Tuesday, May 16, 2006

fiction: Six from Downtown

I finished a new story in Dumaguete while waiting for my flight back home. Here's a bit from it.

Six from Downtown (an excerpt)
by Dean Francis Alfar

for Ian Casocot


The Wet Market

A WEEK AFTER I arrived in the city, I spent a day at the wet market, negotiating my way down the slippery floors and taking pictures. I was soon lost in the brilliant rainbow of fresh seafood, laid out in ice, suspended on hooks, swimming in plastic pails and low metal drums, whose names brought back memories of my childhood: palos, pating, alimasag, pindangga, lapu lapu, apahap, sap sap, pompano, tambacol, labahita, malasugi, pugita. At other stalls, I found trays of lato, seaweed that resembled a miniature bunch of grapes which my parents loved dipping in a mix of crushed garlic and spicy vinegar, as well as palm-sized oysters, their dull shells encrusted with barnacles.

One stall’s sign captured my attention and got my taste buds going: Fresh Sirena. I smiled to myself, surprised at how many years had passed since I last tasted mermaid. When I was a child growing up in the south, my grandfather would take me out mermaid fishing. The boat of my memory was cramped and seemed ungainly in the water, but none of that mattered since I loved being out at sea with him.

“They think it’s unlucky,” he told me once, when I observed that it seemed only men went into the sea. “It does not matter to me that you are a girl. You’re what God has given us and that’s all the luck we’ll need.”

At a precise position whose exact oceanic location was known only to him, my grandfather would drop the makeshift anchor overboard and organize the fishing lines, stretching the fine filament across the span of his arms, the very same ones he claimed he had purchased from American soldiers before they fled the Japanese. When all the preparations were done, he’d ask me to attach the bait. This was one of the best parts for me because I got to open the large biscuit tin with the end of a spoon and select a piece of jewelry. I would scoop out a handful of shiny trinkets and fuss over them, showing off to my grandfather how seriously I took the task. My favorite bait was a gold scapular embossed with the image of the Virgin Mary. After I had carefully attached the bait to the line, my grandfather would always tell me to sit still, watch the sea quietly and be ready with the net. Then he’d slowly lower the filament into the water, one hand unrolling calculated measures of length. Sometimes, it took forever for a mermaid to bite, and I remember thinking that perhaps they had all the jewelry they’d ever need. While waiting, my grandfather would smoke a thin cigarette between his teeth, flipping it over into his mouth when only the smouldering filter remained, checking once in a while if I had a firm grip on the wooden handle of the net that was my part in things.

“Be ready at any time,” he’d intone, exhaling cigarette smoke into the air laden with salt.

The mermaids we’d catch ranged from two and half to three feet in length. Their tails, excellent steamed, grilled or boiled with tamarinds, were an iridescent green flecked with blue points of lights. Halfway up was the bony flesh that was always cast away after cutting: the torsos were mottled pink and grey, with protruding nubs where nipples would be; the thin arms ended in four fingers, a filmy web of flesh between each one. The egg-shaped heads were crowned with pale stringy hair, like the ghosts of seaweed, covering much of the face that was punctured thrice by tortoise-colored eyes and a gasping mouth lined with sharp tiny teeth.

“Here’s one,” my grandfather would whisper upon sensing the line grow taut, before exploding into action, standing up and reining in the filament, hand over hand, until the mermaid broke the surface of the sea, unwilling to let go of the shiny bait. At his signal I’d quickly extend the net, making certain to trap the glistening tail, and together we’d haul the mermaid into the boat, where my grandfather would exchange the string in one hand for a fire-hardened club and strike at the mermaid’s head until it stopped moving. One was usually enough for our large family, but I remember during the times of fiesta how the sea would be dotted by little boats similar to my grandfather’s, and how they’d return hours later, pitching low in the water, each with several mermaids.

I stood by the sirena stall and looked over what was offered, fighting the rising disappointment fueled by the memories of my childhood years. The mermaids lay side by side and almost haphazardly on top of each other, eyes closed and mouths agape, on a bed of crushed ice, most of them barely a foot long, some even smaller, and their tails had only the barest hint of green. Sensing my disquiet, the vendor, a middle-aged man with a red bandanna and a bulging belly, explained in a lugubrious tone that it was the lean season, and that all mermaids were that size nowadays.

I purchased the freshest looking one, astounded at the price per kilo, and asked if there was a place nearby that could grill it for me. The vendor smiled and, for one hundred pesos, offered to cook it himself. I suspected he was overcharging me but gave in when he agreed to throw in a handful of sea snails for free.

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