I call this story Japanese inspired rather than Japanese. Despite my research, I still did a lot of guesswork, and I’m sure I’ve missed the mark more than once. But this is a folk-tale-like story, and my goal was to write a story about the dangers of comparing yourself to others, not to make it authentic. Also, I’m pretty sure there aren’t such things as Geiko-warriors, but I thought it sounded like a fun idea.
During my research, I read a few Japanese folk tales. Many contained characters who were turned from plants or animals into people. It became another inspiration for Cherry Blossom Girl.
Cherry Blossom Girl
Sweat ran down my face and back. I heaved great breaths sword poised to strike. I’d won. Kumi-San nodded, acknowledging her defeat. Finally, I’d beaten all the other Maiko in sparring. I finally got more requests than Masako-San to be a partner for games in the tea house. The others had never surpassed my dancing skills. I was now the best here. In two weeks we would have our turning-of-the-collar graduation ceremony. I would become a Geiko-warrior, and receive a high wage for my achievements.
We gathered our weapons, one fan and long sword each. As I wiped mine down, I glanced at the lattice of cherry blossoms growing over our heads. Spots of gray sky peeked through the thick branches, a sign there could be a storm later. People say warriors are like the cherry blossom. They are graceful and strong, but it merely takes one great wind to blow them away. I took a deep breath and clenched my fist. I’d worked hard to get to the top. I would not fall because of a wind.
During the night wind gusted around our okiya where we slept, and the rain pounded the roof. We woke the next morning to find that nature had scattered cherry blossoms everywhere. Their sweet scent floated in the air. I looked up through the tree’s bare branches. One blossom still clung to a branch. Like that blossom, I would be the strongest, better than the others.
A small breeze wafted through the yard. I watched the last blossom let go of its branch and float downward. It hit the grass. Someone knocked on the okiya’s door.
In the common room, we craned our necks around each other to get the best view. We didn’t often get visitors here. Annaisha-Sensei our Geiko mother answered the door.
A girl stood at the threshold dressed as a Maiko in her last year of training. She bowed and pulled a scroll from her luggage. “Okāsan, I have been sent to your illustrious okiya from afar. I bring with me this letter of introduction.”
Annaisha unrolled the letter and read. She smiled at me when she finished. Her look made me feel uneasy. She faced the new girl. “Sakura-San, you are welcome. Come inside.”
Because they owed a debt to the tea house who sponsored their training, Geiko didn’t often move between tea houses. So I was surprised when Annaisha let her join us without much thought.
The day’s schedule went as usual. Except it wasn’t usual. Sakura excelled at every possible art. We trained with our swords in the blossom covered training field. She beat us all. She couldn’t be the best at everything, could she?
That evening we worked as entertainers in the tea house. Sakura excelled here. She made all the men laugh, and the women feel superior.
Yamazaki-San arrived. He was never happy and had at one point complained about each one of us. I watched as our host introduced him to Sakura. He looked unhappy as usual but allowed her to lead him to a table, pour him some tea and begin a game of uta-garuta. I gawked. Last week he’d refused to play that game with me. In a few minutes, Sakura had Yamazaki-San laughing as they flipped cards. Laughing! She was more skilled than I could have imagined possible.
At closing time, Yamazaki-San praised Sakura as a master entertainer. I received my first complaint from someone other than him for my inattention.
When I woke up the next morning, there was a sinking knotted feeling in my chest. As the day continued, it grew stronger as Sakura surpassed me at every skill even dancing.
Every day, my chances of being top Maiko in our class disappeared. By the week’s end, I’d lost every sparring match and found myself ranked last. We had one week until graduation.
After our exercises one day I sat on a bench sweaty and tired. The knot in my chest had grown to boulder size. I’d fallen like the cherry blossom after all.
Annaisha-Sensei found me. “Sachi-San, your progress has been great until this week. Are you nervous about the turning-of-the-collar?”
I sighed. “I wasn’t, but now… things are different.”
“What is so different?”
“I wanted to be the best, I was so close, but now it won’t happen.”
“I see. What makes you say so?”
I laughed. “Sensei, isn’t it obvious? Sakura-San has bested me at every one of our arts.”
“Sakura-San is indeed very talented, and the letter from her Geiko Mother was full of praise. But, I have not seen her progression, so I don’t know if she is the best. Your progression until this week has been of high merit.”
“Thank you… I think.”
“My daughter, if you wish to finish your training I suggest you stop comparing yourself to the other girls. Find your purpose and focus on it. If you can master this last thing, you will indeed be greater than many.”
Stop comparing yourself to the other girls. Find your purpose and focus on it.
I didn’t completely understand what Annaisha-Sensei meant, but I gave her advice a try. During the last week of training, I had to remind myself not to think of Sakura or the other girls. Minute after minute I focused on my progress. By the end of the week, I hoisted my status to the middle. I wasn’t the best at anything, even Sakura’s dancing still surpassed mine, but I noticed the knot in my chest loosen. The day before the graduation ceremony we had one last interview with Annaisha.
“Sachi-San, you have improved this week. You took my advice to your mind if not yet your heart. How do you feel?”
When I’d talked with her the week before I’d felt cast down but after a week of trying to do as she said those feelings were gone. “I feel content.”
My Geiko mother smiled at me and nodded.
Sakura-San went into her interview after me. I tried not to think about the praise she would get. At first, it didn’t work. Then, I thought back over my performance since I’d begun my training. When I first entered the tea house, I was afraid to talk to the customers. Now, I felt ready to become a Geiko and start paying off my debts. My feeling of contentedness grew. I even felt happy for the other girls in my class. At ease with my new thoughts, it wasn’t until later I realized I hadn’t seen Sakura-San since our interviews.
I asked the other Maiko if they’d seen her. They said they didn’t know who I meant. The maids didn’t remember her either. I went in search of Annaisha Sensei. She wasn’t in her office or the tea house. I went to the yard to see if she was there. She wasn’t. But, the last cherry blossom was back on its branch. It looked like it had never fallen.
At our turning-of-the-collar Kumi, Masako, and I were all awarded the highest wages possible for a new Geiko. No one noticed Sakura’s absence. We never saw her again.
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