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Water & Wood

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I knelt in the garden of the Ichiriki Teahouse, sipping sake and doing my best to hide the fact that my hands were trembling.

This was a ceremony I had experienced what seemed to be a dozen times before – first with Mameha, then the Doctor, and finally with the General when he became my danna – yet this time it felt so different that it seemed to me as if I were going through the motions for the very first time. The sake burned my throat as I drank, but when my eyes flicked across the table and came upon Nobu, I had a sudden desire to find an entire bottle of it and gulp it down until I could no longer see straight.

He was watching me, and the intensity of his stare made a shiver run up my back. In the dim candlelight, it was difficult to see, but even so I could feel his eyes on me, drinking in the sight of my painted face and deep red lips. I felt like a child beneath his gaze, and as I took another sip of sake, I prayed that somehow I could vanish into thin air. As I had long been trained to do, however, I gave no outward sign of my emotions and kept my eyes demurely lowered. The tremble in my hands had grown stronger, and it felt as if it was buried in my bones now, shaking me to the very core.

Here I was, taking Nobu as my danna, but that somehow was not the worst part of it all. The worst part was that I had done nothing to stop it. I had not protested or screamed at Mother or thrown things like Hatsumomo would have; I had obeyed, and for a moment I was almost sickened by my cowardice.

I should have done something. I should have acted while I still could!

Now, it was too late.

Across from me, Nobu looked pleased enough with the arrangement. Before the war, I had been one of the greatest geisha in Gion, and now he would have me for himself. I would be his; I would belong utterly to him, and the thought make me queasy. Thoughts of the Chairman wormed their way into my head as I wet my lips again with sake, but I tossed them out and forced myself to glance up at Nobu instead; to remind myself where my destiny had led me, and where I must follow.

To the man who ran Iwamura Electric, but not the one I wanted.

We finished exchanging cups and, having completed the ceremony, bowed to one another. I hoped no one could see the tremors in my hands, the way my bones shook within me. Auntie and Mother were watching from a distance, and I thought to myself that I had never seen Mother look so happy. In her mind, she already seemed to be counting the money Nobu’s patronage would bring to the okiya, but I was too overwhelmed to feel truly angry with her. Auntie stood beside her with pride shining in her eyes, ecstatic that I had procured such a wealthy and successful danna.

In that instant, it seemed that everyone here was thrilled with this arrangement but me.

There was to be no further contact between us that night and for that I was grateful, for I didn’t think I would have been able to handle seeing Nobu face to face so soon. Thankfully, Mother had cancelled my engagements for this special day, and for once, I was able to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Though I had done nothing but sip sake, I was as exhausted as I would have been had I gone to a hundred parties, and I longed for nothing more than the solitude of my room.

I said nothing to Mother or Auntie during the journey back to the okiya, though both women were nearly bubbling over with excitement and chatting away merrily. Inside, I felt a terrible sort of hollowness sink like a fat rock into my stomach, and before I could stop it, a lump formed in my throat that prevented me from speaking even if I’d wanted to. Mr. Bekku was waiting when we arrived to untie my obi, and when he was done I shuffled numbly into my room and slid the door shut behind me. I removed my formal black kimono and changed into a loose cotton robe, kneeling at my makeup stand and starting to rub off the paint on my face.

When I glanced up at myself in the mirror with my white face only half removed, I saw someone I didn’t recognize: a coward who had placed her destiny in the hands of Nobu Toshikazu when she had once been so bound and determined to shape it herself. I looked gaunter than I had been even during the war, and my eyes were heavy with sorrow and seemed darker. This was true misery, I knew as I met my reflection’s eyes. Surely, this was what it felt like.

I happened to look down into my jewelry box just then, and the moment I did, my eyes found the comb Nobu had given me what felt like an eternity ago. In a sudden, panicked rage, I picked the thing up and hurled it across the room, unable to stand the sight of it and not caring if it broke in two. If only I could do the same to Nobu! I wanted nothing more than to throw away the en that bound us together, to snip that invisible string and toss it into oblivion. I didn’t even notice I was crying until I glanced up at myself in the mirror again, and when I looked over to see where the comb had landed, I found that it had not at all been damaged by the fall. I almost laughed at the sight.

It was indestructible. I couldn’t get rid of it. I imagined that I could smash it against the wall twenty times and it would remain just as it was. Like Nobu. Like the en that bound us together.

My thoughts flying madly in all directions, I took the Chairman’s handkerchief from where I had hidden it away in my room and clutched it tightly in my hands. Holding it no longer brought the comfort I sought; if anything, it only made me want to be sick. For so long I had prayed for the Chairman to make me his, yet now that I was to be the mistress of his business partner, he would never dare – no, he had far too much honor for that. It could never be, not now, and it was with this in mind that I brought the little piece of fabric over to one of the candles burning in my room and dangled it above the flame.

For the first time in my life, I felt truly hopeless, and as I watched the handkerchief burn, I realized that I had nothing to cling to now; no image of the Chairman’s kisses to hold in my mind, no token of his to keep close to my heart.

I had Nobu, and a future as black and empty as the night around me.

Iwamura Electric held a large party at the Ichiriki two days later in celebration of their financing from the Mitsubishi Bank and naturally, I was invited to attend. I hadn’t seen Nobu since the ceremony at the Ichiriki, and I had no doubt he intended to present me with some kind of gift. I tried to make myself feel excitement at the prospect, but all I could think about was how I wanted no gifts from him and never would.  

In the days beforehand, however, I continued to entertain as usual, though all the joy seemed to have gone out of me. If my customers noticed, they said nothing. I could scarcely make myself laugh or strike up a friendly conversation. I knelt beside my customers at parties almost in total silence, my eyes lowered and my hands folded.

The night of the party, as I was preparing to leave and taking one last look in the mirror, Mother approached me from behind and folded her arms, puffing her pipe and looking me up and down. I was clad in a kimono of yellow silk patterned with embroidered red phoenixes and a deep crimson obi licked by a design of orange flames. My kimono was exquisite, but since I no longer painted my face except for special occasions, there would be no way to hide my unhappiness behind makeup tonight. Mother took note of this quickly.

“Don’t look so miserable! No man wants a geisha crying into his sake, especially not Nobu,” she uttered gruffly.

“Yes, Mother,” I answered.

All at once, Mother turned me towards her and placed her hands on my cheeks, forcing me to meet her eyes.

“Do not displease him. He’s one of the richest men in Osaka! I know he is hard to look at, but you could do a deal worse for a danna these days.”

Rigidly, I nodded. “Nobu-san has been most generous.”

“Pray that he will be more generous!” she laughed her throaty laugh and stuck her pipe back in her mouth. “You can never have too much generosity in this world.”

I knew that generosity was synonymous with money to her, but I decided to say nothing more and instead stepped toward the doorway. After Auntie sparked flint on my back for good luck, I climbed into the waiting rickshaw and arrived at the Ichiriki a few minutes later. A maid showed me to a room on the second floor, and when I stepped inside I found the room buzzing with energy and laughter like a hive of bees. More than thirty men were seated on cushions around the room with perhaps a dozen geisha at their sides, chatting away and pouring sake. Though I didn’t know why, I felt somewhat out of place, but forced myself to smile and greet the guests and geisha. I spotted Mameha speaking with the Chairman across the table from Nobu, and though I was glad to see her, I very much wished it was me in her place.

Yet I would be expected to sit beside Nobu, and so I did, kneeling next to him and doing my best to smile as I bowed. After having been a geisha for so long, I could lie and put on a façade almost as easily as I breathed, and I acted as if there was nothing that could please me more than laying eyes on him.

“Sayuri! There you are,” he greeted, looking as cheerful as I’d ever seen him. He reached for a sake cup and held it out to me. “Drink with me. We have much to celebrate.”

“Nobu-san is very kind. And in such a good mood tonight! I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink so much sake without encouragement.”

I took the cup and drank as soon as he’d filled it, not hesitating at the chance to drown my sorrows. I kept my sips small, but I relished the burn of it in my throat, and in that moment, I understand how Hatsumomo had been drawn to and destroyed by drink.

“The company’s prospects have never looked better. The future is full of possibilities!”

“So Nobu-san’s troubles are all over now?”

He shook his head and pressed his lips into a thin line. “Not yet. As long as this country is occupied we must all be careful. But I don’t want to discuss business with you; I do enough of that all day.”

I tried to think of something to say, and though I was a very apt conversationalist, for some reason I could find nothing. The relationship between Nobu and I felt exactly as it had been before, and at the same time, it felt completely different. Our usual repartee suddenly seemed unsuitable.

Across the table, Mameha seemed to sense my unease and smiled.

“Sayuri looks very beautiful tonight, don’t you think Nobu-san? What a stunning kimono!”

We engaged in typical pleasantries like that for a while, for which I was grateful, as it was easy to keep a smile fixed on my face and bow my head in thanks. In fact, I pretended to be in a good mood for so long that I actually began to believe my own charade, and after a while I was smiling and laughing along with everyone else.

However, when the man on my other side – an executive of the Mitsubishi Bank – leaned over and spoke to me, my good mood was soiled.

“So you’re the famous Sayuri we’ve all heard so much about. You must be quite something to have made Nobu forget his disdain for geisha! I thought pigs would fly before that happened.” I froze at first, but managed a smile a second later, and the man continued. “He’ll be quite a strange danna, no? Why, you two will be the beauty and the beast!”

Everyone laughed except Nobu, who heard that and scowled, but the man continued talking, undaunted.

“What an adventure in the bedroom that’ll be! But you never know, Sayuri – perhaps he is exceptionally skilled with one hand!”

Fewer people laughed this time. I was mortified and nearly as red as a beet. Beside me, Nobu looked just as flushed, though not from embarrassment but from anger. Mameha seemed apprehensive, and I didn’t dare look at the Chairman to see his reaction. The drunk man didn’t seem to have realized what he’d said until Nobu rose to stand with a low humph and stalked off in the direction of the toilet, leaving the guests at the table in silence. Not knowing what else to do and too humiliated to speak, I sprang up after Nobu under the pretense of escorting him, though I wanted nothing more than to sneak off into one of the empty tatami rooms and hide myself away there for the rest of the party.

It wasn’t unusual for conversations in teahouses to turn explicit and I should have been used to it, but the thought of sleeping with Nobu made me want to cry all over again, just when I’d thought I had resigned myself to the idea of him as my danna. Knowing I couldn’t very well sneak off without my presence being missed, I walked quietly behind Nobu as he stormed down the hallway and watched as he stopped in front of the door to the toilet, his jaw clenched and his lips twisted into a deep frown.

Slowly, I approached Nobu and stood beside him. When he looked up at me, his eyes softened, but his fury did not. 

“That fool Miyamoto always drinks too much sake at these parties, goes too far. I swear, the day he remains sober for more than half an hour, I will drop dead of amazement! I would rather have chewed sand than invited him.”

I got the impression that he felt obligated to explain to me why he’d had to invite him; it seemed to be his gruff way of apologizing for the man’s remarks. I gave him a sad little grin that, for the first time tonight, was genuine.

“Nobu-san has no need to worry. I have heard far worse, from many men.”

“Be that as it may,” Nobu growled, “you’ve no need to hear it here. I ought to throw him out; he’s insulted me at my own party! Mentioning my arm…”

“He should not have said such a thing.”

“I’ve heard far worse,” he echoed my words, his mood appearing to sour even further.

“Come, now, Nobu-san,” I made myself smile and gestured for him to follow me back to the party. “We shall return to the party, and drink until we've forgotten that man was ever even here. Perhaps we will even play a drinking game! I know there is nothing Nobu-san enjoys more.”

With only a quiet, reluctant grumble, he walked back to the party with me, and we took our places at the table once more, acting as if nothing had happened at all. I saw the Chairman watching me, but I didn’t dare meet his eyes, for if I did, I wasn’t certain I would be able to conceal my misery. For a time Mameha and I shared stories that had the guests in tears laughing, and as the hour grew later, one of the gentlemen from Mitsubishi asked me if I would dance for them.

I agreed, and with Mameha accompanying me on the shamisen, I danced a piece about a girl whose lover has just deserted her, walking amongst the cherry blossom trees in the spring and observing them with sadness as she remembers him. In my state, the sorrow and isolation she felt were easy for me to convey, and as I danced I imagined myself in the girl’s shoes – except instead of my departed lover, I was mourning the Chairman. I ended the dance with my folding fans covering my face, tears welling up in my eyes, and when I heard the guests begin to clap, I closed the fans and bowed to them.

When I looked up, my eyes found Nobu almost of their own accord, as though they had known exactly where to look. On his face, he had an expression I had never seen before. It was an almost childlike kind of astonishment, as if he were a young boy seeing falling snow for the first time, and there was reverence in it as well, his gaze worshipping me in silence. It filled me with guilt to know that I had been imagining another man all throughout the dance that had fascinated him so, and I looked away quickly, smiling at the crowd as the applause swelled and bowing again.

The party only lasted a quarter of an hour longer. Just as I was about to depart, Nobu stopped me and told me he had something for me. I nodded and followed him into an empty room upstairs, where he'd had one of the maids bring a large package and place it on the table.

It was common for a geisha’s new danna to give her some kind of expensive present, I knew. The Baron had given Mameha a kimono, and when I saw how big the gift box was, I realized Nobu had done the same for me.

“Nobu-san, you shouldn’t have.” I gave him a smile as I knelt on the floor to open it.

Nobu knelt beside me. “Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have. Every other geisha in Gion would tell me I should have, and that I should have bought them a diamond as big as my fist to go along with it.”

I laughed, reaching over to untie the ribbon around the box, and when I opened it and revealed its contents, I nearly gasped.

I had never seen a kimono like it.

It was made of ash-grey silk, decorated with fish of golden thread which ducked in and out of shining waves. The gleaming arms of squid extended out onto the sleeves, and when I picked it up, it caught the moonlight in a way that made my breath hitch in my throat. The obi was a dark shade of blue damask, patterned with gold seashells, and as I examined it in stunned silence, Nobu’s voice faded back into my consciousness.

“I told Arashino to make a kimono to match your eyes.” He paused, then added, “And I told him that if it wasn’t the finest one you’d ever seen, I’d take it back and refuse to pay him a single sen.”

“Nobu-san, surely you didn’t say-“

“You know perfectly well I did.”

I looked back to the kimono. As I took in the sight of it again and felt the soft silk beneath my fingertips, however, I felt my eyes begin to water once more, for I knew that this gift – or any gift, no matter how beautiful – could never make up for what Nobu’s patronage had taken from me. After I hadn’t spoken for a minute, Nobu glanced sideways at me and noticed the faint redness around my eyes.

“Sometimes I think I will never understand women,” he remarked. “I give you a present, and the next moment you’re crying.”

“No,” I breathed, managing to stop up my sorrow. “It’s only that…I’ve never seen a kimono so beautiful.”

That was not completely a lie, but it was not the truth, either. However, Nobu did not notice and grinned, pleased with my reaction.

“Good.” He got to his feet, and I followed suit. Before turning to leave, however, he told me, “I’m having a party at my estate in two weeks. Wear it then.”

I must’ve looked surprised, because Nobu explained, “I don’t like hosting parties. But strengthening the connection between Mitsubishi and Iwamura Electric will only serve us well in the long run. Even I can manage to be hospitable if the future of my company depends on it, Sayuri.”

After escorting him to the door and helping him into his shoes, he bid me good night and walked off into the darkness, leaving me standing in the doorway of the teahouse with a feeling of numbness settling over me.

As I always did a few times a week, I had tea with Mameha the next afternoon. We knelt at her table in her little apartment, sipping tea and talking of trivial things, but after a while, she noticed the sadness in my eyes.

She set down her tea cup and looked at me closely. “What is it, Sayuri?”

“What do you mean, Mameha-san?”

“You’ve looked so terribly sad these last few days. I’ve never seen someone look so miserable.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I have known you for years,” she told me. “And you never were good at hiding your true feelings.”

I paused, knowing very well I couldn’t tell her what really troubled me. So, I settled on telling her something else: something not quite as important as my sorrow for the Chairman, but that had been on my mind almost just as often since Iwamura Electric’s party the night before.

“Nobu-san is having a party at his estate in a few weeks. I’m afraid he will want…”

“You’re afraid his eel will want to visit your cave?” Mameha asked, knowing what I meant in an instant.

I blushed. “I'm not a child any more, Mameha-san. Let us call it what it is.”

“Very well,” she nodded. “You’re afraid he will want to be intimate with you.”

“I have had a danna before, but…I have known Nobu for so long that it-“

“You mustn’t refuse him,” she reminded me.

“I know,” I nodded gravely. “I wouldn’t dare. He saved me during the war. He has always been generous and kind, but…”

But I did not care for him, at least not in the way he wanted.

“We geisha have no choice.” Mameha took a sip of her tea. “Close your eyes, if it helps. Lie back and let him do as he pleases, and when it is done, push it from your mind.” She stopped to think for a moment and took another sip. “Nobu can be a harsh man, and he has a temper, but inside I believe he is kind, and though he will never tell you himself, he adores you. Perhaps one day you may come to care for him in return.”

I had genuine affection for Nobu; that much was true. He was gruff, but in my presence he was markedly less harsh, and he was kind to me far more often than I imagined he was kind to anyone else. He had been my good friend for years, but if ever a feeling of fondness arose within me, it was always tainted with the tiniest hint of pity that kept me from feeling anything more than mere friendship towards him, for love born from pity was not love.

I owed Nobu more than I could ever repay, but I couldn't give him my heart. I did not know if I would ever be able to.

“Perhaps,” I answered her quietly, lowering my eyes to my tea and feeling the hot steam as it rose into my face. Mameha flattened her lips into a grim line.

“It is not for geisha to love. It is sad, perhaps, but it’s the truth, and I have reconciled myself to that. One day, you will as well.”

Before I knew it, two weeks had passed, and the car that was to drive me to Nobu’s estate on the outskirts of Kyoto arrived outside the okiya early in the afternoon. Though I tried not to think about it, I knew that when a geisha’s danna calls her to his estate, he is seeking more than entertainment from her. Therefore, it was more than likely that I would be staying overnight, and so I packed another kimono to take with me as well as a few other essentials in an overnight bag. For the party, I dressed myself in the kimono Nobu had given me, and when I looked in the mirror, I saw the true beauty of it for the first time; it looked even more stunning than it had looked folded up in its box. The color made my grey eyes sparkle like diamonds, and as I stared at myself I could scarcely believe the sight before me.

Mother, however, ordered me to hurry along, and so I did, handing the driver my belongings and settling into the back seat. For a while I amused myself by looking out the window as we drove, but in time my thoughts grew darker, and the Chairman slipped into my mind unbidden. After longing for him for so many years, I was weary of the pain in my chest when I pictured him in my mind’s eye, and so I tried to think instead of Nobu, placing him into every fantasy I’d had of the Chairman. But it felt all wrong, and eventually I resolved to give up thought altogether.

I drifted off to sleep after a while, and shortly afterward, I was awakened by the sound of the driver stopping the car and stepping out to open the door for me.

At once, I knew we had arrived.

I stepped out and took in the sight of Nobu’s home. It was not quite as grand as the Baron’s had been in Hakone, but it was still large and spacious with a sizable garden and pond out front. Somehow, I knew that the garden, though well-maintained and brimming with flowers, was rarely used, for Nobu cared little for the beauty of nature and would think it frivolous to be out walking when he could be working.

The driver escorted me into the entryway near a flight of stairs to the second story and told one of the maids to alert Nobu of my arrival. As I waited, I look a look around, finding the reception room furnished in the modern style of decorating with gleaming wood floors and tall windows. Hardly a minute later, Nobu appeared at the top of the stairs, clad in his business suit as he always was, and as he took in the sight of me in the kimono, he looked transfixed, his mouth hanging slightly agape. He descended the stairs in this manner, and for a moment I thought he would fall, as his eyes never left me once to glance down at where he was walking.

Once he reached the bottom, I bowed to him and smiled. “I am happy to see Nobu-san looking so relaxed.”

He made a sort of noise that sounded like a half-laugh, half-scoff.

“My name and ‘relaxed’ should never be put into the same sentence.” He grew serious again, and a look of contemplation crossed his face. “You look beautiful in that kimono. More beautiful than you have ever looked before. I will…” he drifted off for a moment. “I will tell Arashino it was well done.”

Inside my chest, I felt my old fondness for him swell. All at once, I realized that his status as my danna had, in truth, changed little between us. He was still Nobu and I was still Sayuri; he was still the man who had been my friend for more than a decade, the man who had saved me during the war, the man who spoke gruffly to the rest of the world yet gently to me.

I looked around the inside of his home, and upon finding it empty, turned to him with a look of confusion.

“None of Nobu-san’s guests have arrived yet?”

He shook his head and took a step over to the window, peering out of it as he spoke.

“The party isn’t for another hour. I wanted a moment of peace alone with you, before I’m forced to be pleasant.”

Amused, I walked over to the window and stood beside him.

“Nobu-san! Are you suggesting you will not be pleasant to me?”

“Nonsense. You are the most pleasant thing in my life. I’ve only to look at you and it calms me.”

Moved by the kindness of his words, I glanced out the window at his side, and for a minute, a peaceful silence settled over us.

“I know something else that might calm Nobu-san,” I told him. “I saw how beautiful your garden was when I arrived. I had hoped to take a walk in it. Would Nobu-san care to accompany me?”

He agreed, and together, we stepped outside into the warm spring breeze. The cherry blossom trees were in full bloom and scattered their petals over us as we walked, making it appear almost as if it were snowing.

“Does Nobu-san walk in his garden often?” I asked as we strolled along a cobblestone path through the center of the garden. Patches of lilies and chrysanthemums grew all around us, like a splotches of color on a painter’s pallet, with bees buzzing to and fro around them.

Nobu, who had been mostly silent during our walk, shook his head. “I have no time to saunter along staring at flowers. I am a busy man, Sayuri.”

I noticed a carnation growing nearby and plucked it from the ground, holding it up for Nobu to see.

“But they are so beautiful. Perhaps Nobu-san should take more time to appreciate the smaller things in life.”

He stopped walking and looked at me for a while, as if finding the right words to say.

“There isn’t a flower in this garden half as beautiful as you,” he finally told me.

Though he had certainly called me beautiful before, this time, with his eyes locked so intensely on mine, I felt the true weight of his sincerity, and for a minute I could do nothing but stare back at him. The heaviness of his words hung in the air between us, and I felt both happy and incredibly guilty when I realized how much he meant them.

“Nobu-san, you flatter me,” I grinned after I came to my senses and resumed our walk.

“It isn’t flattery. It’s the truth.” He paused and glanced up briefly at the cherry blossoms. “I waited more than a decade for you, while you wasted the prime of your life with another man. Now that I have you, I don't intend to lose you.”

We walked for a while longer and went inside just as the guests were beginning to arrive. The Chairman was not among them, and though I wondered where he was, I didn’t dare ask Nobu about it. I charmed the gentlemen from Mitsubishi as best I could, and as the hour drew later, more than a dozen were quite enamored with me. Still, Nobu always hovered close by, ensuring none of them made comments like the drunk man had at the Ichiriki or crossed the closely guarded line he had established when it came to my customers’ behavior toward me. Thankfully, the party was relatively uneventful, and though I was not enjoying myself much, it was not unbearable.   

Late in the evening, as the guests were beginning to bid their farewells and depart, I noticed Nobu disappear into another room. Finally, as the very last people took their leave of the party, one of Nobu’s young maids approached me. She looked so intimidated that she was nearly trembling, like I had been as a child whenever Hatsumomo was around. I smiled to put her at ease, but she didn’t return the gesture.

I frowned, sensing something was amiss. “What is it?”

The maid hesitated, then leaned in and whispered the words that made my skin turn to stone.

“Ma’am, President Nobu would like to see you, upstairs.”