Sunday, December 4, 2022

Labasero

The day Niko’s Mama got COVID, City Hall announced they needed to secure BIR permits and city health certificates to maintain their fish stalls. Niko had just come back from fishing, his face mask soaked in sweat, carrying buckets of rumpi to their fish stall. His Papa, Mano Boy, had already chopped portions of blue marlin, ready to be sold by the kilo. Maya-maya and mangagat which were more plush than other fish hung on hooks at the edge of the stall to attract customers. Niko and Mano Boy tried to act less conspicuously despite the many suspicious looks from their neighboring fish vendors.

“Ay, those are big rumpi, Niko,” Mana Berta, the neighboring fish vendor, remarked. “Shouldn’t display all ‘em at once, though. Joaquina always left some to be displayed in the afternoon.”

“My boy sure knows where to fish this time of season, Berta,” Mano Boy replied, patting Niko by the shoulder. “Sure knows where ‘em big ones swim even where there no moon.”

“Niko the smartest fisher we folks have, Boy. No doubt about it. He fishes at night and always comes home. Not everyone here is lucky like him.”

“Heard that, son? You is the smartest fisher,” Mano Boy nodded to his son. “Go get ‘em rumpi stored at the back just like Berta say. Your Mama shouldn’t worry about us when she got chickens to tend to, right?”

“Chickens? Thought you folks were always into fishing?” Inday, Mana Berta’s niece wondered.

“Well, Mama thought it would best,” Niko replied, carrying some of the rumpi to the back of the stall. “Besides, don’t we need to find new ways of making a living? These new city ordinances gonna put us in debt, you know.”

“Well, what can folks like us do about it?” Mana Berta said, sprinkling a bit of water over the fish on display in her own stall.

“We just gotta live with it,” Mano Boy asserted, hammering the knife to cut through the bone of a blue marlin. “We just gotta mind our business and stay away from trouble. No good comes from minding them other’s business.”

“Well, we better be careful, Boy.”

A week after, Niko and his buddies took the family motorboat and docked along San Juanico Strait, a few nautical miles off Cancabato Bay. The amihan breeze felt cool upon Niko’s skin. There was no moon in sight. Niko knew the fish hid farther beneath the strait. He took out his fishing rod made from bamboo, tied more nylon strings to lengthen it, and coiled some dried fat to the end of the hook before throwing it into the water.

Niko waited for his rod to jerk so he could reel it up while enjoying a cigarette. He stayed at the stern of the motorboat, his favorite spot where he could look at Tacloban City from afar, away from the noise, but close enough to examine the details of the city. Niko’s point of reference in memorizing the urban map from the sea was the Santo Niño Church. The church’s towering white belfry always stood out even if it was in the middle of downtown. Astrodome, the big dome by the bay that collapsed during Yolanda, was reconstructed and a new park was built around its perimeter. Niko could easily spot it. It was his landmark, a sign he was looking south.

Niko enjoyed studying his city. His professors from EVSU always said his urban planning designs were avant-garde. One time, Prof. Borromeo gave him a 1.0 for constructing a renewed urban plan of Tacloban Public Market. Niko examined which areas consumers visited first when doing their weekly produce. He made it his basis for minimizing traffic, solving the sanitation problem, and lessening congestion. Niko knew all the shortcuts, reroutes, and turns. How could he not? He grew up there. In high school, Mano Boy would fetch Niko from school so he would go straight to their fish stall after classes to help out. On weekends, Mano Boy would take Niko along with him in his tricycle to tour the city. Niko rode at the back of the tricycle with his Papa.

When traffic began to herald the city, Mano Boy knew which turn to take or which detour to make. Sometimes, when they had a bit of time to kill, Mano Boy took Niko with his compadres to fish. One of whom was Rey, the current Barangay Capitan of the market. Mana Joaquina never joined any of their trips, she was always busy selling their catch at the stall. Their blue marlins, rumpi, mangagat, and maya-maya always sold out. But even when sales were high, it was always just enough to pay for the hired help, business maintenance, and household expenses.

Time seemed long at sea when Niko had no catch. Hours had passed, but he only caught one maya-maya. His fishing rod did not jerk for hours. Perhaps it was the time of night, Niko thought. There were no stars in the sky either. Niko remained in his laid-back position and stared blankly at the city and the sky.

“You okay there, Niks?” Buboy, his fishing buddy, asked.

“Just that BIR and paper works, p’re,” Niko replied, getting up from his reclined position. “Worried ‘bout Mama, too, not really sure how she’ll be good with selling poultry.”

“Well, she got you and Mano Boy, p’re. Am sure your Papa will figure it out. Remember how he convinced that old dying grandma to lend him money some years back?”

“He never paid that off, you know.”

“Why would he? The old bitch died a week after he borrowed money!” Buboy laughed. “No one owes nothing to the dead, pare, no one.”

“You’re such an ass, you know,” Niko said in response, worried about his Mama’s condition.

“C’mon, cheer up a little. Think about it this way, your Mama has now gone from fish to chickens, from sea to land, pare.”

“Remind me again why we’re friends.”

“And that BIR shit?” his fishing buddy continued. “That’ll just subside in a few weeks. Remember how they wanted people out of Anibong after Yolanda? Well, look.” Buboy pointed at the light in Anibong. “They’re still there, City Hall can’t do nothing about it. City Hall can’t do nothing about us.”

“City Hall doesn’t do anything. That’s the problem, pare. Remember that landslide in Quarry? The one where some girl from Leyte High and her Mom died? That shit went viral.”

“Heard the Mom was a barangay official. What about it?”

“City Hall didn’t do anything about it. All they did was give money to the sister. Look at what’s happened to that site. Nothing.”

“What’s your point, pare?”

“That part of Quarry was dynamite bombed, p’re. Years ago, even before we were born.”

“Right.”

“Well, City Hall would know the land mass would be unstable at some point. So why would they still permit residences, let alone businesses, to stay in that area?”

“For one, Niks, they don’t have any place to put squatters anywhere. But more than anything it’s business, pare. Business. It’s all about that. We all know, folks like us can’t do anything about it unless we become some big shots.”

“Well, I wish we could.”

Niko always thought someday he would make living conditions better for vendors like his Mama. Not only would his degree program improve the situation for poor folks like him, but it would also help their family. It was a shame he had to drop out in the middle of his college sophomore year due to the pandemic.

Many unfortunate things had happened in the past month. Aside from his secondhand laptop breaking down, the situation worsened because the family no longer had money to maintain internet expenses which EVSU required of their students. The fishing business was his hope for a better life, so when Mana Joaquina was diagnosed positive, they decided not to report it to their barangay. They knew if no one tended to the fishing business, they wouldn’t be able to comply with the new requirements and pay off rent.

Ever since Niko could recall, Tacloban Public Market was free of rent. City Hall said it was their way of providing relief to the poor but when COVID hit, every vendor was asked for BIR permits and tax payment receipts. The Mayor said it was one of the ways for the city to afford vaccines and maintain economic stability, especially after Yolanda. The media had minimal publicity on the matter. The ones who attempted to publicize it disappeared, many of whom were Niko’s friends and classmates. Niko thought of many ways how to evade the requirements. If only it weren’t for the newly-imposed requirements, perhaps concealing his Mama’s condition would have been easier. Luckily, the Barangay Capitan, or Mano Rey to many, accepted their freshly caught rumpi that week and agreed to extend their dues. But it bothered Niko that, his Papa decided not to reveal what was really going on with his Mama, not even to Mano Rey.

Niko stared at the city, wondering why all of this had happened to him. Then he stared at the bow of the boat thinking about his Papa and wondered what he was doing at that moment. Perhaps he was tending to his Mama. Niko remembered how his Papa fooled around with Mano Rey who was standing in the same bow of the boat years ago. It was some weekend when the clouds shadowed the sun, and the sea was calm enough to signal no rain. The compadres were filling up their bellies with grilled squid they just caught and emptied bottles of Pilsen. Mano Rey was on the edge of the bow when Mano Boy was performing his fish jokes. And just as everyone from the boat was laughing, Mano Boy winked at his son and pushed Mano Rey off the boat.

Mano Boy carried Niko by his shoulder and laughed with him when Mano Rey emerged from the water. As Mano Rey struggled to get himself back into the boat, Mana Joaquina tried to lend a hand. Niko noticed the change in his Papa’s laugh when he put him down. Mano Boy held out his hand to Mano Rey so he could climb back unto the boat. Mano Boy got the towel from his wife and gave his compadre a pat on the shoulder with it.

Niko had known the Capitan ever since he could remember. The friendship of his Papa and the Capitan started way back. They used to be employees at Sam’s Trading in their youth. When the grocery had to let go of some of its employees, Mano Boy was among them. The Capitan remained since he had the favor of the owners. Mano Rey had always bought from the fish stall and talked with Niko ever since he was a kid. Mana Joaquina did not seem to mind whenever Mano Rey stayed near the stall just to finish a cigarette. But when Niko was about thirteen years old, Mano Rey kept his distance. Perhaps it was because of the work he had in the barangay office.

The morning after, just as he was docking the family motorboat and securing the stability of the plank that he would balance on to unload his freshly caught maya-maya, Niko noticed his Papa loading their tricycle. He could hear the thumps and clanks of aluminum basins against plastic buckets and knives being tossed onto the cargo bed. The sound stood out to him amidst the symphonic isdaaaa! shouting and seafood staccato chopping from Tacloban Wet Market.

“Rent, anak” Mano Boy said, tossing another stack of plastic buckets unto the cargo
bed. “Pota! we didn’t pay rent daw.”

“But didn’t we give Cap our first catch last week. Didn’t he delay our dues?” Niko argued.

“That wretched Capitan must have heard about Joaquina! Yawa! Rey must’ve tipped us off.”

Niko secured the knots of the motorboat and rushed to their stall with Mano Boy. When they arrived the new stall vendors were already setting up. The barangay tanods and the police took down their signage and were checking if Mano Boy left any of their equipment or tools.

“Oy, yawa! Why are you kicking us out?” Niko shouted. “Cap said we’re due next week. And you!” Niko pointed furiously at the new vendor who had his face mask below his chin. “You’re not even from around here, how dare you steal our stall!”

“Don’t cause a scene, boy,” ordered a policeman who placed a hand on his pistol.

“Cap told us to take it down. City Hall orders.” The chief tanod said as he held his baston with an eagerness to give it a swing at Niko.

“Take it up to City Hall, boy. We’re just doing our job.”

Yawa, job? When has robbing our life been a job?” Mano Boy clenched his fists,
thought of the taunt from the authorities, of his wife, and just when he was about to
throw a blow, Niko held him off.

“Hey, Boy,” Berta signaled; her head shaking. “We care for Joaquina but we gotta think of us, too.”

“It’s protocol. You might’ve contracted it, too,” Inday said. “Cap already knows.”

“Wha—what you mean?” Niko asked in confusion, holding his Papa by the shoulder.

“You know,” Berta asserted.

Niko realized everyone knew about his Mama. He and Mano Boy became aware of the stares and the taunts. Niko even spotted someone with a phone from a couple of meters away who was trying to capture the scene.

“Not now, Pa. Not here.” Niko whispered adjusting his face mask. “Mama still needs us.”

Niko looked at the stares, noticed the eye-rolling. He held his Papa by the shoulder, calming him down until he slowly let go of his clenched fist.

“We’ll get ‘em, Pa. Promise. They’ll get theirs.” “Rey. We need to go to Rey.”

As they walked away, Niko adjusted his face mask not only to protect himself from covid but also, he thought, to hide his frustrations. The loss of their fish stall registered in his mind. It was as if the weight of the world that morning was upon Niko’s shoulders. It was as if the sun that morning did not shine, life was black in Niko’s eyes.

Niko and Mano Boy knew their best chance at taking back their fish stall was through the Capitan. Barangay Hall was just around the corner of Tacloban Wet Market.

Mano Boy instructed Niko to get a bucket of rumpi while he parked the tricycle near the Barangay Hall and secured the knives that could easily be taken out from the rear compartment. Everyone else was on lunch break at the nearby karenderya, except for the Capitan who busied himself with counting blue bills. Ash scattered over the cash from the cigarette between his fingers and dirtied the money. Dirty money, perhaps from the many like his family whom the barangay decided to kick out, Niko thought.

“Pareng Boy, I expected to see you today. So sorry to hear about Joaquina’s fish stall,”
the Capitan said taking a puff out of his cigarette and continuing the count of his blue
bills. “Sayang, I can’t get any more of her rumpi.”

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“They told us it was your instructions,” Mano Boy declared.

“Not mine, old friend.” the Capitan still refusing to remove his attention from the blue bills, “City Hall’s.”

“Well, what about the rumpi we got you last week, the freshly caught ones, Rey? Didn’t you—”

“Why they’re right here,” The Capitan interrupted, rubbing his belly. “Joaquina sure knows fish, she sure knows how to satisfy an appetite. You got lucky with that one, Boy. Heard she wasn’t in the stall these past weeks? How is she?”

“Didn’t you do something to delay our dues, Cap?” Niko asked.

“You sure taught this son of yours some manners, ey?” The Capitan took another puff out of his cigarette.

“I cleared this last week, you’re supposed to delay our dues, Rey.”

“Boy, Boy, Boy. It’s City Hall orders. No one can’t do anything about it. Besides, did you honestly think you could bribe me with a bucket of rumpi? And what’s that, ey, another bribe? Look around you. Look around this wretched public market. I can get all the food I want. In this city the only way up is through this,” the Capitan flicked a bundle of cash. “Why do you think I got here? It was through them generous people. Unless you got cash, we can’t do nothing.”

“Look what you’ve turned into, Rey. You were just like us folks once: poor. Some sense of self-righteousness got you too good to help folks like us in need?”

“That’s a whole load of crap coming from you, old friend. Maybe the loss of your fish stall will teach you not to cover up your wife’s diagnosis. You’ve endangered the other vendors, ever thought of that? You deserve this loss.”

Niko dropped the bucket of rumpi from his grip, clenched a fist the same way his Papa did earlier that morning, thought of the authorities, the taunt, and what the Capitan said. All the things that happened in the past month culminated in Niko’s fist and just as when Niko was about to throw a blow, the blow his Papa wasn’t able to throw that morning,Mano Boy took out one of their fish knives from his pocket; lashed it through the Capitan’s throat and covered his mouth, making sure to silence him. The agony in the Capitan’s eyes was just like the agony clear from fish eyes when they were caught: unable to breathe, gasping for air, aware life was slowly being taken from them. It was just like how his wife taught him. Mano Boy perfected a gutting. “You’re just like ‘em police who try to rob us of our lives, Rey.” Mano Boy said, looking at the gutted neck of his old friend. “Take the cash!” Mano Boy instructed, dragging the Capitan’s body away from sight. “Take your Mama to Jaro, you’ll be safe there. Go!”

Niko did just as his father instructed. His hands trembled as he steered their tricycle. He took a route entering the edge of Anibong. As he was driving past the fruit stalls and vegetable stands, Niko felt a bruise forming on his right calf, probably from the vicious kick-start.

“Papa, shouldn’t have done that.” Niko whispered to himself. “He shouldn’t have done that.”

When he crossed the Anibong bridge, Niko almost lost control as he encountered a bump, luckily, he steered to a steady speed just before reaching the curve of Anibong. When he stopped, Niko noticed how some passengers in a multicab covered their noses over their face masks and stared at him. Even with double face masks, they could still smell the fish from his tricycle. The passenger at the end of the multicab wore EVSU P.E. pants. Niko, unbothered by squealing pigs tied to back of PUVs and endless honking, stared at it until the multicab faded from view.

Niko knew they could never understand the smell of suffering. Niko kick-started the tricycle, didn’t look back and rode away, away from the market.

Lakan Alegre
Lakan Uhay Dorado Alegre is a Filipino writer and performance poetry artist.

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