- February 14, 2024 07:21
By Joshua David M. Diamante
“Pare, pasindi ako,” said the man with a crumpled cigarette on his scabby lips.
“Wala akong lighter eh, teka hiram ako sa kanto,” said the other man scraping for filth as he stood up.
The ear-piercing boats cleaning the waste of Pasig River, matched with the jam-packed roofs like a can of sardines at the depressed slums filled with newborn chicks, wakes the sleepless bystanders just like any other day. A smell of freshly put-out garbage reeks of feces, urine, dead animals, and rotten food surrounds the esteros. Inhaling the fume of burned plastics is the bread of people living in commercialized cardboard:
The man with the cheap cigar keeps talking to himself waiting to get a puff of smoke.
A familiar voice was heard from a distance, “Roberto, may tsismis ako! Balita ko may nawawalang bag sa ilog na puno ng salapi.”
The man, Roberto’s face had this sour expression while having the eyes of someone that won a lottery, “anak ng…mukhang makakapagsug…bayad na ako ng utang!”
“Biro lang, sinasabi ko sayo hanggang ngayong gabi na lang utang mo. At kung hindi ka makakabayad kukunin ko ang bangka mo,” said jokingly by the lady with a wide grin showing her golden molar.
Roberto’s forehead showed lines as he tasted the sweat running down his ashy face. Her high-pitched voice was enough to make his eyes twitch and make him grit his teeth while clenching his bloodied fist. He paused after a long sigh, shrugging off his head and nodding towards her. The man rushed to his kumpare at the sari-sari store who was watching the TV, and shouted: “pare, tara na!” They both went to their boat and sailed through the dim river with only a flashlight to spare. Roberto was asked by his companion why they had to go out in the middle of the night, but there wasn't any response from him as he kept on flashing his light in the pile of floating trash in the river.
Roberto taps the shoulder of the man and said, “Ester, may nawawala raw bag na may pera dito sa ilog.”
“Saan mo naman nahagilap ‘yan? Totoo ba? Sa panahon ngayon mahirap na maniwala lalo na’t lunod na tayong mga nasa ilalim sa putikan at tamang pantawid-gutom lang ang bumubuhay sa atin,” replied by Ester as he scratched his head.
“Oo pare, tsaka lubog na lubog na ako sa utang dahil sa mga bisyo ko. Kukunin daw itong bangka na bigay pa ni itay kung hindi ako makakadiskarte ngayon. Wala na nga tayong trabaho simula ng naupo ‘yang hayop na binoto ko—pangakong mga napako,” said by Roberto as he stopped sailing to peek at the esteros with nothing but blinking lights. Yet the only thing they found was crawling maggots and screeching rats searching the litters to fill their stomach.
The people living in the slums were an eerie sight to see, even with their buto't balat physiques, hitting rock bottom wasn't so bad for them.
Deeper along the river, hearing only the shortness of breath, the quiet flow of the paddle, and the videoke from afar, Ester heard a lullaby and remembered a story from their neighborhood, “may naririnig ako, rinig mo rin ba? Alam mo ba na may sirena raw na nang-aakit ng mga tambay dito sa’tin? Kailan lang may nawalang lasenggo rito at hindi na natagpuan.”
“Huwag mo nga akong lokohin, Kathang-isip lang mga walang kwentang bagay na ‘yan. Tulungan mo na lang akong maghanap,” Roberto said.
“Pare, naalala ko na! Habang nakikinig ako sa TV, ayon sa balita may nawawala raw sa ilog Pasig kaso hindi ko na nakita kung ano…tungkol siguro sa pera,” Ester said.
The two of them continued sailing, and the lullaby from the distant land became louder as they went. Ester was afraid that the myth of the sirens was real, and Roberto was starting to believe him. The voice was alluring—it reminded them of music with a familiar melody that will instantly make someone fall asleep. Their eyes were forming dark circles, skin hairs were starting to rise, their body felt like a stone being dragged away, and their hands started to get cold.
“At sana'y nakikinig siya…Naaalala kaya niya” were the words sung, and it kept on singing but the voice became more distorted and static as they came closer to it, “Ang love…bzzz…noon…Mr. Dj…bzzz…iyo.”
Ester said, “ha-ha-ha…lumang radyo.” He then shouted, “pare, nakikita mo ba ‘yong gumagalaw na anino?”
Roberto quickly used his dying flashlight to see a silhouette of what appeared to be a fishtail in the distance. They both assumed they were hallucinating as a result of their overnight search for a bag of cash.
“Lumapit ka nga…duwag ka ba?” Ester asked.
“Pwede bang tumahimik ka, pare? Ilawan ko muna.”
“Hays…sabi ko sayo eh,” Roberto replied.
A sight of relief after seeing a black plastic bag from afar. Yet they felt something was wrong, a fool’s paradise. The two thought of the consequence of attaining such wealth out of the blue. Their senses have succumbed to numbness with their eyes flowing with money.
“Tama ba ito? Hindi naman tayo pulitiko na makakatakas sa mga duda”
“Teka nga ang baho…parang may masangsang na amoy. Napadumi ka ba sa kaba?” Ester asked as they got closer.
“Hindi ka ata naligo eh, huwag kang magulo ilawan ko uli…”
“Putcha…ayaw na naman gumana neto…alugin ko nga.”
“May nakikita na ako!” Roberto went closer and flashed the floating bag.
There was a shining silver light, being deflected by the flickering flashlight. The black plastic bag was swarming with flies and a putrid stench that was unbearably horrendous—a smell of rotting meat. Adrenaline kicked in their veins as soon as they saw a gut-wrenching scene.
(Illustration by Alexandra Lim/FEU Advocate)