Happy Lantern Festival!
This chapter has so much to ponder on: a “bigger” love and protection of people, love for one’s country, what is truly important to you in life, and, when under immense pressure and facing death, the most significant love in your life–who do you remember? We can see the depth of Lu Chen and Gui Xiao’s love for one another, and how much Lu Chen understands Gui Xiao (although, he was slightly off about one thing, which he later realizes). Very profound chapter to me. 🙂 I won’t admit that I shed a few tears (I can easily… hehe).
Chapter 23 — A Dream for Every Inch of Our Motherland (1)
The first time Lu Yanchen put on a bomb suit was in the second year after he joined the military. Back then, all bomb suits were made according to a standard height of 1.8 metres. The several people who had voluntarily signed up for the work had heights of 1.7 metres or so, and when they all slipped on the size-large suits, only on him did the suit fit just right.
At the time, he was not even the age of twenty yet, and he had not thought much when he put on that heavy suit. Later when he went to Erenhot, this field was even more of an unpopular one. He had basically singlehandedly built up and trained the explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, squad. Many of the people he selected had shorter builds, and they had specially made some size-medium bomb suits. Each person had been given a tweezer, a needle, and thread. These were all tough, strong men, but when they were doing needlework, they had not been the least bit slipshod about it. In order to be prepared to deal with mercury tilt bombs, each person had carried a metal ball on a wooden board to train his balance and would not even set it down when going to the bathroom.
Unlike other teams, once the people on this team were out on assignment, they were treading the line between life and death.
Consequently, only the people on this team had a special privilege: every two days they were allowed to call home and let their families know that they were safe.
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After putting on a thick, heavy bomb suit, Lu Yanchen flexed his fingers and turned his gaze onto the current leader of the EOD squad and Qin Mingyu.
“If this ends up becoming a meritorious act, who gets the credit for it?” The squad leader grinned. “Our squadron or the police training brigade?”
Qin Mingyu sighed, “I’m guessing they won’t give it to our squadron.”
A signal was given from up above: the crowds of people had been successfully evacuated.
“First leave some last words, Commander Lu,” the squad leader said, as was usual practice.
“It’s still that same one.” Lu Yanchen pressed an earplug into each his left and right ears. “ ‘Thousands have fallen to shellfire and thousands have shed their blood, but each inch of land is worth an inch of gold.’ ”
These were, when he first arrived here in the steppe lands, the first exhortatory words spoken by his old squadron commander. The day the old squadron commander sacrificed his life, Lu Yanchen had wept like he was a homeless dog. That day, he had originally been the one who was supposed to go swap for the hostages and take their place, but he had been forcibly held down. From life to death, it had all happened in a matter of a second, and then that person was gone. That bunch of bastards!
Lu Yanchen pulled down his protective face shield.
Gui Xiao’s entire night was spent in unrest, from having stomach pains to a headache to, eventually, trigeminal pain. From her temples to between her brows, it felt as if someone was taking the tip of a blade and gouging at her nerve, scraping at it a little at a time and digging it out, and then every ten to twenty seconds giving it a fierce jerk.
Over and over this continued until her pillow was sodden with sweat by the latter half of the night.
She rolled off the bed, groped her way to the side of the luggage, and threw it open, digging out all the bags that held various odds and ends: sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm, cold medicine, stomach relief medication, sleep medicine, pain medicine…
After taking some sleep and pain medicines, Gui Xiao left all the lights in the room on and went back to sleep.
Before long, she muddledly began to dream.
All these years since their breakup, she had never once dreamed of Lu Chen. Sometimes, she would even reason that “one’s thoughts in the daytime are played out in the dreams of the nighttime,” so she would think about him a few extra times during the daylight hours. She thought, just one dream of him would be good enough; otherwise she soon would not even be able to remember what he looked like. However, each time, her hopes were never fulfilled. The two of them back then had never taken any photographs together. When they were dating, even photo stickers had not come into popularity yet, let alone photos taken with a mobile phone camera…
She had no recorded images at all. She had relied solely on her memories.
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In her dream, she was still wearing a school uniform. Her hand covering the left half of her face, which was scraped from a fall on the dirt ground of the sports field, and her tears splattering down, she listened to the head teacher of her class lecture her, “You, little girl, just don’t have any sense at all. No matter how you fall, you have to protect your face. It’d be so bad if you disfigured your face.”
That feeling was absolutely awful. Describing it as “like a knife twisting into her heart” would not be an over-exaggeration. She had cried for several class periods and suffered all the way until that evening, when she stood in front of the doors of the military compound’s nursery school and waited for him. Lu Chen arrived. Straddling his mountain bike, he tilted her chin up so that it faced the streetlamp and then scrutinized her for a moment. With a light chuckle, he asked, “How’d you fall and get this? You weren’t even worried that you’ll permanently scar your face.”
The tears she had worked so hard the entire night to force back now all rushed out again. “Who comforts someone like that?”
“Does it hurt?’
“What if I do end up disfigured?”
“How’d you get it?’
“Will your parents be turned off by it?”
The ugliest period was when it scabbed over. When she looked into the mirror, all she saw was that black scab on her left cheekbone. So ugly. She did not dare pick it off or apply any salve onto it. The school doctor had even scared her, saying that it could not be touched, that if she touched it, it really would leave behind a scar.
Two months passed between the time when the scab formed to when the wound completely healed, and this period spanned over her high school entrance examinations. He had asked only once about it, on that very first night, and then never mentioned it again. At most, after it had healed completely, he liked to use his thumb to rub that spot on her cheek. The skin over places that have suffered a wound is particularly thin, so when it becomes flushed, the red there is more noticeable than elsewhere—and also very pretty.
As if someone had pressed a rewind button, those images in Gui Xiao’s memory flashed backwards.
Her hand covering the left half of her face, which was scraped from a fall on the dirt ground of the sports field, and her tears splattering down, she listened to the head teacher of her class lecture her, “You, little girl, just don’t have any sense at all…”
She was gasping for breath with all her might. There was an awareness in her that she needed to wake up, but she was unable to break out of her dream.
In this already terrible situation, she did not care about anything else, and flinging open the door of the school doctor’s office, she sobbingly shouted, “Lu Chen—”
The weight that had been shackling her dissipated abruptly. Her body gave a tremor, and then her eyes flew open. Panting, she sat straight up.
There was no illumination. The lights had all been turned off.
Having started awake from slumber, she still had not fully recovered her awareness, but she was already searching for the person who had turned off the lights.
This room was small and did not have a couch or any of those other miscellaneous items. Locating him was simply too easy to do. He was on the windowsill. On that wooden windowsill that was the width of a person, Lu Yanchen sat with one leg resting on top of it, his head leaning against the glass of the window, and that black, padded winter jacket of his covering him. His arms were crossed in front of his chest, and he was sleeping in what appeared to be an extremely uncomfortable position…
The feeling of having recovered that which had been thought to be lost washed over her body. Trembling slightly, she whipped off the comforter and, in bare feet, ran over.
Lu Yanchen knew that she had awoken. He had heard her when she lifted the quilt, but simply too tired and too drained, he did not move.
The race to the site and the disarming of the bomb, both which had required his attention to be highly focused, had caused him to feel as if his bones were falling apart. The twofold pressure that had borne down on him mentally had come from the bomb itself and his guilt towards Gui Xiao. Consequently, after successfully completing the mission, he had not spoken even half a sentence of unnecessary words, nor had he wanted to deal with anyone at all, and the first thing he did was rush back to the hotel. By the time he arrived here, the entire night had already passed and the sunshine suffusing the room was intermixed with the room’s lights and casting itself onto Gui Xiao, whose forehead was coated in perspiration.
She had been running a fever at the time, so he had gone downstairs again, bought some fever medication, and fed it to her. Then he had stayed by her side for the entire daytime and had only just now fallen asleep.
He did not try to force his eyes open and only uttered softly from his lips, “It wasn’t on the steppe. It was in an urban centre in one of the outside surrounding areas. That bomb was very tricky. Not going was not an option for me.”
There was no answer. He had not opened his eyes, because he also was afraid of facing her, afraid that she would be angry—genuinely afraid.
That night in the ger, he had already experienced it once. All these years, he truly had had too little contact with the female gender, especially the woman he loved. Back when they were teens, he had clearly been able to soothe and coax smiles from her with ease, but now when Gui Xiao showed even a slight expression in her eyes that looked not quite right, he would not know at all how to respond.
Lu Yanchen did not hear any movement. That instant when he opened his eyes, he heard her weeping quietly.
Right beside him, Gui Xiao lowered herself down, her nose over and over flaring slightly as she crouched there and wept, and her sobs were growing fiercer and fiercer.
That feeling as he watched her crying was extremely hard to describe. It was very much hard to take and very much pained his heart. Neither guilt nor self-blame were absent from him. In this moment, he even wavered. Supposing that that time prior to the Spring Festival, when he had been at the hospital and received her phone call from the gas station, he had been able to hold back his desire to see her, even if for only one glance, and had turned down her request for assistance that she had used as an excuse, then the two of them from that point on would have had no further intersection of their lives. And perhaps that actually would have been better for her.
However, these thoughts only flashed across his mind briefly before vanishing.
Lu Yanchen pulled her up from the carpet and enclosed her in his arms. “Before I went to disarm it, they told me to leave some last words. I didn’t mention you. Do you know why?”
Gui Xiao was crying so hard she could not catch her breath. Sobs racking her, she did not give him any response, as if she had not heard him.
“I was scared that if I left even one word for you, then you really wouldn’t be able to forget me. Let’s not even mention that if that happened, you would never marry anyone; every year, you would even travel the long distance here to Erenhot just to visit my grave. You never married me, but you’d still do everything that you would if you were the spouse of a soldier who died in the line of duty. That’s something I believe you’d do.”
Gui Xiao’s heart was leaping rapidly, and her tears were still falling uncontrollably. She pushed Lu Yanchen away so that he was a distance of one step from her, and then her words came quietly, interspersed between her sobs. “I have only one thing to say. Lu Chen, you listen carefully.”
When her words reached this point, her throat felt as if something was obstructing it, and it also burned painfully, like a fire was searing it.
Lu Yanchen fell into silence for two or three seconds, then replied in a low voice, “Go ahead and say it.”
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That dream earlier that had persistently repeated itself had completely shattered all the calm and maturity she had developed and accumulated over all these years as a result of the pressures of life that she had borne. In that instant when she awoke, she had even thought that she was still in her teenage years, and there were only two things that she dared not and was most unable to face: that Lu Yanchen would suddenly break up with her and that that wound would permanently disfigure her… These feelings were simple and straightforward and wholly unconcealed.
The relationships of adolescent years are the most straightforward. They are not complicated by so many practical factors that come from the realities of life, so many work ideals and dreams, or so many familial difficulties and plights; nor are there those times of weakness and cowering retreat that you are too ashamed to speak of. During that age, you do not retreat or back down; you do not muse on everything. You feel that life contains infinite possibilities, and that truly, all roads can lead to Rome. During that age, “I love you” means “I love you.”
If tomorrow an irreversible, unexpected mishap were to occur, would you have regrets? Would you still give up your love because of the realities of life?
She suddenly realized that each and every day of the future is “an unexpected.”
Everywhere in life, there are sharp, abrupt turns. One moment ago, you may have been travelling along a wide, unobstructed thoroughfare, and then all of a sudden you may be hurtling directly onto a snaking mountain road that twists and turns and you are not even allowed to look at the small road signs. Who will lose control and plummet into the gorge and who will smoothly drive through it and wait for the next turn? Only Heaven knows the answer to that.
“When we get back, we are going to get married.” Her voice was quiet as she stated aloud what she had already thought through when she first began weeping. “Right away.”
Lu Yanchen thought he heard incorrectly.
In fact, even half a second before she had spoken this sentence, he had been thinking, if Gui Xiao were to break up with him, should he agree to it? But then, based on his understanding of her, he had swiftly arrived at the answer that he “absolutely would not agree.”
And now, in this moment of stillness, his first reaction was that he wanted to have a smoke to quell those emotions in him that he was unable to control.
Gui Xiao still did not know any of it, did not know that he had just accomplished his greatest wish prior to leaving the armed forces—the souls of his brothers who had died a wrongful death could now have their final rest and comfort, and his “loved ones” were at last avenged. These last eleven years of his youth had all been given to this place. That length of time was so long that even those memories of his boyhood days in Beijing had actually become as if they were from a previous lifetime.
That year, he had still been a teenage boy who could not even be bothered to put on a school uniform. That year, college entrance examinations had been on July 7, 8, and 9. That year, he had been beaten by his father until his entire body was covered in bruises, and locked up in his room in the auto repair shop, and only after the time slot for the language arts examination had come to an end had he been let back out. Immersed in feelings of simply giving up and letting himself wallow in the hopelessness, he had aimlessly ridden his mountain bike on that main street.
At the time, in that billiards hall, his back had been against the wall and his arm had been resting on the windowsill as he leaned there and smoked a cigarette.
And then, he had met a girl.
Now, here in Erenhot, that girl was asking him… no, was demanding that he marry her.
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He all of a sudden realized that he had made an error in judgment. If earlier on he truly had lost his life, even if he had left not even half a word for Gui Xiao, she absolutely would still let her whole heart follow him as his bones turned to ashes and he was laid into the ground. She would not receive any of the benefits and death gratuity for the spouse of a soldier who died in the line of duty, but she would still carry out all that the spouse of a fallen soldier would do…
“You need to think about it for that long?” In that endless wait, Gui Xiao at last was unable to restrain herself and softly asked, “Are you still taking into consideration the stances of my family members? Those don’t matter. They’re not important.”
Lu Yanchen did not search for his cigarette pack anymore. He just remembered that he had left it on the marble countertop inside the bathroom. Currently, though, he neither had the time nor was he in the leisurely mood to take those couple of extra steps to get it. Grabbing Gui Xiao, he pulled her into the enclosure of his arms and, fulfilling his wish, received all that he longed to have from her lips—the desire a man has for a woman, and the wonderful dreams and imaginings an adolescent boy has about the girl he loves.
“Gui Xiao…” As he covered her lips with his own and kissed her deeply, Lu Yanchen undid her pajamas, which had been soaked several times with the perspiration from her fevering. One at a time, those silver buttons, their texture like that of seashells, were tugged at lightly and effortlessly unfastened.
 千家炮火千家血，一寸河山一寸金. This line was originally written by Guo Moruo in reflection of the leasing of Guangzhouwan (formerly Romanized as Kwangchouwan) to France at the turn of the 20th century and how the Chinese people living in the area had resisted the French, who had wanted to take possession of further land.
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