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ENG1WFI Story: The Flower and Willow World

by Caroline Seawright
Year 1 Essay for Writing Fiction at LaTrobe University, Apr 2011.

 

The Flower and Willow World

The flowers of the floating world drifted elegantly through the narrow streets of Kyoto's Gion district. Here and there, young women walked lightly past ancient, dark-stained wooden teahouses and restaurants, their paulownia-wood sandals clicking rhythmically on clean, grey slate paving. Bright splashes of colour flashed on long, fluttering sleeves with dangling obi sashes bringing tourists to a halt, as did white faces with painted red lips under bejewelled, elaborate coiffures.

I walked through these streets just behind one of these flowers, my young charge Katsumomo. Dressed in a plain green kimono, I looked for all the world like the willow: tall, strong and graceful. No longer a girl, I did not need the flashy trappings of our young apprentices, the maiko. I was a geisha; more correctly known in the Kyoto dialect as geiko, a 'woman of art'.

As I shepherded my 'little sister', I glanced at her white painted neck. Two triangular strips of flesh-coloured skin seemed to rise from a red collar, pulled so low that I could almost see her shoulder blades. Yet despite the sensuous images of the antiquated flower and willow world which filled my mind, a sudden melancholy overcame me. My world was now almost lost in modern society.

My thoughts on the past, I called to Katsumomo, "Oh, do you remember that old poem from the Tales of Ise? The response to the Director of the Bureau of Horses?

She stopped and turned to look at me, her perfectly painted brow wrinkling slightly for a moment. She then sonorously recited:

"Even more wonderful "As they fall, "The cherry blossoms. "Does anything last "In this floating world?"¹

The poem fitted my low spirits, yet I was sure that none of it showed on my pretty doll-like face. Painted as I was, I don't think Katsumomo could read me through the make-up. So I smiled and nonchalantly replied, "Very good, Momo-chan. Come on, let's go to the teahouse - we can't be late!"

***

I knelt at the low table, my eyes on the table-top and my mind miles away. A bottle of sake stood on a black lacquered tray, across from a delicate bonsai cherry tree, and sake cups had been scattered across the table by the guests. That little tree reminded me that all of this would end one day. The dressing up, the make-up, the parties, the beauty, the laughter and the layers of gorgeous silk - all of it would scatter and fade like cherry blossoms in spring. Then, where would I be? One of those old geiko sitting with other old women, dreaming of the past whilst complaining about the present? Or would I be one whose fate it was to die young and alone...?

I started as Katsumomo bumped against me, my reverie shattered. She was tipsy already. The cheers of the men assaulted my ears as they egged the maiko on. She shot a cup of sake, her breath strong with alcohol, and their excited laughter reverberated around the room. She slammed down the cup, and giggle.

"Come on, let's play a drinking game!" one of the men called as he staggered to his feet, and tried to grab at Katsumomo's sleeve. He was a high ranking official, acting like a boy. "Let's play at Hatsu and Katsugoro making love!"

Young, but not new to geiko parties, she pushed him off with a titter, "No, no! Let's play 'Konpira-Ship'! It's much more fun!" She turned and tugged on my sleeve, "You'll play the music, won't you, Katsuko?"

I laughed softly and nodded, leaving the table to sit near my shamisen. It was a beautiful instrument, of dark rosewood with a cat skin surface. I knelt and reverently picked it up, running my fingers along the silk strings. Yes, it was perfect. Cradling its neck with my left hand, I gently set it on my lap before picking up my tortoiseshell plectrum. It felt good to hold it, and I soon forgot my worries.

I inclined my head to Katsumomo then began strumming the simple little 'Konpira-Ship' melody, and the guests started to clap.

The host of the party - let me call him Ichirou-han, for I will never break the confidence of the teahouse - sat at the small table opposite my pretty apprentice. A large, lacquered beer coaster sat on the table, resting on a cushion. He was the handsome owner of a large computing firm who, to me, seemed to spend his time with we geiko just to show off to his friends and employees. He was not particularly clever, witty or knowledgeable about our world so I always felt I had to speak down to him, as to a child. For some reason - perhaps it was my pride? - I never refused any of his invitations.

I started playing slowly as Katsumomo and Ichirou-han began to play, his friends clapping in time. The game involved either tapping the coaster or, if the opponent picks it up, forming a fist on the empty cushion. Deceptively easy, the maiko and Ichirou-han played together, their skills evenly matched. I increased the tempo of the music. They took turns, back and forth, and laughter echoed around the room as the red-faced, drunken guests cheered them on. Spurred on by the excitement of the match, I played more rapidly; it was as if the party danced at my pleasure, faster and faster. She tapped and picked up the coaster. I drew my breath, willing her to win. Ichirou-han foiled her ploy and closed his fist on the cushion. She then deftly slipped down the coaster. I held my breath. His closed fist touched the coaster!

He lost!

I couldn't help myself. I called out, "If you pay more attention, maybe you could beat a maiko."

Everyone laughed at that, taking their turn to rib him. Ichirou-han laughed placidly, obviously not realising the insult, and picked up a glass of sake. He saluted me with it and drained it all in one gulp.

Katsumomo almost fell over as she giggled, entreating me to have a turn. To cover my mistake at insulting a guest, I took part in the drinking games. Before long I was warm with the glow of sake, and headily elated with the adoration of the men. Too soon, the party was over.

***

As I prepared to leave, my shamisen packed in its delicate wooden box, I became aware that everyone else had left the room apart from Ichirou-han and myself. I could hear Katsumomo's high, sweet voice out in the hallway, farewelling guests. She sounded very distant. I could see Ichirou-han was drunk and I was suddenly uncomfortable. I did not like him, despite his lovely face, and I was sure that he knew it. His eyes were serious, his brow marred by an unpleasant frown. I suddenly recalled the insult. My shoulders tensed and my stomach tightened.

"Katsuko-san," he said in his harsh Tokyo accent, "I always ask for you to play at every party. You are so clever, beautiful and talented. You are my favourite geisha! You must know this, and yet you are always so cold to me.

I bowed slightly to him, and said softly, "I am so very sorry, Ichirou-han. Please do accept my apologies." The lie came easily from my lips. Acting was, after all, part of the job. "Please forgive me. I will do better at the next party."

He took a step towards me, and I took an involuntary half step back. He seemed so tall and strong. The image of cherry blossoms falling from the tree came to mind and I shivered.

"Please, Katsuko-san, I am going to Tokyo tomorrow, and I want you come with me."

I shook my head, and looked up into his eyes. They seemed to be blazing with passion, and the fear inside me did not diminish. I was trapped by his gaze.

"Katsuko-san, you must come! I plan on becoming your patron."

It was then that he suddenly embraced me, and I felt the heat of his body wrapping around me. I froze and we were locked together for a timeless moment, my head against his chest where I could hear the staccato of his beating heart. A heartbeat too late, I yanked myself out of his arms. I shook as a righteous anger seared away my fear, and glared up at him. How dare he touch me. How dare he, an uncouth oaf from Tokyo, even consider himself worthy enough to become my patron! I gathered my dignity and stood tall.

With all the politeness I could muster I announced, "You are drunk, Ichirou-han, so your actions can't be helped. Do excuse me; I must depart before Katsumomo wonders where I am." I brushed past him, my back stiff and head held high.

I left him there, staring in shock. I could feel his eyes burning into my back as I left the teahouse with Katsumomo.

***

Katsumomo was startled when I told her.

"You mean, he didn't ask Mother first? He really is a bumpkin!" she replied with a laugh. 'Mother' was the head of our geiko lineage, not my actual mother.

I shook my head and sighed. "It's not just that he is thoughtless, but I am not about to drop everything and fly off to Tokyo like that. A geiko had obligations."



I flushed with shame as I recalled Mother speaking to me in her soft voice as if I were a child. I remember her gazing at me over the rim of her glasses. "A patron, hmm? What geiko does not dream of having a man to give her some stability in this floating world? A monthly allowance, trips to the theatre, presents... and all you have to do is prioritise his parties first. It is a small obligation with great benefit, Katsuko."

I opened my mouth to argue the point when her soft words stopped me dead in my tracks. She said, "Do not forget your obligation to us, either."

The words stung, as if she had slapped me. The lifeblood of the geiko community was obligation. I felt a little sick as I realised that I had been forgetting mine. I had a duty to the women and men of the floating world, from Mother herself, the teahouse proprietress and my performing-arts teachers to my kimono dresser and hairstylist. Even the kimono weavers and dyers of Kyoto, amongst countless others I would never meet. I had selfishly forgotten everyone in my disgust at Ichirou-han.

I bowed very low to Mother and murmured, "Please forgive me, Mother. My emotions should not have gotten the better of me. I should not have let you all down. I am sorry."

It was as I was staring at the tatami mat floor that I decided to put aside my personal feelings. It was time to fulfil my obligation, no matter how onerous. I had to be the willow: flexible and resilient.



Katsumomo never noticed my shame. Her head filled with childish fantasies, she gushed, "But you could have a patron. Imagine that! You would be like a princess!"

"You are right, Momo-chan, I will meet my obligations," I painfully, determinedly replied.

"This wife of the floating world! "Mincing lightly, "Change her garment,"² I recited softly.

***

A month later, I went to meet Ichirou-han. The teahouse proprietress and Mother had settled things with him. Everything had been arranged. He was my patron.

My destiny was not to become one of those old geiko who were always looking to the past. I would uphold the agreement honourably. No matter his boorishness, he was now my provider.

As I pushed open the sliding door and entered the teahouse banquet room. He was standing alone in a darkened room, lit only by a single lantern. It was so quiet. A faint breath of wind stirred outside, but it was not enough to cover the loudness of my beating heart. I bowed as I clutched my shamisen box to myself. Dry-mouthed, I whispered softly, "Good evening, patron-han."

His face, beautiful in the lamp light, was sober as he recited a poem, cherished by the geiko of Gion:

"The moon hangs hazily over the Eastern Mountains; "In the bonfires of a cloudy night, "The scarlet cherry blossoms set one's dreams drifting - "A painfully recalled love, a long kimono sleeve."³

I stared at him, my eyes wide and my mouth somewhat foolishly agape. I was shocked at both his heretofore obscured wit, and his poetic allusions to an unrequited love for me.

He then said shyly, "At parties you always look so sad, Katsuko-san. I only lose those games to make you smile."

I was suddenly ashamed of judging him as harshly as I had done in the past. I felt guilty for my insults and my insincerity. Outside, raindrops fell on the grey slate paving of Gion.

I bowed to him and whispered, "Thank you, patron-han. Forgive me."

This time, I meant it.

¹ Unknown 10th Century, Tales of Ise, chapter 82 cited in Dalby, L. 2000, Geisha, Vintage, Netley South Australia, p. 274.
² Unknown 1670s, Kongosha cited in Dalby, L. 2000, Geisha, Vintage, Netley South Australia, p. 274.
³ Nagata M. & Sasa K. 1930, Gion Kouta cited in Society for Asian Music 1991, Asian Music, Volume 23, Indiana University, p. 29.

Seawright, C , The Flower and Willow World, Short Story, <http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/ kunoichi/themestream/ flowerwillow.html>.


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2011 - present

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