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from the October 2020 issue

All Trash on the Eastern Side

In this short story by Thai novelist Duanwad Pimwana, a man searches for hope and companionship in a world of trash.


My mother and father disappeared amid the trash. My siblings and relatives, too, one by one. I have nobody. Trash is everywhere around me: the ground, the hollows, the hills are all trash. It doesn’t matter where I look, or how far, I see nothing but an unending series of overlapping mountains, trash upon trash. Trees have been flattened, homes have collapsed, rivers have been buried under piles of trash. Everything is gone; everything is trash. I look down at myself: I’m filthy and I stink. Soon enough, I will have taken my final breath, and I will become another piece of trash. When we humans must exist among heaps and heaps of garbage all the time, we’re bound to turn into garbage before long.

I don’t want to live this way, but I have no choice. I can’t remember when I last saw the surface of the earth. I do have one image burnished in my mind, a memory from twenty years ago, when I was a seven-year-old boy: I was being led by the hand, strolling down a street—I still see the scene clearly and reminisce about it all the time—the street was wide open, empty, running as far as the eye can see. I shook my hand free to run ahead of everyone. A breeze swept over from the mountains; it felt cool, refreshing. Not a single piece of trash was in sight. I yearn for that street, and I would trade my life for a chance to take a walk there again, filling my lungs with that air, even for a measly ten minutes. The street really existed, but the longer I languish among these dumps, the more I lose faith in my memory, like perhaps I only dreamed it up.

Each day, I wander, not only to scavenge for bits of anything edible but also in hopes of one day making it beyond all of this garbage and finding the Land Without Trash, a place said to have a human settlement, to be home to living animals and trees—according to a story that has been around since my parents still were. People we used to come across often told of the land. Some of them believed in its existence, some didn’t, but everyone strained to imagine what a clean, trashless land might be like. How was it possible for people to live without littering? How did they dispose of their garbage? And where did they hide it?

I trudge over a mountain of trash, not having run into a soul for nearly a month. A part of me is convinced that people have been subsumed in the piles of refuse, just as my parents and the rest of my family have been, but another part of me harbors a secret hope that the other trash dwellers are fighting their way to the Land Without Trash. Perhaps they have found it and, naturally, have stayed. I’m fearful for myself and full of regret: Last time, I encountered two men heading south—they believed the Land Without Trash likely lay in that direction—but I was bound east, remembering how my mother had said the Land Without Trash was situated thereabouts. The two men and I exchanged only a few words before parting ways. Several days later, it dawned on me that it had been a mistake not to join those two men. The realization left me weak and dejected, my loneliness feeling like a stab in the heart.

Though I continue heading east, I care about nothing more than the chance to meet someone, anyone. Given the opportunity this time, I would ask to follow them on their journey, regardless of where they were going. Since my clue was no better than anyone else’s, what difference does it make which way we travel? I cannot tolerate the solitude any longer. Being all alone in the middle of this ocean of waste is beyond unbearable—and not because I want to have a friend to chat with or a travel companion I can lean on. This abject loneliness—it comes from my being haunted by the view. It doesn’t matter whether I look ahead or behind, left or right, the picture I see is all the same. And it doesn’t matter how far I walk in a day, the scene never alters—it’s as though I were moving in circles. This panorama of garbage is playing mind games with me, making me question whether I’m hallucinating. I’m suffering greatly. I try to remind myself I’m moving forward, making strides. I have a destination, and I’ve already covered a great deal of distance. My body motion ought to be able to attest to the reality that the view around me is shifting all the time. I’m walking. I’m still conscious of my own movement, of my freedom. I’m not locked up in a cage, not confined to an area, no one is prohibiting me from doing whatever it is I want to do. At least I’m not forced to be cooped up in a small space, like, say, if I had to lower myself into a coffin and lie there. Then the view would really remain unchanged forever and ever. It already counts for something that I can still move around freely. I’m walking, the view is shifting, even if it shifts only to remain the same. But I know it’s shifting. Sometimes I close my eyes, sometimes open them. The view is shifting, I know that . . . oh, how lonely it is. What I would give to run into another living creature.

Ultimately, it is on my route east, half a month later, that I spot a fellow human being. Standing on a hilltop looking down at what is shaped like a deep pit, I see a person moving around at its bottom. I’m beyond ecstatic. I feel as if I only had one opportunity left in this life to encounter another human being again, and that opportunity has really arrived. Immediately, I scurry down. Until I see the person up close or hear his or her voice, I won’t be able to tell if it’s a man or a woman. In this squalid, putrid world, men and women have become difficult to distinguish. Everyone I meet is in the same sorry state—clothes so filthy their colors are obscured, hair long and matted, cheeks hollowed, body emaciated and rundown.

“Hello!” I wave to the person. “Hello!”

The person looks up at me, waving back, also excited.

“Hello!” The voice I hear reveals the person to be a woman, but she is so scrawny there’s no hint of womanliness left about her.

“Are you alone? Where are you headed? Are you searching for the clean land? Have you turned up anything to eat at all?” the woman jabbers away. She still looks quite vivacious and strong, despite being downright skeletal.

“Mostly, I eat worms,” I tell her and smile, embarrassed.

“Same here. I forage for worms, too.” She laughs loudly. “Are you in a hurry? Stay and chat a while. I haven’t had anyone to talk to for two months now. It’s been really lonely. I’ve been talking to myself like a crazy person.”

“Me, too. Yesterday I was suddenly struck by the fear that I might be the only person left among these dumps. The whole time I was walking, I felt like I was trapped in a dream—nothing seemed real except for the trash. Eyes open or closed, I saw nothing but garbage. I have no one left. My parents, siblings, my whole extended family, all of them have been swallowed up in the trash. I’m keeping an eye on what’s going to happen to me, waiting for my own turn to come one day—a person turning into a piece of garbage, blown away into a heap with millions of other pieces of garbage. I don’t want to become garbage, but if I’d be the only one left in the middle of all this trash, I don’t know what would be worse.”

“Being alive trumps all else, always. As long as one’s alive, there’s still hope. You know, you shouldn’t drive yourself crazy with those dark thoughts. The more we let them get to us, the more fed up we’ll be with life, and eventually one day we’ll see ourselves as trash and want to throw ourselves away. Stay—wouldn’t it be better to keep each other company and try to find a way out of this together?” the woman lectures me earnestly, which makes her come off rather bookish. I have trouble even estimating her age. Based on the things she said, I’m led to believe she’s seen something of life. But there’s a youthful light in her eyes, like a girl’s. 

“I meant that was the state I was in yesterday, but not anymore. I just wanted to have someone there to help bear witness to the fact that my life was really happening.”

The woman laughs out loud at what she apparently finds an odd remark, which means despite not having had any human contact for even longer, she hasn’t suffered through the same state and can’t empathize. I bring up the subject I’ve been intending to bring up from the start, which is to ask her if I could accompany her on her journey, because I don’t want to carry on alone any longer. 

The woman hears me out, smiling, and then shakes her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Don’t you see? I live here.”

Her answer baffles me. I simply don’t understand. “What do you mean? Aren’t you on a search for the Land Without Trash like everybody else? Or do you not believe it exists?”

“I don’t know, maybe it exists. But I already have my own ambition.”

Still confounded, I fail to react altogether. For trash dwellers like ourselves, is there something else to dream of other than the Land Without Trash?

“What’s your ambition? . . . But anyway, you should try to get beyond the trash first. Staying here, you’d only be counting down to the day you die. Come with me—didn’t you tell me as long as one’s alive, there’s still hope?”

“Of course, there is. And I have more hope than anyone. Don’t you see what I’ve done here?” She turns and, with her eyes, gestures all the way around. My eyes follow hers, but I see nothing but trash. She’s quick to explain: “I’m building my own trash-free land right here. First, I have to haul the trash away. Do you see how large and how deep this pit is? One day, I’m going to reach the ground. I’m going to take away all the garbage, and I’m going to be left with the ground, all cleaned up. And if I keep moving the trash, the area is going to get bigger and bigger. When that day comes, I’m going to grow trees, I’m going to build a house, and I’m going to keep clearing away the trash and expand the area more and more. My land’s not going to have any trash. Do you get it now? I’m not going anywhere because there’s a trash-free land right here.”

Her words running through my head, I visualize along with amazement. This is such a beautiful dream. But it’s also daunting—could she realistically succeed? The amount of trash is staggering, endless. How long would it take? She might die before she gets a glimpse of the ground.

“Will you stay with me? If we do it together, it will be twice as fast.”

I want to stay with her, certainly, but the grandness of her aspiration launches my mind into a panic as I weigh the pros and cons of two different paths that could potentially lead me to a land without trash. Others are going the route of searching for it, but this woman wants to create one with her own hands. A clean colony is supposed to manifest itself in this expanse of trash stretching as far and wide as the eye can see? When? Looking at her small hands and feet, I feel discouraged. But the other alternative offers no guarantee whatsoever. The legend or story that has been passed down—who could vouch for its veracity? Everybody is struggling to locate that fabled land, invested in their search because of the desperate desire to break free from these dumps. The question I ought to put to myself is: Do I want to die here or cast my die out there? But here I’d have a friend. I might as well stay with this woman at least until someone else shows up. At that point, I can still change my mind.

She’s delighted I’m agreeing to stay, not only because she’s lonely and wants to have a companion, but also because my presence raises the prospect that her trash-free land might materialize sooner. I immediately begin to worry. I don’t want to hurt her feelings by admitting to her that I don’t share her hope in the matter, not in the least, and that being so, I’m disinclined to waste my energy hauling trash. But, not knowing how to turn her down, I don’t feel like I have a choice. I’ll probably have to help her until I find someone else to journey with.

“Two months ago, someone passed through this way. I begged her to stay and build a trash-free land together, but she didn’t believe I could make it happen. Back then, the pit was still puny. It’s a shame—if she saw it now, she might have made a different decision. Look how big and deep the pit is. With two of us, so twice the labor, we’re sure to uncover the ground soon. Down the line, maybe we’ll have lots and lot of people giving us a hand. Oh, I wish they’d just come! The sooner the better!”

She hands me a burlap sack, and we get to work right away. The pit is large and deep—it’s almost inconceivable it was born from the labor of such a slight woman. I go about collecting garbage and dropping it into the sack she gave me. The most strenuous part of the task is dragging the sack up to the edge of the pit. Just beyond it, the terrain begins to slope downward. My sack rolls bopping down all by itself, which helps spare a great deal of effort, until it loses momentum about twenty meters away from the top. As I open the sack to dump out the trash, a cry of protest comes at me from behind.

The tiny woman is standing with an enormous sack—how was she able to drag it up the pit? On top of that, she forbids me from pouring out the trash right here: I’m to haul it behind the next knoll and dispose of it there. Her sack rolls down after me, and she tows it uphill, even taking the lead. The way she moves, her strength appears nothing short of a miracle. I struggle to keep up, failing to comprehend why we have to go all the way behind that knoll when everywhere was a dump. On my second trip, I start to feel tired; on the third, I’m much slower than before. From my observation, the whole time the woman is tugging her sack along, her eyes are scanning for worms. I get to take a break when she calls me over to share a meal for the first time.

At dusk, the woman proudly shows off something, which leaves me flabbergasted once again: It’s a coffin sitting on the bank of the pit. It’s her bedroom, she says. The sight of it makes me uneasy. The interior of the box is lined with burlap, and there is a pillow that, though grubby, looks very appealing. The coffin’s lid is leaning on its side, and nearby, a straw mat lies unfurled, with a wooden chest atop, serving as a table. Inside the chest is a miscellany of objects she has managed to collect—this woman’s determination to set down roots here is exciting, contagious.

“Go on, before it gets dark. There’s another coffin over there. Tonight, you’re going to get to sleep in a clean bedroom.”

Together, we lug the other coffin over and park it near hers. For the first time, I won’t be sleeping on top of trash, but in a coffin one layer above. How wondrous it’s going to be. Once I get in and lie flat, the side walls block the trash from view completely. All I see is the sky, which is starting to spring twinkles of stars. Ah, the view has changed! I’ve truly escaped the trash. This casket might have had a previous occupant, but being in it right now, I feel clean . . . clean . . . I’ve nearly forgotten what it feels like. Even though the space proves awkward and cramped when I try to turn my body or even shift my limbs, I don’t mind. I realize now that even if my hands and feet were bound and I lost the liberty to walk around or do anything else, as long as I get to be some place clean, away from trash, I would willingly forsake and forgo all the freedom in the world. What use is it for us humans to cling to our freedom in the midst of all this trash? Once anything of value in this world has been discarded or has wound up in a pile of refuse, does it really count as something of value anymore? I shut my eyes and run my hand along the casket’s smooth wall. This coffin has given me a sanctuary all my own. I no longer have to be commingled with the trash—this thought alone moves me to tears.

I haul garbage, day in day out. Every day, the woman says: Today might be the day we see the ground. She is as hopeful as I am hopeless. But at last we hit upon the ground, actual solid earth. I can feel my heart pumping, I don’t know how to describe all the emotions rushing through me. The woman manically claws away more of the trash, mumbling away with elation and excitement. I’m ashamed to admit that in a given day she manages to make three more trips than I do. Now her dream is a pipe dream no more. I have never met anyone so full of hope and spirit as this woman. Though her flesh has been dwindling day by day, her strength has only improved. Today, we’ve uncovered the earth; the pit need not be dug deeper. Our hauls from here on out will be about expanding the area. It’s exactly as she envisioned it. Now I’m growing convinced there’s a land without trash right here, and it’s a place I must build for myself.

We toil away like mad so that each day we would see more of the earth. In the meantime, I’ve also started collecting objects of my own: I’ve got a plate, a candle, and a rusty pair of scissors. This last item is precious. I look for ways to polish off the rust, and, using a nail I found, try to sharpen it by rubbing the two objects together. The two of us are overjoyed to finally be able to cut our hair. We take turns snipping off each other’s locks, entirely getting rid of the clumped masses that have been weighing down our heads.

“It’s so light and comfortable!” The woman is thoroughly pleased with her crew cut. “I feel like a cadet!”

But I have to avert my eyes. With her hair shorn, her gaunt face has become even more prominent. That skull of a head—I don’t want to look at it. If it weren’t for her eyes, which are still full of life, anyone who gets a look at her would think she was already a corpse. I can’t speak to the state of my own appearance . . . It’s probably not much better. Without access to a mirror, the best we can do is look at each other. Regardless, one outcome was undeniably fantastic: Our haircuts made us cleaner.

I wish people would pass by because I’m eager to show off the area of the ground we’ve cleared, which has grown to be almost eighty square yards now. The dream of having a home to live in, of cultivating plants and raising animals on land that is clean and trashless is so close to coming true we could almost touch it with our fingertips. But alas, this is as far as we’ll come.

I’ve fallen ill, from the combination of hard labor and a dearth of food. The woman likewise. We are left lying helplessly in our coffins, praying someone would happen by. Even if they can’t save our lives, the woman hopes they would carry on our unfinished work. After lying still for two nights and a day, the woman pulls herself up and crawls out of her box. Her determination never ceases to amaze. She is going to look for something to eat, she says. I could still just about gather enough energy to crawl out, but I continue to lie idle because I know the effort is pointless. I have tramped over every inch of the surface in this vicinity, to the degree I recognize every single piece of trash. Any hope I had for food was lost over a half a month ago. 

With the woman absent, I stay supine in my coffin, breathing feebly. In the moments when I’m alert, I listen, with hope, for her bright, upbeat voice. We shouldn’t be separated during a time like this. I should have stopped her from venturing out. By now she’s probably collapsed out there somewhere and stranded.

On the third morning after she went missing, I attempt to get up but find myself too weak to lift my body out of the coffin. I only manage as far as draping my arms and head over the edge—which turns out to be sufficient because the woman comes into view immediately. Since when has she been back? She’s been lying right next to my casket, on the mat. Hearing my voice, she opens her eyes. We are each happy to see the other’s face again.

“There’s a way where we won’t have to die,” I tell the woman. “My parents and the rest of my family, every one of them, no one had to die.”

“I realize that . . . No one I know from before has died. That’s why it’s tough going for us—with no worms left to eat.”

Both of us burst out laughing until we’re gasping for air. Afterward, we’re so drained by the exertion we’re forced to keep still for a long while.

Since the subject has been broached, I decide to ask her: “The time has come for us to really make a choice. Do you want to do like them?” The woman, contemplating, doesn’t answer. In truth, I know she made her choice long ago; otherwise our encounter here could never have happened . . . I myself have sworn off littering, having witnessed too many cautionary tales close to home. I can’t pinpoint when this punishment came into existence, but I do know it wasn’t very long ago. My family had had the habit of dropping their trash carelessly on the ground for ages, but it was only within the last two years that they metamorphosed into trash. My father was the first of them. He’d chucked a cigarette butt, and instantly he’d vanished before our eyes. My mother had been quick enough to catch the moment he transformed into another cigarette stub. She told anybody and everybody what happened. Those who didn’t believe her all wanted to test the story for themselves. It proved true. Without exception, anyone who littered turned into a piece of garbage. Later on, dumping trash became an easy way out for people who had lost hope.

Seeing that the woman isn’t about to reply, I answer for her: “You’re not going to throw trash on the ground, right? You’ve always maintained this beautiful optimism. You only pursue the toughest things, and you never give up. Surely, you’re not one to take the easy way out, am I right?”

The woman smiles. “It’s more that we owe a debt to the worms. We ought to save our bodies, to feed them for once.”

Both of us burst out laughing until we’re gasping for air. This time, the laughter costs us our lives.

“กองขยะด้านตะวันออก ทัศนียภาพไม่เปลี่ยนแปลง” © 2020 by Duanwad Pimwana. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

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