By Kurt Joshua O. Comendador
(This essay is the winner of the 1st Lagulad Prize.)
“Ako na pud kuya bi,” my younger brother Sean said while trying to take the fishing rod from me.
“Paghulat gud,” I told him, moving the rod out of his reach. “Nagahulat na ang talakitok sa akoa o.”
“Ganina pa man ka.”
“Lima na lang ka labay,” I promised him. I whipped the line out into the sea, away from the shore.
* * *
My fancy for fishing started with envy. I was hooked into it after seeing an episode of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on television. The titular character and his rowdy gang of country boys had run away from their homes and were fishing in the Mississippi River to feed themselves, competing who had the biggest catch in the process. I watched with envy as they roasted the fish over open fire and devoured them when they were cooked.
I was seven years old back then at my grandparents’ farm somewhere deep in Polomolok, South Cotabato. There was nothing much to do except for the daily trips to the river that my grandfather and I had to take to tend the cows. People in Polomolok mostly farmed for a living. On special occasions, a cow, maybe a goat, and a couple of chickens would be butchered for a feast, but the daily diet consisted of vegetables, which was virtually everywhere, and fish—fish from the market and fish from the river. My grandparents were able to buy fish from the market, but I wanted to try eating fish that I myself had caught.
Fishing was originally developed to find food in the wild for survival. As time progressed, fishing evolved to include the activity as a pastime. Recreational fishing is a luxury for those who have pockets full of money with time on their hands to cast carbon-fiber retractable fishing rods with high-end reel and a line of nylon connected to a floater or a sinker with a plethora of colorful artificial baits, one for each type of fish. While this is so, the tackle, or the entire fishing equipment, used in Polomolok only consists of a good-length bagakay (a kind of thin bamboo) for a rod, a coil of thin, transparent nylon, and a single hook. Baits can be found wherever there is moist and healthy soil.
“Tay, bakal na bala sang bunit,” I requested my grandfather one day.
“Sa sunod ah,” he answered.
The dialogue continued for days.
Same plea, same answer—always sa sunod, sa sunod, sa sunod.
One morning, I woke up only to see the sun high above the coconut trees behind our house, too late to join Tatay down the river, as he should have been already back by this hour, but not too late for morning cartoons—time to watch Tom Sawyer and his friends again. As the house lacked walls, I immediately saw Nanay at the sink, busy with the dishes. I asked her where Tatay was.
“Nagkadto sa Proper,” she replied through the clinks and clanks of plates.
Somehow, someway, I thought that the time had finally come.
I took a late breakfast of rice and inun-unan, fish cooked in vinegar. Midway through my meal, the sound of Tatay’s motorcycle engine came sputtering toward the house. The loud barks of our dogs welcomed him. He appeared at the doorway moments later with a plastic bag in his hand.
“Ano na, Tay?” I asked while trying to peer through the white, plastic bag he was carrying.
“Mga gipangbakal ko sa Proper ah,” he replied.
He unloaded the things on the table: a pack of dried fish, three cans of sardines, two packs of instant noodles, and a bundle of sweet bananas. That was all. Disappointed, I resumed eating my meal, thinking that perhaps I would receive it sa sunod. Then a small plastic pouch landed on the table just in front of my plate. Without uttering anything, Tatay immediately went into his room, the only room separated by walls in the house. In the pouch was a coil of new fishing line and a set of fishing hooks. His room might have been surrounded by walls, but his heart wasn’t. I was glad.
I went out on my first fishing trip with Tito, Tatay’s nephew, three days after Tatay bought the materials. We couldn’t find a good pole, so we only took a fishing line coiled around a tin can. We started toward the river after breakfast, at about eight in the morning. It was about thirty minutes’ walk from the house, past the purok center, through a cornfield, and finally, down a hill. The sound of the deep, masculine gush of the river was a welcoming sound to hear after the hike under the summer sun. I couldn’t wait to wade in the water to get across to familiar grounds where Tatay’s cattle were grazing.
I thought it took forever for Tito to get across. Together, we went further down the riverbank where we thought the water was deep and there would be plenty of fish. We sat on a grassy patch and prepared our fishing line. I watched Tito, also a first timer, took out an earthworm and skewered it with the hook. I shuddered as I watched the hook emerge on the other end of its body—I still do whenever I remember that moment.
Whenever there was a slightest movement on the nylon, we would immediately pull out the line, hoping that a fish was hanging at the end of the line. It was maddening. The fish didn’t seem to be biting. Every time we pulled it out, the worm would emerge in one piece. I felt pity for the worm. I felt stupid sending it again and again into the water.
An old man happened to pass by. He was barefoot and wearing shabby short pants and a dirty old jacket over a ragged shirt. His skin was dark with shades of crimson, like fine-aged leather. “Gaano kamo da?” he asked.
“Gapamunit, Kol,” Tito answered.
“Ahay!” blurted out the old man. “Indi kamo makadakop da. Didto kamo sa hinay ang dalihig sang tubig ho.” He pointed downstream, at a spot where the river curved. He looked terrible in his shabby clothes, but it seemed that we were more pitiful than he was. He had the wisdom we didn’t have. He had the experience we couldn’t hold a candle to. To him, we were the worms that needed help.
We followed the advice of the old man. We waited and waited. Every time we noticed movement in the line, we pulled it out. This time, we were at least getting some results—the worm would come out nibbled. We had to replace the bitten worm every time. On one try, half of the worm’s body went missing. It was funny how fishing in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was easy as could be: The characters only had to sit on the edge of the water with a fishing pole, and all of a sudden, they already had something scaly for lunch. Huckleberry Finn even survived living by himself in the forest by eating fish he caught from the river. Not only is truth stranger than fiction; truth is harder than fiction, too.
If Tom Sawyer had his Mississippi River, we had our Silway River. It had brown, muddy water, and at its deepest part, it only reached the hips of adults. Silway River is the river that runs from Polomolok to General Santos City. In Google Maps, it looks like a giant snake slithering through the two places before finally joining Sarangani Bay at Barangay Labangal in the city. There were plenty of ways on how fishing was done in the river. The most common was by using a fishing pole. Another common way was pangurinti, done by stunning the fish with electric rods connected to a car battery. Another one was pang-atas. I only saw this once on our way home, but from what I remember, the men isolated a part of the river with a long tarpaulin, and as the spot ran out of water, they used a net to catch the fish that were trapped and swimming downstream.
“Hala! Ari na, kuy!”
Tito’s voice distracted me from watching the cliff on the other side of the river. I turned and saw him with his arm raised, struggling to pull the line out of the water. Something had taken the bait! We had caught something! Could it be a tilapia? Could it be a catfish or even an eel? I didn’t have a clear view of it when he lifted it out of the water. Black and white, black and white. It was all that I could see. The fish was spinning with the line? Was it a fish? It had limbs. A turtle? We caught a turtle? A snake-necked turtle!
Tito immediately went into action: He took the snake turtle and laid it on its soft, leathery carapace. We had to remove the hook that had pierced through its cheek without getting bitten. Every time Tito’s finger went near its pointed snout, the turtle snapped violently and without hesitation. Back then, we knew—I knew—that there was only one way to remove the hook out of the turtle’s mouth. But I wanted to try all other possible ways first.
“Butunga na lang nang hook, Tito,” I said.
“Di pwede kay masangit iya punta,” my uncle said.
I knew it was impossible. The hook had a barb, and pulling the hook would embed the barb deeper into the flesh.
“Utda ang punta eh,” I said.
Tito fell silent. He didn’t tell me that what I had suggested was almost impossible to do, too.
So he had to do the inevitable: using the jagged edge of the lid of the can where we were keeping our worms, he tore the turtle’s cheek, and then he removed the hook with his hand.
I could not imagine how it must’ve felt for the turtle. The pain must’ve been unbearable—to have someone slice your cheek, going from side to side, until the soft, delicate flesh tore open and the hook could be removed. I thought that the turtle must be envious of us humans: there were no hooks to catch us.
If the turtle could talk, I’d also like to ask it why it bit something that wasn’t meant for him.
We continued fishing until the afternoon and we ran out of bait worms. The turtle was the only catch we had for the whole day. On our way back to the house, some of my Tito’s friends saw the turtle inside our net bag. “Mas namit pa na sa manok ba,” they said. “Amon na lang na bi.”
We declined. It was our sole prize, and we were determined to take it home.
“Ay abaw!” exclaimed Nanay when she saw the turtle in the net bag.
“Kanami sang dakop niyo ba!” said Tatay with a laugh.
We put the turtle into our empty concrete fish pond where guppies, mollies, and carps used to swim.
Sometimes, I would bring over other kids in the neighborhood to show them the turtle. “Baw, dako dako ba,” gushed one. That might’ve been the first time they saw a turtle snake as big as an adult’s hand. “Gin-ano niyo na pagdakop?” one of them asked.
“Ginbunit eh,” I said.
“Ti, ano ginapakaon niyo sina hay?”
“Ambot ay. Kung ano ang ihaboy da eh.” Banana peels, rice, pieces of leftover fish, fruits, anything, I explained.
In an article published in the Philippine Star in 2013, it was revealed that the Chinese softshell turtle is threatening the freshwater fish population in Central Luzon. Fishpond owners and operators grew weary of the invasive species since they prey on local fish species, especially milkfish and tilapia fingerlings. Farmers are complaining of receiving bites from snake turtle hiding beneath the mud of their rice paddies. However, I rarely heard of them as a problem before in Polomolok. In fact, people would be happy if they managed to catch one of them.
In a segment of Born to Be Wild aired in 2017, I learned that Pampanga has the biggest population of Chinese softshell turtle with a market for its meat: people are really buying live snake turtles for food!
I didn’t know why, but the turtle died after about a week of captivity. I still try to figure out what happened, but as a kid, I thought that maybe we should have let Tito’s friends slaughter it. At least, it would not have died for nothing. It died alone, away from its habitat, away from its home, its carcass buried on the soil where coconuts grew.
Days after, we went on another fishing trip. This time, Tatay went with us. We woke up early in the morning and hastily ate our hanggop, or cooked rice poured with hot water and flavored with salt.
“Dal-a tong silupin,” Tatay said, pointing to the plastic bag containing hooks and lines.
“Wala man ta stick,” I said.
“Pati lang bala.”
The three of us began hiking at about six in the morning. The morning air felt as though they were seeping through my arms and into my back, causing me to shiver from time to time. Tatay seemed amused. We were cold, while he was warm in his jacket.
We followed the usual path to his parcel of land beside the river. He then made Tito and me wait in a hut surrounded by foxtails, brushwood, and all kinds of balubagon. He returned after an hour. “Dal-a ning paya oh, kag kadto kamo to sa may puno sang ipil-ipil,” he told us. “Kalot kamo to kag kwa kamo ulod kay may kadtoan lang ko anay. Kita lang ta sa may pispan sa likod sang bayog,” he said.
Tito and I took a coconut shell lying on the ground and went to the ipil-ipil tree, while Tatay went about his business. The worms under the tree were larger than the worms I had seen before, about the size of my fingers back then. I couldn’t help but wonder back then if what had made them grow so big. I managed to catch a few of them. The way the worms moved about in my hands tickled, so I dumped them into the shell as soon as I caught them.
We made our way through the thick wild grass to the fish pond behind the clumps of bamboo called bayog, just in time to see Tatay walking toward us, carrying three stalks of bagakay, a thinner family of those big, towering, and heavy ones. One of them was fifteen feet long, much longer than the others.
Almost every body of water has its distinct smell, and this wasn’t any different. The pond smelled of putrid mud and algae, but there were tilapias and paitan, or small freshwater fish with bitter flesh. The word rotten may be associated with death. It is synonymous with decay, the slow and gradual decline of life. But to us, this smell was only superficial. Life thrived in the waters: fishes and snails, tangkong and takway, and whatnot. Each contributed to the system we were living off. It was rotten, putrid, pungent, and acrid, but the pond, entirely by its presence, told a whole new different story, brought a whole new meaning. I wonder if it’s the same with us.
When we started fishing, I understood why Tatay took a longer pole. Tito and I, with our shorter poles, had to stand close to the putrescent waters of the pond, our feet tangled in takway and tangkong, while Tatay sat on the grassy slope away from the water. I envied him, looking so relaxed and carefree. I wished I also had a longer pole.
We didn’t catch any despite fishing the entire afternoon. I nearly had one. Through the clear waters, we saw the fishes nibble at the worm. When I saw a tilapia took a huge bite of the bait, I instantly yanked it out of the water. I saw a small fish hanging at the end of the line. But just when I thought I finally had my first catch, it fell back into the water!
A few days before leaving for General Santos City to start the school year, I went to the river with Tatay to see the extent of the flood that the previous day’s rain had brought. I saw a number of local kids walking and kicking about in the brown, muddy puddles that were formed when the water rose above the riverbank. We approached them, walking through the ankle-deep puddles.
The biggest kid of the group was carrying a big can of powdered milk. Not concerned with our presence, they continued kicking the water around. To my surprise, a fish jumped out of the water! A kid then shoved the fish out of the water to the taller grass, the few which were not submerged in floodwater.
“Gaano kamo da?” asked Tatay.
“Nagapanakop isda, Kol,” said the kid carrying the can.
“Bi, palantaw sang dakop niyo bi.”
The kid showed us the can. They had managed to catch four tilapias, wiggling inside the cramped space.
“Ay bi, panghatag man para may sud-anon kami,” Tatay joked.
“Indi pwede, Kol, kay sud-anon man namon ni,” the kid said.
The huddle broke up, and they resumed kicking in the puddles again. Envious of their catch, I went to a large puddle nearby and started kicking around the water.
“Ara! Ara! Dakpa niyo! Dakpa!” a kid shouted.
I turned around and saw the kid pointing at something on the grass. I followed the kids as they rushed toward their friend. There, on the ground, on its back, was a snake turtle, slightly smaller than the one we had caught earlier in the summer.
Tatay, the other kids, and I gathered around the turtle. The big kid slipped through, sat down, and picked it up. The turtle immediately retracted his long snake-like neck. He gave the can of fish to one of his companions.
“Bantay ha,” tatay warned them. “Makagat kamo sina.”
“Tagai bala ko sang stick,” said the kid.
One of his companions gave him a bamboo twig. The kid proceeded to aggravate the turtle, poking its snout with the twig. The turtle in turn snapped at the object. The huge kid continued teasing the turtle. Once, it firmly bit the twig, and he pulled it away, causing the turtle’s neck to extend.
“Pabay-i niyo na lang na,” I said.
I don’t know if they heard me or they just chose to ignore me. Not contented, the kid once again pulled the turtle’s head and twisted it. I saw the life fade away from the eyes of the turtle.
I felt someone tap my head. It was Tatay. “Dali na, kuy,” he said. “Puli na ta.”
I still wanted to kick around the puddles, hoping I could still catch some fish. I followed him as he made his way toward the riverbank. I turned my head around in time to see the kid throw the turtle to the flooded river.
It was already dark when we reached the gate of Tatay’s farm. Two neighboring teens passed us by as they ran toward their homes. They were shirtless, dripping wet, illuminated by a motorcycle’s headlight. I saw that they were carrying fish impaled on a thick strand of nylon. It was the last time I saw someone carrying fish from the river.
I’ve never spent a whole summer in Polomolok after that, but over the years, on some weekends, we would visit the farm, and if time permitted, we’d go on a trip down the river. I was told that the poles were given to relatives living near the river, and in one of those trips, I saw that the poles were still around, stuck on the roof of their hut. I couldn’t help but wonder how many fish they had caught using those.
The envy? I no longer felt it. It was gone. Like the pond we used to fish years ago.
* * *
“Naay nipaak!” I said while the waves of the sea gently crashed on my thighs. “Naay nipaak!” I could see the tip of our cheap carbon-fiber fishing rod bend against the weight of the fish.
“Sige, sige,” my brother said. “Biraha lang pirmi.”
I spun the reel handle as fast as possible while constantly pulling on the rod. When I finally pulled it out of the water, a talakitok was hanging at the end of the line.
“Paunsa ni tanggalon ang taga, Sean?” I asked my brother. The hook was completely stuck in the talakitok’s cheek.
“Ambot. Wala ko kabalo.”
I began to twist the hook in all directions, but still it wouldn’t come off. It reminded me of the turtle my tito and I caught years ago. It kept me from trying hard enough. “Unsaon nato ni? Buy-an na lang nato ni?”
“Ayaw na oy. Nagadugo na man gani na iyang aping oh.”
It was either this fish or the memory of the turtle. One had to go.
I let my brother take a try at removing the hook. “Di man nako kaya, kuya,” he said after a while. “Ikaw na lang. Imoha bitaw nang dakop.”
So it was decided. The thought of the turtle had to go. I forcefully pushed the hook, which removed it from the talakitok’s cheek.
“Sorry, fish,” my brother said jokingly as I pulled the hook out of the fish’s mouth, “but a man’s gotta eat.”
I wrapped the fish at the bottom of my shirt and took it to our cottage, where the rest of my family were. There was no reason to show them my catch. Perhaps I just wanted them to envy me. As I grew up and came to know the world a little bit better, I understood that we were not any different from the snake turtle: we were also prone to bite things that weren’t for us.
We ate the talakitok for dinner, wasting none of it. We didn’t make the same mistake as before: to waste a creature’s life for nothing. After twelve years, the purpose of the turtle’s death was finally realized, and its thought lived on.