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Chapter 16

One afternoon as Mameha and I were strolling across the Shijo Avenue Bridge to pick up some new hair ornaments in the Pontocho district-for Mameha never liked the shops selling hair ornaments in Gion-she came to a stop suddenly. An old tugboat was puffing its way beneath the bridge; I thought Mameha was just concerned about the black fumes, but after a moment she turned to me with an expression I couldn't quite understand.

"What is it, Mameha-san?" I asked.

"I may as well tell you, because you'll only hear it from someone else," she said. "Your little friend Pumpkin has just won the apprentice's award. It's expected she'll win it a second time as well."

Mameha was referring to an award for the apprentice who'd earned the most during the previous month. It may seem strange that such an award existed, but there's a very good reason. Encouraging apprentices to earn as much as possible helps shape them into the sort of geisha who will be most appreciated in Gion-that is to say, the ones who will earn a lot not only for themselves but for everyone else too.

Several times Mameha had predicted that Pumpkin would struggle along for a few years and end up the sort of geisha with a few loyal customers-none of them wealthy-and little else. It was a sad pic-
ture, and I was pleased to learn that Pumpkin was doing better than that. But at the same time I felt anxiety prickling at my stomach. Pumpkin now seemed to be one of the most popular apprentices in Gion, while I remained one of the most obscure. When I began to wonder what it might mean for my future, the world around me honestly seemed to grow dark.

The most astonishing thing about Pumpkin's success, as I stood there on the bridge thinking about it, was that she'd managed to surpass an exquisite young girl named Raiha, who'd won the award the past several months. Raiha's mother had been a renowned geisha, and her father was a member of one of Japan's most illustrious families, with almost limitless wealth. Whenever Raiha strolled past me, I felt as a simple smelt must feel when a silver salmon glides by. How had Pumpkin managed to outdo her? Hatsumomo had certainly pushed her from the very day of her debut, so much that she'd begun to lose weight lately and hardly looked herself. But regardless of how hard Pumpkin may have worked, could she really have grown more popular than Raiha?

"Oh, now, really," said Mameha, "don't look so sad. You ought to be rejoicing!"

"Yes, it's very selfish of me," I said.

"That isn't what I mean. Hatsumomo and Pumpkin will both pay dearly for this apprentice's award. In five years, no one will remember who Pumpkin is."

"It seems to me," I said, "that everyone will remember her as the girl who surpassed Raiha."

"No one has surpassed Raiha. Pumpkin may have earned the most money last month, but Raiha is still the most popular apprentice in Gion. Come, I'll explain."

Mameha led me to a tearoom in the Pontocho district and sat me down.

In Gion, Mameha said, a very popular geisha can always make sure her younger sister earns more than anyone else-if she is willing to risk hurting her own reputation. The reason has to do with the way ohana, flower fees," are billed. In the old days, a hundred years or more ago, every time a geisha arrived at a party to entertain, the mistress of the teahouse lit a stick of one-hour incense-called one ohana, or "flower." The geisha's fees were based on how many sticks of incense had burned by the time she left.

The cost of one ohana has always been fixed by the Gion Registry Office. While I was an apprentice, it was ¥3, which was about the cost of two bottles of liquor, perhaps. It may sound like a lot, but an unpopular geisha earning one ohana per hour has a grim life. Probably she spends most evenings sitting around the charcoal brazier waiting for an engagement; even when she's busy, she may earn no more than ¥10 in a night, which won't be enough even to pay back her debts. Considering all the wealth that flows into Gion, she's nothing more than an insect picking at the carcass-compared with Hatsumomo or Mameha, who are magnificent lionesses feasting at the kill, not only because they have engagements all night long every night, but because they charge a good deal more as well. In Hatsumomo's case, she charged one ohana every fifteen minutes, rather than one every hour. And in the case of Mameha . . . well, there was no one else in Gion quite like her: she charged one ohana every five minutes.

Of course, no geisha keeps all her earnings, not even Mameha. The teahouse where she earned the fees takes a portion; then a much smaller portion goes to the geisha association; and a portion to her dresser; and right on down the line, including a fee she might pay to an okiya in exchange for keeping her account books and tracking her engagements. She probably keeps only a little more than half of what she earns. Still, it's an enormous sum when compared with the livelihood of an unpopular geisha, who every day sinks deeper and deeper into a pit.

Here's how a geisha like Hatsumomo could make her younger sister seem more successful than she really was.

To begin with, a popular geisha in Gion is welcome at nearly any party, and will drop in on many of them for only five minutes. Her customers will be happy to pay the fees, even though she's only saying hello. They know that the next time they visit Gion, she'll probably join them at the table for a while to give them the pleasure of her company. An apprentice, on the other hand, can't possibly get away with such behavior. Her role is to build relationships. Until she becomes a full-fledged geisha at the age of eighteen, she doesn't consider flitting from party to party. Instead she stays for an hour or more, and only then telephones her okiya to ask her older sister's whereabouts, so she can go to another teahouse and be introduced to a new round of guests. While her popular older sister might drop in on as many-as twenty parties during an evening, an apprentice probably attends no more than five. But this isn't what Hatsumomo was doing. She was taking Pumpkin with her everywhere she went.

Until the age of sixteen, an apprentice geisha bills one-half ohana per hour. If Pumpkin stayed at a party only five minutes, the host was billed the same as if she'd stayed a full hour. On the other hand, no one expected Pumpkin to stay only five minutes. Probably the men didn't
mind that Hatsumomo brought her younger sister for only a brief visit one night, or even two. But after a while they must have begun to wonder why she was too busy to stay longer; and why her younger sister didn't remain behind as she was expected to do. Pumpkin's earnings may have been high, you see-perhaps as high as three or four ohana every hour. But she was certain to pay for it with her reputation, and so was Hatsumomo.

"Hatsumomo's behavior only shows us how desperate she is," Mameha concluded. "She'll do anything to make Pumpkin look good. And you know why, don't you?"

"I'm not sure, Mameha-san."

"She wants Pumpkin to look good so Mrs. Nitta will adopt her. If Pumpkin is made the daughter of the okiya, her future is assured, and so is Hatsumomo's. After all, Hatsumomo is Pumpkin's sister; Mrs. Nitta certainly wouldn't throw her out. Do you understand what I'm saying? If Pumpkin is adopted, you'll never be free of Hatsumomo . . . unless it's you who is thrown out."

I felt as the waves of the ocean must feel when clouds have blocked the warmth of the sun.

"I'd hoped to see you as a popular young apprentice before long," Mameha went on, "but Hatsumomo certainly has gotten in our way."

"Yes, she has!"

"Well, at least you're learning how to entertain men properly. You're lucky to have met the Baron. I may not have found a way around Hatsumomo just yet, but to tell the truth-" And here she stopped herself.

"Ma'am?" I said.

"Oh, never mind, Sayuri. I'd be a fool to share my thoughts with you."

I was hurt to hear this. Mameha must have noticed my feelings at once, for she was quick to say, "You're living under the same roof as Hatsumomo, aren't you? Anything I say to you could get back to her."

"I'm very sorry, Mameha-san, for whatever I've done to deserve your low opinion of me," I told her. "Can you really imagine I'll run back to the okiya and tell anything to Hatsumomo?"

"I'm not worried about what you'll do. Mice don't get eaten because they run over to where the cat is sleeping and wake it up. You know perfectly well how resourceful Hatsumomo is. You'll just have to trust me, Sayuri."

"Yes, ma'am," I replied; for really, there was nothing else I could say.

"I will tell you one thing," Mameha said, leaning forward a bit, from what I took as excitement. "You and I will be going to an engagement together in the next two weeks at a place Hatsumomo will never find us."

"May I ask where?"

"Certainly not! I won't even tell you when. Just be prepared. You'll find out everything you need to know when the proper time comes."

When I returned to the okiya that afternoon, I hid myself upstairs to look through my almanac. A variety of days in the next two weeks stood out. One was the coming Wednesday, which was a favorable day for traveling westward; I thought perhaps Mameha planned to take me out of the city. Another was the following Monday, which also happened to be tai-an-the most auspicious day of the six-day Buddhist week. Finally, the Sunday after had a curious reading: "A balance of good and bad can open the door to destiny." This one sounded most intriguing of all.

I heard nothing from Mameha on Wednesday. A few afternoons later she did summon me to her apartment-on a day my almanac said was unfavorable-but only to discuss a change in my tea ceremony class at the school. After this an entire week passed without a word from her. And then on Sunday around noon, I heard the door of the okiya roll open and put my shamisen down onto the walkway, where I'd been practicing for an hour or so, to rush to the front. I expected to see one of Mameha's maids, but it was only a man from the druggist's ma............

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