A Song Of the Sea
by Antonio Enriquez
The city man and his three companions are fishing very early that morning off the west coast of Labuan, a fishing village in Zamboanga City, island of Mindanao. With him as fishing-guide is Old Tacio, who knows all the best fishing grounds in the Sulu Sea, and a boy-helper who baits the fish and unrolls the tangled nylon lines. Suddenly Mr. Castro jumps up on his feet as the tánsi fishing line sizzles in his soft hands, with a huge fish struggling and streaking the water with its great fin just behind the bamboo outrigger. Then they see its ash-colored body about half a meter under the surface of the sea like an ominous shadow.
“Help! Help!” cries Mr. Castro to his companions. “Big...very big fish.” He is nearly jostled overboard as three men rush to him and grab the line to pull in the great shark. Only they do not know it is a shark until, with the hook hurting its mouth (for now four, not one man, are pulling in the tánsi line), the shark lifts himself out of the water and explodes like a bomb. Then the old man shouts at the boy to pull up the iron anchor hanging halfway in the water, so that the tánsi line will not get entangled round the anchor’s rope. And then the great shark comes alongside the outrigger, they see that it is as big as the motorboat, its fin alone is over two feet over the water surface. For a few minutes they all stand in the boat and are dumb and speechless watching the monster not seven meters away behind the bamboo outrigger, they can see it all, just behind the parallel outrigger bamboo tube: ash-backed, small-mouthed, and pig-eyed the great shark is. But before the boy-helper has completely pulled up the iron anchor, the great shark suddenly wheels and plunges under the motorboat, and everyone on the canoe fears the great shark will leap up and turn their motorboat upside down and with everyone overboard; then what horror as the shark feeds on them. The line again sizzles hot in their hands and then goes slack—and the shark is gone, it vanishes apparition-like in the depths of the dark sea.
Although old Tacio and the city man are so disappointed, they go on fishing since there is yet more than five or six hours of good fishing. In fact, they catch two game fishes, a ray fish and a sword fish before they decide to call it quits and return to shore.
The old man Tacio begins to sing as he steers the fishing motorboat toward shore. A soft westerly wind is blowing behind it.
“What is the old one singing, boy?” says the man from the city.
The boy says, “About good fishing.”
Then the man says, “Do the fishermen in your village always sing whenever they come home from fishing?
“No-no,” says the boy-helper. “They sing only when the fishing is good to thank the gods for their protection in the unpredictable sea, or when they plead for good fishing.
The boy-helper and the city man are both watching the old man Tacio squatting on the bow of the motorboat. He is singing of the good fishing they had that day and the past three days. On the stern in front of the boy-helper, three other men sit, and the wind from the speeding boat blows the hot, black motor smoke into their faces.
As they come into the bay, the sun behind them is round and red just like an egg yolk. The old man stops singing and the boy cuts off the motor. Languidly the boat slides in to the shore. The old man gets up on his feet, rising automatically, and jumps waist-deep in the water pulling the boat’s line in one hand. Wading toward the shore, the water now up to his thighs, he with other fishermen on the shore pulls the boat in by the rope, and, turning around serpent-like, they hold the boat firmly in place, as the boy-helper and the city men jump on to the shore.
Now the three men unload the fishes on the beach, and the bountiful catch lies lumpily, sand-powdered, gape-mouthed and goggle-eyed on the sand. There is a pair of ray fish and a ninety-pound sailfish whose eyes are filmy and dull in their sockets.
Some naked children bathing in the bay now come running to look at the fishes. The mops of hair on their heads are bronzed by the sun and their naked bodies are wet and scaly like the fishes caught in the sea by the city men.
Meanwhile, the sun scorches the sea with its rays and taints the horizon red and yellow with its last fury.
The old man says, “It was very good fishing, Mr. Castro.”
“Yes, we were very lucky,” says Castro. And then to the three men he says:
“Better take them fish to the jeep.”
“All right,” they reply.
So, the three men, with the boy helping, carry the fishes to the jeep parked in the vacant lot beside Belo’s barbershop in the market place. Two of the men go back down to the shoreline and grab the sailfish by its tail and head, and carrying it between them climb up the beach to the vacant lot. They lift the sailfish up and plop it into the back of the jeep. When the two men come back, the boy leaves the vacant lot and walks down toward the motorboat to bail out the seawater on boat's bottom.
The old man and Castro are walking barefoot up the beach. The latter swears at the hot coral rocks and the sharp pebbles cutting the soles of his feet, and limps along the shoreline. A row of vintas covered with dry coconut fronds like preserved carcasses outlines the front of the village. Their empty hulls are raised half a foot from the sand on slabs of wood that have been eaten and pitted by brine. Both men, the old fisherman and Mr. Castro, halt before the fishing canoes, which are called vintas by the local folk.
The old man says, “I think you will come back soon, Mr. Castro. Your fingers will be really itching for more fishing, again,” “Ah-ah,” Castro says. “Yes, my fingers will itch for some fishing,” “Too bad about the tiburón,” says the old man Tacio. “It is the biggest my old eyes has ever seen ... ”And in the old man’s mind he sees the shark again, leaping white-bellied alongside their bamboo-outrigger, too dangerously close. Then Tacio, his patched short trousers and hair-whorled legs dripping with water, says, “If the tánsi line had not … ” But his voice is not sad, since the lost shark is not everything of the good fishing they had those four days in Labuan. Looking up and slapping at his wet trousers with both hands, he grins happily at the city man whose tanned and sun-burnt face is as red as the devil’s.
“Grandfather, how much do you think we could have sold the shark for?” asks Castro. The soles of his feet no longer hurts on the fine, warm sand up on the beach — not so hot on the shoreline as before.
“Maybe, in the market here it would have sold for fifty pesos,” the old man says. “In the city it would get double the price. The Chinese, for its fin alone, would pay as much as forty pesos. It’s a delicacy to them.”
The old man Tacio was terribly happy. He was happy even with the loss of the great tiburón that had run off with more than two hundred yards of the tánsi fishing line he had borrowed, and, of course, with his own wire leader and home-made hooks and lead sinkers.
He says, “I think we were too excited. We could have speared the shark the moment it came alongside our boat. But in the excitement we all forgot the salapang .... Anyway, you caught the second sailfish. That alone is already a priceless catch.”
In the vacant lot one of the three city men leans forward through the door of the jeep and clamps his palm over the horn. Suddenly, the quiet late-afternoon splits and its mantle of last daylight tears in half, as the jeep’s horn goes beep, beep, beep. Two of the city men climb in and sit on the back seat, while the other continues to clamp his palm over the horn.
Castro says, “We are leaving now, grandfather.” He reaches behind and pulls out a leather wallet from his hip pocket wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it dry during the four days of fishing. The city man draws out some bills, which are new and crisp, and counts them slowly before handing the money to old Tacio. Says Castro, “That is fifty pesos. You may count it yourself”–reminding Tacio he had given him thirty pesos as advance payment last Thursday. “Do you remember?”
The fisherman-guide Tacio did not even look at the money, although he was holding it in his dirty calloused hand. Instead, he looked up at Castro’s peeling nose, his tanned cheeks, his sun-burnt forehead and his red puffy face. It was splotched and mottled from the sun and four days of fishing off Labuan Bay.
“Si, I remember…. ” says the old man. “But this money isn’t enough.”
“ No?” says Castro.
Old Tacio shifts his feet on the sand, saying, “No! It doesn’t pay for everything.”
“How much then?” Castro asks.
“One hundred and fifty pesos more would settle everything,” says Tacio.
“What!” says Castro. “You must be kidding.”
Beads of perspiration roll down Castro’s tanned, pudgy face and from the corner of his slit eyes. They streak down the creases of his sun burnt neck and across the folds of flesh shiny with their own fat.
“We do not make jokes concerning money, Mr. Castro.”
“But our contract was for eighty pesos only.... ” says the city man.
“Let me explain first, Mr. Castro,” says old man Tacio. “It is true our contract was eighty pesos for four fishing days. But what I am asking now is for the fishing line you yesterday lost with that tiburón.”
“You mean that tánsi line costs a hundred and fifty pesos?” Castro says.
Tacio is still looking up at the city man with that same grinning expression in his face, saying, “Yes; my mestizo Chino friend told me he bought the tánsi line not long ago. I am not even charging you any more for the hooks, the wire-leader, and sinkers also lost.”
In the vacant lot beside the market the jeep’s horn again goes beep, beep, beep. Says Castro, “All right, grandfather ... You wait here. I will get the rest of the money from my companions.” Castro walks off toward the jeep parked beside Belo’s barbershop, and the old man turns and leans back against the bow of one of the vintas along the beach. Just then the boy-helper comes up the beach from securing the motorboat to its mooring and sits by him and then he and the boy watch the city man walking rapidly across the vacant lot toward the jeep.
The city man Castro slides into the driver’s seat and switches the motor on, throwing the gear into first and the jeep springs forward down the dirt road like a bug. Tacio, realizing Mr. Castro is driving away without paying him, runs quick as a deer down the beach after the fast-going jeep and instantly was covered with smoke and dust-cloud from the motor car’s exhaust. His nose smarts from the sharp tang of burnt rubber and gas. When the dust-cloud disappears, he stands alone in the middle of the road, and the jeep turns the bend speeding toward the city and vanishes behind the grove of coconut trees.
The fleetest deer could not have caught up with that fast jeep and the fleeing city man, old Tacio says to himself.
Belo the barber steps out of his barbershop, and the women in the stores along the beach come out and stand in the door ways while the men in the vacant lot edge closer to the dirt road. Holding an open razor in one hand, Belo approaches the old Tacio who has come up the road.
“What happened, Tacio?” the barber asks.
“They cheated me,” Tacio says and flings his buri hat on the ground. He stamps down on it with both feet, as if it were his hat’s fault that Mr. Castro ran off without paying him in full.
“What happened?” the barber asks, again.
“He made a fool of me, demonio!” he says and jerks his head up. “Cabron! Cuckold!”
Old Tacio and Belo the Barber gaze down the road for a minute, and then Tacio bends forward picking up his trampled buri hat and slaps off the dust on his thigh-trousers and walks down the beach.
Belo walks alongside the old man a little way, the former stepping in cadence, and, without a word, spins abruptly around and walks back to his barbershop leaving the old man alone.
Tacio goes on, and the boy-helper upon seeing the old man comes up and walks beside him. Slowly and heavily, they walk together until they come to a store the biggest in the fishing village.
On the steps of the store sit two half-naked children wearing only camisetas or Chinese T-shirts. Their sleeves are soiled and damp with mucous. Behind the counter lined with glass jars filled with candies, biscuits, threads, buttons, and fishing hooks a woman sits on a stool, and under her printed dress the woman’s belly's taut brown skin swells pressing against the cloth.
“Buenas tardes, missis,” says old man Tacio. “Is your husband Julian… ” He does not wait for a reply and walks toward the room in the back of the store. Up along the walls hang fish hooks with wire or nylon leaders and two-coiled fishing lines, and in one corner a fishing net trails down from a nail onto the floor.
A middle-aged Chinese mestizo sits mending a fishing net at the head of a long wooden table, looking up when the old man comes into the room. His hands with woman-like fingers do not cease pulling a long cord.
“Hoy, friend Tacio,” says the Chinese mestizo. “And how was the fishing?”
Old Tacio with the fifty pesos in one hand, replies, “Very good. O, here is the money, Julian. But it’s only fifty pesos—” standing before the table and hearing his own strange voice.
“What? Only fifty pesos?” says the Chinese mestizo Julian.
“O, o,” says Tacio. “I am indeed ashamed that this is the only money I can give you now. But something happened ... “ And he tells Julian what happened down at the beach. The merchant Julian cannot believe what he is hearing. Had he not provided the fishing guide Tacio with the gasoline and oil for the four fishing days and even loaned him his new tánsi line? When they lost it the second day, Tacio promised to get the money from Mr. Castro on Sunday or the last day of fishing. But now here he is with only fifty pesos ... just enough to pay for the gasoline and oil.
“I will pay you all of my debts,” says Tacio. In his effort to hold back his shame, he squints and his dull eyes flit toward the merchant's woman-like fingers. “Little by little I will pay you back …. It might even be sooner than you yourself will believe possible,” he stops. “Trust me.”
“Of course, I trust you,” says Julian. “But I need the money on Saturday.”
“I still have my small boat, Julian,” says old Tacio. He does not look at Julian but instead smiles hard with the corners of his thick mouth barely rising. “Maybe you have forgotten …. ”
“I have not forgotten, friend,” says the Chinese mestizo. Both hands lie still before him on the table for he has ceased mending the net. “But can you pay me on Saturday even half of it? No? I thought so .... ”
“No-no,” cries Old Tacio, “I mean yes, I will pay you.”
The Chinese mestizo merchant does not say anything for a while, and then continues: “You know, friend Tacio, I was depending very much on this money which I expected from you. I planned this week to buy new stocks in the city for my store, which you can see is very much empty!”
“Yes, I know ... ” says old Tacio looking at the other and with great effort raises his eyes from the woman-like slender fingers to the merchant’s face. Again he squints, and still slightly squinting wearily says: “That’s why besides the regular ferry and charter trips I do now and then, I am going dynamite fishing with Lungi tomorrow.”
Julian says nothing and is silent for a while.
Then the merchant says, “Surely, you don’t mean yourself!”
“Uagh …,” says Tacio. “I myself will go.”
So the other says, “Yourself, really, my friend Tacio?”
Julian leans over the table and quietly gathers the fishing net and pushes it away to one corner. “You are too old for it,” he says. “Diving for dynamited fish is only for strong young people. You are an old man now. You do not know that!”
Sharp words that hurts old Tacio but makes him more determined to go dynamiting for fish. He says: “Uagh, one is never too old for dynamiting fish.”
Says the Chinese mestizo, “Whom do you think you are fooling, hah? That devil Lungi is only interested in your motorboat to take his dynamited fish to market. He cares nothing for you but only for his fish. Ay, old Tacio, you will be dealing with the devil himself! You know that ... !”
Tacio thinks, He doesn’t believe I’m a good diver and can dive very deep.
Julian swears to himself, Fool! and right away ceases; he has been too rash and impetuous. “And you, friend Tacio,” he says aloud, “believe him ... the devil himself!”
However, when old man Tacio leaves the Chinese mestizo’s store he is carrying half a can of gasoline, and the boy who waited outside on the steps takes the gasoline can from him and carries it himself. Down the beach the two walk unhurriedly and up to the open shed in front of one of the two stores beside the market place.
There the boy says, “Old one, is you going dynamite-fishing tomorrow?”
“That’s right, ‘noy,” he says.
“I heard ‘Ñor Julian say you are too old for diving!”
Offended, Tacio says, “You ... shut your big mouth, hah!”
Both sit on a slope of beach and for some while watch the sunset in the bay. After a while he tells the boy to bring the gasoline to the house, and to tell Lungi he will go dynamite-fishing with him mañana.
Old Tacio goes into a tuba-an, a coconut wine store, just behind the shed. Store owner Pacita herself brings out a glass and the bottle of tuba she reserves for old Tacio every afternoon when he comes back from fishing. She pours the tuba and leaves the bottle on the table in front of the old man. Through the night he drinks out of his reserved tuba bottle and a couple more until he retches outside against wall of the tuba-store. Stepping into the dark, his stomach sour and with wobbly legs, he starts walking toward home; the boy comes to his side, who has returned from seeing Lungi, and holds up his arm to keep the old man from veering off the path.
When they reach the hut, Tacio climbs the bamboo steps alone with the least of noise so he does not wake up his young wife, whom he took from the native Subanon tribe as his second wife.
He suddenly feels hollow and empty inside. Drinking has not killed his shame … only makes it worse. The old man Tacio skips his supper and goes to sleep on the bamboo-split floor next to the bed he shares with his woman. But he cannot sleep, thinking of the dynamite-fishing in the morning.
A little before daybreak before anyone is awake, old Tacio gets up and after drinking his coffee wraps some boiled rice and a piece of dried fish in a banana leaf for his lunch. Going down the steps Tacio makes less noise than he had last night and goes rapidly up the path toward the beach. He carries the half can of gasoline himself since he does not need the boy-helper this trip—unlike the four days fishing with the city man Mr. Castro. At the end of the path that merges with the dirt road, he sees that many of the vintas are still up on the beach, but his motorboat is already in the water. On its bow stands barefooted the dynamite-fisherman Lungi and some other dynamite-fishermen and fish divers; Tacio approaching them suspects they are laughing at him for going dynamite-fishing at his old age. I could be mistaken, he thinks. But if so how is it they have not stopped sneering?
The drab morning clouds are low and so densely hovering over the village that surely he can touch them if he will only reach out with his hand. Ay, it is perfect weather just as perfect as the day before when he and Mr. Castro and the other city men had gone fishing off the bay.
In a while the village dynamite fishermen and the fish divers stop chuckling and lift their fishing canoes from the wooden boards and carry them, one on each side, down the shore into the water. Before their canoes are a few feet from the shoreline, the fishermen and the fish divers jump into the canoes and kick the water behind them to keep the canoes from floating back to the beach in the returning tide.
Later, when the morning sun is beginning to rise over the shimmering horizon and the clouds high in the sky, Tacio sitting on the stern of his motorboat lifts his head back and sings aloud for a generous catch. His voice is plaintive and full: laden with hope and passion. Quietly the young divers listen to him and quiet their mocking voices and under their breath hum with old Tacio’s plaintive song, thinking with the old man of the home-made bombs that will soon explode and kill the fishes and of the many trips they must make to retrieve the bruised and dead fishes in the depths of the dark Sulu sea. And they also sing mournfully for their fisherman companions, who had lost a limb or an arm when the home-made dynamites prematurely exploded in their hands or on the bottom of their canoes.