Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 31)

Chapter thirty-one

In the five or so years since I’d last seen the Chairman, I’d read from time to time in the newspapers about the difficulties he’d suffered- not only his disagreements with the military government in the final years of the war, but his struggle since then to keep the Occupation authorities from seizing his company. It wouldn’t have surprised me if all these hardships had aged him a good deal. One photograph of him in the Yomiuri newspaper showed a strained look around his eyes from worry, like the neighbor of Mr. Arashino’s who used to squint up at the sky so often, watching for bombers. In any case, as the weekend neared I had to remind myself that Nobu hadn’t quite made up his mind that he would bring the Chairman. I could do nothing but hope. On Saturday morning I awakened early and slid back the paper screen over my window to find a cold rain falling against the glass. In the little alleyway below, a young maid was just climbing to her feet again after slipping on the icy cobblestones. It was a drab, miserable

day, and I was afraid even to read my almanac. By noon the temperature had dropped still further, and I could see my breath as I ate lunch in the reception room, with the sound of icy rain tapping against the window. Any number of parties that evening were canceled because the streets were too hazardous, and at nightfall Auntie telephoned the Ichiriki to be sure Iwamura Electric’s party was still on. The mistress told us the telephone lines to Osaka were down, and she couldn’t be sure. So I bathed and dressed, and walked over to the Ichiriki on the arm of Mr. Bekku, who wore a pair of rubber overshoes he’d borrowed from his younger brother, a dresser in the Pontocho district.

The Ichiriki was in chaos when I arrived. A water pipe had burst in the servants’ quarters, and the maids were so busy, I couldn’t get the attention of a single one. I showed myself down the hallway to the room where I’d entertained Nobu and the Minister the week before. I didn’t really expect anyone to be there, considering that both Nobu and the Chairman would probably be traveling all the way from Osaka-and even Mameha had been out of town and might very well have had trouble returning. Before sliding open

the door, I knelt a moment with my eyes closed and one hand on my stomach to calm my nerves. All at once it occurred to me that the hallway was much too quiet. I couldn’t hear even a murmur from within the room. With a terrible feeling of disappointment I realized the room must be empty. I was about to stand and leave when I decided to slide open the door just in case; and when I did, there at the table, holding a magazine with both hands, sat the Chairman, looking at me over the top of his reading glasses.

I was so startled to see him, I couldn’t even speak. Finally I managed to say:

“My goodness, Chairman! Who has left you here all by yourself? The mistress will be very upset.”

“She’s the one who left me,” he said, and slapped the magazine shut. “I’ve been wondering what happened to her.”

“You don’t even have a thing to drink. Let me bring you some sake.”

“That’s just what the mistress said. At this rate you’ll never come back, and I’ll have to go on reading this magazine all night. I’d much rather have your company.” And here he removed his reading glasses, and while stowing them in his pocket, took a long look at me through narrowed eyes.

The spacious room with its pale yellow walls of silk began to seem very small to me as I rose to join the Chairman, for I don’t think any room would have been enough to contain all that I was feeling. To see him again after so long awakened something desperate inside me. I was surprised to find myself feeling sad, rather than joyful, as I would have imagined. At times I’d worried that the Chairman might have fallen headlong into old age during the war just as Auntie had done.

Even from across the room, I’d noticed that the corners of his eyes were creased more sharply than I remembered them. The skin around his mouth, too, had begun to sag, though it seemed to me to give his strong jaw a kind of dignity. I stole a glimpse of him as I knelt at the table, and found that he was still watching me without expression. I was about to start a conversation, but the Chairman spoke first.

“You are still a lovely woman, Sayuri.”

“Why, Chairman,” I said, “I’ll never believe another word you say. I had to spend a half hour at my makeup stand this evening to hide the sunken look of my cheeks.”

“I’m sure you’ve suffered worse hardships during the past several years than losing a bit of weight. I know I certainly have.”

“Chairman, if you don’t mind my saying it … I’ve heard a little bit from Nobu-san about the difficulties your company is facing-”

“Yes, well, we needn’t talk about that. Sometimes we get through adversity only by imagining what the world might be like if our dreams should ever come true.”

He gave me a sad smile that I found so beautiful, I lost myself staring at the perfect crescent of his lips.

“Here’s a chance for you to use your charm and change the subject,” he said.

I hadn’t even begun to reply before the door slid open and Mameha entered, with Pumpkin right behind her. I was surprised to see Pumpkin; I hadn’t expected she would come. As for Mameha, she’d evidently just returned from Nagoya and had rushed to the Ichiriki thinking she was terribly late. The first thing she asked-after greeting the Chairman and thanking him for something he’d done for her the week before- was why Nobu and the Minister weren’t present. The Chairman admitted he’d been wondering the same thing.

“What a peculiar day this has been,” Mameha said, talking almost to herself, it seemed. “The train sat just outside Kyoto Station for an hour, and we couldn’t get off. Two young men finally jumped out through the window. I think one of them may have hurt himself. And then when I finally reached the Ichiriki a moment ago, there didn’t seem to be anyone here. Poor Pumpkin was wandering the hallways lost! You’ve met Pumpkin, haven’t you, Chairman?”

I hadn’t really looked closely at Pumpkin until now, but she was wearing an extraordinary ash-gray kimono, which was spotted below the waist with brilliant gold dots that turned out to be embroidered fireflies, set against an image of mountains and water in the light of the moon. Neither mine nor Mameha’s could compare with it. The Chairman seemed to find the robe as startling as I did, because he asked her to stand and model it for him. She stood very modestly and turned around once.

“I figured I couldn’t set foot in a place like the Ichiriki in the sort of kimono I usually wear,” she said.

“Most of the ones at my okiya aren’t very glamorous, though the Americans can’t seem to tell the difference.”

“If you hadn’t been so frank with us, Pumpkin,” Mameha said, “we might have thought this was your usual attire.”

“Are you kidding me? I’ve never worn a robe this beautiful in my life. I borrowed it from an okiya down the street. You won’t believe what they expect me to pay them, but I’ll never have the money, so it doesn’t make any difference, now does it?”

I could see that the Chairman was amused-because a geisha never spoke in front of a man about anything as crass as the cost of a kimono. Mameha turned to say something to him, but Pumpkin interrupted.

“I thought some big shot was going to be here tonight.”

“Maybe you were thinking of the Chairman,” Mameha said. “Don’t you think he’s a ‘big shot’?”

“He knows whether he’s a big shot. He doesn’t need me to tell him.”

The Chairman looked at Mameha and raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Anyway, Sayuri told me about some other guy,” Pumpkin went on.

“Sato Noritaka, Pumpkin,” the Chairman said. “He’s a new Deputy Minister of Finance.”

“Oh, I know that Sato guy. He looks just like a big pig.”

We all laughed at this. “Really, Pumpkin,” Mameha said, “the things that come out of your mouth!”

Just then the door slid open and Nobu and the Minister entered, both glowing red from the cold. Behind them was a maid carrying a tray with sake and snacks. Nobu stood hugging himself with his one arm and stamping his feet, but the Minister just clumped right past him to the table. He grunted at Pumpkin and jerked his head to one side, telling her to move so he could squeeze in beside me. Introductions were made, and then Pumpkin said: “Hey, Minister, I’ll bet you don’t remember me, but I know a lot about you.”

The Minister tossed into his mouth the cupful of sake I’d just poured for him, and looked at Pumpkin with what I took to be a scowl.

“What do you know?” said Mameha. “Tell us something.”

“I know the Minister has a younger sister who’s married to the mayor of Tokyo,” Pumpkin said. “And I know he used to study karate, and broke his hand once.”

The Minister looked a bit surprised, which told me that these things must be true.

“Also, Minister, I know a girl you used to know,” Pumpkin went on. “Nao Itsuko. We worked in a factory outside Osaka together. You know what she told me? She said the two of you did ‘you-know- what’ together a couple of times.”

I was afraid the Minister would be angry, but instead his expression softened until I began to see what I felt certain was a glimmer of pride.

“She was a pretty girl, she was, that Itsuko,” he said, looking at Nobu with a subdued smile.

“Why, Minister,” Nobu replied, “I’d never have guessed you had such a way with the ladies.” His words sounded very sincere, but I could see the barely concealed look of disgust on his face. The Chairman’s eyes passed over mine; he seemed to find the whole encounter amusing.

A moment later the door slid open and three maids came into the room carrying dinner for the men. I was a bit hungry and had to avert my eyes from the sight of the yellow custard with gingko nuts, served in beautiful celadon cups. Later the maids came back with dishes of grilled tropical fish laid out on beds of pine needles. Nobu must have noticed how hungry I looked, for he insisted I taste-it. Afterward the Chairman offered a bite to Mameha, and also to Pumpkin, who refused.

“I wouldn’t touch that fish for anything,” Pumpkin said. “I don’t even want to look at it.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Mameha asked.

“If I tell you, you’ll only laugh at me.”

“Tell us, Pumpkin,” Nobu said.

“Why should I tell you? It’s a big, long story, and anyway nobody’s going to believe it.”

“Big liar!” I said.

I wasn’t actually calling Pumpkin a liar. Back before the closing of Gion, we used to play a game we called “big liar,” in which everyone had to tell two stories, only one of which was true. Afterward the other players tried to guess which was which; the ones who guessed wrong drank a penalty glass of sake.

“I’m not playing,” said Pumpkin.

“Just tell the fish story then,” said Mameha, “and you don’t have to tell another.”

Pumpkin didn’t look pleased at this; but after Mameha and I had glowered at her for a while, she began.

“Oh, all right. It’s like this. I was born in Sapporo, and there was an old fisherman there who caught a weird-looking fish one day that was able to speak.”

Mameha and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Laugh if you want to,” Pumpkin said, “but it’s perfectly true.”

“Now, go on, Pumpkin. We’re listening,” said the Chairman.

“Well, what happened was, this fisherman laid the fish out to clean it, and it began making noises that sounded just like a person talking, except the fisherman couldn’t understand it. He called a bunch of other fishermen over, and they all listened for a while. Pretty soon the fish was nearly dead from being out of the water too long, so they decided to go ahead and kill it. But just then an old man made his way through the crowd and said he could understand every single word the fish was saying, because it was speaking in Russian.”

We all burst out laughing, and even the Minister made a few grunting noises. When we’d calmed down Pumpkin said, “I knew you wouldn’t believe it, but it’s perfectly true ! ”

“I want to know what the fish was saying,” said the Chairman.

“It was nearly dead, so it was kind of … whispering. And when the old man leaned down and put his ear to the fish’s lips-”

“Fish don’t have lips!” I said.

“All right, to the fish’s . . . whatever you call those things,” Pumpkin went on. “To the edges of its mouth. And the fish said, ‘Tell them to go ahead and clean me. I have nothing to live for any longer. The fish over there who died a moment ago was my wife.'”

“So fish get married!” said Mameha. “They have husbands and wives!

“That was before the war,” I said. “Since the war, they can’t afford to marry. They just swim around looking for work.”

“This happened way before the war,” said Pumpkin. “Way, way before the war. Even before my mother was born.”

“Then how do you know it’s true?” said Nobu. “The fish certainly didn’t tell it to you.”

“The fish died then and there! How could it tell me if I wasn’t born yet? Besides, I don’t speak Russian.”

“All right, Pumpkin,” I said, “so you believe the Chairman’s fish is a talking fish too.”

“I didn’t say that. But it looks exactly like that talking fish did. I wouldn’t eat it if I was starving to death.”

“If you hadn’t been born yet,” said the Chairman, “and even your mother hadn’t been born, how do you know what the fish looked like?”

“You know what the Prime Minister looks like, don’t you?” she said. “But have you ever met him? Actually, you probably have. Let me pick a better example. You know what the Emperor looks like, but you’ve never had the honor of meeting him!”

“The Chairman has had the honor, Pumpkin,” Nobu said.

“You know what I mean. Everybody knows what the Emperor looks like. That’s what I’m trying to say.”

“There are pictures of the Emperor,” said Nobu. “You can’t have seen a picture of the fish.”

“The fish is famous where I grew up. My mother told me all about it, and I’m telling you, it looks like that thing right there on the taUel”

“Thank heavens for people like you, Pumpkin,” said the Chairman. “You make the rest of us seem positively dull.”

“Well, that’s my story. I’m not telling another one. If the rest of you want to play ‘big liar,’ somebody else can start.”

“I’ll start,” said Mameha. “Here’s my first story. When I was about six years old I went out one morning to draw water from the well in our okiya, and I heard the sound of a man clearing his throat and coughing. It was coming from inside the well. I woke up the mistress, and she came out to listen to it. When we held a lantern over the well, we couldn’t find anyone there at all, but we continued to hear him until after the sun had come up. Then the sounds stopped and we never heard them again.”

“The other story is the true one,” said Nobu, “and I haven’t even heard it.”

“You have to listen to them both,” Mameha went on. “Here’s my second. One time I went with several geisha to Osaka to entertain at the home of Akita Masaichi.” He was a famous businessman who’d made a fortune before the war. “After we sang and drank for hours, Akita-san fell asleep on the mats, and one of the other geisha snuck us into the next room and opened a big chest full of all kinds of pornography. There were pornographic woodblock prints, including some by Hiroshige-”

“Hiroshige never made pornographic prints,” said Pumpkin.

“Yes, he did, Pumpkin,” the Chairman said. “I’ve seen some of them.”

“And also,” Mameha went on, “he had pictures of all sorts of fat European women and men, and some reels of movies.”

“I knew Akita Masaichi well,” said the Chairman. “He wouldn’t have had a collection of pornography. The other one is true.”

“Now, really, Chairman,” Nobu said. “You believe a story about a man’s voice coming out of a well?”

“I don’t have to believe it. All that matters is whether Mameha thinks it’s true.”

Pumpkin and the Chairman voted for the man in the well. The Minister and Nobu voted for the pornography. As for me, I’d heard both of these before and knew that the man in the well was the true one. The Minister drank his penalty glass without complaining; but Nobu grumbled all the while, so we made him go next.

“I’m not going to play this game,” he said.

“You’re going to play it, or you’re going to drink a penalty glass of sake every round,” Mameha told him.

“All right, you want two stories, I’ll tell you two stories,” he said. “Here’s the first one. I’ve got a little white dog, named Kubo. One night I came home, and Kubo’s fur was completely blue.”

“I believe it,” said Pumpkin. “It had probably been kidnapped by some sort of demon.”

Nobu looked as if he couldn’t quite imagine that Pumpkin was serious. “The next day it happened again,” he went on tentatively, “only this time Kubo’s fur was bright red.”

“Definitely demons,” said Pumpkin. “Demons love red. It’s the color of blood.”

Nobu began to look positively angry when he heard this. “Here’s my second story. Last week I went to the office so early in the morning that my secretary hadn’t yet arrived. All right, which is the true one?”

Of course, we all chose the secretary, except for Pumpkin, who was made to drink a penalty glass of sake. And I don’t mean a cup; I mean a glass. The Minister poured it for her, adding drop by drop after the glass was full, until it was bulging over the rim. Pumpkin had to sip it before she could pick the glass up. I felt worried just watching her, for she had a very low tolerance for alcohol.

“I can’t believe the story about the dog isn’t true,” she said after she’d finished the glass. Already I thought I could hear her words slurring a bit. “How could you make something like that up?”

“How could I make it up? The question is, how could you believe it? Dogs don’t turn blue. Or red. And there aren’t demons.”

It was my turn to go next. “My first story is this. One night some years ago, the Kabuki actor Yoegoro got very drunk and told me he’d always found me beautiful.”

“This one isn’t true,” Pumpkin said. “I know Yoegoro.’

“I’m sure you do. But nevertheless, he told me he found me beautiful, and ever since that night, he’s sent me letters from time to time. In the corner of ever)’ letter, he glues one little curly black hair.”

The Chairman laughed at this, but Nobu sat up, looking angry, and said, “Really, these Kabuki actors.

What irritating people ! ”

“I don’t get it. What do you mean a curly black hair?” Pumpkin said; but you could see from her expression that she figured out the answer right away.

Everyone fell silent, waiting for my second story. It had been on my mind since we’d started playing the game, though I was nervous about telling it, and not at all certain it was the right thing to do.

“Once when I was a child,” I began, “I was very upset one day, and I went to the banks of the Shirakawa Stream and began to cry …”

As I began this story, I felt almost as though I were reaching across the table to touch the Chairman on the hand. Because it seemed to me that no one else in the room would see anything unusual in what I was saying, whereas the Chairman would understand this very private story-or at least, I hoped he would. I felt I was having a conversation with him more intimate than any we’d ever had; and I could feel myself growing warm as I spoke. Just before continuing, I glanced up, expecting to find the

Chairman looking at me quizzically. Instead, he didn’t seem even to be paying attention. All at once I felt so vain, like a girl posturing for the crowds as she walks along, only to discover the street is empty.

I’m sure everyone in the room had grown tired of waiting for me by this time, because Mameha said,

“Well? Go on.” Pumpkin mumbled something too, but I couldn’t understand her.

“I’m going to tell another story,” I said. “Do you remember the geisha Okaichi? She died in an accident during the war. Many years before, she and I were talking one day, and she told me she’d always been afraid a heavy wooden box would fall right onto her head and kill her. And that’s exactly how she died. A crate full of scrap metal fell from a shelf.”

I’d been so preoccupied, I didn’t realize until this moment that neither of my stories was true. Both were partially true; but it didn’t concern me very much in any case, because most people cheated while playing this game. Sol waited until the Chairman had chosen a story- which was the one about Yoegoro and the curly hair-and declared him right. Pumpkin and the Minister had to drink penalty glasses of sake.

After this it was the Chairman’s turn.

“I’m not very good at this sort of game,” he said. “Not like you geisha, who are so adept at lying.”

“Chairman!” said Mameha, but of course she was only teasing.

“I’m concerned about Pumpkin, so I’m going to make this simple. If she has to drink another glass of sake, I don’t think she’ll make it.”

It was true that Pumpkin was having trouble focusing her eyes. I don’t even think she was listening to the Chairman until he said her name.

“Just listen closely, Pumpkin. Here’s my first story. This evening I came to attend a party at the Ichiriki Teahouse. And here’s my second. Several days ago, a fish came walking into my office-no, forget that. You might even believe in a walking fish. How about this one. Several days ago, I opened my desk drawer, and a little man jumped out wearing a uniform and began to sing and dance. All right, now which one is true?”

“You don’t expect me to believe a man jumped out of your drawer,” Pumpkin said.

“Just pick one of the stories. Which is true?”

“The other one. I don’t remember what it was.”

“We ought to make you drink a penalty glass for that, Chairman,” said Mameha.

When Pumpkin heard the words “penalty glass,” she must have assumed she’d done something wrong, because the next thing we knew, she’d drunk half a glassful of sake, and she wasn’t looking well. The Chairman was the first to notice, and took the glass right out of her hand.

“You’re not a drain spout, Pumpkin.” the Chairman said. She stared at him so blankly, he asked if she could hear him.

“She might be able to hear you,” Nobu said, “but she certainly can’t see you.”

“Come on, Pumpkin,” the Chairman said. “I’m going to walk you to your home. Or drag you, if I have to.”

Mameha offered to help, and the two of them led Pumpkin out together, leaving Nobu and the Minister sitting at the table with me.

“Well, Minister,” Nobu said at last, “how was your evening?”

I think the Minister was every bit as drunk as Pumpkin had been; but he muttered that the evening had been very enjoyable. “Very enjoyable, indeed,” he added, nodding a couple of times. After this, he held out his sake cup for me to fill, but Nobu plucked it from his hand.

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