The day Niko’s Mama got COVID, City Hall announced that 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 is the smartest fisherman we folks have, Boy. No doubt about it. He fish at night and always come home. Not everyone here lucky like ‘em.”
“Heard that son? You is the smartest fisherman,” 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?”
Niko got his Papa’s message. They couldn’t let anyone know his Mama got COVID. It would cause a commotion. Prejudice would shadow Tacloban Wet Market, fusing with the fishy stink and pollution. It was the first time Mana Joaquina was not tending to sales ever since they got the fish stall. Niko and Mano Boy knew that Mana Berta and the other vendors were eyeballing them. They knew if the neighboring vendors knew about Mana Joaquina’s condition, it would spread immediately like wildfire. They couldn’t afford to be the talk of the town, especially when they were still behind new dues and paper works imposed by the city.
“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 us business and stay away from trouble. No good come 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 string to lengthen it, and coiled some dried fat to the end of the hook before throwing it to 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 had 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’ll 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!” Buboy laughed. “No one owe nothing to the dead, pare, no one.”
“You’re such an ass, you know,” Niko said in response, worried about his Mama’s condition.
“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.”
Niko was busy looking at the distant light Buboy was pointing to when he noticed that Buboy had raised his voice.
“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?” Niko tried to brush any thought of death and his mother.
“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.” Buboy heaved a deep sigh.
“What’s your point, pare?”
“That part of Quarry was dynamite bombed. Years ago, even before we were born. 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.”
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 of 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. At this rate, Niko thought, being a big shot is a far reality for him or his family.
Lakan Uhay Alegre is a member of UP Writers Club. He has performed his poems in the Philippines and New York. Some of his works have been included in Lunop, voices and narratives of typhoon Yolanda, Dagmay, the Literary Journal of the Davao Writers Guild, and Katitikan Literary Journal of the Philippine South. Currently, he is a BA Comparative Literature student majoring in Philippine English Literature and English Translation in UP Diliman, where he continues writing despite struggling with his readings.