Fiction / June 2016 (Issue 32)


Moon Cakes

by Karen Kao

The girl stood barefoot in the courtyard, her head hanging so low that the bones in her neck jutted out at painful angles. From the veranda of Master Xi's home, the housekeeper clucked under her breath.

"Another one?" she muttered to Cook, a man whose belly proudly announced his line of work.

He shrugged. It was not Cook's place to comment on the business of Master and Mistress Xi, though he would never have traded a good horse for such a frail child. Then again, Cook did not share his master's proclivities.

Mistress Xi came out of the house. She was fully dressed, even though the mist from West Lake still clung to the ground. The woman stood half a head taller than her housekeeper and could even see eye to eye with her own husband. Perhaps that was why Mistress Xi never looked down.

"Do I take her to the room in back?" the housekeeper asked her mistress.

Mistress Xi said, "Make sure the girl's clean before she touches anything."

The housekeeper took the girl around the house, through the kitchen courtyard, to a metal tub steaming with water.

"Take off your clothes," the housekeeper said.

The girl balked, her hand clutching something tight that hung behind the front of her dress.

"Don't worry," the housekeeper said. "The water's not that hot."

The girl turned around and removed her dress, folding it carefully before handing it to the housekeeper. The housekeeper let it fall onto the dirt, pushing it away from her with a broom.

"Get in," the housekeeper said. "I'll bring you something else to wear."

The housekeeper returned with a plain cotton dress that closed on one side with three plastic toggles. She had a long wooden brush, too, that she used to scrub the girl from head to toe.

"What's this?" the housekeeper asked, closing her hand around a small round object that hung between the girl's collarbones. It was a thin red disc with a hole bored into it, like coins in the olden days. The disc hung from a cord knotted around the girl's neck. The housekeeper rubbed her thumb across its smooth surface.

"My mother gave it to me because I was leaving home," the girl said.

"Why didn't she sell this instead of you?" the housekeeper wondered under her breath.

In the kitchen, the girl sat in the corner. The servants were surprised to learn she was already ten.

"Won't last a week," the carriage driver said to Cook. "You want to bet?"

Cook didn't answer. The driver was new to the household and had not yet learnt that jokes of this sort were not tolerated. 

The next morning, Cook watched in silence as the girl stumbled out of the back room. The necklace of bruises shone brightly in the thin winter sun. The girl blinked, unsure of where her path now lay.

Master Xi pushed the girl to the side. He stood with his feet planted wide, his dark face handsome with satiation. He held a piece of cloth to dry his hands, a pattern that matched the dress the girl wore, now shorn of one sleeve. Master Xi dropped the rag into the housekeeper's waiting hands.

"Clean up in there," he said.

The housekeeper had seen the damage Master Xi could do and no longer had the stomach for more. She sent a maid into the back room.

"You, too," the housekeeper said to the girl.

The maid entered the back room and shrieked. The girl emerged with her arms bundled high with bedclothes streaked in blood and feces, her face now burning with new found shame.

"Go to the creek," the housekeeper commanded. "Don't hang up those sheets until every spot is gone."

Every morning, the girl could be seen tottering down to the water's edge. Today she pounded the cloth with flat stones for so long, Cook went to the doorway to look.

"What's she doing out there?" he asked.

"She's cursing her fate," the carriage driver declared.

"She's crying for home," the maid sniffed.

The housekeeper walked into the kitchen yard and said, "She's singing."

All the servants came outdoors. The girl had a thin reedy voice that was quite often false yet it sounded like home.

Every day, once the girl had finished the laundry, she returned to the house to work with the other servants, though she wasn't much help. She had no talent with a needle and thread and was clumsy around the bric-a-brac Mistress Xi collected. A prized cloisonné dish would have dashed onto the stone floor if Cook hadn't been there to catch it.

"Keep her out of the house or she'll get us all in trouble," he snarled at the housekeeper.

The housekeeper sent the girl into the kitchen yard to feed the chickens and the pigs. The girl cleaned the pens, too, and when she finished, the carriage driver was leaning over the fence, leering at the girl's thin heaving chest.

"Why don't you come and rest?" he offered. "You can lie on the straw behind the carriage."

The girl backed away then until she was trapped in the corner of the pigpen. The sow and her runts ran out the open gate. They got into the vegetable garden where they feasted on the last of the winter cabbages. That was how the housekeeper found the girl and pried the driver off her muddied body.

"Go indoors and clean the kitchen," the housekeeper said angrily to the girl. She waved her finger all around, as if to accuse every pot and pan of moral turpitude. "Do it now!"

The girl used a hard-bristled brush to scrub the sloping floor and a soft cotton rag to burnish the copper pots. Cook kept a wary eye on the girl but here in the kitchen the child was nimble and soon at home. Every now and again, Cook thought he heard singing, but he could never catch the girl, no matter how hard he glared.

Three months passed. Every night, Master Xi came to the girl in the back room. Every day, the light grew brighter and the girl eagerly knelt in the vegetable garden among the garlic chives and the blossoming broccoli. She would gather her harvest and lay it before Cook, though Cook had yet to utter a single word of thanks or praise. The girl continued to bring her bounty to him and Cook, in time, began to look forward to the daily offering.

One morning, the girl failed to appear. The chickens were squawking loudly in their coop and the pigs butted their snouts hard against the fence. The sun shone warm on the spinach that should have been cut by now. Cook paced the kitchen, suddenly afraid.

"Do you think it's happened again?" he asked the housekeeper.

The first time a girl had died, Master Xi was so ashamed, he allowed the household to hear the ruckus his wife made.

"How could you be so clumsy?" Mistress Xi screeched at her husband. "Don't you know how much these girls cost?"

And though Master Xi swore on the graves of his ancestors never to break another girl again, Mistress Xi went to the housekeeper and said, "Be prepared."

The housekeeper now opened the leather satchel where she kept a supply of winding cloths, burlap sacks torn into strips just long enough to wrap the body of a girl. She held one strip in her hands, absent-mindedly knotting it tightly around her wrists, her eyes fixed on the door to the back room.

Suddenly the door swung open and Master Xi appeared, his face pale and his hands red. He fell to his knees and vomited onto the sparkling kitchen floor. Cook let out a long sigh.

Then, before anyone had said a word or cried a lament, the girl herself appeared in the doorway, alive and grinning.

"Her monthly bleeding has begun," Master Xi croaked. "Get me another girl, fast."

The housekeeper nodded. "And what about this one?" she asked.

"What do I care? That's for my wife to decide."

Other girls had survived the back room and Master Xi. They entered into puberty and were sold to other masters and new fates. But Mistress Xi apparently had no need for ready cash that summer. The girl became a member of the household. She was given a new place to sleep, next to the housekeeper, in a corrugated tin shack that stood in the kitchen yard. She was given more tasks, both inside and outside the house. But no matter how hard they worked the girl, she remained distracted. She stared at the door to the back room where a new child had been installed. She lay awake at night listening to the low bass of the housekeeper's snores and the high notes that floated in from the back room.

One night, the girl got out of bed and made her way to the back room. She passed the kitchen on her way where Cook lay on his side, close to the fire, trying to ignore the screams.

"Where are you going?" he asked the girl.

"I'm going to help that child," she said.

Cook got up then and held the girl tight. "You can't do anything," he whispered furiously into her ear. "He's the master and we're the servants."

"Is that why you never tried to help me?" the girl asked.

In time, the girl learnt to live with the sight of another person in pain. Yet with each day that the girl became more resigned, Cook grew restless. He felt a sudden urge to do something, a feeling Cook had not had in years.

One day, Cook abruptly asked the girl, "Do you know how to cook?"

Shyly, the girl shook her head.

He taught her everything he knew. How to smell freshness in a tub of tofu or look at a bowl of dried chili peppers to measure their heat. She stood in the circle of his arms and he held her hands to teach her how to pluck a goose and slice abalone so thin you could see through it. Yet he never allowed her to use his cleaver, giving the girl instead one of the many knives that hung on the wall.

"A cook's knife is an extension of his body," he declared. Seeing him wield it, the girl believed his words. Cook used his cleaver to crack open the head of a cow, bone fish and peel garlic. He would lay down the blade only when it was time to fry.

"Use your eyes, but don't forget your ears and nose!" he shouted at her. "The oil is singing to you. Is it ready for the shrimp?"

He taught her how to make moon cakes in the style native to Hangzhou, as embellished by his own, until then secret, arts. He sent her first into the chicken coop and when she returned, the girl seemed reluctant to relinquish the warm brown eggs.

Cook had two bowls ready, one with flour and sugar and salt and the other with water. He cracked the eggs into the flour, mixing it with one hand, while he dipped the other hand into the water to sprinkle the flour. When he was done, a ball of dough lay in the center of his bowl, white and warm.

"Now you try," he said to the girl. "You must master the dough before we waste any filling."

The first batch went to the pigs, the cakes so hard and unbending that even the animals left it to rot in the straw. The second batch was better, the sweet fermented beans a welcome treat for the servants. When the housekeeper tasted the third batch, she gave it the highest possible praise by taking an extra cake and popping it whole into her mouth. The girl made a fresh batch, singing the whole while, and it was her best ever.

Now they could serve the moon cakes to Master and Mistress Xi. It wasn't the season yet; the Moon Festival was still months away but Cook knew that Mistress Xi had a weakness for sweets. She smiled at him when he brought in the cakes and her eyes glowed as she bit into one. 

"You're getting better," she said.

"It wasn't me," Cook said quickly. "It was the girl who made them. She has a gift for moon cakes."

That month, Mistress Xi invited family and close friends to try the girl's moon cakes. And when they too praised the pastries, Mistress Xi decided to throw a party. One hundred guests were to be invited to celebrate the Moon Festival, all business associates of Master Xi.

Mistress Xi told Cook, "You'd better do your best, you and that girl. These are important people who need to be impressed. Only then will they conduct business with your master."

Cook rose early every day to puzzle out new recipes. He and the girl tested every one of them before they started their preparations. They salted duck eggs and pickled hot peppers. They slaughtered cows and pigs and chickens and squabs. They had fish delivered live in great wooden tubs. And for each of the one hundred guests, an individual moon cake was made.

The banquet was a great success. Letters were delivered at all times of the day and night: thank you notes, business proposals and one offer that Mistress Xi had not expected. She called the housekeeper into her bedroom and, upon second thought, called for the girl as well.

The two servants stood meekly until Mistress Xi was ready to speak.

"Yesterday, I received an offer from a man who attended our banquet. He wants to buy the girl. He needs a cook for a brothel he's opening in Shanghai. I have just agreed to his terms."

Mistress Xi rummaged in her handbag, pulling out a single copper coin. She handed it silently to the girl.

"This is a token of my appreciation," Mistress Xi said stiffly to the girl. "Now, go and pack your things. The driver will take you away today."

For the first time, the girl spoke to her mistress.

"May I say goodbye to Cook?"

Mistress Xi's plucked eyebrows rose but she did not deny permission. As soon as the servants left Mistress Xi's bedroom, the girl ran into the kitchen. Cook was sitting on his haunches, shelling fava beans.

"My contract has been sold," the girl panted. "I'm to leave right now."

Perhaps the girl was out of breath and therefore light-headed, or perhaps she lost her sense of balance. For whatever reason, she placed both small hands onto Cook's meaty forearm and leant her face so close to his, she could have pecked him on the cheek if she dared.

Cook looked away, his face now hard, his eyes screwed up as if he were trying to see this child's future. Then he twisted his body, his hand reaching for his cleaver, which hung by its leather thong in its proper place. He removed it from the peg and thrust it, handle first, at the girl.

"It's a gift," he said brusquely. "Take it."

Her face grew pale.

"It's worthless," he said. "Like all knives, this one is treacherous, too. It can curve and bend and break if you don't listen to it carefully."

The girl shook her head.

"What's wrong?" Cook shouted. "Not good enough for you?"

"If I take it, the blade will cut us off forever," the girl whispered.

Cook nodded. It was true; he should have known that.

"Pay me then," he said grudgingly. "Whatever you have."

The girl opened her hand, where the copper coin still lay.

"That's too much," Cook said. He looked the girl up and down but he knew as well as she that all she owned she wore on her body. She reached for the talisman that hung around her neck, but Cook gently pulled her hand away.

"Give me a toggle," he said. "That will be enough."

The girl closed three fingers around the toggle that held her dress closed around her neck, wrenching the plastic from the thin cloth. Carefully, she pulled away the loose threads before giving it to Cook.

"Do you agree?" she asked.

His hard hand closed around the plastic.

"I agree," he said.

He cut a piece of leather and together they tied it around the sharp blade. The girl fetched a strip of burlap cloth and wound it carefully around the knife. With a piece of twine, Cook fashioned a sling so that the girl could carry the cleaver on her back.

When the driver came into the kitchen to fetch the girl, Cook sat down again among his bean shells. He no longer looked at the girl though he listened for every breath she took.

Slowly, the girl backed out of the kitchen, her eyes travelling from the kitchen yard to the back room to the sight of the big man hunched over his pan of beans. Then she turned and left the house forever.

For long after the girl was gone, Cook heard singing in his kitchen. He knew it was his imagination, though he could never decide whether it was the spirit of the girl who lingered to comfort him or the cleaver that cried out for him from beyond his reach.

 

 Karen Kao is a native of Los Angeles, California and long-time resident of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The child of Chinese immigrants, she is currently working on a set of four interlocking novels set in 1930's Shanghai. Her earlier work has appeared in Jabberwock Review and Gumbo.

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