Brightly, Hatsumomo burns.
They forget, they who come to her, that at one point, she was also young. She was not born in Kyoto. She did not slide from her mother's womb with perfume on her skin and rouge on her lips. Chiyo tells her story, delicately trembling like a leaf, and inspires sympathy but Chiyo is not the only one to have ever woken in the middle of the night, clutching her sister while her mother died and her father wept. Chiyo is not the only one who has ever taken a train far away from home and entered a city whose wonders and sorrows she had never known. No, Chiyo is not the only one, but they forget because they love her, love water, and remember too well that fire burns out.
But while it is there, while it dances, it is radiant. Hatsumomo learned more quickly than Chiyo did how to smile and bare her wrist and walk in high, teetering shoes and pretend to be an empress while really, she was a woman. Not even a woman; a girl. A girl who learned her arts at a school with other girls, and who went back to the okiya when she was finished, scrubbing floors and enduring Mother's taunts. Does Chiyo think she is the only one who has ever been beaten? Hatsumomo still feels the faded scars sometimes, still burns with anger for her onee-san, her big sister, the one who pushed her and yelled at her and once made her swallow powder meant to decorate skin because Hatsumomo had lost her favourite obi.
But fire fights back. Hatsumomo grew more beautiful and beautiful while her onee-san grew old and ugly, and when Hatsumomo was sixteen and a fully fledged geisha, she smiled at her rival, lips pulled back to bare perfectly formed teeth and said, "Please Sakuragi-san, teach me what you know."
Mocking words, tempered by the forge.
She was fierce then, joyous. When Sakuragi had left theokiya she had taken everything the other geisha owned and threw it out the window, watching a group of peasants scramble for the pretty trinkets. Hatsumomo kept a few of the things for her own, though, and every time Sakuragi saw her wearing a familiar comb at a tea-shop, Hatsumomo smiled and said, please.
In theatre, she danced the lead role for three years in a row, a record even Mameha could not beat. She wore bright red and orange and she swirled across the stage, swaying and moving and knowing that every single pair of eyes in the audience was on her, because she was beautiful and she was burning, harder and deeper than any of them could bear.
Koichi never fucked her. She fucked him, leaving him hot and begging for more.
A geisha knows how to stop a man in his tracks with a single look. A geisha knows how to keep a man entertained for hours. A geisha is a living work of art and Hatsumomo is paint drawn harshly on rice paper, a streak of ink and calligraphy that you get on your skin and can never rub off. She and Koichi make plans to run away because Koichi knows a man in Tokyo who knows another man who can get them work, good work, and Hatsumomo looks at her hands and wonder how they will appear rough and calloused, but then Koichi kisses her and she thinks, yes. Goodbye to Granny, goodbye to Mother, goodbye to Auntie, goodbye to the brat Chiyo and the other brat Pumpkin and all of Kyoto, who will cry for her once she is gone.
That was last the time Hatsumomo remembers being naïve.
The okiya catches her and she stays. Chiyo grows more beautiful and beautiful and she rages. Mother sits in her room counting money and pushing beads on her abacus, and Hatsumomo wants to rip out her hair and gouge her eyes and take that stick she always carries and beat her with it, until she is bleeding and broken like a geisha is never supposed to be.
Where is your glory now, Hatsumomo wants to laugh. Where is your key to the floating world?
They are women, all of them, geishas and ex-geishas and geishas to be, but not only that: they are earth and wind and water and metal and wood and fire, which burns so brightly that those who see it cannot watch it for long, and those who try catch nothing, only ash when the fire dies.
When the war is over Hatsumomo spreads her legs for a man who gives her a handful of yen, and hisses in his ear, once I was beautiful.