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Chapter 8

Hnatsumomo wasn't the only one angry at me the following day, because Mother ordered that all the maids be denied servings of dried fish for six weeks as punishment for having tolerated Ha-tsumomo's boyfriend in the okiya. I don't think the maids could have been more upset with me if I'd actually stolen the food from their bowls with my own hands; and as for Pumpkin, she began to cry when she found out what Mother had ordered. But to tell the truth, I didn't feel as uneasy as you 'might imagine to have everyone glowering at me, and to have the cost of an obi brooch I'd never seen or even touched added to my debts. Anything that made life more difficult for me only strengthened my determination to run away.

I don't think Mother really believed I'd stolen the obi brooch, though she was certainly content to buy a new one at my expense if it would keep Hatsumomo happy. But she had no doubts at all that I'd left the okiya when I shouldn't have, because Yoko confirmed it. I felt almost as though my life itself were slipping away from me when I learned that Mother had ordered the front door locked to prevent me from going out again. How would I escape from the okiya now? Only Auntie had a key, and she kept it around her neck even while she was sleeping. As an extra measure, the job of sitting by the door in the evenings was taken away from me and given to Pumpkin instead, who had to wake Auntie to have the door unlocked when Hatsumomo came home.

Every night I lay on my futon scheming; but as late as Monday, the very day before Satsu and I had arranged to run away, I'd come up with no plan for my escape. I grew so despondent I had no energy at all for my chores, and the maids chided me for dragging my cloth along the woodwork I was supposed to be polishing, and pulling a broom along the corridor I was supposed to be sweeping. I spent a long while Monday afternoon pretending to weed the courtyard while really only squatting on the stones and brooding. Then one of the maids gave me the job of washing the wood floor in the maids' room, where Yoko was seated near the telephone, and something extraordinary happened. I squeezed a rag full of water onto the floor, but instead of snaking along toward the doorway as I would have expected, it ran toward one of the back corners of the room.

"Yoko, look," I said. "The water's running uphill." Of course it wasn't really uphill. It only looked that way to me. I was so startled by this that I squeezed more water and watched it run into the corner again. And then . . . well, I can't say exactly how it happened; but I pictured myself flowing up the stairs to the second-floor landing, and from there up the ladder, through the trapdoor, and onto the roof beside the gravity-feed tank.

The roof! I was so astonished at the thought, I forgot my surroundings completely; and when the telephone near Yoko rang, I almost cried out in alarm. I wasn't sure what I would do once I reached the roof, but if I could succeed in finding my way down from there, I might meet Satsu after all.

The following evening I made a great show of yawning when I went to bed and threw myself onto my futon as though I were a sack of rice. Anyone watching me would have thought I was asleep within a moment, but actually I could hardly have been more awake. I lay for a long while thinking of my house and wondering what expression would form itself on my father's face when he looked up from the table to see me standing in the doorway. Probably the pockets at his eyes would droop down and he would start to cry, or else his mouth would take on that odd shape that was his way of smiling. I didn't allow myself to picture my mother quite so vividly; just the thought of seeing her again was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

At length the maids settled down onto their futons beside me on the floor, and Pumpkin took up her position waiting for Hatsumomo. I listened to Granny chanting sutras, which she did every night before going to bed. Then I watched her through the partly opened door as she stood beside her futon and changed into her sleeping robe. I was horrified by what I saw when her robe slipped from her shoulders, for I'd never seen her completely naked before. It wasn't just the chickenlike skin of her neck and shoulders; her body made me think of a pile of wrinkled clothing. She looked strangely pitiful to me while she fumbled to unfold the sleeping robe she'd picked up from the table. Everything drooped from her, even her protruding nipples that hung like fingertips. The more I watched her, the more I came to feel that she must be struggling in that cloudy, old lady's mind of hers with thoughts of her own mother and father-who had probably sold her into slavery when she was a little girl-just as I had been struggling with thoughts of my own parents. Perhaps she had lost a sister too. I'd certainly never thought of Granny in this way before. I found myself wondering if she'd started life much as I had. It made no difference that she was a mean old woman and I was just a struggling little girl. Couldn't the wrong sort of living turn anyone mean? I remembered very well that one day back in Yoroido, a boy pushed me into a thorn bush near the pond. By the time I clawed my way out I was mad enough to bite through wood. If a few minutes of suffering could make me so angry, what would years of it do? Even stone can be worn down with enough rain.

If I hadn't already resolved to run away, I'm sure I would have been terrified to think of the suffering that probably lay in wait for me in Gion. Surely it would make me into the sort of old woman Granny had become. But I comforted myself with the thought that by the following day I could begin forgetting even my memories of Gion. I already knew how I would reach the roof; as to how I would climb from there to the street. . . well, I wasn't at all sure. I would have no choice but to take my chances in the dark. Even if I did make it down without hurting myself, reaching the street would be only the beginning of my troubles. However much life in Gion was a struggle, life after running away would surely be more of a struggle. The world was simply too cruel; how could I survive? I lay on my futon in anguish for a while, wondering if I really had the strength to do it... but Satsu would be waiting for me. She would know what to do.

Quite some time passed before Granny settled down in her room. By then the maids were snoring loudly. I pretended to turn over on my futon in order to steal a glance at Pumpkin, kneeling on the floor not far away. I couldn't see her face well, but I had the impression she was growing drowsy. Originally I'd planned to wait until she fell asleep, but I had no idea of the time any longer; and besides, Hatsumomo might come home at any moment. I sat up as quietly as I could, thinking that if anyone noticed me I would simply go to the toilet and come back again. But no one paid me any attention. A robe for me to wear on the following morning lay folded on the floor nearby. I took it in my arms and went straight for the stairwell.

Outside Mother's door, I stood listening for a while. She didn't usually snore, so I couldn't judge anything from the silence, except that she wasn't talking on the telephone or making any other sort of noise. Actually, her room wasn't completely silent because her little dog, Taku, was wheezing in his sleep. The longer I listened, the more his wheezing sounded like someone saying my name: "CHI-yo! CHI-yo!" I wasn't prepared to sneak out of the okiya until I'd satisfied myself Mother was asleep, so I decided to slide the door open and have a look. If she was awake, I would simply say I thought someone had called me. Like Granny, Mother slept with the lamp on her table illuminated; so when I opened the door a crack and peered in, I could see the parched bottoms of her feet sticking out of the sheets. Taku lay between her feet with his chest rising and falling, making that wheezy noise that sounded so much like my name.

I shut her door again and changed my clothes in the upstairs hallway. The only thing I lacked now was shoes-and I never considered running away without them, which ought to give you some idea how much I'd changed since the summer. If Pumpkin hadn't been kneeling in the front entrance hall, I would have taken a pair of the wooden shoes used for walking along the dirt corridor. Instead I took the shoes reserved for use in the upstairs toilet. They were of a very poor quality, with a single leather thong across the top to hold them in place on the foot. To make matters worse, they were much too big for me; but I had no other option.

After closing the trapdoor silently behind me, I stuffed my sleeping robe under the gravity-feed tank and managed to climb up and straddle my legs over the ridge of the roof. I won't pretend I wasn't frightened; the voices of people on the street certainly seemed a long way below me. But I had no time to waste being afraid, for it seemed to me that at any moment one of the maids, or even Auntie or Mother, might pop up through the trapdoor looking for me. I put the shoes onto my hands to keep from dropping them and began scooting my way along the ridge, which proved to be more difficult than I'd imagined. The roof tiles were so thick they made almost a small step where they overlapped, and they clanked against one another when I shifted my weight unless I moved very slowly. Every noise I made echoed off the roofs nearby.

I took several minutes to cross just to the other side of our okiya. The roof of the building next door was a step lower than ours. I climbed down onto it and stopped a moment to look for a path to the street; but despite the moonlight, I could see only a sheet of blackness. The roof was much too high and steep for me to consider sliding down it on a gamble. I wasn't at all sure the next roof would be better; and I began to feel a bit panicky. But I continued along from ridge to ridge until I found myself, near the end of the block, looking down on one side into an open courtyard. If I could make my way to the gutter, I could scoot around it until I came to what I thought was probably a bath shed. From the top of the bath shed, I could climb down into the courtyard easily.

I didn't relish the thought of dropping into the middle of someone else's house. I had no doubt it was an okiya; all the houses along our block were. In all likelihood someone would be waiting at the front door for the geisha to return, and would grab me by the arm as I tried to run out. And what if the front door was locked just as ours was? I wouldn't even have considered this route if I'd had any other choice. But I thought the path down looked safer than anything I'd seen yet.

I sat on the ridge a long while listening for any clues from the courtyard below. All I could hear was laughter and conversation from the street. I had no idea what I would find in the courtyard when I dropped in, but I decided I'd better make my move before someone in my okiya discovered me gone. If I'd had any idea of the damage I was about to do to my future, I would have spun around on that ridge as fast as I could have and scooted right back where I'd come from. But I knew nothing of what was at stake. I was just a child who thought she was embarking on a great adventure.

I swung my leg over, so that in a moment I was dangling along the slope of the roof, just barely clinging to the ridge. I realized with some panic that it was muc'h steeper than I'd thought it would be. I tried to scamper back up, but I couldn't do it. With the toilet shoes on my hands, I couldn't grab onto the ridge of the roof at all, but only hook my wrists over it. I knew I had committed myself, for I would never manage to climb back up again; but it seemed to me that the very moment I let go, I would slide down that roof out of control. My mind was racing with these thoughts, but before I'd made the decision to let go of the ridge, it let go of me. At first I glided down more slowly than I would have expected, which gave me some hope I might stop myself farther down, where the roof curved outward to form the eaves. But then my foot dislodged one of the roof tiles, which slid down with a clattering noise and shattered in the courtyard below. The next thing I knew, I lost my grip on one of the toilet shoes and it slid right past me.

I heard the quiet plop as it landed below, and then a much worse sound-the sound of footsteps coming down a wooden walkway toward the courtyard.

Many times I had seen the way flies stood on a wall or ceiling just as if they were on level ground. Whether they did it by having sticky feet, or by not weighing very much, I had no idea, but when I heard the sound of someone walking below, I decided that whatever I did I would find a way of sticking to that roof just as a fly might do, and I would find it right away. Otherwise I was going to end up sprawled in that courtyard in another few seconds. I tried digging my toes into the roof, and then my elbows and knees. As a final act of desperation I did the most foolish thing of all-I slipped the shoe from my other hand and tried to stop myself by pressing my two palms against the roof tiles. My palms must have been dripping with sweat, because instead of slowing down I began to pick up speed the moment I touched them to the roof. I heard myself skidding with a hissing sound; and then suddenly the roof was no longer there.

For a moment I heard nothing; only a frightening, empty silence. As I fell through the air I had time to form one thought clearly in my mind: I pictured a woman stepping into the courtyard, looking down to see the shattered tile on the ground, and then looking up toward the roof in time to see me fall out of the sky right on top of her; but of course this isn't what happened. I turned as I fell, and landed on my side on the ground. I had the sense to bring an arm up to protect my head; but still I landed so heavily that I knocked myself into a daze. I don't know where the woman was standing, or even if she was in the courtyard at the time I fell out of the sky. But she must have seen me come down off that roof, because as I lay stunned on the ground I heard her say:

"Good heavens! It's raining little girls!"

Well, I would have liked to jump to my feet and run out, but I couldn't do it. One whole side of my body felt dipped in pain. Slowly I became aware of two women kneeling over me. One kept saying something again and again, but I couldn't make it out. They talked between themselves and then picked me up from the moss and sat me on the wooden walkway. I remember only one fragment of their conversation.

"I'm telling you, she came off the roof, ma'am."

"Why on earth was she carrying toilet slippers with her? Did you go up there to use the toilet, little girl? Can you hear me? What a dangerous thing to do! You're lucky you didn't break into pieces when you fell!"

"She can't hear you, ma'am. Look at her eyes."

"Of course she can hear me. Say something, little girl!"

But I couldn't say anything. All I could do was think about how

Satsu would be waiting for me opposite the Minamiza Theater, and I

would never show up.

The maid was sent up the str............

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