Mother gave Mameha a cautious glance because she didn’t know why Mameha was there, but then she gave a little bow and thanked her for coming. I didn’t know why Mameha had come either. We all sat at the table, looking at each other over Mother’s account books.
«I’m sure you must be very pleased,» Mameha began, «that Sayuri will soon be taking a datum. And at only eighteen years of age! How young to be taking such a big step.»
«Mameha would have done well to take a danna at that age herself,» Mother replied. «My advice to you, Mameha-san, is that you do what you are good at, like teaching Sayuri that pretty way of rolling her eyes. You may leave the business decisions to me.»
«I would never discuss business with you, Mrs. Nitta. I’m sure you know more about these things… But may I ask? Is it true the most generous offer has come from Nobu Toshikazu?»
«His has been the only offer. I suppose that makes it the most generous.»
«The only offer? What a pity… The results are so much better when several men compete. Don’t you agree?»
«A hundred yen is a hundred yen,» said Mother, «whether it comes from this man or that one.»
«I’m sure that’s true,» said Mameha, softly. «Still, it’s disappointing. Because another man has expressed interest in Sayuri, General Tottori Junnosuke…»
At this point I stopped listening to the conversation because I understood for the first time that Mameha was trying to rescue me from Nobu. I certainly hadn’t expected that. I had no idea why she had changed her mind since our last conversation. Maybe she had her own reasons that were nothing to do with me. My mind was full of these thoughts, until I felt Mother’s hand on my arm.
«Well?» she said.
«I asked if you know the General.»
«I’ve met him a few times, Mother,» I said. «He comes to Gion often.»
I don’t know myself why I said that. The truth is I’d met the General more than a few times. He came to parties in Gion every week. He was a bit short, smaller than I am, in fact. But he was one of those men who everybody looked at all the time. He moved around a lot, always smoking cigarettes, so he seemed to live in a cloud of smoke.
The last time I saw him he was slightly drunk and talked to me for the longest time about all the ranks in the army. Everybody was talking about the army around this time because what we now call World War II, against America and England, had just started.
General Tottori found it very funny when I confused all the army ranks. His own rank was sho-jo, which means «little general»-the lowest of the generals.
But now Mameha was telling Mother that the General had a new job. As Mameha explained it, the new job was like a housewife going to market. If the army needed ink, for example, the General’s job was to make sure it got ink at the best possible price.
«With his new job,» Mameha said, «the General can now become a danna. And he can be a big help to the okiya.»
«No!» said Mother. «The army men never take care of a geisha the way the businessmen or the barons do. They never offer a reliable income.»
«Mrs. Nitta, until now in this war, we have been lucky in Gion,» Mameha said. «But the shortages will affect us if the fighting continues.»
«I’m sure they would affect us,» Mother said. «But this war will end in six months.»
«And when it does, the army will be even more important. Mrs. Nitta, don’t forget that General Tottori can get you anything you want for this okiya, whether the war ends or not.»
We all discovered later that Mameha was right. Her argument certainly had a big effect on Mother. She glanced at the teapot and you could almost see her thinking, «Well, I haven’t had any trouble getting tea; not yet… though the price has gone up…» And then, without even realizing what she was doing, she put one hand inside her obi and squeezed her silk bag of tobacco.
During September of that year, General Tottori and I drank sake together at a ceremony at the Ichiriki Teahouse. This was the same ceremony I’d first performed with Mameha when she became my Older Sister, and later with Dr. Crab just before my mizuage.
In the weeks afterward, everybody congratulated Mother on finding me such a powerful danna. Everybody except Nobu, who told me briefly and angrily at a party that General Tottori wasn’t good enough for me, and then walked away.
On that very first night after the ceremony, I went on the General’s instructions to a small hotel with only three rooms in the northwest of Kyoto, called the Suyura Inn. By this time I was used to luxury and that decaying inn was a shock. The walls were wet and the tatami mats were so full of water that they made a noise when I stepped on them. When General Tottori came, he turned on the radio and sat drinking a beer.
As the months passed, my twice-weekly meetings with the General at the Suyura Inn became nothing more than an unpleasant routine. Sometimes I wondered what it might be like with the Chairman; and to tell the truth I was a little afraid that I might not like it, just as with the Doctor and the General.