by Hannah Han
They took you on a Thursday.
The family planning officials pulled up to our house in a sun-white truck in the late afternoon. They wore heavy boots, flecked with mud, and strained faces, the skin pulled tight around their skulls like raw leather.
Everything moved slower that summer. The nights flooded with a thick, syrupy heat, the crickets sang muffled, tuneless harmonies in the fields, and over the radio, we heard crackly refrains of the same songs—“Our lives are beautiful. Love your country, have one child.”
Baba stepped outside first, his hands curled around the spokes of the wrought-iron gate. His mouth was moving, and I strained to hear the words that leaked out into the marshy dampness. “— doesn’t seem necessary,” Baba said.
“We need to do a routine check,” the men said. “You’ve seen the signs. Only one allowed per family.”
“We are good people. We follow the law,” Baba said, but the warmth was quickly fading from his voice.
“Meimei,” Ma said. She reached over, pulling at my wrist. “Meimei! Come over here.” I clung to the doorframe, the slivers of wood dragging white lines across my palms.
“Shh,” she said, and whispered, “Jiejie! Come hold my hand.” You creeped in from the kitchen, then, a steamed red bean bun cupped in your palm. Tendrils of steam snaked between your fingers, dissolved into the air. “What?” you said, a guilty but defiant look on your face.
“Hold my hand.”
“Be quiet,” Ma snapped, grabbing your hand.
She led us down the back hallway, and you tripped over the yellow plastic stool, the one we fought to stand on to wash our faces in the bathroom mirror each morning.
“Get up,” Ma said, yanking your arm. “Don’t say anything.” She led us outside, around the chicken coop and the small vegetable garden to the shed, and shoved us inside.
“Be quiet. Don’t leave,” Ma said, shutting the door, and you and I cowered in the hot silence, bewildered, frightened, the wet straw poking at our thighs.
I wanted to say, Jiejie, who are they? Are they going to go away? Is everything going to be okay? But, instead, I whispered, “You got Popo to give you one before dinner.” I pointed at the red bean bun still clutched in your fist.
“Shut up. Didn’t you hear Mama?” you mouthed, squeezing my wrist. Then you leaned back and took a bite of the bun.
I glared at you. “Do you have to eat so loudly?” I mouthed back.
You swallowed. There was a strand of hair in your mouth, and your skin was flushed brown from weeks of riding bikes around the rice fields and collecting wriggling tadpoles in plastic bags. The tadpoles looked like floating commas—hundreds of pauses and unfinished thoughts trapped in a bag.
I crossed my arms, and you held the last half of the bun to your lips. But then you swiftly turned and dropped the red bean bun in my hand, just as I knew you would. The bean paste was thick, sweet in my throat. “Thank you,” I mouthed, and you didn’t answer.
The footsteps grew louder outside. The chickens began to protest in the yard, their calls shrill, urgent.
“This isn’t right. I didn’t allow you to come into my house.” It was Baba’s voice.
“Sir, we have our own families. We don’t want them to get hurt either. But as long as you follow the law, everything will be fine. Now shut up.”
“There’s nothing here,” Mama said. “Please. There’s no one here to take.”
“There are two children’s bikes over there,” the men said. Then, “What’s that over there?
Is that a hut?”
“Jiejie,” I said, and you reached out, fumbling, and found my hand. We were both so warm; sweat trickled down from our scalps into our eyes, salt pooled between our fingertips.
“There’s nothing there,” Mama said, but you and I heard how the syllables faltered on her tongue. The men’s boots scratched against the small stones and tired weeds outside. Stopped just outside. “Really, there’s nothing there,” Ma said, firmer this time.
Then the door of the shed opened, and hot diamond light shot across our faces, stinging my eyes. Your hand tightened around mine.
“There are two of them,” one of the men said.
“No,” Baba said. He stumbled in front of us, braced his hands against the doorframe of the shed.
“Take her,” one of the men said, pointing to you. And suddenly Baba was on his knees, bowing before these two men. “Please, do not take her, they are all we have, please, you have families too, you must understand—”
I could not see the men’s full faces, only the edges, seared a dirty gold. They peeled Baba away, discarding him, but he kicked and punched—“Get away from us, leave us alone, you motherfuckers, leave my child,” and then “You are violating the law, don’t make us hurt you, too, this is the easiest way”—and they dragged you from me. Our hands slipped apart, and my palm was suddenly cold and empty. They grabbed you under the elbows, your red dress crinkling around your legs, and hefted you into their arms like a sack of rice.
“Jiejie! Jiejie!” I said, but the planners were already fading away, down the muddy path that wound around our house, melting into that grey afternoon. I ran. But Mama held onto me, her arms forming a cage around my body. The planners opened that sun-white truck and shut you inside, and I only saw a final flash of your brown face and your hands, fluttering, waving, before they took you away.
I kept waiting for you to come back. I sat by the doorway, looking for the glint of that sun-white truck trudging down the road.
Baba punched the wall outside the kitchen, and when Mama leaned over to bandage his knuckles, her body split with grief.
They demanded two thousand yen for you, twice as much as we had saved. Baba and Mama begged the neighbors, and at dawn, they rode into the bowels of the city, bowing down on the crooked streets with their hands cupped in front of them, praying for dirty coins, flung out of kindness, or pity.
The next evening, Mama and Baba poured all of their savings on the dining room table and counted as the sun rose, a dusky pink bulb in the sky.
The planners placed a number on you that day, made a human girl, a sister, a daughter, equivalent to a palmful of cold coins. We could not pay the price.
Ma and Ba don’t speak of that day anymore, except for those quiet nights, when the fields are laced with fog, and the moon is a single white eyelash glued to the sky. Ma sets out an extra pair of chopsticks and a plate and scoops beef and fried rice onto it, all your favorites, and then qing cai for health. She leaves it there during the night, as if you might suddenly stumble into our home again, your red dress wrinkled, exhausted, but alive. But the plate is always still there the next morning, the food cold, the fat coagulated into white stones.
After they took you, Ma told me it was my responsibility to feed the chickens. Whenever I step into the yard with the feed, the chickens surround me, their thick feathers rustling.
Do you remember we gave them names? Feng Li because when he grew angry, his feathers puffed out like spikes, and Mei Mao because she had two long, slim feathers that framed her eyes like a pair of eyebrows. You named her. She was your favorite; she followed you around like a duckling and pecked at my hands when I tried to pet her.
Mei Mao refused to come out of the coop once you were gone. She shuttered herself inside with her head tucked down and didn’t respond, even when I reached out to touch her feathers. She died two weeks after you were taken.
I dream about you and about them. The family planners and their stern, hard faces. Did you know that a year and a month after they took you, Li Gao and Ming packed their daughter into a small laundry basket, left for the city, and returned, without anything strapped onto their bike? Two days after, when they rode into the city again, their daughter’s face had been kissed by hundreds of thirsty mosquitoes, her face swollen into silence.
Beyond the rice fields, beyond the road, in the wreckage behind the city, there are towers of trash: plastic bags, crushed bottles, rotted food. When I followed Ma into the city to buy mangoes and turnips, I found a transparent plastic bag, tossed into the street gutter. Inside was a child, a baby the size of my palm.
I ran, Jiejie. I ran for my life, because it could not be real, this partially formed human with curled fists and soft indentations for eyes. We both looked like that once, Jiejie. We all were once like that.
Recently, someone has scrawled words in red onto the side of the public bathhouse: Better blood flowing like streams than children born outside the state plan. The family planners swarm all of our houses now, taking, stealing, until there are ghosts wandering down the streets at night, the red ghosts of small boys and girls.
I pray every day that you are not frozen into stillness, like Li Gao’s daughter, or abandoned, your breath caught in your throat. I pray that you are loved and that you dream of me, too.
When the moon sits heavy and cold in the sky, I know that you must be seeing this same moon. I think that this is the same moon we sat under as children, playing with our dirty straw dolls, listening to the crickets’ soft humming, and the chickens shuffling in their coop. This is the same moon that rose even after you faded into that ashen afternoon, your dress a single spot of red.
We are still waiting for you here, Jiejie. Come home.