«That means,» she said, «that the time has come for you to exchange rooms with them.»
If you’d asked me, while I was still a young woman, to tell you the turning point in my relationship with Hatsumomo, I would have said it was my mizuage. But even though it’s true that my mizuage made me safe from Hatsumomo, the real turning point occurred the day we exchanged rooms.
To explain this, let me tell you something that Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku once said during an evening at the Ichiriki Teahouse. I can’t pretend I knew the Admiral well-he’s usually described as the father of the Japanese Navy-but I went to the same parties on a number of occasions. Parties usually grew louder after the Admiral arrived.
At one party the Admiral had, as usual, just won a drinking game. Someone made a joke about him always winning, but the Admiral didn’t laugh. He said he never had any doubts about winning.
One of the geisha said, «Oh come on! Everybody loses sometimes, Admiral, even you!»
«I suppose it’s true that everyone loses occasionally,» said the Admiral. «But never me.»
Some people at the party thought this was arrogant, but I didn’t. Someone asked him the secret of his success.
«I never try to defeat the man I’m fighting,» explained the Admiral. «I try to make him less confident. When you are more confident than your opponent, you will win.»
The day I moved into Hatsumomo’s room, I became more confident than her.
Tigers walk alone, and everyone knows that a wounded tiger is the most dangerous of the big cats. For that reason Mameha insisted that we follow Hatsumomo around Gion for the few weeks after we exchanged rooms.
So every evening, except when she had an engagement she couldn’t miss, Mameha came to our okiya when it got dark and we followed Hatsumomo. On the first night we did this, Hatsumomo pretended to find it amusing. By the end of the fourth night she was looking like a hunted animal. On the fifth night she turned to us and raised her hand to hit Mameha. I screamed, which must have made Hatsumomo stop and think about what she was doing. She stared at us for a moment with eyes burning, before all the fire suddenly went out of her and she walked off.
Plenty of people saw what had happened and a few came over to see if Mameha was all right. She said she was fine and then said, sadly, «Poor Hatsumomo! It must be just as the doctor said. She really does seem to be losing her mind.»
There was no doctor, of course, but Mameha’s words had the effect she’d hoped for. Soon a rumor spread all over Gion that a doctor had said Hatsumomo was losing her mind.
For years Hatsumomo had been very close to the famous kabuki actor Bando Shojiro VI. Shojiro was an onna-gata, which means that he always played women in the theater. Once, in a magazine interview, he said that Hatsumomo was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He said that on the stage, he tried to be as much like her as possible to make himself seem attractive. Not surprisingly, whenever Shojiro was in town, Hatsumomo visited him.
One afternoon I learned that Shojiro would attend a party later that evening at a teahouse in the geisha district of Pontocho, on the other side of the river from Gion.
Around nine o’clock Mameha and I arrived at Shojiro’s party. It was outdoors; the teahouse had built a big wooden platform above the water. It was beautifully lit with paper lamps, and the river was gold with the lights of the restaurants on the opposite bank. Shojiro was in the middle of telling a story in his high voice, as we arrived. Hatsumomo looked frightened at the sight of us.
Mameha knelt right next to Hatsumomo, which I thought was very brave of her. I sat further away. Someone immediately asked Mameha to play the shamisen and dance, which she did.
Shojiro seemed fascinated. After her performance Shojiro, who was a dancer himself, asked her to sit next to him. He turned his back on Hatsumomo.
Nobody knows better than Mameha how to keep a man’s attention, and soon Shojiro was charmed into acting some of his best-known performances just for Mameha. Then he started imitating other actors. One of these imitations, of an actor called Bajuri who had performed kabuki in London to great praise, ended with Shojiro holding Mameha and kissing her all over her face. Even Mameha looked surprised. Everyone else on the platform clapped and cheered. Everyone except Hatsumomo.
«You are making a fool of yourself,» Hatsumomo told Shojiro.
«Oh, Hatsumomo-san,» said Shojiro, «you’re jealous!»
«Of course she is!» said Mameha. «Now you must show us how the two of you make friends again. Go on, Shojiro-san. Don’t be shy! You must give her the same kisses you gave me!»
Shojiro pulled Hatsumomo to her feet. Hatsumomo didn’t want to stand, but Shojiro did it in the end. He bent to kiss her, then pulled his head back, screaming. Hatsumomo had bitten him on the lip.
«Hatsumomo-san, please,» said Mameha, as if she was speaking to a child. «As a favor to me… do try to calm down.»
I don’t know if it was the effect of Mameha’s words, or whether maybe Hatsumomo really was losing her mind, but she threw herself at Shojiro, kicking and biting. I do think that in a way she went crazy.
Two men held Hatsumomo from behind as she struggled and kicked and screamed. Unnoticed by anybody, Mameha left and returned a moment later with the mistress of the teahouse. The mistress and Shojiro threw Hatsumomo out of the party.
Hatsumomo didn’t return to the okiya at all that night. When she did come back the following day, she smelled like she’d been sick and her hair was all over the place. Mother took her into her room and she was there a long time.
A few days later Hatsumomo left the okiya and never came back. She was wearing a simple cotton dress Mother had given her and her hair was long, down to her shoulders. I’d never seen it like that before. She didn’t leave voluntarily; Mother had thrown her out. Hatsumomo wasn’t earning what she once had, and Mameha believed that Mother had wanted to get rid of her for years.