Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Fish Tale (fiction)

I went down from the car to get to the doorbell button that jutted out on the mossy cement wall by the gate. It was almost two in the morning and the December dry cool felt nice on my arm as I reached out to press the mushroom like protrusion from the wall.

From the gate I could see a funeral wake across the street. I didn’t sound the car horn out of respect to the mourners keeping vigil. I could see quite a few people chatting by the makeshift benches that lined the side of the road. There were two mahjong tables keeping everyone awake with the clatter of the tiles as they were tumbled and stirred before walling. At the other end of the house’s frontage a tent was set up to shelter about a dozen somber looking sakla players from the cold December air.

It was already early Sunday morning and it must have been the last night of the vigil to have so many people around even at such a late hour. A slight breeze was blowing and a black streamer tied between two trees, with San Ignacio Funeral Homes printed on it, billowed like a swollen sail as if from Charon’s boat catching a favorable wind, ferrying the soul of the deceased across the waters to the other life.

As I waited for somebody to open the gate I could hear voices from within.
“Were they just waiting for me? But it’s not even two yet”, I thought.
We were going fishing in Nasugbu and we planned on moving out by half past two to have time to pass by the wet market in Pasay where we could buy live bait. Live bait was freshly caught shrimps available only at that early hour, shrimps about an inch and a half in length and still with a lot of jumping liveliness in them…surefire attractions to talakitoks and lapulapus. These were neatly placed in layers of wet cloth, which were then stowed in a polystyrene cooler box to keep them alive longer.

The gate was hesitantly opened by a half-awake and surly looking servant girl who seemed annoyed by the arrival of a visitor at such an unholy hour. She took a quick look at me to check if I was one of the expected visitors then rudely swung the gate slamming it on the side of the driveway’s wall. I drove into the compound and parked between two cars at the end of the driveway. I entered the open front door of the house and was met by Joe.

“We are waiting for Art. He just phoned and said that he will be here in five minutes. Late as always. Fix yourself a cup of coffee. It’s at the small table by the fridge”.

Joe, the oldest guy in the group in whose house we all agreed to meet spoke, as if reassuring me that I was not the last to arrive. Joe is a great guy. He used to be my boss in the brand group until I got promoted to a position in marketing services. I also knew that he liked me.

Even before we got into fishing we used to go out a lot with our families to out of town excursions. One memorable trip was in Hundred Islands in Lingayen, Pangasinan where we stayed overnight in one of the islands. His brother in law, Mark and his family were with us. The kids were happily engaged in all sorts of play on the beach while the wives were chatting under big umbrellas all the while keeping watch on the kids. On a dare from Mark we did a quarter of a mile swim from our island to the one called the Cathedral, so called because it had a cave, a big hollow that had a dome resembling vaulted cathedral ceilings.

One thing we had in common was our having swum competitively in college for our individual schools. Mark was the bemedalled one while Joe and I were just good enough to make it to the school team. With this proclivity towards aquatic sports we naturally gravitated to deep-sea fishing.

Mark was on the terrace by the coffee table busily snelling hooks and placing them in a plastic tube.

“Well, I have snelled enough hooks to last the trip. I don’t want to be caught again without these at ready like the last time.”

It takes at least five minutes to fix a hook on the leader line. In the last trip, Mark couldn’t forgive himself for being unprepared when a school of talakitoks was in a feeding frenzy snatching everything that was thrown in.

“I could have brought in three times more than what I caught”.

He looked up recognizing my presence.

“O Ted I didn’t see you get in. I thought you were Joe. I’m so excited about this trip…Ben and some friends went last week to the island off Maligaya beach and trolled for tanigue and you know what? They were able to reel in a stray marlin in a school of tanigue.”

“Don’t believe everything Ben says. He always has a fish tale to tell. Besides, Ben and his group are not really that interested in fishing. They have been using fishing as an excuse to their wives so that they can get out on weekends with their chicks”, said Joe.

Ben was Joe’s older brother who now and then joined the us in these fishing trips. He didn’t condone his older brother’s playing around and would repudiate him in righteous indignation each time he got wind of Ben’s latest escapades.

“Well, it seems to be a well combined diversion, fishing and womanizing…Parehong malansa.” I remarked just to make light the situation as I noticed Joe’s cheeks begin to redden. Just the thought of his brother's indscretions made him sore.

The sound of a car horn was heard outside the gate and we all started to arrange our packs. Mine was made up of fishing equipment and sandwiches that were dutifully prepared by my wife who woke up early to make them.

“Okay guys let’s go. Art will wake up the whole neighborhood before too long. If we run out of live shrimps to buy in the market you know who to blame”, said Joe who was a bit miffed at Art’s tardiness.

He and Art were never really that friendly with each other after Ateneo gave Lasalle a drubbing in their last basketball encounter. Art, an overzealous and obstreperous Atenean outdid himself in jeering Joe for almost a week after the game. These guys really take school loyalties seriously. Joe just kept his cool although you could almost feel the steam hissing out of every pore of his pasty skin. This happened in the UAAP championships last year and Joe is one to harbor ill feelings on long stretches. Anyway, even without that incident an almost innate animosity existed between these two schools and the incident made even more entrenched this antagonism that Joe Mendoza had on Art Cruces.

After getting our live bait from the Pasay Public Market in Libertad we proceeded towards Roxas Boulevard, a beautiful stretch by Manila Bay leading to the coastal road, the entry point to the province of Cavite. It was a nice drive in early morning. This was just before the morning traffic buildup and we went through the towns Paranaque and Las Pinas without much difficulty because all the intersections of the major commercial streets were still empty of vehicles except for a few parked jeepneys.

In no time we were wending our way through the zigzagging mountain road of Tagaytay as the first gleam of sunrise began to create silhouettes of the mountain line and continued to spread on the lake’s surface like a luminous blue film. We rode in Joe’s car. It was a ten-year old Toyota sedan which despite its worn appearance was a dependable conveyance. Joe had a newer car but that was for going to the office and for socials. The Toyota was for roughing it up and for trips that would surely leave the car dirtied with sticky mud and fishy smell.

“Pare, you could really tell a Lasallite’s car. There is always that patch of slimy green grime on the carpet and the earthy redolence of Robin Hood’s unwashed ballet tights”.

Joe, who was driving just ignored the smart-alecky remark from Art who was looking pleased from what he thought was a witty and nifty swipe at the arch foe. He knew that the guys from Taft Avenue were never that adroit at quick repartees and he could still make another one without fear of a comeback from Joe but thought it prudent not to pursue the urge.

He noticed Joe’s ears turn red and his face puffed as if about to have an apoplexy. Joe was seething as he drove on through the Azucarera de Don Pedro sugar mills and refinery. He almost sideswiped a parked truck laden with sugar cane but instead grazed a stray dog that was sent scurrying over the mounds of ashy remains of burnt cane alongside the railroad ties. As if vicariously getting even with the mangy dog he slowed down and seemed to have recovered his poise and equanimity to everyone’s relief.

Getting even. That must have felt good even if it was just on a wretched mangy dog. For a moment the hapless cur must have personified all the evils in the world, Hitler, Idi Amin, Manson, Art Cruces, Ateneans, etc and got its just deserts.

It was still dark when we reached the hut of Mang Turing the fisherman whom we have made arrangements to rent a banca for the day’s expedition. We had a package deal that included his services as boatman and guide to fishing spots together with breakfast. We had instructed him to prepare a breakfast made up of “sinaing”, which is "tulingan" steamed overnight in slow fire until the whole fish including the bones become soft. This was a popular fare in the fishing towns of Southern Tagalog. We ate this with plain rice, egg fried sunny side up together with a cup of strong “barako”coffee. “Barako”coffee is strong stuff. Drinking it brings about a palpable thumping in your chest that can keep you awake all day.

We all got down from the car and did stretching exercises to regain circulation of the poor muscles that were a bit achy after being squeezed, sat on for two hours and made taut by Joe’s irascible driving. We had a quick but good breakfast. The fishing spot would be at least forty minutes away and we needed to get there before it gets light to take advantage of the early morning feeding habit of the “talakitok”.

There are as many fish tales as there are myths in fishing. Some of these which Mang Turing would stake his reputation on were…the best time to go after "talakitok" is between light and dark, sharks can smell blood from a mile away, "lapu-lapu" help each other disentangle lines, eels are vengeful, and then some really fantastic ones… night luminescence at sea are submerged UFOs, mermaids lead astray fishermen to their lairs, a fiery sky means a storm is brewing, and St. Elmo’s fire warns fishermen to proceed no further. Myths about feeding habits of fish are the most told in fishing lore. I don’t mind the spuriousness of these. In fact half believing these stories adds to the adventure of fishing.

Mang Turing, the fisherman, was a lightly built man who must have been in his mid forties although he looked ten years older. Men whose livelihood exposed them to the natural harshness of sea and sun make them age faster than those who work in the sheltered air-conditioned offices in the city. Mang Turing was swarthy in complexion, with skin that looked tough and as hard as tooled leather. His slight appearance, wiry frame and the tightly woven sinews of his thin arms and legs belied an amazing strength.

He gathered the things he would need for the fishing trip and led us to the boat. There was a red plastic container, a recycled Shell lubricant bottle, which contained two liters of gasoline, a loop of mooring rope made of abaca, a hand reel with a thick nylon line and a mean looking gaff, which though, rusted had a newly honed sharp point that gleamed even with just the faint light coming from a struck match.

When we got to the boat he helped as board and by himself pushed the boat towards deeper water, hastily climbed aboard and with the help of a long bamboo pole punted the boat away from the shore. You could still see the flickering lights of the "basnigs" from a distance as they hurried home after a night’s work at sea. It is difficult to tell the distance by the light of the boats. Mang Turing said that it probably would still be more than an hour before these boats would reach shore.

“Why don’t you guys start fixing up your gear before we reach the fishing ground.”

Mark was the most eager and was egging everyone to ready up. He had spread his snelled hooks in front of him. His fishing rod was already assembled and he was now threading the nylon through the series of loops of the rod. We followed suit.

I noticed Joe’s nylon lines were a bit heavier than what one would normally put in an open reel to catch "talakitok", "bisugo" or even l"apu-lapu", fish that would not exceed a kilo in weight.

Art notice this too and remarked, “The trouble with you Lasallites is your retarded sense of sportsmanship. You seem to have forgotten that we are here for the sport. I wouldn’t go to all the trouble and the expense if all I wanted was fish. The essence of the sport is to show your skill in reeling in fish that is so much heavier than your line.”

Art was right and he knew it and this encouraged him to carry on further. “Pare naman, give the poor fish a sporting chance. Just like in the UAAP…no sportsmanship”.

“Now what has the UAAP got to do with fishing?” I protested almost in a shout.
Art couldn’t be stopped as he continued with his ranting.
“And another thing, what’s the name of that guy? That team official? The one who hit the Arwind Santos on the head after losing a game to FEU? What a rotten sneak! If it were not for video replay he would have gotten away with it. Now isn’t that typical Lasallite behavior?”

Joe lit a cigarette from a match and hissed the first puff towards the matchstick to put it out while Art was making his defamatory remarks. In the dim light I couldn’t see clearly their facial expressions. It was easy to imagine the arrogant facial mien of Art while I speculated that Joe must have again been seething in silent rage like the smoldering cinders of his lit cigarette that glowed maleficently in the dimness of dusk. Mark didn’t seem to be perturbed by all the noise Art was making. He was busy preparing his gear.

It was early light when we got to the fishing spot. Mang Turing, with his knowledge of triangulation, was unerring in pinpointing the exact location of the sunken Japanese battleship, now, a haven for all sorts of fish who have taken residence in the wreckage.

Art had long stopped talking. He probably became apprehensive of Joe’s reticence and sensed that he might have gotten under his skin much more than he intended to.

The sea was beautiful, as it lay still in the morning calm. Tiny ripples stretched widely into the open sea looked like a pointillist canvas as it shimmered in the first light. The "basnig" flotilla was behind us now,, receding from view as they blurred and became a part of the shoreline. In front of us, in the distance, was Fortune Island, an ominous looking promontory that jutted out rudely from the serene watery spread. The waters surrounding the island are notorious for vicious sharks and fisher folks knew well to avoid the place. Our fishing spot was still some distance from the dreaded waters although underneath us the teeming variety of fish, occasionally attract stray sharks to feed.

Mark was the first to cast. He attached a heavy lead at the end of his line and allowed the line to sink as far as it can get in order to have a gauge of the distance from the boat to the sea floor or the top part of the wreck. He reeled in and announced to all that the depth was approximately thirty meters.

We had fished for about half an hour. Mark’s eagerness was rewarded by two good-sized "lapulapu " while I was on my third snagged line. I had a bite but was not quick enough to yank the line. This gave the fish a chance to lodge himself in the many crevices of the wreck. Both Art and Joe were not having any success either. Then Mang Turing suddenly jerked his handline and started to haul in his line steadily but with much exertion.

“There’s a big beautiful fish at the end of that line”, shouted Art.

Mang Turing grimaced as pulled the hundred pound line. My attention shifted to my own line when it tautened and the end of my rod dipped. I felt the struggle of what could be a magnificent creature at the end of my line and I started to reel in slowly, taking care not snap the ten-pound line I was using.

“Whaa!” hollered Mark who almost fell to his side as a violent jerk on his line made him lose his balance. Mark knew that the vigorous tugging in his line meant that he, too, had a big one.

I knew that Mang Turing’s catch must really be gigantic judging from the effort he exerted as he pulled in his line. But for a while I forgot all about him for I was rapt in my own struggle to bring in my fish.

I could hear Mang Turing telling Joe to get the ready to gaff the fish when he hoists it up. “Oowww!” I heard Art’s pained shout… then Joe saying “Sorry, Pare, I missed”.

It seemed that in the excitement of bringing in the fish, Joe who was ready with the gaff, swung widely at the fish as Mang Turing brought it up above the level of the boat. He missed and nicked Art in the forearm causing it to bleed profusely. It was just a gash but Art was a bleeder and the small towel that he dabbed on the wound to stem the bleeding was soaked. Mark had a first aid kit in his pack. He cleaned up Art’s wound with alcohol and dressed the wound with cotton wrapped in gauze then used medical plaster to hold the dressing together. The blood soaked towel lay there on the floor spreading like red dye on a small puddle at the bottom of the boat.

The big fish turned out to be a young shark, a mako, about four feet in length. It got away when the barb straightened out from the full weight of the shark above water.

Joe said he was sorry immediately after missing the fish with the gaff and hitting Art instead, but that was all he said. There was no show of concern or the usual remorseful and solicitous behavior after causing an accident. Art didn’t make a comment but busied himself attending to his wound.

I didn’t actually see what happened as I was too engrossed with my bite. All I heard was Art’s howl when he was hit and Joe’s apology. When I turned I saw Art clutching his left forearm and Mang Turing whose back was turned was watching the runaway fish disappear in the depths. Mark, like me was similarly concentrated with dealing with the fish at the end of our lines.

We soon forgot about the nasty incident. Towards mid afternoon the fish
Began to bite. We were having a grand time reeling in "talalitoks", "bisugos" and "lapulapus". This was a great spot and I took a mental note to return to it in our next fishing trip.

We knew that we were in the company of sharks from the time Mang Turing has struck the one that got away. The sharks were snatching our catch before we could reel them in. It was frustrating to feel the sudden slackening of the line and seeing just the fish head emerging to the surface at the end of the line. We changed to heavier lines, not to catch sharks but to reel in the hooked fish quickly before the sharks bite them off. Even Art changed to heavier lines despite his disparaging remarks about the unsportsmanlike use of heavier lines that he rebuked Joe for favoring. It was as if he had forgiven Joe for the accident.

“Joe had the right idea…heavier lines are right for this situation” and Joe just nodded to acknowledge Art’s compliment.

We have had enough of fishing for the day. Our coolers were filled with catch and our baits were no longer live and were about used up. It was days end. The sea was starting to get choppy and we needed to get to shore before it got dark.

Mang Turing prepared for our departure from the fishing ground. He pulled in the anchor. Joe helped by arranging the mooring ropes into a neat loop as Mang Turing hauled them in. He then went to the stern of the boat to get the plastic receptacle containing gasoline and brought it to the center of the boat where the motor was. He took off the cap of the plastic bottle and placed the opened bottle on top of the looped abaca rope and then uncapped the engine’s gas tank. The opened plastic bottle was sitting unsteadily on the looped rope when suddenly Joe tripped on the end part of the rope that was attached to the anchor. This caused the plastic bottle to tip over and spill about a third of its contents on the looped rope. Mang Turing was quick to put upright the plastic bottle and saved enough of the gasoline contents to take us to shore. The boat reeked of the strong gasoline smell. Mang Turing told us to stay at the front half of the boat so that we won’t be downwind once the boat goes forward.

Joe stayed with Mang Turing at the middle of the boat while Mark, Art and myself stayed in the forward section. We were just about fifteen minutes from were we left when Mang Turing went forward to fix the piece of tire rubber at the front tip of the boat which seemed to have loosened its wrap on the wooden prow. He returned quickly to his post to tend the steering pole. There was a strong gust of wind coming from shore.

The salty spray on my face and the rushing sound of the wind made me oblivious of what was behind me. Joe had moved forward now to where I was as if trying to tell me something when Mang Turing shouted “Fire! Fire! The boat is on fire.” The spilled gasoline on the abaca rope and wooden floor and sidings made the fire rage quickly. The fire was already consuming the engine housing and had quickly spread to the rear section of the boat. There was only a rusted tin can that can be used to douse the fire. The water splashed on the fire from the tin can was so meager and Mang Turing soon gave up the effort. The fire was now eating up the engine’s housing and soon it will reach the gas tank. We were all huddled at the front causing the boat to dip forward.

Joe was first to jump into the water. Then Mang Turing told everyone to jump out because there will be an explosion soon. As I hit the water I could see Joe and Mark start swimming towards shore. Mang Turing was still floating around and like a captain of a ship viewing the fiery scene thinking of ways to save the boat.

The last time I saw Art he was bobbing with the waves about ten meters away from where I was. Before jumping out of the boat I saw him throwing out the contents of his cooler. He probably had the good sense to make a floater out of the polystyrene icebox. I looked at the shore and guessed that it would be more than two kilometers away. I wasn’t as confident as Mark and Joe who instinctively went for the shore the moment they touched water. I knew my stamina has been eroded by a two pack a day smoking habit and I just might not be able to make it.

Whoomph!! A loud blast came from about twenty meters from where I was. I went under water to avoid getting hit by the shrapnel like dispersion of the debris. When I surfaced I was in the middle of a collection of flotsam. There were pieces of wood, plastic shards, fish parts and odd bits coming from our baggage. Not too far away I could see a head moving towards a long bamboo pole, a remnant of the outrigger which detached itself from the boat in the explosion. It was Mang Turing. I yelled at him and I was glad when he acknowledged seeing me by shouting back. I swam towards the bamboo pole and clung on. I couldn’t find any traces of Art but I concluded that he can survive this in his makeshift lifesaver.

As we paddled towards shore the sky was aglow with a resplendent sunset. The scattered clouds above the horizon were made more distinct by a fiery red backdrop.

“It will be a stormy night”, muttered Mang Turing.

We reached shore after a two-hour effort paddling with one arm while the other clung to the bamboo pole. Mark and Joe got to shore half an hour ahead of us with their steady swimming pace. They had dry clothing on and were seated in front Mang Turing’s hut together with the barangay captain and barrio councilmen. The police have been notified and would arrive soon with an ambulance to take us where they could administer first aid.

We phoned home and told our families about the incident. I told my wife that I will be staying a while to wait for news about Art. Mark and Joe had the same thing in mind. Outside Mang Turing’s hut there was a heavy rain that persisted for more than two hours. I told everyone to keep up hope because I saw Art afloat with his makeshift lifesaver.

The heavy rains didn’t help in shoring up our optimism. Late in the night Mang Turing, half trying to make conversation, offered the notion of aliens’ succor from UFOs in the Batangas waters or the possibility of mermaids coming to his rescue and nursing him until he was able to get to shore by himself. The "barako" coffee was truly a solace in a cold and stormy night.

The following day the body of Art was recovered. It was badly mangled, obviously from a shark attack.

It was a dark dawn after a stormy night. In the glare of his Coleman lamp a shoreline fisherman saw a body floating amidst the flotsam of our boat’s wreckage brought in by the tide.

After hearing the news we ran towards the beach where we saw a group of early risers milling around an inert form. The body was laid on the sand half-covered in plastic. It was difficult to look at Art’s body fixedly. His left arm was almost severed from a pale but bruised torso that had turned bluish green. His face was undamaged but had a bewildered look with mouth agape and eyes opened wide as if in dreadful terror.

As I took off my glance from the mutilated carcass I noticed Joe walking away from the huddle, walking past Mang Turing’s hut and to his parked Toyota. Not one of us bothered to call him back, not even Mark, his brother in law. Only Mang Turing, with a knowing look uttered “He has a lot to think about”.

Joe drove away. Away without looking back.


NanNan said...

Wow--enthralling and thought-provoking story-- it's so obvious where your son gets his writing abilities, and his devotion -- I thought it would be a typical fish tale,instead, a tragedy at sea-- and a difficult personal recollection-- couldn't stop reading once I started-- looking forward to more--

JRLzr said...

Did this really happen? Wow! Truly tragic. And an Atenean got it in the end! Sorry for the irreverence.

wayfarer said...


No offense meant to Ateneans. This is pure fiction. It was convenient to use the intense rivalry between the two schools to develop the story.

Tnx for dropping in.