My dearest erzi was four when the men from Beijing took him away. See how smoothly your child moves in the water, they said. He will serve our country well. Just like that, he was gone. In the place of his sweet laugh, a monthly stipend; in the place of his toy trucks, a flat screen TV.
I do not complain. What is a little more suffering when there has been so much? So many of us have buried husbands: this way, at least, someone will provide for my son.
The village mothers ask questions. What does your erzi do in that building of glass? Do you think he can win the gold? When will he appear on the TV? I do not reply. They are very jealous women.
The men in Beijing let me see him twice a year, on the day of his birth and mine. Twenty-two hours by bus, most of it standing. But I do not complain. I am grateful they let me see him at all.
Ma-ma, he said to me on my last visit. They are preparing me for competition. The training is very difficult. We spend all day in the water. The doctors are so strict; the needles are so painful. And I am hungry all the time, no matter how much I eat. Some nights, I am so hungry I cannot sleep. Some nights, I dream of tigers, but the tigers have no faces. Do you think I will do well? Will I make our country proud?
I took his hands in mine, and when I spoke there were tears in my throat. Yes, you will do well, I said. I know you will make your ma-ma proud.
His hands are so big now, and so hot. Hot like coals. Sometimes I am frightened by how much he has grown. Sometimes, when he is with the other children, I cannot pick him out. They keep so many in that building of glass, all dressed in the same white gowns. He has a handsome jaw now, and his voice is deep like his father’s. But he is still a child; he is still my beloved erzi. He grows up so fast. Next year, on his birthday, I will bring his father’s shoes to wear. Soon, he will be eight years old. Oh how fast he grows.
LIFAN CHU — Lifan is a writer and literary translator based in Japan. He is interested in what happens at the margins of life, literature, and technology. Find him on Twitter at @lifchu.
Art by AUDRA KERR BROWN — Audra is a writer, photographer, and creator of The Flashtronauts! YouTube channel. Follow her on Twitter: @audrakerrbrown.