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Chapter 32

All through that winter and the following spring, Nobu went on bringing the Minister to Gion once or even twice every week. Considering how much time the two of them spent together during these months, you'd think the Minister would eventually have realized that Nobu felt toward him just as an ice pick feels toward a block of ice; but if he did, he never showed the least sign. To tell the truth, the Minister never seemed to notice much of anything, except whether I was kneeling beside.him and whether his cup was full of sake. This devotion made my life difficult at times; when I paid too much attention to the Minister, Nobu grew short-tempered, and the side of his face with less scarring turned a brilliant red from anger. This was why the presence of the Chairman, Mameha, and Pumpkin was so valuable to me. They played the same role straw plays in a packing crate.

Of course I valued the Chairman's presence for another reason as well. I saw more of him during these months than I'd ever seen of him before, and over time I came to realize that the image of him in my mind, whenever I lay on my futon at night, wasn't really how he looked, not exactly. For example, I'd always pictured his eyelids smooth with almost no lashes at all; but in fact they were edged with dense, soft hair like little brushes. And his mouth was far more expressive than I'd ever
realized-so expressive, in fact, that he often hid his feelings only very poorly. When he was amused by something but didn't want to show it, I could nevertheless spot his mouth quivering in the corners. Or when he was lost in thought-mulling over some problem he'd encountered during the day, perhaps-he sometimes turned a sake cup around and around in his hand and put his mouth into a deep frown that made creases all the way down the sides of his chin. Whenever he was carried away in this state I considered myself free to stare at him unabashedly. Something about his frown, and its deep furrows, I came to find inexpressibly handsome. It seemed to show how thoroughly he thought about things, and how seriously he was taken in the world. One evening while Mameha was telling a long story, I gave myself over so completely to staring at the Chairman that when I finally came to myself again, I realized that anyone watching me would have wondered what I was doing. Luckily the Minister was too dazed with drink to have noticed; as for Nobu, he was chewing a bite of something and poking around on the plate with his chopsticks, paying no attention either to Mameha or to me. Pumpkin, though, seemed to have been watching me all along. When I looked at her, she wore a smile I wasn't sure how to interpret.

One evening toward the end of February, Pumpkin came down with the flu and was unable to join us at the Ichiriki. The Chairman was late that night as well, so Mameha and I spent an hour entertaining Nobu and the Minister by ourselves. We finally decided to put on a dance, more for our own benefit than for theirs. Nobu wasn't much of a devotee, and the Minister had no interest at all. It wasn't our first choice as a way to pass the time, but we couldn't think of anything better.

First Mameha performed a few brief pieces while I accompanied her on the shamisen. Afterward, we exchanged places. Just as I was taking up the starting pose for my first dance-my torso bent so that my folding fan reached toward the ground, and my other arm stretched out to one side-the door slid open and the Chairman entered. We greeted him and waited while he took a seat at the table. I was delighted he'd arrived, because although I knew he'd seen me on the stage, he'd certainly never watched me dance in a setting as intimate as this one. At first I'd intended to perform a short piece called "Shimmering Autumn Leaves," but now I changed my mind and asked Mameha to play "Cruel Rain" instead. The story behind "Cruel Rain" is of a young woman who feels deeply moved when her lover takes off his kimono jacket to cover her during a rainstorm, because she knows
him to be an enchanted spirit whose body will melt away if he becomes wet. My teachers had often complimented me on the way I expressed the woman's feelings of sorrow; during the section when I had to sink slowly to my knees, I rarely allowed my legs to tremble as most dancers did. Probably I've mentioned this already, but in dances of the Inoue School the facial expression is as important as the movement of the arms or legs. So although I'd like to have stolen glances at the Chairman as I was dancing, I had to keep my eyes positioned properly at all times, and was never able to do it. Instead, to help give feeling to my dance, I focused my mind on the saddest thing I could think of, which was to imagine that my danna was there in the room with me-not the Chairman, but rather Nobu. The moment I formulated this thought, everything around me seemed to droop heavily toward the earth. Outside in the garden, the eaves of the roof dripped rain like beads of weighted glass. Even the mats themselves seemed to press down upon the floor. I remember thinking that I was dancing to express not the pain of a young woman who has lost her supernatural lover, but the pain I myself would feel when my life was finally robbed of the one thing I cared most deeply about. I found myself thinking, too, of Satsu; I danced the bitterness of our eternal separation. By the end I felt almost overcome with grief; but I certainly wasn't prepared for what I saw when I turned to look at the Chairman.

He was sitting at the near corner of the table so that, as it happened, no one but me could see him. I thought he wore an expression of astonishment at first, because his eyes were so wide. But just as his mouth sometimes twitched when he tried not to smile, now I could see it twitching under the strain of a different emotion. I couldn't be sure, but I had the impression his eyes were heavy with tears. He looked toward the door, pretending to scratch the side of his nose so he could wipe a finger in the corner, of his eye; and he smoothed his eyebrows as though they were the source of his trouble. I was so shocked to see the Chairman in pain that I felt almost disoriented for a moment. I made my way back to the table, and Mameha and Nobu began to talk. After a moment the Chairman interrupted.

"Where is Pumpkin this evening?"

"Oh, she's ill, Chairman," said Mameha.

"What do you mean? Won't she be here at all?"

"No, not at all," Mameha said. "And it's a good thing, considering she has the stomach flu."

Mameha went back to talking. I saw the Chairman glance at his wristwatch and then, with his voice still unsteady, he said:

"Mameha, you'll have to excuse me. I'm not feeling very well myself this evening."

Nobu said something funny just as the Chairman was sliding the door shut, and everyone laughed. But I was thinking a thought that frightened me. In my dance, I'd tried to express the pain of absence. Certainly I had upset myself doing it, but I'd upset the Chairman too; and was it possible he'd been thinking of Pumpkin-who, after all, was absent? I couldn't imagine him on the brink of tears over Pumpkin's illness, or any such thing, but perhaps I'd stirred up some darker, more complicated feelings. All I knew was that when my dance ended, the Chairman asked about Pumpkin; and he left when he learned she was ill. I could hardly bring myself to believe it. If I'd made the discovery that the Chairman had developed feelings for Mameha, I wouldn't have been surprised. But Pumpkin? How could the Chairman long for someone so ... well, so lacking in refinement?

You might think that any woman with common sense ought to have given up her hopes at this point. And I did for a time go to the fortune-teller every day, and read my almanac more carefully even than usual, searching for some sign whether I should submit to what seemed my inevitable destiny. Of course, we Japanese were living in a decade of crushed hopes. I wouldn't have found it surprising if mine had died off just like so many other people's. But on the other hand, many believed the country itself would one day rise again; and we all knew such a thing could never happen if we resigned ourselves to living forever in the rubble. Every time I happened to read an account in the newspaper of some little shop that had made, say, bicycle parts before the war, and was now back in business almost as though the war had never happened, I had to tell myself that if our entire nation could emerge from its own dark valley, there was certainly hope that I could emerge from mine.

Beginning that March and running all through the spring, Mameha and I were busy with Dances of the Old Capital, which was being staged again for the first time since Gion had closed in the final years of the war. As it happened, the Chairman and Nobu grew busy as well during these months, and brought the Minister to Gion only twice. Then one day during the first week of June, I heard that my presence at the Ichiriki Teahouse had been requested early that evening by Iwa-mura Electric. I had an engagement booked weeks before that I couldn't easily miss; so by the time I finally slid open the door to join the party, I was half an hour late. To my surprise, instead of the usual group around the table, I found only Nobu and the Minister.

I could see at once that Nobu was angry. Of course, I imagined he was angry at me for making him spend so much time alone with the Minister-though to tell the truth, the two of them weren't "spending time together" any more than a squirrel is spending time with the insects that live in the same tree. Nobu was drumming his fingers on the tabletop, wearing a very cross expression, while the Minister stood at the window gazing out at the garden.

"All right, Minister!" Nobu said, when I'd settled myself at the table. "That's enough of watching the bushes grow. Are we supposed to sit here and wait for you all night?"

The Minister was startled, and gave a little bow of apology before coming to take his place on a cushion I'd set out for him. Usually I had difficulty thinking of anything to say to him, but tonight my task was easier since I hadn't seen him in so long.

"Minister," I said, "you don't like me anymore!"

"Eh?" said the Minister, who managed to rearrange his features so they showed a look of surprise.

"You haven't been to see me in more than a month! Is it because Nobu-san has been unkind, and hasn't brought you to Gion as often as he should have?"

"Nobu-san isn't unkind," said the Minister. He blew several breaths up his nose before adding, "I've asked too much of him already."

"Keeping you away for a month? He certainly is unkind. We have so much to catch up on."

"Yes," Nobu interrupted, "mostly a lot of drinking."

"My goodness, but Nobu-san is grouchy tonight. Has he been this way all evening? And where are the Chairman, and Mameha and Pumpkin? Won't they be joining us?"

"The Chairman isn't available this evening," Nobu said. "I don't know where the others are. They're your problem, not mine."

In a moment, the door slid back, and two maids entered carrying dinner trays for the men. I did my best to keep them company while they ate-which is to say, I tried for a while to get Nobu to talk; but he wasn't in a talking mood; and then I tried to get the Minister to talk, but of course, it would have been easier to get a word or two out of the grilled minnow on his plate. So at length I gave up and just chattered away about whatever I wanted, until I began to feel like an old lady talking to her two dogs. All this while I poured sake as liberally as I could for both men. Nobu didn't drink much, but the Minister held his cup out gratefully every time. Just as the Minister was beginning to take on that glassy-eyed look, Nobu, like a man who has just woken up, suddenly put his own cup firmly on the table, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and said:

"All right, Minister, that's enough for one evening. It's time for you to be heading home."

"Nobu-san!" I said. "I have the impression your guest is just beginning to enjoy himself."

"He's enjoyed himself plenty. We're sending him home early for once, thank heavens. Come on, then, Minister! Your wife will be grateful."

"I'm not married," said the Minister. But already he was pulling up his socks and getting ready to stand.

I led Nobu and the Minister up the hallway to the entrance, and helped the Minister into his shoes. Taxis were still uncommon because of gasoline rationing, but the maid summoned a rickshaw and I helped the Minister into it. Already I'd noticed that he was acting a bit strangely, but this evening he pointed his eyes at his knees and wouldn't even say good-bye. Nobu remained in the entryway, glowering out into the night as if he were watching clouds gather, though in fact it was a clear evening. When the Minister had left, I said to him, "Nobu-san, what in heaven's name is the matter with the two of you?"

He gave me a look of disgust and walked back into the teahouse. I found him in the room, tapping his empty sake cup on the table with his one hand. I thought he wanted sake, but he ignored me when I asked-and the vial turned out to be empty, in any case. I waited a long moment, thinking he had something to say to me, but finally I spoke up.

"Look at you, Nobu-san. You have a wrinkle between your eyes as deep as a rut in the road."

He let the muscles around his eyes relax a bit, so that the wrinkle seemed to dissolve. "I'm not as young as I once was, you know," he told me.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means there are some wrinkles that have become permanent features, and they aren't going to go away just because you say they should."

"There are good wrinkles and bad wrinkles, Nobu-san. Never forget it."

"You aren't as young as you once were yourself, you know."

"Now you've stooped to insulting me! You're in a worse mood even than I'd feared. Why isn't there any alcohol here? You need a drink."

"I'm not insulting you. I'm stating a fact."

"There are good wrinkles and bad wrinkles, and t............

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