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.