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Chapter 15

Hnatsumomo smiled when she was happy, like everybody else; and she was never happier than when she was about to make someone suffer. This is why she wore such a beautiful smile on her face when she said:

"Oh, my goodness! What a peculiar coincidence. Why, it's a novice! I really shouldn't tell the rest of this story, because I might embarrass the poor thing."

I hoped Mameha would excuse herself and take me with her. But she only gave me an anxious glance. She must have felt that leaving Hatsumomo alone with these men would be like running away from a house on fire; we'd be better off to stay and control the damage.

"Really, I don't think there's anything more difficult than being a novice," Hatsumomo was saying. "Don't you think so, Pumpkin?"

Pumpkin was a full-fledged apprentice now; she'd been a novice six months earlier. I glanced at her for sympathy, but she just stared at the table with her hands in her lap. Knowing her as I did, I understood that the little wrinkle at the top of her nose meant she felt upset.

"Yes, ma'am," she said.

"Such a difficult time of life," Hatsumomo went on. "I can still remember how hard I found it... What is your name, little novice?"

Happily, I didn't have to respond, because Mameha spoke up.

"You're certainly right about it being a difficult time of life for you, Hatsumomo-san. Though of course, you were more awkward than most."

"I want to hear the rest of the story," said one of the men.

"And embarrass the poor novice who's just joined us?" Hatsumomo said. "I'll tell it only if you promise that you won't think about this poor girl as you listen. Be sure to picture some other girl in your mind."

Hatsumomo could be ingenious in her devilishness. The men might not have pictured the story happening to me earlier, but they certainly would now.

"Let's see, where was I?" Hatsumomo began. "Oh, yes. Well, this novice I mentioned ... I can't remember her name, but I ought to give her one to keep you from confusing her with this poor girl. Tell me, little novice . . . what is your name?"

"Sayuri, ma'am," I said. And my face felt so hot from nervousness that I wouldn't have been surprised if my makeup had simply melted and begun to drip onto my lap.

"Sayuri. How lovely! Somehow it doesn't suit you. Well, let's call this novice in the story 'Mayuri.' Now then, one day I was walking along Shijo Avenue with Mayuri, on our way to her older sister's okiya. There was a terrible wind, the sort that rattles the windows, and poor Mayuri had so little experience with kimono. She was no heavier than a leaf, and those big sleeves can be just like sails, you know. As we were about to cross the street, she disappeared, and I heard a little sound from behind me, like 'Ah . . . ah,' but very faint. . ."

Here Hatsumomo turned to look at me.

"My voice isn't high enough," she said. "Let me hear you say it. 'Ah . . . ah . . .'"

Well, what could I do? I tried my best to make the noise.

"No, no, much higher . . . oh, never mind!" Hatsumomo turned to the man beside her and said under her breath, "She isn't very bright, is she?" She shook her head for a moment and then went on. "Anyway, when I turned around, poor Mayuri was being blown backward up the street a full block behind me, with her arms and legs flailing so much she looked like a bug on its back. I nearly tore my obi laughing, but then all of a sudden she stumbled right off the curb into a busy intersection just as a car came zooming along. Thank heavens she was blowr^ onto the hood! Her legs flew up ... and then if you can picture this, the wind blew right up her kimono, and . . . well, I don't need to tell you what happened."

"You certainly do!" one of the men said.

"Don't you have any imagination?" she replied. "The wind blew her kimono right up over her hips. She didn't want everyone to see her naked; so to preserve her modesty, she flipped herself around and ended up with her legs pointing in two different directions, and her private parts pressed against the windshield, right in the driver's face . . ."

Of course, the men were in hysterics by now, including the director, who tapped his sake cup on the tabletop like a machine gun, and said, "Why doesn't anything like this ever happen to me?"

"Really, Mr. Director," Hatsumomo said. "The girl was only a novice! It's not as if the driver got to see anything. I mean, can you imagine looking at the private parts of this girl across the table?" She was talking about me, of course. "Probably she's no different from a baby!"

"Girls sometimes start getting hair when they're only eleven," said one of the men.

"How old are you, little Sayuri-san?" Hatsumomo asked me.

"I'm fourteen, ma'am," I told her, just as politely as I could. "But I'm an old fourteen."

Already the men liked this, and Hatsumomo's smile hardened a bit.

"Fourteen?" she said. "How perfect! And of course, you don't have any hair ..."

"Oh, but I do. A good deal of it!" And I reached up and patted one hand against the hair on my head.

I guess this must have been a clever thing to do, although it didn't seem particularly clever to me. The men laughed harder than they'd laughed even at Hatsumomo's story. Hatsumomo laughed too, I suppose because she didn't want to seem as if the joke had been on her.

As the laughter died down, Mameha and I left. We hadn't even closed the door behind us before we heard Hatsumomo excusing herself as well. She and Pumpkin followed us down the stairway.

"Why, Mameha-san," Hatsumomo said, "this has simply been too much fun! I don't know why we haven't entertained together more often!"

"Yes, it has been fun," said Mameha. "I just relish the thought of what the future holds!"

After this, Mameha gave me a very satisfied look. She was relishing the thought of seeing Hatsumomo destroyed.

That night after bathing and removing my makeup, I was standing in the formal entrance hall answering Auntie's questions about my day, when Hatsumomo came in from the street and stood before me. Normally she wasn't back so early, but I knew the moment I saw her face that she'd come back only for the purpose of confronting me. She wasn't even wearing her cruel smile, but had her lips pressed together in a way that looked almost unattractive. She stood before me only a moment, and then drew back her hand and slapped me across the face. The last thing I saw before her hand struck me was a glimpse of her clenched teeth like two strings of pearls.

I was so stunned, I can't recall what happened immediately afterward. But Auntie and Hatsumomo must have begun to argue, because the next thing I heard was Hatsumomo saying, "If this girl embarrasses me in public again, I'll be happy to slap the other side of her face!"

"How did I embarrass you~?" I asked her.

"You knew perfectly well what I meant when I wondered if you had hair, but you made me look like a fool. I owe you a favor, little Chiyo. I'll return it soon, I promise."

Hatsumomo's anger seemed to close itself up, and she walked back out of the okiya, where Pumpkin was waiting on the street to bow to her.

I reported this to Mameha the following afternoon, but she hardly paid any attention.

"What's the problem?" she said. "Hatsumomo didn't leave a mark on your face, thank heavens. You didn't expect she'd be pleased at your comment, did you?"

"I'm only concerned about what might happen the next time we run into her," I said.

"I'll tell you what will happen. We'll turn around and leave. The host may be surprised to see us walk out of a party we've just walked into, but it's better than giving Hatsumomo another chance to humiliate you. Anyway, if we run into her, it will be a blessing."

"Really, Mameha-san, I can't see how it could be a blessing."

"If Hatsumomo forces us to leave a few teahouses, we'll drop in on more parties, that's all. You'll be known around Gion much faster that way."

I felt reassured by Mameha's confidence. In fact, when we set out into Gion later, I expected that at the end of the night I would take off my,makeup and find my skin glowing with the satisfaction of a long evening. Our first stop was a party for a young film actor, who looked no older than eighteen but had not a single hair on his head, not even eyelashes or eyebrows. He went on to become very famous a few years later, but only because of the manner of his death. He killed himself with a sword after murdering a young waitress in Tokyo. In any case, I thought him very strange until I noticed that he kept glancing at me; I'd lived so much of my life in the isolation of the okiya that I must admit I relished the attention. We stayed more than an hour, and Ha-tsumomo never showed up. It seemed to me that my fantasies of success might indeed come to pass.

Next we stopped at a party given by the chancellor of Kyoto University. Mameha at once began talking with a man she hadn't seen in some time, and left me on my own. The only space I could find at the table was beside an old man in a stained white shirt, who must have been very thirsty because he was drinking continually from a glass of beer, except when he moved it away from his mouth to burp. I knelt beside him and was about to introduce myself when I heard the door slide open. I expected to see a maid delivering another round of sake, but there in the hallway knelt Hatsumomo and Pumpkin.

"Oh, good heavens!" I heard Mameha say to the man she was entertaining. "Is your wristwatch accurate?"

"Very accurate," he said. "I set it every afternoon by the clock at the train station."

"I'm afraid Sayuri and I have no choice but to be rude and excuse ourselves. We were expected elsewhere a half hour ago!"

And with that, we stood and slipped out of the party the very moment after Hatsumomo and Pumpkin entered it.

As we were leaving the teahouse, Mameha pulled me into an empty tatami room. In the hazy darkness I couldn't make out her features, but only the beautiful oval shape of her face with its elaborate crown of hair. If I couldn't see her, then she couldn't see me; I let my jaw sag with frustration and despair, for it seemed I would never escape Hatsumomo.

"What did you say to that horrid woman earlier today?" Mameha said to me.

"Nothing at all, ma'am!"

"Then how did she find us here?"

"I didn't know we would be here myself," I said. "I couldn't possibly have told her."

"My maid knows about my engagements, but I can't imagine . . . Well, we'll go to a party hardly anyone knows about. Naga Teruomi was just appointed the new conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic last week. He's come into town this afternoon to give everyone a chance to idolize him. I don't much want to go, but ... at least Hatsumomo won't be there."

We crossed Shijo Avenue and turned down a narrow alley that smelled of sake and roasted yams. A sprinkle of laughter fell down onto us from the second-story windows brightly lit overhead. Inside the teahouse, a young maid showed us to a room on the second floor, where we found the conductor sitting with his thin hair oiled back and his fingers stroking a sake cup in anger. The other men in the room were in the midst of a drinking game with two geisha, but the conductor refused to join. He talked with Mameha for a while, and soon asked her to put on a dance. I don't think he cared about the dance, really; it was just a way to end the drinking games and encourage his guests to begin paying attention to him again. Just as the maid brought a shamisen to hand to one of the geisha-even before Mameha had taken up her pose-the door slid open and . . . I'm sure you know what I'm going to say. They were like dogs that wouldn't stop following us. It was Hatsumomo and Pumpkin once again.

You should have seen the way Mameha and Hatsumomo smiled at each other. You'd almost have thought they were sharing a private joke-whereas in fact, I'm sure Hatsumomo was relishing her victory in finding us, and as for Mameha . . . well, I think her smile was just a way of hiding her anger. During her dance, I could see her jaw jutting out and her nostrils flared. She didn't even come back to the table afterward, but just said to the conductor:

"Thank you so much for permitting us to drop in! I'm afraid it's so late . . . Sayuri and I must excuse ourselves now . . ."

I can't tell you how pleased Hatsumomo looked as we closed the door behind us.

I followed Mameha down the stairs. On the bottom step she came to a halt and waited. At last a young maid rushed into the formal entrance hall to see us out-the very same maid who'd shown us up the stairs earlier.

"What a difficult life you must have as a maid!" Mameha said to her. "Probably you want so many things and have so little money to spend. But tell me, what will you do with the funds you've just earned?"

"I haven't earned any funds, ma'am," she said. But to see her swallowing so nervously, I could tell she was lying.

"How much money did Hatsumomo promise you?"

The maid's gaze fell at once to the floor. It wasn't until this moment that I understood what Mameha was thinking. As we learned some time afterward, Hatsumomo had indeed bribed at least one of the maids in every first-class teahouse in Gion. They were asked to call Yoko-the girl who answered the telephone in our okiya-whenever Mameha and I arrived at a party. Of course, we didn't know about Yoko's involvement at the time; but Mameha was quite right in assuming that the maid in this teahouse had passed a message to Hatsumomo some............

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