THE FAMILIAR scraping of wooden outriggers against damp sand along with discordant voices awoke Tatad, who squinted as a ray of morning sun seeped in through the gaps of his bahay-kubo. The speed by which those pump boats were being dragged filled him with unease.

He grabbed his towel, hurried himself outside and followed the drag marks of fishing nets across the beach. He came across his friend, Dua, who hung his net by the rim of his boat. An infectious feeling of dismay and dread spread from Dua to Tatad as ten gasping tunas flailed in the metal barrel beside the boat.

“That’s all there is today?” asked Tatad, as he leaned down to inspect the measely catch.

“Same as every other day,” Dua replied.

Tatad turned and began walking back to his bahay-kubo. He tread along the marks made by Dua’s net, observing how shallow they were and with what little effort the net had been dragged by its owner. He recalled how only a mere five years ago, it took three men to haul in the day’s catch—on a particularly unlucky day.

He gathered his gear: a self-woven fishing net, a rod and line fashioned from a piece of bamboo and spare nylon, and a pair of recycled painting gloves. He slung his net over his shoulder and proceeded to his dingy—a humble, aging vessel, with a dimming coat of blue paint and faint, washed out lettering that read, “San Sebastian.”

He boarded his things onto the boat and stared into a surreal and rapturous sight. The peculiar dichotomy of the ever-eccentric bay—an almost clear azure stretch of coastline nearest the beach was separated from the tumultuous surf and darker hue of the waters beyond the shallows by a mysterious white line—invited his attention as the glare of the incoming afternoon sun gave way to murkier, but friendlier skies. Pushing his boat into the breaking surf, he paused for a moment, and clutched the necklace around his neck.

“There’s always a mystery to be had here,” Tatad thought to himself, reflecting on the questions that have kept him up at night on the shores of this relatively unknown Batangas town.

He sacrificed more than his fair share of hours to the mystery of “The Muhin Man”, the true origins of whom captured his intrigue, now more than ever as the bay seemed to be reminiscing alongside him—the bipolar sea, the cloaked sky and even the gulls swarmed above him.

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Tatad turned back to the beach and recalled long time ago; a scrawny, almost anorexic elderly man struggling to regain his footing on the beach. Some of the older men helped him to his feet, whereas the younger folk looked on in curiosity. The man slumped to the ground repeatedly, before the folk decided to let him lay there, as he gasped for air and began pointing to the ocean.

“F…Muhin,” he exhaled. Tatad recalled himself as an impressionable young lad of eight, squeezing himself through a wall of boots and torn shirts to get a closer look. The man exhaled again.

“Fo…Muhin,” he repeated.

“Fon Muhin!” one of the older gentlemen exclaimed, a migrant and Cotabato-born veteran of the sea who stayed in their community for a while then moved away with his family to escape the increasing competition in the area.

He explained that Fon Muhin was the T’boli deity of the sea, a folktale told in the nearby fishing villages of his home province.

“Fon Muhin”, he claimed, “provides to those who benefit from his domain, but should we meet our end in the waves then our souls belong and bow to him.” The crowd began breaking into incredulous chatter, including a fascinated Tatad.

The old man suddenly began to seize up and he was soon brought to the nearest station. “They say he gives rewards,” the man continued, “to those who are willing to take a risk and go endure some unpleasant things.”

After the crowd had left, Tatad approached the spot where the man had lain. Pressed against the sand was a necklace made of a piece of fan coral, its pores still fresh and moist, as if freshly plucked from the deep ocean floor. He clutched it in his palm and returned home.

Everytime he ventured out into the waters of the bay as he grew up, Tatad kept it close as his talisman, its bright purple shade still alive and evident, giving him purpose. Now, it was the last trinket of familiarity to him as he paddled on and neared the divide between the shallows and the coast. A plastic float bobbing in the water caught his eye and an incoming gale swept behind him, communicating its own intentions for him.

“Forward,” it seemed to convey. He felt it push against his back and his vessel, synchronizing with the surf as he crouched down, grabbed the side of the boat and tried to steady himself. He unfurled his net and casting it beside his boat, pulled it back and tossed it again, but with no profit. He decided to try his luck with his rod, but each time he only reeled in a few bits of dead coral that had grown stale and chalky.

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The boat drifted from the calm, clear shallows into the unsettled deep channels, and soon the outline of distant palm trees began to materialize in the distance. Desperate to fill his boat, he fought his way against the current and made his way to the island.

Halfway through, the rocky embankment became visible and Tatad slowed his approach. But the back end of his dingy suddenly began to rise and the flimsy piece of hardwood picked up speed. The watery bulge raised him higher and he saw the black, jagged edges racing ever closer. All at once there was a loud crashing sound, and Tatad felt his ears ring, as the swirling mass overcame him.

He awoke to find his beloved dingy smashed into pieces, and his net torn in the middle against a protruding boulder. His rod was also broken in half, barely long enough to cast a proper line. His coral necklace, however, was unharmed and maintained its vibrant color, and hung conveniently on a pointed rock.

As the hours pass, he surveyed the island’s exterior and observed its unimpressive size and features: a light sandbank protected by what looked to him like chunks of obsidianprotecting the palm trees, crop of figs, and small expanse of beach front from the onslaught of the tide. It barely rivalled his modest beach front property?the perimeter around his bahay-kubo and the thirty meter walk to the beach.

He gathered the pieces of driftwood, dried sticks and rocks, and settled on the far end of the beach, facing the direction of San Sebastian.

“Dua will come looking for me,” he thought, remembering how his neighbor always pays a visit at night to check on him or to ask for some fish sauce and rock salt.

The thought seemed to strike his taste buds and he looked around, only to remember his fishing gear was destroyed. He gazed above, expecting coconuts to be hanging high above, but was again disappointed. He twiddled with his necklace for a while, observing its unwaning purple shade, that brightened in the approaching backdrop of dusk. In his periphery, he suddenly saw a starfish crawling along the bank and its sunburned-red skin began to look like a prime cut of beef to an exhausted and starving Tatad.

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Tatad walked with trepidation towards his unsuspecting catch, dipped his hand into the water as he felt its almost callous exterior, protecting a thick bumpy underside. He carried it back to the fire he started earlier, and pondered how he could make a meal, or at least a decent snack out of it. He looked around for the thickest stick he could find, and drove it into the middle of the creature, putting it over the fire and watching its points curl up and blacken. Then he turned it over multiple times, making sure every part was evenly presented to the flame. Satisfied with the even coating, he brought up to his mouth and was surprised to discover a burnt smell, half-expecting a rancid odor. He took a bite, and crumpled his face at the bitter taste.

He struggled to swallow it while tossing the stick aside. Desperate to rinse the sensation of crushed charcoal out of his mouth, Tatad ran to the nearest edge of the sea, foolishly bent down with the seawater reaching up to his head then took a gulp and spat

it out as soon as the saltiness overcame his taste buds. Spitting out as much as he could, Tatad noticed his coral piece brighten as if winking at him as he emerged it from the water. Stunned into disbelief, he clumsily stood up and noticed silvery streaks and yellowish, hooked-shaped fins slice their way through the current—the calling card of large fish swimming swiftly and tightly in a school. He was suddenly forced to squint as a light shone directly in his face, and heard the humming of a motorboat, relieved that it was Dua along with some people from the barangay station.

“You got all of us worried with this new quest of yours,” Dua yelled with a grin.

“I found something else,” Tatad whispered to himself, pointing to the streaks that vanished back into the depths as they all turned.

Tatad boarded the boat and quickly asked for a bottle of water, clutching his talisman and eagerly looking back into the calm, collected blanket of ocean.


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