That Moonlight Smile

“Tell her you want to retire early, dear.”

“Are you kidding? I’ve barely made enough to repay for school. No way would she give me hiki-iwai.”

The moon couldn’t reach this deep into the forest, so Nana held the lantern for the horse to see while Lily, sitting beside her, handled the reigns. The lantern bounced and swung and threw shadows across Nana’s kabuki mask that turned it into something subtle and ghoulish. It was a relief when Nana finally held up her hand and drew them to a stop. They were in front of a steep, grassy hill that led up to a dense grove of trees.

Lily insisted on handling the canvas bag, so Nana hopped off the cart first. Lily grabbed the bag, grit her teeth, and was able to heft it almost straight up before throwing it to Nana below. The old woman caught it in one arm like it was a small cloth. Lily laughed. Humility was a foreign concept to her obaasan.

The load hadn’t been as heavy this time. Was it because she was getting stronger, or was it just lighter? Because if it wasn’t that she was getting stronger, then the implications of that were too disturbing to dwell on. It was already hard enough convincing herself they weren’t all monsters for what they were doing.

So, hopping from the cart and landing in the dirt, she found she was content—not pleasantly so, but enough—in neither knowing nor asking about the bag. Plus, it felt good to be in more casual clothes. “Look at you, child,” Nana said. “Any more of this work and you won’t be able to fit into your kimono. I hope your clients don’t mind the smell of all those muscles growing.”

“No one smells that but you, Nana.” Lily left the lantern hanging from the cart to keep the horse calm. “And don’t say things like that. It’s creepy.”

“You mind your grandmother,” she scolded. The geisha mask muffled her words. “It gets hard to remember after a while.”

The two of them then took one end of the canvas bag each and began marching up the high grass.

It was a calm night. A summer breeze blew through the dense ceiling of leaves and filled their ears with the silver sound of rain.

“Tell me about your day, Umeo.”

Lily stuck her tongue out at her. No one was allowed to call her by her birth name. Only Nana got away with it because… well, because she was Nana.

She started off about her day, but the sound of her old name after almost fifteen years sent her mind years back. Lily had been nine years old when her parents—poor, hungry souls—had sold her to the okiya. Mother had only accepted her at such a late age because they had taken her insultingly low offer. Her first year at the geisha house as a house maid was a misery of gloom, confusion, and abandonment. She was so depressed that the geisha and apprentices ignored her for the most part. Maybe they had seen it too many times, a new shikomi crying every night for her parents.

Nana was one of the only ones who had taken the effort to make her smile. More, she cracked inappropriate jokes when no one else was around, and had a way of saving Lily her from her suffering. When she turned fifteen, Lily found a mentor who had since retired from the okiya, and after five grueling years of schooling, became a full-fledged geisha. The parties, the drunk men, the over-aroused clients… every second of it was hell. Only Nana could make it bearable.

“Here we are,” Nana said.

The copse of trees absorbed Lily’s attention upon sight. They reached the top of the hill and dropped the bag at the edge of the trees.

Lily stretched over sideways. “Do you need help with anything else?” she asked as casually as she could.

Nana turned to look at her. The geisha face glowed white in a stray beam of starlight. A chill ran through Lily. In that moment she remembered, inadvertently, that she had never seen her obaasan without the mask on.

“Child, you know your mother doesn’t want you to see.” There was stiffness in her voice. Nana was a terrible liar and Lily had learned all her cues. Lily’s fuse was short but she played along. She didn’t like calling out the old woman; Nana got fiery.

Lily groaned and dropped her shoulders. “She won’t have to know. I’m old enough to handle these things.”

Nana turned away from her and knelt by the bag, unfastening the buckles. “No, you are not. Dear, my dry bones aren’t old enough for this.”

Obasaan!” Lily stomped her foot and fumed. “I’ve been doing this with you and everyone for three years. Don’t you think I deserve to know?”
She kept working the buckles but the geisha mask turned around to cast a lazy, dangerous grin on her. “What is there to know, child?”
Lily flushed and rubbed her nose. “Well, you know … how you—what it looks like.”

The mask held its inhuman gaze on her. “What what looks like?”

Too late, Lily realized she had crossed a line. “Never mind,” she mumbled, looking down and digging the toe of her sandal into the grass.

Nana finished unbuckling the bag while watching Lily. The song of crickets and cicadas heralded the arrival of summer, but the longer Nana looked at Lily, the louder the silence between them grew. The hairs on Lily’s nape pricked.
Then Nana spoke so softly Lily almost didn’t hear her, and to her horror, there was pain in her obaasan’s voice.

“I am not a spectacle to be witnessed, dear.”

Then she threw the bag open, slung the young, tattooed man’s body over her shoulder, and disappeared into the grove.
Lily watched her go. She didn’t call after her. It’d be pointless. She turned around just as Nana was unfastening her mask and eased her way back down through the grass.

Good thing she had worn her old, ratty kimono tonight; she was covered in burrs by the time she reached the wagon.

Her vision blurred as she climbed aboard the cart. Damn it.

Bouncing in her seat as the horse dragged its hooves over the unkempt road, she hung her head and wiped at her eyes. The breaking sound in her Nana’s voice echoed in her ears, unrelenting, and she grew angry with her selfish curiosity.

There was dread in her anger, too. More and more often these days, Nana announced that she needed to take a trip into the forest.

Alone in the woods with nothing but a bouncing lamp and lazy horse, she feared losing her Nana, but she also feared whatever Nana was becoming.

He shook his head in grave disappointment. “Tea was a bit lukewarm.”

Arms full, she wrinkled her nose at him. “Beard looks like shit. I’m not hassling you over it.”

He laughed and reached to help her clear the table.

It was closing time. The teahouse was a large, sprawling structure with a natural koi pond in the middle. The vaulted ceilings were a Western affectation, and the many plants and drunken, hazy amber lighting imposed a pleasant sort of drugged feeling. The inside of the building was ringed with room-sized booths and folding screens for privacy. When occupied by customers, they filled the ochaya with the sounds of good food, good sake, and good company.

Teahouse staff and other geisha helped clean up the disasters at the other tables. Technically it wasn’t a geisha’s job to help with cleaning, but you did everything you could to stay in the ochaya owner’s good graces.

“Stop—stop it,” Lily snapped, swatting his hands away. “Clients aren’t supposed to help.”

She was in full make-up, hair done up in the katsuyama style since it was still spring. The outfit—hair, makeup, kimono—had taken hours of preparation, even with the help of two house maids. And she couldn’t wait to get home and strip it all off. It made her feel concealed… hidden. Like a mannequin, wearing a mask meant for men to admire but never buy.

Hiroshi relented and turned to smoothing his shirt. Lily glanced at him.

Suit, tie, short haircut, he even spoke some English… perfect poster boy for the foul Western influence more and more of the drunk old men found a way to both fight and agree about. Everything about him stood as an example of where the country was headed. On the outside, anyway. If the inside stood as an example as well, they were all in a lot of trouble.

He was tall, handsome, and successful beyond most men, with an exotic Western accent about him. The kind of man most geisha dreamt of taking as their danna. Not Lily, but he had a playful charm she enjoyed.

He leaned against the wall behind her and drummed his fingers. “So,” he said, lowering his voice.

“So,” she said, dropping hers to a bass.

“Serious here, Lily.” So much for the playful charm.

Snort. “Okay, okay.”

“The persimmons.”

Lily sighed and knelt on the straw tatami mat to gather sake cups into the crook of her arm. “I assume they’ll be where they usually are.”

Hiroshi bent over and stuck his head upside-down in front of her face. “Lily,” he said, “I know you don’t like this part of your work.”

She frowned. “I’m fairly certain this is not something any other okiya in Japan has to deal with.”

He looked at her a moment, then stood up and smacked her upside the head.

“Asshole!” she exclaimed and grabbed the back of her head, managing not to drop any cups. “What the hell was that for?”

“Listen,” he told her, hands in pockets and looking her in the eye, “you’re one of my favorite contacts. You speak your mind. All these years of this business, not one other geisha at your okiya has had the, well, the spine to express her concerns about it. Also, I only hit your hair. You’ll live.”

A couple of passing geisha stopped to greet Hiroshi and bow deeply before moving on.

“It may surprise you to know that despite my line of work, I still consider myself a decent man,” he said, waving to the leaving girls. “And not many in my position do.” He pointed to the lantern-lit porch. “Outside. I want a smoke.”

They turned to walk out. The teahouse was built right on the river that split the town in two, and the porch provided a nearly uninterrupted view of the running water before it started climbing up waterfalls and out of sight into the mountains above.

“When you first enter an industry like mine,” Hiroshi told her, “you force yourself to draw a line in the sand. If you’re smart.” He dropped his hand like an axe while removing a cigarette case from inside his coat. “‘This is where I stop,’ you tell yourself. ‘And there is nothing in existence that can make me cross it.’ Well, a lot of people end up crossing it anyway and hate themselves the rest of their lives for it. Others find the other side of the line suits them just fine. Some of those men like to push and indulge, but eventually find even they have their line, somewhere far off in the dark beyond the first one.

“And then there are those who find they have no line. They keep pushing, getting their hands deeper into the dirt and finding that none of it appalls them. You learn to stay away from those men early on.”

They came to an ornately carved banister. The chattering of the water beneath them was one of Lily’s favorite sounds. Pubs, restaurants, docks lined the river. There was the constant, distant roar of the entertainment district around them. Hiroshi faced while opening the case and discreetly offering one to Lily.

“I won’t tell your okasan,” he said with a conspiratorial grin. “I’m learning to roll them myself.”

In a minute, they were both smoking.

“My point,” he said in a cloud of smoke, turning to face her, “is that a man in my position, one who tries to stay decent… there’s a strong chance he’ll end up disliking most people he meets in his environment. Much less trusting them.” He spread his hands, drawing a trail of smoke in front of him in mock regality. “You are not one of those people.”

She didn’t follow where this was headed, but smiled, genuine all the same.

He smiled back. Then his face cooled, and she paused mid-drag. “Then listen to me carefully.” He spoke evenly and deliberately. “It’s not just ‘you and the okiya.’ There are other people involved with this. Many, many other people.”

She finished the drag and blew the smoke through her nostrils, leaning on the banister. “I’m not discounting the risk you’re taking, Hiro.”

He remained quiet, but his hand gripping the banister wood whitened. His words were slow, hushed. “The Family would want much more than my pinky for what I’m doing here. Entire blood lines would be wiped out. Mine and my men’s.”

She said nothing and stared into the talkative water. Hiroshi left her to her thoughts and smoked in a similar solitude. After a few minutes, she looked up at him.

“You’re absolutely right,” she said, looking him full in the face. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking prop–”

Hiroshi coughed, shaking his head and waving his hands. “Stop. St—don’t—apologize,” he said between bouts of coughing. He looked amused. “Just letting you know—how it is. Guess I got—a little emotional.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, grinning and fanning the smoke back at him. “I won’t forget.”

“Thanks.” Having recovered, he looked up into the mountains, up past the craggy banks and into the forest. Then he frowned and looked down. “There’s one more thing, Lil.”

A sinkhole fell open in her stomach. She knew what was coming.

He ashed his cigarette over the banister. His face was somber, grave. Never a good omen from a jocular man.

“She’s getting worse, Lily.” He spoke in a hush. His lips were pressed thin. “We only have so many defaulted debtors and troublesome rivals we can give to you. If her need keeps… growing beyond what we can provide for, there will be more incidents. Even the Family has its rules, and if they find out about this…”

“Some of your defaulted debtors are innocent civilians,” Lily pointed out to him with her cigarette.

He rolled his eyes. “Family policy. You know I avoid it when I can. But they’re condemned regardless of what I do.” He jerked his thumb towards the town. “Better we save other people’s lives by sending them to your obaasan—who, again, is starting to need more and more ‘persimmons’ more and more frequently.”

Lily looked away, biting her tongue. “Yeah.” He wouldn’t let her forget.

Hiroshi crossed his arms. Smoke curls turned past his face. “Then you understand it needs to stop. Otherwise, your grandmother—lovely, darling woman that she is—becomes a Problem. And I’ll have to be the one to Fix her.”

Lily put on an overly-shocked face and leaned back on the banister. “I wasn’t aware the Family was interested in any Problems that didn’t directly threaten them.”

Hiroshi blinked at her, slowly. No amusement in his face. “I can make it their Problem if I have to.”

Now Lily really was shocked. Hiroshi had never threatened them before.

They looked at each other, both of them tired, stubborn, scared. The distant chattering of crowds filled the silence

“Tell me,” she asked in an attempt at humor, squinting at him, “do all district Family leaders have a God complex? Or is it just Hokkaido’s?”

“Trying to make the world a better place doesn’t mean I have a God complex, Lily.”

“Trying to make the world a better place by running the largest piece of Family territory, Hiroshi.”

His eyelids dropped and his voice turned to patient ice. “I invite you to remember that it was your okasan who came to me. I’m the one putting my neck—and those of my men—on the line for your obaasan.”

She knew that look, and that tone. For all his composure, Hiroshi had an unpredictable fuse. Besides, after her fight with Nana a few weeks back, she wasn’t looking for another one.

She sighed. “Okay. Okay. I’ll talk to Mother and see if there’s a way to… cure it, or something.”

Hiroshi nodded his thanks and turned to the river. He brought his cigarette to his lips, drew, exhaled.

“I take your discomfort with this to mean I should rescind my offer,” he said in a smoky lilt. He watched her from the corner of his eye. Lily shifted uncomfortably.

“No,” she said, adjusting her hair. She turned to watch a young man stumbling along the riverbank with a bottle in his hand. “I just… Give me a little more time to think about it.”

He nodded. “I was conflicted about joining at first, too. I know how you feel.”

“Do you?” she asked, smiling back at him. “You’ve done pretty well for yourself in just a few years.”

“Ambitions, Lily. And I can tell,” he said, pointing the ember of his cigarette at her, “you have them, too. That’s why I want you to think about what I can give you. The opportunities. Something you’ll never get as a geisha.”

She bit her lip but said nothing. The young man weaved from the river’s side of the path into the grass off the other side, somehow managing to pass lamp after lamp.

In a distracted way, she wondered which side he’d fall into.

Hiroshi leaned next to her against the banister. “I know it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but there’s a lot of good that can be done from inside the Family.” His voice was gentle, understanding. “There just aren’t enough Family Members who actually care about that yet. Having someone bullheaded and good-intentioned like you on my side would make it all so much easier for me. And… I hate to say this, but short of taking a danna and getting married, it’s the only way you’ll be able to quit being a geisha.”

She pursed her lips. She definitely hadn’t forgotten about that.

Hiroshi placed his hand on hers. Another piece of Western behavior he must have picked up. “I don’t want to pressure you,” he said. “Take all the time you need. If you choose not to, I’ll find some other rock-headed geisha to help me change things.”

She placed her hand on top of his. “And if I decide I want a Western whore for a boss, I’ll let you know,” she said, smiling widely up into his face.

He laughed—a deep, booming sound. That was what she liked about Hiroshi: he hadn’t let the power get to his head. Not yet, anyway.

Behind her on the riverbank, the young man keeled dangerously on the edge of the water, then fell back onto the path and pushed onward, clearly hellbent on getting to wherever he was going.

Hiroshi gripped her shoulder, back in good spirits. “Think it over, Lil,” he said. “Don’t break my heart here.”

She gave him a genuine smile. “It’s good to see you, Hiro,” she said, then paused when she realized she meant it.

Hiroshi returned her smile. He then stepped back and killed the rest of his cigarette.

“The wife has banned my new hobby from inside the house,” he said in a billow of smoke, looking amused. “Says the kids will want to start early if they see me doing it. But I like it.” He dropped the cigarette butt and pushed it off the balcony into the river with his polished shoe. “It’s like drinking a cup of tea or good sake. Whatever problems you have in your life, the world is still for the duration of that cup.”

He turned to leave, then paused to examine her.

“You know,” he said in slow realization, “I’ve never seen you without all the make-up and styled hair.”

He stared at her with curiosity, as if she were a painting come to life. Then he grunted, turned, and left.

Behind her, something fell into the river nearby and she cursed. She had wanted to see it happen.

A breeze was picking up on her way back to the okiya. She took the bridge over the main road to avoid the rapids and whitewater of people below. The bridge railings were coated in flapping Missing Person posters.

She tried to look away, but couldn’t help pausing when she saw it. Her heart stopped.

He had been a young man in his early twenties. Mafia affiliations. Covered from head to toe in tattoos.

She stared at the poster as if it was a corpse she had stumbled upon. Then she set her jaw, ripped her face away, and walked briskly on.

“Have you considered taking a danna?”


The load this time was so heavy that Lily had to relent and let Nana handle it. The old woman hefted the load over her shoulder, cackling.

“I’m just saying,” she said, chuckling and watching Lily hop down from the cart, “it’s a simple way to remove yourself from the geisha business. It doesn’t make you a whore, dearie.”

Lily grimaced. “No, but then I’d have to marry one of my clients. Not even yukaku have to do that.”

They had taken a different path this time and ended up at a lake. They were on the other side of the forest from the copse of trees where they had fought three months ago.

This had been the fifth time Nana had needed to go to the forest since then. Hiro’s warning floated to the surface of Lily’s mind. She tried in vain to push it away.

The two of them eased down the hill toward the lake, Nana carrying the load and Lily behind her.

“Never go to the same place twice.” That had been one of Mother’s rules. “If anyone asks, you’re out looking for ginseng.”

Nana jumped over a root sticking out of the ground and slid the rest of the way down the hill.

“You do what you need to, child,” she said, dumping the load onto the grass. The vast lake stretched before them, each small wave winking with a star from the sky. “I just want to see you happy.” Then, “Do you know what the secret to being a good geisha is?”

Lily knelt and started unbuckling the canvas bag, thinking of her louder, bolder clients.


“Dissatisfaction,” the kabuki mask said, and its tone became tired, dogged. “A good geisha is never satisfied with herself. She can always play the shamisen a little better, or develop a new tactic for when the conversation starts to lull.” She paused, and when she spoke again her voice had grown soft. “She can always be more beautiful. Lovelier.”

Lily opened the bag. No wonder it had been so heavy— this one was tall, portly, and dressed in fine silk clothes. She wondered what he had done to anger the Family. Then her face drained as she realized the indifference with which she’d regarded the corpse.

When had she started to become a monster?

“Both geisha and their clients indulge in fantasies that can never be,” Nana was saying. “Your clients happily pay for the company of a lie, a woman impossible to find anywhere outside an ochaya room. Yet many geisha spend their careers chasing the illusion they can become that lie.” There was the sound of her grunting and sitting down against a tree. “Sometimes their entire lives.”

“Makes sense to me. People want most what they can’t have,” Lily said, getting to her feet and turning around.

Her obaasan sat there in the dark, staring at her.

“Whatever it takes for you to be happy, dear,” she said to Lily, the sad smile in her voice unmistakable, “promise me you’ll do it.”

Lily stood where she was. Then she walked over to Nana and knelt in the grass. She wrapped her arms around her grandmother, who, in turn, held her. Unbidden, Hiro’s warning filled Lily’s ears again.

“I will, Nana,” she said. Her voice wavered, full of fear and frustration.

It could have been a minute, it could have been an hour. The world slowed to a blissful silence outside of time. It was perforated only by the water lapping almost hungrily at the body near its shore.

Lily left Nana to her business by the lakeshore and climbed the hill back up to the horse and cart.

Between Hiro’s words now roaring in her head, the increased trips to the forest, and Lily’s indiscriminate need to stick her nose into everything, she couldn’t fight it any longer.

She glanced back over her shoulder, biting her lip.

The trees were in the way but from the sound of things, Nana was already busy and wouldn’t hear her. She had a tendency to leave the world behind when engaged in her … process.

Lily walked on past the horse and cart and traveled down the road until she was sure she was out of eyesight. She climbed back down to the lakeshore and crept through the bushes until Nana’s form came into view.

Strange … the closer she got, the more she felt an electric tingling sensation in her head. Her ears filled with a low whining.

She moved until she was in a position where Nana was facing her. Then she knelt within the bushes and watched.

She frowned. She shouldn’t be doing this and she knew it would infuriate Nana. But she had to know. The matter was out of her hands.

It was the same as the first time. Crouched, the mask thrown aside, long hair obscuring her face. She bent and tore at his face with her teeth like a wild dog. She snapped his doughy legs like twigs and sucked the marrow from the bones. In a building frenzy, she tore the clothes off him like they were paper and buried her face in his torso. A calm, detached look in the man’s unseeing eyes that traveled into the treetops, as if he found the scenery more interesting than this course of events.

Smacking lips. Audible chewing. Gluttonous slurping. She used her hands to tear holes open, break bones. Claw, shovel meat into her mouth.

Lily turned and vomited. At the same time, she felt immense relief. She had worried she would feel nothing at the grisly scene, as she now felt nothing when handling the bodies she toted into the forest. At least she wasn’t a complete monster.

The electric feeling inside her head intensified, now a little unpleasant. The whining in her ears grew a bit louder. Then Nana looked up, the gore-strewn hair fell away from her face, and the stars cast everything in horrible clarity.

It was so much worse in the light. This thing. This wasn’t her Nana. Not right now. She’d never seen her face before but this couldn’t be it.

The face was what Lily had expected of Nana. It was wrinkled, precious, sweet with smiling eyes.

In fact, there was a very human expression in the eyes, the slanted eyebrows. One of almost pained love, ecstatic mourning, heartrending joy. A beautiful expression on any face.

God, but how it smiled.

Its mouth. Just too big. A subtlety that stuck out the longer you looked. The more you stared at its smile, the wider and longer it got, and soon you realized how wrong it was. It became an impossible grin stretched infinitely across its face. The edges curled upwards just a bit too much.

And oh, the teeth. So chillingly wrong in number. Perhaps double what should have been. The insides of its cheeks, cavernous; too much space between them and its teeth, as if that nightmare mouth was meant to open far wider than it should be able to. Its thin lips were pulled so far back that its grin was more gum than tooth.

The mindless smile reached its kindly eyes and it almost looked moved to tears of happiness.

From the nose up, she could accept it was her obaasan. But the disparity of the miserable euphoria on its face, the wicked distortions of that hell of teeth– all on the same twisted face– speared her in the gut like a needle of ice. It froze the air in her lungs, that moonlight smile.

Smiling, smiling, smiling, its titanic jaws opened too wide and sheared another chunk out of the man’s side. Lily could do nothing but watch in sick fascination until the man—bones and all—was gone.

As soon as it swallowed the last of him, it doubled over in what looked like pain. Yet its goddamned smile never faltered. Holding its stomach, it fell to its knees and bent so low its head touched the ground. And there it stayed, shaking, as if freezing.

Lily waited a tense, breathless hour before finally turning to leave, thinking it had fallen into some sort of tortuous sleep. Then it raised its head.

The whining and tingling in Lily’s head surged to a singing jolt. Everything went white.

A few eternities of agony and it was gone. Lily, drooling, fought to her feet and collapsed against a tree next to her, struggling to peer out of the bushes.

It was sitting up and its hair had fallen away. Lily found herself looking at a woman. One who wore no makeup. Whose hair fell in a natural fashion. Who wore obaasan’s plain kimono. And yet, any description of her would be nigh insulting without using the words “sublimely beautiful” at some point. Everything about her appearance, from nose to toe, was halting in its perfection.

The woman opened her eyes and blinked as if waking from a deep slumber. She looked around and Lily crouched lower, retreating into the bushes. Then, as if remembering something urgent, she hurried to her feet and splashed into the shallows of the lake, throwing her kimono off until she stood naked in the water up to her waist.

The lake was aglow with moonlight. The woman leaned forward and peered at her reflection, brushing her hair back. Her face flared to life in an expression of childlike joy, one that would have inspired even the laziest of poets and sculptors. She turned this way and that, examining herself in the water: feeling her own skin and hair, peering into her own eyes, pinching her skin and watching it snap back into place, even backing up to shallower water and clumsily lifting her leg to study it in detail. She continued even as the sky over the mountains began to grow lighter.

Lily couldn’t remember when she left. She didn’t remember running. She didn’t remember sneaking away. All she knew was that one moment she was watching something that shouldn’t have been, and the next she was back on the cart holding the lantern.

She and the horse were leaving the forest at a leisurely place with a pinkening sky above them. She stared ahead into the preceding night, haggard, eyes wide and bloodshot, lost to the present. The horse, familiar with the route, was content to walk however lazily it felt like walking. Below them, the city sprawled at the foot of the mountain.

Lily couldn’t think about it yet. She needed time just to process it and spent the day distracting herself.

So of course, a geisha returned home at dawn the next morning to find Nana sitting in the garden. She was chewing on a femur. Half of one of the other geishas stretched under the stone bench, little more than a stain on the grass.

Lily usually got stomachaches before meeting one-on-one with Mother and avoided doing so as often as possible. But things had changed. Upon waking, she put on her kimono and marched straight to Mother’s room.

She had avoided approaching her okasan about some sort of cure for Nana because she was afraid of the answer. Last night had proven her a fool. The fist she rapped on the door’s wooden frame curled tight. Whatever the answer was, she was going to get it.

The door slid open, and Mother—a plain, indifferent-looking woman—looked entirely unsurprised to see her.

It was the most exquisitely-decorated room in the okiya, the floors and walls furnished in fine red cedar. Lanterns and ivy draped the rafters. There was the musk of incense, burning in a shrine in the far corner. Twisted ribbons of smoke hung in the air, lackadaisical. Ornamental masks leered and screamed from the wall opposite her.

Mother sat at her small dressing table. Lily remained standing by the door, disheveled with bags under her eyes.

“Explain to me what’s going on.” Her voice quivered. She was in no mood.

Her hair tied up in a neat, easy bun, Mother picked up a small porcelain dish of wax and a brush.
She glanced at Lily sidewise. Looking almost bored, she dipped the brush into the wax. “You know, you’re the only girl here who has ever had the nerve to say that.”

Lily clamped her teeth. “Explain to me what I saw at the lake,” she hissed.

Mother began brushing the wax around her face, neck, and collarbones in swift and rhythmic strokes. She said nothing and the room grew loud with a silence that rang in Lily’s ears.
Satisfied, she replaced the brush and dish and turned to a small pot of white powder and a small dish of water.

“Darling,” she said, popping the balloon of silence, “do you know why I let you of all people handle this work with your obaasan?”

Lily’s silence was a grim one.

“It’s because,” Mother went on, sprinkling the powder with water and mixing it with a thin wooden stick, “you make her happy. Of all the more lady-like and skillful geisha here, it’s your company which brings her the most comfort.” It was hard to miss the disgust in her tone.

Having whipped the wet powder into a soft paste, she dipped a brush into it and began dabbing at her face.

“I will do whatever it takes to make her happy.” Her voice remained flat in what Lily knew was contempt. “Even if it means allowing her to associate with a girl like you.”

Lily ignored the bait. “How did this happen? Is it some kind of curse? Is there a cure for it?”
Mother, her face growing whiter with each brushstroke, turned to look at her and offered only a smirk before returning to her mirror.

“Your grandmother may never have told you this, darling,” she said, now whitening her neck and upper chest, “but she used to be one of the greatest geisha in Japan. A long time ago, before things started changing so fast.”

She finished and then got to work on a second coat with rapid, familiar strokes.

“She never took a danna,” Mother went on, “and she never had a retirement ceremony. Even by the time my parents sold me to the okiya, she was still working as a geisha.” She smiled, something Lily never saw her face do. “She was in her forties then and I never saw her without her makeup.”

Lily put the pieces together on her own. She filled her lungs with summer morning air and calmed her panicking heart.

Hoping she was wrong, she said, “You’re saying the reason for all of this is so that she can look—”

“So she can be happy, yes,” Mother snapped, turning a cutting eye on Lily. “Surely you can sympathize with her, darling; a geisha spends her entire life pretending to be something impossible. But time passes. Her pampered skin sags. Her oiled hair dries. And one day, she looks in the mirror to find she has been robbed of her entire life’s work without so much a whimper.” She inhaled shakily and blinked, then returned to dabbing at her face with a rag as if the slip-up hadn’t happened.

She glanced back at Lily, her face stony and dulled again. “Your grandmother is an ambitious spirit, and worked her way up out of the filth.” Her eyes, wide, burned through Lily’s. “With all that accomplished, who can blame her for choosing to act as she has? Of all people, she knew best that a geisha’s beauty is false. Unattainable.”

Lily opened her mouth and faltered. Mother had a point. Why waste your life working on something you know will be snatched away? Wouldn’t you want to persevere in your work, or at least still be able to enjoy it?

But then she heard the snapping of bones, chewing sounds much too wet, grunts and clawing. The natural, human face with a distorted, brainless smile. And she thought of the woman in the water, the way her face burst into joy at the sight of her reflection. Her mind alternated between the two scenes until they became one, indistinguishable. To make it stop, Lily had to say something.
“Hiroshi brought up how many persimmons she’s been needing lately,” she blurted out. “He wants us to find a way to fix it.”

Mother paused in reaching for a charcoal pencil, staring into the mirror. “Does he now.”

It all weighed too heavily on her: the previous two nights, Hiroshi’s little “Problem/Fix” speech, the lack of a solution. All of it came crashing out of her like water through a breaking dam. “He said if we don’t, obaasan will—she’ll become a Problem. And if she becomes a Problem, then he told me—said he’ll have to Fix her.” Her breath began to come short and quick.

Mother picked up the pencil and began the outlines. She was quiet a minute, and silence filled the room once more. Then Mother whispered, her voice quivering with poison: “I would like to see him try.”

She started drawing in her eyebrows.

“Tell Hiroshi I’d like to meet with him,” she said, her tone casual again. “Sometime next week. We can talk this out like we always have.”

Lily looked at her without pause. She had learned early on how best to deal with Mother, and that was persistence. “Is there a cure?”

Yes, there’s a cure,” Mother snapped, crushing the pencil in half, “and yes, I have it. Enough questions, Umeo.”

Lily ignored the offense and stepped forward, gaping. “Then use it! Why not end this?”

Mother picked out another pencil and went back to filling in her eyebrows. “It’s not that simple,” she muttered.

Lily released a deep sigh. “Of course it’s not.”

Pleased with the eyebrows, Mother moved on to eye shadowing. “The cure kills the victim.”

“Of course it does.” Lily slumped into a sitting heap. “So what now?”

Eyes wide and almost nose-to-nose with the mirror, Mother colored the corners of her eyes red. Her hand moved in slow, deliberate strokes. Her words were forceful, pushy. “Do you remember what your obaasan did the day after you found out?”

Lily’s face darkened. Pulling herself up from the floor, she dragged her feet to one of the open windows and looked at the valley below. Outside, a light breeze had picked up, swimming in through the open windows.

As much as Mother disliked Lily, she wasn’t a cruel woman. It took a lot to get Lily to talk about that night. Mother knew this and preferred not to waste time. It was a sensible approach. All the same, Lily loathed her for it.

It passed through her like the specter of someone hated in life. It had been late, dark. She had gotten up to use the washroom. Odd noises coming from Nana’s room. Lily’s need to stick her nose into everything. The new housemaid in the middle of the room. Nana crouched over her, face buried in the girl’s stomach. The two of them almost invisible in the darkness, the mask cast into a corner. The girl’s unmoving, sleepy eyes boring into Lily’s. Jaw broken and open in hideous vacuousness. The blood. All the meat. The shining bone.

Then Nana had lifted her face and looked at her with that distorted void smile. Satiated and witless. In the dark, it was all something from some other world– one that existed just under this one, whose doorways were shadowy corners and black, inky alleyways.

Upon hearing what she had done the following morning, Nana had fled to her room, grabbed her husband’s heirloom knife. When the dagger pierced her kimono and shattered against her stomach, a scream of two horrors whipped out of her: despair, of the death-hungry living. And fear, of the reason why a blade of metal should ever shatter against her stomach.

Mother’s voice drawled. “Do you know why she did that?”

“Because she ate Chizu.”

Mother had finished the eyeliner and moved on to lining a red pout on her lips. At this point she was a partly-carved sculpture, her artist’s vision beginning to take form in the marble of her body. She turned and spoke, impatient. “Yes, yes. But also you of all people had seen her when… well, you know. The only reason I let you live afterwards was for her,” she finished, impressed by her own charity.

Lily started, but Mother waved her away before she could speak. “Now get out, darling. You’re distracting me.”

Lily’s next meeting with Hiroshi was two days after that and she had no idea if he knew about the recent incident. So in an effort to guide the conversation, she turned to him the second the other men left for the night. They sat alone in the teahouse room, and she accepted his offer.

He sat up straight, shocked. “Are you—”

“Yes,” Lily cut him off. To her credit, she was being genuine. Her talk with Mother hadn’t left her mind. She was not going waste her life chasing some impossible identity and then suffer the insult of having all her work taken from her.
Hiro was thrilled. He assured her this would be the moment she would look back on that changed her life and promised they would take good care of her. Lily smiled and tried to ignore all her second-guessing.

Then Lily told him about Mother wanting to meet with him about the persimmons. Hiro waved her off, smiling boyishly.

“Sure, of course,” he said, wiping down the table with her. “Tell her to bring Nana. I haven’t seen either of them in ages anyway. I’m just glad I could finally get you out of that hellhole.”
Lily smiled, heartened by his attitude. Not once did he bring up the incident that night, and she allowed herself the luxury of thinking everything would be okay.

“Huh.” Hiroshi stared. “So that’s what you look like without all that crap on.”

The sprawling, roofed deck was right on the edge of the forest and usually reserved for parties, but Hiroshi had recently acquired the Bincho as one of his fronts. The restaurant was built right into a mountain and was renowned for its breathtaking views of the surrounding ocean of treetops. He found it ironic, he said. Growing up, he had always daydreamed of having just an hour on the back deck to himself, so he could enjoy the view without disturbance. And now he owned the place.

Lily looked around in awe. Scores of lanterns hung from the ceiling, a sky of vibrant moons that drowned the entire wooden deck in a sea of blending colors. The illuminated deck was littered with tables, potted bamboo with incense sticks thrust into the dirt. The pots were nexus to lingering trails and whorls of smoke reaching ever outward. Walking by, her mind inexplicably flashed back to obaasan eating by the lake. She was then taken by idea that the smoke looked like ethereal, unraveled entrails and jerked her head away.
Lily, Hiroshi, Mother, and Nana all sat down at a table near the back of the deck overlooking the forest canopy. Some distance behind Hiroshi lounged two surly-looking body guards the size of small boulders, lost in discussion.

Hiroshi directed his first words to Mother: “We can’t save her. You know what we need to do.”

The meeting went downhill from there.

It didn’t take long for the shouting to begin, and multiple times Hiroshi had to dissuade the two large men from approaching the table. Nana and Lily sat next to each other in silence. The shy smile of the kabuki mask almost seemed amused at the argument unfolding before it. At one point, a hand grasped for Lily’s. She took Nana’s hand in hers and squeezed it.

Mother, jamming her finger into the table and clearly working to restrain herself, was insisting there was a feasible solution, that what Hiroshi was suggesting should only be a last resort, when Nana finally spoke up.

“What should be a last resort, dear?”

The question fell on the argument like a guillotine. Forest silence—the buzzing of insects, the hooting of owls—moved in to fill the void.

Hiroshi’s eyes flitted hither and thither over the table as he processed the question, mouth open. Racing through the possibilities, he turned his face upwards—slowly, so slowly—and his restless eyes landed on Mother.

“You never told her,” he said in disbelieving realization. Lily looked at her in equal shock.

Mother’s lips pressed thin. She drew her kimono tight around herself.

The kabuki mask was silent a moment, then turned its mocking face on Mother. It calmly asked, “You can fix it, can’t you?”

Mother dropped her head and stared into the wood of the table, her face a mess of competing guilt and fury.

Nana went on, gentle. “But it’ll hurt me.”

Mother closed her eyes and drew deep breaths.

The mask turned away and cast its stare far over the field of dim treetops. Lily briefly imagined looking up at the deck on the mountainside from the forest below. A mountainside moon, lighting up the forest night sky on cloudy nights like these. Illuminating Nature’s wonders and horrors with indifferent clarity. In an offhand way, she wondered if Nana… if it… would look the same under that vivid moon.

No one spoke, assuming Nana to be thinking. After several minutes, she reached for the strap keeping her mask on. Her hands stuttered in hesitation. Then, as if committing to the task, she unbuckled the leather strap in one deft move and ripped the mask off her face.

It was the girl from the lake, indescribable in beauty. All three men stared. Even Lily gaped despite having already seen her face. Mother refused to look up from the table. She looked tired.

“I think I’m about done with this,” the girl said, and her voice was still that of Nana’s: leathery yet full of fight. She stood up, walked to the railing, and tossed the mask into the summer night air. It fell, turning, smiling coyly at its own destruction, before vanishing into the dark treetops.

Mother groaned.

Obaasan,” Hiroshi said hoarsely, finding his voice. He spread his hands in guilt as she walked by. “You know I have nothing but respect for you. But surely you understand why we– why–”

Stopping by Mother, Nana looked at him. She smiled. The men flushed.

“You don’t need to convince me, Hiroshi,” she said. Then, turning to Mother and placing a silken hand on her shoulder, “And I don’t blame you for hiding it from me, dear.” Mother reached over and gripped her hand tight, squeezing her eyes shut.

She looked back to Hiroshi. “What is the process?”

Hiroshi rubbed his chin, one of his few tells Lily knew: he was uncomfortable. He rubbed, thought, rubbed and thought some more, seemed to make up his mind, resumed rubbing, then reached into his inside suit pocket and dropped a large dagger on the table with an unceremonious thunk.

It was unlike any kind of dagger Lily had seen. The blade was long and had multiple curves, ending in a lethal point. The handle was metal, not wood. On one side of the handle, the swordsmith had carved a simple, androgynous face. But other than that there was nothing remarkable about it.

Mother started. “Where did you get that?”

Hiroshi scoffed at her. “You think I’d get my people into this kind of situation without finding a few fail-safes?” He chuckled in dark amusement. “You have. no. idea. what went into obtaining this goddamn piece of scrap.”

Mother whipped around to look up at Nana. “Obaasan,” she said, her eyes going wide, “you’re not actually going to do this?”

The girl smiled, heartbroken. “I’ve caused so much pain, dear. And for what? A little extra time? A dream built from bones?” She shook her head. “I brought this on myself.”

Hiroshi cleared his throat and was back to rubbing his chin. Not a good sign.

“There’s… there’s one more thing,” he said. His voice was full of uncertainty. In the three years she’d known Hiro, he had never looked so lost. He looked up at Lily with a pained expression.

“Lily, I’m sorry.”

She blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Family policy, they—I would never make you—”

“Hiro, what is it?” Her voice wobbled in fresh fear.

He looked at her, helpless, pleading. Then he sighed and nodded his head at the dagger before him. “Y-You need to do it.”

Lily’s stomach turned inside out.

“It’s a way to—it shows you ‘who your real family is’ and all that.” He shook his head, his face twisted in guilt. “I swear, if I could bypass this I would, but—”

The world began to swim around her. It occurred to Lily that Mother had been crying for a while now.

“—of my men will do it if you don’t want to,” Hiro was saying. He had gotten up and started walking toward Lily, dagger in hand. “But if you want to accept my offer, then you need to do this first. I have to honor the policy.”

Lily shook her head in silent, open-mouthed horror, taking a step back. She looked to Nana for help. She seemed almost amused, her smile a perfect flesh replica of the one from her mask.

“I don’t know what this is about, dear,” she said, with inexplicable ease, “but if it’s something you need to do, you do it.”

Hiro, clearly distraught, grabbed Lily’s hand, pressed the handle of the dagger into her palm, and wrapped her fingers around it tight. The instant he did, whispering voices seemed to erupt all around her. It took Lily a moment to realize they were coming from the face engraved on the dagger’s handle. Its finely-detailed mouth squirmed against her palm, babbling hatred and anguish.

“You’re going to hear some strange things,” Hiro told her, holding her by the arm and peering into her face like a doctor. He was clearly eager drop the reins of the situation. “Ignore them. And Lily?” She turned her blank look from the dagger up to Hiro. He bit his lip as if he was in pain. “It has to be here.” He tapped his temple. “Don’t worry about force, the blade does all the work. I’m so sorry.”

It was then that Mother released a chilling shriek and leapt at Lily. Nana, always with that sad smile, plucked the shoulder of her kimono and held her back until Hiroshi’s guards reached them. They each held an arm back, yet despite their mountainous hulks had to struggle to keep her still; Mother flailed, jerked, twisted, jumped, kicked, bit, stomped.

Okasan,” she screamed from a mess of hair, tears, sweat, and spit. Lily watched her in despair. She recalled Hiroshi’s little talk about how some people found their “line” while others never did. In Mother’s eyes, there was the impersonal chill—even as she raged—of someone who, right from the start, knew she had no line. Someone who would do whatever it took for what they wanted—hard work, sabotage, blood, anything.

Okasan.” Spit flew, furious tears poured down her face. She wrenched, there was the snap of her hand breaking, yet still, “Don’t you take my okasan from me.

“We’re real—ow—sorry, lady,” one of the grunts yelled over her, “but ya gotta stay stuh-HUH– still.”

Lily could only stare in resigned, horrified sorrow. She shook, barely even there. Feeling like someone else was pulling the strings, she looked down at the dagger in her hand. She thought of the night at the lake. Nana’s words—

Whatever it takes for you to be happy, promise me you’ll do it

—in her ears.

The deck and forest kept swimming and spinning; Hiro’s crumbled expression; Mother’s shrill voice ringing in the night; the lanterns like small moons alive with color; the grunts apologizing; the vengeful whispers on the wind; the face carved into the handle speaking, its metal mouth running gibberish into her palm; the treetops off in the dark; Nana smiling at her, waiting. It was all too much. Everything spun, whirled, melted until the world came together as a single, humming sensation. A lone point of perspective, both radiant and terrifying in its indisputable truth.

Somewhere in all of it, there was Nana’s voice, promising it would all be okay. That she was doing the right thing.

And then, stumbling from all that chaos and simplicity, Lily decided what needed to be done.