By LIU JIANCHAO
THE general pointed to the vast Gobi Desert ahead of us and waved his left, solely remaining arm, saying: “Comrades, here is our new home. Pitch the tents!” Soon the golden desert was dotted with mushroom-like light green tents. The general walked into one and saw a young soldier with tears rolling down his face. The general smiled and asked: “What’s the matter young man? Miss home?” The young soldier wiped his tears: “No, General.” The general gave his own handkerchief to the young soldier and asked: “Then why are you shedding tears?” The young soldier lowered his head and replied: “There’s not a single tree out here. No green at all.” With a grim look on the face, the general said: “Yes. There are no trees and no green at all, and this place has no water. But we are going to make some changes.”
The task of the troops was heavy, and the camp-building schedule was brought forward again and again. When there was time, the general led the soldiers to plant trees around the base. Water was scarce here so they had to transport it from outside sources. The daily water allowance for each soldier was fixed. Even the tiny amount allowed to brush their teeth was limited, so planting trees was a luxury due to their high water consumption. To save water for tree growing, the soldiers never used soap when washing their faces and clothes or while taking shower.
They planted trees, but some died. So they planted new trees again and again. The young soldier grew older, and eventually was about to demobilize. The general gave him a porcelain bowl filled with luxuriantly green garlic sprouts as a goodbye gift. The general said: “Sorry, young man. This is all I can give you for now. But believe me. Our camp site will be more beautiful and even greener than this bowl of garlic sprouts.”
About 10 kilometers from the camp site ran a seasonal river. It nourished the desert every year during the rainy season. The general led the soldiers to develop a channel that could bring water to the camp. After channeling the water into the man-made pool in the camp, the soldiers planted poplar trees, which are resistant to strong wind and sand. At the entrance of the camp site, five poplar trees began to germinate! The soldiers were so happy that they celebrated the success as they would the coming of the New Year.
Since then, the first thing that every soldier would mention in letters to their families was that the poplar trees they planted were germinating. When new soldiers came and old soldiers demobilized, they took a picture with the five poplar trees which grew stronger with each passing day. The general visited the five poplar trees every day, and was familiar with every branch. He would carefully pick up every leaf that had fallen to the ground, place them on his palms and gaze at them for minutes at a time.
It was another hot summer. The five poplar trees had flourished enough to provide shade, and the general came to inspect them. Suddenly he spotted a toddler, and was completely stunned, as the little one had climbed up the tree and broken off some branches. The general sprang towards the boy and helped him down from the tree. He took the broken branches from the boy, and, tears in his eyes, asked: “Where are your parents? What are you doing here?” The little boy was scared and replied: “I want to make a twig garland.” The Commander of the Communication Regiment arrived, breathless and said: “General, this is my son. I just brought him here to follow the army.” The commander was about to punish the boy. The general stopped him. “It is not his fault. It is yours. You can make up for it by planting more trees in the future.” The general walked away and then stopped and gave the broken branches to the commander. “Make a garland for your boy,” he said.
After that, the commander was often seen carrying a shovel and a bucket as his little boy carried a toy bucket not far behind. The trees that were planted in the camp site turned green. Seen from afar, it was like an oasis amid the undulating sand dunes. The commander watered a tree and took a nap. Suddenly he smelled a pleasant and refreshing scent. He opened his eyes and saw his son holding two yellowish-green pears. He got up immediately and took the pears from the boy. “Where did you get them?” he asked. The boy pointed to a far off place. The commander could only vaguely see the silhouette of a man’s back. But this man had an empty sleeve, blowing in the wind like a flag. The general told the commander he had brought the pears from a meeting at a place outside the camp. This species of pear is resistant to a dry and windy climate, so suitable to grow on the camp site. The general asked the commander to lead some soldiers to study how best to grow pears. He expected the camp site to be full of flowers and fruits in the future.
Years later, the pear trees in the camp yielded the first basket of fruit. The commander and his boy took the fruits to a hospital in Beijing, where the general spent his last days. When the general saw those fruits, his pale face flushed and his eyes lit up with joy. He held a pear in his trembling hand and smelled its fragrance. A nurse passed the general’s thick notebook to the commander. There was a leaf between each page.
According to the last wish of the general, his ashes were buried under the five poplar trees in the camp site. Soldiers called the five poplar trees the “General Trees.”
I now stand guard under the “General Trees,” as I was the boy who broke off the branches from them to make a twig garland that year.