Thursday, October 30, 2008

the coin diver

It was Sunday morning and the sun slips from the horizon to float freely in the sky. Only one old, diesel smelling, slow, passenger boat that crosses to another city in Mindanao was moored on the pier. The other boat that shuttles between the city and another smaller nearby island had left earlier. Only the two cranes with its gantries raised to the sky working on the pier expansion made the pier seem busy.

Down beside the aft of the old boat was a Badjao couple in their canoe and their daughter less than three years in estimate was inaudibly sobbing from hunger. Hunger was reason enough to cry but she was too weak for the effort to really cry. They’ve been displaced into a civilization they can not assimilate. Except by this trade.

The wife grabbed the baby to coddle her in her arms resting its buttocks on her lap then put her left nipple on the baby’s mouth to pacify her not really to feed her. The baby was naked and her thin genital, wrinkling from inadequate nutrition was cleaved to the eyes of the boat passengers as she turned her head to her mother's unhealthy milkless breast. The romblon hat her mother wore hides her face from the glare of the morning sun as she suckled.

Coins were thrown to the water for her husband to dive. Each time the coins were long in coming, she asked the passengers to throw some more using the Badjao language the passengers don't understand but nevertheless knew she's asking for coins. She never raised her hands with an open palm the way beggars do. She extends her hand as though she is reaching another hand for a handshake. Her people never considered this begging but a legitimate trade. Her husband provides a diving show to the boat passengers by allowing a few seconds before he follows the sinking coin underwater.

The family knew there was not enough time anymore for the day’s business. The boat leaves in a few minutes and the next ship from a Malaysian city arrives at dusk and so coin diving is impossible.

The boat blew its horn twice to signal departure and the funnel sent black smoke into the air to get ready. The couple knew what it meant so the wife added a little amount of loudness to her voice.

"Sige na" she shouted in their own language.

The mooring ropes were removed from the bollards and were dropped to the water and almost instantly, the ship carried by the current drifted a few inches from the log fenders. The winches hummed as it rolled to gather the ropes into the giant spool. The engine rumbled and the water ruffled with the heavy movement. The wife dug the paddle to follow the boat while she called for more coins. From crystal clear, the water turned deep blue-green and the dune-like bottom sand and a few debris and some garbage of an uncaring city began to get obscured. Some passengers remained leaning on the railings watching the couple waiting for some diving exhibition. One passenger who was lying on his cot, not pleased by the entertainment, stood and approached the railings.

"Why these people don’t find work," he murmured.

He dipped his hand in his jeans pocket and the wife saw it. She directed her hand to where the man stood.

"Sige na! sige na!" she called, her voice carries the tone of begging now.

When the man got his hand out from his pocket, his palm had three pieces of yellow coins. The husband’s face lighted to show willingness to give the man entertainment if entertainment is what the man is looking for in exchange for his last minute generosity. He grabbed his daughter from his wife and put her on his back and the baby dutifully clang to his father’s neck as though she knew that this is an early practice in the trade. The passenger threw one of the coins and father and daughter instantly leaped into the water. They landed a few meters away from where the coin dropped. Some few seconds later, two gleaming heads bleached brown by iodine and sunshine were back on the surface. Father shook his head thrice in quick succession to free his eyes of the stinging saltwater that drips from his forehead; daughter wiped her face with one hand for the same purpose while her other hand remained clinging to her father’s neck. They swim towards the canoe as the wife rows towards them to meet them. His forefinger and thumb touched his mouth where the coin is clipped between his teeth and then extended the hand to the side of the hull of his boat to drop the coin there.

A few seconds after father and daughter climbed back to the canoe, the second coin was thrown. It was almost like torture as oxygen had just gathered back into their lungs. He put his hand on his forehead like a visor and lowered his face almost touching the water to locate the coin. The child on his back was a censored sight. Her legs parted as her toes dug the side of her father’s waist to avoid somersaulting ahead into the water. The watching passengers were divided between laughter and pity. Once the sinking coin sent a whirling gleam to the eyes of the coin diver, they slipped into the water in that position.

Up in the big boat the passengers were held in suspense. But not the wife. She knows her worry can’t do any help; she knows the diving skills of their men even before greed fishing destroyed with dynamites their fishing grounds to steal their fishes.

The coin whirled too far. It sunk in a zigzag motion in obedience to both buoyancy and gravity. Two times his palm missed the coin. The bottom sand was just a few kicks below before he finally caught the coin.

Father and daughter resurfaced nearly half a minute later and too far from where everybody’s eyes expected them to emerge. Once more the wife rowed towards them to meet them.

Slowly, the old boat turned south to set her on course. Once the prow found its destination in the horizon, the tail boiled. The last of the three coins was still in the fist of the passenger. He threw it but a bit too close to the bubbles of the propeller. The husband handed the baby to his wife and for a few moments thought about diving for it. He changed his mind. Instead, he dangled his right foot on the water to help his wife counteract the current the old boat created and gave the coin thrower a blaming look. His eyes locked on the man’s blurring face like a jet fighter on its target. The yellow coin may not mean anything to that passenger but it means so much to the couple like food that slipped from the mouth irretrievably into an unclean surface.

But the boat sped up now and the distance it gained had freed the passenger from the eyes of the coin diver.

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