Brother Guang

A house of cards – fiction by Hannah Lincoln


Ed: Friend of the Anthill Hannah Lincoln has published a collection of short stories from Beijing, Ashen, with gorgeous illustrations by Amy Sands. We're proud to present one of the stories from the collection


When the kang-kang man came by they were playing cards on a plastic table in the hutong.

The kang-kang man was the only grown-up on the lane who never smiled at Du Er. He only took the cans and paper and Ma ran after him to give the bottles from the customers last night with the big bellies. Du Er pinched a scrap of paper off the ground and ran after him too. “Uncle, I have paper!” he looked down and did not smile, just kept clanking kang-kang. Du Er bumbled back to her Ma and announced, “Look, paper!” but she was counting her coins and didn’t see.

Brother Guang hadn’t moved from his stool next to the table with the cards on it. “What’s that you got there?” he said.

“Paper,” Du Er said.

He said, “Are you helping the uncle recycle?”

Huishou – recycle. That must mean putting the little things in the box on the wheels.

“Yes, it’s for the uncle.”

“Give it to me and I’ll make sure it gets recycled,” Brother Guang held out his palm and Du Er placed the scrap in it. “Recycling is important. The environment is not very good lately. We people have been bad to it. Now we need to start being good to it, alright?”

Du Er recognised that he was asking her a question and that she was supposed to say yes, so she did.

Du Er and Brother Guang played cards by bending them to see how high they could stack. Their pack of cards were fringed with brown and lined with creases from all the building and collapsing that had happened on that plastic table. When the tower fell and the cards flew in all directions, Du Er would scramble to pick them up before the kang-kang man came by and pinched them up with his long claw that that dropped garbage in the box on the wheels – recycling.

“Brother Guang, why does the uncle use that thing to pick up trash?” 

“So he doesn’t have to get his hands dirty.”

“It’s scary,” she said.

He said, “Don’t worry, he won’t pinch you with them. You’re not dirty enough.”

“Are you?” Du Er said.

He said, “I shower every day – you know that!”

Brother Guang was that age between a big brother and an uncle, which was confusing for Du Er because Brother Guang was nearly Ma’s age, so Ma must have had him when she was a child – not much older than Du Er herself.

And so she went to the restaurant’s kitchen and asked her mother, who didn’t always tell Du Er things but always seemed to know the answers, “How old were you when Brother Guang was born?”

“Why do you ask this question?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was twelve,” Ma said.

Du Er said, “You had a baby when you were twelve?”

Ma said, “Brother Guang’s not your brother – he’s your cousin.”


Biaoge – cousin. That meant Du Er had an aunt or uncle. But she had already asked enough questions, and so instead she pulled out her bucket and wooden spoon and banged it while Ma cut up string beans. It was late in the afternoon, which meant Brother Guang should be helping Ma cut up the vegetables.

Du Er hit the bucket loudly as if to alert Brother Guang that it was that time to cut up vegetables and if he didn’t show up Ma would be mad. It seemed to work, because he appeared in the kitchen’s doorway, wearing a white button-up shirt and looking anxious.

Ma said, “A new shirt? Don’t wear a new shirt now – you’re cutting up vegetables.”

He said to Ma, “I want to enroll in the University.”


“Yes, I’ve read a lot of books lately and I think I can test in.”

“Books? What books?”

“Books about environmentalism. I think I have enough understanding to test into a science program.”

“Science program? And who will help me with the restaurant?” 

“Du Er is old enough to chop vegetables now.”

“Du Er? Du Er can’t even pick up her colouring books. What do you want to give her a knife for?”

“Well then she could clean dishes.” He said.

Ma said, “My sister left me with no money for you.”

Sister? Ma never mentioned a sister before. She didn’t have any parents of her own, either. Only Baby Deng, the two-year-old next door, had so much family. Baby Deng got all sorts of smiles from his grandma and grandpa and all the other grown-ups out in the lane where the kang-kang man always frowned at Du Er, who apparently had an aunt and a cousin but no real brother.

And she could pick up her colouring books – she could pick up all the books in the house if it meant Brother Guang could go to the university. Du Er wasn’t sure what the university was, but like most things it seemed to make Ma mad, and if it was something that made Ma mad but made Brother Guang happy then Du Er would have to help out.

She ran out of the restaurant’s kitchen, leaving the grown-ups to talk about university and Ma’s sister and who in the family could hold the knife. She ran past Baby Deng, whose grandparents smiled at him even as his wide tricycle wheels grinded loudly on the lane’s pavement. Du Er burst into her family’s front door and ran right to her pile of colouring books, fanned out on the main room’s floor. Within a minute, they were stacked neatly on the table. 

There, Brother Guang could go to the university.

But then there was Brother Guang’s little room, just big enough for a mattress, which was covered in books and magazines. Du Er let herself in and stacked one atop the other until they reached her nose and then toppled back down onto his mattress.

Scraps of paper fell out of one book, and Du Er picked them up. They were magazine rip-outs with naked men on them – men doing things that didn’t make any sense.

But it didn’t matter what was on the papers; they were still papers and they could be recycled, and Brother Guang said that was a good thing and an important thing and Du Er had said that she would do it. She shoved the papers into her pocket and ran back outside.

The kang-kang man wasn’t around, but Brother Guang was sitting back at the plastic table, building a card tower by himself. He saw Du Er approaching, but couldn’t bring himself to smile.

“Brother Guang, are you playing cards?”

“Yes Du Er, come join me.”

Baby Deng’s trike wheels were still roaring down the hutong, and his grandma and grandpa were still smiling in his wakeand stopping to look at the card tower.

“Building with cards,” Grandpa Deng said.

“It’s going to fall,” Grandma Deng said.

But it was high – higher than any card tower before. Brother Guang didn’t talk; just folded and placed the cards ever-so-gently on one another, building higher than anyone in the hutong thought he could. Du Er couldn’t reach the top anymore, so she helped by just handing him cards instead.

Kang-kang came the noise around the bend, and Du Er leaped off her stool so fast that the breeze off her body collapsed Brother Guang’s tower. “Uncle, I have paper!” Du Er held out the crumpled papers from Brother Guang’s room. They were bigger and better than the scrap from this morning, and Du Er winced as the kang-kang man used his long pincers to pluck them from her hand.

He looked at the scraps with the funny men on them and said, “Where’d you get these?”

“From Brother Guang’s room,” Du Er said. “I cleaned up myself. All my colouring books and his books – I cleaned up all of it.”

The kang-kang man still didn’t smile, and he just kang-kang’ed over to the restaurant, where Ma was standing at the entrance flattening out cardboard boxes.

Du Er returned to the card table. She thought Brother Guang might be mad that she knocked over his card tower, but he smiled weakly and said, “You sure like to recycle, don’t you?”

“XIAO GUANG!” Ma yelled. “COME HERE.” 

He sighed as he stood up, saying to Du Er, “Let’s hope your mom’s come to her senses about my education.”

Du Er started to stack the cards again, watching Brother Guang approach Ma with the stride not of a big brother, but a young uncle – in his new white shirt, he looked like a real grown-up. The kang-kang man disappeared down another lane, but Baby Deng’s plastic tricycle wheels kept rumbling along, while the other sounds of the hutong at dusk – the tweeting, caged nightingales, the old comrades’ banter, the hissing woks – all drowned under the trike’s ominous raincloud roll. A thunderclap suddenly split the lane, and Du Er knocked over her card tower again. It hadn’t been thunder – it was Mom’s slap across Brother Guang’s face. Heads poked out from behind door curtains. Wrinkled hands folded up their playing cards. Only Baby Deng continued his roll, unmoved by the affairs around him.

“Is THIS what you want to go to the university for?” she slapped him again. “After all I’ve done!”

Brother Guang hung his head; his dignified body now a lifeless puppet on strings. Du Er wanted him to fight back, or to run away, or even hit Du Er’s own mother. But in his listless swaying, he admitted his wrongdoing. Ma slapped Brother Guang until he collapsed. “Du Er, come here!” Ma yelled.

Du Er obeyed, and the whole lane watched as she daintily stepped over Brother Guang’s legs and into the restaurant’s kitchen.  “Your cousin can’t live with us anymore,” Ma said to Du Er. “He’s going back to his hometown. Go on, tell your little cousin! I’m not telling her anything!”

Brother Guang lay still, cradling himself as if he were his own child. Du Er’s last thought as her mother slammed the door on him was that his white button-down shirt would be forever be dirtied by the hutong’s pavement.

Hannah Lincoln lives in Beijing and works in market research, while nursing a lifelong love for literature

This story appears in Ashen, Hannah’s collection of her short stories from Beijing, which you can buy on Kindle here. It was also read at Storytelling night, Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival 2015

Illustration by Amy Sands