I sit in a darkened room, huddled in a corner with a blanket thrown over my shoulders. I am next to the window through which I used to watch the inner garden of the okiya. Once, you could hear the birds chattering among the leaves and the soft murmur of the river nearby. Once, everything had teemed with life, and hope came with each new day. Once... But no more. The windows have long since been pasted over with the ripped up pages of newspapers and magazines to block out the cold. The garden lays dead and bare, and there's nothing to look at these days.
I gaze at nothing and only think. I think of what could have been. I think of all that I risked by attempting to trick Nobu. Bitter, harsh, and cold Nobu, who once said we belonged together. Who once said he loved me because we were the same. Were we the same? He knew nothing of Chiyo, of the little girl who lived in a crude village by the sea. Were we the same? Unless he had been taken from his home and his family and thrust into an unknown world, we would never be the same. No one knew about the girl I'd been, no one except...
"Ah," I sigh, pressing a hand to my forehead. "There he is, never far from my mind."
The Chairman. He knows me for who I truly am: Chiyo. The little girl with an arm in a cast, crying beside the Sunagawa river. Or does he? Is he even aware that it was me?
And then the sharp pain comes. The pain that reminds me of what I've lost. The pain that reminds me of what I never had. It's what keeps me alive, not hope, but suffering. It was a mistake to trust Pumpkin, but I did. She too knew me as Chiyo, and I wanted to believe that we could still be accomplices like when we'd been young. But I was wrong, and now I can never see the Chairman again.
Suddenly the light bursts on and I jump in my seat. Mother comes in excitedly, followed by Keiko, the new girl. She is such a sweet, little thing, I'm glad I have her for company, even though she never says much. If only she knew the dark history of my past... but no, that was Chiyo. I am the famous geisha Sayuri. I have no past, only the present.
"Hurry, Sayuri. The tea house just called. You've been asked to attend a meeting by the Iwamura Company. I am sure it is Nobu!"
"It can only be Nobu. The Chairman would never ask for me," I want to say, as I unfold myself from my seat, but I keep my counsel.
I kneel on the floor, before my table and mirror. I look thin and pale, and my eyes look back at me, dull and dead. Mother releases my hair and begins combing through it, applying a little oil so that it will glisten. Keiko brings in my makeup box, and I give her a grateful smile.
"Finally, a return to all my investments!" Mother exclaims in my ear, looking over my shoulder in the mirror, trying different hair ornaments on me. "Keiko, maybe one day you'll be lucky enough to have a danna as well."
"Geisha can hope for nothing more," I say, and fortunately, Mother does not hear the bitterness in my voice. But it is true. If you want to survive as a geisha, all you can strive for is to find a man who takes an interest in you. All the other things people want in life: love, affection, safety do not enter in this lifestyle.
I walk through the city in a suspended state. I follow the paths my feet have trodden a hundred times before and trust them to lead me to the correct place. People pass by me on their errands, and all they see is geisha. All they see is an unearthly being, all elegance, and poise, duty, and tradition. But, they don't see me.
In what seems like no time, I arrive at the tea house. I greet its mistress with a formal bow and let her lead me through the narrow hallways. There are sounds of soft conversations happening behind the rice paper screens. Somewhere I can hear the pluck of a shamisen, and I detect the smell of burning tea leaves that has permeated most of my life. How far away the scent of the sea of my childhood seems now.
I am so lost in my thoughts that I don't notice we are walking towards the back of the tea house. The mistress pauses before a rice paper sore and slides it open to reveal the garden. This is one of the most beautiful and elegant places in Kyoto. The pond is surrounded by trees that gently trail their leaves on the surface of the water, and fish sometimes come from the crystalline depths to nibble on them. At its center stands a neat, wooden structure, which the mistress points me to.
Typical Nobu. It is a perfect setting for a private conversation. The foliage hides the view from any curious person, and there is only one access by way of a series of stones strategically placed on the pond. As much as he claims to be a simple man, he certainly likes to make the life of others difficult. I slowly manage my way to the structure and find a table and cushions ready for us. I know I should sit and wait for my host, but I can't stand still. I move to the railing and enjoy the privilege of loneliness once more.
The sun bathes everything in a golden light, its light shimmering through the trees and into the water. There is such peace that I close my eyes and attempt to erase all thought from my mind. I don't want to worry about Mother, Nobu, or what Mameha will say when she finds out he will be my danna. I don't even want to think about Sayuri, the geisha, and the bright future that waits for her. I want, just for a single moment, to be me.
The minutes pass and, though I still hear the birds singing in the branches and the splash of water as the leaves drop down, I have lost a sense of place and time. And then something pulls me back from my meditation, a soft touch on my shoulder that lets me know someone is there with me.
I put on the smile of a geisha, all sweetness and mystery, and turn around, bowing. I begin to say some nonsensical greeting, only to lift my eyes and find that I am not talking to Nobu, but rather to the Chairman.
Suddenly, the breath is knocked from my chest, and I am unable to utter a single word. Why is he here? Was it him that requested my presence? Why not Noby? After what happened on the island, I thought the last thing he wanted was to interact with me, but then, maybe he was just passing by to leave a message? My mind reels with questions and suppositions, and all the time I can't stop looking at him.
"Chairman! Where is Nobu?"
Something flashes in his eyes. Sadness? Regret? Fear? I can't read him, but I know something has happened.
"He won't be coming," he says in that soft tone of his that forever echoes in my mind.
"Is something wrong?" I ask, thinking that something might have happened to him. Is it that odd to think that I care more for Nobu as a friend than as my protector? I've known him for years now, and it is very difficult not to think of him as one of the people that have influenced my life. Maybe this is the way it has to be.
And then the Chairman speaks the words that I have dreaded since the moment I decided to take my destiny from the hands of others. "He knows what happened. It is not in Nobu's nature to forgive."
Shame fills me, and there is little I can do to hide it. I stand still a statue, letting the feeling wash over me, through me, and away from me. So the Chairman told Nobu about the night I seduced the Colonel. I could have pretended it was something I did to benefit their company, but I am not as cynical as Hatsumomo to believe that I wasn't acting to my own advantage.
I hear my voice speak of its own accord. "Chairman, what happened on the island…"
But, he interrupts me. It is obvious he is as reluctant to recall that moment as I am. "Please, you don't have to explain."
I turn away from him. I can't possibly look at the man I've loved since childhood without feeling that I have somehow let him down, or is it that I let myself down? "I have shamed myself past all forgiveness," I whisper.
"No!" He exclaims, steering me from the arm so that I may face him once again. "I'm the one who must be forgiven."
"I do not understand."
"Perhaps, if you had known the truth… Some years ago, I was on my way to the theater, and I met a little girl, crying beside the river. I stopped to buy her a cup of sweet ice."
His words resonate in my soul. I am transported back to that day, one of the darkest in my life. I see the scene not as I experienced it, but through new eyes: his eyes. Would I have done the same? Would I have comforted that child with a gesture as simple as buying her a treat? Or would I have walked past her, busy as I was with the many errands I had to run? Or would I have kicked her out of my way for the mere pleasure of it?
"You knew I was that little girl?"
He smiles now, and there is such warmth and kindness in his gaze that I feel the layer of ice on me begin to melt.
"Didn't you ever wonder why Mameha took you on as her little sister?"
I am left speechless. My life dances before my eyes. It is an endless parade of scenes, much like pictures in a book. I see the struggles and obstacles I overcame to become geisha. I see the painful hours spent learning to dance and play the shamisen, or the sleepless nights hoping against hope that one day I would meet him again. I see the Baron stripping me down because of his desire for me, and I see Hatsumomo setting the okiya on fire because I had finally beaten her. Did the Chairman know all of this?
Tears flood my eyes and I take a step away from him, facing the pond once more. I am already ashamed. I do not need the Chairman to see me cry. "I wish you had told me this long ago," I say, my words struggling against the knot in my throat.
"How could I? I owe Nobu my life, and when I saw he had a chance at happiness, I remained silent… but I can't any longer." He draws closer and I feel his hands touch my arms. "I hope it is not too late."
Why does his voice tremble? Why does it seem like he is experiencing the same anguish as I am? Has he loved me all these years? I know I should turn to look at him, to bow my head and let him know that I don't blame him for anything… but I can't. I am rooted to the spot, and all I can do is try to breathe.
"Don't be afraid to look at me, Chiyo," He says, and at that moment, everything falls into place, and I know that he sees me. The Chairman sees me as I was, and he knows who I am. He set my life in motion because he loves me as much as I love him.
Slowly, I turn, and I am closer to him than ever before. I see the small wrinkles in the corner of his eyes and the tears that rest there. I notice the real shape of his mouth and the smoothness of his skin. His teeth dazzle me with their whiteness, and I can smell the soft scent of talcum, the same that was impregnated in the handkerchief he gave me.
"Can't you see? Every step I have taken since I was that child on the bridge has been to bring me closer to you," and with this small admission, I am free. My eyes, dry up until that moment, are now filled with tears that spill freely over my cheeks. For the first time in my life, I weep with joy, and I am no longer embarrassed to meet his eyes.
The Chairman pulls me close to him and kisses me for the first time ever, and I feel like I could die at that moment. It is a soft touch at first, like the flutter of a petal, but this only awakens the hunger hidden deep within us. His lips linger over mine, and suddenly, I am enveloped in his arms, kissing him with passion tinged with despair and relief. One moment blends into the next, and a lifetime later, the Chairman cradles me in his arms. I lay my head against his chest, feeling his heartbeat below my skin, and as I close my eyes, I know that I am home. The journey was long and harsh, and I nearly lost all hope. But the prayers of the child were answered, the dreams of the geisha came true, and as for me, I have found at long last the gift of happiness I never expected to receive.