“It’s kind of you,” he said, “but I’m unworthy of this gift. Offer it to someone who appreciates dance more than I do.”

“There’s no one else I would give it to. It’s a part of me, and I have given it to Nobu-san.”

“In that case, I’m very grateful and I’ll cherish it. Now open the package I’ve brought you.”

Wrapped inside paper and string, and padded with layers of newspaper, was a rock about the size of a fist. I’m sure I was at least as puzzled to receive a rock as Nobu must have been by the fan I’d given him. When I looked at it more closely, I saw it wasn’t a rock at all, but a piece of concrete.

“You have in your hand some rubble from our factory in Osaka,” Nobu told me. “Two of our four factories were destroyed. There’s a danger our whole company may not survive the next few years. So you see, if you’ve given me a piece of yourself with that fan, I suppose I’ve just given you a piece of myself as well.”

“If it’s a piece of Nobu-san, then I will cherish it.”

“I didn’t give it to you to cherish. It’s a piece of concrete! I want you to help me turn it into a lovely jewel for you to keep.”

“If Nobu-san knows how to do such a thing, please tell me, and we’ll all be rich!”

“I have a task for you to do in Gion. If it works out as I hope, our company will be back on its feet in a year or so. When I ask you for that piece of concrete back and replace it with a jewel instead, the time will have come at last for me to become your danna.”

My skin felt as cold as glass when I heard this; but I showed no sign of it. “How mysterious, Nobu-san. A task I could undertake, which would be helpful to Iwamura Electric?”

“It’s an awful task. I won’t lie to you. During the final two years before Gion closed, there was a man named Sato who used to go to parties as a guest of the Prefectural Governor. I want you to come back so you can entertain him.”

I had to laugh when I heard this. “How horrible a task can that be? However much Nobu-san dislikes him, I’m sure I’ve entertained worse.”

“If you remember him, you’ll know”exactly how horrible it is. He’s irritating, and he acts like a pig. He tells me he always sat across the table so he could stare at you. You’re the only thing he ever talks about- when he talks, that is; because mostly he just sits. Maybe you saw him mentioned in the news magazines last month; he was just appointed to be a Deputy Minister of Finance.”

“My goodness!” I said. “He must be very capable.”

“Oh, there are fifteen or more men who hold that title. I know he’s capable of pouring sake into his mouth; that’s the only thing I’ve ever seen him do. It’s a tragedy that the future of a great company like ours should be affected by a man like him! It’s a terrible time to be alive, Sayuri.”

“Nobu-san! You mustn’t say a thing like that.”

“Why on earth not? No one’s going to hear me.”

“It isn’t a matter of who hears you. It’s your attitude! You shouldn’t think that way.”

“Why shouldn’t I? The company has never been in worse condition. All through the war, the Chairman resisted what the government told him to do. By the time he finally agreed to cooperate, the war was almost over, and nothing we ever made for them-not one thing-was taken into battle. But has that stopped the Americans from classifying

Iwamura Electric as a zaibatsu just like Mitsubishi? It’s ridiculous. Compared to Mitsubishi, we were like a sparrow watching a lion. And there’s something worse: if we can’t convince them of our case, Iwamura Electric will be seized, and its assets sold to pay war reparations! Two weeks ago I’d have said that was bad enough, but now they’ve appointed this fellow Sato to make a recommendation about our case. Those Americans think they were clever to appoint a Japanese. Well, I’d rather have seen a dog take the job than this man.” Suddenly Nobu interrupted himself. “What on earth is the matter with your hands?”

Since coming up from the annex, I’d kept my hands hidden as best I could. Obviously Nobu had caught sight of them somehow. “Mr. Arashino was kind enough to give me the job of making dyes.”

“Let’s hope he knows how to remove those stains,” said Nobu. “You can’t go back to Gion looking like that.”

“Nobu-san, my hands are the least of my problems. I’m not sure I can go back to Gion at all. I’ll do my best to persuade Mother, but truthfully, it isn’t my decision. Anyway, I’m sure there are other geisha who’ll be helpful-”

“There aren’t other geisha! Listen to me, I took Deputy Minister Sato to a teahouse the other day with half a dozen people. He didn’t speak a word for an hour, and then finally he cleared his throat and said, “This isn’t the Ichiriki.’ So I told him, ‘No, it’s not. You certainly got that right!’ He grunted like a pig, and then said, ‘Sayuri entertains at the Ichiriki.’ So I told him, ‘No, Minister, if she were in Gion at all, she would come right here and entertain us. But I told you-she isn’t in Gion!’ So then he took his sake cup-”

“I hope you were more polite with him than that,” I said.

“I certainly wasn’t! I can tolerate his company for about half an hour. After that I’m not responsible for the things I say. That’s exactly the reason I want you there! And don’t tell me again it isn’t your decision. You owe this to me, and you know it perfectly well. Anyway, the truth is … I’d like the chance to spend some time with you myself …”

“And I would like to spend time with Nobu-san.”

“Just don’t bring any illusions with you when you come.”

“After the past few years, I’m sure I don’t have any left. But is Nobu-san thinking of something in particular?”

“Don’t expect me to become your danna in a month, that’s what I’m saying. Until Iwamura Electric has recovered, I’m in no position to make such an offer. I’ve been very worried about the company’s prospects. But to tell the truth, Sayuri, I feel better about the future after seeing you again.”

“Nobu-san! How kind!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m not trying to flatter you. Your destiny and mine are intertwined. But I’ll never be your danna if Iwamura Electric doesn’t recover. Perhaps the recovery, just like my meeting you in the first place, is simply meant to be.”

During the final years of the war, I’d learned to stop wondering what was meant to be and what wasn’t. I’d often said to the women in the neighborhood that I wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back to Gion-but the truth is, I’d always known I would. My destiny, whatever it was, awaited me there. In these years away, I’d learned to suspend all the water in my personality by turning it to ice, you might say. Only by stopping the natural flow of my thoughts in this way could I bear the waiting. Now to hear Nobu refer to my destiny . . . well, I felt he’d shattered the ice inside me and awakened my desires once again.

“Nobu-san,” I said, “if it’s important to make a good impression on Deputy Minister Sato, perhaps you should ask the Chairman to be there when you entertain him.”

“The Chairman is a busy man.”

“But surely if the Minister is important to the future of the company-”

“You worry about getting yourself there. I’ll worry about what’s best for the company. I’ll be very disappointed if you’re not back in Gion by the end of the month.”

Nobu rose to leave, for he had to be back in Osaka before nightfall. I walked him to the entryway to help him into his coat and shoes, and put his fedora on his head for him. When I was done, he stood looking at me a long while. I thought he was about to say he found me beautiful-for this was the sort of comment he sometimes made after gazing at me for no reason.

“My goodness, Sayuri, you do look like a peasant!” he said. He had a scowl on his face as he turned away.

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