For a moment I thought he wasn’t going to reply. Then he said, «To your new home.»
Soon we turned onto a street that seemed as broad as the whole village of Yoroido. I could hardly see the other side because of all the people, bicycles, cars, and trucks. I’d never seen a car or a truck before-except in photographs.
After a long time the rickshaw turned down an alley of wooden houses. We stopped and Mr. Bekku told me to get out. There in the doorway stood the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, wearing a kimono more perfect than anything I’d ever imagined. It was water blue with white lines that curled like the current in a stream when she moved. It was pure silk. And her clothing wasn’t the only extraordinary thing about her; her face was painted a kind of rich white, like a cloud lit by the sun.
This was Hatsumomo. I didn’t know it then but she was one of the most famous geisha in Gion. She was a tiny woman; even with her black, shiny hair up high she came only to Mr. Bekku’s shoulder.
«Mr. Bekku,» said Hatsumomo. «What is that strong smell of fish? Could you take the garbage out later, please. I want to pass by.»
There was no garbage there; she was talking about me.
Mr. Bekku led me past Hatsumomo into the small, elegant house. It was built up on stones, with enough space under it for a cat to crawl under. Inside, the hall had a wooden floor that shone in the yellow light of electric lamps. A door slid back and a woman came out, smoking a pipe.
«This is the new girl, Mrs. Nitta,» said Mr. Bekku.
«Ah, yes. The little fish girl,» said the woman. «Come closer, I want to have a look at you. Heavens! What amazing eyes! You’re a beautiful girl, aren’t you?»
She spoke with the same peculiar accent as Mr. Bekku and Hatsumomo. It sounded so different from the Japanese spoken in my village that I had a hard time understanding her. I couldn’t look at her, so I kept my eyes down on the wooden floor.
«There’s no need to worry, little girl. No one’s going to cook you. My name is Mrs. Nitta and this is the Nitta okiya.»
I raised my eyes a little. Her kimono was yellow, with smooth, brown branches carrying lovely green and orange leaves. It was made of the most beautiful, delicate, thin silk. Then I raised my eyes higher and almost cried out in shock. The colors of her face were all wrong. Her eyelids were red like meat and her gums and tongue were gray. I later learned that this was due to a problem with her diet, but at the time I just stared in horror.
«What are you looking at?» said Mrs. Nitta, as smoke from her pipe rose from her face.
«I’m very sorry, ma’am. I was looking at your kimono,» I told her. «I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.»
This must have been the right answer-if there was a right answer — because she laughed, though the laugh sounded like a cough.
«So you like it, do you,» she said, continuing to cough or laugh, I didn’t know which. «Do you have any idea what it cost?»
«More than you did, that’s certain.»
A young girl came out into the hall, carrying a wooden bucket full of water. She was a little older than me, thirteen or fourteen. Her body was thin, but her face was round. Even when she was a geisha in Gion many years later, everybody called her Pumpkin.
«Ah, Pumpkin,» said Mrs. Nitta. «Get the little fish girl clean and get her out of those peasant clothes.»
«Yes, ma’am,» said Pumpkin.
She led me through the hall to a courtyard in the back. The bucket was heavy for her and when she put it down half the water spilled out over the dirt floor.
«Where on earth did you come from?» she said.
I didn’t want to say I’d come from Yoroido. Pumpkin’s accent was as strange to me as everybody else’s. I was sure she wouldn’t know where Yoroido was. I said instead that I’d just arrived.
«I thought I’d never see another girl my age,» she said to me. «Why are your eyes that color?»
I didn’t answer that, but took my clothes off so Pumpkin could wash me with a cloth she took out of the bucket. After that, she went to a room in the courtyard and got me a kimono. It was made of rough cotton in a simple dark blue pattern, but it was certainly more elegant than anything I’d worn before.
«I don’t even want to know your name yet,» said Pumpkin. «I have to learn new names all the time. Mrs. Nitta didn’t like the last girl who came and she was only here a month.»
«What will happen if they don’t want to keep me?»
«It’s better for you if they keep you.»
«Why? What… what is this place?»
«It’s an okiya. It’s where geisha live. Our geisha is called Hatsumomo and we look after her and do everything for her. She earns all the money for the okiya. If you work very hard, you’ll grow up to be a geisha yourself. But it takes years of training.»
I had a sudden image in my mind of my poor, sick mother in bed, pushing herself up on one elbow and looking around to see where I’d gone. Tears came into my eyes before I could think how to stop them.