Hatsumomo was always watching.
She remembers watching Mameha when they were both little girls with different names, long-since discarded and replaced. She was nine and Mameha was six but they shared their dancing lessons. Hatsumomo came late to this school and this life; in the classroom, she was almost the eldest, and definitely the tallest, and Mameha was the reverse: young, diminutive, delicate and extraordinarily graceful.
Even at six, there was something in the way Mameha held a fan – the line of her arm, the shape of her fingers – that Hatsumomo could not, try as she might, quite reproduce. Mimicry was one of Hatsumomo’s gifts, but Mameha eluded her.
It was the first time Hatsumomo was not the best and brightest in the room. It was the first time she felt that little sting that had grown into such a jagged tear in her side.
Hatsumomo watched Mameha as she befriended Hatsuoki outside their schoolroom – Hatsuoki, who was quite the most beautiful of their peers.
Between lessons they would talk, earnest, heads together. They never laughed, which confused Hatsumomo. All she did with her friends, when they had the opportunity, was laugh – at the world around them, at others, at each other. Hatsumomo could find or create a joke anywhere in the absurdity of the world and the people in it; her mimicry made her friends, made others feel they were at her level just for a moment, looking down at the world. But just as Hatsumomo pulled them up, another choice word could set them down. Hatsumomo had friends, but none like Hatsuoki to Mameha.
Mameha and Hatsuoki were different: they never laughed, but constantly smiled as they talked. They had a kind word for everyone, but never two or three words together – they reserved their conversations for each other alone. Hatsumomo could not believe that this was a friendship. It had to be a confederacy, an alliance, two precocious girls plotting against their only true rival, recognising as she had some true potential in the three of them amongst their peers and unifying.
And then Hatsumomo realised that she needed her own alliances: not just with the women with power in her world, as she had been attempting to cultivate, but with her peers. She did not need friends, who were only worth something when their loyalty could be relied upon; they were only girls, fickle and fragile. She needed allies with just enough sense and not quite as much ambition, and there was no shortage of those girls around them: plain, dull, battling to keep up but never shining as bright as Hatsumomo – or Mameha with her graceful wrists or Hatsuoki and her perfect face.
Mameha played at kindness and warmth but Hatsumomo knew better then and she certainly knows better now. It was a façade, a part to play to get ahead in their world.
In the distance, as Mameha and Hatsuoki sat with their heads together and chattered, and as the girls around her fell over themselves giggling at her lazy wit and a punchline that made no sense, Hatsumomo felt the familiar sharp sting grow into an unrelenting dull ache.
Hatsumomo was not one for daydreaming. She may well have been fond of the pleasures of the flesh, but she prided herself on living entirely in the real world, with all its shades of coldness and hardness, and searching for all the hints of comfort and warmth she could find therein. She had learned from hard-won experience that every action, every plan, needed to be reasoned and measured against human nature, lest her own nature and lust for personal gratification get the better of her.
But when she indulged after hours with a little too much sake, she allowed her mind to wander beyond practicalities and into fantasy – not of the men she saw, but fantasies of and for herself.
She thought she would like to be a cat, lying in the sun. She would like to sleep and play and hunt her life away, cared for but entirely capable of caring for herself. She was half way there already, she mused, surrounded by these mice and picking them off as they became interesting. She deployed her charms and attentions to make friends, inside and outside the hanamachi, who she might depend on for tidbits.
Mameha was the only other cat with such sharp claws as Hatsumomo, and Hatsumomo was not ready yet to strike in that quarter. The two women were outpacing their rivals in earnings, Mameha’s okiya negotiating for that odious Baron to be her danna, but Mameha was not invulnerable, least of all when she was so visibly preoccupied. Hatsumomo watched Mameha pouring tea for the Baron, that ploy with her sleeve, and she saw her opportunity and took it.
Hatsumomo had added another spike to the trap for Hatsuoki the night before, and surely it would not be long now before Hatsumomo caught her fattest mouse yet.
Between the sake and the knowledge of what was coming, that old ache eased as she slept, soothed by her quiet victory.
Mameha had always watched Hatsumomo in return. Mameha may have appeared all grace and wisdom, but both had always recognised in each other another predator, circling. They had watched each other for twenty years, and all the women around them who had never learned to play their game and accordingly lost.
Hatsumomo's no fool. She knows when she has lost.
Walking past Mameha’s home as she heads south out of Gion, with its wooden door and reed screens, Hatsumomo stopped, right in the spot where she and Korin had waited for Chiyo so long ago. Standing there, she wondered if this foolishness with Sayuri had been revenge for dispatching Hatsuoki, a great elaborate scheme constructed over a decade with that characteristic subtlety of movement Hatsumomo had never been able to reproduce.
Hatsumomo glanced up at the window.
She was startled, briefly, to see such a familiar oval face there looking down at her, so serene and superior, but how could she ever have expected anything else?
She would see that face in her dreams for many years to come.
Hatsumomo met Mameha’s eyes one final time. She tried not to move, not to acknowledge the other woman in any way, but could not help but give an infinitesimal nod. Mameha returned it, and withdrew from the window into the comfort of her own home.
She trudged onwards. As she did, the question flickered in her mind of what Hatsuoki had thought as she left Gion for the last time; where she went, what became of her. But Hatsuoki had never had a clever thought in her head, preserved by Mameha's wits until she had been so distracted by her Baron and her ascending star and left Hatsuoki vulnerable. Hatsumomo was no fool. She seized instead upon the immediate questions of where she would sleep and where her next meal would come from, and saw a selection of possible paths unfurl before her.
Hatsumomo might have imagined she would collapse in the face of Mameha's victory, as that ache burst in her side into something sharp and overwhelming, but instead it dissipated entirely. In retreat, Hatsumomo found her first momentary peace in twenty years. She knew she could survive, that she could make friends and use them and now had to play by nobody's rules but her own.
Despite that, as she walked with new certainty in her steps, Hatsumomo wondered if she could have watched more closely. She was always so sure of her conclusions, saw all the evidence she needed for them. She had seen the weaknesses of Hatsuoki and countless other girls and exposed them, unveiling them to the cruel gaze of the world with the elegance and flair with which she wore her kimono.
Just as she had never quite grasped any aspect of Mameha, had never penetrated that armour, she still could not grasp how Mameha won.