Everyday Trifles: Mornings at the Fish Market


Early morning fog hangs over the canal, a misty haze hugging the edge of the market. Every few minutes the slight breeze tears away a wisp, guiding it into the stalls and walkway. In its wake it leaves a wave of stench, the smell of decaying creatures, sea matter and sewage.
In the mornings, we have learned, the canal is always low, the tide out. Rocks poke through the murky water. Green sludge visibly grows along the stone walls. Birds arrive by the flock to devour the guts scraped from countless crabs and fish, dumped by the bucket-full into the bare inches of water. The unfortunate sea creatures, guts missing and life scraped away, lounge in lukewarm baths, waiting to be devoured as joyfully as the birds consume their innards.
Rows of elderly women, the market ajamas, sit on over-turned buckets, their shallow pails of sea goods around them. Most of them wear rubber boots over their small feet, knit gloves with the palms painted red on their hands and visors to shade their faces though the sun won’t reach them through the roof of the market. Their pants are hundreds of different patterns, brought together into a collage of color, shape and texture. As I pass them by I think how much my mum would love their pants.
We make our way along the walkway. The ajamas idly chat to one another, punctuating their conversations with the occasional call out to us and other passersby. We smile at them but do not stop, too intimidated to purchase any of their wares. They are curious about us, but I am just as curious about them. Between carefully placed steps on the damp, slick cement of the market ground, I steal glances at the women. They subtly evaluate one another’s short perms, their newly dyed black hair and for signs of any new wrinkles amid glances at the buckets of octopi, whose occupants are still alive and waiting to escape.
We are at the edge of the market when an octopus begins to pull itself, leg by leg, over the edge of its red pail prison. I stop, watching it slip to the ground and slink its way past the buckets of clams and baskets of dried fish. Its skin is moist, slimy. What looks like spit oozes from its legs, leaving behind a little trail. We catch the attention of the attendant ajama and point at the escapee, now in our path.
She comes around her buckets, fly swatter in hand. For the briefest of moments she looks at the octopus. And then, that swatter comes down on its soft body with a hard, wet smack. The octopus doesn’t move. The ajama stoops down, throws the stunned creature back in the bucket and returns to her own bucket, leaving us with the squashed imprint of the octopus on the grey ground.