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This is another of those stories which haunted me until I was forced to write it. It takes place when Hikaru is six years old, a street kid with an ailing mother who is a prostitute - but her mother is determined that Hikaru will get a better life than she's had.
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The girl put her head around the corner. No one was in the alley, and she breathed a tiny sigh of relief. This wasn't the best area for finding food, but the other children swarmed those places and wouldn't allow her near. What could she do? She was small and weak, and cowardly as well. When the other children ran at her with their fists raised, the only thing she could do was run away.
She trotted up the alley to the garbage heap. She was a thin girl, small even for her age, carrying a stick in one hand and, in the other, a rudimentary sack made from a large rag with twine woven through holes on the edges. Although she was dressed just as poorly as the other children of the streets, and she looked equally hungry and desperate, she was cleaner than the others, her long hair neatly bound. Unlike the others, she had a mother who cared for her.
But her mother didn't make enough money to feed two people. Without little Hikaru's excursions into the alleys behind the restaurants, they would both have gone hungry. Not that her mother forced, or even asked, her to scavenge. Hikaru was still only a child, but she had seen her mother go without food so that her child could eat, and Hikaru was determined never to see that happen again. Her mother was unwell. She needed food.
She used the stick to fend off the rats, stifling her involuntary squeal of fear and revulsion if they ran too close to her feet. Then she spread the rag upon the ground and used the stick again, this time to turn over the pile of garbage, looking for whatever might still be edible. She was not choosy – she couldn't afford to be. If it were not moldy or wormy, she took it, laying it neatly on the makeshift sack.
As she knelt to tie the sack up, she heard laughter on the other side of the wall to her right. The laughter was feminine, and it sounded so free and happy that it charmed her, so that she stopped what she was doing just to listen. The wall was made of unfinished wood, and had buckled a little at the bottom. Curious, Hikaru got onto her hands and knees and peered through.
She was looking into a small but very pretty garden built around a pair of cherry trees. Two women stood under the trees, and Hikaru stared, open-mouthed. They were the most beautiful women she'd ever seen. Their kimonos were dazzling, one in swirling oranges overlaid with the black and white figures of cranes, the other dark blue and heavily embroidered with plum blossoms, and both of them with huge, elaborate obi. The women's faces were very pale, like moons, so that their painted eyes and lips stood out vividly, and their hair was put up in rolls fastened with jewels and ivory pins from which strings of beads danced. They carried parasols of delicate silk, and fans dangled from their wrists. They were speaking together in voices too low for Hikaru to make out words, but the subject must have been amusing, for they laughed again, and to Hikaru, the laughter was like the chiming of many little bells.
When she finally got home again, dusk had settled on Edo and the streets were already growing dark. Old, fat Mai in the kitchen scolded her for worrying them. Mai had not wanted Hikaru in the house at first, but now she was fond of the girl.
Hikaru bowed in apology. "I had to go far," she explained. "I will just take this up to my mother, Mai-san, and then come right back down to help you with supper."
"Your mother's working now, my dear. An early customer. Come chop the radishes, and by the time you finish, she should be free."
Obediently, Hikaru took up the knife, which was nearly as long as her arm, and began with more dutifulness than skill to chop a radish. A short time later, a man came down the stairs, a middle-aged man who was shaped like a pear and smelled of fish. Hikaru glanced hopefully at Mai, who smiled and nodded. Grabbing her sack from under the table, Hikaru ran up the stairs as fast as her short legs would take her, pausing only to promise Mai that she would return in a few minutes to finish her task.
On the landing, she ceased running and tiptoed silently past the door to Madame Hinaki's room. The owner of the house was a woman of uncertain temper, but never less than stern, and Hikaru knew that if she made a nuisance of herself, Madame Hinaki would turn her out of the house without mercy, and perhaps her mother, too. Once safely past that door, she trotted to her mother's room and let herself in.
Her mother was standing by the tiny window, looking out as she rearranged her gown. When the door opened, she turned, her face grave and tired. Her expression lightened with relief when she saw who it was. "Hikaru, where have you been?"
"I am sorry, Mother. But look, look what I found." She set the sack on the small table near the window, which, with its single three-legged stool, was the only furniture in the room except for the single small, plain chest that held all their belongings. She untied the twine and carefully spread the rag, revealing her treasures.
Her mother smiled, a weak and thoughtful smile, but still a smile, and Hikaru glowed with pleasure. She carefully sorted out the best of the food and offered it to her mother. Her mother sat, drawing Hikaru up into her lap. "This is indeed a feast, little one! But did you have to go so far to get it? You worried me." With equal care, she divided the food, putting the best before Hikaru.
"I am sorry, Mother. I won't do it again." She pushed the little stack of food back at her mother. "You should eat that," she insisted. "I already ate something." That was not quite a lie, as she had snitched a piece of radish in the kitchen while chopping.
She worried about her mother. Mitsuki looked more pale and thin every day, and although normally a pale skin was considered attractive, the shade of Mitsuki's skin was more sickly than moonlike. Until she had seen the two beautiful women in the garden, Hikaru had not realized the difference, and now she was even more worried. Her mother didn't move with her usual grace, either, but stiffly, as if her joints hurt her. Hikaru was sure that good food, and plenty of it, would cure her.
Mitsuki kissed her temple, gently. "You are a good girl," she said warmly. Even in sickness, her voice was low and soft and musical, and Hikaru loved to hear it. She snuggled against her mother, smelling the fishy odor from the man, her mother's perfume, and a musky smell that always permeated the room when her mother was working.
"I'm not hungry," she insisted, and then, with perfect timing, her stomach growled.
Mitsuki laughed. "Oh, what a liar you are, my jewel. Here, we will eat this together, and then we will go down for supper and not gobble our soup like rude peasants. What do you say to that?"
Gnawing on a fish tail, Hikaru said, "I saw something today."
"What did you see?"
"Two beautiful women. They were like queens."
"Like queens, were they? And what does a queen look like?"
Hikaru did her best to describe the women, and when she was finished, her mother looked sad and far away. "Yes, I know what you mean," she murmured. "Those were geisha. You must have been right outside an okiya."
"Oh. Geisha," Hikaru repeated reverently. For as long as she could remember, the word "geisha" had been magical. Her mother had always wanted to be a geisha, and one of Hikaru's earliest memories was of watching her mother's eyes turn dreamy and longing, talking about that life. But I was not pretty enough, not graceful or talented enough, Mitsuki always said, and always with such sorrow that Hikaru would hasten to reassure her that she was the most beautiful and graceful woman in all Japan. Now she fully understood, for the first time, her mother's deep regret.
Her mother's dream now was that Hikaru become a geisha, and thinking of that, Hikaru said sadly, "I will never be so beautiful."
Her mother hugged her closer. "Oh, but you will, my love. You will be the most beautiful geisha in all of Edo. I know it." Her arms tightened. "And I will see that you get into the okiya, no matter what I have to do."
The okiya of which she spoke was the Ryouta Okiya, where her cousin Amiko was the cook. Amiko had promised to do her best to get Hikaru hired as a servant when the girl was old enough, and both women were certain that, once inside the okiya, Hikaru's beauty, charm, and courteous, cheerful manners would win over Madame Hioki. Hikaru believed, however, that time was still far away, so she only smiled at her mother's assurance and then filled her mouth with rice.
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But in Hikaru's world, age six was not too young to work in a kitchen.
Mitsuki watched her daughter reveal her hunger unconsciously, wolfing down the few morsels that she had allowed herself. Hikaru's care of her, and worry for her, was as transparent as a window glass, but she did not reveal her knowledge. Whatever gave Hikaru pride in herself would be encouraged by Mitsuki, and there was precious little of it.
Still, Mitsuki knew their situation could be worse. Mai in the kitchen adored Hikaru, and even Madame Hinaki liked her, although she would cut off her tongue before admitting such a weakness. Most brothels, Mitsuki knew, would not have allowed her to keep her daughter with her. However, although this, too, she hid from Hikaru, Mitsuki knew that her time in life was growing short. The doctor did not know what illness ate at her from within; he had no cure for her, and every day Mitsuki could feel herself slipping further and further down the long dark tunnel toward death. There would be no stopping this slide, no slowing it. The greatest fear in her life was that she would die before getting Hikaru into an okiya, thereby leaving Hikaru here, in this house, where she, too, would end up a prostitute. No matter what she had to do, she would not allow her precious daughter to live the life she had been forced into.
Madame Hinaki allowed her women one free day each two weeks, if work allowed. This was considered generous, and Mitsuki was properly grateful. That evening, as she watched her daughter chew a tough, oily fish tail, she made up her mind to visit with her cousin on her next free day.
As it turned out, it wasn't until the late summer that she was able to arrange a meeting with Amiko, their free time not corresponding until then. The summer heat made Mitsuki feel better, and her cousin remarked with pleasure on how improved her looks were. But Mitsuki shook her head. "We shall probably not meet again," she said.
"Oh, but surely, you have improved! You will get better now!"
She shook her head. "That is not what the doctor says, and it is not what I feel inside." She reached over and took her cousin's hand, squeezing it. "Amiko, you must help me. You must help Hikaru."
"I will do what I can. I have always said so. But I cannot bring in a new kitchen girl right now."
"I cannot wait for that. I must get Hikaru into the okiya now. No, don't look so fearful. I will not be asking you to do anything that will get you in trouble. I will arrange it myself. I only want you to encourage Madame Hioki to accept her, if you can, and to watch over her while she is with you."
"Of course I'll do that!"
Amiko was not a motherly sort of woman, but she had a strong regard for family, so although Mitsuki knew that her daughter would be without a mother's love, at least her welfare would matter to someone. She relaxed, smiled.
Amiko said, "But, how will you arrange to get the girl into the okiya?"
"I will strike the bargain with Mr. Ishikai."
"With that horrible man? Mitsuki, he will make you a slave."
Mitsuki nodded. "I know. But it will not be for long. I can only be happy that he wants me so badly, he is willing to do this for me. And that he does not know I am ill. He will be the middleman and sell Hikaru to the okiya."
"And when he fulfills his end of the bargain, Hikaru will be a slave as well. Or as good as one."
Mitsuki said, "That was inevitable, one way or the other. I would prefer her not to begin her apprenticeship under debt, but that can't be helped. The little money that I had hidden away has all gone to medicines. Uselessly," she added bitterly. "This is what I must do. If Madame Hitoki pays a high price to Mr. Ishikai for Hikaru, she will value her as an investment, and if a low price, then Hikaru will have less debt to work off." Mr. Ishikai knew how to deal with Madame Hitoki. He had been selling girls to her for many years now. In return for her willing submission to him, he had said he would act as a secret broker to get Hikaru into the okiya. Mitsuki knew that she was cheating him, as he would not enjoy her favors for long, but she was willing to sacrifice anything to find a place for her daughter. What honor was allowed to a whore, after all?
Not once did she doubt that, if Hikaru were given an entry into the world of the okiya, she would be successful. She wasn't sure if she had some foreknowledge, a peek into her daughter's destiny. Perhaps she did have some such power, as, when the first twinges of this illness had made themselves felt, she had known she was dying, despite the mildness of the symptoms and the doctor's original, too-optimistic diagnosis. Or, perhaps, she simply had faith in her child. Whatever the reason, she knew she could die contented if Hikaru was safely in the okiya.
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Hikaru didn't like Mr. Ishikai, and he did not like her. As Mitsuki packed her few belongings, the two of them glanced at each other and then quickly away, neither wanting to upset Mitsuki.
Mr. Ishikai had never been less than polite to her mother, so Hikaru didn't know why she disliked him. There was just something about him that reminded her of how, sometimes, as she worked her way down through a pile of garbage, she might accidentally thrust her hand into the gooey heart of a rotted fruit. And now her mother was going to live in his house. The next time she visited her mother, it would not be here, where, despite the many difficulties, she felt secure and comfortable. It would be at his house, and she didn't even know where that was.
Still, she treated him with deferential respect. This was partly because she had been taught well, but also partly because her mother had asked it of her the night before. "Without Mr. Ishikai's help, you could not go to the okiya to live. He is being generous and kind to you. You must treat him as a benefactor."
Hikaru had been frightened from the first day her mother had mentioned that they would be separated, and at this, helplessly, she began to cry. She went into her mother's arms and nuzzled into the hollow of her mother's shoulder. "I don't want to go to the okiya. I want to stay with you."
"And I want to have you with me. But, oh, Hikaru, this is the best thing that could happen to you! You will be a famous geisha, I know you will. The most successful and beautiful geisha in Edo. You only need to work hard and obey your Okaa-san, just as I told you."
"I know, but I wish you could be there, too!"
"So do I, my little flower. But that is not possible. You will do better than your mother." She stroked Hikaru's cheek. "And you will eat every day, as well."
"Will you visit me?"
"Yes, but not for a long time. You will not be allowed a visitor until you have proven yourself trustworthy and shown that you have learned proper behavior."
"How long?" She had already asked the question half a dozen times, and always her mother gave the same answers.
"That depends upon you and Madame Hioki."
She sighed unhappily, curling against her mother and inhaling the familiar scents. She didn't want to be away from her. However, she made no more protests. Even without any years of wisdom, she knew that her mother had placed all her hopes for the future on her shoulders, and she was determined to carry that burden without protest, with joy and gratitude for her mother's trust.
But oh, how alone she would feel!
That was her only thought as Mr. Ishikai took up their bundles and carried them downstairs. Hikaru and Mitsuki stopped to say goodbye to Mai, who was weeping prodigiously, her apron over her face, and who gave Hikaru a fierce, wet hug. Then Mr. Ishikai handed them into a rickshaw, and they went up the street. Hikaru leaned out, looking at her past, the only home she had ever known, as it dwindled away behind them until it was lost as they turned a corner.
She subsided back into the seat, worried that Mr. Ishikai would be angry with her rudeness. But he was stroking her mother's hand and arm, his attention solely on Mitsuki. He would not have noticed Hikaru unless she did something startling, like kicking him. Hikaru watched his hand move on her mother's skin, then glanced up and met her mother's eyes. Mitsuki smiled at her, a smile that was untroubled and happy, and Hikaru felt a little of her dread ease away.
They stopped in front of the okiya. Mr. Ishikai got out and went to the door, where he was met by a servant. He waited on the step until a tall, dignified woman joined him. They spoke, and the woman came to the rickshaw to study Hikaru. Remembering that she was supposed to make a good impression, Hikaru rose and bowed deeply to her. The woman lifted her chin and studied her face, and, still without revealing her thoughts, returned to the step and Mr. Ishikai. There was more talk, and money changed hands. Then Mr. Ishikai came to take her down from the rickshaw.
Her heart panicked. She screamed and turned to her mother, clinging to Mitsuki 's neck. "No! No, Mother, I want to stay with you!" Strong hands gripped her waist and tugged at her, but she only clung harder.
Her mother spoke Mr. Ishikai's name, only once, quietly, but he released Hikaru's waist at once. Mitsuki then pulled Hikaru's arms from around her neck. "This is your place now, little flower of mine. You will obey and learn, and you will be everything I've promised you."
"I'll never see you again," Hikaru sobbed, wiping her face on her sleeve.
"No matter what happens, I will always be with you. Now, stop crying. Make me proud of you."
More than anything else in the world, Hikaru wanted to do her mother's bidding. She scrubbed her face dry, fiercely, then turned, her face expressionless, to Mr. Ishikai. She allowed him to lift her neatly from the rickshaw. Then she abruptly turned back. Her mother's hand reached down to her; their fingers touched, entwined, and her mother squeezed her hand hard. Then they let go, and Hikaru turned and walked to the steps of the okiya. She looked back once more, seeing the tears on her mother's cheeks glinting in the sunlight. Then the door closed behind her.
She had been right. She never saw her mother again. She had been at the okiya barely three months, and had not even begun her education as a geisha, when Madame Hioki, that tall and stately woman who had purchased her, called her to her room and broke the news to her that her mother was dead. She handed Hikaru a carved icon to place on an altar, for the only ancestor Hikaru had ever had.
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Two years later, pirates swarmed over a ship in the waters off Osaka. The crew fought them valiantly but in vain, and the captain, who had been a mighty fighter in his youth, was far too old to do more than postpone the inevitable. His shouted orders and his attack on the pirates allowed some of his men to escape into the water, and to him, that was worth his life when it was taken.
And so, although Hikaru never knew it, on that day she was made a true orphan.
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