memoirs-of-a-geisha chapter 9


Most of the time, except for Teacher Mouse, the teachers played the tune first and then we all tried to play it back. And then the teacher would call out from the front things like, «The girl at the back, you must keep your finger down, not up in the air.»

In all the lessons you were corrected if you spoke in anything except a Kyoto accent, or if you walked badly or sat or knelt badly.

The last lesson every morning was tea ceremony. Geisha are trained to prepare tea for guests in the traditional way and to pour the tea into beautiful cups. Even the guests must hold the cups in a special way, so it’s a little like a dance, danced while kneeling.

All these skills needed practice, but of course in the afternoon I still had to clean the okiya, which Pumpkin didn’t.

In the beginning Pumpkin and I practiced shamisen together every afternoon. We had great fun together; it was the time of day I looked forward to most.

Then one afternoon, while Pumpkin was teaching me a tune, Hatsumomo came into our room. We didn’t even know she was in the okiya.

«Oh, look, it’s Mameha’s future Little Sister!» she said to me. «I thought you were stupid, Little Fish Girl, but Pumpkin here is even more stupid.»

Poor Pumpkin put her shamisen down like a dog putting its tail between its legs. «Have I done something wrong?» she asked.

Hatsumomo pulled Pumpkin’s lip so hard she screamed.

«Now I know,» said Hatsumomo, still pulling the lip, «that they call you Pumpkin because your head really is full of pumpkin. Now put your shamisen away and go to my room.»

Pumpkin started to take her shamisen apart; her lip was bleeding. Hatsumomo turned to me. «You’ll have to find yourself another little friend,» she said. «After Pumpkin and I have had our talk, she won’t speak to you again. Will you, Pumpkin?» Pumpkin nodded; she had no choice, but I could see how sorry she felt. We never practiced shamisen together again.

I told Mameha what had happened the next time I went to see her at her apartment.

«If Pumpkin isn’t allowed to speak to you, then you mustn’t speak to her either,» said Mameha. «You’ll only get her into trouble, and she’ll have to tell Hatsumomo what you say. You may have trusted the poor girl in the past, but you mustn’t any longer.»

I felt so sad at this. I blew on my tea and started to drink. «Really, Chiyo, you must stop blowing on your tea in that way,» said Mameha. «You look like a peasant! Leave it on the table until it’s cool enough to drink.»

«I’m sorry,» I said. «I didn’t know I was doing it.»

Mameha asked me to pour her a cup of tea. The pot was empty, but she asked me to do it anyway.

«No!» said Mameha, when I’d poured as elegantly as I could. «You have a lovely arm, and beautiful skin. You should make sure every man who sits near you sees it at least once. Why do you think the sleeves on kimonos are so big? It’s so that men can see our arms when we pour tea. Now do it again.»

I imagined myself inside a teahouse, sliding open the door of a tatami room. The men turned their heads to look at me, and I saw the Chairman there among them. I smelled his talcum powder. In his smooth fingers he held a teacup. I poured the tea for him, showing him my arm, and felt his eyes on me as I did it.

«That’s better,» said Mameha.

Some people say that when a young girl has finished her training and she’s ready to become a novice geisha, she’s like a bird that’s ready to leave the nest. I don’t agree at all! A bird only has to grow big enough and then fly. I worked for two hard years at shamisen, singing, tea ceremony, and many other skills. I learned to speak in a Kyoto accent and not to behave like a peasant. But finally, one day, the time of the ceremony to make me a novice geisha was at last near.

The first step was to have my hair done the way all novice geisha wore it. Gion had quite a lot of hairdressers in those days; Mameha’s worked in a room above a fish restaurant. I had to spend nearly two hours waiting for my turn and I’m sorry to say that the smell of dirty hair in there was terrible. The hairstyles that geisha wore in those days were so complicated and expensive that nobody went to the hairdresser more than once a week.

When my turn came at last, the hairdresser put me over a large sink in a position that made me think he wanted to cut my head off. Then he poured a bucket of warm water over my hair and began to wash it by rubbing soap hard into my head. I was almost in tears from the pain.

«Cry if you have to,» said the hairdresser. «Why do you think I put you over a sink?»

He thought that was a joke, but I didn’t think it was funny. I was in there for two hours, but my problems with my hair were just beginning. If a novice geisha goes to sleep on a pillow after she has had her hair done, it will spoil it and she will have to go back to the hairdresser again the next day.

So novices sleep on a special pillow called a takamakura. You don’t put your hair or your head on this takamakura. You put your neck on it and then go to sleep without moving.


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