memoirs-of-a-geisha chapter 3


No Escape

During those first few weeks in that strange place, I couldn’t have felt worse if I’d lost my arms and legs, rather than my family and my home. I was confused and miserable, and I had no doubt that life would never again be the same.

But, strangely, during all that time, I felt an unreasonable warmth for Mrs. Nitta-something like the feeling that a fish might have for the fisherman who pulls the hook from its lip. Probably this was because I saw her no more than a few minutes each day while cleaning her room. She was always there, sitting at the table with an account book open in front her. The accounts were always organized, but nothing else was. She was messier even than Hatsumomo.

Hatsumomo lived like a queen in the okiya because she earned the income from which we all lived. And honestly, I’ve never seen a more astonishing-looking woman. Men in the street sometimes stopped and took their cigarettes from their mouths to stare at her.

Her room was the largest in the okiya, larger than my entire house in Yoroido. At first, I didn’t understand why it was so much bigger even than Mrs. Nitta’s. Then Pumpkin told me that in the past there’d been three or four geisha in the okiya and they’d all slept together in that one room, but Hatsumomo was the only geisha in the okiya now.

I always tried to clean the room as soon as Hatsumomo left for her dance lessons. I was worried about what might happen if she came back and found me alone in there. I hardly saw her because of the busy life she led, but I was still terrified of her.

One day, when I’d been in the okiya about a month, Mrs. Nitta led me upstairs to Hatsumomo’s room, to watch her put on her make-up.

Before we went in, Mrs. Nitta warned me not to get in Hatsumomo’s way. This is because, without her make-up, a geisha is like any other woman. She only becomes a geisha when she sits in front of her mirror to put her make-up on. And I don’t just mean that this is when she begins to look like a geisha; this is when she begins to think like one too.

Hatsumomo told me to sit to the side of her and just behind. From there, I could see her face in the tiny mirror on her makeup table. She had half a dozen make-up brushes of different sizes and shapes. She told me what they were all called and how to use them.

«Now, why do you suppose I’ve shown you these things?» she said.

«So I’ll understand how you put on your make-up,» I said.

«Heavens, no! I’ve shown them to you so you’ll see there isn’t any magic to it. How sad for you! Because it means that make-up alone won’t be enough to change the little fish girl into something beautiful.»

Hatsumomo turned back to the mirror and sang quietly to herself. She painted her face and neck with a pale yellow cream, but left her eyes bare as well as the area around her lips and nose. Then she used the smaller brushes on these areas. I knew that in an hour or two, men would be looking with astonishment at that face; and I would still be here, cleaning the courtyard and the toilets in the okiya, washing the rice bowls, and sweating.

«I know what you’re thinking,» said Hatsumomo. «You’re thinking you’ll never be so beautiful. Well, it’s perfectly true.»

Then she sent me down to the room in the courtyard to get her a kimono. Outside the room I saw Mr. Bekku. I knew now that collecting young girls from fishing villages was not Mr. Bekku’s only job. He was Hatsumomo’s dresser and he helped her with the complicated job of dressing in the many elegant kimonos that the okiya owned.

«Oh, it’s you,» said Hatsumomo, when I returned with a kimono. «I thought I heard a little mouse or something. Tell me, are you the one who re-arranges all my make-up jars?»

«I’m very sorry, ma’am,» I said. «I only move them to dust underneath.»

«But if you touch them,» she said, «they’ll start to smell like you. And then the men will say to me, ‘Hatsumomo-san, you smell just like a stupid girl from a fishing village.’ I’m sure you understand that, don’t you? But repeat it, just to be sure. Why don’t I want you to touch my make-up?»

It was difficult to make myself say it, but in the end I did.

«Because it will start to smell like me,» I said.

«That’s very good. And what will the men say?»

«They’ll say, ‘Hatsumomo-san, you smell just like a stupid girl from a fishing village.'»

«Hmmm… there’s something about the way you said it that I don’t like.»

Hatsumomo smiled and stood very close to me. I thought she was going to whisper in my ear, but she hit me across the face with her open hand.

I must have run out of the room because the next thing I can remember is Mrs. Nitta opening her door while she was still talking on the phone. I went into her room. Mrs. Nitta said, «Sorry,» into the mouthpiece of the phone and added, «Hatsumomo is hitting the maids again.»

When she was finished on the telephone, she called for Hatsumomo. «Hatsumomo! What have you done to Chiyo?»

Hatsumomo looked innocent. «She moved all my make-up jars, Mother, and she put her fingers in them.»


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