For two years now, I’d lived the hard and boring life of a maid. My life stretched out before me like a long path going nowhere. Sometimes, out in the street, I watched girls of my age coming back from geisha school, talking to each other. Maybe they were just talking about what they were going to have for lunch, but to me their lives had a purpose. I, on the other hand, was going back to the okiya to wash the stones in the courtyard.
I walked down to Shijo Avenue and turned toward the Kamo River. The Minamiza Theater was showing a kabuki play that afternoon. It was Shibaraku, which is one of our most famous plays, though I knew nothing about kabuki theater at the time.
People streamed up the steps to the theater in the spring sunshine. Among the men in their dark western-style suits or kimonos, there were several geisha. They were so brightly colored that they were like bright fall leaves in the brown waters of a river.
The men and the geisha had a purpose-unlike me. I turned toward the Shirakawa, but even the water in that stream seemed to move with a purpose, running down toward the Kamo River and from there to Osaka Bay and the Inland Sea. Everything had a purpose except me. I threw myself onto the little stone wall at the edge of the stream and cried.
«Oh, the day’s too pretty for such unhappiness,» said a voice.
The man who had spoken had a broad, calm face. He was probably about forty-five years old, with gray hair combed straight back from his forehead. He was so elegant I couldn’t look at him for long. I looked down.
There was a geisha with him. «Oh, she’s only a maid!» said the geisha. «Really, Chairman, the kabuki play will be starting soon.»
In those days I spent a lot of time in the streets of Gion, taking things to Hatsumomo at teahouses and bringing them back. On my journeys I’d often heard men called by titles like «Department Head» and «Chairman.»
«Please, sir,» I said to the Chairman. «Don’t make yourself late because of me. I’m only a silly girl.»
«Look at me a moment,» he said.
I didn’t dare disobey him. I looked up. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped my tears. As he bent over me, I could smell the talcum powder on his smooth skin.
«Here you are, a beautiful girl with nothing to fear from life, and you’re afraid to look at me. Someone’s been cruel to you. Or maybe life has been cruel.»
«I don’t know, sir,» I said, though of course I knew very well why I was crying.
«None of us find as much kindness in the world as we should,» he told me. «Keep the handkerchief.»
I knew then that I would always keep the handkerchief and I would never forget him. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them he was gone.
I ran to Shijo Avenue and all the way to the eastern end of Gion, where the Gion Shrine stood. I climbed the steps to the shrine and began to pray. With my eyes shut tight and the Chairman’s handkerchief pressed to my face, I prayed that somehow I could become a geisha.
Pumpkin was still at geisha school. She was a slow learner. Every day she spent hours kneeling in the hall trying to learn to play her shamisen, one of the instruments that geisha play at parties. I walked past her because there was somebody at the door. We had a lot of visitors at the time. Mrs. Nitta’s mother had just died, and people from all over Gion were coming to pay their respects. The visitor was the perfect geisha, Mameha.
I wasn’t happy to see her because I wanted to forget the kimono incident, but then I remembered that Mameha hadn’t actually seen me that night.
«What a beautiful girl,» Mameha said to me. «What unusual gray eyes. What’s your name?»
The next day there was a maid among the visitors. After a second or two I recognized Asami, Mameha’s maid. To my surprise, Asami didn’t go into the okiya to see Mrs. Nitta; she spoke to me at the door.
«Do you ever go out of the okiya, Chiyo?» she asked.
«Yes, often,» I said. «Hatsumomo is always forgetting combs, or she wants a shamisen, and I bring these things to her at the teahouse. Or I go out and buy her food and beer.»
«Good,» said Asami. «Then meet me at the bridge over the Shirakawa Stream at three o’clock tomorrow.»
I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to do this, but it wasn’t difficult to leave the okiya; Mrs. Nitta hardly noticed me. So of course I went to the bridge the next day. Asami led me to Mameha’s apartment, the one I’d visited at night with Hatsumomo and Korin two years before.
«Chiyo is here, ma’am,» the maid called out.
«All right, thank you, Asami,» called Mameha from a back room.
Mameha’s apartment wasn’t large, but it was extremely elegant, with beautiful tatami mats on the floor that were obviously new and had silk around the edges, not the usual cotton.
At last Mameha came out from the back room, dressed in a lovely white kimono with a water design. I turned and bowed very low on the mats while she walked gracefully to the table. She arranged herself on her knees opposite me, drank delicately from the tea the maid served, and then said: