Little Fisher Girls
Against the black sky and black sea, whirls of light are slowly moving in towards the shore.
“Here they come,” Trinidad Marquez,12, whispers to me.
She holds aloft the torch in her hand. An improvised beacon, it is made of a flat-sided whiskey glass bottle recycled to contain kerosene. On its round mouth,a wick, made of tightly rolled silver cigarette wrappers, burns smoky fire. In the morning, her nostrils will be coated with soot.
Then, she whistles, mimicking the call of the juaw, the pelican. Above the dark, the sound, like the light, will aid the incoming boatmen to land safely on the beach, right where she stands.
Soon, indeed a sakayan, an outriggered wooden dug-out, lands. The boat-lamp illuminates two figures, that of a small man with a hat, and that of a girl smaller but stockier than Trinidad. Her name is Manuelita , Trinidad’s younger sister, and she is almost nine years old.
This girl cannot contain her joy. ”Good catch tonight,” she announces, as she moves out of the boat, wading thigh deep in the receding tidewaters.
She is beginning to shiver. She crosses her own arms, trying to get warm. But she is still smiling, her small teeth showing, proud of her feat tonight. “Good catch,” she repeats.
The man, their father, is silent, and he continues to maneuver the boat so that it will rest firmly on the sand.
“Did you wait long?” he asks Trinidad.
“Why do you ask me every time?” she says. Her father does not reply.
Without a word, the three of them begin to unravel the pukot, the 30-armspan-long fishnet that is piled on the boat’s bottom.
Pagbantay-bantay mga kauban, ang sakayan dili kabiyaan. Ayaw baya kalimot nga gikalisangan kining hangina. The man sings. Mogisi sa layag, moguba sa atong sakayan.
It is an old song about fishing in stormy weather, about the fierce winds that tear sails, about life made difficult, life made sweeter by storms.
Fish caught in the net gleam. He pulls each out and throws them into a woven bamboo basket.
As he finishes the task, the bamboo basket is almost filled with some big and small fish and some crabs. It must be two kilos, the father calculates. Oftentimes, they go empty-handed, and all, including the four other kids left at home sleep on an empty stomach.
Their father will stay for half an hour more, dragging the boat and the net to a safe place onshore, among the coconut trees. The two girls will walk by a trail, holding hands, knocking on doors, waking up possible buyers of fresh fish in the neighborhood, with their small half-singing voices. Often, their fresh wares are sold out.
Tomorrow night will be Trinidad’s turn to go with her father out into the open sea in the boat, and Manuelita will wait out on the shore.
Tomorrow morning, both will again be late for class at the public primary school. They may even stay drowsy all day, dropping off to sleep on their desks in mid-morning.
“I have to teach them how to fish even if they are too young . Even if they are girls. I have no one to help me since Rey left for Davao,” the father says, apologetically. He used to fish with his first-born son but the latter has left the city . The other son is still a toddler.
“It is too difficult without a son. But I had to let him go. He wants to know the hardships of working out in the world, away from us, I let him go so he would not blame us for keeping him.”
My daughters, they learn quickly. They are now good assistants. Manuelita is good at paddling , she can maneuver the boat as I haul in the net.”
Yoyong Marquez is past forty years old, has sired sixteen but only seven survived the perilous infancy, two sons and five daughters. His wife Nora, ever aware of death as of birthing, is always pensive and seldom makes conversations. She avoids looking at people straight in the eye, instead she glances sideways, stealing glimpses awkwardly.
I do not know how to know Nora better. No one in the village knows. But there is this quiet current of pain running through her now. But she dutifully does housework, her daughters say. She sometimes goes to shore with her children to meet the fishing boat when she feels good. She refuses to say much about her daughters or about herself. “No more pregnancy for me,” she managed to say to me one time, as she shook a weary head."Kun kalooy-an sa Ginoo." If God gives me the grace.
Small artisanal fishers lke them are aplenty in the country’s municipal waters, five to seven fathoms deep. The fishing method they use is locally called, palugdang, literally meaning, to let something sink or settle down. They throw the net into the waters, allow it to settle and anchor it to the bottom with rocks. To use this fishing method, one must know the fishing ground so well as to avoid the reef where the net can be hopelessly entangled. It yields but a few tropical fish most of the time. This was once a moderately rich fishing ground but the coral reef has been destroyed and commercial trawlers patrol the nearby ocean with their purse seines.
Manuelita is barely two and a half feet tall, small for her age, and shorter than the wooden paddle she has mastered.
“I do not know how to swim,” she says. “Neither does Trinidad. But we are not afraid because we are in the boat. Father told us not to be afraid because nothing will harm us. But one time, when the south winds come, the waves were huge. I thought the boat would capsize.”
‘’I am good at hauling nets,” boasts Trinidad. “Even if I still do not know how to swim I am not afraid. I simply hold on to the boat when it rocks in the rough seas.”
“I’d rather go out to sea than wait on the shore. My hands are full of mosquito bites. I do not like waiting alone in the dark.”
“And it sad when we catch nothing. I really feel tired when we catch nothing or so little,” she confides as she wipes her nose and eyes with her hands.
ON a weekend, they gather shells for lunch, and having gathered plenty, the sisters transform the gray shore onto a giant slate, scrawling huge letters and names on the sand. They tell me they had duck meat for supper the previous night. Someone had given them a bagful of hand-me-down clothes. Manuelita was proud of the thick sweater, something she can wear when she goes out to sea with her father.
But Trinidad wished out loud for a white cotton shirt to go with her blue cotton skirt, the school daily uniform wear. She only has one and often before the week ends it is already dirty. But her parents cannot buy her another shirt yet. They told her to wait till an elder sister working as a housemaid in Manila will send some money soon.
“But if the teacher sends me home because I won’t be wearing the white cotton shirt, that will mean I will have enough hours to sleep and play before we go fishing in the evening!” she says.
A pair of slippers, would you want a pair of slippers, too? The younger asks. The older one looks at her own feet. I see that that every toenail, except the smallest right toe, is painted bright red. I am told that a bottle of nail polish had been washed to shore and she was pleased to find out there was enough polish to paint her toenails but not enough to paint the last toenail on her right foot.
“I would not mind going to school with my worn-out slippers or even go barefoot as long as I wear my uniform. I do not want to be sent home.
"I wish I can just fish t-shirts from the ocean, catch them in a net,” the older sister muses, and laughs as she covers her mouth with her hands to muffle the sound.