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I once believed that heroes existed only in old men’s fables, that evil in the world had triumphed over good, and that love—a true, unselfish, and abiding love—could only be found in a little girl’s imagination. I was certain the gods were deaf, that Buddha was forgotten, and that I would never again see the natural beauty of my home province.
It was a time when I learned about shape-shifters, shadows, and redemption; when I finally grasped the meaning of a Chinese proverb whose venerable words still rattle about in my head: The most difficult battles in life are those we fight within.
It was also the year that I came to truly know the Rent Collector.
Beep beep beep.
The steady rumble of uninvited trucks tries to pry into the safety of my dream, a dream in which I am still a child prancing along the trail toward the rice fields where my family works in the Prey Veng province of Cambodia’s countryside. It is a cheerful morning as I pull at my grandfather’s bony fingers, tugging him along while he struggles to keep up.
“Hurry, Ancient Snail,” I say with a smug yet spirited bounce.
“If I am a snail,” he quips, “you are salt, and you’ll soon have to drag my dead and lifeless body back home and explain to the village what you have done!”
I pay him no mind and instead pounce like a frog, jumping from rock to rock along the path.
“Perfect,” I answer, not letting my determination waver. “Everyone in the village loves snail. Tonight, we’ll eat like kings.”
I catch the slightest smile before he heaves a sigh—but then he shuffles to a stop. His gaze sharpens, his head tilts, his attention shifts to the distant countryside. Then we both feel the ground beneath us tremble.
He bends close, squints his eyes at mine, and peeks into my thoughts as though he were the village fortune-teller. I find it unnerving and so I glance down at my bare and dirty toes. He won’t allow it. With a touch from his calloused finger to my chin he raises my gaze. He speaks assuredly, but still with enough grandfatherly giggle trailing in his voice to make certain my little-girl ears pay attention to every smiling syllable.
“Life will not always be so hard or cruel. Our difficulties are but a moment.”
I stare back, trying to make sense of his words, for my life is neither hard nor cruel. I am still too young to recognize that we are poor—that in spite of the grandeur of the province and the hours my family toils each day, we don’t own the land on which we work. I haven’t yet grasped that earning enough money to buy food on the very day we eat it isn’t an adventure embraced by the world.
The rumble grows louder, and Grandfather rocks forward on his toes.
“Remember, Sang Ly. When you find your purpose—and you will find your purpose—never let go. Peace is a product of both patience and persistence.”
How can a child pretend to make sense of such a puzzling phrase?
“Sang Ly,” he repeats, as if he finds eminent joy in the sound of my name, “it starts today. Today is going to be a very lucky day.”
I am tired of the games, tired of his words zipping past like dizzy fireflies. I reach out and latch on to his cheeks, pinching them tightly together. “What are you saying, Grandfather? You don’t make any sense.”
“Sang Ly, the trucks are coming. It is time to go.” His lips continue to move but his voice grows younger, stronger. “Sang Ly, wake up. The trucks are here. It’s time for me to go.”
As my husband, Ki Lim, rocks me awake, it isn’t my grandfather who is sucked away from the safety of a child’s dream. Rather, it is me.
The touch of my husband, the stir of our child, the relentless beeping of the snaking trucks confirm that I am no longer a girl of seven at home in the distant province but a grown woman of twenty-nine living at Stung Meanchey.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to the dark shape of the man standing over me. “I overslept. I dreamed that I was . . .”
I rub at my eyes. My dreams don’t matter. I was supposed to pack last night’s rice into Ki’s carry tin for today’s lunch. He needed to get an early start, as we must earn an extra 12,000 riel today to have enough to pay the Cow.
“I am sorry,” I say again, seeking his understanding with all the softness and sincerity that a dazed and drowsy wife can muster. “Hurry. Go now, and I will bring your lunch.”
Like Grandfather in my dream, Ki also sighs deeply.
“If you come, please be careful. Watch for needles and stay back, far away from the trucks. You know what happened to Prak Sim.”
I nod, still groggy, but awake enough to wonder if I can lie back down after he leaves, close my eyes, and coax Grandfather’s dreams back into my head—but then the baby cries.
With careful hands, Ki picks up our son, Nisay, from the floor near the foot of our mat where he sleeps and passes him to me. At nearly sixteen months, the child is still small enough that I can carry him in one arm with ease. He should be talking, watching our lips, listening to us repeat his name, mimicking our words with baby laughs and giggles. Instead, when he’s not fussing, his gaze is hollow and distant. His hair is thin and patchy, his little naked belly protrudes below his skinny ribs as though he’s swallowed a ball, and I feel like a neglectful mother every time I take him out onto the city’s streets.
It’s not that we aren’t trying to feed the boy; we beg him to eat. When he does, however, it mostly races through him, flowing out the other end as a never-ending bout of nighttime diarrhea that I scrub off the floor each morning.
“Do we give him the medicine this early?” Ki asks.
“Later, after he eats. It will be easier for him to keep it down.”
“Let’s hope he’s feeling better.” Ki says, before turning toward the sound of the trucks.
“I’m certain of it,” I reply, wanting to tell him about my dream. Instead I wrap our naked baby in a towel and gently rock him in my arms, hoping to settle his cries.
“Please be careful,” Ki repeats as he steps to the canvas curtain that serves as our front door to pull on his boots.
I lift the baby’s broom-handle arm and attempt to wave good-bye to Daddy, but Ki Lim has already stepped outside and is trudging off into the early-morning darkness, answering the incessant siren call of the burping trucks.
“I dreamed again about Grandfather,” I finally whisper to the only one possibly listening, a child now quietly suckling against my chest in the darkness. “Only today it was different.”
I listen to his labored breathing, imagine him tilting back his head and asking, “How? How was the dream about Grandfather different today, Mother?”
I pause instinctively before I answer, waiting just long enough to heighten his interest. “Today was different, Nisay, because before he left, Grandfather promised that it would be a very lucky day.”
When people ask where we live, I tell them we reside alongside the bank of a beautiful river called Stung Meanchey. After all, the name does mean River of Victory. If they know the place at all, they hesitate, smile quizzically, and then we both break out into tremendous laughter, for in spite of being named river, Stung Meanchey is the largest municipal waste dump in Phnom Penh—indeed, in all of Cambodia.
The place is mountainous, covering over 100 acres. Piles of putrid rubbish tower hundreds of feet high, surrounded by constantly shifting valleys that weave and connect like the web of a jungle spider. Navigating its changing paths can be tricky.
I tie my hair behind my head and step outside the structure that we call home: a three-walled shed of sorts that was once used to protect bags of concrete from the rain. It sits atop a small mound at the dump’s northeastern perimeter, slightly elevated above the shacks that lie distant on each side.
Since there are no structures allowed within the center of the dump itself, my view of the place is unobstructed and occasionally quite spectacular, especially after a hard rain has banished the constant haze. In fact, if anyone tries to build a permanent shelter within the dump proper, it is torn down by government workers (hired thugs). As such, the massive kingdom of Stung Meanchey is an encircled fortress, guarded by tin and cardboard castle walls on every perimeter.
I don’t intend to portray the place as miserable or entirely without joy. On the contrary—in spite of its hardships, there are slivers of time when life at the dump feels normal, almost beautiful. Pigs forage in the dirt lanes, children pick teams and play soccer, mothers and fathers banter about their day, babies are born, life presses on.
It is the beautiful times I cherish.
This morning I stand outside and survey my surroundings, hoping to divine what might be in store. The smoke is tolerable, subdued by a brief thundershower last night, and I nod at my distant neighbors already busily about their daily activities. I brush the swarming flies away from our cistern, scoop a pan of water, and then hurry back to clean up our bed mat where Nisay sleeps. He has not been well and so, for many weeks, my first morning job has been to wash away his diarrhea. It may sound disgusting, but in a place of swirling odors, we hardly notice. Frankly, cleaning up his mess is the least of our problems.
I tease that we live by a river, but there is truth to my jest. When the rains come, they leach through the rotting trash, causing foul liquids to ooze, mix, and trickle into noxious streams. The waters splash and then dry, leaving ugly, black stains that won’t go away for days. They cause our skin to rash. Mostly they just stink.
Even though it is not wise to touch such polluted waters, they’re difficult to avoid. You see, we haven’t yet figured out a way to move around this place without touching the ground.
But toxic water is not our greatest danger. That would be the fires.
As I said, today the smoke is tolerable. Other days, it hangs thick in spots, making it impossible to see beyond the first rise of garbage. There is both smoke and fire because as the mountains of garbage around us decompose, they form and trap methane gas. Beneath the weight of the piles, the temperatures rise until the gas ignites and burns. Stung Meanchey is literally always on fire, and it is almost impossible to put out the flames. Monstrous government bulldozers will push the garbage around, hoping to reduce the hazard, but ironically, they don’t care who they run over and bury in the process.
We finally get extended relief from the smoke when the rainy season begins—but then the brown rivers form and . . . well, it is perplexing to live at Stung Meanchey.
We never know whether or not to hope for rain.
The Cow knocks on our door early.
We don’t call her Cow to her face, though I hardly think she would notice or care. She might even wear the title as a badge of honor. Her real name is Sopeap Sin, which means the kind and pretty one. Her parents were delusional and blind.
Sopeap is an abrupt, bitter, angry woman who has lived at Stung Meanchey longer than anyone can remember. There is a story told by some—perhaps myth, perhaps not—that claims she was the illegitimate child of Vadavamukha, a sky god with the body of a man and the head of a horse. (Having a horse-headed father would explain a lot.) The myth says that for years he hid his daughter in a trash can to conceal the evidence of his escapades from his wife, Reak Ksaksar Devy, the blood goddess. One day, however, when Reak became suspicious, Vadavamukha hurled the can from the sky. It landed at Stung Meanchey with Sopeap inside—and she has been here ever since.
Of course, I don’t really believe the myth. A sky god, horse head or not, would never waste a completely good garbage can on Sopeap Sin.
On a rare occasion, the woman will salvage trash like the rest of us. Most days, however, her time is spent sleeping, swearing, or drinking cheap rice wine. Yet at the first of every month—the only time Sopeap seems to be remotely sober—she also collects rent for several landowners from the poor families who live in the huts that circle Stung Meanchey. Besides the Cow, we also call her the Rent Collector.
Sopeap wastes no time.
“You have my money?” she demands, sounding like an angry schoolmaster, the kind who long ago silently smothered patience and concern.
I reach into my pocket and pull out our entire fortune, all the money we have to our name, and hand it over (except for just enough that I have kept out to buy today’s dinner).
She knows better than to waste time counting.
“This is not enough. I need the rest!”
My hesitation betrays a feeble excuse poised on my tongue. She doesn’t wait for my fibs but instead begins to berate me.
“Lazy child! Sang Ly, I have people begging me for this space.”
It would be funny if it weren’t true—not the first part, as Ki and I are anything but lazy, but the fact that others wait to get into Stung Meanchey. It’s a notion that causes me to grin.
“What do you smile at?” she bellows. “If you can’t pay, I will have no choice but to move others into this spot. You foolish girl!”
I want to kick this cow in the udder, but instead I clasp my hands together in a gesture of mercy, a simple plea for understanding.
“We had the money, but Nisay has not been well. We had to buy him medicine this week, American medicine, to see if it would help.”
“Foolishness!” she hisses.
When I’m in a cheerful mood, I will often count the number of times Sopeap uses the word foolish. This morning, however, she is especially irritated, and so I try to be serious.
“We will have our rent today, I assure you. Ki Lim is already out working the trucks. He will gather more than enough.” I straighten and stand tall, attempting to project confidence.
“In a single day? Impossible!” she declares. I nod, but in a circular motion, so as to neither agree nor disagree. She watches my head circle, takes a drink from her bottle, and then swallows hard.
“Sang Ly,” she exclaims irritably, “the landowners expect their money and I have my own obligations.” She turns in disgust, then calls back to me, “I will be back tonight.”
At the dump we don’t take fashion too seriously, but as she waddles away, I clench my teeth to stifle my laughter. No matter the time of year, even in the hottest weather, the woman never removes the hideous brown socks that sag ridiculously around her already thick ankles.
Somehow she senses my amusement because, without turning around, she reinforces her threat.