Over the Stilt Houses at the Fishery

“They’re still having a meeting. You can sit here,” a friendly woman offered me the plastic monoblock chair beside her. I couldn’t tell her age. Her voice sounded like she was in her early thirties, although her coarse skin and hunched posture told me otherwise. But I said friendly, because her eyes told me ‌she was smiling despite the face mask covering half her face. Also, she was the only one who greeted me and gave an explanation why even though the hallway was full of people waiting, no one was coming out of the office to talk to any of us.

“Thank you,” I said.

I watched the “meeting” through the glass panel door. It could have been a Filipino adaptation of The Last Supper, with the government employees gathered around a long rectangular conference table. Instead of wine, they had 1.5-liter Coke, rice and fatty pork adobo for bread, and a 5 ‘5” moreno mayor carrying the world in his belly for Christ.

“Would you like some fish crackers?” the woman asked me. I didn’t realize she had a sack full of fish crackers with her. I imagined the taste, or lack thereof, before I answered her. My mother used to buy some every time we went on jeepney rides when I was little. I knew an intense amount of chili vinegar would be needed to enjoy the styrofoam flavor of that product.

Opo,” I gave her the coins jingling in my purse. It was easier to accept than to say no and explain why. I wouldn’t eat it, not because it was bland. But because over time, I had come to master the logistics of my disorder. I knew I needed to go to the bathroom after every meal, but I’ve always been particular with bathrooms, specifically toilets. I needed toilets like I needed plates in an opposite universe. And I knew the toilets in public government offices were portals to the most abominable hell.

“Municipal Social Welfare and Development Office,” I let my mind do its thing to be present. Five senses. Cool air escaping through the door space. Scent of sweat circling around the hallway. Taste of smoke from my stomach.

“Alan, dito ka!” a mother’s scream. This wasn’t the first time.

A little boy around four to six years old named Alan, escaped his mother’s vision and went to the exit door at the end of the hallway. Outside the door was a fire escape stairwell where you could see the ground through the rusty skeletal steps even though you were on the fifth floor of an old building.

Alan’s mother ran towards him and dragged him back by his shirt. I looked outside the exit door, curious as to why the boy kept going back to it.

There was a fishery behind the building. Square areas of water were bordered by bamboo sticks and fishnet walls. The horizon was made of stilt houses all lined up above the water. It was like a line of banderitas, different colors from different materials. Some walls were plastered with old tarpaulins and posters. Roofs were made from disproportionate aluminum sheets.

If you were an optimist, you could focus on the quirky aesthetic of the colorful slums. You just had to ignore the human curiosity to imagine what was like to live there, what was like to use their bathroom, if they had one.

You just had to forget what was like for the fish living under them, if there were still some.

“She’s asking for legal help. Her neighbor beat Alan last week. The little boy pretended to drive his parked motorcycle. He was just playing!” the friendly woman reclaimed me from my thoughts.

It was easy to stay present with her stories.

“Slapped the little boy’s face! He didn’t even call the mother. She was just inside the house! He could’ve just called her to get the boy.”

I looked at the little boy’s face. I just noticed his bruised cheek.

Alan’s mother looked at us after hearing her story being retold. “He’s been harassing our neighborhood ever since he moved. He thinks he’s the law just because his uncle is a police officer,” she said.

A grown man slapping a child? You would think this is an emergency. I looked back at the glass door.

The last supper was still ongoing.

“That is terrible,” I said. I wished I had advice to give. But I was there hoping for financial support for my medication maintenance. I was waiting for assistance, just like everyone.

Illustration by Jimbo Albano

“Alan, balik!” the boy managed to walk away from his mother again as she was busy narrating to us what happened.

Once again, the boy got dragged from his shirt, his little face still purple from a grown man’s slap, his hands greasy from fish crackers, his eyes set on the colorful stilt houses.

“They said they will help me!” It was the friendly woman’s turn to share her story. I learned ‌her husband was in jail for drug pushing. The municipal public attorney advised her to seek financial help here. She needed to feed four children, all under ten, other than fish crackers.

I listened to everyone. An old man was applying for a senior citizen’s ID for the third time because of a lack of valid ID. A mother was applying for financial help for her son’s kidney dialysis. A daughter was applying for a funeral aid for her father, who had been in the funeral parlor for a month now.

Everyone was generous to spill their reasons for being in this hallway. They let their stories overflow and spill through the exit door to the fishery. Their voices were dying to be heard.

But the door was shut.

“Alan, putang-ina kang bata ka!”

Alan was carried this time, not dragged. He actually stepped on the treacherous stairs itself. Sweet, curious, oblivious, little Alan.

I saw the apostles clap their hands. The mayor picked a paper inside a tissue box and announced what was written to everyone. A woman jumped out of her seat and ran to the mayor. He gave her an envelope, which she waved in the air on her way back to her seat.

Five senses. Two-thirty pm on my wristwatch. The fishy scent of the fishery. Overlapping stories in the background. The friendly woman’s arm brushing against mine.

The bitterness in my tongue.

“They do not care,” I whispered.

The friendly woman looked at the glass panel door and sighed.

“Alan? Where is he?”

We all looked at each other and under our seats. He couldn’t have been there. He didn’t want to be there. But we didn’t want to find him where we knew he could have gone.

“Alan! Putang-ina! Alan!” Alan’s mother plopped down at the top of the stairs. The friendly woman ran towards her and screamed. Everyone followed and walked down the stairs.

I looked at the glass panel door. They were having dessert.

Outside, an overcast sky spread over the stilt houses at the fishery. The air smelled of grief. Alan’s mother’s howling echoed in the hallway.

An upward avalanche in my stomach.

Spite in my mouth.


Angel Salvador Chiuteña
Angel Salvador Chiuteña
Angel Salvador Chiuteña is a teacher, poet, and a short story writer. She won 1st prize in the 2022 Tempe Writers Contest for her short story “An Elegy to the Serpent Eagle.” Her book, Whispering Mementos, is a poetry and short story collection. You may read more of her poetry on her Instagram page at lensandletters.


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