I couldn’t tell which way the world was around. Stars flickered from all directions. The ocean held the image of the sky perfectly. There was no bearing to find myself, nothing to ground me. My mind was free to twist and turn, and nothing would change. Everything was perfect. But I knew it was just an illusion. The whole world was gently held in my eyes, and if I were to blink it would all be crushed and the stars would fall and the sea would dry up.
Suddenly, lights burst from beneath me, blindingly white, like a star had been born on the tip of my nose. I blinked. The lights flooded the ocean, pillars of white penetrating the depths. Rough voices cut like whips around me, orders and affirmations, barbs and hoarse curses. I was working again. Netting hissed through my fingers as I cast it overboard. My hands were calloused and rough, cut and burned so often by slipping rope they took on its consistency. With the sudden commotion aboard, the barge was set to rocking. The old boat groaned as those around me gripped the railing. I simply let myself sway for a moment and then set to work again.
The heaving of the ocean never bothered me. It was just like breathing. You never feel your breaths slide in and out of your chest. They simply do. You don’t need to feel the waves, you don’t need to react, just let the ocean breathe. The old man would say that as our little Bangka† whispered through the water. He’d just sit there as the sea leapt around us and the thunder roared, and the lightning seared through the dark waves. He would sit and smile. And the boat never turned. He had a boat of his own but not like this one.
This was a basnig‡, a nighttime trawler, a 30-man affair. I looked out to sea and now I could see many basnigs. They sat on the horizon, hundreds of them, like stars too heavy for the sky. Their light sunk deep into the sea. Fish were drawn to the light. Even now I could see it, the first trickles of life, slivers of silver darting through the water. They circled the craft, drinking in the lustre they loved so much. Their scales shone like wild eyes, like the old man’s eyes.
I remember, as we would cast from the shore, the sea would fill him. A withered smile would carve his face, his eyes would flutter, and his chest would fill, breathing with the sea. He was free. We would hunt the waves until our nets and lines were lathered with silver. We could go anywhere. I was free then, not like this.
This big boat sits in the water and waits. It doesn’t rush in the wind nor breathe with the waves. The sea would stir and it would twitch, like an almost- dead fish prodded with a stick. I wasn’t here of my own free will. The old man was dead and the little boat gone. I was here because I needed to be. I needed a boat of my own to chase the sea once more.
The water churned. Where I stood I could feel little droplets cast into the air by fluttering fins and heaving water. More and more fish strangled the basnig, swelling the waves, and rocking the craft even more. At first, I thought they were just curious creatures, but it was something else. It was something in their nature. The whole ocean to wander, they could not avoid the light. They could not escape it. The net rippled in the depths, hidden on the edges of the swathes of light. I could only see it in whispers, as the radiance slid across its silent expanse. A patter of feet rumbled behind me. Orders rung in the empty night. It was time. I began to pull in the net. I held the right end and another dozen men stood to my left, each clutching their sliver of net with earnest. The net rose slowly at first. Its expansive maw grew taut, looming like some great beast below the furious tangle of fish. Then the strands snapped with sudden vivacity, and the net began to wrap and devour and seethe with energy. I could hear the hiss of sharp breath flee into the night, and the groan of the old Basnig as the metal bent underfoot.
The contents of the net boiled like mercury, fish like tiny flecks of silver burst into the night. The net surfaced. I saw it like a sapphire cast into the sea, a marlin cupped gently in the net. It didn’t twitch or convulse. It just lay there, gills flaring, eyes filled with frantic but quiet fear. I closed my own eyes. I could feel it wrapped in my fingertips, the surging, shivering energy. The net was alive. And I wanted to release my grip, relieve the clenching, clawing spasms in the roots of my fingers, and feel the rush of freedom.
I remembered the old man, and how the sea would sometimes catch him. He would see a thread of light sewn among the waves, and turn the sputtering motor to chase it. It was the edge of a fin. It was a murmur of silver, a flurry of a deeper blue amongst the deepest blue of the sea - a ripple. It would catch our line and drag the little boat for days. The old man could never let a marlin go. The line would stitch into the flesh of his wrinkled hands, and it was this time when I saw him age the most. In the deepest nights I found myself inches from cutting the line, but I never did. Even when we were skipping across the lightest, bluest waves, I knew we would always find ourselves on the edge of an unyielding line thrust into the deep.
I blinked. I opened my eyes and stared into the marlin’s. I looked past the fear and saw something cradled delicately in the trembling orb. It was the deep white light. I felt my fingers slipping from the net and clasped it with renewed ferocity. I held no more fantasy. I knew if I were to let it go, the fish would be back for the light tomorrow.
†Bangka: Small traditional Filipino fishing boat with outriggers ‡Basnig: Filipino fishing craft/technique (uses lights to attract fish)
‡Basnig: Filipino fishing craft/technique (uses lights to attract fish)