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The Orange Tree
In a yellowed family photo there is an orange tree, leaves burned.

The oranges are green, but we are already starting to look alike in the photo.

By the orange tree is Grandparents’ house.

We all once walked over its threshold to pick oranges.

The tree was tall, and only men in the family could reach.

Uncle, Grandparents’ only surviving son, was young then.

He could not reach.

So we took turns to shake the tree.

There is always traveling in the family.

In our blood.

The big orange tree bloomed when Grandparents passed away.

The house was handed over to Uncle.

Next time the oranges turned orange, we would meet again under their shade.

We agreed, just like the times when Grandparents were alive.

Grandpa was born into a general’s family in Nanjing.

His father was an ardent follower of Sun Yen-san.

He followed Sun to apply democracy to imperial China.

The eldest son of the family, Grandpa inherited his father’s title.

He worked for the Central Government of Kuo-ming Tang, which Sun founded.

He also took care of the family orchard garden.

In the garden, each generation planted their own orange tree.

During festive times and even in later war times, neighbors were invited.

In the garden, they could enjoy the delicacy of the season.

Grandpa had three brothers and two sisters.

His youngest brother fell in love with a Japanese lady, and they secretly married.

Great Grandpa ousted him from the family.

It meant disgrace, a family scandal.

Great Grandparents were ashamed.

We never had orange parties again.

The youngest brother soon got a job as a chauffeur for the Japanese war generals.

He started his own family with the lady.

The lady bore him a child.

He became a traitor.

In the dead winter of 1937, Grandpa’s orange trees were still in their prime.

The oranges fell at night, one after another, soft on the ground.

The garden was a mess.

Japanese army invaded the old capital.

The slow process of killing and dying.

In six weeks, 300,000 people were tortured, buried, and burned alive in ditches.

The Yangtze River bloomed orange red.

Great Grandpa was able to make some arrangements before the invasion.

Thanks to this brother, the traitor of the family.

Great Grandpa gave all valuables to the Communist Party.

He betrayed his own Kuo-ming Tang Party.

He arranged for Grandpa to leave for Suzhou.

On December 8, he hanged himself by the window.

The lacquered window opened to the garden of green and red oranges.

The oranges had their first frost.

Before fleeing, Great Grandpa gave Grandma an orange tree plant.

He told her to plant it where the soil was rich.

When the orange tree was with us, then we would be together.

We would have some shade and fruit in the family.

The family was ready.

Quickly two other younger bothers were shocked to death.

In anticipation of the atrocities to come and revenge for the fugitive.

The two sisters were reluctant to leave Nanjing.

At a nunnery in the eastern suburb, they shaved their heads.

Grandpa, together with Grandma and their first daughter, fled.

They walked 45 miles and settled at Rainbow Street 12.

The orange plant was finally put in the soil.

When the family was still in Nanjing, in the family garden.

When Maternal Great Grandparents were still having their orange parties.

Paternal Great Grandparents joined the Liberation Army on the Long March.

80,000 people went on the march, and 7,000 made it to Yan’an headquarters.

Of the Communist Party.

Great Grandparents were left unburied.

On the firm snowy mountains.

Ten years later, Grandpa joined the Party and was later transferred to Suzhou.

In due season, the orange plant bloomed.

Paternal Grandpa liked eating oranges.

Maternal Grandparents held orange parties.

Just like the parties Great Grandparents held in the family garden.

They met, and Paternal Grandpa became a family friend.

It was just before the founding of People’s Republic of China.

The local Communist Party factions were still fighting for power.

Grandpa was severely wounded in a street fight.

He dragged his bleeding legs and elbowed his way to Maternal Grandparents’ house.

In the middle of one cold night.

Grandma had some medical knowledge from her surgeon father.

She treated locals for free.

Paternal Grandpa hid under the orange tree until he could walk around again.

Then was made hero of the Party.

He protected Maternal Grandparents’ family from execution.

He never mentioned their Kuo-ming Tang affiliations.

Day by day, the orange tree grew taller.

But the family never had time to enjoy its fruit or shade.

They recited Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.

Cultural Revolution began, following three years of natural disaster.

Mother was four years old.

She survived the famine on orange peels.

38,000,000 people died from hunger.

Grandma’s first son died of tuberculosis.

On her shabby medical table Grandma died a week later from exhaustion.

Ten years of Cultural Revolution.

Father joined the Red Guards.

At school, they tortured his teachers.

They traveled across the country to meet other young activists.

They wanted to propagate Mao’s thought.

On a train to Beijing, Father brought a basket of bright-red oranges.

He wanted to see Mao.

Tiananmen Tower was flooded with orange-red faces of the young Guards.

It was an age when people wandered and wasted away.

They had no time for orange parties.

More orange trees were planted after the Cultural Revolution.

They were no longer a rare delicacy, and more varieties appeared in the marketplace.

After China’s Opening Up, we never had time to meet again at Uncle’s house.

Uncle moved into a modern apartment building.

And no one ever picked oranges again.

Still the orange tree bore fruit.

Winter comes and goes.

Oranges fall and grow.

The dead and the living travel through the house.

Past the shade of the old orange tree.

Its white flowers bloom and wilt, then the oranges turn red.

Every year the orange tree turns red.

Grandparents never ate any oranges.

Last year the orange tree suffered from warm weather.

All its leaves were burned white. 

Dong Li’s honors include Vermont Studio Center and Henry Luce Foundation fellowships. Born and raised in the People’s Republic of China, Li will be the Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Creative Writing at Colgate University in 2013–2014.