Friday, January 20, 2017

A Short Story: Flowers in a Riot of Color

I could never understand the reason for thin walls and paper screens. Through them, I could see everything; the shadow of a young apprentice as she bows respectfully. Head lowered, fingertips barely touching the tatami mat as she stretches them forward. Him, standing over. Towering. Overbearing. Only a side profile, but I see all. He parts his robe. He barks and I go deaf. For a moment, I wish I were blind and turn away. Rushing up the corridor in a rustle of skirts and silk.

These things happen nightly, but I can never get used to them. And still, I wonder, what is the reason for thin walls and paper screens if I can see everything? A shadow play in a well-traveled hallway—must everyone see this? Eye this? Watch as my maiko is deflowered and made anew?
I do not bring my questions to Auntie, the house mother, for her lips are always full. Instead, I go to the second oldest among us.

“You cannot stop a deflowering.” she laughs at me with tobacco breath, “Who do you think you are, Mei? Old enough to mother half of these girls, yet not mature enough to understand the dissonance between lust and love. a pale bowl stews near her, filled to the brim with putrid brown backwash. In front of me, she spits.

“Simply because you were disfigured during your deflowering, does not mean that your apprentice will face the same fate.”

My cheek throbs and I touch the grotesque mark there.
“She is meek, unlike you back then.” she leans forward, the bitter smell of tobacco distinctly on her breath, “Whatever you have done to break her, little one, you have done well.”

Hand firmly on her flat chest, I push Sayaka out of my space, “Why did Auntie put her there?” I ask, “Of all places?”

Sayaka shrugs, leaning back upon her cushion, “Your maiko is an extension of you, Mei. To put it plainly, she wants the world to see.”

And that is when I hear the scream. The screech of a flute. Of an animal. Of a cat hiking up its hindquarters and being stung by the fiercest of wasps. Sayaka drops her pipe and swings me a glance before she barrels out of the room. I am on her heels. The entire house has woken up. Maikos are poking their heads from their rooms. Young women are connecting their ears to paper screens as if they cannot hear through the thin walls and I am tripping over my own two feet.

I am clumsy. I am frightened. I am frustrated that the voice of that little flute is familiar.

I will not say that I have not hit her before. I will not say that I have not slapped her out of frustration, out of jealously, and sometimes out of delight. I have heard my maiko scream for mercy, and this was one such scream. And because I have not caused it, I am enraged.

We make it to her room just as her patron is exiting. He is hobbling, a middle aged man with more hair than skin. Fat blotches disfigure him, angry red pustules that sit like dormant volcanoes on his tan skin. He has forgotten his cane. Sayaka turns on her heel, eyes me angrily, bows and snatches a long wooden stick from near the sliding screen. Passing it to the patron with her chin tucked to her chest, he snatches it. Eyes us warily, and hobbles away towards Auntie's room.

Only now am I realizing that he was hobbling out. Running. Running as quickly as his disfigurement would allow him. He would not be back to pay.

I am the first inside to see my girl. Sayaka tumbles in behind me, panting. Her heart trembles and I swear it rumbles through the tatami mats at my feet as I stand. Glide over to the girl. Watch her naked chest rise and fall and realize that I have done something terribly wrong.

I turn to Sayaka, “Get Auntie.” When she looks at me with wild eyes, I hiss: “Now.”

It is a strange custom, though some men do it. When they know a child is innocent, untouched, and timid, they will attempt things with her that they would never attempt with a prostitute or a well paid courtesan. They will do things strictly against our rules and tell the girl she must keep his secret. A man who takes the virginity of a maiko may never see her again in many circumstances and sometimes the maiko does not know this. He will promise her money. Freedom from this life. But first—you must keep my secret.

I crawl to the girl. She is prostrate. Breathing barely. The sound that whistles through her is hollow and cold. Dense and compact and not of this world. It whistles, it moans. It sucks and suckles and smacks within her chest before it is gone. All gone. And I wonder where it is gone until I crawl closer and freeze. Become completely still.

Her arms are at her sides. Her face is up, eyes closed. Unseeing. I touch her skin and she is stark, clammy. The skin of a fish, the scales plucked off. Beaten from her. Taken as she bites her tongue silently against the pain.

“Dear girl...” I whisper, though it is more of a curse. I blame her. I blame her for her stupidity.

“Dear girl.” I say once more, stooping over her.

Her lips move. I fear she cannot hear me.

“Stupid thing.”

I turn.

Auntie is here. She smells of opium and sake and lust. She is a stick thin thing, her right arm being the strongest part of her old and creaking body. She uses that arm to catch hold of things, like the wall to her right as she pulls herself in. Like the sleeve of her kimono as she rolls it up and kneels beside me. She brings a hand to the girl's head.

“Where is he?”

“He left.” Sayaka says behind me, “He...left.”

There are bodies pouring in the hallway. Other maikos. Geisha. I want them to leave, but cannot bring myself to yell.

“Stupid thing.” Auntie repeats, her voice hoarse. Her eyes bitter, “You will pay back every cent. Every bit of silver she was ever worth—you will pay it back, Mei.” She looks at the girl.

Boiled skin slips from the bone once it is taken from the pot. Beaten skin grows old as bruises blossom and the pain endured is seen by all. A hole sits in this young woman's stomach, precisely cut. Precisely measured and carved about. Red stains linger. Blood spewed at some point, but it has been cleaned. When she breathes, it opens. When she exhales, it closes. The wound puckers, sucks, and smacks. Then, it is silent. Wheezing air like a dying flute. Bruises bloom around the incision. Purple, pink, and red. They are like flowers, I think, in a riot.

Pain explodes in the back of my skull, at the knot between my neck and spine. But I sit straight.

“It was a mistake to give you something to care for.”

Auntie's words. My thoughts—it was a mistake. I did not want her. I never wanted an apprentice.
As I look back on it now, perhaps I was elated. My body shook, my arms and fingers trembled as I looked down—not in pain, but in amusement. Solemn bereavement. She is dead. No longer will my clients look to her—the younger me. The innocent me. The beautiful girl tens of years younger than me—the mature geisha. The woman well past her prime and trying to act as if she is something. Trying to act as if she is worth more than what the patrons throw.

The girl is gone and now I may be the center of attention! I smiled—yes, I smiled at the defeat of this poor and lonely child! I did not warn her of what could come of her deflowering and because of that she has suffered defeat!

All at once, I notice that there is an audience at my back. Auntie looks on, solemn. Lips pressed into a firm line.

Beneath us, the girl still breathes. Her wound sucking and pulling.

I look to Auntie for instruction. What would happen next? A meiko has never died because of the sadistic wants of a patron. What now? Would we hunt the man down? Beg the men of the Floating World to do something about this?

It had never crossed my mind that we would simply wait.

“She will not last till morning.” Auntia tells me, pushing her way to standing, “Stay with her.”

My mouth drops, “Auntie?”

She shoots me a look that immediately silences me.

“Off to bed!” Sayaka screeches at the younger women, “Go on—off!”

And as the shoji screen behind me slides to a close, I am alone. Alone with the sucking and puckering. Alone with this dying child whose only issue was that she was entirely too pretty. That she dwarfed me in the limelight and therefore I had to be rid of her.

I realize now that I did not need a man to do it—cut her. Beat her within an inch of her life. I realize now, that if she had become a geisha after this deflowering, I would have done it myself. But my cuts would have not been so merciful. I would have let her live, disfigured and unwanted as I am now.

Again, I touch my face.

I want this to be over with.

I think on this now and I do not want to remember what I did next. At the time, it felt right. It seemed to me that it was the correct thing to do...if only to make the time pass more swiftly.

I untied my obi. Let it fall to the tatami mat. I shrugged off my kimono, watched her face twitch. Her eyes attempting to open as the side of her lip flitted up and down. Up and down. Her body rocks. It quiets. Now, I am in nothing but my linen shift.
I crawl closer. I lay next to her, just as my danna did to me during my deflowering ceremony. I prop my head up onto my elbow and look upon her kindly. My eyes trace the small mounds of her breasts, the sharp slope of her rib cage to her abdomen. I ignore the hole cut into her, and my eyes rove down her legs. Her toes.

My fingers trace the sharp curve of her cheekbones, “I wish I had your beauty.” I tell her, “I wish I had your youth.”

And that is all I can say before I take her into my mouth.

That is all I can say....


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