Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 34)

Chapter thirty-four

I can scarcely remember anything after that door opened-for I think the blood may have drained out of me, I went so cold and numb. I know the Minister climbed off me, or perhaps I pushed him off. I do remember weeping and asking if he’d seen the same thing I had, whether it really had been the Chairman standing there in the doorway. I hadn’t been able to make out anything of the Chairman’s expression, with the late-afternoon sun behind him; and yet when the door closed again, I couldn’t help imagining I’d seen on his face some of the shock I myself was feeling. I didn’t know if the shock was really there-and I doubted it was. But when we feel pain, even the blossoming trees seem weighted with suffering to us; and in just the same way, after seeing the Chairman there . . . well, I would have found my own pain reflected on anything I’d looked at.

If you consider that I’d taken the Minister to that empty theater for the very purpose of putting myself in danger-so that the knife would come slamming down onto the chopping block, so to speak- I’m sure you’ll understand that amid the worry, and fear, and disgust that almost overwhelmed me, I’d also been feeling a certain excitement. In the instant before that door opened, I could almost sense my life expanding just like a river whose waters have begun to swell; for I had never before taken such a drastic step to change the course of my own future. I was like a child tiptoeing along a precipice overlooking the sea. And yet somehow I hadn’t imagined a great wave might come and strike me there, and wash everything away.

When the chaos of feelings receded, and I slowly became aware of myself again, Mameha was kneeling above me. I was puzzled to find that I wasn’t in the old theater at all any longer, but rather looking up from the tatami floor of a dark little room at the inn. I don’t recall anything about leaving the theater, but I must have done it somehow. Later Mameha told me I’d gone to the proprietor to ask for a quiet place to rest; he’d recognized that I wasn’t feeling well, and had gone to find Mameha soon afterward.

Fortunately, Mameha seemed willing to believe I was truly ill, and left me there. Later, as I wandered back toward the room in a daze and with a terrible feeling of dread, I saw Pumpkin step out into the covered walkway ahead of me. She stopped when she caught sight of me; but rather than hurrying over to apologize as I half-expected she might, she turned her focus slowly toward me like a snake that had spotted a mouse.

“Pumpkin,” I said, “I asked you to bring Nobu, not the Chairman. I don’t understand-”

“Yes, it must be hard for you to understand, Sayuri, when life doesn’t work out perfectly!”

“Perfectly? Nothing worse could have happened . . . did you misunderstand what I was asking you?”

“You really do think I’m stupid!” she said.

I was bewildered, and stood a long moment in silence. “I thought you were my friend,” I said at last.

“I thought you were my friend too, once. But that was a long time ago.

“You talk as if I’ve done something to harm you, Pumpkin, but-” “No, you’d never do anything like that,

would you? Not the perfect Miss Nitta Sayuri! I suppose it doesn’t matter that you took my place as the daughter of the okiya? Do you remember that, Sayuri? After I’d gone out of my way to help you with that Doctor- whatever his name was. After I’d risked making Hatsumomo furious at me for helping you! Then you turned it all around and stole what was mine. I’ve been wondering all these months just why you brought me into this little gathering with the Minister. I’m sorry it wasn’t so easy for you to take

advantage of me this time-”

“But Pumpkin,” I interrupted, “couldn’t you just have refused to help me? Why did you have to bring the Chairman?”

She stood up to her full height. “I know perfectly well how you feel about him,” she said. “Whenever there’s nobody looking, your eyes hang all over him like fur on a dog.”

She was so angry, she had bitten her lip; I could see a smudge of lipstick on her teeth. She’d set out to hurt me, I now realized, in the worst way she could.

“You took something from me a long time ago, Sayuri. How does it feel now?” she said. Her nostrils were flared, her face consumed with anger like a burning twig. It was as though the spirit of Hatsumomo had been living trapped inside her all these years, and had finally broken free.

During the rest of that evening, I remember nothing but a blur of events, and how much I dreaded every moment ahead of me. While the others sat around drinking and laughing, it was all I could do to pretend to laugh. I must have spent the entire night flushed red, because from time to time Mameha touched my neck to see if I was feverish. I’d seated myself as far away from the Chairman as I could, so that our eyes would never have to meet; and I did manage to make it through the evening without confronting him. But later, as we were all preparing for bed, I stepped into the hallway as he was coming back into the room. I ought to have moved out of his way, but I felt so ashamed, I gave a brief bow and hurried past him instead, making no effort to hide my unhappiness.

It was an evening of torment, and I remember only one other thing about it. At some point after everyone else was asleep, I wandered away from the inn in a daze and ended up on the sea cliffs, staring out into the darkness with the sound of the roaring water below me. The thundering of the ocean was like a bitter lament. I seemed to see beneath everything a layering of cruelty I’d never known was there- as though the trees and the wind, and even the rocks where I stood, were all in alliance with my old girlhood enemy, Hatsumomo. The howling of the wind and the shaking of the trees seemed to mock me. Could it really be that the stream of my life had divided forever? I removed the Chairman’s handkerchief from my sleeve, for I’d taken it to bed that evening to comfort myself one last time. I dried my face with it, and held it up into the wind. I was about to let it dance away into the darkness, when I thought of the tiny mortuary tablets that Mr. Tanaka had sent me so many years earlier. We must always keep something to remember those who have left us. The mortuary tablets back in the okiya were all that remained of my childhood. The Chairman’s handkerchief would be what remained of the rest of my life.

Back in Kyoto, I was carried along in a current of activity over the next few days. I had no choice but to put on my makeup as usual, and attend engagements at the teahouses just as though nothing had changed in the world. I kept reminding myself what Mameha had once told me, that there was nothing like work for getting over a disappointment; but my work didn’t seem to help me in any way. Every time I went into the Ichiriki Teahouse, I was reminded that one day soon Nobu would summon me there to tell me the arrangements had been settled at last. Considering how busy he’d been over the past few months, I didn’t expect to hear from him for some time-a week or two, perhaps. But on Wednesday morning, three days after our return from Amami, I received word that Iwamura Electric had telephoned the Ichiriki Teahouse to request my presence that evening.

I dressed late in the afternoon in a yellow kimono of silk gauze with a green underrobe and a deep blue obi interwoven with gold threads. Auntie assured me I looked lovely, but when I saw myself in the mirror, I seemed like a woman defeated. I’d certainly experienced moments in the past when I felt displeased with the way I looked before setting out from the okiya; but most often I managed to find at least one feature I could make use of during the course of the evening. A certain persimmon-colored underrobe, for example, always brought out the blue in my eyes, rather than the gray, no matter how exhausted I felt. But this evening my face seemed utterly hollow beneath my cheekbones-although I’d put on Western-style makeup just as I usually did-and even my hairstyle seemed lopsided to me. I couldn’t think of any way to improve my appearance, other than asking Mr. Bekku to retie my obi just a finger’s-width higher, to take away some of my downcast look.

My first engagement was a banquet given by an American colonel to honor the new governor of Kyoto Prefecture. It was held at the former estate of the Sumitomo family, which was now the headquarters of the American army’s seventh division. I was amazed to see that so many of the beautiful stones in the garden were painted white, and signs in English- which of course I couldn’t read- were tacked to the trees here and there. After the party was over, I made my way to the Ichiriki and was shown upstairs by a maid, to the same peculiar little room where Nobu had met with me on the night Gion was closing. This was the very spot where I’d learned about the haven he’d found to keep me safe from the war; it seemed entirely appropriate that we should meet in this same room to celebrate his becoming my danna-though it would be anything but a celebration for me. I knelt at one end of the table, so that Nobu would sit facing the alcove. I was careful to position myself so he could pour sake using his one arm, without the table in his way; he would certainly want to pour a cup for me after telling me the arrangements had been finalized. It would be a fine night for Nobu. I would do my best not to spoil it.

With the dim lighting and the reddish cast from the tea-colored walls, the atmosphere was really quite pleasant. I’d forgotten the very particular scent of the room-a combination of dust and the oil used for polishing wood-but now that I smelled it again, I found myself remembering details about that evening with Nobu years earlier that I couldn’t possibly have called to mind otherwise. He’d had holes in both of his socks, I remembered; through one a slender big toe had protruded, with the nail neatly groomed.

Could it really be that only five and a half years had passed since that evening? It seemed an entire generation had come and gone; so many of the people I’d once known were dead. Was this the life I’d come back to Gion to lead? It was just as Mameha had once told me: we don’t become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice. If my mother had lived, I might be a wife and mother at the seashore myself, thinking of Kyoto as a faraway place where the fish

were shipped-and would my life really be any worse? Nobu had once said to me, “I’m a very easy man to understand, Sayuri. I don’t like things held up before me that I cannot have.” Perhaps I was just the same; all my life in Gion, I’d imagined the Chairman before me, and now I could not have him.

After ten or fifteen minutes of waiting for Nobu, I began to wonder if he was really coming. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I laid my head down on the table to rest, for I’d slept poorly these past nights. I didn’t fall asleep, but I did drift for a time in my general sense of misery. And then I seemed to have a most peculiar dream. I thought I heard the tapping sound of drums in the distance, and a hiss like water from a faucet, and then I felt the Chairman’s hand touching my shoulder. I knew it was the Chairman’s hand because when I lifted my head from the table to see who had touched me, he was there. The tapping had been his footsteps; the hissing was the door in its track. And now he .stood above me with a maid

waiting behind him. I bowed and apologized for falling asleep. I felt so confused that for a moment I wondered if I was really awake; but it wasn’t a dream. The Chairman was seating himself on the very cushion where I’d expected Nobu to sit, and yet Nobu was nowhere to be seen. While the maid placed sake on the table, an awful thought began to take hold in my mind. Had the Chairman come to tell me Nobu had been in an accident, or that some other horrible thing had happened to him? Otherwise, why hadn’t Nobu himself comer 1 1 was about to ask the Chairman, when the mistress of the teahouse peered into the room.

“Why, Chairman,” she said, “we haven’t seen you in weeks!”

The mistress was always pleasant in front of guests, but I could tell from the strain in her voice that she had something else on her mind. Probably she was wondering about Nobu, just as I was. While I poured sake for the Chairman, the mistress came and knelt at the table. She stopped his hand before he took a sip from his cup, and leaned toward him to breathe in the scent of the vapors.

“Really, Chairman, I’ll never understand why you prefer this sake to others,” she said. “We opened some this afternoon, the best we’ve had in years. I’m sure Nobu-san will appreciate it when he arrives.”

“I’m sure he would,” the Chairman said. “Nobu appreciates fine things. But he won’t be coming tonight.”

I was alarmed to hear this; but I kept my eyes to the table. I could see that the mistress was surprised too, because of how quickly she changed the subject.

“Oh, well,” she said, “anyway, don’t you think our Sayuri looks charming this evening!”

“Now, Mistress, when has Sayuri not looked charming?” said the Chairman. “Which reminds me … let me show you something I’ve brought.”

The Chairman put onto the table a little bundle wrapped in blue silk; I hadn’t noticed it in his hand when he’d entered the room. He untied it and took out a short, fat scroll, which he began to unroll. It was cracked with age and showed-in miniature-brilliantly colored scenes of the Imperial court. If you’ve ever seen this sort of scroll, you’ll know that you can unroll it all the way across a room and survey the entire grounds of the Imperial compound, from the gates at one end to the palace at the other. The Chairman sat with it before him, unrolling it from one spindle to the other-past scenes of drinking parties, and aristocrats playing kickball with their kimonos cinched up between their legs-until he came to a young woman in her lovely twelve-layered robes, kneeling on the wood floor outside the Emperor’s chambers.

“Now what do you think of that!” he said.

“It’s quite a scroll,” the mistress said. “Where did the Chairman find it?”

“Oh, I bought it years ago. But look at this woman right here. She’s the reason I bought it. Don’t you notice anything about her?”

The mistress peered at it; afterward the Chairman turned it for me to see. The image of the young woman, though no bigger than a large coin, was painted in exquisite detail. I didn’t notice it at first, but her eyes were pale . . . and when I looked more closely I saw they were blue-gray. They made me think at once of the works Uchida had painted using me as a model. I blushed and muttered something about how beautiful the scroll was. The mistress admired it too for a moment, and then said:

“Well, I’ll leave the two of you. I’m going to send up some of that fresh, chilled sake I mentioned. Unless you think I should save it for the next time Nobu-san comes?”

“Don’t bother,” he said. “We’ll make do with the sake we have.”

“Nobu-san is … quite all right, isn’t he?”

“Oh, yes,” said the Chairman. “Quite all right.”

I was relieved to hear this; but at the same time I felt myself growing sick with shame. If the Chairman hadn’t come to give me news about Nobu, he’d come for some other reason-probably to berate me for what I’d done. In the few days since returning to Kyoto, I’d tried not to imagine what he must have seen: the Minister with his pants undone, me with my bare legs protruding from my disordered kimono . . .

When the mistress left the room, the sound of the door closing behind her was like a sword being drawn from its sheath.

“May I please say, Chairman,” I began as steadily as I could, “that my behavior on Amami-”

“I know what you’re thinking, Sayuri. But I haven’t come here to ask for your apology. Sit quietly a moment. I want to tell you about something that happened quite a number of years ago.”

“Chairman, I feel so confused,” I managed to say. “Please forgive me, but-”

“Just listen. You’ll understand soon enough why I’m telling it to you. Do you recall a restaurant named Tsumiyo? It closed toward the end of the Depression, but . . . well, never mind; you were very young at the time. In any case, one day quite some years ago-eighteen years ago, to be exact-I went there for lunch with several of my associates. We were accompanied by a certain geisha named Izuko, from the Pon-tocho district.”

I recognized Izuko’s name at once.

“She was everybody’s favorite back in those days,” the Chairman went on. “We happened to finish up our lunch a bit early, so I suggested we take a stroll by the Shirakawa Stream on our way to the theater.”

By this time I’d removed the Chairman’s handkerchief from my obi; and now, silently, I spread it onto the table and smoothed it so that his monogram was clearly visible. Over the years the handkerchief had taken on a stain in one corner, and the linen had yellowed; but the Chairman seemed to recognize it at once. His words trailed off, and he picked it up.

“Where did you get this?”

“Chairman,” I said, “all these years I’ve wondered if you knew I was the little girl you’d spoken to. You gave me your handkerchief that very afternoon, on your way to see the play Shibaraku. You also gave me a coin-”

“Do you mean to say . . . even when you were an apprentice, you knew that I was the man who’d spoken to you?”

“I recognized the Chairman the moment I saw him again, at the sumo tournament. To tell the truth, I’m amazed the Chairman remembered me.”

“Well, perhaps you ought to look at yourself in the mirror sometime, Sayuri. Particularly when your eyes are wet from crying, because they become … I can’t explain it. I felt I was seeing right through them. You know, I spend so much of my time seated across from men who are never quite telling me the truth; and here was a girl who’d never laid eyes on me before, and yet was willing to let me see straight into her.”

And then the Chairman interrupted himself.

“Didn’t you ever wonder why Mameha became your older sister?” he asked me.

“Mameha?” I said. “I don’t understand. What does Mameha have to do with it?”

“You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what, Chairman?”

“Sayuri, I am the one who asked Mameha to take you under her care. I told her about a beautiful young girl I’d met, with startling gray eyes, and asked that she help you if she ever came upon you in Gion. I said I would cover her expenses if necessary. And she did come upon you, only a few months later. From what she’s told me over the years, you would certainly never have become a geisha without her help.”

It’s almost impossible to describe the effect the Chairman’s words had on me. I’d always taken it for granted that Mameha’s mission had been personal-to rid herself and Gion of Hatsumomo. Now that I understood her real motive, that I’d come under her tutelage because of the Chairman . . . well, I felt I would have to look back at all the comments she’d ever made to me and wonder about the real meaning behind them. And it wasn’t just Mameha who’d suddenly been transformed in my eyes; even I seemed to myself to be a different woman. When my gaze fell upon my hands in my lap, I saw them as hands the Chairman had made. I felt exhilarated, and frightened, and grateful all at once. I moved away from the table to bow and express my gratitude to him; but before I could even do it, I had to say:

“Chairman, forgive me, but I so wish that at some time years ago, you could have told me about… all of this. I can’t say how much it would have meant to me.”

“There’s a reason why I never could, Sayuri, and why I had to insist that Mameha not tell you either. It has to do with Nobu.”

To hear mention of Nobu’s name, all the feeling drained out of me-for I had the sudden notion that I understood where the Chairman had been leading all along.

“Chairman,” I said, “I know I’ve been unworthy of your kindness. This past weekend, when I-”

“I confess, Sayuri,” he interrupted, “that what happened on Amami has been very much on my mind.”

I could feel the Chairman looking at me; I couldn’t possibly have looked back at him.

“There’s something I want to discuss with you,” he went on. “I’ve been wondering all day how to go about it. I keep thinking of something that happened many years ago. I’m sure there must be a better way to explain myself, but… I do hope you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.”

Here he paused to take off his jacket and fold it on the mats beside him. I could smell the starch in his shirt, which made me think of visiting the General at the Suruya Inn and his room that often smelled of ironing.

“Back when Iwamura Electric was still a young company,” the Chairman began, “I came to know a man named Ikeda, who worked for one of our suppliers on the other side of town. He was a genius at solving wiring problems. Sometimes when we had difficulty with an installation, we asked to borrow him for a day, and he straightened everything out for us. Then one afternoon when I was rushing home from work, I happened to run into him at the pharmacist. He told me he was feeling very relaxed, because he’d quit his job. When I asked him why he’d done it, he said, ‘The time came to quit. So I quit!’ Well, I hired him right there on the spot. Then a few weeks later I asked him again, ‘Ikeda-san, why did you quit your job across town?’ He said to me, ‘Mr. Iwamura, for years I wanted to come and work for your company. But

you never asked me. You always called on me when you had

a problem, but you never asked me to work for you. Then one day I realized that you never would ask me, because you didn’t want to hire me away from one of your suppliers and jeopardize your business relationship. Only if I quit my job first, would you then have the opportunity to hire me. So I quit.’ ”

I knew the Chairman was waiting for me to respond; but I didn’t dare speak.

“Now, I’ve been thinking,” he went on, “that perhaps your encounter with the Minister was like Ikeda quitting his job. And I’ll tell you why this thought has been on my mind. It’s something Pumpkin said after she took me down to the theater. I was extremely angry with her, and I demanded she tell me why she’d done it. For the longest time she wouldn’t even speak. Then she told me something that made no sense at first. She said you’d asked her to bring Nobu.”

“Chairman, please,” I began unsteadily, “I made such a terrible mistake . . .”

“Before you say anything further, I only want to know why you did this thing. Perhaps you felt you were doing Iwamura Electric some sort of … favor. I don’t know. Or maybe you owed the Minister something I’m unaware of.”

I must have given my head a little shake, because the Chairman stopped speaking at once.

“I’m deeply ashamed, Chairman,” I managed to say at last, “but. . . my motives were purely personal.”

After a long moment he sighed and held out his sake cup. I poured for him, with the feeling that my hands were someone else’s, and then he tossed the sake into his mouth and held it there before swallowing. Seeing him with his mouth momentarily full made me think of myself as an empty vessel swelled up with shame.

“All right, Sayuri,” he said, “I’ll tell you exactly why I’m asking. It will be impossible for you to grasp why I’ve come here tonight, or why I’ve treated you as I have over the years, if you don’t understand the nature of my relationship with Nobu. Believe me, I’m more aware than anyone of how difficult he can sometimes be. But he is a genius; I value him more than an entire team of men combined.”

I couldn’t think of what to do or say, so with trembling hands I picked up the vial to pour more sake for the Chairman. I took it as a very bad sign that he didn’t lift his cup.

“One day when I’d known you only a short time,” he went on, “Nobu brought you a gift of a comb, and gave it to you in front of everyone at the party. I hadn’t realized how much affection he felt for you until that very moment. I’m sure there were other signs before, but somehow I must have overlooked them. And when I realized how he felt, the way he looked at you that evening . . . well, I knew in a moment that I couldn’t possibly take away from him the thing he so clearly wanted. It never diminished my concern for your welfare. In fact, as the years have gone by, it has become increasingly difficult for me to listen dispassionately while Nobu talks about you.”

Here the Chairman paused and said, “Sayuri, are you listening to me?”

“Yes, Chairman, of course.”

“There’s no reason you would know this, but I owe Nobu a great debt. It’s true I’m the founder of the company, and his boss. But when Iwamura Electric was still quite young, we had a terrible problem with cash flow and very nearly went out of business. I wasn’t willing to give up control of the company, and I wouldn’t listen to Nobu when he insisted on bringing in investors. He won in the end, even though it caused a rift between us for a time; he offered to resign, and I almost let him. But of course, he was completely right, and I was wrong. I’d have lost the company without him. How do you repay a man for something like that? Do you know why I’m called ‘Chairman’ and not ‘President’? It’s because I resigned the title so Nobu would take it-though he tried to refuse. This is why I made up my mind, the moment I became aware of his affection for you, that I would keep my interest in you hidden so that Nobu could have you. Life has been cruel to him, Sayuri. He’s had too little kindness.”

In all my years as a geisha, I’d never been able to convince myself even for a moment that the Chairman felt any special regard for me. And now to know that he’d intended me for Nobu . . .

“I never meant to pay you so little attention,” he went on. “But surely you realize that if he’d ever picked up the slightest hint of my feelings, he would have given you up in an instant.”

Since my girlhood, I’d dreamed that one day the Chairman would tell me he cared for me; and yet I’d never quite believed it would really happen. I certainly hadn’t imagined he might tell me what I hoped to hear, and also that Nobu was my destiny. Perhaps the goal I’d sought in life would elude me; but at least during this one moment, it was within my power to sit in the room with the Chairman and tell him how deeply I felt.

“Please forgive me for what I am about to say,” I finally managed to begin.

I tried to continue, but somehow my throat made up its mind to swallow-though I can’t think what I was swallowing, unless it was a little knot of emotion I pushed back down because there was no room in my face for any more.

“I have great affection for Nobu, but what I did on Amami …” Here I had to hold a burning in my throat a long moment before I could speak again. “What I did on Amami, I did because of my feelings for you, Chairman. Every step I have taken in my life since I was a child in Gion, I have taken in the hope of bringing myself closer to you.”

When I said these words, all the heat in my body seemed to rise to my face. I felt I might float up into the air, just like a piece of ash from a fire, unless I could focus on something in the room. I tried to find a smudge on the tabletop, but already the table itself was glazing over and disappearing in my vision.

“Look at me, Sayuri.”

I wanted to do as the Chairman asked, but I couldn’t.

“How strange,” he went on quietly, almost to himself, “that the same woman who looked me so frankly in the eye as a girl, many years ago, can’t bring herself to do it now.”

Perhaps it ought to have been a simple task to raise my eyes and look at the Chairman; and yet somehow I couldn’t have felt more nervous if I’d stood alone on a stage with all of Kyoto watching. We were sitting at a corner of the table, so close that when at length I wiped my eyes and raised them to meet his,

I could see the dark rings around his irises. I wondered if perhaps I should look away and make a little bow, and then offer to pour him a cup of sake . .”. but no gesture would have been enough to break the tension. As I was thinking these thoughts, the Chairman moved the vial of sake and the cup aside, and then reached out his hand and took the collar of my robe to draw me toward him. In a moment our faces were so close, I could feel the warmth of his skin. I was still struggling to understand what was happening to me-and what I ought to do or say. And then the Chairman pulled me closer, and he kissed me.

It may surprise you to hear that this was the first time in my life anyone had ever really kissed me. General Tottori had sometimes pressed his lips against mine when he was my danna; but it had been utterly passionless. I’d wondered at the time if he simply needed somewhere to rest his face. Even Yasuda Akira-the man who’d bought me a kimono, and whom I’d seduced one night at the Tatematsu Teahouse-must have kissed me dozens of times on my neck and face, but he never really touched my lips with his. And so you can imagine that this kiss, the first real one of my life, seemed to me more intimate than anything I’d ever experienced. I had the feeling I was taking something from the Chairman, and that he was giving something to me, something more private than anyone had ever given me before. There was a certain very startling taste, as distinctive as any fruit or sweet, and when I tasted it, my shoulders sagged and my stomach swelled up; because for some reason it called to mind a dozen

different scenes I couldn’t think why I should remember. I thought of the head of steam when the cook lifted the lid from the rice cooker in the kitchen of our okiya. I saw a picture in my mind of the little alleyway that was the main thoroughfare of Pontocho, as I’d seen it one evening crowded with well- wishers after Kichisaburo’s last performance, the day he’d retired from the Kabuki theater. I’m sure I might have thought of a hundred other things, for it was as if all the boundaries in my mind had broken

down and my memories were running free. But then the Chairman leaned back away from me again, with one of his hands upon my neck. He was so close, I could see the moisture glistening on his lip, and still smell the kiss we’d just ended.

“Chairman,” I said, “why?”

“Why what?”

“Why . . . everything? Why have you kissed me? You’ve just been speaking of me as a gift to Nobu-san.”

“Nobu gave you up, Sayuri. I’ve taken nothing away from him.”

In my confusion of feelings, I couldn’t quite understand what he meant.

“When I saw you there with the Minister, you had a look in your eyes just like the one I saw so many years ago at the Shirakawa Stream,” he told me. “You seemed so desperate, like you might drown if someone didn’t save you. After Pumpkin told me you’d intended that encounter for Nobu’s eyes, I made up my mind to tell him what I’d seen. And when he reacted so angrily . . . well, if he couldn’t forgive you for what you’d done, it was clear to me he was never truly your destiny.”

One afternoon back when I was a child in Yoroido, a little boy named Gisuke climbed a tree to jump into the pond. He climbed much higher than he should have; the water wasn’t deep enough. But when we told him not to jump, he was afraid to climb back down because of rocks under the tree. I ran to the village to find his father, Mr. Yamashita, who came walking so calmly up the hill, I wondered if he realized what danger his son was in. He stepped underneath the tree just as the boy-unaware of his father’s presence-lost his grip and fell. Mr. Yamashita caught him as easily as if someone had dropped a sack into his arms, and set him upright. We all of us cried out in delight, and skipped around at the edge of the pond while Gisuke stood blinking his eyes very quickly, little tears of astonishment gathering on his lashes.

Now I knew exactly what Gisuke must have felt. I had been plummeting toward the rocks, and the Chairman had stepped out to catch me. I was so overcome with relief, I couldn’t even wipe away the tears that spilled from the corners of my eyes. His shape was a blur before me, but I could see him moving closer, and in a moment he’d gathered me up in his arms just as if I were a blanket. His lips went straight for the little triangle of flesh where the edges of my kimono came together at my throat. And when I felt his breath on my neck, and the sense of urgency with which he almost consumed me, I couldn’t help thinking of a moment years earlier, when I’d stepped into the kitchen of the okiya and found one of the maids leaning over the sink, trying to cover up the ripe pear she held to her mouth, its juices running down onto her neck. She’d had such a craving for it, she’d said, and beggedme not to tell Mother.

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