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Unterberg Poetry Center

Agbayani gathers his tools. He wipes his butcher block, both sides testifying to decades of function, blade marks from generations of even, effortless cutting. He puts a metal basin and a utility tray to his right. On the left side of the board he places a pair of straight mosquito forceps and two knives, one six-inch and the other eight-inch. He picks up a milkfish from the bucket and lays it down vertical, face towards him, dorsal side to his left. Grandmother Tandang Sora, almost ninety and almost blind, sits opposite him and works almost in the same motion and timing. Her basin and tray are to her left. Her knives are to her right. Agbayani and grandmother Tandang Sora split their fish, running the edge of their knives along the backbone, starting from the tail. They lay their fish open like a butterfly fillet, remove the gills and internal organs, and wash off blood and dirt. They leave the black membrane that covers the belly. Grandmother and grandson enjoy the oil along this cavity, silky and fragile, deep odor that warms the back of their throats. Nothing satisfies them more than handling fresh fish, ones that smell and feel of salty ocean-breeze. Clean fish do not smell like fish.

They lay their fish flat on their boards, skin side down. Holding their knives in a slanting position and using the tips of the blades, they trim the backbone off from head to tail. They lay their fish on trays and commence the deboning. Agbayani takes his mosquito forceps. One by one, cluster by cluster, he removes the intermascular spines, the rib bones, then the remaining groups of spines, doing the ventral ones last. Grandmother Tandang Sora does the same. But while Agbayani is completely absorbed and more than competent, his movements are crude next to grandmother Tandang Sora’s. Her cutting, her plucking are empty of unnecessary exertion. She can still debone a milkfish in less than ten minutes. She can tell how old a fish is by running her hand against its scales. And she knows the exact number of spines in each fish she debones: sometimes just under two hundred, sometimes a little over.

Grandmother and grandson finish deboning the bucket of milkfish in two hours. It is the last bucket they will be doing together. Tomorrow Agbayani will leave the family business, the last of its kind, and start work at the new manufacturing plant.

“Are you sure?” Grandmother Tandang Sora asks.
“It’s a steadier source of income.”
“The two of us can live on doing eight full buckets a week.”
“No one will come to us once the factory is open. We’d be lucky if we get one bucket.”

Grandmother Tandang Sora is still holding her mosquito forceps. “I’ll stay open,” she says.

Agbayani hands grandmother Tandang Sora his basin, now full of fish bones. She will later grind these into powder, soft as refined sugar. He feeds the fish insides to the birds and stray cats, dogs and chickens.

At the factory conference room the next day, Agbayani’s fellow orientees make room for him in the center front, a gesture of reverence for his family’s illustrious century-long history as deboning masters. The light is dimmed. The film starts with a list of factory policies: when bathroom breaks are allowed, what constitutes grounds for termination, uniform rules, contractual work, employment and unemployment rotation, et cetera. Next is a quick layout of the factory compound. And last, forty-five minutes of detailed introduction to the fully-automated assembly line.

Three foremen walk in and show the employees to their respective places. Agbayani is tasked to watch the tiny robotic bone pickers, to make sure that the laser guided calcium sensors stay on the pre-calibrated level.

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Dorotea Mendoza is a writer, political economist and activist. She lives in NYC.