For years the person he feared most was not his mother or father, not his teacher, not the bad kids in class who smoked and brawled, not Ah Fei the local street tough, but that other self in that photograph. It was a fear verging on hatred.

We were the itch and the cops were out to scratch us.

Zeng Hong, Apartment Building - II. Acrylic on canvas, 2011. Courtesy of Artaflo Collective.

The following is an excerpt from Xu Zechen’s Beijing Sprawl, translated by Eric Abrahamson and Jeremy Tiang, out Tuesday from Two Lines Press.

A young man in search of his twin passed between two enemy encampments. In those moments before the clamor of war erupted, he glanced left and right at the ranks arrayed on either side. The moonlight was bright, and as he turned to our side, where I stood hidden within the crowd, I saw him smile as if in a dream.

A week earlier he’d arrived in Beijing from a city in the south. He got off the train, shouldered his pack, and wandered the streets until he finally ended up living in the courtyard next to ours with a group of pirated DVD sellers from Jiangxi. He’d originally wanted to stay with us, but Xingjian and Miluo had turned him down, saying they were expecting family to visit. Of course, there was no family; they just thought he looked suspicious. After just a quick chat they sent him packing.

“Did you see the way he looked?” asked Xingjian, half-closing his eyes. “Sort of shifty, right?” I nodded. “A little wild, huh?” said Miluo. I nodded again. I had to admit Xingjian did a good impression: with his big eyes narrowed, he looked a million miles away.

They were certain something was wrong with the guy. And no wonder: What sane person would say he’d come to Beijing looking for his alter ego? He’d said to us, “There’s another Dai Shanchuan in the world, right here in Beijing.” “No kidding,” we said. “You’re bound to find a few people sharing any halfway normal name in a city of 20 million.” But Dai Shanchuan corrected us, “No, not just the same name, the same person.” The three of us instantly got goose pimples. The same person! Dai Shanchuan narrowed his eyes, looking past us with a distant gaze, like a crow gliding on wings above the city, flying from here in the western outskirts to Chaoyang District and onward to Tongzhou. We were sitting on the roof—the best hospitality we could offer—and had been hoping he would take the spot that had been Baolai’s, then Huicong’s, so we could split the rent four ways instead of three.

“Look: this is Beijing,” said Xingjian, gesturing grandly from the roof at the sprawling city. “You won’t find a better spot to live in this neighborhood. From this roof you can see the whole capital.”

Dai Shanchuan nodded very slowly. “Yes, I’m sure I’ll be able to find Dai Shanchuan from here.”

“Are you sure it’s really Dai Shanchuan you’re looking for?” I asked.

“Not Lai Shenchan?” asked Xingjian.

“Or Kai Shanchang?” said Miluo.

“No,” replied Dai Shanchuan, his smile quietly confident. Later, we all agreed that, no matter how you looked at it, there had been something off about that smile. “It’s my other self I’m looking for.”

Then he sat down in the one bamboo chair we had up there and told us all about the Dai Shanchuan he was looking for, whose photo he’d grown up seeing. He pulled a crumpled three-by-five-inch snapshot from his wallet, showing a pale, pudgy baby, perhaps not even a year old, with a foolish grin and wispy brown hair. “Dai Shanchuan,” he said. Then from another pocket he drew a second photograph, a boy of ten or so in a checkered suit, hands on hips and with that same foolish grin, hair hastily parted for the photo. “Me.”

“You’re Dai Shanchuan,” said Xingjian.

“He is him; I am me.”

“Dai Shanchuan is you,” said Miluo.

“I am another him. He is another me.”

What a mess.

Xingjian was the first to really suspect something was wrong. He pointed out a flock of pigeons flying overhead. “We should bring one of those little fuckers down for dinner.”

Miluo and I both looked up at the passing flock. But Dai Shanchuan’s gaze, still like a vast, gliding crow, saw no pigeons. He insisted on continuing the story about Dai Shanchuan.

In fact, the whole thing was very straightforward and might have happened to any of us. If you’re naughty as a child, your father might say, “We should have kept the other one, not you.” You have to admit it was a good trick: His little heart could barely stand the thought that some other kid might show up one day and put on his clothes, eat from his cup and bowl, and steal his parents’ love, replacing him entirely. And so, he behaved—at least in that moment. That kind of half-serious deception usually only works for a few years. After you’ve grown up a bit, you stop falling for it. The adults lose interest in the gambit and go back to the tried-and-true beatings and scoldings. But Dai Shanchuan was different. He was an only child—the sole recipient of the affection of his grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and parents, who couldn’t bear to be rough with him. Even his imaginary rival couldn’t be someone else—the only possible rival he might have was himself. Even before he was a year old, if he refused his dinner, his grandparents would point at a photo in an elegant frame (the same one he’d pulled out of his pocket) and say, “Do you know who that is?”

Dai Shanchuan pointed at himself.

His grandparents shook their heads. “That’s the you in Beijing.”

Dai Shanchuan tottered over to the dressing table mirror, trying to reach in and fish himself out.

When he refused to nap, his grandparents would point at the photograph. “If you don’t sleep, we’ll trade you for that Dai Shanchuan.”

Dai Shanchuan would hurriedly shut his eyes tight.

All any family member had to do was point toward that photograph, and Dai Shanchuan would behave. For years the person he feared most was not his mother or father, not his teacher, not the bad kids in class who smoked and brawled, not Ah Fei the local street tough, but that other self in that photograph. It was a fear verging on hatred. That self, way off in Beijing, was his greatest enemy. The photograph felt three-dimensional, and no matter what angle you viewed it from, the eyes seemed to follow you. When he was young, Dai Shanchuan would peek at the photo from the corner of his eye, but the self in Beijing always noticed, and it turned the poor boy into the most obedient child in the neighborhood. When he started school, he was a model student, and the teacher would encourage the other children to be like him. He thought of destroying the photograph but didn’t dare to launch an open assault; instead, he pretended he’d broken the glass in a moment of accidental clumsiness. His parents didn’t scold him; they simply had the photo remounted in an even more beautiful frame and hung it back where it had been. His father said, “You be careful with this now.”

As he grew older, the Dai Shanchuan in the photo remained a year-old baby. Yet he found himself unable to leave himself behind. All those years, he’d had only himself as a friend. No brothers or sisters, and when he came home from school there was no one his age to play with. His family worried about his safety away from home, worried about the influence of wild children on his studies, worried he would trip and fall while running, worried he would get into fights. He could only play with the self on the wall, to whom he would say, “Hello, Dai Shanchuan.”

Then he’d answer on his own behalf: “Hello to you, Dai Shanchuan.”

“Have you eaten yet, Dai Shanchuan?”

“I have, Dai Shanchuan. Have you?”

“I have. Do you know the poem ‘Climbing Stork Tower’?”

“Yes, I have it memorized: ‘The sun beyond the mountains glows; The Yellow River seawards flows. You can enjoy a grander sight, by climbing to a greater height.’

“Ma and Ba were fighting this morning. Do you know why?”

“Probably just the hot weather.”

“They fight at night, too.”

“Because the air conditioner is still broken.”

“Today the teacher scolded me for not joining in with the other kids.”

“That’s because you’ve got me for a friend.”

“Right, that’s why.”

Sure enough, photo-Dai Shanchuan became Dai Shanchuan’s best friend. He liked talking to him and got used to the idea that he had this other self, also called Dai Shanchuan, living in an unfamiliar but very famous city. He was his own best friend, his only friend. When he was home alone, he was never lonely, because once he’d learned to be friends with himself, he never felt loneliness.

“Maybe you actually do have a twin brother?” I asked him.

“If you do,” added Xingjian, “this whole thing would make a lot more sense. But having ‘another self’ . . . ha, that just sounds freaky.”

“Unless maybe you have multiple personality disorder,” said Miluo.

“All that occurred to me,” said Dai Shanchuan, turning the photograph over and over. “But my parents said they’d only had one child. Could it really be possible for someone to have a doppelganger?” He pulled yet another photo from his pocket, this one obviously more recent. “Have you met anyone in Beijing who looks like this?”

Xingjian shivered a bit and grimaced. “I can’t hold it any longer, I’m heading down for a piss.”

As he started down Miluo followed him, and I stood up as well. Beijing was a big place, all kinds of weird stuff could happen, but this was just a bit too strange.

“But I’m not done with the story,” said Dai Shanchuan.

“No need,” said Xingjing, already down in the courtyard. “The bed won’t be available for a bit; we’ve got some family visiting for a while. Right, guys?”

Miluo and I chimed in: “Yup, that’s right.”

And that was the end of that. As I saw Dai Shanchuan out, I motioned with my head toward the courtyard next door. “They ought to have a bed free; why don’t you try there?”

The next morning, I had one of my pounding headaches and went for a run through the alleys. As I passed the open gate of the courtyard next door, someone called out to me in a muffled voice. I stuck my head in and saw Dai Shanchuan squatting at the water faucet, brushing his teeth. He waved to me, mouth full of foam.

We had no work at that time—it was impossible to paste ads. It was what they called “urban psoriasis”: we were the itch and the cops were out to scratch us; even the street sweepers dropped their brooms and gave chase. All the vendors who wandered the streets—fruit sellers with their flatbed bikes, roadside DVD sellers, fake-ID merchants, buskers, hawkers of crepes or nuts or sausages or fruitcake or soy milk or buns or boxed lunches, peddlers of whistles or erhu or gourd-flutes—all of us hunkered down in our rented rooms. No one forbade us from going out, of course. But we’d be crazy to try. All of Beijing was being “cleaned up.” The word was that a major political conference was coming up.

When everyone was busy making money, we got along OK—too busy to pursue grudges or rivalries. Now, with nothing else to do, it was time to settle scores, time to take up arguments, time to pick fights—anything to fill the hours. To start with, the conflicts were specific. Mostly one-on-one and resolved with words as often as fists. But eventually things got messy: more fists and more fighters. They say it takes a village, and everyone had some buddies they could call on. Of course, it would start off as a conflict between small groups, but then things would snowball, and eventually you ended up with opposing armies. Anyway, by the time I realized what was happening, there was gang warfare on a daily basis. Folks from the same part of China would stick together, as did people in similar lines of work. In the morning I might give you a piece of my mind, so by evening it was your turn to come looking for me. And just as it started off with some restraint with mostly fists or wrestling, gradually the weapons came out: sticks, iron coal shovels, furnace tongs, the daggers and chain whips young people use for self-defense—some even walked around with chef’s knives and metal spatulas. All of it looked pretty intimidating, glinting and gleaming in the moonlight, but when the actual fighting started people mostly played by the rules. Beforehand, the guy at the head of each gang would remind his fighters, “It’s not like back home; it’s better not to go overboard; everyone’s eyes are on us here.” So, despite the fact that our neighborhood saw daily action for a while, and a few people did get hurt, everyone kept it under control for the most part. The gang fights were almost a kind of communal entertainment, a salve for dull times. You had to admit there was nothing to get the heart racing like a good brawl, and us shiftless people found it invigorating.

Xingjian and Miluo were big guys, and their repressed aggression had them practically breaking out in acne—they never missed the fun. Before leaving for battle each day, they’d pick over everything in the place that could serve as a weapon. Then they’d head out like Wu Song off to kill the tiger. I was timid by comparison—occasionally I’d join a gang of Jiangxi folk and do some shouting and heckling, but at best I was an instigator. When the real fighting would start, I’m ashamed to say, I’d cower by a wall or under a tree, trembling head to toe. I kept getting migraines—faced with imminent battle I’d be sure to have an attack of nerves, and I could hardly win the struggle against my own head. At times like those, I’d run. Not flee, not escape, but jog. Only those marathon runs soothed my weak nerves.

One evening as Dai Shanchuan drifted, as if sleepwalking, between two armies, I was hiding behind a group of my compatriots. The fighting might spark at any moment, and I heard a kind of glittering sound that slithered into my brain: The migraine was about to start. I slapped my head and said to Xingjian, “It’s no good; I need to run.”

“Run, then,” said Xingjian, holding a scuffed-up baseball bat that belonged to our landlord, his mind already in the fight. “We never expected much from you.”

I rapped my temple, drew back like a fleeing soldier, and started running down the moonlit alleyways. When I got to Blossoms Bar, I ran into Dai Shanchuan. Under the light of the moon and streetlamps, he was looking at the display windows and signs of every shop on the street. I stopped to talk to him, and I could hear the mockery in my voice. “Still looking for yourself?”

“Just strolling.” He didn’t seem to be joking at all. “If there really is another me living in Beijing, I’m going to have to take a good look at the whole city.”

We weren’t quite on the same frequency. “Haven’t you ever considered that your parents were just tricking you?”

“Yeah. But what difference does that make?” He turned his smiling gaze from the shop windows to me. “We all need another self. Imagine if there were another you: Imagine a whole entire life for him. What fun! Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to someday get a look at how he lived.”

Still not the same frequency. I tried again. “Didn’t you quit school and run away from home to come to Beijing?”

“I told my parents. They said, ‘Whatever, go take a look.’”

OK—the whole family was on their own frequency.

He said, “Has it never occurred to you that there might be another you in the world? Or that you might have a twin brother? And that you and he had accidentally had your names exchanged, and you were here living his life, while he was off somewhere else living yours?”

This was hard to follow. The headache that had receded during my run was starting to return. There might have been something wrong with my head, but this guy was way worse off. “I don’t have any brothers, just an older sister.”

“But what if you did?” He prompted me earnestly. “Try to remember.”

There was no “what if” about it, and I waved him off. Running was the only cure for my nerves; anything else just made me worse. He started speaking again, but I was already on the other side of Flower River Square.

“But what if you did?” he prompted Duck-egg. “Try to remember. Did your parents say anything?”

Duck-egg put his face in his hands and tilted his head to the side. “They did!” He clapped happily. “My mama said if I kept crying, she’d give all my snacks to my little brother.”

“Did your mama say where your little brother was?”

Duck-egg pursed his lips. “No, she just said he looked a lot like me.”

He pulled Duck-egg up from the little stool. “Come on, I’ll take you to see what your brother looks like.”

I stood on the roof, watching Dai Shanchuan leading Duck-egg out of the neighboring courtyard by his little hand.

Duck-egg was four years old, the son of Qiao from Henan. Qiao had no idea what was going on—he, his wife, and Duck-egg had come to Beijing to sell egg crepes, and the parents left early every morning. They pushed their cart to the subway stations or bus terminals and sold the crepes for two-fifty each—three-fifty with an extra egg. They might sell a few hundred crepes per morning, to the young people passing by on their way to work. One of them heated up the crepes they’d made the night before in a frying pan, filling them with crispy-brown fried egg, while the other sold congee and soy milk and made change. The mornings were too early for Duck-egg, so he was stuck at home. Neighbors who didn’t need to be out so early would often end up looking after him.

Qiao and his family lived in the courtyard where Dai Shanchuan was renting a place. The difference was, Dai Shanchuan was squeezed into the main room with a bunch of pirated-DVD sellers, while they lived in a standalone room. Western Beijing was full of renters, and anything resembling a house was in hot demand. Lots of landlords put up temporary structures in their courtyards: a single row of stacked brick for the walls, covered up with siding, then topped with asbestos tiles. Enough to keep out wind and rain, but the winters were freezing and summers scorching. Even those cut-rate structures were hot commodities: They were cheap, private, and often relatively clean. Qiao had rented the only one in the courtyard next door.

Duck-egg’s name wasn’t actually Duck-egg. He had a vaguely duck-egg-shaped head and his parents sold egg crepes, so people called him that. After a while, his parents used the nickname too, and everyone mostly forgot what he’d been called before. Duck-egg was an only child, of that I had no doubt. Qiao had once said it was expensive enough raising one—if they’d had a second, what they’d saved from selling egg crepes wouldn’t even cover the fine.

Qiao and his wife left with their cart early in the morning, looking for a safe spot to do business. Even if they had to leave the neighborhood, they hated the thought of a wasted day. Duck-egg was left behind to be entertained by a pack of wastrels. And now Dai Shanchuan had led him away from the courtyard.

They were back twenty minutes later, hardly long enough for me to finish my rooftop nap in the sun. Duck-egg was holding a big photograph, and he called up to me:

“Muyu, look! My little brother!”

Little brother? He was an only child. Dai Shanchuan was a real piece of work: he’d taken Duck-egg to a photo shop and found him a little brother. It wasn’t a bad picture, though. The photographer had lent him a fashionable little outfit: shirt, tie, and even a little vest with a pocket watch. Dressed up as his brother, hands in his pockets, Duck-egg was quite the sight.

I went to the edge of the roof and said down to Dai Shanchuan, “Are you trying to screw that kid up?”

“How could I screw him up?” he replied. “Duck-egg is lonely; he spends all day locked up by himself. We need to find him a playmate.”

That kind of got to me. When I was young, I got rashes and had to stay out of the wind. My parents were afraid I was infectious and kept me locked up at home, where I got so bored I started talking to the clock and the hot-water bottle. I called down, “Hey Duck-egg, tell me, what’s your brother’s name?”

“Chicken-egg!” Duck-egg said proudly. “I’m Duck-egg, and my brother’s Chicken-egg!”

All right, then. Just don’t find him an elder brother, or they’d be chicken, duck, and goose . . . “Duck-egg, your brother looks a lot like you!”

“Of course,” he replied, holding the photo up. “He is my brother.”

I had to admit it, Chicken-egg seemed to have the desired effect. It was Dai Shanchuan who told me that Qiao and his wife had expressed their gratitude with two egg crepes, plus a cup of mung-bean porridge. The price of mung-bean porridge was high those days. Some expert had said that eating the beans would cure whatever ailed you, so the supermarkets couldn’t keep them stocked, even at triple the price. Qiao said Chicken-egg really did the trick. All he had to do was point to the picture on the wall and Duck-egg would behave, eating when he was told, drinking when he was told, and sleeping when he was told. He was good when he was left alone, too, talking to the photo—little brother this, little brother that—with such enthusiasm that Qiao’s wife started talking about having another one.

It all seemed to be true. Qiao and his wife didn’t ask me for help watching the boy anymore. Previously, I’d been over there in the mornings every few days, checking to see if Duck-egg had woken up yet.

Saturday afternoon there was another big battle, more than thirty per side, all armed—it was quite something to see. Before they got down to business there was a bunch of shouting, as usual. While they were all cursing in each other’s faces, a van careened toward them, honking urgently, and everyone leaped back. Someone got knocked down and landed on a hoe. It belonged to a landlord who’d once used it for gardening in a courtyard, but after renting out the space, he left the hoe in a shed, until it was eventually discovered again and pulled out for the fight. To make it more intimidating, the person who found it had polished it so thoroughly you could use it for a mirror, and the sharpness of the edge goes without saying. The wielder happened to be leaning on the handle at the time, so the blade was facing up, and when Fat Cui fell on it, he got it right in the neck, cutting his esophagus and carotid artery. The crowd gathered around to watch him flop like a caught fish, blood and froth pooling around his neck. The burbling sound of his breath coming out but not going in scared everyone half to death, but they could only wring their hands. A couple of the braver ones tried to staunch the blood, while someone called 120. By the time an ambulance showed up, Fat Cui was dead.

I wasn’t there that day. Dai Shanchuan had brought Duck-egg up to our roof, and they both had gone on and on about their alter egos. Dai Shanchuan told me that, as he’d passed through the crowd, looking at the astonishing variety of faces, he believed the other Dai Shanchuan who had his face was also searching for him amid the crowd. Thinking about it, he felt connected to the world in innumerable ways—everyone he happened to pass had the potential to be another him. He sensed that he was a knot of vital importance on a vast net.

“Do you really believe there’s another you out there?”

“It would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Duck-egg really likes his brother now.”

“Yeah, I talk to my little brother every day,” chimed in Duck-egg, squirming with excitement. “He’s a good kid; if you give him candy he won’t eat it, but he gives me White Rabbits.”

“Congratulations,” I said to Dai Shanchuan. “You’ve found your heir.”

Dai Shanchuan grinned at me. Just then Xingjian and Miluo came staggering home. As they passed through the gate Miluo shouted up to the roof, “Cui has passed . . .”

“Cui who?” I asked.

“Fat Cui!” Xingjian shouted.

“He passed out?” It hadn’t occurred to me that Miluo might be capable of euphemism. The only Cui I could think of was the chubby cook from Anhui. He made a mean fermented perch—he collected the ingredients and cooked in the place he rented. Last time I’d been there, I’d eaten so much I’d nearly swallowed my tongue.

“He’s dead!” yelled Xingjian, his voice almost unrecognizable. He’d witnessed the last moments of Cui’s life, and it had terrified him.

It seemed unlikely to find your exact double in a crowd. It also seemed unlikely that someone could die at the drop of a hat. Yet Fat Cui was definitely dead. Xingjian and Miluo collapsed in the courtyard, while I slumped on the roof—for a while no one moved. We’d all eaten his fish, drunk his chicken soup. He said there were only three things to know about Anhui cooking: heavy salt, light stink, a bit of thigh. Fat Cui was so modest, he blushed a little when he said, “a bit of thigh.”

The thing was, Fat Cui had never had any beef with anyone. He’d just happened to be off work that day. A roommate of his from his hometown who put screen protectors on cell phones for a living had dragged him along to bulk out the crowd.

The death shook everyone to their senses. It was dangerous, the game they were playing, and the bigger gangs dispersed without anything else happening. But it was still only the beginning of things. The authorities had been itching to clean up the city and get rid of the ne’er-do-wells here at the outskirts, and now they had their excuse. First it was midnight raids to check residence permits—vagrants without permits were sent back to their villages. Then it was surveys of dangerous or illegal structures in the area—buildings not meeting safety standards could not be rented out and would be demolished if not brought up to code in time. Most rentals in the area had something wrong with them, so they were able to dispose of a large batch of the “unstable elements” in the name of safety. Even those with real vendettas had no time to fight: Everyone was busy getting sent back to their hometowns, getting driven out of their rooms, or scrambling for some miraculous reprieve. The rest lit incense in the temples and thanked their good fortune.

As for the three of us, our door was kicked open in the middle of the night, and flashlights shone on our pillows. In underpants and a T-shirt, I dug my residence permit out of my suitcase. Miluo couldn’t remember where his was and went from box to bag to pockets, finally finding it on a shelf above his bed. He got a kick for his troubles; they said he’d wasted too much time.

While we were looking for our permits, Duck-egg was crying next door. Another squad had gone into Qiao’s place, and Duck-egg had been terrified by the strangers barging in in the middle of the night. Qiao must have given them some trouble and pissed them off. As they left, I heard Qiao’s wife running out after them, her flip-flops slapping.

“Please don’t be angry; that really wasn’t what he meant.”

“Who cares what he meant!” replied a man’s hard voice. “Tell your landlord: day after tomorrow, noon at the latest. No exceptions.”

What exactly this referred to I don’t know. We didn’t get the chance. The neighborhood was in an uproar well before dawn—some packing bags and moving away, others throwing themselves at the mercy of friends and relatives. Over the next two days people were constantly stopping by to say goodbye. Some older migrants who’d been in the city for years said they hadn’t seen a sweep that ferocious in years. Then “the day after tomorrow” came and bulldozers roared westward, and we understood the message: enforced demolition of illegal structures. They started in the alleys to the west and worked toward us, house by house. Every building not up to code was knocked down. They knew they couldn’t expect the landlords to do it—who would kill their own golden goose? Qiao had called his landlord, but the guy had sworn up and down it was all a bunch of noise, nothing he hadn’t dealt with before, no need to get all nervous. But when the bulldozers started down the alleyways, Qiao and his wife lost their nerve and started packing. They hadn’t finished yet when the bulldozers came in the gate of their courtyard.

The demolition was a big deal, and we all came out to watch. Dai Shanchuan and the DVD sellers were all there; they had been holed up at home with nothing to do. Dai Shanchuan had nearly gotten himself beaten up during the investigation. He should have been counted as a recently arrived visitor—his train ticket was evidence of that—but while he was explaining his reasons for being in Beijing, he’d pissed off one of the investigators. If I’d been the investigator I would have been furious, too: What the hell did “another self” mean? The little shit was obviously taking the piss, and the policeman’s baton was already raised. Luckily Dai Shanchuan realized he wasn’t going to be able to explain and just said that he’d come to Beijing to find a brother with whom he’d lost touch years ago. “Why the fuck didn’t you just say that to begin with?” the policeman asked. “What was all that bullshit about ‘another self’?”

The demolition team leader raised his hand, and the bulldozer approached the eastern wall of Qiao’s room. Qiao and his wife said there were still some things inside and asked if they could they have another five minutes. The team leader held up two fingers and glanced at his watch.

Qiao and his wife really panicked. They dashed inside and came out with their arms full of stuff. Dumping everything on the ground, they went back for more; they would have dragged the bed out if they’d had the chance. The team leader dropped his fingers, gesturing to the bulldozer driver, who put his foot on the gas. Duck-egg suddenly started shouting:

“Chicken-egg! Chicken-egg!”

Why was he yelling about eggs? It took me a moment to catch on.

He was crying and yelling, “Chicken-egg! I want my brother Chicken-egg!”

He meant that photo above his bed. I thought of running inside, but the bulldozer was already spouting black smoke and roaring forward. It was Dai Shanchuan who went in. And less than three seconds later, the bulldozer bit into the wall. The driver hadn’t seen him, and by the time he heard us shouting at him over the roar of the engine, it was too late. Qiao’s shack shuddered, then collapsed.

The driver sat frozen. We all stood like statues, except for Duck-egg, who was still crying for his brother. Dai Shanchuan did not emerge.

It was a very long moment. Dust rose in the air, and our mouths hung open. We stared at the meager wreckage—asbestos tiles, siding, and bricks all jumbled together. The driver killed the engine, and the courtyard was filled only with the sounds of the wind and Duck-egg’s crying. I believe that time has a sound of its own. I could hear that sound, too, as time passed second by second. The pile of wreckage was still. Then another sound suddenly emerged from it, and one of us called out. Through the thinning dust we saw the broken bricks stir, and we could see a hand in the pile, holding a torn and wrinkled photograph above the ruins.

Duck-egg pulled free of his mother, shouting as he ran, “Brother!”

—Translated from the Chinese by Eric Abrahamson

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