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Chapter 11

I should explain just what Mameha meant by "older sister," even though at the time, I hardly knew much about it myself. By the time a girl is finally ready to make her debut as an apprentice, she needs to have established a relationship with a more experienced geisha. Mameha had mentioned Hatsumomo's older sister, the great Tomi-hatsu, who was already an old woman when she trained Hatsumomo; but older sisters aren't always so senior to the geisha they train. Any geisha can act as older-sister to a younger girl, as long as she has at least one day's seniority.

When two girls are bound together as sisters, they perform a ceremony like a wedding. Afterward they see each other almost as members of the same family, calling each other "Older Sister" and "Younger Sister" just as real family members do. Some geisha may not take the role as seriously as they should, but an older sister who does her job properly becomes the most important figure in a young geisha's life. She does a great deal more than just making sure her younger sister learns the proper way of blending embarrassment and laughter when a man tells a naughty joke, or helping her select the right grade of wax to use under her makeup. She must also make sure her younger sister attracts the notice of people she'll need to know. She does this by taking her around Gion and presenting her to the mistresses of all the proper teahouses, to the man who makes wigs for stage performances, to the chefs at the important restaurants, and so on.

There's certainly plenty of work in all of this. But introducing her younger sister around Gion during the day is only half of what an older sister must do. Because Gion is like a faint star that comes out in its fullest beauty only after the sun has set. At night the older sister must take her younger sister with her to entertain, in order to introduce her to the customers and patrons she's come to know over the years. She says to them, "Oh, have you met my new younger sister, So-and-so? Please be sure to remember her name, because she's going to be a big star! And please permit her to call on you the next time you visit Gion." Of course, few men pay high fees to spend the evening chatting with a fourteen-year-old; so this customer probably won't, in fact, summon the young girl on his next visit. But the older sister and the mistress of the teahouse will continue to push her on him until he does. If it turns out he doesn't like her for some reason . . . well, that's another story; but otherwise, he'll probably end up a patron of hers in good time, and very fond of her too-just as he is of her older sister.

Taking on the role of older sister often feels about like carrying a sack of rice back and forth across the city. Because not only is a younger sister as dependent on her older sister as a passenger is on the train she rides; but when the girl behaves badly, it's her older sister who must bear responsibility. The reason a busy and successful geisha goes to all this trouble for a younger girl is because everyone in Gion benefits when an apprentice succeeds. The apprentice herself benefits by paying off her debts over time, of course; and if she's lucky, she'll end up mistress to a wealthy man. The older sister benefits by receiving a portion of her younger sister's fees-as do the mistresses of the various teahouses where the girl entertains. Even the wigmaker, and the shop where hair ornaments are sold, and the sweets shop where the apprentice geisha will buy gifts for her patrons from time to time . . . they may never directly receive a portion of the girl's fees; but certainly they all benefit by the patronage of yet another successful geisha, who can bring customers into Gion to spend money.

It's fair to say that, for a young girl in Gion, nearly everything depends on her older sister. And yet few girls have any say over who their older sisters will be. An established geisha certainly won't jeopardize her reputation by taking on a younger sister she thinks is dull or someone she thinks her patrons won't like. On the other hand, the mistress of an okiya that has invested a great deal of money in training a certain apprentice won't sit quietly and just wait for some dull geisha to come along and offer to train her. So as a result, a successful geisha ends up with far more requests than she can manage. Some she can turn away, and some she can't . . . which brings me to the reason why Mother probably did feel-just as Mameha suggested-that not a single geisha in Gion would be willing to act as my older sister.

Back at the time I first came to the okiya, Mother probably had in mind for Hatsumomo to act as my older sister. Hatsumomo may have been the sort of woman who would bite a spider right back, but nearly any apprentice would have been happy to be her younger sister. Hatsumomo had already been older sister to at least two well-known young geisha in Gion. Instead of torturing them as she had me, she'd behaved herself well. It was her choice to take them on, and she did it for the money it would bring her. But in my case, Hatsumomo could no more have been counted on to help me in Gion and then be content with the few extra yen it would bring her than a dog can be counted on to escort a cat down the street without taking a bite out of it in the alley. Mother could certainly have compelled Hatsumomo to be my older sister-not only because Hatsumomo lived in our okiya, but also because she had so few kimono of her own and was dependent on the okiya's collection. But I don't think any force on earth could have compelled Hatsumomo to train me properly. I'm sure that on the day she was asked to take me to the Mizuki Teahouse and introduce me to the mistress there, she would have taken me instead to the banks of the river and said, "Kamo River, have you met my new younger sister?" and then pushed me right in.

As for the idea of another geisha taking on the task of training me . . . well, it would mean crossing paths with Hatsumomo. Few geisha in Gion were brave enough to do such a thing.

Late one morning a few weeks after my encounter with Mameha, I was serving tea to Mother and a guest in the reception room when Auntie slid open the door.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," Auntie said, "but I wonder if you would mind excusing yourself for just a moment, Kayoko-san." Kayoko was Mother's real name, you see, but we rarely heard it used in our okiya. "We have a visitor at the door."

Mother gave one of her coughing laughs when she heard this. "You must be having a dull day, Auntie," she said, "to come announce a visitor yourself. The maids don't work hard enough as it is, and now you're doing their jobs for them."

"I thought you'd rather hear from me," Auntie said, "that our visitor is Mameha."

I had begun to worry that nothing would come of my meeting with Mameha. But to hear that she had suddenly appeared at our okiya . . . well, the blood rushed to my face so intensely that I felt like a lightbulb just switched on. The room was perfectly quiet for a long moment, and then Mother's guest said, "Mameha-san . . . well! I'll run along, but only if you promise to tell me tomorrow just what this is all about."

I took my opportunity to slip out of the room as Mother's guest was leaving. Then in the formal entrance hall, I heard Mother say something to Auntie I'd never imagined her saying. She was tapping her pipe into an ashtray she'd brought from the reception room, and when she handed the ashtray to me, she said, "Auntie, come here and fix my hair, please." I'd never before known her to worry in the least about her appearance. It's true she wore elegant clothing. But just as her room was filled with lovely objects and yet was hopelessly gloomy, she herself may have been draped in exquisite fabrics, but her eyes were as oily as a piece of old, smelly fish . . . and really, she seemed to regard her hair the way a train regards its smokestack: it was just the thing that happened to be on top.

While Mother was answering the door, I stood in the maids' room cleaning out the ashtray. And I worked so hard to overhear Mameha and Mother that it wouldn't have surprised me if I had strained all the muscles in my ears.

First Mother said, "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Mameha-san. What an honor to have a visit from you!"

Then Mameha said, "I hope you'll forgive me for calling so unexpectedly, Mrs. Nitta." Or something equally dull. And it went on this way for a while. All my hard work in overhearing it was about as rewarding to me as a man who lugs a chest up the hill only to learn that it's full of rocks.

At last they made their way through the formal entrance hall to the reception room. I was so desperate to overhear their conversation that I grabbed a rag from the maids' room and began polishing the floor of the entrance hall with it. Normally Auntie wouldn't have permitted me to work there while a guest was in the reception room, but she was as preoccupied with eavesdropping as I was. When the maid came out after serving tea, Auntie stood to one side where she wouldn't be seen and made sure the door was left open a crack so she could hear. I listened so closely to their small talk that I must have lost track of everything around me, for suddenly I looked up to see Pumpkin's round face staring right into mine. She was on her knees polishing the floor, even though I was already doing it and she wasn't expected to do chores anymore.

"Who is Mameha?" she whispered to me.

Obviously she had overheard the maids talking among themselves; I could see them huddled together on the dirt corridor just at the edge of the walkway.

"She and Hatsumomo are rivals," I whispered back. "She's the one whose kimono Hatsumomo made me put ink on."

Pumpkin looked like she was about to ask something else, but then we heard Mameha say, "Mrs. Nitta, I do hope you'll forgive me for disturbing you on such a busy day, but I'd like to talk with you briefly about your maid Chiyo."

"Oh, no," Pumpkin said, and looked into my eyes to show how sorry she felt for the trouble I was about to be in.

"Our Chiyo can be a bit of a nuisance," Mother said. "I do hope she hasn't been troubling you."

"No, nothing like that," Mameha said. "But I noticed she hasn't been attending the school these past few weeks. I'm so accustomed to running into her from time to time in the hallway . . . Just yesterday I realized she must be terribly ill! I've recently met an extremely capable doctor. I wonder, shall I ask him to stop by?"

"It's very kind of you," said Mother, "but you must be thinking of a different girl. You couldn't have run into our Chiyo in the hallway at the school. She hasn't attended lessons there for two years."

"Are we thinking of the same girl? Quite pretty, with startling blue-gray eyes?"

"She does have unusual eyes. But there must be two such girls in Gion . . . Who would have thought it!"

"I wonder if it's possible that two years have passed since I saw her there," Mameha said. "Perhaps she made such a strong impression it still seems very recent. If I may ask, Mrs. Nitta ... is she quite well?"

"Oh, yes. As healthy as a young sapling, and every bit as unruly, if I do say so."

"Yet she isn't taking lessons any longer? How puzzling."

"For a young geisha as popular as you, I'm sure Gion must seem an easy place to make a living. But you know, times are very difficult. I

can't afford to invest money in just anyone. As soon as I realized how poorly suited Chiyo was-"

"I'm quite sure we're thinking of two different girls," Mameha said. "I can't imagine that a businesswoman as astute as you are, Mrs. Nitta, would call Chiyo 'poorly suited'. . ."

"Are you certain her name is Chiyo?" Mother asked.

None of us realized it, but as she spoke these words, Mother was rising from the table and crossing the little room. A moment later she slid open the door and found herself staring directly into Auntie's ear. Auntie stepped out of the way just as though nothing had happened; and I suppo............

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