Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 30)

Chapter thirty

That very night while the Arashinos slept, I wrote to Mother by the light of the tadon burning under the dye vats in the annex. Whether my letter had the proper effect or whether Mother was already prepared to reopen the okiya, I don’t know; but a week later an old woman’s voice called out at the Arashinos’ door, and I rolled it open to find Auntie there. Her cheeks had sunken where she’d lost teeth, and the sickly gray of her skin made me think of a piece of sashimi left on the plate overnight. But I could see

that she was still a strong woman; she was carrying a bag of coal in one hand and foodstuffs in the other, to thank the Arashinos for their kindness toward me.

The next day I said a tearful farewell and went back to Gion, where Mother, Auntie, and I set about the task of putting things back in order. When I’d had a look around the okiya, the thought crossed my mind that the house itself was punishing us for our years of neglect. We had to spend four or five days on only the worst of the problems: wiping down the dust that lay as heavily as gauze over the woodwork; fishing the remains of dead rodents from the well; cleaning Mother’s room upstairs, where birds had torn up the tatami mats and used the straw to make nests in the alcove. To my surprise, Mother worked as hard as any of us, partly because we could afford only a cook and one

adult maid, though we did also have a young girl named Etsuko. She was the daughter of the man on whose farm Mother and Auntie had been living. As if to remind me of how many years had passed since I first came to Kyoto as a nine-year-old girl, Etsuko herself was nine. She seemed to regard me with the same fear I’d once felt toward Ha-tsumomo, even though I smiled at her whenever I could. She stood as tall and thin as a broom, with long hair that trailed behind her as she scurried about. And her face was narrow like a grain of rice, so that I couldn’t help thinking that one day she too would be thrown into the pot just as I had been, and would fluff up white and delicious, to be consumed.

When the okiya was livable again, I set out to pay my respects around Gion. I began by calling on Mameha, who was now in a one-room apartment above a pharmacy near the Gion Shrine; since her return a year earlier, she’d had no danna to pay for anything more spacious. She was startled when she first saw me-because of the way my cheekbones protruded, she said. The truth was, I felt just as startled to see her. The beautiful oval of her face was unchanged, but her neck looked sinewy and much too old for her. The strangest thing was that she sometimes held her mouth puckered like an old woman’s, because her teeth, though I could see no difference in them, had been quite loose at one time during the war and still caused her pain.

We talked for a long while, and then I asked if she thought Dances of the Old Capital would resume the following spring. The performances hadn’t been seen in a number of years.

“Oh, why not?” she said. “The theme can be the ‘Dance in the Stream’!”

If you’ve ever visited a hot springs resort or some such place, and been entertained by women masquerading as geisha who are really prostitutes, you’ll understand Mameha’s little joke. A woman who performs the “Dance in the Stream” is really doing a kind of striptease. She pretends to wade into deeper and deeper water, all the while raising her kimono to keep the hem dry, until the men finally see what they’ve been waiting for, and begin to cheer and toast one another with sake.

“With all the American soldiers in Gion these days,” she went on, “English will get you further than dance. Anyway, the Kaburenjo Theater has been turned into a kyabarei.”

I’d never heard this word before, which came from the English “cabaret,” but I learned soon enough what it meant. Even while living with the Arashino family, I’d heard stories about American soldiers and their noisy parties. Still I was shocked when I stepped into the entry way of a teahouse later that afternoon and found-instead of the usual row of men’s shoes at the base of the step-a confusion of army boots, each of which looked as big to me as Mother’s little dogTaku had been. Inside the front entrance hall, the first thing I saw was an American man in his underwear squeezing himself beneath the shelf of an alcove while two geisha, both laughing, tried to pull him out. When I looked at the dark hair on his arms and chest, and even on his back, I had the feeling I’d never seen anything quite so beastly. He’d apparently lost his clothing in a drinking game and was trying to hide, but soon he let the women draw him out by the arms and lead him back down the hall and through a door. I heard whistling and cheering when he entered.

About a week after my return, I was finally ready to make my first appearance as a geisha again. I spent a day rushing from the hairdresser’s to the fortune-teller’s; soaking my hands to remove the last of the stains; and searching all over Gion to find the makeup I needed. Now that I was nearing thirty, I would no longer be expected to wear white makeup except on special occasions. But I did spend a half hour at my makeup stand that day, trying to use different shades of Western-style face powder to hide how thin I’d grown. When Mr. Bekku came to dress me, young Etsuko stood and watched just as I had once watched Hatsumomo; and it was the astonishment in her eyes, more than anything I saw while looking in the mirror, that convinced me I truly looked like a geisha once again.

When at last I set out that evening, all of Gion was blanketed in a beautiful snow so powdery the slightest wind blew the roofs clean. I wore a kimono shawl and carried a lacquered umbrella, so I’m sure I was as unrecognizable as the day I’d visited Gion looking like a peasant. I recognized only about half the geisha I passed. It was easy to tell those who’d lived in Gion before the war, because they gave a little bow of courtesy as they passed, even when they didn’t seem to recognize me. The others didn’t bother with more than a nod.

Seeing soldiers here and there on the streets, I dreaded what I might find when I reached the Ichiriki. But in fact, the entry way was lined with the shiny black shoes worn by officers; and strangely enough, the teahouse seemed quieter than in my days as an apprentice. Nobu hadn’t yet arrived-or at least, I didn’t see any sign of him- but I was shown directly into one of the large rooms on the ground floor and told he would join me there shortly. Ordinarily I would have waited in the maids’ quarters up the hallway, where I could warm my hands and sip a cup of tea; no geisha likes a man to find her idle. But I didn’t mind waiting for Nobu-and besides, I considered it a privilege to spend a few minutes by myself in such a room. I’d been starved for beauty over the past five years, and this was a room that would have astonished you with its loveliness. The walls were covered with a pale yellow silk whose texture gave a kind of presence, and made me feel held by them just as an egg is held by its shell.

I’d expected Nobu to arrive by himself, but when I finally heard him in the hallway, it was clear he’d brought Deputy Minister Sato with him. I didn’t mind if Nobu found me waiting, as I’ve mentioned; but I thought it would be disastrous to give the Minister reason to think I might be unpopular. So I slipped quickly through the adjoining doors into an unused room. As it turned out, this gave me a chance to listen to Nobu struggle to be pleasant.

“Isn’t this quite a room, Minister?” he said. I heard a little grunt in reply. “I requested it especially for you. That painting in the Zen style is really something, don’t you think?” Then after a long silence, Nobu added, “Yes, it’s a beautiful night. Oh, did I already ask if you’ve tasted the Ichiriki Teahouse’s own special brand of sake?”

Things continued in this way, with Nobu probably feeling about as comfortable as an elephant trying to act like a butterfly. When at length I went into the hallway and slid open the door, Nobu seemed very relieved to see me.

I got my first good look at the Minister only after introducing myself and going to kneel at the table. He didn’t look at all familiar, though he’d claimed to have spent hours staring at me. I don’t know how I managed to forget him, because he had a very distinctive appearance; I’ve never seen anyone who had more trouble just lugging his face around. He kept his chin tucked against his breastbone as though he couldn’t quite hold up his head, and he had a peculiar lower jaw that protruded so that his breath seemed to blow right up his nose. After he gave me a little nod and said his name, it was a long while before I heard any sound from him other than grunts, for a grunt seemed to be his way of responding to almost anything.

I did my best to make conversation until the maid rescued us by arriving with a tray of sake. I filled the Minister’s cup and was astonished to watch him pour the sake directly into his lower jaw in the same way he might have poured it into a drain. He shut his mouth for a moment and then opened it again, and the sake was gone, without any of the usual signs people make when they swallow. I wasn’t really sure he’d swallowed at all until he held out his empty cup.

Things went on like this for fifteen minutes or more while I tried to put the Minister at his ease by telling him stories and jokes, and asking him a few questions. But soon I began to think perhaps there was no such thing as “the Minister at his ease.” He never gave me an answer of more than a single word. I suggested we play a drinking game;

I even asked if he liked to sing. The longest exchange we had in our first half hour was when the Minister asked if I was a dancer.

“Why, yes, I am. Would the Minister like me to perform a short piece?”

“No,” he said. And that was the end of it.

The Minister may not have liked making eye contact with people, but he certainly liked to study his food, as I discovered after a maid arrived with dinner for the two men. Before putting anything in his mouth, he held it up with his chopsticks and peered at it, turning it this way and that. And if he didn’t recognize it, he asked me what it was. “It’s a piece of yam boiled in soy sauce and sugar,” I told him when he held up something orange. Actually I didn’t have the least idea whether it was yam, or a slice of whale liver, or anything else, but I didn’t think the Minister wanted to hear that. Later, when he held up a piece of marinated beef and asked me about it, I decided to tease him a bit.

“Oh, that’s a strip of marinated leather,” I said. “It’s a specialty of the house here! It’s made from the skin of elephants. So I guess I should have said ‘elephant leather.’ ”

“Elephant leather?”

“Now, Minister, you know I’m teasing you! It’s a piece of beef. Why do you look at your food so closely? Did you think you would come here and eat dog or something?”

“I’ve eaten dog, you know,” he said to me.

“That’s very interesting. But we don’t have any dog here tonight. So don’t look at your chopsticks anymore.”

Very soon we began playing a drinking game. Nobu hated drinking games, but he kept quiet after I made a face at him. We may have let the Minister lose a bit more often than we should have, because later, as we were trying to explain the rules to a drinking game he’d never played, his eyes became as unsteady as corks floating in the surf. All at once he stood up and headed off toward one corner of the room.

“Now, Minister,” Nobu said to him, “exactly where are you planning on going?”

The Minister’s answer was to let out a burp, which I considered a very well-spoken reply because it was apparent he was about to throw up. Nobu and I rushed over to help him, but he’d already clamped his hand over his mouth. If he’d been a volcano, he would have been smoking by this time, so we had no choice but to roll open the glass doors to the garden to let him vomit onto the snow there. You may be appalled at the thought of a man throwing up into one of these exquisite decorative gardens, but the Minister certainly wasn’t the first. We geisha try to help a man down the hallway to the toilet, but sometimes we can’t manage it. If we say to one of the maids that a man has just visited the garden, they all know exactly what we mean and come at once with their cleaning supplies.

Nobu and I did our best to keep the Minister kneeling in the doorway with his head suspended over the snow. But despite our efforts he soon tumbled out headfirst. I did my best to shove him to one side, so he would at least end up in snow that hadn’t yet been vomited upon. But the Minister was as bulky as a thick piece of meat. All I really did was turn him onto his side as he fell.

Nobu and I could do nothing but look at each other in dismay at the sight of the Minister lying perfectly still in the deep snow, like a branch that had fallen from a tree.

“Why, Nobu-san,” I said, “I didn’t know how much fun your guest was going to be.”

“I believe we’ve killed him. And if you ask me, he deserved it. What an irritating man!”

“Is this how you act toward your honored guests? You must take him out onto the street and walk him around a bit to wake him up. The cold will do him good.”

“He’s lying in the snow. Isn’t that cold enough?” “Nobu-san!” I said. And I suppose this was enough of a reprimand, for Nobu let out a sigh and stepped-down into the garden in his stocking feet to begin the task of bringing the Minister back to consciousness. While he was busy with this, I went to find a maid who could help, because I couldn’t see how Nobu would get the Minister back up into the teahouse with only one arm. Afterward I fetched some dry socks for the two men and alerted a maid to tidy the garden after we’d left.

When I returned to the room, Nobu and the Minister were at the table again. You can imagine how the Minister looked-and smelled. I had to peel his wet socks off his feet with my own hands, but I kept my distance from him while doing it. As soon as I was done, he slumped back onto the mats and was unconscious again a moment later. “Do you think he can hear us?” I whispered to Nobu. “I don’t think he hears us even when he’s conscious,” Nobu said. “Did you ever meet a bigger fool in your life?”

“Nobu-san, quietly!” I whispered. “Do you think he actually enjoyed himself tonight? I mean, is this the sort of evening you had in mind?”

“It isn’t a matter of what I had in mind. It’s what he had in mind.” “I hope that doesn’t mean we’ll be doing the same thing again next week.”

“If the Minister is pleased with the evening, I’m pleased with the evening.”

“Nobu-san, really! You certainly weren’t pleased. You looked as miserable as I’ve ever seen you. Considering the Minister’s condition, I think we can assume he isn’t having the best night of his life either …”

“You can’t assume anything, when it comes to the Minister.”

“I’m sure he’ll have a better time if we can make the atmosphere more . . . festive somehow. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Bring a few more geisha next time, if you think it will help,” Nobu said. “We’ll come back next weekend. Invite that older sister of yours.”

“Mameha’s certainly clever, but the Minister is so exhausting to entertain. We need a geisha who’s going to, I don’t know, make a lot of noise! Distract everyone. You know, now that I think of it… it seems to me we need another guest as well, not just another geisha.”

“I can’t see any reason for that.”

“If the Minister is busy drinking and sneaking looks at me, and you’re busy growing increasingly fed up with him, we’re not going to have a very festive evening,” I said. “To tell the truth, Nobu-san, perhaps you should bring the Chairman with you next time.”

You may wonder if I’d been plotting all along to bring the evening to this moment. It’s certainly true that in coming back to Gion, I’d hoped more than anything else to find a way of spending time with the Chairman. It wasn’t so much that I craved the chance to sit in the same room with him again, to lean in and whisper some comment and take in the scent of his skin. If those sorts of moments would be the only pleasure life offered me, I’d be better off shutting out that one brilliant source of light to let my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. Perhaps it was true, as it now seemed, that my life was falling toward Nobu. I wasn’t so foolish as to imagine I could change the course of my destiny. But neither could I give up the last traces of hope.

“I’ve considered bringing the Chairman,” Nobu replied. “The Minister is very impressed with him. But I don’t know, Sayuri. I told you once already. He’s a busy man.”

The Minister jerked on the mats as if someone had poked him, and then managed to pull himself up until he was sitting at the table. Nobu was so disgusted at the sight of his clothing that he sent me out to bring back a maid with a damp towel. After the maid had cleaned the Minister’s jacket and left us alone again, Nobu said:

“Well, Minister, this certainly has been a wonderful evening ! Next time we’ll have even more fun, because instead of throwing up on just me, you might be able to throw up on the Chairman, and perhaps another geisha or two as well!”

I was very pleased to hear Nobu mention the Chairman, but I didn’t dare react.

“I like this geisha,” said the Minister. “I don’t want another one.”

“Her name is Sayuri, and you’d better call her that, or she won’t agree to come. Now stand up, Minister. It’s time for us to get you home. ”

I walked them as far as the entryway where I helped them into their coats and shoes and watched the two of them set out in the snow. The Minister was having such a hard time, he would have trudged right into the gate if Nobu hadn’t taken him by the elbow to steer him.

Later the same night, I dropped in with Mameha on a party full of American officers. By the time we arrived, their translator was of no use to anyone because they’d made him drink so much; but the officers all recognized Mameha. I was a bit surprised when they began humming and waving their arms, signaling to her that they wanted her to put on a dance. I expected we would sit quietly and watch her, but the moment she began, several of the officers went up and started prancing around alongside. If you’d told me it would happen, I might have felt a little uncertain beforehand; but to see it … well, I burst out laughing and enjoyed myself more than I had in a long while. We ended up playing a game in which Mameha and I took turns on the shamisen while the American officers danced around the table. Whenever we stopped the music, they had to rush back to their places. The last to sit drank a penalty glass of sake.

In the middle of the party, I commented to Mameha how peculiar it was to see everyone having so much fun without speaking the same language-considering that I’d been at a party with Nobu and another Japanese man earlier that evening, and we’d had an awful time. She asked me a bit about the party.

“Three people can certainly be too few,” she said after I’d told her about it, “particularly if one of them is Nobu in a foul mood.”

“I suggested he bring the Chairman next time. And we need another geisha as well, don’t you think? Someone loud and funny.”

“Yes,” said Mameha, “perhaps I’ll stop by . . .”

I was puzzled at first to hear her say this. Because really, no one on earth would have described Mameha as “loud and funny.” I was about to tell her again what I meant, when all at once she seemed to recognize our misunderstanding and said, “Yes, I’m interested to stop by … but I suppose if you want someone loud and funny, you ought to speak to your old friend Pumpkin.”

Since returning to Gion, I’d encountered memories of Pumpkin everywhere. In fact, the very moment I’d stepped into the okiya for the first time, I’d remembered her there in the formal entrance hall on the day Gion had closed, when she’d given me a stiff farewell bow of the sort she was obliged to offer the adopted daughter. I’d gone on thinking of her again and again all during that week as we cleaned. At one point, while helping the maid wipe the dust from the woodwork, I pictured Pumpkin on the walkway right before me, practicing her shamisen. The empty space there seemed to hold a terrible sadness within it. Had it really been so many years since we were girls together? I suppose I might easily have put it all out of my mind, but I’d never quite learned to accept the disappointment of our friendship running dry. I blamed the terrible rivalry that Hatsumomo had forced upon us. My adoption was the final blow, of course, but still I couldn’t help holding myself partly accountable. Pumpkin had shown me only kindness. I might have found some way to thank her for that. Strangely, I hadn’t thought of approaching Pumpkin until Mameha suggested it. I had no doubt our first encounter would be awkward, but I mulled it over the rest of that night and decided that maybe Pumpkin would appreciate being introduced into a more elegant circle, as a change from the soldiers’ parties. Of course, I had another motive as well. Now that so many years had passed, perhaps we might begin to mend our friendship.

I knew almost nothing about Pumpkin’s circumstances, except that she was back in Gion, so I went to speak with Auntie, who had received a letter from her several years earlier. It turned out that in the letter, Pumpkin had pleaded to be taken back into the okiya when it reopened, saying she would never find a place for herself otherwise. Auntie might have been willing to do it, but Mother had refused on the grounds that Pumpkin was a poor investment.

“She’s living in a sad little okiya over in the Hanami-cho section,” Auntie told me. “But don’t take pity on her and bring her back here for a visit. Mother won’t want to see her. I think it’s foolish for you to speak with her anyway.”

“I have to admit,” I said, “I’ve never felt right about what happened between Pumpkin and me . . .”

“Nothing happened between you. Pumpkin fell short and you succeeded. Anyway, she’s doing very well these days. I hear the Americans can’t get enough of her. She’s crude, you know, in just the right sort of way for them.”

That very afternoon I crossed Shijo Avenue to the Hanami-cho section of Gion, and found the sad little okiya Auntie had told me about. If you remember Hatsumomo’s friend Korin, and how her okiya had burned during the darkest years of the war . . . well, that fire had damaged the okiya next door as well,

and this was where Pumpkin was now living. Its exterior walls were charred all along one side, and a part of the tiled roof that had burned away was crudely patched with wooden boards. I suppose in sections of Tokyo or Osaka, it might have been the most intact building in the neighborhood; but it stood

out in the middle of Kyoto.

A young maid showed me into a reception room that smelled of wet ash, and came back later to serve me a cup of weak tea. I waited a long while before Pumpkin at last came and slid open the door. I could scarcely see her in the dark hallway outside, but just knowing she was there made me feel such warmth, I rose from the table to go and embrace her. She took a few steps into the room and then knelt and gave a bow as formal as if I’d been Mother. I was startled by this, and stopped where I stood.

“Really, Pumpkin . . . it’s only me!” I said.

She wouldn’t even look at me, but kept her eyes to the mats like a maid awaiting orders. I felt very disappointed and went back to my place at the table.

When we’d last seen each other in the final years of the war, Pumpkin’s face had still been round and full just as in childhood, but with a more sorrowful look. She had changed a great deal in the years since. I didn’t know it at the time, but after the closing of the lens factory where she’d worked, Pumpkin spent more than two years in Osaka as a prostitute. Her mouth “seemed to have shrunken in size-perhaps because she held it taut, I don’t know. And though she had the same broad face, her heavy cheeks had

thinned, leaving her with a gaunt elegance that was astonishing to me. I don’t mean to suggest Pumpkin had become a beauty to rival Hatsumomo or anything of the sort, but her face had a certain womanliness that had never been there before.

“I’m sure the years have been difficult, Pumpkin,” I said to her, “but you look quite lovely.”

Pumpkin didn’t reply to this. She just inclined her head faintly to indicate she’d heard me. I congratulated her on her popularity and tried asking about her life since the war, but she remained so expressionless that I began to feel sorry I’d come.

Finally after an awkward silence, she spoke.

“Have you come here just to chat, Sayuri? Because I don’t have anything to say that will interest you.”

“The truth is,” I said, “I saw Nobu Toshikazu recently, and . . . actually, Pumpkin, he’ll be bringing a certain man to Gion from time to time. I thought perhaps you’d be kind enough to help us entertain him.”

“But of course, you’ve changed your mind now that you’ve seen me.”

“Why, no,” I said. “I don’t know why you say that. Nobu Toshikazu and the Chairman-Iwamura Ken, I mean . . . Chairman Iwamura- would appreciate your company greatly. It’s as simple as that.”

For a moment Pumpkin just knelt in silence, peering down at the mats. “I’ve stopped believing that anything in life is ‘as simple as that,’ ” she said at last. “I know you think I’m stupid-”


“-but I think you probably have some other reason you’re not going to tell me about.”

Pumpkin gave a little bow, which I thought very enigmatic. Either it was an apology for what she’d just said, or perhaps she was about to excuse herself.

“I suppose I do have another reason,” I said. “To tell the truth, I’d hoped that after all these years, perhaps you and I might be friends, as we once were. We’ve survived so many things together . . . including Hatsumomo! It seems only natural to me that we should see each other again.”

Pumpkin said nothing.

“Chairman Iwamura and Nobu will be entertaining the Minister again next Saturday at the Ichiriki Teahouse,” I told her. “If you’ll join us, I’d be very pleased to see you there.”

I’d brought her a packet of tea as a gift, and now I untied it from its silk cloth and placed it on the table. As I rose to my feet, I tried to think of something kind to tell her before leaving, but she looked so puzzled, I thought it best just to go.

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