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Chapter 20

Looking back, I can see that this conversation with Mameha marked a shift in my view of the world. Beforehand I'd known nothing about mizuage; I was still a naive girl with little understanding. But afterward I could begin to see what a man like Dr. Crab wanted from all the time and money he spent in Gion. Once you know this sort of thing, you can never unknow it. I couldn't think about him again in quite the same way.

Back at the okiya'later that night, I waited in my room for Hatsu-momo and Pumpkin to come up the stairs. It was an hour or so after midnight when they finally did. I could tell Pumpkin was tired from the way her hands slapped on the steps-because she sometimes came up the steep stairway on all fours like a dog. Before closing the door to their room, Hatsumomo summoned one of the maids and asked for a beer.

"No, wait a minute," she said. "Bring two. I want Pumpkin to join me."

"Please, Hatsumomo-san," I heard Pumpkin say. "I'd rather drink spit."

"You're going to read aloud to me while I drink mine, so you might as well have one. Beside, I hate when people are too sober. It's sickening."

After this, the maid went down the stairs. When she came up a short time later, I heard glasses clinking on the tray she carried.

For a long while I sat with my ear to the door of my room, listening to Pumpkin's voice as she read an article about a new Kabuki actor. Finally Hatsumomo stumbled out into the hallway and rolled open the door to the upstairs toilet.

"Pumpkin!" I heard her say. "Don't you feel like a bowl of noodles?"

"No, ma'am."

"See if you can find the noodle vendor. And get some for yourself so you can keep me company."

Pumpkin sighed and went right down the stairs, but I had to wait for Hatsumomo to return to her room before creeping down to follow. I might not have caught up with Pumpkin, except that she was so exhausted she couldn't do much more than wander along at about the speed mud oozes down a hill, and with about as much purpose. When I finally found her, she looked alarmed to see me and asked what was the matter.

"Nothing is the matter," I said, "except ... I desperately need your help."

"Oh, Chiyo-chan," she said to me-I think she was the only person who still called me that-"I don't have any time! I'm trying to find noodles for Hatsumomo, and she's going to make me eat some too. I'm afraid I'll throw up all over her."

"Pumpkin, you poor thing," I said. "You look like ice when it has begun to melt." Her face was drooping with exhaustion, and the weight of all her clothing seemed as if it might pull her right onto the ground. I told her to go and sit down, that I would find the noodles and bring them to her. She was so tired she didn't even protest, but simply handed me the money and sat down on a bench by the Shirakawa Stream.

It took me some time to find a noodle vendor, but at last I returned carrying two bowls of steaming noodles. Pumpkin was sound asleep with her head back and her mouth open as though she were hoping to catch raindrops. It was about two in the morning, and a few people were still strolling around. One group of men seemed to think Pumpkin was the funniest thing they'd seen in weeks-and I admit it was odd to see an apprentice in her full regalia snoring on a bench.

When I'd set the bowls down beside her and awakened her as gently as I knew how, I said, "Pumpkin, I want so much to ask you a favor, but. . . I'm afraid you won't be happy when you hear what it is."

"It doesn't matter," she said. "Nothing makes me happy anymore."

"You were in the room earlier this evening when Hatsumomo talked with the Doctor. I'm afraid my whole future may be affected by that conversation. Hatsumomo must have told him something about me that isn't true, because now the Doctor doesn't want to see me any longer."

As much as I hated Hatsumomo-as much as I wanted to know what she'd done that evening-I felt sorry at once for having raised the subject with Pumpkin. She seemed in such pain that the gentle nudge I gave her proved to be too much. All at once several teardrops came spilling onto her big cheeks as if she'd been filling up with them for years.

"I didn't know, Chiyo-chan!" she said, fumbling in her obi for a handkerchief. "I had no idea!"

"You mean, what Hatsumomo was going to say? But how could anyone have known?"

"That isn't it. I didn't know anyone could be so evil! I don't understand it ... She does things for no reason at all except to hurt people. And the worst part is she thinks I admire her and want to be just like her. But I hate her! I've never hated anyone so much before."

By now poor Pumpkin's yellow handkerchief was smeared with white makeup. If earlier she'd been an ice cube beginning to melt, now she was a puddle.

"Pumpkin, please listen to me," I said. "I wouldn't ask this of you if I had any other alternative. But I don't want to go back to being a maid all my life, and that's just what will happen if Hatsumomo has her way. She won't stop until she has me like a cockroach under her foot. I mean, she'll squash me if you don't help me to scurry away!"

Pumpkin thought this was funny, and we both began to laugh. While she was stuck between laughing and crying, I took her handkerchief and tried to smooth the makeup on her face. I felt so touched at seeing the old Pumpkin again, who had once been my friend, that my eyes grew watery as well, and we ended up in an embrace.

"Oh, Pumpkin, your makeup is such a mess," I said to her afterward.

"It's all right," she told me. "I'll just say to Hatsumomo that a drunken man came up to me on the street and wiped a handkerchief all over my face, and I couldn't do anything about it because I was carrying two bowls of noodles."

I didn't think she would say anything further, but finally she sighed heavily.

"I want to help you, Chiyo," she said, "but I've been out too long. Hatsumomo will come looking for me if I don't hurry back. If she finds us together ..."

"I only have to ask a few questions, Pumpkin. Just tell me, how did Hatsumomo find out I've been entertaining the Doctor at the Shirae Teahouse?"

"Oh, that," said Pumpkin. "She tried to tease you a few days ago about the German Ambassador, but you didn't seem to care what she said. You looked so calm, she thought you and Mameha must have some scheme going. So she went to Awajiumi at the registry office and asked what teahouses you've been billing at. When she heard the Shirae was one of them, she got this look on her face, and we started going there that same night to look for the Doctor. We went twice before we finally found him."

Very few men of consequence patronized the Shirae. This is why Hatsumomo would have thought of Dr. Crab at once. As I was now coming to understand, he was renowned in Gion as a "mizuage specialist." The moment Hatsumomo thought of him, she probably knew exactly what Mameha was up to.

"What did she say to him tonight? When we called on the Doctor after you left, he wouldn't even speak with us."

"Well," Pumpkin said, "they chatted for a while, and then Hatsumomo pretended that something had reminded her of a story. And she began it, 'There's a young apprentice named Sayuri, who lives in my okiya . . .'When the Doctor heard your name . . . I'm telling you, he sat up like a bee had stung him. And he said, 'You know her?' So Hatsumomo told him, 'Well, of course I know her, Doctor. Doesn't she live in my okiya?' After this she said something else I don't remember, and then, 'I shouldn't talk about Sayuri because . . . well, actually, I'm covering up an important secret for her.' "

I went cold when I heard this. I was sure Hatsumomo had thought of something really awful.

"Pumpkin, what was the secret?"

"Well, I'm not sure I know," Pumpkin said. "It didn't seem like much. Hatsumomo told him there was a young man who lived near the okiya and that Mother had a strict policy against boyfriends. Hatsumomo said you and this boy were fond of each other, and she didn't mind covering up for you because she thought Mother was too strict. She said she even let the two of you spend time together alone in her room when Mother was out. Then she said something like, 'Oh, but . . . Doctor, I really shouldn't have told you! What if it gets back to Mother, after all the work I've done to keep Sayuri's secret!' But the Doctor said he was grateful for what Hatsumomo had told him, and he would be certain to keep it to himself."

I could just imagine how much Hatsumomo must have enjoyed her little scheme. I asked Pumpkin if there was anything more, but she said no.

I thanked her many times for helping me, and told her how sorry I was that she'd had to spend these past few years as a slave to Hatsumomo.

"I guess some good has come of it," Pumpkin said. "Just a few days ago, Mother made up her mind to adopt me. So my dream of having someplace to live out my life may come true."

I felt almost sick when I heard these words, even as I told her how happy I was for her. It's true that I was pleased for Pumpkin; but I also knew that it was an important part of Mameha's plan that Mother adopt me instead.

In her apartment the next day, I told Mameha what I'd learned. The moment she heard about the boyfriend, she began shaking her head in disgust. I understood it already, but she explained to me that Hatsumomo had found a very clever way of putting into Dr. Crab's mind the idea that my "cave" had already been explored by someone else's "eel," so to speak.

Mameha was even more upset to learn about Pumpkin's upcoming adoption.

"My guess," she said, "is that we have a few months before the adoption occurs. Which means that the time has come for your mizuage, Sayuri, whether you're ready for it or not."

Mameha went to a confectioner's shop that same week and ordered on my behalf a kind of sweet-rice cake we call ekubo, which is the Japanese word for dimple. We call them ekubo because they have a dimple in the top with a tiny red circle in the center; some people think they look very suggestive. I've always thought they looked like tiny pillows, softly dented, as if a woman has slept on them, and smudged red in the center from her lipstick, since she was perhaps too tired to take it off before she went to bed. In any case, when an apprentice geisha becomes available for mizuage, she presents boxes of these ekubo to the men who patronize her. Most apprentices give them out to at least a dozen men, perhaps many more; but for me there would be only Nobu and the Doctor-if we were lucky. I felt sad, in a way, that I wouldn't give them to the Chairman; but on the other hand, the whole thing seemed so distasteful, I wasn't entirely sorry he would be left out of it.

Presenting ekubo to Nobu was easy. The mistress of the Ichiriki arranged for him to come a bit early one evening, and Mameha and I met him in a small room overlooking the entrance courtyard. I thanked him for all his thoughtfulness-for he'd been extremely kind to me over the past six months, not only summoning me frequently to entertain at parties even when the Chairman was absent, but giving me a variety of gifts besides the ornamental comb on the night Hatsumomo came. After thanking him, I picked up the box of ekubo, wrapped in unbleached paper and tied with coarse twine, then bowed to him and slid it across the table. He accepted it, and Mameha and I thanked him several more times for all his kindne............

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