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HOME > Classical Novels > Memoirs Of A Geisha > Chapter 10
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Chapter 10

One morning quite some months later, while we were putting away the ro underrobes-the ones made of lightweight silk gauze for hot weather-and bringing out the hitoe underrobes instead-the ones with no lining, used in September-I came upon a smell in the entry-way so horrible that I dropped the armload of robes I was carrying. The smell was coming from Granny's room. I ran upstairs to fetch Auntie, because I knew at once that something must be terribly wrong. Auntie hobbled down the stairs as quickly as she could and went in to find Granny dead on the floor; and she had died in a most peculiar manner. Granny had the only electric space heater in our okiya. She used it every single night except during the summer. Now that the month of September had begun and we were putting away the summer-weight underrobes, Granny had begun to use her heater again. That doesn't mean the weather was necessarily cool; we change the weight of our clothing by the calendar, not by the actual temperature outdoors, and Granny used her heater just the same way. She was unreasonably attached to it, probably because she'd spent so many nights of her life suffering miserably from the cold.

Granny's usual routine in the morning was to wrap the cord around the heater before pushing it back against the wall. Over time the hot metal burned all the way through the cord, so that the wire finally came into contact with it, and the whole thing became electrified. The police said that when Granny touched it that morning she must have been immobilized at once, maybe even killed instantly. When she slid down onto the floor, she ended up with her face pressed against the hot metal surface. This was what caused the horrible smell. Happily I didn't see her after she'd died, except for her legs, which were visible from the doorway and looked like slender tree limbs wrapped in wrinkled silk.

For a week or two after Granny died, we were as busy as you can imagine, not only with cleaning the house thoroughly-because in Shinto, death is the most impure of all the things that can happen-but with preparing the house by setting out candles, trays with meal offerings, lanterns at the entrance, tea stands, trays for money that visitors brought, and so on. We were so busy that one evening the cook became ill and a doctor was summoned; it turned out her only problem was that she'd slept no more than two hours the night before, hadn't sat down all day, and had eaten only a single bowl of clear soup. I was surprised too to see Mother spending money almost unrestrainedly, making plans for sutras to be chanted "on Granny's behalf at the Chion-in Temple, purchasing lotus-bud arrangements from the undertaker- all of it right in the midst of the Great Depression. I wondered at first if her behavior was a testament to how deeply she felt about Granny; but later I realized what it really meant: practically all of Gion would come tramping through our okiya to pay respects to Granny, and would attend the funeral at the temple later in the week; Mother had to put on the proper kind of show.

For a few days all of Gion did indeed come through our okiya, or so it seemed; and we had to feed tea and sweets to all of them. Mother and Auntie received the mistresses of the various teahouses and okiya, as well as a number of maids who were acquainted with Granny; also shopkeepers, wig makers, and hairdressers, most of whom were men; and of course, dozens and dozens of geisha. The older geisha knew Granny from her working days, but the younger ones had never even heard of her; they came out of respect for Mother-or in some cases because they had a relationship of one kind or another with Hatsumomo.

My job during this busy period was to show visitors into the reception room, where Mother and Auntie were waiting for them. It was a distance of only a few steps; but the visitors couldn't very well show themselves in; and besides, I had to keep track of which faces belonged to which shoes, for it was my job to take the shoes to the maids' room to keep the entryway from being too cluttered, and then bring them back again at the proper moment. I had trouble with this at first. I couldn't peer right into the eyes of our visitors without seeming rude, but a simple glimpse of their faces wasn't enough for me to remember them. Very soon I learned to look closely at the kimono they wore.

On about the second or third afternoon the door rolled open, and in came a kimono that at once struck me as the loveliest I'd seen any of our visitors wear. It was somber because of the occasion-a simple black robe bearing a crest-but its pattern of green and gold grasses sweeping around the hem was so rich-looking, I found myself imagining how astounded the wives and daughters of the fishermen back in Yoroido would be to see such a thing. The visitor had a maid with her as well, which made me think perhaps she was the mistress of a teahouse or okiya-because very few geisha could afford such an expense. While she looked at the tiny Shinto shrine in our entryway, I took the opportunity to steal a peek at her face. It was such a perfect oval that I thought at once of a certain scroll in Auntie's room, showing an ink painting of a courtesan from the Heian period a thousand years earlier. She wasn't as striking a woman as Hatsumomo, but her features were so perfectly formed that at once I began to feel even more insignificant than usual. And then suddenly I realized who she was.

Mameha, the geisha whose kimono Hatsumomo had made me ruin.

What had happened to her kimono wasn't really my fault; but still, I would have given up the robe I was wearing not to run into her. I lowered my head to keep my face hidden while I showed her and her maid into the reception room. I didn't think she would recognize me, since I felt certain she hadn't seen my face when I'd returned the kimono; and even if she had, two years had passed since then. The maid who accompanied her now wasn't the same young woman who'd taken the kimono from me that night and whose eyes had filled with tears. Still, I was relieved when the time came for me to bow and leave them in the reception room.

Twenty minutes later, when Mameha and her maid were ready to leave, I fetched their shoes and arranged them on the step in the entryway, still keeping my head down and feeling every bit as nervous as I had earlier. When her maid rolled open the door, I felt that my ordeal was over. But instead of walking out, Mameha just went on standing there. I began to worry; and I'm afraid my eyes and my mind weren't communicating well, because even though I knew I shouldn't do it, I
let my eyes flick up. I was horrified to see that Mameha was peering down at me.

"What is your name, little girl?" she said, in what I took to be a very stern tone.

I told her that my name was Chiyo.

"Stand up a moment, Chiyo. I'd like to have a look at you."

I rose to my feet as she had asked; but if it had been possible to make my face shrivel up and disappear, just like slurping down a noodle, I'm sure I would have done it.

"Come now, I want to have a look at you!" she said. "Here you are acting like you're counting the toes on your feet."

I raised my head, though not my eyes, and then Mameha let out a long sigh and ordered me to look up at her.

"What unusual eyes!" she said. "I thought I might have imagined it. What color would you call them, Tatsumi?"

Her maid came back into the entryway and took a look at me. "Blue-gray, ma'am," she replied.

"That's just what I would have said. Now, how many girls in Gion do you think have eyes like that?"

I didn't know if Mameha was speaking to me or Tatsumi, but neither of us answered. She was looking at me with a peculiar expression-concentrating on something, it seemed to me. And then to my great relief, she excused herself and left.

Granny's funeral was held about a week later, on a morning chosen by a fortune-teller. Afterward we began putting the okiya back in order, but with several changes. Auntie moved downstairs into the room that had been Granny's, while Pumpkin-who was to begin her apprenticeship as a geisha before long-took the second-floor room where Auntie had lived. In addition, two new maids arrived the following week, both of them middle-aged and very energetic. It may seem odd that Mother added maids although the family was now fewer in number; but in fact the okiya had always been understaffed because Granny couldn't tolerate crowding.

The final change was that Pumpkin's chores were taken away from her. She was told instead to spend her time practicing the various arts she would depend upon as a geisha. Usually girls weren't given so much opportunity for practice, but poor Pumpkin was a slow learner and needed the extra time if anyone ever did. I had difficulty watching her as she knelt on the wooden walkway every day and practiced her shamisen for hours, with her tongue poking out the side of her mouth
like she was trying to lick her cheek clean. She gave me little smiles whenever our eyes met; and really, her disposition was as sweet and kind as could be. But already I was finding it difficult to bear the burden of patience in my life, waiting for some tiny opening that might never come and that would certainly be the only chance I'd ever get. Now I had to watch as the door of opportunity was held wide open for someone else. Some nights when I went to bed, I took the handkerchief the Chairman had given me and lay on my futon smelling its rich talc scent. I cleared my mind of everything but the image of him and the feeling of warm sun on my face and the hard stone wall where I'd sat that day when I met him. He was my bodhisattva with a thousand arms who would help me. I couldn't imagine how his help would come to me, but I prayed that it would.

Toward the end of the first month after Granny's death, one of our new maids came to me one day to say I had a visitor at the door. It was an unseasonably hot October afternoon, and my whole body was damp with perspiration from using our old hand-operated vacuum to clean the tatami mats upstairs in Pumpkin's new room, which had only recently been Auntie's; Pumpkin was in the habit of sneaking rice crackers upstairs, so the tatami needed to be cleaned frequently. I mopped myself with a wet towel as quickly as I could and rushed down, to find a young woman in the entryway, dressed in a kimono like a maid's. I got to my knees and bowed to her. Only when I looked at her a second time did I recognize her as the maid who had accompanied Mameha to our okiya a few weeks earlier. I was very sorry to see her there. I felt certain I was in trouble. But when she gestured for me to step down into the entryway, I slipped my feet into my shoes and followed her out to the street.

"Are you sent on errands from time to time, Chiyo?" she asked me.

So much time had passed since I'd tried to run away that I was no longer confined to the okiya. I had no idea why she was asking; but I told her that I was.

"Good," she said. "Arrange for yourself to be sent out tomorrow afternoon at three o'clock, and meet me at the little bridge that arches over the Shirakawa Stream."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, "but may I ask why?"

"You'll find out tomorrow, won't you?" she answered, with a little crinkle of her nose that made me wonder if she was teasing me.

I certainly wasn't pleased that Mameha's maid wanted me to accompany her somewhere-probably to Mameha, I thought, to be scolded for what I'd done. But just the same, the following day I talked Pumpkin into sending me on an errand that didn't really need to be run. She was worried about getting into trouble, until I promised to find a way of repaying her. So at three o'clock, she called to me from the courtyard:

"Chiyo-san, could you please go out and buy me some new shamisen strings and a few Kabuki magazines?" She had been instructed to read Kabuki magazines for the sake of her education. Then I heard her say in an even louder voice, "Is that all right, Auntie?" But Auntie didn't answer, for she was upstairs taking a nap.

I left the okiya and walked along the Shirakawa Stream to the arched bridge leading into the Motoyoshi-cho section of Gion. With the weather so warm and lovely, quite a number of men and geisha were strolling along, admiring the weeping cherry trees whose tendrils drooped onto the surface of the water. While I waited near the bridge, I watched a group of foreign tourists who had come to see the famous Gion district. They weren't the only foreigners I'd ever seen in Kyoto, but they certainly looked peculiar to me, the big-nosed women with their long dresses and their brightly colored hair, the men so tall and confident, with heels that clicked on the pavement. One of the men pointed at me and said something in a foreign language, and they all turned to have a look. I felt so embarrassed I pretended to find something on the ground so I could crouch down and hide myself.

Finally Mameha's maid came; and just as I'd feared, she led me over the bridge and along the stream to the very same doorway where Hatsumomo and Korin had handed me the kimono and sent me up the stairs. It seemed terribly unfair to me that this same incident was about to cause still more trouble for me-and after so much time had passed. But when the maid rolled open the door for me, I climbed up into the gray light of the stairway. At the top we both stepped out of our shoes and went into the apartment.

"Chiyo is here, ma'am!" she cried.

Then I heard Mameha call from the back room, "All right, thank you, Tatsumi!"

The young woman led me to a table by an open window, where I knelt on one of the cushions and tried not to look nervous. Very shortly another maid came out with a cup of tea for me-because as it turned out, Mameha had not one maid, but two. I certainly wasn't expecting to be served tea; and in fact, nothing like this had happened to me since dinner at Mr. Tanaka's house years earlier. I bowed to thank her and took a few sips, so as not to seem rude. Afterward I found myself sitting
for a long while with nothing to do but listen to the sound of water passing over the knee-high cascade in the Shirakawa Stream outside.

Mameha's apartment wasn't large, but it was extremely elegant, with beautiful tatami mats that were obviously new, for they had a lovely yellow-green sheen and smelled richly of straw. If you've ever looked closely enough at a tatami mat, you'd notice that the border around it is edged in fabric, usually just a strip of dark cotton or linen; but these were edged in a strip of silk with a pattern of green and gold. Not far away in an alcove hung a scroll written in a beautiful hand, which turned out to be a gift to Mameha from the famous calligrapher Matsudaira Koichi. Beneath it, on the wooden base of the alcove, an arrangement of blossoming dogwood branches rose up out of a shallow dish that was irregular in shape with a cracked glaze of the deepest black. I found it very peculiar, but actually it had been presented to Mameha by none other than Yoshida Sakuhei, the great master of the setoguro style of ceramics who became a Living National Treasure in the years after World War II.

At last Mameha came out from the back room, dressed exquisitely in a cream kimono with a water design at the hem. I turned and bowed very low on the mats while she drifted over to the table; and when she was there, she arranged herself on her knees opposite me, took a sip of tea the maid served to her, and then said this:

"Now . . . Chiyo, isn't it? Why don't you tell me how you managed to get out of your okiya this afternoon? I'm sure Mrs. Nitta doesn't like it when her maids attend to personal business in the middle of the day."

I certainly hadn't expected this sort of question. In fact, I couldn't think of anything at all to say, even though............

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