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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 24, 2002

For the love of mooncakes

Today and tomorrow we present the winning entries in our annual Holiday Fiction Contest, which drew more than 300 short stories in two divisions. Today's winning children's story is suitable for reading aloud.

By Caroline L. Steele

Martha P. Hernandez • The Honolulu Advertiser
"Autumn Festival"

The days were getting shorter and the nights cooler, the moon a little fuller and brighter each night. It would soon be her favorite holiday — Autumn Festival.

Little Mai, bright, almond-shaped eyes, straight, blue-black hair just touching her ear lobes, looked forward to this family holiday even though extended family lived too far away to join her, her brothers and parents. The family dinner was always special under the stars and bright moon. Her face, round as the full moon, would light up as she listened to the storyteller tell tales about the lady in the moon after the meal.

For each of her five years, Mai had helped her mother buy the traditional moon cake, that fruit or nut flavored filling inside a light brown crust, round to represent the full moon. Wealthier families served several moon cakes, but Mai's family was poor, so only one moon cake was served. She and her mother selected it carefully because it had to be evenly divided among her, her parents and three older brothers. But this year was different; Mai was in the local primary school and was not able to accompany her mother on the shopping expedition.

Each year Mai watched as her mother carefully counted the fen and jiao for weeks before the festival, saving them in a special jar on a shelf in the kitchen; and now she realized the money was gone, so mother must have already bought and hidden the mooncake. Mai couldn't wait to see it, crusty and decorated, so she began searching. How would it look this year?

She went into the meager pantry and looked in all the containers and crocks. First she checked the crock that held the rice, then the rice cooker itself. She carefully peered into and around almost every item until finally, she found it!

Mai lifted it carefully out of its hiding place. How beautiful it was with its tiny flowers and leaves on the top and vines twisting along the sides. It was large and heavy

in her hand — probably just about the right size to fit into her mother's palm. She inhaled the fragrance of the pastry. Was it a fruit flavor? Maybe pineapple? Or peanut?

How many egg yolks were in it? The very cheap ones had no egg yolk; the most expensive ones had several. Her nose gave her no clue.

About the author

Caroline L. Steele is a teacher at Waipahu High School, instructing students in Spanish and English as a second language, "and history when they let me."

She recently returned from China, where she lived for three years. "I was impressed by the poverty and struggle to make needs meet," she said.

Carefully, gently, she lifted the cake to her mouth. Almost without realizing it, she took a bite — just a small one — from the edge. She closed her eyes as she savored the soft filling on her tongue: peanut!

What a taste of paradise, those few seconds, as the filling melted in her mouth. All her taste buds seemed to come alive and sing as she rolled the morsel around with her tongue. Slowly she chewed the pastry and swallowed.

Then her eyes opened wide! Whatever had she done! The moon cake was ruined! What would happen when the family discovered the scar? Suddenly she knew fear as never before.

Autumn Festival day dawned, crisp and bright, but Mai shivered with fear whenever she thought about the maimed moon cake. If only the moon cake could grow like the moon in the sky and fill in that little bite!

At dinner, she simply could not eat. Her throat refused to allow her to swallow, so great was her anxiety. Her oldest brother said, "If you aren't going to eat your zhou zi, can I have it?" With trembling fingers, chopsticks dancing in her hand, she passed her dinner to him.

At last the meal was over and her mother began clearing the table. Mai was visibly shaking now, teeth chattering, knees knocking, expecting severe punishment at any moment.

The fresh fruit was brought in on a tray — soft yellow pomelos; bright orange mandarins; pale green star apples; golden globes of longan. The traditional tea ceremony was performed, everyone drinking tea from tiny, terra cotta cups.

Then mother brought in the moon cake nestled on a small, white plate and placed it on the table.

"What happened to the moon cake?" Youngest Brother saw it first.

"Do we have rats in the pantry?" Next Youngest Brother asked.

"Can't be," said Oldest Brother. "If we did, the whole cake would have been eaten. I see teeth marks and they are too big for a rat!"

Mai's eyes filled with tears as she waited for the scolding that was sure to come, but before they could spill over, she heard her mother's voice saying, "I bought the cake from the new bake shop that just opened last month. I had to sample it before I could serve it to my family, to be sure it was good, didn't I?"

• • •

About our judges

James Rumford is a multilingual writer and artist, a papermaker who operates his own small press in Manoa. His fifth children's book for Houghton Mifflin, "Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354" was an American Library Association and Smithsonian Institution Notable Book. His next Houghton Mifflin release, set in India, is in the proofing stages.

Michael Little, author of a romantic comedy, "Queen of the Rodeo," (Triple Tree Publishing, 2001), won the 2002 Honolulu magazine fiction contest for his story, "Walter! Walter!" and is at work on companion novels to "Queen of the Rodeo." He is president of the Aloha Chapter, Romance Writers of America. Check him out at www.michael-little.com.

Wanda Adams is the assistant features editor for food, books and travel, a title that just about describes her favorite things in life — and in order, too. She is Maui-born, has been reading since she was old enough to hold a book in front of her face, and has been a journalist here and in Washington state for more than 25 years.