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. 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 knew the Capitan ever since he could remember. His Papa and the Capitan went 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 would always buy 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 Niko went fishing, 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” hi Papa 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.
“Capitan must have heard about Joaquina! Rey must’ve tipped us off.”
Niko secured the knots of the motorboat and rushed to their stall with Papa. 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 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,” the tanod mumbled.
“Yawa, job? When has robbing our life been a job?” Niko’s ftaher 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 Mano Boy,” Berta signaled; her head shaking. “We care for Joaquina but we gotta think of us too.”
“It’s protocol. You might’ve got tracked too,” Inday said. “Cap already knows.”
It dawned on Niko how everyone knew about his Mama. He and his father 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. He winced 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.”
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.”
“They told us it was your instructions,” Mano Boy asserted.
“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—”
“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, 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 backs 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 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.