In the present, Sayuri interrupts the narrative to reiterate that the afternoon she first met Mr. Tanaka was the very best and the very worst afternoon of her life. Up until getting the letter, meeting Mr. Tanaka had only brought her suffering, but Mr. Tanaka had also given her the opportunity to leave Yoroido, which allowed her to live a fuller – if also harder – life. Sayuri says that for the six months she spent in Kyoto before getting the letter, she dreamed of returning home and never fully committed to her new life in Gion. But Sayuri says that Mr. Tanaka’s letter started her on the path to becoming a geisha.
The fact that this afternoon was both Chiyo’s best and worst illustrates her nuanced belief in the value of suffering. While a younger and more immature Chiyo might have been unable to see the positive side of leaving Yoroido, the more mature Chiyo sees that although suffering is painful, it can be worth the reward of a fuller life. In this way, Sayuri suggests that she would rather go through the suffering of becoming a geisha rather than live a peaceful but ultimately boring life in Yorodio.
For an entire year after getting the letter, Chiyo lived in a daze of grief and loneliness. Chiyo would spend her days feeling guilty that she wasn’t there with her parents in their final days. A full year after receiving the letter, Chiyo dreams of a bearded man who opens a window with a loud clack. Suddenly waking up, Chiyo feels the dream stirring something inside her, making the world of the morning seem altogether different than the one of the previous night.
The novel quickly passes over the year that Chiyo spent mourning her family. This sudden jump forward in time disorients the reader in a way that reflects Chiyo’s own disorientation at that time. Chiyo’s dream also foreshadows how her life will forever change after she meets an older man in the coming scene.
With the dream buzzing around in her head, Chiyo remembers how last year she flicked a moth off her arm, causing it to land on the ground dead. Touched by its small insect death, Chiyo wrapped the moth in a rag and placed it under the foundation of one of the buildings in the okiya. She hadn’t thought of the moth again until this morning after having the dream. After retrieving it from under the foundation, she unwraps the rag to see the moth utterly unchanged. Sayuri feels that her existence is “as unstable as a stream, changing in every way,” but that the moth is “like a piece of stone, changing not at all.”
Chiyo’s metaphor of the stream expands on the symbolism of water. She describes the stream as having little control over its own movement: the stream twists and turns, having no say over which direction it takes. Likewise, Chiyo has felt her life governed by external forces over which she – like the stream – has no control. Sold into slavery, separated from her sister, and mourning the deaths of her parents, Chiyo feels as if she has little control or stability.
When Chiyo touches the moth’s beautiful velvety wing, the entire moth crumbles into dust. Chiyo suddenly realizes that death is inevitable, and that there is nothing she can do to change that fact that her parents are dead. Chiyo feels that for the past year she was facing backward, but now she decides to face the future. With the world open ahead of her, Chiyo feels as if she needs a sign to tell her which direction she should take.
The crumbling of the moth’s beautiful wings helps Chiyo realize the truth of Mr. Tanaka’s letter about the inevitability of death. Here, the moth crumbles into dust in the same way flowers wither in winter. Seeing such a beautiful thing turn to ash so quickly, Chiyo reaches the mature understanding of death as a fact unable to be avoided or deterred.
At that moment, Auntie tells Chiyo to go to the geisha school to bring Hatsumomo a hair ornament. Hatsumomo is at the school because geisha continue to take lessons for their whole life. At the school, Hatsumomo gestures to all the young girls and tells Chiyo that everyone here will become a geisha except for her. Though Chiyo never had any real interest in becoming a geisha, she feels a wave of sadness overcome her. Chiyo thinks about how a geisha’s life of parties would be so much better that the drudgery of being a maid. As she walks back to the okiya, she sees people running to and fro with so much purpose. Feeling her own lack of purpose in life, she sits down by the Shirakawa Stream that runs though Kyoto and begins to cry.
Chiyo’s melancholy anticipates an important facet in the Destiny vs. Self-Determination theme. The word “destiny” commonly refers to the hidden power that controls or shapes a person’s life. However, we can also think of destiny as synonymous with one’s purpose in life, a definition of destiny that the character Nobu will give a few chapters later. At the moment, Chiyo feels as if she has no purpose or destiny since her life is aimless, not moving toward any particular event in the future.
While Chiyo cries, a man comes up to her and says that it’s too nice a day to be upset. Ordinarily, men in Gion wouldn’t stop to console or even talk to a lowly maid, but this man speaks to her as if she were a woman of high standing. For a moment, Chiyo imagines a world in which she is treated with fairness and kindness. When she raises her eyes to look at the face of the man who spoke, she sees a noble, meditative face like that of Buddha.
Because of the man’s similarity to the man in the dream, it seems almost like destiny that they meet. As the novel progresses, however, Golden will provide contradictory evidence on whether destiny, accident, or people’s wills are determining the significant events in Sayuri’s life.
When a geisha standing near the man calls him Chairman and tells him not to bother with the maid, the Chairman tells the geisha to go on ahead without him. Noticing that Chiyo can’t bear to look at him in the eyes, the Chairman says that she must have suffered a lot in this world. Thinking that he understands her, Chiyo looks into his eyes and sees him looking at her as a musician looks at an instrument, as if he is looking right through her. The Chairman takes out a coin and wraps it in a handkerchief, telling her to buy herself a shaved ice with syrup from the nearby vendor. Chiyo feels that the bundle – which looks like the moth’s shroud – is the sign she needs about her future.
The bundle’s similarity to the moth’s shroud is another piece of evidence in favor of the idea that destiny brought Chiyo and the Chairman together. Unlike most people, the Chairman says nothing about Sayuri’s eyes, perhaps indicating that he sees beyond their externally beautiful appearance and into the deepest, most ineffable parts of her soul. As we find out in the second to last chapter, this soul-searching is exactly what he’s doing. At this point, however, we are reminded of how Chiyo misjudged Mr. Tanaka’s “wisdom” from looking at his face, and so perhaps skeptical of the Chairman.
Chiyo watches the Chairman walk away before getting the shaved ice. She sits with the treat and thinks that if she were a geisha, then a man as kind as the Chairman might spend time with her. Until this moment, she never envied the life of a geisha. Now, however, she understands that to become a geisha is nothing in itself other than a stepping stone towards being with a man like the Chairman – or even with the Chairman himself.
Chiyo’s realization about being a geisha gives her life purpose, and gives her some control over it. No longer aimlessly following Mother’s orders, she determines her own goals and begins working towards realizing her desire. She is taking a step towards self-determination, but ironically it is a self built entirely around a man and the desire to obtain a position as an elite entertainer of men.
Chiyo takes the change left over from buying the shaved ice and goes to the nearest temple. She throws the coins into the offertory box and prays to the gods to allow her to become a geisha so that she could attract the notice of a man like the Chairman. After praying, she tucks the Chairman’s handkerchief into her sleeve and goes back to the okiya.
Chiyo’s prayer, however, shows that she still believes becoming a geisha is out of her hands. Since she has lived the last year like a stream with no control over its direction, she imagines that she cannot actually make the changes in her life necessary for bringing her closer to the Chairman. Instead, she prays that the gods will make those changes for her.