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Chapter 34

I can scarcely remember anything after that door opened-for I think the blood may have drained out of me, I went so cold and numb. I know the Minister climbed off me, or perhaps I pushed him off. I do remember weeping and asking if he'd seen the same thing I had, whether it really had been the Chairman standing there in the doorway. I hadn't been able to make out anything of the Chairman's expression, with the late-afternoon sun behind him; and yet when the door closed again, I couldn't help imagining I'd seen on his face some of the shock I myself was feeling. I didn't know if the shock was really there-and I doubted it was. But when we feel pain, even the blossoming trees seem weighted with suffering to us; and in just the same way, after seeing the Chairman there . . . well, I would have found my own pain reflected on anything I'd looked at.

If you consider that I'd taken the Minister to that empty theater for the very purpose of putting myself in danger-so that the knife would come slamming down onto the chopping block, so to speak- I'm sure you'll understand that amid the worry, and fear, and disgust that almost overwhelmed me, I'd also been feeling a certain excitement. In the instant before that door opened, I could almost sense my life expanding just like a river whose waters have begun to swell; for I
had never before taken such a drastic step to change the course of my own future. I was like a child tiptoeing along a precipice overlooking the sea. And yet somehow I hadn't imagined a great wave might come and strike me there, and wash everything away.

When the chaos of feelings receded, and I slowly became aware of myself again, Mameha was kneeling above me. I was puzzled to find that I wasn't in the old theater at all any longer, but rather looking up from the tatami floor of a dark little room at the inn. I don't recall anything about leaving the theater, but I must have done it somehow. Later Mameha told me I'd gone to the proprietor to ask for a quiet place to rest; he'd recognized that I wasn't feeling well, and had gone to find Mameha soon afterward.

Fortunately, Mameha seemed willing to believe I was truly ill, and left me there. Later, as I wandered back toward the room in a daze and with a terrible feeling of dread, I saw Pumpkin step out into the covered walkway ahead of me. She stopped when she caught sight of me; but rather than hurrying over to apologize as I half-expected she might, she turned her focus slowly toward me like a snake that had spotted a mouse.

"Pumpkin," I said, "I asked you to bring Nobu, not the Chairman. I don't understand-"

"Yes, it must be hard for you to understand, Sayuri, when life doesn't work out perfectly!"

"Perfectly? Nothing worse could have happened . . . did you misunderstand what I was asking you?"

"You really do think I'm stupid!" she said.

I was bewildered, and stood a long moment in silence. "I thought you were my friend," I said at last.

"I thought you were my friend too, once. But that was a long time ago.

"You talk as if I've done something to harm you, Pumpkin, but-" "No, you'd never do anything like that, would you? Not the perfect Miss Nitta Sayuri! I suppose it doesn't matter that you took my place as the daughter of the okiya? Do you remember that, Sayuri? After I'd gone out of my way to help you with that Doctor-whatever his name was. After I'd risked making Hatsumomo furious at me for helping you! Then you turned it all around and stole what was mine. I've been wondering all these months just why you brought me into this little gathering with the Minister. I'm sorry it wasn't so easy for you to take advantage of me this time-"

"But Pumpkin," I interrupted, "couldn't you just have refused to help me? Why did you have to bring the Chairman?"

She stood up to her full height. "I know perfectly well how you feel about him," she said. "Whenever there's nobody looking, your eyes hang all over him like fur on a dog."

She was so angry, she had bitten her lip; I could see a smudge of lipstick on her teeth. She'd set out to hurt me, I now realized, in the worst way she could.

"You took something from me a long time ago, Sayuri. How does it feel now?" she said. Her nostrils were flared, her face consumed with anger like a burning twig. It was as though the spirit of Hatsumomo had been living trapped inside her all these years, and had finally broken free.

During the rest of that evening, I remember nothing but a blur of events, and how much I dreaded every moment ahead of me. While the others sat around drinking and laughing, it was all I could do to pretend to laugh. I must have spent the entire night flushed red, because from time to time Mameha touched my neck to see if I was feverish. I'd seated myself as far away from the Chairman as I could, so that our eyes would never have to meet; and I did manage to make it through the evening without confronting him. But later, as we were all preparing for bed, I stepped into the hallway as he was coming back into the room. I ought to have moved out of his way, but I felt so ashamed, I gave a brief bow and hurried past him instead, making no effort to hide my unhappiness.

It was an evening of torment, and I remember only one other thing about it. At some point after everyone else was asleep, I wandered away from the inn in a daze and ended up on the sea cliffs, staring out into the darkness with the sound of the roaring water below me. The thundering of the ocean was like a bitter lament. I seemed to see beneath everything a layering of cruelty I'd never known was there-as though the trees and the wind, and even the rocks where I stood, were all in alliance with my old girlhood enemy, Hatsumomo. The howling of the wind and the shaking of the trees seemed to mock me. Could it really be that the stream of my life had divided forever? I removed the Chairman's handkerchief from my sleeve, for I'd taken it to bed that evening to comfort myself one last time. I dried my face with it, and held it up into the wind. I was about to let it dance away into the darkness, when I thought of the tiny mortuary tablets that Mr. Tanaka had sent me so many years earlier. We must always keep something to remember those who have left us. The mortuary tablets back in the okiya were all that remained of my childhood. The Chairman's handkerchief would be what remained of the rest of my life.

Back in Kyoto, I was carried along in a current of activity over the next few days. I had no choice but to put on my makeup as usual, and attend engagements at the teahouses just as though nothing had changed in the world. I kept reminding myself what Mameha had once told me, that there was nothing like work for getting over a disappointment; but my work didn't seem to help me in any way. Every time I went into the Ichiriki Teahouse, I was reminded that one day soon Nobu would summon me there to tell me the arrangements had been settled at last. Considering how busy he'd been over the past few months, I didn't expect to hear from him for some time-a week or two, perhaps. But on Wednesday morning, three days after our return from Amami, I received word that Iwamura Electric had telephoned the Ichiriki Teahouse to request my presence that evening.

I dressed late in the afternoon in a yellow kimono of silk gauze with a green underrobe and a deep blue obi interwoven with gold threads. Auntie assured me I looked lovely, but when I saw myself in the mirror, I seemed like a woman defeated. I'd certainly experienced moments in the past when I felt displeased with the way I looked before setting out from the okiya; but most often I managed to find at least one feature I could make use of during the course of the evening. A certain persimmon-colored underrobe, for example, always brought out the blue in my eyes, rather than the gray, no matter how exhausted I felt. But this evening my face seemed utterly hollow beneath my cheekbones-although I'd put on Western-style makeup just as I usually did-and even my hairstyle seemed lopsided to me. I couldn't think of any way to improve my appearance, other than asking Mr. Bekku to retie my obi just a finger's-width higher, to take away some of my downcast look.

My first engagement was a banquet given by an American colonel to honor the new governor of Kyoto Prefecture. It was held at the former estate of the Sumitomo family, which was now the headquarters of the American army's seventh division. I was amazed to see that so many of the beautiful stones in the garden were painted white, and signs in English-which of course I couldn't read-were tacked to the trees here and there. After the party was over, I made my way to the Ichiriki and was shown upstairs by a maid, to the same peculiar little room where Nobu had met with me on the night Gion was closing. This was the very spot where I'd learned about the haven he'd found to keep me safe from the war; it seemed entirely appropriate that we should meet in this same room to celebrate his becoming my danna-though it would be anything but a celebration for me. I knelt at one end of the table, so that Nobu would sit facing the alcove. I was careful to position myself so he could pour sake using his one arm, without the table in his way; he would certainly want to pour a cup for me after telling me the arrangements had been finalized. It would be a fine night for Nobu. I would do my best not to spoil it.

With the dim lighting and the reddish cast from the tea-colored walls, the atmosphere was really quite pleasant. I'd forgotten the very particular scent of the room-a combination of dust and the oil used for polishing wood-but now that I smelled it again, I found myself remembering details about that evening with Nobu years earlier that I couldn't possibly have called to mind otherwise. He'd had holes in both of his socks, I remembered; through one a slender big toe had protruded, with the nail neatly groomed. Could it really be that only five and a half years had passed since that evening? It seemed an entire generation had come and gone; so many of the people I'd once known were dead. Was this the life I'd come back to Gion to lead? It was just as Mameha had once told me: we don't become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice. If my mother had lived, I might be a wife and mother at the seashore myself, thinking of Kyoto as a faraway place where the fish were shipped-and would my life really be any worse? Nobu had once said to me, "I'm a very easy man to understand, Sayuri. I don't like things held up before me that I cannot have." Perhaps I was just the same; all my life in Gion, I'd imagined the Chairman before me, and now I could not have him.

After ten or fifteen minutes of waiting for Nobu, I began to wonder if he was really coming. I knew I shouldn't do it, but I laid my head down on the table to rest, for I'd slept poorly these past nights. I didn't fall asleep, but I did drift for a time in my general sense of misery. And then I seemed to have a most peculiar dream. I thought I heard the tapping sound of drums in the distance, and a hiss like water from a faucet, and then I felt the Chairman's hand touching my shoulder. I knew it was the Chairman's hand because when I lifted my head from the table to see who had touched me, he was there. The tapping had been his footsteps; the hissing was the door in its track. And now he .stood above me with a maid waiting behind him. I bowed and apologized for falling asleep. I felt so confused that for a moment I wondered if I was really awake; but it wasn't a dream. The Chairman was seating himself on the very cushion where I'd expected Nobu to sit, and yet Nobu was nowhere to be seen. While the maid placed sake on the table, an awful thought began to take hold in my mind. Had the Chairman come to tell me Nobu had been in an accident, or that some other horrible thing had happened to him? Otherwise, why hadn't Nobu himself comer1 I was about to ask the Chairman, when the mistress of the teahouse peered into the room.

"Why, Chairman," she said, "we haven't seen you in weeks!"

The mistress was always pleasant in front of guests, but I could tell from the strain in her voice that she had something else on her mind. Probably she was wondering about Nobu, just as I was. While I poured sake for the Chairman, the mistress came and knelt at the table. She stopped his hand before he took a sip from his cup, and leaned toward him to breathe in the scent of the vapors.

"Really, Chairman, I'll never understand why you prefer this sake to others," she said. "We opened some this afternoon, the best we've had in years. I'm sure Nobu-san will appreciate it when he arrives."

"I'm sure he would," the Chairman said. "Nobu appreciates fine things. But he won't be coming tonight."

I was alarmed to hear this; but I kept my eyes to the table. I could see that the mistress was surprised too, because of how quickly she changed the subject.

"Oh, well," she said, "anyway, don't you think our Sayuri looks charming this evening!"

"Now, Mistress, when has Sayuri not looked charming?" said the Chairman. "Which reminds me ... let me show you something I've brought."

The Chairman put onto the table a little bundle wrapped in blue silk; I hadn't noticed it in his hand when he'd entered the room. He untied it and took out a short, fat scroll, which he began to unroll. It was cracked with age and showed-in miniature-brilliantly colored scenes of the Imperial court. If you've ever seen this sort of scroll, you'll know that you can unroll it all the way across a room and survey the entire grounds of the Imperial compound, from the gates at one end to the palace at the other. The Chairman sat with it before him, unrolling it from one spindle to the other-past scenes of drinking parties, and aristocrats playing kickball with their kimonos cinched up between their legs-until he came to a young woman in her lovely twelve-layered robes, kneeling on the wood floor outside the Emperor's chambers.

"Now what do you think of that!" he said.

"It's quite a scroll," the mistress said. "Where did the Chairman find it?"

"Oh, I bought it years ago. But look at this woman right here. She's the reason I bought it. Don't you notice anything about her?"

The mistress peered at it; afterward the Chairman turned it for me to see. The image of the young woman, though no bigger than a large coin, was painted in exquisite detail. I didn't notice it at first, but her eyes were pale . . . and when I looked more closely I saw they were blue-gray. They made me think at once of the works Uchida had painted using me as a model. I blushed and muttered something about how beautiful the scroll was. The mistress admired it too for a moment, and then said:

"Well, I'll leave the two of you. I'm going to send up some of that fresh, chilled sake I mentioned. Unless you think I should save it for the next time Nobu-san comes?"

"Don't bother," he said. "We'll make do with the sake we have."

"Nobu-san is ... quite all right, isn't he?"

"Oh, yes," said the Chairman. "Quite all right."

I was relieved to hear this; but at the same time I felt myself growing sick with shame. If the Chairman hadn't come to give me news about Nobu, he'd come for some other reason-probably to berate me for what I'd done. In the few days since returning to Kyoto, I'd tried not to imagine what he must have seen: the Minister with his pants undone, me with my bare legs protruding from my disordered kimono . . .

When the mistress left the room, the sound of the door closing behind her was like a sword being drawn from its sheath.

"May I please say, Chairman," I began as steadily as I could, "that my behavior on Amami-"

"I know what you're thinking, Sayuri. But I haven't come here to ask for your apology. Sit quietly a moment. I want to tell you about something that happened quite a number of years ago."

"Chairman, I feel so confused," I managed to say. "Please forgive me, but-"

"Just listen. You'll understand soon enough why I'm telling it to you. Do you recall a restaurant named Tsumiyo? It closed toward the end of the Depression, but . . . well, never mind; you were very young at the time. In any case, one day quite some years ago-eighteen years ago, to be exact-I went there for lunch with several of my associates. We were accompanied by a certain geisha named Izuko, from the Pon-to............

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