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Chapter 31

In the five or so years since I'd last seen the Chairman, I'd read from time to time in the newspapers about the difficulties he'd suffered- not only his disagreements with the military government in the final years of the war, but his struggle since then to keep the Occupation authorities from seizing his company. It wouldn't have surprised me if all these hardships had aged him a good deal. One photograph of him in the Yomiuri newspaper showed a strained look around his eyes from worry, like the neighbor of Mr. Arashino's who used to squint up at the sky so often, watching for bombers. In any case, as the weekend neared I had to remind myself that Nobu hadn't quite made up his mind that he would bring the Chairman. I could do nothing but hope. On Saturday morning I awakened early and slid back the paper screen over my window to find a cold rain falling against the glass. In the little alleyway below, a young maid was just climbing to her feet again after slipping on the icy cobblestones. It was a drab, miserable day, and I was afraid even to read my almanac. By noon the temperature had dropped still further, and I could see my breath as I ate lunch in the reception room, with the sound of icy rain tapping against the window. Any number of parties that evening were canceled because the streets were too hazardous, and at nightfall Auntie telephoned the Ichiriki to be sure Iwamura Electric's party was still on. The mistress told us the telephone lines to Osaka were down, and she couldn't be sure. So I bathed and dressed, and walked over to the Ichiriki on the arm of Mr. Bekku, who wore a pair of rubber overshoes he'd borrowed from his younger brother, a dresser in the Pontocho district.

The Ichiriki was in chaos when I arrived. A water pipe had burst in the servants' quarters, and the maids were so busy, I couldn't get the attention of a single one. I showed myself down the hallway to the room where I'd entertained Nobu and the Minister the week before. I didn't really expect anyone to be there, considering that both Nobu and the Chairman would probably be traveling all the way from Osaka-and even Mameha had been out of town and might very well have had trouble returning. Before sliding open the door, I knelt a moment with my eyes closed and one hand on my stomach to calm my nerves. All at once it occurred to me that the hallway was much too quiet. I couldn't hear even a murmur from within the room. With a terrible feeling of disappointment I realized the room must be empty. I was about to stand and leave when I decided to slide open the door just in case; and when I did, there at the table, holding a magazine with both hands, sat the Chairman, looking at me over the top of his reading glasses. I was so startled to see him, I couldn't even speak. Finally I managed to say:

"My goodness, Chairman! Who has left you here all by yourself? The mistress will be very upset."

"She's the one who left me," he said, and slapped the magazine shut. "I've been wondering what happened to her."

"You don't even have a thing to drink. Let me bring you some sake."

"That's just what the mistress said. At this rate you'll never come back, and I'll have to go on reading this magazine all night. I'd much rather have your company." And here he removed his reading glasses, and while stowing them in his pocket, took a long look at me through narrowed eyes.

The spacious room with its pale yellow walls of silk began to seem very small to me as I rose to join the Chairman, for I don't think any room would have been enough to contain all that I was feeling. To see him again after so long awakened something desperate inside me. I was surprised to find myself feeling sad, rather than joyful, as I would have imagined. At times I'd worried that the Chairman might have fallen headlong into old age during the war just as Auntie had done.

Even from across the room, I'd noticed that the corners of his eyes were creased more sharply than I remembered them. The skin around his mouth, too, had begun to sag, though it seemed to me to give his strong jaw a kind of dignity. I stole a glimpse of him as I knelt at the table, and found that he was still watching me without expression. I was about to start a conversation, but the Chairman spoke first.

"You are still a lovely woman, Sayuri."

"Why, Chairman," I said, "I'll never believe another word you say. I had to spend a half hour at my makeup stand this evening to hide the sunken look of my cheeks."

"I'm sure you've suffered worse hardships during the past several years than losing a bit of weight. I know I certainly have."

"Chairman, if you don't mind my saying it ... I've heard a little bit from Nobu-san about the difficulties your company is facing-"

"Yes, well, we needn't talk about that. Sometimes we get through adversity only by imagining what the world might be like if our dreams should ever come true."

He gave me a sad smile that I found so beautiful, I lost myself staring at the perfect crescent of his lips.

"Here's a chance for you to use your charm and change the subject," he said.

I hadn't even begun to reply before the door slid open and Mameha entered, with Pumpkin right behind her. I was surprised to see Pumpkin; I hadn't expected she would come. As for Mameha, she'd evidently just returned from Nagoya and had rushed to the Ichiriki thinking she was terribly late. The first thing she asked-after greeting the Chairman and thanking him for something he'd done for her the week before-was why Nobu and the Minister weren't present. The Chairman admitted he'd been wondering the same thing.

"What a peculiar day this has been," Mameha said, talking almost to herself, it seemed. "The train sat just outside Kyoto Station for an hour, and we couldn't get off. Two young men finally jumped out through the window. I think one of them may have hurt himself. And then when I finally reached the Ichiriki a moment ago, there didn't seem to be anyone here. Poor Pumpkin was wandering the hallways lost! You've met Pumpkin, haven't you, Chairman?"

I hadn't really looked closely at Pumpkin until now, but she was wearing an extraordinary ash-gray kimono, which was spotted below the waist with brilliant gold dots that turned out to be embroidered fireflies, set against an image of mountains and water in the light of the moon. Neither mine nor Mameha's could compare with it. The Chairman seemed to find the robe as startling as I did, because he asked her to stand and model it for him. She stood very modestly and turned around once.

"I figured I couldn't set foot in a place like the Ichiriki in the sort of kimono I usually wear," she said. "Most of the ones at my okiya aren't very glamorous, though the Americans can't seem to tell the difference."

"If you hadn't been so frank with us, Pumpkin," Mameha said, "we might have thought this was your usual attire."

"Are you kidding me? I've never worn a robe this beautiful in my life. I borrowed it from an okiya down the street. You won't believe what they expect me to pay them, but I'll never have the money, so it doesn't make any difference, now does it?"

I could see that the Chairman was amused-because a geisha never spoke in front of a man about anything as crass as the cost of a kimono. Mameha turned to say something to him, but Pumpkin interrupted.

"I thought some big shot was going to be here tonight."

"Maybe you were thinking of the Chairman," Mameha said. "Don't you think he's a 'big shot'?"

"He knows whether he's a big shot. He doesn't need me to tell him."

The Chairman looked at Mameha and raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Anyway, Sayuri told me about some other guy," Pumpkin went on.

"Sato Noritaka, Pumpkin," the Chairman said. "He's a new Deputy Minister of Finance."

"Oh, I know that Sato guy. He looks just like a big pig."

We all laughed at this. "Really, Pumpkin," Mameha said, "the things that come out of your mouth!"

Just then the door slid open and Nobu and the Minister entered, both glowing red from the cold. Behind them was a maid carrying a tray with sake and snacks. Nobu stood hugging himself with his one arm and stamping his feet, but the Minister just clumped right past him to the table. He grunted at Pumpkin and jerked his head to one side, telling her to move so he could squeeze in beside me. Introductions were made, and then Pumpkin said: "Hey, Minister, I'll bet you don't remember me, but I know a lot about you."

The Minister tossed into his mouth the cupful of sake I'd just poured for him, and looked at Pumpkin with what I took to be a scowl.

"What do you know?" said Mameha. "Tell us something."

"I know the Minister has a younger sister who's married to the mayor of Tokyo," Pumpkin said. "And I know he used to study karate, and broke his hand once."

The Minister looked a bit surprised, which told me that these things must be true.

"Also, Minister, I know a girl you used to know," Pumpkin went on. "Nao Itsuko. We worked in a factory outside Osaka together. You know what she told me? She said the two of you did 'you-know-what' together a couple of times."

I was afraid the Minister would be angry, but instead his expression softened until I began to see what I felt certain was a glimmer of pride.

"She was a pretty girl, she was, that Itsuko," he said, looking at Nobu with a subdued smile.

"Why, Minister," Nobu replied, "I'd never have guessed you had such a way with the ladies." His words sounded very sincere, but I could see the barely concealed look of disgust on his face. The Chairman's eyes passed over mine; he seemed to find the whole encounter amusing.

A moment later the door slid open and three maids came into the room carrying dinner for the men. I was a bit hungry and had to avert my eyes from the sight of the yellow custard with gingko nuts, served in beautiful celadon cups. Later the maids came back with dishes of grilled tropical fish laid out on beds of pine needles. Nobu must have noticed how hungry I looked, for he insisted I taste-it. Afterward the Chairman offered a bite to Mameha, and also to Pumpkin, who refused.

"I wouldn't touch that fish for anything," Pumpkin said. "I don't even want to look at it."

"What's wrong with it?" Mameha asked.

"If I tell you, you'll only laugh at me."

"Tell us, Pumpkin," Nobu said.

"Why should I tell you? It's a big, long story, and anyway nobody's going to believe it."

"Big liar!" I said.

I wasn't actually calling Pumpkin a liar. Back before the closing of Gion, we used to play a game we called "big liar," in which everyone had to tell two stories, only one of which was true. Afterward the other players tried to guess which was which; the ones who guessed wrong drank a penalty glass of sake.

"I'm not playing," said Pumpkin.

"Just tell the fish story then," said Mameha, "and you don't have to tell another."

Pumpkin didn't look pleased at this; but after Mameha and I had glowered at her for a while, she began.

"Oh, all right. It's like this. I was born in Sapporo, and there was an old fisherman there who caught a weird-looking fish one day that was able to speak."

Mameha and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

"Laugh if you want to," Pumpkin said, "but it's perfectly true."

"Now, go on, Pumpkin. We're listening," said the Chairman.

"Well, what happened was, this fisherman laid the fish out to clean it, and it began makin............

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