Sketch by John Shramenko.
For seven years in the early 70s, I wrote stories under four different
bylines, too unsure of my scribbling ability to affix my own name
to them. This was the first story that I ever wrote as “Steve
Van Beek”. It appeared in Sawasdee around 1978. I recall
that after struggling with it for several weeks, inspiration hit
while I was standing on a traffic island on a hot afternoon, waiting
for the traffic to slow so I could finish crossing Rajdamnern
Avenue. I squatted down with cars whizzing past me, and wrote
it long-hand, oblivious to the honking around me. For those not
as dated as me, the title was a play on the Paul Simon song title,
“Still Crazy After All These Years”.
My friends think I’m batty when I mention it. So I seldom
do. But, the truth be known, I…well…I feed jingjoks.
Jinjoks? They’re the tiny mottled lizards whose chirps
are as much a part of a Thai house as mosquitoes and fluorescent
Not geckoes, the ones who onomatopoeic names in a wide number
of languages (dtoo-kay in Thai) echo their cry. Ten times the
jinjoks’ size, geckoes’ temperament ranks them as
the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the modern lizard family. Nasty dispositions.
Close a window shutter for the night and be startled by the huge
hissing iridescent orange and blue-spotted, off-green toad-like
thing that, moments before, was hiding behind it. If you’re
unlucky enough to be within range, he’ll clamp down on a
handy piece of anatomy with a bulldog bite that nothing short
of death (his, not yours) will relax. No, definitely not geckoes.
No, I’m talking about the little ones about the size of
your two thumbs stuck end to end. The unobtrusive ones; very well-behaved;
those are the ones. To a Thai, a house without jinjoks is a house
without luck. And, yes, I feed them.
I began my career as a jinjok keeper quite innocently. I was
sitting at the breakfast table enjoying a quiet piece of toast
when, across from me, up popped a pair of beady eyes, followed
in a flash by a quartet of legs and a long-lumpish tail. Skittering
across the Formica, he made a beeline for a bread crumb near my
plate, paused long enough to stab it with his sticky tongue, then
did a quick U-turn and slithered back over the precipice leaving
me sitting mouth agape at the little scamp’s audacity.
But he wasn’t through. Up he came again, this time from
the left side of the table. Squirreling across on a diagonal,
he seized another crumb and headed for the sidelines.
The third time, I was ready for him. As he zeroed in on another
speck of toast, I swiped at him. In mid-stride, he veered off
to the perpendicular and disappeared, once again, over the brink.
It was several seconds before he poked his head over the edge
again and this time he was a bit more cautious. He merely hung
there, one splay-toed foot and his head up, eyeing me as though
it was the first time he had noticed my presence. And it probably
was, too. I was later to find that if I moved slowly, he couldn’t
see me but if I even twitched, he picked up on movement and took
evasive action. As I said, he had startled me the first and second
times and out of pure astonishment I probably hadn’t budged
After hanging suspended for a few moments, he decided to come
topside. He just sat there, gauging which of us was faster. But
the lure of a tiny chunk of bread is a Lorelei to a jinjok and,
throwing caution to the winds, he zipped across the white table
surface to snatch another piece of my breakfast.
But by now, I was intrigued by his persistence. I ceased trying
to stop him — a fruitless exercise anyway — and instead
watched how he went about his business. It didn’t take him
long to figure out that I was no longer a danger and instead of
eating and running, he stuck around after each bite, searching
for another one to devour. Finally sated, he skittered over the
table edge and that’s the last I saw of him for the morning.
I assume he slunk off to a nice dark place to sleep off his feast.
The next morning, he crested the table top the minute he heard
my coffee mug thump the table. As I’d used my toast to sop
up the egg in my plate, there weren’t many crumbs to offer
him. So I got out another piece of bread, toasted it, and with
my knife, scraped off a cascade of crumbs. As you can see, my
jinjok madness was already getting out of control.
For the jinjok, the snowstorm was manna from heaven. He responded
greedily, devouring twice the amount he had the morning before.
Thus began a routine that went on every sunrise for the next
few weeks. I found him (I assume it was a “him”) fascinating
He was undaunted by size. No matter the proximity of a crumb
— it could be so close he could stick out his tongue and
lap it up — he always went for the biggest piece on the
table, even when it was obvious he’d never get it down in
one gulp. It might be the size of his head. No problem. He’d
rise as high as his front legs would allow and clamp his alligator
mouth bang into the middle of it. He’d then worry it like
a puppy latched onto the corner of a carpet, shaking his head
back and forth furiously until he managed to break off and swallow
a mouth-sized piece. Then he’d attack the remainder of the
chunk, whittling it bit by bit down to a fly speck. Having snapped
that up, he’d move on to the next biggest morsel.
As he scrambled from piece to piece I began to see that Nature
hadn’t built the jinjok for grace and sinuosity. In fact,
he was downright clumsy. A lizard’s nervous system is primitive,
forcing him to move in jerks and starts. His head never makes
a smooth arc, it traverses the distance in three or four quick
He had been my breakfast companion for several weeks when the
inevitable happened: friends got word of the buffet. Or perhaps
it was his relatives. They fought at the drop of a hat —
or the appearance of a crumb — so they could have been either.
They didn’t all appear at once. First there was one, then
two other freeloaders and finally, after a few days, a total of
seven. Within days my eyes had become practiced at discerning
tiny differences in body structure and personality. Some telltale
marks were obvious; one old battler had lost his tail and grown
a new one.
Among the darker ones was one I swore was a female. There was
no way of checking because the little devils were still too quick
for me (still are). She was just lighter on her feet than the
rest and had a more delicately-featured face.
A fawn-colored, fat one, seemed to be old but he held his own
when challenged for a crumb. Yet another ran with a limp, the
souvenir of an ancient fight, no doubt.
The personalities of the others could be determined by watching
them in relation their mates. There was a definite pecking order
and it was no problem to tell which one was at the bottom of the
pile. Size didn’t seem to be the determining factor; one
or two of the smaller ones had the surprising Napoleonic bluster
and feistiness often displayed by short humans.
Though he was in the midst of the pack, I could always spot my
pioneer friend. He was the one who didn’t move if I moved;
the rest of them hadn’t figure out that I was a toothless
tiger and scurried for cover at the slightest disturbance. They
soon cottoned on, of course, and then the fun began.
It quickly became apparent that jinjoks are not communal creatures.
Despite an overabundance of crumbs, each — like a lot of
humans — wanted all or nothing. Thus, the dominant lizard
could be chest-deep in an ocean of crumbs and yet spend all his
time keeping the table clear of competitors. He could be chewing
a mouthful with obvious contentment, but if he spotted a competitor
so much as sticking a foreleg over the edge or poking a head from
behind a sugar jar, he would drop whatever he was eating and dash
off to rout his adversary.
It soon developed into a war of nerves. While he was chasing
an interloper in one direction, another would sneak out and grab
a bite before he was seem. And when he became the pursued, another
would dart in to snatch a crumb. Among the four or five, they
could keep Number One running and in the process clear off a large
expanse of tabletop without his ever getting a bite. In the end,
they would have eaten their fill and gone off to rest before he
got down to doing what he should have concentrated on doing in
the first place: filling his own stomach from a by now much-depleted
Because there was a pecking order and because little jinjoks
grew into bigger jinjoks, there was the occasional challenge for
higher ranking. When that happened, the combatants would square
off for a donnybrook. Normally their bodies and tails lay plump
on the table and their churning legs dragged their weight to their
destination. But for a fight, they went up on all fours, lifting
their bodies clear of the table in an effort to out-height or
strike down on their opponent. At the same time, their tails would
lash back and forth. A wagging dog tail signifies a kindly disposition.
When a jinjok flicks its tail, it means war.
There is much blustering and posturing before fighting actually
breaks out. They hiss and chirp, each trying to intimidate the
other. Only after much energy has been expended will one lunge
to nip his opponent in the leg or head. The furious action ends
when the loser, the victim of a painful bite, heads for home.
Most often, triumph isn’t enough for the winner. Instead,
he follows up his victory by pursuing the hapless one down the
table leg where they can be heard screeching and hollering. Meanwhile,
the spectators use the interlude to slink about and gobble up
everything they can. The winner often returns to an empty victory
I’ve been watching my “family” for five years
now. Maybe not having a television has something to do with it
but I’ve not yet tired of their antics. Most of the originals
have died and been replaced by youngsters who, in perfect emulation
of their ancestors back to the dinosaurs, still fuss and feud
every breakfast time. They show up promptly at the bang of a fork,
even on mornings after I’ve been away and, horror or horrors,
they’ve had to work for their sustenance by catching mosquitoes.
And my friends still think I’m batty. But what a show they
miss every morning.