Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 33)

Chapter thirty-three

That very night while I lay on my futon with the room swaying around me, I made up my mind to be like the fisherman who hour after hour scoops out fish with his net. Whenever thoughts of the Chairman drifted up from within me, I would scoop them out, and scoop them out again, and again, until none of them were left. It would have been a clever system, I’m sure, if I could have made it work. But when I had even a single thought of him, I could never catch it before it sped away and carried me to the very place from which I’d banished my thoughts. Many times I stopped myself and said: Don’t think of the Chairman, think of Nobu instead. And very deliberately, I pictured myself meeting Nobu somewhere in Kyoto. But then something always went wrong. The spot I pictured might be where I’d often imagined myself encountering the Chairman, for example . . . and then in an instant I was lost in thoughts of the Chairman once again.

I went on this way for weeks, trying to remake myself. Sometimes when I was free for a while from thinking about the Chairman, I began to feel as if a pit had opened up within me. I had no appetite even when little Etsuko came late at night carrying me a bowl of clear broth. The few times I did manage to focus my mind clearly on Nobu, I grew so numbed I seemed to feel nothing at all. While putting on my makeup, my face hung like a kimono from a rod. Auntie told me I looked like a ghost. I went to parties and banquets as usual, but I knelt in silence with my hands in my lap.

I knew Nobu was on the point of proposing himself as my danna, and so I waited every day for the news to reach me. But the weeks dragged on without any word. Then one hot afternoon at the end of June, nearly a month after I’d given back the rock, Mother brought in a newspaper while I was eating lunch, and opened it to show me an article entitled “Iwamura Electric Secures Financing from Mitsubishi Bank.” I expected to find all sorts of references to Nobu and the Minister, and certainly to the Chairman; but mostly the article gave a lot of information I can’t even remember. It told that Iwamura Electric’s designation had been changed by the Allied Occupation authorities from … I don’t remember-a Class Something to a Class Something-Else. Which meant, as the article went on to explain, that the company was no longer restricted from entering into contracts, applying for loans, and so forth. Several paragraphs followed, all about rates of interest and lines of credit; and then finally about a very large loan secured the day before from the Mitsubishi Bank. It was a difficult article to read, full of numbers and business terms. When I finished, I looked up at Mother, kneeling on the other side of the table.

“Iwamura Electric’s fortunes have turned around completely,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“Mother, I hardly even understand what I’ve just read.”

“It’s no wonder we’ve heard so much from Nobu Toshikazu these past few days. You must know he’s proposed himself as your danna. I was thinking of turning him down. Who wants a man with an uncertain future”? Now I can see why you’ve seemed so distracted these past few weeks! Well, you can relax now. It’s finally happening. We all know how fond you’ve been of Nobu these many years.”

I went on gazing down at the table just like a proper daughter. But I’m sure I wore a pained expression on my face; because in a moment Mother went on:

“You mustn’t be listless this way when Nobu wants you in his bed. Perhaps your health isn’t what it should be. I’ll send you to a doctor the moment you return from Amami.”

The only Amami I’d ever heard of was a little island not far from Okinawa; I couldn’t imagine this was the place she meant. But in fact, as Mother went on to tell me, the mistress of the Ichiriki had received a telephone call that very morning from Iwamura Electric concerning a trip to the island of Amami the following weekend. I’d been asked to go, along with Mameha and Pumpkin, and also another geisha whose name Mother couldn’t remember. We would leave the following Friday afternoon.

“But Mother … it makes no sense at all,” I said. “A weekend trip as far as Amami? The boat ride alone will take all day.”

“Nothing of the sort. Iwamura Electric has arranged for all of you to travel there in an airplane.”

In an instant I forgot my worries about Nobu, and sat upright as quickly as if someone had poked me with a pin. “Mother!” I said. “I can’t possibly fly on an airplane.”

“If you’re sitting in one and the thing takes off, you won’t be able to help it!” she replied. She must have thought her little joke was very funny, because she gave one of her huffing laughs.

With gasoline so scarce, there couldn’t possibly be an airplane, I decided, so I made up my mind not to worry-and this worked well for me until the following day, when I spoke with the mistress of the Ichiriki. It seemed that several American officers on the island of Okinawa traveled by air to Osaka several weekends a month. Normally the airplane flew home empty and returned a few days later to pick them up. Iwamura Electric had arranged for our group to ride on the return trips. We were going to Amami only because the empty airplane was available; otherwise we’d probably have been on our way to a hot-springs resort, and not fearing for our lives at all. The last thing the mistress said to me was, “I’m just grateful it’s you and not me flying in the thing.”

When Friday morning came, we set out for Osaka by train. In addition to Mr. Bekku, who came to help us with our trunks as far as the airport, the little group consisted of Mameha, Pumpkin, and me, as well as an elderly geisha named Shizue. Shizue was from the Pontocho district rather than Gion, and had unattractive glasses and silver hair that made her look even older than she really was. What was worse, her chin had a big cleft in the middle, like two breasts. Shizue seemed to view the rest of us as a cedar

views the weeds growing beneath it. Mostly she stared out the window of the train; but every so often she opened the clasp of her orange and red handbag to take out a piece of candy, and looked at us as if she couldn’t see why we had to trouble her with our presence.

From Osaka Station we traveled to the airport in a little bus not much larger than a car, which ran on coal and was very dirty. At last after an hour or so, we climbed down beside a silver airplane with two great big propellers on the wings. I wasn’t at all reassured to see the tiny wheel on which the tail rested; and when we went inside, the aisle sloped downward so dramatically I felt sure the airplane was broken.

The men were onboard already, sitting in seats at the rear and talking business. In addition to the Chairman and Nobu, the Minister was there, as well as an elderly man who, as I later learned, was regional director of the Mitsubishi Bank. Seated beside him was a man in his thirties with a chin just like Shizue’s, and glasses as thick as hers too. As it turned out, Shizue was the longtime mistress of the bank director, and this man was their son.

We sat toward the front of the airplane and left the men to their dull conversation. Soon I heard a coughing noise and the airplane trembled . . . and when I looked out the window, the giant propeller

outside had begun to turn. In a matter of moments it was whirling its swordlike blades inches from my face, making the most desperate humming noise. I felt sure it would come tearing through the side of the airplane and slice me in half. Mameha had put me in a window seat thinking the view might calm me once we were airborne, but now that she saw what the propeller was doing, she refused to switch seats with me. The noise of the engines grew worse and the airplane began to bump along, turning here and there. Finally the noise reached its most terrifying volume yet, and the aisle tipped level. After another few moments we heard a thump and began to rise up into the air. Only when the ground was far below us did someone finally tell me the trip was seven hundred kilometers and would take nearly four hours. When I heard this, I’m afraid my eyes glazed over with tears, and everyone began to laugh at me.

I pulled the curtains over the window and tried to calm myself by reading a magazine. Quite some time later, after Mameha had fallen asleep in the seat beside me, I looked up to find Nobu standing in the aisle.

“Sayuri, are you well?” he said, speaking quietly so as not to wake

Mameha.

“I don’t think Nobu-san has ever asked me such a thing before,” I said. “He must be in a very cheerful mood.”

“The future has never looked more promising!”

Mameha stirred at the sound of our talking, so Nobu said nothing further, and instead continued up the aisle to the toilet. Just before opening the door, he glanced back toward where the other men were seated. For an instant I saw him from an angle I’d rarely seen, which gave him a look of fierce concentration. When his glance flicked in my direction, I thought he might pick up some hint that I felt as worried about my future as he felt reassured about his. How strange it seemed, when I thought about it, that Nobu understood me so little. Of course, a geisha who expects understanding from her danna is like a mouse expecting sympathy from the snake. And in any case, how could Nobu possibly understand anything about me, when he’d seen me solely as a geisha keeping my true self carefully concealed? The Chairman was the only man I’d ever entertained as Sayuri the geisha who had also known me as Chiyo- though it was strange to think of it this way, for I’d never realized it before. What would Nobu have done if he had been the one to find me that day at the Shirakawa Stream? Surely he would have walked right past . . . and how much easier it might have been for me if he had. I wouldn’t spend my nights yearning for the Chairman. I wouldn’t stop in cosmetics shops from time to time, to smell the scent of talc in the air and remind myself of his skin. I wouldn’t strain to picture his presence beside me in some imaginary place. If you’d asked me why I wanted these things, I would have answered, Why does a ripe persimmon taste delicious? Why does wood smell smoky when it burns?

But here I was again, like a girl trying to catch mice with her hands. Why couldn’t I stop thinking about the Chairman?

I’m sure my anguish must have shown clearly on my face when the door to the toilet opened a moment later, and the light snapped off. I couldn’t bear for Nobu to see me this way, so I laid my head against the window, pretending to be asleep. After he passed by, I opened my eyes again. I found that the position of my head had caused the curtains to pull open, so that I was looking outside the airplane for the first time since shortly after we’d lifted off the runway. Spread out below was a broad vista of aqua blue ocean, mottled with the same jade green as a certain hair ornament Mameha sometimes wore. I’d never imagined the ocean with patches of green. From the sea cliffs in Yoroido, it had always looked the color of slate. Here the sea stretched all the way out to a single line pulled across like a wool thread where the sky began. This view wasn’t frightening at all, but inexpressibly lovely. Even the hazy disk of the propeller was beautiful in its own way, and the silver wing had a kind of magnificence, and was decorated with those symbols that American warplanes have on them. How peculiar it was to see them there, considering the world only five years earlier. We had fought a brutal war as enemies; and now what? We had given up our past; this was something I understood fully, for I had done it myself once. If only I could find a way of giving up my future . . .

And then a frightening image came to mind: I saw myself cutting the bond of fate that held me to Nobu, and watching him fall all the long way into the ocean below.

I don’t mean this was just an idea or some sort of daydream. I mean that all at once I understood exactly how to do it. Of course I wasn’t really going to throw Nobu into the ocean, but I did have an understanding, just as clearly as if a window had been thrown open in my mind, of the one thing I could do to end my relationship with him forever. I didn’t want to lose his friendship; but in my efforts to reach the Chairman, Nobu was an obstacle I’d found no way around. And yet I could cause him to be consumed by the flames of his own anger; Nobu himself had told me how to do it, just a moment after cutting his hand that night at the Ichiriki Teahouse only a few weeks earlier. If I was the sort of woman

who would give myself to the Minister, he’d said, he wanted me to leave the room right then and would never speak to me again.

The feeling that came over me as I thought of this … it was like a fever breaking. I felt damp everywhere on my body. I was grateful Mameha remained asleep beside me; I’m sure she would have wondered what was the matter, to see me short of breath, wiping my forehead with my fingertips. This idea that had come to me, could I really do such a thing? I don’t mean the act of seducing the Minister; I knew perfectly well I could do that. It would be like going to the doctor for a shot. I’d look the other way for a time, and it would be over. But could I do such a thing to Nobu? What a horrible way to repay his kindness. Compared with the sorts of men so many geisha had suffered through the years, Nobu was probably a very desirable danna. But could I bear to live a life in which my hopes had been extinguished forever? For weeks I’d been working to convince myself I could live it; but could I really? I thought perhaps I understood how Hatsumomo had come by her bitter cruelty, and Granny her meanness. Even Pumpkin, who was scarcely thirty, had worn a look of disappointment for many years. The only thing that had kept me from it was hope; and now to sustain my hopes, would I commit an abhorrent act? I’m not talking about seducing the Minister; I’m talking about betraying Nobu’s trust.

During the rest of the flight, I struggled with these thoughts. I could never have imagined myself scheming in this way, but in time I began to imagine the steps involved just like in a board game: I would draw the Minister aside at the inn-no, not at the inn, at some other place-and I would trick Nobu into stumbling upon us … or perhaps it would be enough for him to hear it from someone else? You can imagine how exhausted I felt by the end of the trip. Even as we left the airplane, I must still have looked very worried, because Mameha kept reassuring me that the flight was over and I was safe at last.

We arrived at our inn about an hour before sunset. The others admired the room in which we would all be staying, but I felt so agitated I could only pretend to admire it. It was as spacious as the largest room at the Ichiriki Teahouse, and furnished beautifully in the Japanese style, with tatami mats and gleaming wood. One long wall was made entirely of glass doors, beyond which lay extraordinary tropical plants- some with leaves nearly as big as a man. A covered walkway led down through the leaves to the banks of a stream.

When the luggage was in order, we were all of us quite ready for a bath. The inn had provided folding screens, which we opened in the middle of the room for privacy. We changed into our cotton gowns and made our way along a succession of covered walkways, leading through the dense foliage to a luxurious hot-springs pool at the other end of the inn. The men’s and women’s entrances were shielded by partitions, and had separate tiled areas for washing. But once we were immersed in the dark water of the springs and moved out beyond the partition’s edge, the men and women were together in the water. The bank director kept making jokes about Mameha and me, saying he wanted one of us to fetch a certain pebble, or twig, or something of the sort, from the woods at the edge of the springs-the joke being, of course, that he wanted to see us naked. All this while, his son was engrossed in conversation with Pumpkin; and it didn’t take us long to understand why. Pumpkin’s bosoms, which were fairly large, kept floating up and exposing themselves on the surface while she jabbered away as always without noticing.

Perhaps it seems odd to you that we all bathed together, men and women, and that we planned to sleep in the same room later that night. But actually, geisha do this sort of thing all the time with their best customers-or at least they did in my day. A single geisha who values her reputation will certainly never be caught alone with a man who isn’t her danna. But to bathe innocently in a group like this, with the murky water cloaking us … that’s quite another matter. And as for sleeping in a group, we even have a

word for it in Japanese-zakone, “fish sleeping.” If you picture a bunch of mackerel thrown together into a basket, I suppose that’s what it means.

Bathing in a group like this was innocent, as I say. But that doesn’t mean a hand never strayed where it shouldn’t, and this thought was very much on my mind as I soaked there in the hot springs. If Nobu had been the sort of man to tease, he might have drifted over toward me; and then after we’d chatted for a time he might suddenly have grabbed me by the hip, or … well, almost anywhere, to tell the truth. The proper next step would be for me to scream and Nobu to laugh, and that would be the end of it. But Nobu wasn’t the sort of man to tease. He’d been immersed in the bath for a time, in conversation with the Chairman, but now he was sitting on a rock with only his legs in the water, and a small, wet towel draped across his hips; he wasn’t paying attention to the rest of us, but rubbing at the stump of his arm absentmindedly and peering into the water. The sun had set by now, and the light faded almost to evening; but Nobu sat in the brightness of a paper lantern. I’d never before seen him so exposed. The

scarring that I thought was at its worst on one side of his face was every bit as bad on his damaged shoulder-though his other shoulder was beautifully smooth, like an egg. And now to think that I was considering betraying him … He would think I had done it for only one reason, and would never understand the truth. I couldn’t bear the thought of hurting Nobu or of destroying his regard for me. I wasn’t at all sure I could go through with it.

After breakfast the following morning, we all took a walk through the tropical forest to the sea cliffs nearby, where the stream from our inn poured over a picturesque little waterfall into the ocean. We stood a long while admiring the view; even when we were all ready to leave, the Chairman could hardly tear himself away. On the return trip I walked beside Nobu, who was still as cheerful as I’d ever seen him. Afterward we toured the island in the back of a military truck fitted with benches, and saw bananas and

pineapples growing on the trees, and beautiful birds. From the mountaintops, the ocean looked like a crumpled blanket in turquoise, with stains of dark blue.

That afternoon we wandered the dirt streets of the little village, and soon came upon an old wood building that looked like a warehouse, with a sloped roof of thatch. We ended up walking around to the back, where Nobu climbed stone steps to open a door at the corner of the building, and the sunlight fell across a dusty stage built out of planking. Evidently it had at one time been a warehouse but was now the town’s theater. When I first stepped inside, I didn’t think very much about it. But after the door banged shut and we’d made our way to the street again, I began to feel that same feeling of a fever breaking; because in my mind I had an image of myself lying there on the rutted flooring with the Minister as the door creaked open and sunlight fell across us. We would have no place to hide; Nobu couldn’t possibly fail to see us. In many ways I’m sure it was the very spot I’d half-hoped to find. But I wasn’t thinking of these things; I wasn’t really thinking at all, so much as struggling to put my thoughts into some kind of order. They felt to me like rice pouring from a torn sack.

As we walked back up the hill toward our inn, I had to fall back from the group to take my handkerchief from my sleeve. It was certainly very warm there on that road, with the afternoon sun shining full onto our faces. I wasn’t the only one perspiring. But Nobu came walking back to ask if I was all right. When I couldn’t manage to answer him right away, I hoped he would think it was the strain of walking up the hill.

“You haven’t looked well all weekend, Sayuri. Perhaps you ought to have stayed in Kyoto.”

“But when would I have seen this beautiful island?”

“I’m sure this is the farthest you’ve ever been from your home. We’re as far from Kyoto now as Hokkaido is.”

The others had walked around the bend ahead. Over Nobu’s shoulder I could see the eaves of the inn protruding above the foliage. I wanted to reply to him, but I found myself consumed with the same thoughts that had troubled me on the airplane, that Nobu didn’t understand me at all. Kyoto wasn’t my home; not in the sense Nobu seemed to mean it, of a place where I’d been raised, a place I’d never strayed from. And in that instant, while I peered at him in the hot sun, I made up my mind that I would do this thing I had feared. I would betray Nobu, even though he stood there looking at me with kindness. I tucked away my handkerchief with trembling hands, and we continued up the hill, not speaking a word.

By the time I reached the room, the Chairman and Mameha had already taken seats at the table to begin a game of go against the bank director, with Shizue and her son looking on. The glass doors along the far wall stood open; the Minister was propped on one elbow staring out, peeling the covering off a short stalk of cane he’d brought back with him. I was desperately afraid Nobu would engage me in a conversation I’d be unable to escape, but in fact, he went directly over to the table and began talking with Mameha. I had no idea as yet how I would lure the Minister to the theater with me, and even less idea how I would arrange for Nobu to find us there. Perhaps Pumpkin would take Nobu for a walk if I asked her to? I didn’t feel I could ask such a thing of Mameha, but Pumpkin and I had been girls together; and though I won’t call her crude, as Auntie had called her, Pumpkin did have a certain coarseness in her personality and would be less aghast at what I was planning. I would need to direct her explicitly to bring Nobu to the old theater; they wouldn’t come upon us there purely by accident.

For a time I knelt gazing out at the sunlit leaves and wishing I could appreciate the beautiful tropical afternoon. I kept asking myself whether I was fully sane to be considering this plan; but whatever misgivings I may have felt, they weren’t enough to stop me from going ahead with it. Clearly nothing would happen until I succeeded in drawing the Minister aside, and I couldn’t afford to call attention to myself when I did it. Earlier he’d asked a maid to bring him a snack, and now he was sitting with his legs around a tray, pouring beer into his mouth and dropping in globs of salted squid guts with his chopsticks. This may seem like a nauseating idea for a dish, but I can assure you that you’ll find salted squid guts in bars and restaurants here and there in Japan. It was a favorite of my father’s, but I’ve never been able to stomach it. I couldn’t even watch the Minister as he ate.

“Minister,” I said to him quietly, “would you like me to find you something more appetizing?”

“No,” he said, “I’m not hungry.” I must admit this raised in my mind the question of why he was eating in the first place. By now Mameha and Nobu had wandered out the back door in conversation, and the others, including Pumpkin, were gathered around the go board on the table. Apparently the Chairman had just made a blunder, and they were laughing. It seemed to me my chance had come.

“If you’re eating out of boredom, Minister,” I said, “why don’t you and I explore the inn? I’ve been eager to see it, and we haven’t had the time.”

I didn’t wait for him to reply, but stood and walked from the room. I was relieved when he stepped out into the hallway a moment later to join me. We walked in silence down the corridor, until we came to a bend where I could see that no one was coming from either direction. I stopped.

“Minister, excuse me,” I said, “but. . . shall we take a walk back down to the village together?”

He looked very confused by this.

“We have an hour or so left in the afternoon,” I went on, “and I remember something I’d very much like to see again.”

After a long pause, the Minister said, “I’ll need to use the toilet first.”

“Yes, that’s fine,” I told him. “You go and use the toilet; and when you’re finished, wait right here for me and we’ll take a walk together. Don’t go anywhere until I come and fetch you.”

The Minister seemed agreeable to this and continued up the corridor. I went back toward the room. And I felt so dazed-now that I was actually going through with my plan-that when I put my hand on the door to slide it open, I could scarcely feel my fingers touching anything at all.

Pumpkin was no longer at the table. She was looking through her travel trunk for something. At first when I tried to speak, nothing came out. I had to clear my throat and try again.

“Excuse me, Pumpkin,” I said. “Just one moment of your time …”

She didn’t look eager to stop what she was doing, but she left her trunk in disarray and came out into the hallway with me. I led her some distance down the corridor, and then turned to her and said:

“Pumpkin, I need to ask a favor.”

I waited for her to tell me she was happy to help, but she just stood with her eyes on me.

“I hope you won’t mind my asking-”

“Ask,” she said.

“The Minister and I are about to go for a walk. I’m going to take him to the old theater, and-”

“Why?”

“So that he and I can be alone.”

“The Minister?” Pumpkin said incredulously.

“I’ll explain some other time, but here’s what I want you to do. I want you to bring Nobu there and . . . Pumpkin, this will sound very strange. I want you to discover us.”

“What do you mean, ‘discover’ you?” ”

“I want you to find some way of bringing Nobu there and opening the back door we saw earlier, so that. . .he’ll see us.”

While I was explaining this, Pumpkin had noticed the Minister waiting in another covered walkway through the foliage. Now she looked back at me.

“What are you up to, Sayuri?” she said.

“I don’t have time to explain it now. But it’s terribly important, Pumpkin. Truthfully, my entire future is in your hands. Just make sure it’s no one but you and Nobu-not the Chairman, for heaven’s sake, or anyone else. I’ll repay you in any way you’d like.”

She looked at me for a long moment. “So it’s time for a favor from Pumpkin again, is it?” she said. I didn’t feel certain what she meant by this, but rather than explaining it to me, she left.

I wasn’t sure whether or not Pumpkin had agreed to help. But all I could do at this point was go to the doctor for my shot, so to speak, and hope that she and Nobu would appear. I joined the Minister in the corridor and we set out down the hill.

As we walked around the bend in the road and left the inn behind us, I couldn’t help remembering the day Mameha had cut me on the leg and taken me to meet Dr. Crab. On that afternoon I’d felt myself in some sort of danger I couldn’t fully understand, and I felt much the same way now. My face was as hot in the afternoon sun as if I’d sat too close to the hibachi; and when I looked at the Minister, sweat was running down his temple onto his neck. If all went well he would soon be pressing that neck against

me . . . and at this thought I took my folding fan from my obi, and waved it until my arm was tired, trying to cool both myself and him. All the while, I kept up a flow of conversation, until a few minutes later, when we came to a stop before the old theater with its thatched roof. The Minister seemed puzzled. He cleared his throat and looked up at the sky.

“Will you come inside with me for a moment, Minister?” I said.

He didn’t seem to know what to make of this, but when I walked down the path beside the building, he plodded along behind me. I climbed the stone steps and opened the door for him. He hesitated only a moment before walking inside. If he had frequented Gion all his life, he’d certainly have understood what I had in mind-because a geisha who lures a man to an isolated spot has certainly put her reputation at stake, and a first-class geisha will never do such a thing casually. But the Minister just stood inside the theater, in the patch of sunlight, like a man waiting for a bus. My hands were trembling so much as I folded my fan and tucked it into my obi again, I wasn’t at all certain I could see my plan through to the end. The simple act of closing the door took all my strength; and then we were standing in the murky light filtering under the eaves. Still, the Minister stood inert, with his face pointed toward a stack of straw mats in the corner of the stage.

“Minister …” I said.

My voice echoed so much in the little hall, I spoke more quietly afterward.

“I understand you had a talk with the mistress of the Ichiriki about me. Isn’t that so?”

He took in a deep breath, but ended up saying nothing.

“Minister, if I may,” I said, “I’d like to tell you a story about a geisha named Kazuyo. She isn’t in Gion any longer, but I knew her well at one time. A very important man-much like you, Minister-met Kazuyo one evening and enjoyed her company so much that he came back to Gion every night to see her. After a few months of this, he asked to be Kazuyo’s danna, but the mistress of the teahouse apologized and said it wouldn’t be possible. The man was very disappointed; but then one afternoon Kazuyo took him to a quiet spot where they could be alone. Someplace very much like this empty theater. And she explained to him that. . . even though he couldn’t be her danna–”

The moment I said these last words, the Minister’s face changed like a valley when the clouds move away and sunlight rushes across it. He took a clumsy step toward me. At once my heart began to pound like drums in my ears. I couldn’t help looking away from him and closing my eyes. When I opened them again, the Minister had come so close, we were nearly touching, and then I felt the damp fleshiness of his face against my cheek. Slowly he brought his body toward mine until we were pressed together. He

took my arms, probably to pull me down onto the planking, but I stopped him.

“The stage is too dusty,” I said. “You must bring over a mat from that stack.”

“We’ll go over there,” the Minister replied.

If we had lain down upon the mats in the corner, Nobu wouldn’t have seen us in the sunlight when he opened the door.

“No, we mustn’t,” I said. “Please bring a mat here.”

The Minister did as I asked, and then stood with his hands by his side, watching me. Until this moment I’d half-imagined something would stop us; but now I could see that nothing would. Time seemed to slow. My feet looked to me like someone else’s when they stepped out of my lacquered zori and onto the mat.

Almost at once, the Minister kicked off his shoes and was against me, with his arms around me tugging at the knot in my obi. I didn’t know what he was thinking, because I certainly wasn’t prepared to take off my kimono. I reached back to stop him. When I’d dressed that morning, I still hadn’t quite made up my mind; but in order to be prepared, I’d very deliberately put on a gray underrobe I didn’t much like- thinking it might be stained before the end of the day-and a lavender and blue kimono of silk gauze, as well as a durable silver obi. As for my undergarments, I’d shortened my koshimaki-my “hip wrap”-by rolling it at the waist, so that if I decided after all to seduce the Minister, he’d have no trouble finding his way inside it. Now, when I withdrew his hands from around me, he gave me a puzzled look. I think he believed I was stopping him, and he looked very relieved as I lay down on the mat. It wasn’t a tatami, but a simple sheet of woven straw; I could feel the hard flooring beneath. With one hand I folded back my kimono and underrobe on one side so that my leg was exposed to the knee. The Minister was still fully dressed, but he lay down upon me at once, pressing the knot of my obi into my back so much, I had to raise one hip to make myself more comfortable. My head was turned to the side as well, because I was wearing my hair in a style known as tsubushi shimada, with a dramatic chignon looped in the back, which would have been ruined if I’d put any weight on it. It was certainly an uncomfortable arrangement, but my discomfort was nothing compared with the uneasiness and anxiety I felt. Suddenly I wondered if I’d been thinking at all clearly when I’d put myself in this predicament. The Minister raised himself on one arm and began fumbling inside the seam of my kimono with his hand, scratching my thighs with his fingernails. Without thinking about what I was doing, I brought my hands up to his shoulders to push him away . . . but then imagined Nobu as my danna, and the life I would live without hope; and I took my hands away and settled them onto the mat again. The Minister’s fingers were squirming higher and higher along the inside of my thigh; it was impossible not to feel them. I tried to distract myself by focusing on the door. Perhaps it would open even now, before the Minister had gone any further; but at that moment I heard the jingling of his belt, and then the zip of his pants, and a moment later he was forcing himself inside me. Somehow I felt like a fifteen-year-old girl again, because the feeling was so strangely reminiscent of Dr. Crab. I even heard myself whimper. The Minister was holding himself up on his elbows, with his face above mine. I could see him out of only one corner of my eye. When viewed up close like this, with his jaw protruding toward me, he looked more like an animal than a human. And even this wasn’t the worst part; for with his jaw jutted forward, the Minister’s lower lip became like a cup in which his saliva began to pool. I don’t know if it was the squid guts he’d eaten, but his saliva had a kind of gray thickness to it, which made me think of the residue left on the cutting board after fish have been cleaned.

When I’d dressed that morning, I’d tucked several sheets of a very absorbent rice paper into the back of my obi. I hadn’t expected to need them until afterward, when the Minister would want them for wiping himself off-if I decided to go through with it, that is. Now it seemed I would need a sheet much sooner, to wipe my face when his saliva spilled onto me. With so much of his weight on my hips, however, I couldn’t get my hand into the back of my obi. I let out several little gasps as I tried, and I’m afraid the Minister mistoo them for excitement-or in any case, he suddenly grew even more energetic, and now the pool of saliva in his lip was being jostled with such violent shock waves I could hardly believe it held together rather than spilling out in a stream. All I could do was pinch my eyes shut and wait. I felt as sick as if I had been lying in the bottom of a little boat, tossed about on the waves, and with my head banging again and again against the side. Then all at once the Minister made a groaning noise, and held very still for a bit, and at the same time I felt his saliva spill onto my cheek.

I tried again to reach the rice paper in my obi, but now the Minister was lying collapsed upon me, breathing as heavily as if he’d just run a race. I was about to push him off when I heard a scraping sound outside. My feelings of disgust had been so loud within me, they’d nearly drowned out everything else. But now that I remembered Nobu, I could feel my heart pounding once again. I heard another scrape; it was the sound of someone on the stone steps. The Minister seemed to have no idea what was about to

happen to him. He raised his head and pointed it toward the door with only the mildest interest, as if he expected to see a bird there. And then the door creaked open and the sunlight flooded over us. I had to squint, but I could make out two figures. There was Pumpkin; she had come to the theater just as I’d hoped she would. But the man peering down from beside her wasn’t Nobu at all. I had no notion of why she had done it, but Pumpkin had brought the Chairman instead.

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