The sun at Stung Meanchey shows no prejudice. It scorches the old and young, the fat and skinny, the humble and proud. Ki once said he noticed that it only shines on the poor in this particular spot of Cambodia, and he’s right—but only because nobody rich lives at the dump. The sun’s heat is especially hard on the pickers—those who sort through the garbage—since most wear long-sleeved shirts and full-length pants, tucked into heavy rubber boots, to protect themselves from the flies, filth, and smoldering fires.
The work is grueling in this place where Phnom Penh’s poorest families struggle to build a life from what others throw away—a life where the hope of tomorrow is traded to satisfy the hunger of today.
To make it through the long hours, many will rest in the early afternoon while they eat lunch beneath makeshift lean-tos. The shelters are temporary and consist of a cardboard floor (cardboard is plentiful at the dump), bamboo poles or tree branches tied together to form a skeletal shell, and a cloth or canvas canopy stretched across the top to provide shade.
Though most of the shelters are rudimentary and crude, some are elaborate, even works of art. And a shelter that has required effort to build sometimes becomes more than just a temporary place to rest; it becomes an oasis in the filth, a gathering place.
I have noticed this phenomenon especially among the female pickers. Perhaps it’s a subconscious nesting competition. Jorani Kahn will use a floral sheet instead of dirty canvas. Dara Neak will layer many pieces of cardboard on the ground to offer a softer place to sit. Sida Son will carry in a larger pot of water for those she invites to join her. Even at Stung Meanchey—perhaps especially at Stung Meanchey—people still long for social acceptance.
In spite of these efforts, attempts at permanence are fleeting.
The drivers of the monster bulldozers that push the trash into piles at night will sometimes work around the shelters, leaving them intact for several days. Other times, a beautiful shelter, painstakingly crafted during the better part of a morning, may be nothing but a mix of flattened hope and moldering trash a day later. It’s a lesson that is learned early at Stung Meanchey—and yet, it’s a lesson not of discouragement but rather of persistence. Just as ants do when their nest is disturbed, we return, survey the damage, and then without hesitation immediately get to work rebuilding.
Though many of the shelters are inviting, even charming, no clear-thinking person would ever dare to stay the night—unless waking up beneath a mountain of smoldering, stinking, smothering trash sounds like a fun way to die. Ki says his friend’s cousin’s brother was killed in this manner, but I think he’s just teasing me, trying to scare me into being extra careful as I travel the dump’s paths. Whenever I ask him to point out the friend or the cousin, he promises he will, but he never does.
As I arrive with my child at the area where the shelters have been built, on a plateau of trash above the dumping trucks, I try to spot Ki. It’s just after noon, too early for most of the pickers to have taken their first break, so the trucks are still swarmed. Though I recognize some of the pickers, there are many I don’t know. Faces at the dump constantly change.
I have packed Ki’s rice into his lunch tin, except for a little I mashed up to feed Nisay, and when I finally see my husband, I wave the pail in the air with my free hand to get his attention. He motions that he’ll come momentarily. With Nisay’s weight putting my left hip to sleep, and my right hip about to follow suit, we look for a place to sit.
“Hey, Sang Ly! Over here!”
It’s Lucky Fat. When the boy sees us, he hollers for us to join him. He’s built a rather crude shelter, but I humbly accept his offer and lay Nisay on the cardboard in the shade beneath the canopy. My baby fusses when I put him down, but I let him be, hoping the heat of the day will soon coax him back to sleep.
“Are you bringin’ Ki lunch?” Lucky asks, with more animation than any human being living in a dump should be able to display.
“Surely. Do you have lunch yourself?”
He nods, looking pleased that I would ask.
I don’t know Lucky’s real name, but I have no doubt that he popped out of the womb both plump and happy. Unfortunately, since he’s an abandoned child, no parents are around to ask. He’s called Lucky because he has an uncanny knack for finding money lost amongst the garbage. He’s called Fat because . . . well, he’s fat. Many say that Lucky looks just like a grinning Chinese Buddha (not the Cambodian Buddha, who is quite skinny). Lucky takes the comparison kindly and, for the past year, has been collecting Buddha statues he finds amongst the trash. Now, a dozen months later, his hut is so brimming with broken Buddhas that a newcomer might conclude the child is religious, obsessive, or desirous to become a monk.
In spite of his nickname, Lucky’s life has not been easy. He was left at the dump at just seven years of age, shortly after we arrived. Although I could never imagine abandoning my own child, I have seen enough desperation in my life to understand the mind-set of those who do. However, what is unfathomable to me is that with an array of choices available for leaving a child—orphanages, monasteries, foreign medical clinics—how could any mother choose to leave her child at the dump, a place where useless things are thrown away?
Still, Lucky has survived admirably.
He was taught how to sort trash by Prak Sim, another boy orphan four years older. Even with the difference in their ages, the two became fast friends, working together, living as brothers. Eight months ago, however, Prak Sim was run over and killed by a garbage truck. If it were me and I had lost my family in such a tragic manner, in a place so desperate and bleak, I would have chased after the truck and thrown myself beneath the massive and heartless tires as well. Not Lucky. To this day, he remains cheerful.
As Ki approaches, struggling to carry his bag, Lucky’s grin is wider than normal.
“Either my husband has resorted to gathering rocks, or it’s been a very good day,” I say to Lucky, as I wait for Ki to fill in with his explanation. He wastes no time.
“It was the second truck this morning. It carried a load of bent pipe connectors. We could all hear them clanking against the sides as they came out, and the pile was swarmed; I was right there and gathered up a good number of them.”
Lucky is nodding ferociously, as if he’s known all along, and it’s only then I realize he is also sitting against a bag full of metal.
“Do you know what this means?” Ki asks.
“We get to eat tonight?” I say wryly.
“We will actually have enough to pay the Cow. She’s going to bust an udder.”
Lucky laughs like a jackal, and it catches us so off guard we can’t help but follow suit—and then Nisay stirs.
“Oh, and I almost forgot,” Ki adds as he reaches for his bag. He searches in the sack and removes a book. “It’s old, but I think Nisay will like it.”
He hands it over, and I thumb its dirty pages. The edges are worn and the back cover is water stained, but the illustrations inside remain vibrant, crisp, and colorful. Though I can’t read the words, I can see that it is certainly a book for children—and a perfect gift.
“Did you buy this?” I ask.
“No. I found it just before the pipe truck arrived. Meng reached for it at the same time, actually grabbed it first, but when I reminded him that Nisay’s been sick, he handed it over.”
“That was nice,” I say.
“Now, take what money I have,” he continues, “and go buy pork and papaya for dinner, and some of the good rice. I’ll be home later to celebrate. Who knows what else I’ll find?”
As I make my way down the trail of trampled garbage, Grandfather’s words ring in my head.
“It’s going to be a very lucky day.”
In spite of the sun’s glare, I raise my chin and step confidently across the matted path of flattened trash.
“I can hardly wait to see the look on Sopeap’s face,” I tell Nisay, who only grunts at my rambling as I carry him home. “I will say nothing at first, as she demands her money, but will instead bow my head to the ground and linger patiently for her fury to build. It will be like when we watch the storm clouds thicken, churn, and complain as they rumble over the dump in their tantrums of thunder.”
I stop for Nisay to acknowledge me and agree that his mother is crafting a brilliant plan. Though he says nothing, I won’t let his lack of enthusiasm silence me. “It will be all I can do not to grin,” I tell him. “I’m going to stand there until she calls me foolish at least a half dozen times. Then I will lift my chin and ask her if she is finished. She will be so taken aback by my manner and confidence that she will pause with utter shock. Then, after she exhales a long, stale breath, and just at the moment she is about to lash out again, I will roll open my fingers and present her with the rest of this month’s rent and most of next month’s. If she doesn’t snatch it up right away, I’ll press the money into her hand and then wave her toward the door as I declare, ‘Sopeap, our business is finished!’ ”
I’ve painted such a vivid description, I want to clap. Of course, that’s difficult with a child in one arm and my child’s book in the other.
“Your mother, Nisay,” I say instead, “will have stood up with pride to the Rent Collector of Stung Meanchey.”
Only then do I finally hear my son gurgle and laugh.
Nisay is sitting up on the floor between my straddled legs. He is feeling better, so we take the opportunity to inspect his gift—his first book. I point to a picture and then wait for him to notice, as if his mother reads to him every night before bed. Instead, he reaches for the pages with an effort that says, If I can just get hold of that, it’s going straight into my mouth.
I keep the book distant, but he remains undeterred.
“Nisay,” I announce, “I’m going to read you a story,” as if my explanation will change his mind about chewing on the edges of the delicious pages.
An illustration of a majestic grove of trees adorns the opening spread. Beneath the trees stands a young Cambodian mother cradling her son. The wind must be blowing because the leaves swirl around them both as they watch in awed wonder. I have no clue what the words beneath the image say, so I point instead to the characters and make up a story of my own.
“This mother cares very much for her son, just like I care for you.”
In spite of its being true, it’s a ridiculous way for any story to begin, and I’m certain that Nisay understands his mother is a fraud. I turn the page to see that the same woman and her son have climbed a great mountain. I skip to the next and notice they stand by a deep blue ocean. How, I wonder, do this mother and child get around so quickly? If I were writing this story, I would surely do things differently.
I am about to try again, devising a reasonable plot in my head, when I hear Ki approach. He will be surprised to see us reading. When he doesn’t step in right away and I hear the sound of slurred words, I realize it is Sopeap, still drunk and returning for the rent.
“Coming,” I announce, not wanting the woman to enter my house without permission. I leave Nisay on the floor but set his book out of reach, at least temporarily, while I go and tend to Sopeap.
The sun is just setting, and when I pull back the tarp, it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust properly. My heart drops. It is not Sopeap. It is Ki. He has fallen to the ground and is crawling toward the house. His shirt is stained crimson from blood oozing from behind his right ear. He tries to speak but can only spit red.
I don’t understand his words, but I know exactly what has happened. There are gangs that roam the dump—Ki has been robbed.
There are no more dreams, no visits from Grandfather, no more luck. Instead, by early morning, dark circles on the mat beneath Ki’s head form what look like halos in various shades of red and brown. He has slept through the night with a rag held to his wound. But in spite of the hours that have passed, when he sits up, fresh ruby droplets spider down the back of his neck, racing each other across his patchy, jaundiced skin.
“Ki, you’re still bleeding,” I say, in a hushed tone that I hope won’t wake the baby. I reach out and press the rag against his matted hair. “We must get you to a doctor.”
His reply seeps with disappointment. “We have no money.”
“I have a little left from yesterday,” I say, “and we can borrow more from Mother.”
“Sang Ly, she’s barely making it herself.”
He is right. “Then take what little we have,” I tell him. “At least try. We will go with you.” As I reach for Nisay, Ki Lim waves me away.
“Stay with the baby!” His voice is instantly stern and hard, now lacking yesterday’s confidence.
“You can’t go alone,” I tell him. “Not like this.”
“Sang Ly!” he answers, in a tone that demands I listen. “I said I’ll be fine!”
I argue no further, but press the last of our money into his hand and then tie a clean rag around his wound. He pushes on his sandals.
I want to follow him out of the dump to at least make sure he gets to the paved streets, but then Nisay’s whimper reminds me that the child still needs to be cleaned. Instead I watch from the curtain as Ki stumbles away from the house and toward the path that connects to the city.
I loved my grandfather and I remember him fondly. After all, he virtually raised me. Still, I gaze heavenward and finish our conversation. I imagine I’ve grasped grandfather’s cheeks once again in my hands to look him in the eyes. Mine are no longer little girl hands, but those of a grown woman—and my declaration is simple.
“Good luck, Grandfather. We needed good luck!”
By late afternoon, I have scrubbed away the blood from our floor and I’m fussing about, repeating mundane tasks while trying to amuse Nisay.
Ki has not returned.
Then a voice calls out. “Sang Ly?”
I recognize the tone, and it is not my husband. Sopeap has returned. I freeze, but she calls out again more loudly.
I consider staying quiet, but in a one-room home there is nowhere to hide. All she’d need to do is pull back the curtain to find us. Then Nisay whimpers, giving us away. “Traitor,” I mutter.
I step to the tarp and reach for the corner. Even before throwing it open, I smell liquor mixed with disdain. There is no greeting between us.
“Do you have the rest of my money?”
My head hangs as planned, but I am not pretending.
I shouldn’t have schemed such a cruel plan to berate her, imagining I could present our rent so arrogantly. It was my pride that brought this evil upon our family. The ancestors are punishing me for sure. My heart wants to explain but my head knows it is useless.
“No. I am sorry.”
Sopeap has always been an ugly barking dog, an animal that annoys but doesn’t bite. Today she shows teeth. Her snarl is deep and growling. Her stare is grey and cold. “Be gone by tomorrow!”
At first I step back. Then I plead forgiveness. “Please, no! Ki was robbed last night, his head was cut open, everything was taken.”
She grunts her disbelief. “Always an excuse. Be gone by morning or I will send the police!”
Nisay must sense my desperation because his whimper turns into a cry. As Sopeap glances at the child, she spies his book spread open on the floor.
And then, Sopeap freezes. Her shoulders slump, her breathing halts, her gaze drops. The ferocious storm of anger and lightning that encircled us only moments before dissipates. She takes a step forward, inside of our home, as if she can hardly believe what she is seeing. She takes a second step and her lips open, then quiver, but no words escape. For what feels like several minutes, but is probably only moments, she says nothing.
I try to read her eyes through the silence. I struggle to grasp what is happening, but, like the child in my grandfather’s dream, I lack understanding. She shuffles another step closer to my son. I’m so confused that my instincts take over and I rush in front and snatch Nisay from the floor.
Sopeap pays no attention.
The sound starts low at first. As it mixes with Nisay’s fussing, I’m not sure where it is coming from. It could be the muted howl of a wounded dog, but it’s far away—and then I realize it’s coming from Sopeap.
It grows louder—a painful, sorrowing lament, as if all the earth’s darkness were conspiring to snuff out her existence. As she moans, she stoops down, almost sitting, but with no chair. It’s as if she is afraid to touch the book at first. Then, after her fingers brush its surface, she lets them wrap about the cover to pull it close, handling it as though it were a king’s treasure.
It’s a beautiful book, but it’s still old and tattered. With her stained hands, she opens the cover and turns a single page, hesitates, and then turns another. Her eyes lock onto each new picture, as if every colorful drawing confirms to her brain what her eyes see and her fingers touch: It’s real. It’s not a dream.
Her groaning grows, and I understand that the woman—a person I believed to be beyond feeling—is so awash in anguish and torment that I don’t know what to do. I reach out and touch her shoulder, thinking it will help, but she doesn’t respond. Instead, still crouched, she begins to rock ever so gently, forward and back, forward and back. I step away, sensing that though I stand in my own home, I don’t belong, even as a spectator, to so much personal grief and suffering.
I find myself wishing, hoping, praying that Ki Lim will arrive and rescue me, help me to know what to do, how to help. But he doesn’t, and for what feels like an eternity, Sopeap doesn’t move from her crouched spot on the floor. And then gradually, with each exhaled breath, the moaning subsides, the heaving softens, the rocking slows. Without speaking a word, Sopeap rises, then stumbles across the room, around our drape of a door, and out to the front of my house.
She is three steps away when, for the first time, she realizes that I am watching. She glances first at the book in her hand, then back toward me and Nisay. When she focuses on the book for a second time, I sense what she is thinking, and I both nod with my head and gesture with my hands, as if to say, “Please, keep the book.”
She doesn’t acknowledge but she must understand because she turns away and flees, soon swallowed by the dump’s concealing smoke and haze.
I return Nisay to the mat inside, unable to process what I have witnessed. I continue my duties—fuss with Nisay, clean up his mess, straighten our bed mat—but I also replay the scene of Sopeap and the book over and over in my head. It’s like watching a movie in the city that you’ve seen a hundred times, knowing how it always ends—but then one day, it ends differently.
How can a woman so empty and beyond feeling become so overcome with emotion that she can’t speak? But there is more to the picture. In my mind, as I watch her study again each page of Nisay’s book, it finally hits me.
“That’s it!” I exclaim aloud.
I pause to let my head absorb, process, and ponder my discovery.
It was Sopeap’s eyes, the way they darted at every picture, the -timing of each turn of the page, the soft movement of her lips. Is it possible? Yes, I’m certain of it. Sopeap Sin, the woman we call the Cow—she can read!
It is late when Ki returns. I light a lamp so that the flame’s glow will let him see to get into bed. He is grinning. The white tape and sterile gauze that wrap his bandaged head contrast with his bronze skin, which has finally returned to a healthy color.
“Thank goodness you’re back. I’ve been so worried.”
“I’m fine,” he replies casually—too casually.
“What did the doctor say?”
“I have no idea either. She was speaking French. She stitched me up, gave me a shot, and right now—I feel really good.”
The anger in his face is gone. Instead his pupils are unusually wide and his speech curiously slow.
“Do we owe them money?” I ask, hating to broach the subject. Oddly, it doesn’t bother him.
“It was free. I went to the charity clinic, near the Russian hospital, off Khemarak Boulevard. You know, the clinic the French run.”
I wrinkle my brow. “But they only treat pregnant women—and babies.” I know this because I took Nisay there just a few weeks earlier.
Ki’s dilated eyes twinkle. “Yeah, but I passed out on their waiting room floor. What could they do? I was bleeding all over their tile.”
When he giggles, I can’t help but join him, laughing more at his intoxication than his story. “What did they give you, anyway?”
“I’m not sure, but it really helps!”
“Then you still have the money?”
Despite the relaxing effects of the drugs, he turns serious for the first time since his return. He shakes his head back and forth as his fists tighten—not in an angry manner, just matter-of-fact.
“Sang Ly, you have no more worry about the gangs robbing us.”
“Why not?” I ask.
Ki sucks in a heavy breath and then pulls up one leg of his pants. In the flickering light of our single oil lamp, I can see, strapped to his ankle, the unmistakable outline of a long, silver, razor knife.
In the morning I remove Ki’s bandage and inspect his wound. In spite of his wincing, the stitching is admirable, the bleeding has stopped, and I can tell that Ki is going to live for at least another day. I break the news. “Doctor, I think the patient will survive!”
He’s not half as amused as I. After I replace his bandage, he rolls back down to the floor. The happy drugs are now a distant memory.
Without offering an explanation, I pull on my pants, long socks, and boots, and then reach for my gloves and straw hat. “I’ll be in the garden,” I announce, trying to be cheerful.
Considering that we are out of rice, I see no other option. Since Ki is in no shape to pick, I will go today instead. He cracks open a stare, certain that I’ve lost my mind. When he doesn’t utter a word, I try again. “I’m leaving the cave to hunt. I’ll be back with food.”
Perhaps drugs dull one’s senses. Perhaps I’m just not that funny. Either way, I decide directness is now my only option. “Watch the baby, Ki. I’m going to pick.”
I grab an empty canvas sack, wave my good-bye, and then trek out to greet a new day at the dump. As I do, there’s one thought on my mind: Stay away, Grandfather. I don’t have the time or patience for any more of your luck.
I have been told that there is a specialized college degree that studies civilizations by sifting through the layers of their trash. If this is true, if there really is a degree called Somran Vichea, or garbology, as Dara Neak claims, I should be the teacher. It also brings up another fascinating question: If people realized someone would be sorting through their trash, would they be more careful in what they throw away?
One of the first things I’ve learned, as a student of the dump, is that people hoping to make a decent living here are delusional. If they still insist on trying, it’s important to explain three widely used picking techniques from which to choose.
The most risky is a method that Ki seldom tries, its danger still evidenced by a scar he bears on his left ankle. There are times at night when the mountainous garbage burns so intently and is so fully consumed that even the bulldozers won’t try to squelch the flames. By morning, anything combustible or toxic has burned away, leaving behind a layer of purified ash that pillows pieces of red-hot scrap metal ripe for plucking. This method of gathering is treacherous because if you march through the ash too soon, hidden scrap will burn through your rubber boots in seconds. Some resort to braving the ash at night, reasoning that the metal’s glow lets them see where not to step. While it’s true that a few of the very skilled (or stupid) make a reasonable living this way, many ultimately burn and scar their bodies so badly that they end up crippled and begging for food on the streets of Phnom Penh—a life worse than picking garbage in Stung Meanchey.
A better alternative, and the most popular picking method (the one Ki prefers), is working alongside the trucks as they purge their loads. Of course, working around trucks, whose drivers appear eager to run you over just for sport, means you must always be alert and watchful. This method is also competitive and furious. People crowd together, everyone flinging their sticks fashioned with a sharp metal hook at the end, ready to tear open the tumbling bags of garbage. They pick, prod, and pry at the sacks of trash, searching for any scrap of discarded metal, glass, or plastic worth selling to the buyers.
The last picking method, and the one I prefer, is working away from the trucks, in open areas that have been stirred up by passing bulldozers. It’s a method that is less hectic, less dangerous, and unfortunately also the least fruitful. It’s a method that requires not quick thinking but rather methodical diligence. If you are persistent and patient, it can still prove worthwhile. This method is followed mostly by the elderly, the children, and anyone recovering from injury. I prefer it because it lets my eyes and hands disengage from my brain, working like a robotic machine, thus giving me time to think. As I see it, with no money, no rice, a sick child, and a husband with a line of fresh stitches still throbbing in his head, I have a considerable amount to think about.
I always tell Ki that it’s a dangerous thing sending me to work the dump, not because I’ll get run over by a truck, burn my legs and feet, or fall into a pool of toxic sludge—though all those are possibilities. It’s dangerous because my thoughts get away from themselves. Mixed with emotion, they pile up like the garbage that surrounds me. They stack layer upon layer, deeper and deeper, month after month—crushing, festering, smoldering. One day something is certain to combust.
Where did Sopeap learn to read? What would cause a woman so hard and brutal to break down into a well of tears? Does Ki really think his knife will protect him from the gangs of thugs? What if the unspeakable happens? Could Nisay and I survive alone at Stung Meanchey?
It’s late in the day when I finish. I have filled a canvas bag half full of discarded plastic and metal cans that I balance on my shoulders. I carry it to the buyers, where it is sorted and weighed. They offer less than I expect, but I am too tired to barter. I take my money, then go to the home of the rice vendor, where I purchase two kilos of rice and some vegetables. She tells me that I seem quiet today, not my normal self. I shrug politely, take my food, and head for home, hoping that all has been well.
I have been quiet today because fear in my heart has been fighting with frustration in my brain, leaving little energy for my mouth. Halfway through the day, my brain declared itself the winner and started to work out a plan. Grandfather loved luck, but I am tired and can no longer wait around for its arrival. I haven’t spoken to Grandfather all day because I know he’ll be angry when I tell him that his luck is . . . well . . . lacking. It won’t stop by, it doesn’t call, and I must conclude that we’ve been abandoned. It’s like the friend who gets a job in the city, begins to earn decent money, and then no longer visits. Luck has also moved on to better times, and it’s not coming back.
Seriously, what does one do when the ancestors no longer listen? To my dismay, Grandfather’s words echo in my ears. Crafting a plan is easy. Taking action will always prove to be the more difficult path.
And the question remains, will my plan work? Will everyone, including Ki Lim, think I’ve banged my head against a garbage truck? While he will undoubtedly be surprised, it won’t be my husband who is the most astonished. The person most likely to think the toxic smell of the dump has finally rotted away my brain will be a woman whom I still struggle to understand—Sopeap Sin.
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