Short Stories: Two Creeping Geckos

By S. Prasetyo Utomo

Setyawati threw back the blankets and got up. She went over to the small table and drank down the last of the coffee from her cup. Every last bit. Head thrust right back, her mouth gaped wide open. The last wet, muddy granules of coffee were like cold lava flowing into her mouth. I like this least about her. She chewed the final granules of ground coffee, the dregs, which to the tongues of most ordinary humans would have tasted bitter, with an energy and pleasure that could only be generated by her own mouth.

She stretched out her tongue and licked every last granule from the edge of the cup.

“You’re used to swallowing the bitter,” I teased.

She continued licking the last granules as she watched the geckos crawling along the wall.

Then Setyawati declared, “I’m very used to swallowing the bitter things in life – at home. It isn’t easy having a husband who isn’t as capable, who has no taste for beauty, but who’s into being in control. I’m tired of doing what he wants. Sometimes he thinks he’s the best, always right, knows everything. Ah, I get so mad!”

The two geckos on the wall approached each other nudging together, then scampered after one another. In the corner of the ceiling, right in the corner of the ceiling, the larger of the two geckos pounced on his quarry. Setyawati laughed aloud, shoulders heaving up and down. She turned on the light, illuminating the whole room at once, then blew out the candle. The scent of molten wax and burnt wick lingered.

Outside tree branches and casuarina leaves damp from the drizzly wind scratched against the window.

“My husband wants to show his power through his job,” said Setyawati opening the window and allowing the cold fog and drizzle to blow into the room.

****

“Come on!? Let’s go for a walk.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Sure. I want to look at the fireflies, feel the mountain breeze at night, listen to the distant sound of the river.”

Without giving me an opportunity to resist Setyawati closed the previously open window. She took up her jacket and sank her two beautiful arms into it.

The pair of geckos were still snuggled against each other in the corner when Setyawati closed the door of the hotel room. We went down to the lobby and stood before the meeting room that was being used for the seminar. Filled with the sound of endless debate from morning till night, the room was now silent, only the proud microphones stood on the moderator’s table.

Gently and with conviction, Setyawati bid farewell to the hotel security guard and set off on foot. Despite his initial blank unseeing look, the security guards still managed a nod and a smile.

It was as though the road set Setyawati free from the evil thoughts of the geckos, from their laughter at mankind’s fumblings. I breathed in the misty night air, the scent of mountain soil, and the heavy scent of casuarina trees. In the darkness, I followed as Setyawati led through the quiet of village lanes, past irrigation dikes, rice paddies, meandering vegetable gardens, coming at last to a river, clear, cool, refreshing.

There were no fireflies. Only gatherings of people with guns in the village night watch huts. People greeted us as we passed, suspicious. But Setyawati’s gentleness protected us from the roughness of the armed villagers on night patrol. Passing a mosque we could see a number of the faithful still murmuring prayers, chanting the holy verse even at this late hour. Geckos crept along the walls of the mosque. To what other hidden mysteries did these geckos bear witness in their own tongue?

But it seemed that Setyawati didn’t notice the geckos on the mosque walls.

“Isn’t it strange,” whispered Setyawati. “People on guard suspiciously in the hut.”

Setyawati’s step was becoming uncertain, fearful. However, propelled by a desire to understand the situation and squeezing my arm tightly she went on. There was no moonlight. A dog barked in the far distance and the torch lights of the patrolling villagers’ cries crossed up and down the lanes in the paddy fields and over the vegetable gardens.

Suddenly one of the villagers called out from a rice field. People began to run towards him, far from the road in a vegetable field not far from the bund of a paddy field. Torch beams darted. Then the commotion grew to an uproar. As the commotion grew, Setyawati tugged at my arm and we moved towards the excited gathering.

Forcing her way into the tightly packed crowd of people shining torches at something, Setyawati screamed, “Ah! Two dead bodies lying in the mud – like two dead geckos!”

The bodies lay face down half covered in the mud. When they were turned over, wide slash wounds yawned across both their chests.

****

Placing her hands over her face, Setyawati couldn’t hide the horror. She held back tears. In the hotel room far from the bodies lying face down near the paddy field bund half covered by the mud, Setyawati restrained her terror with no more than a pair of hands. But even so, her hands weren’t strong enough to bear within themselves the upheaval in her soul.

Unconsciously, and I will be convinced forever it was unconscious, she nudged against me, gently pressing her head to my chest. Her arms were strong around my waist. She had forgotten the two geckos were still crawling along the wall. Were geckos, to Setyawati’s mind, incapable of comprehending the language of human sadness?

“I am terribly frightened my husband or I will be slaughtered like the two people we saw in that field,” whispered Setyawati. “My husband has a great many enemies. A man once came to the house carrying a knife and threatened to kill us.”

I didn’t want to comfort her; I wanted to leave the trembling fear until her own courage returned. She was so tired and sleepy and her eyelids were closing when she dropped off, arms tight around my chest.

The two geckos had long since moved far apart, each scurrying after its own prey. But Setyawati was searching for a feeling of peace, seeking the sense of tranquility she had lost, by falling asleep, head nestled in my chest, like a newborn child slumbering soundly as it suckled it’s mother’s nipple.

“I think I had better head into town now,” she whispered, rousing, smiling and finding her inner quiet.

“It’s still dark, and what’s more there are interesting sessions all day.”

“I’m not interested anymore. Say goodbye to the others for me,” Setyawati declared in front of the door to the hotel room as she straightened her hair. Her eyes were warm. “The pair of geckos on the wall are laughing at me, aren’t they? And you think I’m like a little girl, don’t you?”

I walked Setyawati down to the lobby. She returned the key and climbed into her car which was covered in dew. In the remaining darkness and enveloped in the damp misty air, she left, leaving behind a roaring silence.

I entered my own room again and on slamming the door, two geckos dropped to the floor right at my feet, tails breaking off in the process. Leaving their tails flicking back and forth, they scurried back up onto the wall. I was no Prince Anglingdarma(*) by the side of Setyawati, able to understand the language of the geckos, having to keep their secrets unto death in the midst of raging flames endured for the sake of his beloved queen.

Pandana Merdeka, October 1998


Two Creeping Geckos (Dua Cicak Merayap) was published in Kompas Daily in January 1999.

(*) A character from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata who rescues Setyawati and eventually wins her hand in marriage.

Short Story: Motorbike Taxi

By Gerson Poyk

Late one evening as I was studying for my semester exams, my nimble-fingered father called out to me from the living room. Without looking up from the old radio he was repairing he said, “Come and sit here a moment, son.” I sat down expecting a request for help to hunt on the cool ceramic tile floor of our house for some nut or screw he had dropped.

      But I was wrong.

      “Since your mother passed away I haven’t been able to concentrate, son,” said dad. “I haven’t been doing a good job on these radios either, and well, the customers, they’re going other places. My small pension isn’t really enough; I’m not making as much as I used to from the radios and I have no idea how I’m going to pay for your little sister to go to university.”

      Politely I said nothing as my father continued.

      “What do you think if I withdraw the last of our savings from the bank and buy a small second-hand motorbike?”

      I was puzzled, “A motorbike?”

      “A motorbike. You could make a little extra money for us by taking pillion passengers. By becoming an ojek (1).”

      “You mean like all those other ojek who give people rides for a fee?” I asked.

      “If you don’t mind spending the time on Friday evenings or in the afternoons you could get a few fares. Even one or two would be a help with the household budget. Rather than getting a job as a bus driver like some of your friends, it would be better to just become an ojek,” said dad, screwdriver still inserted into the radio.

      “No problem,” I said straight away, getting up to go back to my desk beside the kerosene stove at the back room of our fourteen tile-wide three-room house. There weren’t any doors between the rooms so I could talk to dad in the living room if he raised his voice slightly. “Could I use the bike to go to university, dad?” I asked.

      “No, don’t do that,” was his reply. “What you need to do is stay away from the main roads. Just wait on the bike at the intersection of the main road and the road leading into our kampong. You have to offer to take people places they can’t get by public transport,” suggested dad from our all-purpose living room cum electronics workshop.

      My younger sister was worn out from playing volleyball with friends from the neighborhood and was in bed. When she went out to play volleyball in the afternoons she would usually take a couple of thermos flasks full of ice blocks which she would place by the edge of the court. Once her friends were thirsty she would shepherd them over to the thermos flasks and sell them ice blocks. She not only got a little physical exercise but she also made a little money, her own little contribution to the household. Our tiny house was, in fact, a highly productive place, serving as both a radio repair workshop and a factory producing the ice blocks my sister sold to weary neighbor children and school friends.

 ***

I busied myself, first arranging a motorbike license for myself and then with the last of dad’s savings, looking for a second-hand motorbike.

      I would come home from lectures in the afternoons and wait at the top of the road leading down into the densely built kampong with its labyrinth of capillary small lanes and paths which were impenetrable to public transport.

      On the first day, I made a fortune, five thousand rupiahs! This encouraged me greatly and after a week I had made a tidy little sum. Dad urged me to put the money into the bank account he helped my sister open a long time ago when she started selling ice blocks.

      The money brought its own pleasure. But there were also the pleasures of the odd little things that happened from time to time not to mention the life-threatening risks. At first, I couldn’t care less about the passengers, what they looked like, or what state they were in, as long as they handed over the fare. Old, young, clean, dirty, healthy, sick (so long as they were still healthy enough to sit on the back), I took anyone, anytime they wanted, anywhere they wanted to there.

      But it was the young women I enjoyed the most, and there were plenty of attractive young women wanting to be taken home to their houses deep in the kampong, far from the main road and public transport. But as an ojek, I knew my place and never tried starting a conversation.

      One day a beautiful white woman walked up to me wanting a ride. The problem was she was so amazingly tall and so large that as we traveled the bike swayed wildly and she almost caused me to lose my balance. And then it had to happen, right as we descended a small hill, my front tire blew out! I jumped on the brake – and over we went! Small dark me and the beautiful giant both went sprawling across the road. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt. As the bike went over, her vast figure landed on scrawny little me, right on my head! And as my helmet had no chin protector, my chin was driven into the gravel road, almost breaking my chin and sending dazzling sensations through my jawbone as it was pushed back into the base of my ears. Happily, the feeling didn’t last too long.

      I apologized to the white woman, hailed a friend passing on his way home from taking someone else and asked him to drop off my huge white passenger.

      It was some time before I saw the white woman again. Then one day while I was waiting for passengers she went past this time driving her own car. An Indonesian woman was sitting next to her. I wondered where the beautiful giant and her attractive Indonesian friend with flowing black hair could be going. I was desperate to know so I turned the ignition key and set off after them. Dismay swept over me when eventually the car pulled into an immense two-story house which compared to my fourteen tile-wide house was a castle. I just rode past satisfied that I had found where the attractive white woman lived.

      It was sometime later before I saw the Indonesian woman again and in the meantime, I continued with my business ferrying passengers on the back of my bike. I lost count of the number of fares I had, anyone at all wanting a ride, young or old, male or female, not to mention all the children. I took no notice of them, just the money they held out.

      At home, three things filled my mind: my father, my little sister and my study, while at the university campus I would revert back into a hard-working university student.

      Several months later I did notice the woman with the flowing straight black hair again as she crossed the road at the bus stop. This time she was wearing a high school uniform. I waved and as she headed in my direction I started the engine. She jumped on and we roared off.

      “Who was that good looking white woman you were with?” I asked without wasting time.

      “Have you ever given her a ride?” she asked in reply.

      “Once. But I got a flat and we both came off. She landed on me and almost crushed me!”

      The high school girl on the back laughed and said, “She’s my after-school tutor.”

      “Well, that explains why you were in the car together, doesn’t it. And what does she teach?”

      “She teaches English,” answered the girl.

      “Cool. By the time you’re in university you’re English will be good,” I said encouraging her. “Which stream are you in at school?”

      “I took sciences.”

      “And what do you want to do at university?” I asked.

      “Mathematics…”

      I began to say how wonderful I thought that was but suddenly she shouted ‘stop’, seriously startling me. Without realizing it we had reached her large house.

      She held out a ten thousand rupiah note and said, “This is all I have, sorry.” I didn’t flinch and she continued, “Ah, keep the change.” She strode off towards the imposing wrought iron gates leaving me clutching the note.

 

I stopped working as an ojek so I could concentrate on my final major paper at uni. In the meantime, I lent my bike to a friend whose own motorbike had been repossessed by the owner. We agreed to split the profit fifty-fifty and even though he’d only finished primary school, he turned out to be completely honest. He dropped in every afternoon to deliver half the day’s takings. My friend’s honesty encouraged me to look on him as a younger brother and my father too became quite fond of him. Orphaned when young, he had no home and sometimes slept on benches at the bus interchange, sometimes in shop doorways. When dad found out about this he rented a small room in a boarding house for my friend.

      Late one night he picked up a passenger and that was the last time his friends saw him. His lifeless body was found dumped in a river, my motorbike stolen by his cruel thieving killer. My friend’s life had been extinguished for nothing more than a decrepit second-hand motorbike. Sorrow settled over our hearts and remained with us always, along with the memory of the friend who had been so good to us.

      My friend’s death also caused the more mundane problem that we had to deal with the police, but we were satisfied they had taken his murder seriously.

  ***

After so much hard work I eventually graduated and the day I received my results, a satisfactory level pass, I was overcome with anguish thinking about my murdered ojek friend. He had contributed so much to paying my way through my now successfully completed uni course and I was overcome with grief and emotion.

      In my poverty in that small house with a widowed pensioner scratching out a living by repairing radios and my little sister carting ice blocks to school to sell to friends the Almighty had granted that I should complete my degree, me, a university graduate, born of poverty and the faithful friendship of a homeless ojek whose life was torn away by a savage robbing killer.

My sister started uni and dad continued repairing his radios. He even surprised us by quietly learning how to repair television sets. My sister and I were amazed one day to find a television in the living room.

      As soon as I graduated I was offered a job as a teacher at the uni and one day while teaching a class of first-year students I noticed one of the female students with a surprised look on her face. At once I recognized the woman who was gazing not at a teacher but at a young ojek and the question was obvious, how could he be one of my lecturers!

      Unfortunately, it didn’t take her long to fail the semester examination and stop coming to lectures. Before she stopped attending, however, she sent me a letter politely asking whether she could visit me at home to arrange private tutoring, at whatever price I liked. She was even prepared to become my girlfriend, so long as I faked her results so she passed the examination.

      Saddened I reflected on the fact that my degree had cost the life of my ojek friend and that if I did tamper with her results, the reputation of the university would be worthless. The answer was, no.

 


1. Ojek are informal motorbike taxi riders who earn an income by carrying pillion passengers to their destination for a fare.

2. Ojek was published in Kompas Daily in June 1988.

3. On Gerson see http://idwriters.com/writers/gerson-poyk/; http://gersonpoyk.blogspot.com.au/; https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/992956.Gerson_Poyk.  

4. Featured image from https://adinparadise.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/wordless-wednesday-hitching-a-ride/

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First page of Hikayat Parang Puting. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f. 1r
The first page of Hikayat Parang Puting. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f. 1r

Early Vocabularies of Malay – the British Library

“Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have just been digitised are a number of vocabulary lists and dictionaries in Malay, compiled by visitors to the region as aids to learning the language. The study of Malay in Europe dates back to the …” (read more)

Source: The British Library’s Asia and Africa Blog Early vocabularies of Malay

Letter of Sultan Zayn al-‘Abidin to Afonso de Albuquerque, 1516

Love and affection from Sultan Zayn al-‘Abidin, ruler carrying out the commands of Almighty God, to the Governor-General at the fortress of the King of Portugal who binds all countries in his kingdom,

Be it known,

When we saw the letter from you which Giovanni brought we were filled with joy and happiness at the depth of the good relations between us. And when the Portuguese envoy arrived from Kollam or Malacca we welcomed him warmly and provided him with everything available in our country. Be assured our love for you has not wavered from the beginning until now.

After this, there arrived here one Manuel Falcão, a most immoral character.

First, when a ship arrived at Samudera from Pariaman with many people from Samudera on board, he took thirty gold dirhams. And he sold the crew and the rest were murdered.

Second, on the arrival of a ship from Bengal he took two hundred and twenty dirhams and one servant woman. Also, a cargo ship from Bengal which should have come to Samudera he commandeered to Malacca along with a great deal of cargo belonging to people from Samudera which was on board the ship.

Third, he took cargo from another ship and more people were murdered.

Fourth, he demanded from us one hundred and twenty dirhams by force and twenty items of cargo.

Fifth, he kidnapped fifty male and female servants from among the servants of the people of Samudera and shipped them to Malacca.

Sixth, he demanded from us fifty bails of pepper by force.

After this, Gaspar Machado also arrived here. He too is a very evil person.

The first thing he did was, on the arrival of a cargo ship at Samudera from Diu, he took from them two hundred dirhams by force.

Second, when a cargo ship arrived at Samudera from Cambay which was owned by the King of Cambay captained by ‘Ali Khan he took from them one hundred dirhams.

Third, when a cargo ship arrived at Samudera from Pulicut which is Nati carrying cargo owned by people from Samudera, he took one hundred dirhams from them by force and violence.

Fourth, when a cargo ship arrived at Samudera from Nawur that is Nati he took one hundred and twenty dirhams,

Fifth, when a ship arrived at Samudera from Barus containing a cargo belonging to the Sultan of Bengal he took one hundred quintals of tin and 4000 incenses and he sold the whole crew on this ship.

Sixth, many are the people of Samudera whose wealth he has taken by force and violence, and many are the judges and officials who have been enraged by him because of this behavior.

For these reasons, we lay before you our situation as we sincerely believe that this has not been ordered by the King of Portugal or by you. The King does not even know about the behavior of Manuel Falcão and Gaspar Machado because we are firmly convinced that the King and yourself as Governor-General do not want to damage your own port because our port is your port, and so we seek your protection.


This is an imaginative translation based on the translations of A.C.S. Peacock (2016): “Three Arabic letters from North Sumatra of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”, Indonesia and the Malay World, DOI: 10.1080/13639811.2016.1153219 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13639811.2016.1153219 and Taqiyuddin Muhammad, “Naskah Surat Sultan Zainal ‘Abidin (Wafat 923 H/1518 M)” http://misykah.com/naskah-surat-sultan-zainal-abidin-wafat-923-h1518-m-2/.

Peacock (2016) writes on the various manuscripts:

“The letter from Sultan Zayn al-‘Abidin IV of Samudera-Pasai, 1516–17. Arquivo Nacional Torre do Tombo, Lisbon. Colecção de cartas, Núcleo Antigo 891, mç. 1, n.° 59. Previous publications: Arabic text and Portuguese translation with significant differences from that presented here in dos Santos (1790: 127–30); translation only reprinted with additional notes in Alves (1999:228–30); Arabic text with a number of differences from that presented here and Indonesian translation in Muhammad (2013). Taqiyuddin Muhammad’s text is based on a poor quality image of the letter which accounts for most of the variations between his text and mine. It has not therefore usually been thought useful to record his variant readings. Help has also been provided by the Portuguese translation probably made in Malacca in 1516–17, presented in full in Appendix 1c. Although the translation is often imprecise, omitting crucial elements of the Arabic and sometimes supplementing it with additional information, it has the advantage that the translator was himself aware of the events referred to; it can therefore help clarify the frequently obscure Arabic text.”

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