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Chapter 12

The very next afternoon Mameha summoned me to her apartment. This time she was seated at the table waiting for me when the maid slid open the door. I was careful to bow properly before coming into the room and then to cross to the table and bow again.

"Mameha-san, I don't know what has led you to this decision . . ." I began, "but I can't express how grateful I am-"

"Don't be grateful just yet," she interrupted. "Nothing has happened. You'd better tell me what Mrs. Nitta said to you after my visit yesterday."

"Well," I said, "I think Mother was a little confused about why you've taken notice of me . . . and to tell the truth, so am I." I hoped Mameha would say something, but she didn't. "As for Hatsumomo-"

"Don't even waste your time thinking about what she says. You already know she'd be thrilled to see you fail, just as Mrs. Nitta would."

"I don't understand why Mother should want me to fail," I said, 'considering she'll make more money if I succeed."

"Except that if you pay back your debts by the age of twenty, she'll owe me a good deal of money. I made a sort of bet with her yesterday," Mameha said, while a maid served us tea. "I wouldn't have made the bet unless I felt certain you would succeed. But if I'm going to be your older sister, you may as well know that I have very strict terms."

I expected her to tell them to me, but she only glowered and said:

"Really, Chiyo, you must stop blowing on your tea that way. You look like a peasant! Leave it on the table until it's cool enough to drink."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I wasn't aware I was doing it."

"It's time you were; a geisha must be very careful about the image she presents to the world. Now, as I say, I have very strict terms. To begin with, I expect you to do what I ask without questioning me or doubting me in any way. I know you've disobeyed Hatsumomo and Mrs. Nitta from time to time. You may think that's understandable; but if you ask me, you should have been more obedient in the first place and perhaps none of these unfortunate things would ever have happened to you."

Mameha was quite right. The world has changed a good deal since; but when I was a child, a girl who disobeyed her elders was soon put in her place.

"Several years ago I took on two new younger sisters," Mameha continued. "One worked very hard, but the other slacked off. I brought her here to my apartment one day and explained that I wouldn't tolerate her making a fool of me any longer, but it had no effect. The following month I told her to go and find herself a new older sister."

"Mameha-san, I promise you, such a thing will never happen with me," I said. "Thanks to you, I feel like a ship encountering its first taste of the ocean. I would never forgive myself for disappointing you."

"Yes, well, that's all fine, but I'm not just talking about how hard you work. You'll have to be careful not to let Hatsumomo trick you. And for heaven's sake, don't do anything to make your debts worse than they are. Don't break even a teacup!"

I promised her I wouldn't; but I must confess that when I thought of Hatsumomo tricking me again . . . well, I wasn't sure how I could defend myself if she tried.

"There's one more thing," Mameha said. "Whatever you and I discuss must be kept private. You are never to tell any of it to Hatsumomo. Even if we've only talked about the weather, do you understand? If Hatsumomo asks what I said, you must tell her, 'Oh, Hatsumomo-san, Mameha-san never says anything of interest! As soon as I've heard it, it slips right out of my mind. She's the dullest person alive!'"

I told Mameha I understood.

"Hatsumomo is quite clever," she went on. "If you give her the slightest hint, you'll be surprised how much she'll figure out on her own."

Suddenly, Mameha leaned toward me and said in an angry voice, "What were you two talking about yesterday when I saw you on the street together?"

"Nothing, ma'am!" I said. And though she went on glaring at me, I was so shocked I couldn't say anything further.

"What do you mean, nothing? You'd better answer me, you stupid little girl, or I'll pour ink in your ear tonight while you're sleeping!"

It took me a moment to understand that Mameha was trying to do an imitation of Hatsumomo. I'm afraid it wasn't a very good imitation, but now that I understood what she was doing, I said, "Honestly, Hatsumomo-san, Mameha-san is always saying the dullest things! I can never remember a single one of them. They just melt away like snowflakes. Are you quite sure you saw us talking yesterday? Because if we talked at all, I can hardly remember it. . . ."

Mameha went on for a time, doing her poor imitation of Hatsumomo, and at the end said I had done an adequate job. I wasn't as confident as she was. Being questioned by Mameha, even when she was trying to act like Hatsumomo, wasn't the same thing as keeping up a facade in front of Hatsumomo herself.

In the two years since Mother had put an end to my lessons, I'd forgotten much of what I'd learned. And I hadn't learned much to begin with, since my mind had been occupied with other things. This is why, when I went back to the school after Mameha agreed to be my older sister, I honestly felt I was beginning my lessons for the very first time.

I was twelve years old by then, and nearly as tall as Mameha. Having grown older may seem like an advantage, but I can assure you it wasn't. Most of the girls at the school had begun their studies much younger, in some cases at the traditional age of three years and three days. Those few who'd started as young as this were mostly the daughters of geisha themselves, and had been raised in such a way that dance and tea ceremony formed as much a part of their daily life as swimming in the pond had for me.

I know I've described something of what it was like to study shamisen with Teacher Mouse. But a geisha must study a great many arts besides shamisen. And in fact, the "gei" of "geisha" means "arts," so the word "geisha" really means "artisan" or "artist." My first lesson in the morning was in a kind of small drum we call tsutsumi. You may wonder why a geisha should bother learning drums, but the answer is very simple. In a banquet or any sort of informal gathering in Gion, geisha usually dance to nothing more than the accompaniment of a shamisen and perhaps a singer. But for stage performances, such as Dances of the Old Capital every spring, six or more shamisen players join together as an ensemble, backed by various types of drums and also a Japanese flute we call fue. So you see, a geisha must try her hand at all of these instruments, even though eventually she'll be encouraged to specialize in one or two.

As I say, my early-morning lesson was in the little drum we call tsutsumi, which is played in a kneeling position like all the other musical instruments we studied. Tsutsumi is different from the other drums because it's held on the shoulder and played with the hand, unlike the larger okaiva, which rests on the thigh, or the largest drum of all, called taiho, which sits edgewise on a stand and is struck with fat drumsticks. I studied them all at one time or other. A drum may seem like an instrument even a child can play, but actually there are various ways of striking each of them, such as-for the big taiko-bringing the arm across the body and then swinging the drumstick backhand, you might say, which we call uchikomi; or striking with one arm while bringing the other up at the same moment, which we call sarashi. There are other methods as well, and each produces a different sound, but only after a great deal of practice. On top of this, the orchestra is always in view of the public, so all these movements must be graceful and attractive, as well as being in unison-with the other players. Half the work is in making the right sound; the other half is in doing it the proper way.

Following drums, my next lesson of the morning was in Japanese flute, and after that in shamisen. The method in studying any of these instruments was more or less the same. The teacher began by playing something, and then the students tried to play it back. On occasion we sounded like a band of animals at the zoo, but not often, because the teachers were careful to begin simply. For example, in my first lesson on the flute, the teacher played a single note and we tried one at a time to play it back. Even after only one note, the teacher still found plenty to say.

"So-and-so, you must keep your little finger down, not up in the air. And you, Such-and-such, does your flute smell bad? Well then, why do you wrinkle your nose that way!"

She was very strict, like most of the teachers, and naturally we were afraid of making mistakes. It wasn't uncommon for her to take the flute from some poor girl in order to hit her on the shoulder with it.

After drums, flute, and shamisen, my next lesson was usually in singing. We often sing at parties in Japan; and of course, parties are mostly what men come to Gion for. But even if a girl can't hold a tune and will never be asked to perform in front of others, she must still study singing to help her understand dance. This is because the dances are set to particular pieces of music, often performed by a singer accompanying herself on the shamisen.

There are many different types of songs-oh, far more than I could possibly count-but in our lessons we studied five different kinds. Some were popular ballads; some were long pieces from Kabuki theater telling a story; others were something like a short musical poem. It would be senseless for me to try describing these songs. But let me say that while I find most of them enchanting, foreigners often seem to think they sound more like cats wailing in a temple yard than music. It is true that traditional Japanese singing involves a good deal of warbling and is often sung so far back in the throat that the sound comes out from the nose rather than the mouth. But it's only a matter of what you're accustomed to hearing.

In all of these classes, music and dance were only part of what we learned. Because a girl who has mastered the various arts will still come off badly at a party if she hasn't learned proper comportment and behavior. This is one reason the teachers always insist upon good manners and bearing in their students, even when a girl is only scurrying down the hall toward the toilet. When you're taking a lesson in shamisen, for example, you'll be corrected for speaking in anything but the most proper language, or for speaking in a regional accent rather than in Kyoto speech, or for slouching, or walking in lumbering steps. In fact, the most severe scolding a girl is likely to receive probably won't be for playing her instrument badly or failing to learn the words to a song, but rather for having dirty fingernails, or being disrespectful, or something of that sort.

Sometimes when I've talked with foreigners about my training, they've asked, "Well, when did you study flower arranging?" The answer is that I never did. Anyone who sits down in front of a man and begins to arrange flowers by way of entertaining him is likely to look up and find that he has laid his head down on the table to go to sleep. You must remember that a geisha, above all, is an entertainer and a performer. We may pour sake or tea for a man, but we never go and fetch another serving of pickles. And in fact, we geisha are so well pampered by our maids that we scarcely know how to look after ourselves or keep our own rooms orderly, much less adorn a room in a teahouse with flowers.

My last lesson of the morning was in tea ceremony. This is a subject many books are written about, so I won't try to go into much detail. But basically, a tea ceremony is conducted by one or two people who sit before their guests and prepare tea in a very traditional manner, using beautiful cups, and whisks made from bamboo, and so forth. Even the guests are a part of the ceremony because they must hold the cup in a certain manner and drink from it just so. If you think of it as sitting down to have a nice cup of tea . . . well, it's more like a sort of dance, or even a meditation, conducted while kneeling. The tea itself is made from tea leaves ground into a powder and then whisked with boiled water into a frothy green mix we call matcha, which is very unpopular with foreigners. I'll admit it does look like green soapy water and has a bitter taste that takes a certain getting used to.

Tea ceremony is a very important part of a geisha's training. It isn't unusual for a party at a private residence to begin with a brief tea ceremony. And the guests who come to see the seasonal dances in Gion are first served tea made by geisha.

My tea ceremony teacher was a young woman of perhaps twenty-five who wasn't a very good geisha, as I later learned; but she was so obsessed with tea ceremony that she taught it as if every movement was absolutely holy. Because of her enthusiasm I quickly learned to respect her teaching, and I must say it was the perfect lesson to have at the end of a long morning. The atmosphere was so serene. Even now, I find tea ceremony as enjoyable as a good night's sleep.

What makes a geisha's training- so difficult isn't simply the arts she must learn, but how hectic her life becomes. After spending all morning in lessons, she is still expected to work during the afternoon and evening very much as she always has. And still, she sleeps no more than three to five hours every night. During these years of training, if I'd been two people my life would probably still have been too busy. I would have been grateful if Mother had freed me from my chores as she had Pumpkin; but considering her bet with Mameha, I don't think she ever considered offering me more time for practice. Some of my chores were given to the maids, but most days I was responsible for more than I could manage, while still being expected to practice shamisen for an hour or more during the afternoon. In winter, both Pumpkin and I were made to toughen up our hands by holding them in ice water until we cried from pain, and then practice outside in the frigid air of the courtyard. I know it sounds terribly cruel, but it's the way things were done back then. And in fact, toughening the hands in this way really did help me play better. You see, stage fright drains the feeling from your hands; and when you've already grown accustomed to playing with hands that are numbed and miserable, stage fright presents much less of a problem.

In the beginning Pumpkin and I practiced shamisen together every afternoon, right after our hour-long lesson in reading and writing with Auntie. We'd studied Japanese with her ever since my arrival, and Auntie always insisted on good behavior. But while practicing shamisen during the afternoon, Pumpkin and I had great fun together. If we laughed out loud Auntie or one of the maids would come scold us; but as long as we made very little noise and plunked away at our shamisens while we talked, we could get away with spending the hour enjoying each other's company. It was the time of day I looked forward to most.

Then one afternoon while Pumpkin was helping me with a technique for slurring notes together, Hatsumomo appeared in the corridor before us. We hadn't even heard her come into the okiya.

"Why, look, it's Mameha's little-sister-to-be!" she said to me. She added the "to-be" because Mameha and I wouldn't officially be sisters until the time of my debut as an apprentice geisha.

"I might have called you 'Little Miss Stupid,' " she went on, "but after what I've just observed, I think I ought to save that for Pumpkin instead."

Poor Pumpkin lowered her shamisen into her lap just like a dog putting its tail between its legs. "Have I done something wrong?" she asked.

I didn't have to look directly at Hatsumomo to see the anger blooming on her face. I was terribly afraid of what would happen next.

"Nothing at all!" Hatsumomo said. "I just didn't realize what a thoughtful person you are."

"I'm sorry, Hatsumomo," Pumpkin said. "I was trying to help Chiyo by-"

"But Chiyo doesn't want your help. When she wants help with her shamisen, she'll go to her teacher. Is that head of yours just a big, hollow gourd?"

And here Hatsumomo pinched Pumpkin by the lip so hard that the shamisen slid off her lap onto the wooden walkway where she was seated, and fell from there onto the dirt corridor below.

"You and I need to have a little talk," Hatsumomo said to her. You'll put your shamisen away, and I'll stand here to make sure you don't do anything else stupid."

When Hatsumomo let go, poor Pumpkin stepped down to pick up her shamisen and begin disassembling it. She gave me a pitiful glanqe, and I thought she might calm down. But in fact her lip began to quiver; then her whole face trembled like the ground before an earthquake; and suddenly she dropped the pieces of her shamisen onto the walkway and put her hand to her lip-which had already begun to swell-while tears rolled down her cheeks. Hatsumomo's face softened as if the angry sky had broken, and she turned to me with a satisfied smile.

"You'll have to find yourself another little friend," she said to me. "After Pumpkin and I have had our talk, she'll know better than to speak a word to you in the future. Won't you, Pumpkin?"

Pumpkin nodded, for she had no choice; but I could see how sorry she felt. We never practiced shamisen together again.

I reported this encounter to Mameha the next time I visited her apartment.

"I hope you took to heart what Hatsumomo said to you," she told me. "If Pumpkin isn't to speak a word to you, then you mustn't speak a word to her either. You'll only get her into trouble; and besides, she'll have to tell Hatsumomo what you say. You may have trusted the poor girl in the past, but you mustn't any longer."

I felt so sad at hearing this, I could hardly speak for a long while. "Trying to survive in an okiya with Hatsumomo," I said at last, "is like a pig trying to survive in a slaughterhouse."

I was thinking of Pumpkin when I said this, but Mameha must have thought I meant myself. "You're quite right," she said. "Your only defense is to become more successful than Hatsumomo and drive her out."

"But everyone says she's one of the most popular geisha. I can't imagine how I'll ever become more popular than she is."

"I didn't say............

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