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Of Fish, Flies, Dogs, and Women

By Timothy R. Montes

[Flies, flies, flies.]

So, Mana Biben, you want to know how I turned my life around? You think I
became the biggest fish dealer in this town by crying on my sleeves? Look at
me— you think it's all that easy? Here you see me spending my day watching
over the fish, raking in money just by swatting away flies while my good-for-
nothing husband drowns himself in tuba. You think that is fair? Should I blame
the cruel world and jump off a cliff?

Ah, Mana Biben, life's unfair, indeed. It's a useless piece of stone you can't get
rid of. One day you will have to pick up that stone and decide what to do with
it: smash it against your head or throw it at the crazy world. Before you know it,
you will have made a choice that will change your life. The important thing is
that you did something to that stone.

[Flies, flies.]

I must admit that I led a miserable life before this thing happened. Misery,
however, has a way of blinding our eyes in a beautiful way. You know, you can
see rainbows through your tears. Small consolation, I say, but when you are a
woman fighting for survival you can't afford to indulge in self-pity.

Five years ago, my husband used to beat me up. I knew some people were
laughing at me behind my back, but I did not mind. When you're a battered
wife the world shrinks like a squeezed lemon. The juice of your will dries up and
all that's left is the bitterness of the rind. And the more you are squeezed, the
more bitter life becomes.
As I sold fish, I walked the streets like a ghost.

[Flies, flies.]

At that time I was just starting in the fish business. My husband had stopped
giving me money from his copra harvest and I had to feed the children from my
own sweat. But I was timid and shy; I was afraid of the marketplace competition.
I shrank away from the scrambling for customers at the market stalls, contented
with the scraps left by other fish dealers here. I was a small-time vendor, selling
my fish from house to house. Hard on the feet, but easy on the competition.

[Flies, flies, flies.]

Then one morning I found myself standing on the threshold of a strange


I was passing by the rusty gate of Attorney Sabate's house when, after a brief
hesitation, I dared myself to enter. It was a burst of strange courage on my part, I
suppose. You know how notorious Attorney Sabate's dogs are— large German
shepherds with a knack for jumping strangers.

I entered the gate. They never lock it, what with those dogs making the lawyer's
house safe as a bank. I had heard so many stories about those dogs, but that
morning I had chosen to disregard them. I was bent on selling all my fish.

The door clanged shut behind me— I stood there paralyzed by fear. I had a
basketful of fish on my head and when those black dogs appeared, I couldn't
run. I, as we say, stiffened like an erection.
You understand, of course, why I couldn't run. I couldn't let five hundred pesos'
worth of fish go to the dogs. I had borrowed the capital from the market usurer,
met the pump boats at the wharf early that morning, and haggled with the
fishermen for the fish in iced crates—-for what? For me to feed them to a rich
lawyer's dogs?

No, the fish was my life. A dirt-poor wife who had to feed five small children
would understand the real value of a basketful of fish. Try balancing a basket of
fish on your head. If you can do it, try calling the dogs to come barking at you.
See what I mean? Facing those dogs, I told myself I would rather die of rabies
than of hunger.

And so I stood there on Attorney Sabate's driveway while those big dogs formed
a ring around me. Fresh fish! Fresh fish! I had to shout above the barking din.
Fresh fish! Fresh fish! Some of those dogs were so close, their hairy muzzles were
tickling my legs. Fresh fish! Fresh fish! I was shouting not only for money but for
dear life, too.

Sweating out my fear, I waited so long for someone to come out of the house
and save me from the fangs of those dogs.

And you know who came out of the house? [Flies, flies.] The daughter. Yes, yes.
Angelica disgrasyada. And she was carrying the baby in her arms. And you
know what, Mana Biben? She looked so beautiful, so. . . how shall I call it,
innocent? She was wearing a white gossamer gown. I was entranced by the
sight of her—- she almost looked ethereal, so frail. I stood there looking at this
madonna on the veranda while the dogs continued to circle close around me.

And you know what happened? [Flies, flies.] Nothing. We just looked at each
other. Me, a fish vendor, and she, a single mother. Everyone in town had been
talking about her for months. Attorney Sabate's daughter, Miss Fiesta Queen in
high school, comes home from college in the middle of the school term. Did not
go out of the house after that. Verdict: pregnant.

This town thrives on gossip like that.

But there I was, perhaps the first outsider she saw after she gave birth to her

Strange, those fierce dogs between us and we just stared at each other like, you
know, stupid fools. I did not have to say “Get your dogs off me!” in the same
way that I need not have asked her “Whose baby is that you're holding?”
Common sense can make us act like dumb fools—- silence can mean anything.
I mean, she saw my situation and she just watched me! Ah, Mana Biben, we
women can be victims of common sense.

But I think I understood her position, too. You see, she was carrying a baby. What
could she do? Put the infant on the floor and come to my rescue? Between an
adult in distress and a baby sleeping in her arms, a mother isn't left with much
choice. No, this was a child she carried in her arms and she just looked at me
not knowing what to do while I suffered through the prospect of being tattered
to pieces by those dogs.

Maybe she was angry at the world, maybe she saw herself in my situation, I don't
know what her reason was, but she had made that choice. Hold on to your
child and let those dogs have their way with that woman. And so I continued to
stand on the driveway for another minute, not daring to move a muscle for fear
my breathing might provoke those dogs into biting me.

And you know what? [Flies, flies.] I stood my ground. In the silent battle, I had
also made that choice. I looked back at her as if to say: So whose burden is
heavier now, yours or mine? I'm a poor, helpless woman and you're a
disgrasyada—- will you exchange your burden for a basket of fish?

And you know what? [Flies, flies.] The dogs stopped barking. A miracle, I say.
Must have smelled my courage—- dogs can smell fear, you know, and bully you
with that knowledge. I had stood my foolhardy ground, and the dogs found me
uninteresting without my fear. They dispersed one by one to the back of the
house. Finally, when everything was clear, I began my sales talk.

“Would you like to buy fish?” I asked.

“No,” came the reply.

The sudden-silence of the dogs made our voices resonant in the morning air. All
the while, watching her, I kept thinking how small she looked, how frail.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “My parents are not in. I'm the only one left this morning.
And I don't have any money.” Listening to her, I felt a surge of pity. There she
stood, a single mother, awkwardly holding her child behind the balustrade. I
could see the anguish in her eyes while my mind raced through a maze of some
dimly remembered pain. I don't have any money! So many women fall in love
with the wrong men at the wrong moment and end up holding their babies
awkwardly like that, too dazed to understand why so small a thing can be so
heavy a burden to carry. She was just too young to come to terms with it and
yet she carried her pain so well it made her look beautiful.

“May I look at the baby?” I asked.

She stared blankly at me as if she had not understood. The girl had been
cooped in their house for months and was as pale as a ghost.
“I said may I look at the baby?”

She smiled uncertainly and, without waiting for a word, I put down my basket
and approached her.

[Flies, flies.]

As I walked towards this girl at the end of the driveway, it felt as if I was
approaching an altar. The church-like atmosphere made me see things in a
new light.

You remember, Mana Biben, how it felt like on your first communion? In the
excitement, you can taste your own saliva—- every step is a station to the cross.
It was like that—- I was aware of the sacredness of my own shadow plunging on
ahead of me as I walked toward the madonna and child.

And you know what, Mana Biben? [Flies, flies.] I forgot all my problems when I
saw the face of the sleeping child. Oh, yes, I am a softhearted woman, that I
admit. But I had been walking in the heat of the sun for an hour that morning.
And when I came to the child, in the shade of the veranda, my head felt like ice
oozing into a wonderful coolness.

And there, bent over that child, I felt as if I, myself, could endure the pain and
the loneliness of an outcast as long as I held love like that in my arms.

Ah, Mana Biben, hold a baby in your arms and the world disappears into thin air.
You're a mother, you should understand what I'm trying to say.
[Flies, flies.]

We stood there for a minute or two taking in the fragile beauty of the baby in

“Boy or girl?” I asked.


Strangers as we were to each other, we wrapped ourselves in a silent bond as

we kept on looking at the sleeping child.

Then, suddenly, a deep-felt anger started to build up in me. It came from

nowhere—- the sight of a sleeping child seemed to have stirred something in my
head. I knew I was on the verge of going crazy, and I talked as if my tongue
would stick to the roof of my mouth.

“Listen,” I told her. “Don't believe what others may say about you. The people in
this town don't understand what we go through. Those gossips think we have a
choice—-But do you understand? There's nothing to be ashamed of.”

I, myself, was shocked by what I had said. I seemed to have stepped back from
the precipice of insanity, and heard only the echo of my own words. I had lived
in this town all my life and I never thought I had any reason to complain about
my lot. As far as I was concerned I was just a fish vendor with a drunkard for a
husband. Every time he beat me up and I would go around with a swollen face,
people talked behind my back saying, “Maria lab-asera is a fool not to leave.”
But Angelica did not understand all these things running inside my head. The girl
just looked at me quizzically, the fear of strangers creeping back into her eyes.
“Please,” she said. “Don't talk about it.”

Don't talk about it! The poor girl did not understand what I meant. I was
confusing her pain with mine. The bottled-up emotions rose up as a lump in my
throat, choking me like a tightening rope. You fall in love with a slick-haired
young man at a fiesta dance ten years ago and the next thing you know you're
pregnant so you have to marry him. Before the year is out you realize your
husband's an alcoholic, spends all his money on tuba and cockfighting. And so
you try to sell fish to feed the children, and when your husband learns about it
he demands money from you and when you don't give him he beats you black
and blue. And then those gossips laugh at you behind your back saying you're a
fool not to leave your family.

Do you think I have a choice? No! Hold a baby in your hands and try making a
choice: should you drop the baby to the floor or dash its head against the wall?
No, love does not give you that choice. It sticks to you like a leech and sucks
your blood dry. That is love for you.

I stood there trembling, finally aware of being trapped for life. There was only
one way out of my misery. I could choose to just let go and lose my mind. The
dark chasm beckoned to me: jump. Death and insanity seemed to have
converged at that moment. But before I could take the plunge, I heard the
dogs again.

I turned around and saw that my basket had been overturned. The dogs were
scrambling over my fish.
I ran—- I don't know where I got the courage—- and started fighting the dogs.
Yes, I fought the d**n dogs. Barehanded, would you believe that? I was so angry
I didn't care anymore if I'd get bitten. My head whirled around the violent
sensations of that moment—- fangs, paws, fishtails, slimy scales. The growling I
heard seemed to come more from my throat than from those dogs. I rolled on
the driveway grappling with those animals.

[Flies, flies.]

Ha-ha! Would you believe me if I tell you I got all my fish back? Yes, snatched
them from the fangs of those dogs. Five fierce dogs I beat back with these bare
hands. And the dogs, as if sensing my crazy anger, ran back whimpering to the
other side of the house.

Talk about going crazy. Even the dogs were afraid of me. It was only when they
had gone that I realized I was still shouting “Pestengyawamoooooooo!” at the
top of my lungs.

On my knees I gathered the scattered fish. I must have been a terrible sight, all
bruised and bloodied like that. My fingers were still trembling as I picked up the
fish and put them back on the basket. There I was, my wounds still smarting, and
all I could think of was how to remove the dust from the fish.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” the girl on the veranda, holding her child closer to herself,
was sobbing.

“No!” I shouted back at her. “Don't be sorry! You can do anything you want, you
can say anything to me, you can say my fish is dirty, tell me to go to hell, but
please please please do me a favor, all right? Don't be sorry!” My voice had
turned shrill; my ears were burning. “This town is sorry! Everybody's sorry!
Ashamed of the consequences of what they do!” I stood up, reeling. “So don't
be sorry for me, understand?”

God, I was raving like a lunatic.

And the poor girl, trembling in fear, just held on to her baby.

“You love your child?” I shouted at her.

She nodded.

“Then never, never be sorry! You don't deserve your baby if you feel sorry for her.

I don't know why I kept shouting like that. I picked up my basket and felt my
face scalded by tears. “Never, never, be damned sorry!” I kept on repeating
those words as I walked away.

By the time I reached the gate, the dogs began to howl again from the back of
the house. I felt like fainting. But at the back of my head, even as I was cursing
the world, I could hear the last sane words I could muster in the face of death: If
he touches me again, I swear to God I'll kill him.

I strode out of the gate shouting Fresh fish! Fresh fish! voice ringing with anger.

[Flies, flies, flies.]

The basket I carried felt a world lighter after that.

That, Mana Biben, is the story of how I changed my life. I reckoned that if I could
beat the dogs like that, there was no reason why I couldn't beat back my good-
for-nothing husband. I mean, sure, he still drinks like a sinner but he doesn't dare
touch me anymore.

I left Angelica disgrasyada standing there at the end of the driveway. A month
later after the incident, there was a rumor that her parents had sent her to the
States. People never saw her again. I don't care for gossip, anyway. As far as I'm
concerned, she's still standing there on that veranda, holding her baby—without
rancor, without regret. When I cast a last glance at her, just before stepping out
of the gate, I saw a vague smile forming on her lips. My eyes warped her white
figure and, as I stepped out of the gate, she turned into a melting image of a
woman in white in the distorting pools of my tears.

[Flies, flies.]

I've got this stall in the marketplace now. I know it takes more cunning and less
cursing to get a place in the world for women like us. But dogs are still prowling
out there, Mana Biben, and I've learned it's not good business sense to make
them smell your fear.

[Flies, flies.] But tell me, Mana Biben, why does fish attract so many flies?


Solmerano, E., Ondevilla, M., Palencia, M., Jerusalem, V., & Cruz, J. (2017). 21st century literature from the Philippines and

the world (2nd ed.). Manila: Fastbooks Educational Supply, Inc.