memoirs-of-a-geisha chapter 14


At last we climbed out of the rickshaw at the campus of Kyoto University. Mameha led me up a small path, with western-style buildings on both sides of us. The windows were made into tiny glass squares by sticks of painted wood. I hadn’t noticed how much Gion seemed like home to me, until I noticed myself feeling out of place at the University.

Smooth-skinned young men stopped to watch as Mameha and I walked past, and then they talked and joked with each other about us. To them we were creatures from another world.

The Exhibition Hall was huge, filled with the noise of the people and with smoke from roasted sweet-rice cakes. In the center was a square where the wrestlers would try to push each other out of the wrestling area to win the contest.

Our places were on tatami mats in the front. Our hosts were there and I saw a man waving his hand to Mameha; I knew at once that he was Nobu. Even from a distance the skin of his face looked like a melted candle. At some time in his life he must have suffered terrible burns. Much later I found out that when he was a young soldier in the Japanese army, he had been injured in the bombing outside Seoul in 1910, at the time when Japan took Korea. He had been in pain ever since.

Next to Nobu, kneeling on the same tatami mat at the front, wearing a man’s striped kimono, was the Chairman. The Chairman was looking at me with apparent curiosity. The blood came rushing into my face, making my feet go cold.

«Chairman Iwamura… President Nobu,» Mameha said, «this is my new Younger Sister, the apprentice Sayuri.»

By now I was an apprentice, like Pumpkin. And even a sixteen-year-old apprentice had heard of Iwamura Ken. But I never imagined for a moment that Iwamura Ken was the man I’d met by the Shirakawa Stream. This was the man I still dreamed about every night; the man whose handkerchief was in my obi at that very moment.

I picked up a small teapot and held the sleeve of my kimono out of the way to pour. To my astonishment and joy, the Chairman’s eyes moved to my arm. And then suddenly Mameha stopped talking. For a moment I didn’t realize what the problem was. And then I noticed the teapot again. In my happiness that the Chairman was watching me, I hadn’t noticed that it was empty. It had been empty even when I’d picked it up.

Mameha laughed. «You can see what a determined girl she is, Chairman,» she said. «If there had been a single drop of tea in that pot, Sayuri would have poured it out.»

«That certainly is a beautiful kimono your Younger Sister is wearing, Mameha,» the Chairman said. «Do I remember seeing it on you, back during your days as an apprentice?»

«It’s possible, I suppose,» Mameha replied. «But the Chairman has seen me in so many different kimonos over the years, I can’t imagine he remembers them all.»

A long look passed between the Chairman and Mameha. Then the Chairman said, «Well, I’m no different from any other man. I never forget beauty. But I can never remember which sumo wrestler is which. They all look the same to me.»

Mameha leaned across in front of the Chairman and whispered to me, «What the Chairman is really saying is that he doesn’t like sumo.»

«Now, Mameha,» said the Chairman, «if you’re trying to get me in trouble with Nobu…»

«Chairman, Nobu-san has known for years how you feel!»

The Chairman smiled and then spoke to me. «Sayuri, is this your first time at sumo?»

I’d been waiting for some excuse to speak with him, but before I’d even taken a breath to answer, several wrestlers came into the Exhibition Hall. Our heads turned and the audience went silent. Nobu had his head turned away from me. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the terrible burns on the side of his face and neck and at his ear, half of which was not there at all. Then I saw that the sleeve of his jacket was empty. I hadn’t noticed that earlier. Nobu had only one arm.

I turned back to the Chairman. As an apprentice geisha I was free to sit as quietly as an arrangement of flowers if I wanted to, but I was determined not to let this opportunity pass.

«The Chairman asked if this is my first time at sumo,» I said. «It is, and I would be grateful if the Chairman could explain it to me.

«If you want to know what’s happening,» said Nobu, «you’d better talk to me. What’s your name, apprentice? I didn’t hear what Mameha said.»

I turned away from the Chairman with as much difficulty as a hungry child turns away from a plate of food.

«My name is Sayuri, sir,» I said.

«Sayuri is a very pretty name-though pretty names and pretty girls don’t always go together.»

I wondered if his next remark was going to be, «What an ugly Younger Sister you’ve taken on, Mameha,» or something like that, but to my relief he said, «Here’s a case where the name and the girl go together. You have especially beautiful eyes. Turn toward me, Sayuri, so I can have another look at them.»

I looked at him, as well as I could; then I was rescued by two wrestlers going into the square.

«The first wrestler who is pushed out of that square is the loser,» said Nobu. «It might look easy, but how would you like to push a huge man like that out of a square?»


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