No one can say Buddha is not compassionate. The prince had been very evil all his life and when he begged great Buddha for salvation Buddha was there. Throwing a spider’s thread down to the prince where he lay in the sludge of lost souls Buddha advised him to take hold and be pulled up to Nirvana.
The prince held on greedily to the thread of spider web and began fighting the other souls who also started reaching for it to Buddha’s love. The prince kicked their heads using them also for steps to rise out of the pit.
At seeing this selfish act Buddha was displeased and let go the thread without hesitation because in receiving salvation lies the greatest test and the prince had failed. He had learned nothing from Buddha’s simple act of compassion.
• • •
Remembering that story the old woman smiled as she looked outside her rice-paper window where oppressive curtains of freezing rain showered down from dark heavens hard and strong as pelted rice grains.
It had been a lifetime since she last heard that particular fable. Her mother often told it when she was but a little girl. That had been another time and place, a somewhere called innocence.
Later when slightly older and the comforting support of parents was no longer a luxury she told it to herself for solace in the lonely nights of an imposed servitude in the pleasure district of Tokyo.
Now an old woman she silently recanted the story to herself again because a young man, barely a man really (his face as smooth as that of a woman’s), had come to her doorstep asking questions. Like dark unwanted gifts he arrived with questions regarding her time during what was little more than legalized slavery. His queries had returned her to those moments.
Her inquisitor was a cadet from a military school. Not at all applying the lessons drilled into him about posture and control he sat on the other side of her little table with discomfort. He shifted in his seat full of nervous energy looking to the sliding shoji (doors) of her tiny house as though willing them to slide apart exposing his exit: the frigid and tempestuous night beyond.
The old woman smiled sensing his anxiety but again maintained her eyes to the window as though awed by the winter’s precipitation.
If not for her experience she might have mistaken his insolence for arrogant displeasure. She knew he was secretly examining the scars on the right half of her face. But that was to be expected. Who wouldn’t wonder how an old lady had acquired such deep and horrid scars?
nodded agreeing with her own thoughts and looked to the cadet who had traveled
all the way from
He now rudely kept his eyes to the small cup of green tea on his side of the table watching the steam climb out the delicate ceramic as though he had never raised them to examine her disfigurement.
The man was the product of a new era, alien to the customs of a more civilized time. Nearly half a century had passed since the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime and practically all traces of its greatness were erased in favor of the Meiji restoration. She almost snickered with contempt considering that young, spineless puppet emperor so much like this juvenile across the table but reigned her feelings in. A show of discontent was not proper manners in the presence of company even in the midst of this nervous, insecure boy. And what was the use being angry, this was a new breed of man, there was no changing that was there?
The cadet wore his hair cropped short almost to the scalp in the western manner causing the cap on his head to cover his brow and push his thick spectacles down his nose. The style of his attire was of the Prussian military. Crudely tailored and one size too large its Teutonic design and banal gray material overwhelmed the boy’s small frame.
did not come all the way from
She merely returned a pleasant grandmother’s smile to his correction. Her hands rested on the table with the tips of her fingers delicately forming a triangle. She angled her head just slightly willing him to go on with the raise of one brow.
“There was a case. It was unresolved. Happened almost fifty years ago." He explained in short sentences; discourse obviously not his forté.
The old woman continued smiling waiting for his visit to be fully explained.
"Your name was mentioned." He spat forward further information with distaste as though it vexed him.
The nervous cadet looked away from the tiny white-haired woman unable to maintain eye contact.
"There was a geisha." The cadet began again concentrating on his cup of green tea as though he were explaining himself to it and not the person across the table.
“Her name was Aia." The old woman interjected placing a small black lacquered box atop the table. Light swam like white eels along it rectangular sides.
A sudden gust raced about the perimeter of the house howling like a pack of ghost-wolves, shrill and menacing. The interior of the tiny house was suddenly lit from lightning outside. Thunder, loud as a cannon blast, followed. The young man hugged himself and struggled to hide his fear.
“She arrived upon a night like this in early winter of the year 1845, when the Tokugawa stilled reigned. I was just a girl, thirteen as I remember." The old woman paused listening to the haunting wind as though it was but a pleasant tune of happier times.
was a famous geisha. Well known in
She could see curiosity widen the cadet’s pupils they almost seemed to spread across the brown of his irises like twin drops of splashed ink. He wore large spectacles as thick as the bottom of glass bottles. They magnified his small eyes exposing his feelings to her like the open wounds of an enemy revealing weakness.
She interrupted her own story and turned the tables by interrogating him “You are not police. Why are you here to question me?"
Despite presenting her the signed official police permit allowing the cadet to conduct the interrogation she toyed with him. She could imagine him using her own words against her. ‘Need to basis only’ he might retort with youthful, desperate arrogance. But he only stared at his tea and tensed his brow unsure of his response.
May Buddha forgive her but she enjoyed torturing this specimen of a new lost era.
cadet finally managed an answer with a trembling voice that seemed to predict
inevitable tears, “My father is an officer in the Imperial army, he is friends
with the commissioner of the
The old woman did not smile this time, her face vacant of its previous joy. Her eyes stabbed at the cadet who maintained his gaze upon the tea. “It was about time it occurred to someone to tie this loose end."
She stared so hard the young cadet was unable to resist her. He raised his sight from the tiny cup to look at her as though the old woman’s eyes were fires and his a couple of unfortunate moths drawn to their fate by a demanding flame.
“There is always more than one side to any story. The truth does not exist. Whatever the proof it is always a matter of interpretation."
Shivering, with his glasses jumping precariously on the scarce bridge of his nose, his cowardice forgotten in favor of curiosity, the young cadet leaned forward and whispered, “Tell me."
The old woman smiled again before beginning her story, it was the trained smile of a geisha, void of honesty yet convincing.
• • •
“There was not a flaw to Aia. Her entire manner was perfection, as though the woman had not learned to be geisha but had been born geisha.
She was beautiful to the point of painful. There was not a man who looked upon her and did not fall in love. There were many suitors for the position of Donna (sponsor) but Aia took none seriously.
Mamá greatly objected. Many times I would hear mamá arguing upstairs in our Okiya about bringing us good fortune and business with her grace and talent. Yet time passed and Aia remained without sponsor by choice.
We were all perplexed about this relationship between mamá and her newest geisha and we remained that way since no one had the courage to inquire.
I came to suspect the beautiful Geisha did not have the Okiya’s best interest at heart. Eventually my curiosity overwhelmed my fear of mamá and the new geisha. I sneaked into Aia’s bedroom when she was not present in the Okiya.
At first I was disappointed: her room was the typical space of a geisha containing exotic make-ups, kimono of silks so fine they seemed to be fashioned from fantasy and a large spotless European mirror in which to behold her own beauty.
Then I found something under her futon. It was a
Cylindrical lump under the padding. Underneath I found a scroll encased in a tube of bamboo. Inside was a sad but disgusting brush painting of a pregnant geisha in the stages of examination by a doctor, her torturous punishment by her mamá and the final gruesome abortion. What was this I held in my hands. Such was its eerie nature that I was returned it to its place and left the room so swiftly I cannot remember how I did it.
But I still had questions. Who was this woman? Was she the victim in the painted scrolled? I wanted more definite answers and more it arrived one dark storming night like this one.
• • •
A young nervous man came looking for Mamá one evening. He was not seeking entertainment; this anyone could see for his eyes did not seek joy. Now I understand that what they sought instead was revenge.
That night he waited at the entrance to the Okiya like a dark ugly bird that seeks refuge from a storm it cannot negotiate. He was thin, more bone than meat. Although taller than most men he seemed shorter because he stood hunched. He wore the poorest clothes, a large straw hat and a coat that covered him from head to toe. He seemed a miserable creature not capable of happiness as though he was born to never know it.
At the time I was in training to become geisha myself, spared the burden of endless slave labor by my beauty. So I merely watched the servant girls attend to the stranger. I had been sold to that station to pay for a debt my worthless father had accumulated in the local teahouses.
I watched that grave man at the entrance. He loomed over us training geisha as we watched him, a living shadow of sorrow, ignoring everyone completely as though nothing but his purpose existed.
But when mamá entered the reception area of the Okiya he practically threw himself at her old feet almost begging her to see Aia. He behaved like his life hanged in the balance and our Okiya was his only chance for purchase.
“What would you have to do with Aia?" mamá spat.
He presented a handful of coins joined by a band of paper. Mamá scrutinized the offering with displeasure as though he presented her a dead spider as payment.
Mamá turned her back to him with a snap of her kimono (Japanese robes) and hissed “You will leave now."
The man wailed in protest still holding out his meager funds in vain hope. He began to cry like a child denied his greatest wish.
“She is Aia, the great wish maker!" the poor man hollered to mamá, educating her on a secret reputation she seemed not aware of.
A voice suddenly filled the reception area as if the very timbers, panels and shoji of the house were speaking. It was soft, harmonious and full, a voice too beautiful to be human.
“Let him come to me. I wish to hear his desire." Aia called out from the meeting-room separated from reception by a thin shoji stamped with her sensual and mysterious silhouette.
There was a smile to Aia’s voice but instead of angering mamá it caused the old woman to start as though she had just been threatened. Mamá was a tough old lady, not one to bow so easily to a foe of any size or portent, and yet great caution was visible from mamá upon her hearing Aia’s command. She made a little bow with her head as if to say ‘yes’ to the desperate man and led him to the larger meeting-room. Before sliding closed the shoji my eyes met with mamá and her tired, strained gaze told me to mind my business and nothing else or there would be a beating to expect. But behind them was a deep concern bordering on fear; they were the eyes of a woman who wonders if she has a lethal mistake.
• • •
I didn’t hear much of what was said between that despairing man and Aia but I purposely traveled the reception area plenty to at least glean something of the conversation. I knew what floorboards made noise and avoided them so mamá would not be alerted to my presence and purpose outside. I wished to spare myself the beating, most certainly mine if I was discovered, but my curiosity was too great to deny.
As I crossed reception on a pretext Mamá suddenly slid open the shoji to the meeting room to meet my eyes once again with that same fright maddened stare.
I was filled with terror, mamá was on to me and that promised beating was mine without a doubt.
Instead mamá commanded me in a whisper that was more serpent’s hiss than a woman’s voice “Get his hat and coat!"
I was about to do as she ordered when through the open space I saw the visitor reach out with his hands across the small table of the meeting room and take hold of Aia’s that she held out to him palms down. Was this a display of mutual affection, I wondered perplexed? This man was so ugly and Aia so beautiful. Could love truly be this blind?
Suddenly the new geisha’s eye’s rolled up into her head like a fog had slid over the color. Her delicate upper lip pressed up under the nose like a crushed, pink ribbon of silk. Her gums shone bright with saliva and the teeth bared like a cornered animal ready to engage a predator. She seemed malevolent with her features contorted so; she was like an obake (ghost) that conceals its true form only to reveal it the moment it does harm.
Aia was like one of those new power-lines made for harnessing electricity, she seemed to be passing on some unseen force causing the man an agonizing seizure.
A bright pain that filled one-half of my face broke me from that distraction. I drank full of mamá’s rage, as she stood not more than an inch away from my face with her own. She had slapped me for my intrusiveness seething with anger that was partially my fault and the other half her own for letting me witness a glimpse of that secret business.
It was karma. I had received my beating, brief as it was, and just as promised a swift reward for my insubordination. Yet the pain was but a caress for I was so overwhelmed with the scene I had just witnessed. All my other senses were dimmed by the details of that moment repeating in my mind.
Later that night I heard Mamá lecturing Aia in the upper floor of the okiya but it was only her voice sounding as though she discussed with herself the geisha house policy.
I knew Mamá was displeased with Aia’s decision to take that man as a client. His money had not been enough to feed even one of us for a day. Her abacus would not tally this as profit. A line had to be drawn somewhere with Aia.
Later that night Mamá vented her disapproval for an hour then suddenly, as though to put an end to the tantrum, Aia filled the upper floors with defiant laughter. I heard nothing more of Mamá that night as though Aia was a witch and had hexed the old woman so she could no longer utter even a single word.
There was silence for a good while only the voice of the street outside continued humming its song of busy life. But as I began to fall asleep on my futon (bed) there began a crying; it was as filled with pain as it was soft. It sounded as though its source was a young girl rather than either of the women upstairs. It so reminded me of myself on my first nights in the Okiya.
The grieving voice finally drifted off and I fell to slumber, relieved that the sorrow and hurt of that lamentation was finished. At least for that night.
• • •
A year passed and Aia’s talent was already legendary
Feared or admired Aia made an impression upon everyone. It was more than her beauty or grace; it was something far deeper that has no word; something only the instinct can recognize. I am sure now that Aia dwelled between two worlds. Half of her soul was here but the other must have been in a realm beyond our comprehension. She was touched by Kami so everyone believed.
As before Aia accepted her clients not by the content of their purse but for something else that had not been immediately obvious.
But as we approached the first year of her stay with us I came to understand her agenda and quarrel with this world.
Like the first of her clients, the lanky miscreant, every soul Aia had bestowed her attention upon, was seeking one thing only. And that thing was revenge.
She chose the vengeance seekers, those who sought vindication from personal injustices.
The pathetic man who had first come to Aia had but one thing in his life worthwhile, a bride. She was nothing to really look at but she was his. Unfortunately fate was not kind to him because another man, for whatever his reasons, came to desire her.
He was the son of the wealthiest rice trader in the city. He was a dandy who spent most of his time in the pleasure district causing trouble. Being capricious his taste was an unpredictable thing. One day he wanted something enough to die for and the next he couldn’t have cared less. Such is the nature of a spoiled child.
This dandy set his eyes on the poor man’s bride and won her over with gifts and charms. By the time he was done with her he had shared her off to half the pleasure district, finally abandoning her to a whorehouse, the only place she could now obtain employment.
This was an insult the poor man could not bare; the only thing worth to him in his sad life was a woman who had not even respected him enough to say farewell. He was beside himself with dejection. Vengeance could be his only karma.
How he had known of Aia’s darker reputation is a mystery to us all but it mattered not to her. What was important to the geisha was that he desired ill upon another soul and that was enough.
After his meeting with Aia the poor man met his former bride and pretended to forgive her betrayal. He offered to return with her to their former home in the countryside far, far away from the city and its cruel streets. The woman accepted.
had planned to meet by the
The woman waited and waited by the river for him to arrive and as she did a storm began and worsened by the hour until the river was spilling over the banks and onto the streets. Despite the sudden flood the woman waited knee high in freezing water for her savior to arrive. In her wait the river claimed her as though it knew of her man’s true intentions.
body was found miles away south of the pleasure quarter on the shores of
Upon discovery the police could only identify the corpse by the robes still on her marking its owner as a former member of a brothel. And the only brothels in the city were in the Yoshiwara or pleasure district of Tokyo so what was left of the woman was returned to the pleasure district.
The poor man came to know of his hated bride’s folly and elated in her death for perhaps a second before collapsing into tears, understanding far to late his revenge was a fruitless thing. He still loved his bride no matter what she had done and now he had her no more not even to hate.
As irony would have it, the poor man and his entire family were employees of the dandy’s father. They nearly comprised the merchant’s entire workforce. The poor man took his own life in despair and this destroyed the head of the family, the poor man’s father.
The poor man had been the only male child born to his parents. The rest of their brood were women, considered not worthy of carrying on the family name. The lineage was thus ended and so the very large family, in their grief, returned to the barren farms from which they had been forced to leave.
The sudden desertion by his workers was a blow to the merchant’s trade and thus it fell, along with it most of the Yoshiwara that had so depended on it.
Like myself Mamá suspected it was all Aia’s doing and for endless nights I would hear her scolding the lovely but silent geisha until her laughter ended the other’s rebukes. We were all held in terror under this strange woman’s influence. We dared not provoke her unless that touch of poison did us in as it had the poor man.
I had once hated the Okiya but now it was my home and I was not about to suffer again the pain of finding another. This useless geisha that had been meant to be my mentor was the cause of our strife. I hated mamá and despite her grave error in bringing this evil woman here I was her willing ally in a mutual quest to be rid of this woman.
I was only a girl then but I already understood well enough that to defeat a foe one must know their greatest weakness so I dared another venture into this devil’s lair to further educate myself on her true nature.
She was not there that night, her room lit by a full moon that shone in through a small narrow open window. The cold night blew in carrying the scents and voices of the busy streets below.
Every step into the room raised the beat of my heart. Instinct warned me that I was not dealing with anything completely human.
Everything was the same as before. Expecting to find the scroll in the same place I reached under the futon to have another glance at it and its horrid illustrations. Perhaps upon further inspection I might come to understand Aia.
The scroll was not there. My hand touched upon empty space. Aia had moved it elsewhere. She knew I had been here. I was doomed.
I gingerly but hastily returned to my room below without answers or courage. I kept a lantern well lit and fueled to see everything within the four walls where I slept; I would not allow the darkness to conceal my enemy. But as I lay in my own futon thinking of what be in store for us all Aia’s voice filled the room with its sweet, alien tone.
“You did not find it?" she was suddenly hovering over me as though she had always been there.
I lay on my bed vulnerable as a newborn chick before the mercy of a hungry alley cat.
“I moved it once I learned you had been there." Aia told me her voice soft but ice-cold.
“Who are you?" I spat at her in terror.
Aia suddenly cradled me in her arms, her perfect features not more than an inch from my own “Can you take the truth, little one?"
Being held this way was all the more terrifying by the fact that she could have broken my neck at any moment.
“When a woman loves it is the greatest event that can ever happen in her life. But true love is not concerned with castes or the wealth in a man’s purse. So for a geisha to truly love is also the worst event of her life. Can you understand that, you sneaky little mouse?"
I did not answer because the mouse that squeaks to the cat surely dies.
“I loved a man once and I was sure that he loved me. He was the son of a great ruler. Because of his father he was not allowed to be my Donna (sponsor) but despite this we became lovers. Our passion was clandestine and we had to be ever so cautious. We met seldom but every moment was a lifetime for me. I cherished it the way a starving woman relishes a single grain of rice in her mouth. How I loved my man."
“I became pregnant." Suddenly I understood the meaning of her hidden scroll.
“I believed my beloved would now stand up to his father and save me from what is the sorrow filled servitude of a geisha. I was so naively wrong."
Tears began to rain on my face from Aia’s eyes. They burned like points of fire on the surface of my skin.
“He left me to my fate. You saw the scroll so you know what became of me."
There was silence absolute for agonizing seconds as though Aia waited for a comment or perhaps a question to come from me.
“Would you like to know what became of my child?" Aia asked with anger as though she were threatening me.
She released me from her motherly embrace to sit back on her heels and withdraw a small bundle from within the breast of her kimono. In her hands was little doll dressed in a tiny kimono of fine silk, it was dyed the color of the
early evening sky, indigo.
“Here in my hands is the heir to the shogunate. Here is the grandson of Ieyasu Tokugawa."
I actually raised out of my futon to look at Aia. If what she told was true then she was centuries old.
“Hatred has made me immortal, child" she answered as though able to read my mind.
But what she held in her hands was a doll. Its little head of shiny porcelain smiled at me with a painted grin. Tiny dot eyes stared into blissful nothing. I was about to declare Aia insane when I spied petite bone fingers emerging from the kimono sleeves. This woman did hold the corpse of her aborted child. The porcelain head was a mask.
She had kept the corpse of her child all these centuries.
“Yes child all these centuries." Aia answered. She could read my mind. So she had to know I was about to fight her for my life.
“No one will stop me from attaining revenge. Especially not a mere rodent such as you."
Out of her sleeve Aia produced a knife its clean blade glinted in the dim light reflecting my horror like her mirror had upstairs.
“That poor clerk you touched. You did it to spread your evil through the Yoshiwara!" I accused as Aia rocked her aborted infant while shaking her knife like a baby rattle.
Aia smiled happy to know I finally understood.
“I have hated the pleasure district since its creation by the Tokugawa. They are masters at enslavement. They call their government order and peace. But for whom I ask you? For us?" Aia shook her head slowly at her dead infant while pouting her lips.
“For themselves." She hissed at me baring her perfect teeth in a feral snarl.
“Death is their heir, here." Aia presented her infant to emphasize her point. She shook it towards me like an offering, "My time has come, now is the right time. I will not be halted by anyone not even the Tokugawa themselves. I have waited centuries for this. I owe it to my baby."
Aia came to me with her two promises of death, her infant in one hand, the knife in the other: one for me the other for the shogunate. A jet-black curtain of hair spilled over her shoulders as long and lustrous as her silk kimono.
As though a kami had guided my hand I grabbed the lantern and hurled it at my attacker. Aia’s kimono caught fire, the flames slithering over her body as though she wrestled with a radiant dragon of sunrise gold.
Her screams of pain and rage shook the Okiya like an earthquake and soon I heard voices of the others.
The flames consuming Aia did not stop her she resumed her pursuit for me. I burst through the shoji without hesitation and bolted up the stairs to mamá for help. Behind me a burning specter of death hounded me through the dark halls of the Okiya screaming for me to stop.
Before reaching the second floor landing I turned to see the entire first floor alight with fire. The buildings of the Yoshiwara were not designed with safety in mind, the slightest spark was enough to turn that quarter into a funeral pyre and it happened various times since its creation.
As though touched my gods in my favor the stairs to the second floor collapsed but not before I was already upstairs. Aia was not but managed to hang from the ledge of the landing while swinging her knife at me. The flames on her had died down and she now violently shook like a ghost of ethereal smoke.
For a moment as she hung by her fingers I saw the full misery on that poor woman’s perfect face and offered her my hand as salvation. She took it dropping the knife on the second floor to do so. I was convinced she was done with her attempts at murdering me when that same free hand suddenly reached for my face. Her nails tore into the delicate flesh of my cheek hooking me like a fish.
Trying to pull away my free right hand, by chance, found the her knife.
I remembered a line from the simple little fable my mother had told me when I was younger.
At seeing this selfish act Buddha was displeased and let go the thread without hesitation because in receiving salvation lies the greatest test and the prince had failed. He had learned nothing from Buddha’s simple act of compassion.
No matter how terrible I did what I had to so I could be free of that terrible devil pulling me down to that burning hell below.
Without hesitation I applied the knife to Aia’s other hand sawing at her wrist. The blade was sharp. It cut clean and fast through skin, flesh and bone freeing me and delivering Aia to damnation.
Because in receiving salvation lies the greatest test and Aia had failed.
• • •
The old woman said not another word there was no reason to, her story was finished. She watched the young man with calm as though able to accept whatever followed with the most grace.
“You are telling me you and this geisha are responsible for the Yoshiwara fire of 1845?"
The old woman looked to the small black lacquered box on the table hiding her displeasure. He had not listened to a thing she had said. He, like the rest of his kind, read the sentences but never between their lines. Theirs was truly a lost era.
She slid the box to his side of the table while the young man tensed his brow as though offended by her offering, “Here is all the proof you need regarding all that transpired that year."
He reached for it then noticed her hands on the table. A cold hand of fear choked his throat while his thick glasses suddenly fell from his small, thin face.
The old woman had become transparent.
“Kami!" he screamed timidly like a child calling his parents from the depths of a bad dream.
She smiled again and as she did lightning from outside flooded through the windows blinding the already myopic cadet. When it passed she was gone.
The house was draped with cobwebs that seemed older than the cadet himself. There was no glowing fire burning away in the hearth as it had seemed to be but now the cadet realized there never had been.
Mounting the glasses back on his nose, the cadet looked to the box. Taking one last look around the small one room house he snatched the container and ran out of the house into the thundering tempest outside.
Plodding back to the train station through the cold mire the cadet suddenly felt something within the small wooden box move. He held the thing close to his ear but heard nothing with the thunder above roaring like a beast.
Very gingerly, like a wounded man peeling away a bandage to view his wound, he pried the lid of the box open. He almost dropped the box gasping like an excited girl at what the contents of this gift.
Within the narrow confines was a human hand severed clean at the wrist. Its fingers slowly flexed and relaxed repeatedly like a dazed crab trying to escape fisherman trap and be returned to its dark world.
Without realizing the cadet reached in and touched the hand. Its texture was smooth and warm. Suddenly the fingers turned and grazed his hand. Something like fire ran through his body stiffing his already cold limbs where he stood on the along the shoulders of the muddy, disintegrating road.
Could it still be alive? The cadet marveled with horror. It was too much to bare. He hastily slapped the lid over it, sparing his eyes further disbelief.
turn it over to the
He suddenly declared to no one in the middle of nowhere a proclamation," I, Tojo Hideki, will do my duty to bring the empire to glory. Nothing will stand in our way."
He looked to the small box still trembling with fear of it and spoke to its occupant, "And neither will you, kami. You believed your hatred made you great, your voice was to be heard? You can now do nothing now!"
Still trembling from the shock of the hands touch he exhaled and finished," Your ill luck means nothing to me, your are like the thunder all noise and nothing more."
He looked one last time to the box and then to the black sky and almost whimpering said "Voices of thunder."