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Winter Tangerine photo

Baba ushered us to the yard and ordered us both to keep quiet. You giggled as the chickens fussed around you, but I handed you a tangerine from my pocket and held a finger to my lips. Your fingers began peeling the fruit, tossing orange scraps among the dirty straw. In the right light, they could have passed for blood.

The men walked through the door, and Mama kicked your shoes behind the curtains. Whatever story she gave didn’t seem to satisfy them. They started toward the backdoor, silver guns flashing beneath their coats.

Baba raised a fist, but the shorter one backhanded him. He collapsed against the kitchen table, bloody rosettes staining the wood beneath his head. In the right light, they could have passed for orange peels. Mama screamed.

When they came for us, I could hardly breathe. I fought them tooth and claw—you must believe me, I did. But they had the weapons and the strength and all I had were pebble-stuck orange peels. They knocked your tangerine to the dirt when they grabbed you, and that was the moment you realized it was not a game.

“Jiejie!” you cried. “Jiejie! Jiejie!”

But our family could not afford the fine. The men took you away to a new family far from our little town and do not tell us where.

Some days I imagine you’re in the north, among the snow-capped peaks we saw in Baba’s atlas. Other days I think you end up south, walking the streets of Shanghai and Nanjing with tanghulu shells melting on your tongue.

But all I know is the empty place at the table, half-finished drawings scrawled across the walls, and the basket we leave behind when we harvest tangerines in the winter.

Come home, meimei. We miss you so much.

image: D.T. Robbins