Ghosts by Jo Withers

They stand naked. Each slender girl topped by a head of ebony hair like rows of burnt-out matches. The older women bind their bodies, work knotted knuckles swiftly through fine fabric.

The girls stand unflinching while waists are corseted, hips are boned, then plunged deep in kimono silk. Black hair is wound, looped in nooses of shining sable. Faces are painted chalk white, silent lips slashed scarlet.

They are not geishas, but foreign men think they are. They parade before the shop front, parasols at their shoulders, pincer-stepped like dolls. They shift like spirits in Tokyo’s neon streets, white spectres against the flood of flashing Pepsi signs. They are their own advertisement, people stop, people stare, men follow.

Inside, they play piano and flute, are adapt manipulators of the koto’s strings. They chat benign small talk over gingered broth in fragile china, flutter eyes and hips.

After dinner, the girls dance in circles for the European men, obscuring and revealing themselves behind decorated fans. They slide slowly in and out of vision; one moment there, one moment evaporated in a satin cloud. They stitch the fans themselves Sashiko style, each coloured thread tells a story. But no one asks their meaning, no one wonders at the black thorns woven through the oriental roses.

Ofira hovers at the back, eyes to the floor. She dances clumsily, though she knows she will be punished if they notice, hides in shadows at the rear, praying men won’t seek her company.

The music stops. The women stand still while men walk slowly among them. One by one, girls are chosen.

The man is already on the bed when she’s delivered to the room. He watches as she unwinds her hair, unwraps the bright folds of her silk kimono layer by layer.

After, she leaves her clothes folded for Madame to clean. Leaves her ghost face on the linen, red and white shame streaked over satin pillows.

She returns to the small room she shares with eight other girls and slides into bed without speaking. Before she goes to sleep, she takes a crumpled photograph from beneath the mattress. She unfolds a family of smiling faces, presses a finger kiss to her father, mother and sister. She remembers how they cried as she left, how she swore she’d ruin them with riches on her return – the golden star of Tokyo, dripping with the spoils of her glamourous new life.

Jo Withers writes short fiction from her home in South Australia. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in XRAY, Molotov Cocktail, Milk Candy Review and Versification.