The streetlights shimmered on the surface of West lake, and in her eyes as well. Thủy's eyes. The full moon was just beginning to rise over Hanoi.
"Daddy, buy it for me," she begged and pointed to a colorful plastic star, its delicate frame constructed from thin wood dowels.
This would be her sixth Mid Autumn Festival. Neon spirals, stars, and rings dangled from the trees lining Thanh Niên street and caught the attention of every boy and girl that pedaled their bicycles past, lit the way for teenage boys speeding through traffic on customized Louis Vuitton Yamahas, and offered solace to tired men and women wearily coasting home with small plastic grocery bags swinging from their handlebars. The sidewalks were crowded with vendors selling over sized helium balloons mixed together with ferocious inflatable tigers left over from last year's Tet celebration. Multicolored pinwheels on wooden sticks protruded from blocks of dusty white Styrofoam, and illiterate artists sculpted tiny animals and super heroes from blocks of clay. Men clutching long bamboo poles fished leisurely over the lake's guard rails with the intention to sell their catch to the nearby seafood restaurants. Silhouettes of couples in love sat paired on stone benches gazing out on to West Lake where two-storey ferries circumnavigated swan shaped paddle boats.
Her father handed the brown skinned woman a 20,000 dong note, kicked started his rusty Honda Dream motorbike and they rejoined the current of commuters hurrying home to dinner with their families. Tonight, Thủy ignored the "West Lake Ice Cream" shop, the bouquets of pink and yellow daisies at the florist's stall on the corner, and instead stared intently down at her feet, her tiny plastic sandals dangling precariously on the edge of her toes. She was thinking of what was waiting for her at home. She would get to see her grandparents who always brought her imported French chocolates, her uncle with the long goatee that reminded her of uncle Ho Chi Minh's portrait hanging in her classroom, and her two cousins Hoa and Trang, her two best friends. Besides New Year's, the Mid Autumn Festival was her favorite holiday of the entire year.
By the time Thủy and her father arrived, the neighborhood was already dark. Although many of the shops were shut tight, plenty of lights and loud conversation still burst forth from the windows of most of the homes, and the whir of motorbikes echoed in the narrow alleys. Thủy could hear young businessmen from a nearby bar shouting in unison, "1, 2, 3!... 1, 2, 3!" enthusiastically gulping down large glass mugs of cheap draft beer after a long day in a sweltering office. Tonight, it seemed almost everyone in Hanoi would be staying up a little later than usual, would be a little louder than usual, and would definitely be merrier than usual.
Thủy's mother met them at the door. She unlocked the gate and it swung open on its creaking hinges.
"What have you got there, child? Oh, my! What a beautiful star!"
"Yea, and an expensive star" her father added. "20,000 dong for this thing, can you believe it? Remember when they were only 2,000? I'm telling you, people don't care about tradition anymore, they just want to get rich."
"It's only once a year, darling," her mother reminded him. She then turned to Thủy and leaned forward to meet her shining eyes. "Thủy, after dinner mommy will put a candle inside of it and you can go out and show off your new toy to Grandfather Moon, okay?"
"Okay! Wwweee!" she squealed as she ran into the bright house.
Inside, everything was as she expected. The first thing she noticed was the bitter smell of incense coming from the altar on the far side of the room. Fruits, sticky rice, and a boiled rooster had been placed at the center of the large wooden cabinet, two vases of fresh wild roses flanked either side. Beside the altar was the family's flat screen T.V. broadcasting a live performance of singers and dancers dressed in excessively bright interpretations of traditional Vietnamese village costumes. Men lined up side by side pretending to row boats on wheels over rivers of blue draped silk fluttering with the assistance of large fans. Dozens of women in glittering Áo Dài dresses sat on either side of the staged river bank gracefully plucking away at zithers and lutes, while fireworks shimmered in the background.
Her grandparents sat on the couch, which could more accurately be described as an ornately carved lacquered wooden bench, watching the show. Her grandfather was dressed in a snugly fitting 3 piece suit, complete with an ash grey wool beret. Her grandmother's outfit was more casual; a one piece home spun sky-blue blouse with black cotton trousers, and a black velvet scarf wrapped over her silver hair and tied under her chin. Thủy's two cousins lay comfortably on the cool laminate floor watching Japanese cartoon shows on their parents' laptop computer.
On the opposite side of the room sat her uncle at the kitchen table with a bottle of Grey Goose vodka and two small shot glasses which he began to fill as Thủy's father stepped into the room. Thủy was immediately drawn toward the direction of her uncle, but not because she intended to mischievously pull at his goatee. Rather, she had caught sight of the elegantly carved watermelon centerpiece and ran over for a closer look.
Her mother only purchased this special item a few times a year in order to signify important family gatherings. The skin of the fruit had been carefully carved so that the layers of green, white, and pink created a three-dimensional image of a phoenix with outstretched wings, its long delicate tail feathers encircling a full moon. Little Thủy whispered under her breath,"Grandfather Moon."
The family talked about many things that evening. Huỳnh still hadn't found a husband. Anh would be studying abroad in Australia next year. The Nguyễn's just bought a car, a Mercedes. The Lê's just bought a house in the new Long Biên development. But Thủy wasn't interested. She squirmed in her seat as the wooden wall clock lazily ticked away. She tried to listen, but the grownups used many words she didn't understand.
"May I be excused, momma?" she timidly asked.
"You haven't eaten your chicken yet" her mom scolded. "You know that you have to eat any food that comes from the altar, it's blessed by our ancestors."
Thủy picked up the cold chunk of meat and peeled off the slimy yellow skin. She took a bite of the lean, chewy white flesh, set it back down in her bowl, and asked again.
"Fine, you can go," her mother sighed with a wave of the hand. "But don't forget to take your cousins with you!"
"Let's go outside! Let's go see Grandfather Moon!" Thủy yelped, grabbing Hoa by the hand as Trang ran behind, trailing after her two older cousins.
"Wait up!" Trang cried.
"We don't wait for turtles! Catch up, hurry!" they giggled and ran barefoot into the tiled courtyard.
Although it was well past 8 o'clock, the courtyard was illuminated by the cooling white light of the full moon. It was already September, but the summer heat raged on and would continue through November. Tonight, however, a gentle breeze stirred the humid air and provided some relief to the grateful Hanoi residents. The girls ran in circles, jumped, and laughed. The courtyard was their secret garden, and they its fairies on that night. Watching over all of them, Grandfather Moon shone brilliantly.
"Look, look...Grandfather Moon!" Hoa pointed towards the sky, her arm completely outstretched as if there existed the slightest possibility that she could touch it.
"It must be far," Thủy added.
"Where does he live?"
"At least one hundred miles away," Trang guessed.
The young girls' speculations were soon interrupted as Thủy's mom called them in. "It's getting late, nearly 9 o' clock already. Hoa, Trang, go with your daddy, he'll take you home now. Thủy, say goodnight to your cousins. You'll see them again soon. Good girl, now come with me, it's time for bed."
Thủy's small bedroom faced east. Her mother pulled the thin blanket over her daughter's shoulders, and Thủy shut her eyes tight in a comical attempt at feigning sleep, believing this would encourage her mother to exit the room sooner than usual. Thuỷ's mother smiled, whispered "good night" and walked quietly out of the room, closing the door behind her. What an adorable child she had, Thủy's mother thought to herself.
Thủy opened her eyes, carefully at first, then lifted her head from the pillow and sat up cross-legged at the window sill adjacent to her bed. Her tiny fingers were barely long enough to grip the protective iron bars bolted to the window frame. She held on tightly and pressed her cheeks against them as she strained to catch one last glimpse of Grandfather Moon before he made his nightly journey into the Western sky.
"So small," she thought. "So small, yet so bright."
"Are the children like me where Grandfather Moon lives?"
"Are the children like me, 100 miles away?"
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