The Maiko and the Crane

June 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Glossary of Japanese terms available at the end.

~*~

One day, perched primly on the veranda like a young nestling, a young maiko gazed dreamily at the rear garden, distracted from the tangled embroidery on the kimono resting in her lap. The garden was small, but neatly tended to with each detail meticulously arranged just so. There was a tiny rock garden to the right which melted into a silently rippling sand garden in the middle before dissolving into a bijou pond, glassy and still as a mirror while delicate pink flowers like teacups floated on the dark surface. Overlooking the pond was a short, stout stone lantern, currently unlit. And beyond all this stretched the pale green of the bamboo forest, tall, thin stalks swaying in some intangible breeze while the leaves conversed in their susurrous language.

The breeze picked up suddenly, whisking away her bobbin of red thread before she could snatch it back. The mischievous wind then dropped it among the dappled green shadows, where it swiftly rolled out of sight.

If it was any other spool of thread, she would leave it where it was, but she was quite attached to that particular shade of red, like the crowns of cranes, not to mention that it was a difficult color to find as well. She would hate to lose it.

So the young maiko permitted herself one tiny sigh before glancing up into the sky. The western edge was just starting to burn so she hurriedly slipped on her zori, wrapped her thin, white nagajuban around her more tightly, and click-clacked off into the bamboo.

Any worries about finding the small bobbin quickly dissipated when her eyes lighted upon the thin, red trail winding tenuously through the slender shoots. As she followed the red thread underneath the rustling, green foliage, a great flapping and trilling abruptly assaulted her ears, as if someone was bugling while beating a bed sheet. Alarmed, she abandoned her red trail and slipped between the hollow bamboo poles in the direction of the clamor.

She slid between the yielding stalks for a while, the noise growing painfully louder, until she stepped into a small clearing and stopped dead, eyes wide and speechless. There before her, tangled within a thick rope net, was a majestic crane desperately trying to thrash its way out, hysterically warbling all the while.

The young maiko cried out in horror and outrage. Hunting was forbidden in the forests of the hanamachi! She darted over to untie the net, fingers flitting swift and agile over the knots, and with one great heave, yanked the abhorred thing off. In the same instant, the noble creature unfurled its black-tipped wings and disappeared into the sky.

As the young maiko stared after it, she realized with a start how dark it had become; only the barest sliver of purple and pink could be seen in the eastern horizon while the rest of the sky was rapidly darkening from soft blue to inky black. Hastening back, she quickly and quietly slipped out from the bamboo forest, through the garden, and back into the okiya. For once in her life, she was glad that everyone ignored her as that meant her prolonged absence had gone unnoticed from the others in the okiya.

That night, she dreamt of great white birds soaring regally through twilight skies, wings dipped in ink and heads crowned with red.

~*~

The next morning, when everyone was bustling about, preparing for the day’s guests, there came a knock at the front door. As the youngest and newest, it was the young maiko’s duty to attend to such menial tasks as welcoming the guests inside before they were ferried off by the more experienced girls. She slid the entrance open, bowing demurely to murmur the customary greeting of the okiya only for it to die on her lips as she beheld the ethereal figure before her.

A tall, slender young woman stood in the entrance walkway. Her skin was delicately pale like porcelain, only a couple of shades off from the snow white of her flowing dress, and her long, straight hair cascaded down her back like an onyx waterfall. The sun sparkled in her large, dark eyes like dancing gold flecks of light. Her elegant red lips matched the red of the curious circlet she was wearing, which met in a downwards v-point in the middle of her forehead.

“Good morning,” the young woman greeted politely. There was a strange lilting, lyrical quality to her voice, as if she was subtly singing every word. “I am your wife.”

That finally snapped the maiko out of her daze. “Wait, wife!? When? That’s impossible, I’m a maiko, I’m not allowed to be married! I’m too young! And a girl! Girls can’t have wives!”

The young woman worried her lip slightly, but even that marring expression looked beautiful on her. “I admit, the situation is . . . unusual. Nevertheless, tradition must be followed.”

“Tradition? What tradition?” the maiko echoed.

The young woman smiled, melancholic and enigmatic. Drawing in a breath and rolling back her shoulders, the young woman bent forward in a deep bow and said, low and clear, “One good deed deserves another.”

The young maiko backed away, panicked at this show of formality. Why was this woman so polite to a lowly maiko like herself?

The young woman continued, despite the other’s floundering. “I’ll be taking the abandoned storeroom adjacent to your dormitory as my lodgings.” She straightened up fluidly and moved to leave, but then stopped herself and added, “Also, when night falls and until day dawns, you must never look inside my room.” At this, she fixed the young maiko with a sharp glare. When the other gulped and nodded, bewildered and overwhelmed, the young woman twirled around and glided gracefully away.

The young maiko fell asleep that night listening through the thin, paper walls to a curious clicking and shuffling sound as if a loom was in use.

~*~

The first thing the young maiko saw when she opened her eyes the next morning, blinking groggily in the pre-dawn light, was a beautiful and exquisite kimono, neatly folded beside her futon. Her eyes widened as she let out a tiny gasp; it was nothing at all like the worn out, secondhand kimonos she normally wore. As the youngest and newest, she had no money to buy her own and had to borrow faded castoffs from the okiya. On top of the well-crafted kimono was a note, written in elegant brush calligraphy:

Please wear this

The young maiko glanced in the direction of the other room, briefly wondering if this was because of the young woman, but quickly shook her head clear to get ready for the day. She had no time to entertain such thoughts.

Yet, as she reached for one of the usual threadbare kimonos, she paused to gaze wistfully at the delicate silken cloth, resplendent in shimmering peridot green with crimson carnations edged in pale gold thread. She chewed her lip for another moment before giving in and dressing herself in its luxurious folds.

The other maikos and geishas immediately noticed. Bitter pools of suspicion bubbled in their hearts as they gossiped on who could have noticed such a measly maiko, much the less indulge her with such a magnificent gift. For it was common, in those days, for their shyer clients to anonymously gift their favorite geisha and occasionally, maiko as well. As the young maiko dutifully shadowed her oneesan through the streets and teahouses, an ever-growing stream of astonished whispers and dumbfounded gazes trailed behind her like an echo of a fragrance.

Who is that? Where is she from? Which okiya does she belong to? What is her name?

The pathetic, mousy little maiko no one ever noticed had suddenly flourished into the freshest, sweetest flower of the entire hanamachi.

She waited until everyone had fallen asleep before sneaking over to the door of the storeroom. As the lowest-ranking member of the okiya, she slept in the cramped, dusty attic, but that also meant that she was completely alone up there. Well, alone except for her clandestine guest.

Rapping softly on the door, she whispered, “Thank you.” Without waiting for a reply, she slipped back to her room and soundlessly tucked herself in.

~*~

The following morning brought with it another kimono, just as exquisitely and delicately crafted as the first. Against a soft pale orange shot through with glimmering gold strands, ivory peony blossoms floated peacefully, petals ruffling in an illusionary breeze. There was no note, but the maiko understood just the same. Tears pricked her eyes; she now had two gorgeous kimonos, more than she had ever imagined owning in her lifetime. Once more, she gazed through the wall in the direction of the storeroom, nibbling her lip and furrowing her brow as she mulled over the events of the past few days.

She attracted even more attention as several clients approached her oneesan throughout the day. Though out of earshot, the young maiko knew that they were discussing her by the way they kept gesturing and glancing towards her. Her heart nervously fluttered and soared within her chest like a small bird; dared she hope?

The others from the okiya enthusiastically congratulated her on her recent turn of fortune while jealous brambles tangled within their hearts.

For a long time that night, the young maiko gazed out of her tiny window, gathering her thoughts together while the moon climbed sedately into a starless sky. Drawing in a breath, she ghosted over to the storeroom door and settled down against it. Dust motes drifted lazily through the air, illuminated like tiny fairy sprites in the single shaft of moonbeam that cut across her room. She closed her eyes and listened as the noises on the other side of the door gradually quieted down.

“Thank you so much for the kimonos,” she started. When no answer came, she continued, “I’m truly grateful for them as they’re more than I could ever have wished for. So,” here she faltered, unsure on how to proceed, “So, you don’t, you know, really need to continue. You’ve done enough.”

A long pause, then a soft, melodious voice floated through the door. “I am obligated to as part of the tradition.”

The maiko hesitated a little before saying, “I’ve figured it out. Why you’re doing this. But now that I know, aren’t you free to go?”

“That is not how the tradition works,” the musical voice replied, low and sad, “It requires an intrusion. Or a betrayal.”

“Of what?” she asked, but the conversation was over. The young maiko felt a pang of regret for, as brief as it was, she had liked the exchange and had hoped it would be longer.

The maiko nodded off to sleep a short while later, still curled up against the door as she tried to puzzle out the unsaid words.

~*~

The young maiko woke the next morning snuggled into her futon with another stunning creation draped over her like a blanket. This time, delicate eggshell blue deepened into royal indigo while koi fish with differing patterns of red, white, and black swam placidly through the depths.

While wrapped in those gentle waves, she received her first engagement. In two days time, a wealthy and illustrious client will host a private party and had asked for her services alongside many other geishas and maikos. It was rumored that whoever attracted his attention became some of the top geishas in the country.

The young maiko wanted to skip and shout, but remembering her training, she dutifully shuffled one pace behind her oneesan, head demurely cast down. The other okiya girls, however, could not share in her joy and instead, only glared daggers at her back, whispering among themselves as their hearts rotted into thorny, overgrown swamps.

When evening fell, her fingers trembled and twitched so much that the young maiko could hardly undress herself for bed.

“How cute, getting so worked up over a silly party,” a familiar lyrical voice teased from behind her. “Don’t!” it added as the maiko jumped, spinning around. The maiko immediately checked herself, listening as the rustling footsteps drew closer.

“Close your eyes,” the voice murmured, breath tickling her ear, “And keep them closed.” The maiko shut her eyes obediently. Soon enough, she felt hands, gentle and light, carefully untying first the obidome, then the obi. Then those hands were slipping inside her kimono, caressing along her body like the softest, most delicate of feathers. They peeled away the elegant cloth they themselves wove, slipping off the layers until the maiko stood there in only her shift-like hadajuban, quivering as her body tingled for the next light, trailing touch.

A hand brushed her cheek, so faint she could have imagined it, then the lilting voice breathed a soft “Good night.”

The maiko snapped her eyes open but the young woman was already gone.

“Can’t I at least see you again?” the maiko forlornly asked the silent air.

~*~

The young woman came again the following night, helping to disrobe the maiko from a field of the deepest violet where vividly mosaic butterflies flitted in between unfurling golden fans. Like before, the maiko had to keep her eyes shut while the other’s feather light touches slowly unwrapped each layer from her body.

“Why do you want to become a geisha?” the young woman asked suddenly. Startled, the maiko almost opened her eyes but managed to keep them stubbornly shut at the last moment.

“You’re only going to laugh,” she finally said.

“I promise to listen seriously.” When the maiko still hesitated, the young woman added, “Please.”

“I . . . I want to find my true love,” she rushed out before resolutely clamping her mouth shut. She refused to let any of the justifications, the excuses, the responses to you’re so silly, you seriously think being a geisha will help you find true love? come pouring out. She tensed in anticipation of that ridicule.

Instead, the young woman only murmured under her breath, as if to herself, “I see. So you feel that you haven’t found your true love yet.”

The air chilled suddenly. The maiko knew that her eyes would open to an empty, moonlit room, so she kept them shut and slowly curled in on herself, mulishly ignoring the pain in her chest.

~*~

The day of the party dawned, the one where the young maiko would make her much-anticipated debut. Her fingers shook so much she couldn’t even wrap her undergarment layers properly. When she heard the feather light footsteps approaching behind her, she didn’t even wait for the command, but simply closed her eyes and let her trembling hands fall to her sides. The young woman dressed her in silence, soothing away the tremors with soft strokes.

When she finished, she leaned forward and breathed into the young maiko’s ear, “Good luck and have fun.” And with that, she was gone.

At the party, she was the perfect little maiko. Draped in the most breath-taking kimono yet – vivid scarlet with great white cranes unfurling their stately wings in full flight – she practically glowed among the others. Milling around her like bees to a preciously fragrant flower, guests laughed at her quiet witticisms, praised her tea ceremony skills, and took delight in her dancing and shamisen-playing. Still others lauded her beauty and tracked her every movement with barely-concealed hunger. Yet, despite of all these attentions, the maiko felt off and a little lost, as if she wasn’t quite sure what she was doing there or why. She realized with a start that her thoughts kept trailing back to the young woman. The maiko had no idea where she went during the day, what she did, or what she meant with all her enigmatic words. All the maiko had were one brief visual memory, bits of mellifluous murmurings, and tingling echoes of feather-soft caresses.

As cool, delicate hands gently pulled off the kimono that night, the maiko suddenly said, distinct and clear in the dark stillness, “I missed you.”

~*~

The morning after the party, her oneesan told her that an affluent anonymous sponsor had come forward to sponsor her geisha training in return for her mizuage when she was of age.

A full week to the day has passed since the mysterious young woman had moved in. The maiko couldn’t believe that she had gone from dirt to gold within that time. And yet, she couldn’t care less.

When night fell, the young maiko kneeled in the dark, shaken but still as a ghost. The moon illuminated her pure white kimono radiantly, outlining the silver-edged sakura flowers whose fragile petals swirled on some imaginary breeze before settling into a soft, pink, fragrant heap along the bottom edge.

Though she couldn’t see the other woman, she could feel her – her breath, her fingers, her gently thudding heartbeat. Right as the kimono slid to the floor in a rustling heap, the maiko stretched her hand out blindly for the first time, seeking and desperate. Her fingers clumsily brushed along a delicately angled jawline, neckline, collarbone, shoulder. In return, a cool hand came to rest upon her cheek, light as a feather.

In the secrecy and silence of the dark, they both leaned forward, carefully, hesitantly, and let their lips speak in another language, both ancient and new and exclusively their own.

~*~

The maiko floated through the following day on another kind of happiness, one she had neither experienced nor knew existed before then. It gave her butterflies in her stomach and made her blush at the slightest memory. Her heart thudded so loudly that she was sure the others could hear it, and throughout the day, she would unconsciously touch her lips as if to confirm a feeling.

Her behavior, though, didn’t help her in the eyes of the others in the okiya. Their hearts had grown so jealous and suspicious that there was nothing left but bubbling, barbed sludge. Watching the young maiko wander around with such an absentminded smile, they not so much jumped as seized unto conclusions, anything to sully her down to their level.

As the day darkened into night and the moon rose silently into the sky, they waited until the maiko had retired to her room before creeping up like one bubbling morass, almost giggling with delight at the lurid scandal they expected to find within.

As one, they threw her door open, horrendously tearing the delicate shoji paper in the process. Immediately, there was a deafening whirlwind of white feathers whipping along their bodies while a bright whiteness flooded the small room, blinding their sight. When the feathers cleared, and the geishas and maikos blinked away the spots in their vision, they saw the young maiko kneeling dejected and alone in the middle of a room full of rolls upon bolts of beautifully lavish kimono fabric. Eyes glistening with greed, they rushed forward, eager to claim some as their own, only to hiss and withdraw in pain upon touching the ethereal silk.

As for the young maiko herself, she only gazed, forlorn, out into the night sky, the full moon silvering the streams trickling silently down her face.

~*~

GLOSSARY OF JAPANESE TERMS
geisha — traditional female Japanese entertainers
hadajuban — shift-like undergarment worn as the bottom-most layer
hanamachi — geisha district
kimono — traditional Japanese clothing
maiko — apprentice geisha
mizuage — ceremonial deflowering of a maiko as a rite of passage into adulthood
nagajuban — light, secondary undergarment layer
obi — sash-like belt that is tied around the kimono to fasten it
obidome — ornamental rope worn over obi to further fasten it
okiya — geisha house
oneesan — geisha that acts as a mentor/model to a maiko
shamisen — three-stringed Japanese guitar
shoji — sliding paper screen door
zori — traditional Japanese sandals

~*~

Written in spring 2012 for my “Fantasy in World Culture” class in response to the prompt: Write a modern update on a classic fairy tale.

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