Bitter Tongue

very loosely adapted from a Sumatran folk tale**

by James Penha

Serunting loved durian, that native Sumatra fruit resembling a cannonball-size hand grenade and smelling, to non-Asian noses ignorant of its pleasures, like fetid garbage. Ripe durian demonstrates just how much beauty resides in the nose of the beholder. The fruit’s redolence is the promise of a rich and creamy interior, a delicacy as thrilling to Southeast Asians as is a chocolate soufflé to the most demanding Western gourmet. Natives living around Lake Ranau, on the border of South Sumatra and Lampung provinces, await durian season with the level of expectation American children feel for summer or Christmas.

It was durian season in the second decade of the last century when young Serunting awoke early in his little shack in the forest, gathered around himself the sarong in which he had been sleeping, and made his barefoot way through the jungle to the grove of durian trees that surrounded the cemetery near the lake. Most of Serunting’s friends still believed the story passed down to them from their elders: Anyone who tried to pick a durian from the graveyard trees would find in their hands not fruit, but the bloody head of one of the cemetery’s residents. Serunting suspected that the legend was the community’s way to prevent mischievous youngsters from climbing the trees and plucking the best of the durians for themselves. As he approached the cemetery at first light, he was more wary of living bodies that might catch and beat him for his trespassing than he was of the dead. But Serunting had a special gift for vigilance: He had been born with an additional pair of eyes in the back of his head. To avoid being labeled a freak, he had perfected a way to comb his straight black hair to camouflage the extra eyes without blinding them.

Serunting, amidst the durian trees, inhaled deeply the overwhelming aroma of the bountiful fruit. He looked up, with his front eyes, and located the durian most ripe and ready to fall with a good shaking of its branches. He untied and dropped his sarong to climb, without hindrance, to those branches but halted as he was about to clasp the tree trunk. Someone was approaching him from behind. Serunting quickly hid himself on the other side of the tree, but neglected to grab his sarong. Peeking from behind the tree, Serunting saw that the interloper was no threat, but only a competitor for the best durian.

“Aria Tebing,” said Serunting walking up to meet his old schoolmate. “Are you lusting for durian too?”

Aria Tebing gazed languorously at Serunting’s naked form. “I am lusting…for you,” he said and dropped his own sarong.

The two had been sometime lovers in high school, but their antonymous personalities seemed ever to interfere with their maintaining a permanent relationship. Serunting wearied of Aria Tebing’s self-absorption, and he knew Aria Tebing considered him a weakling, frustratingly unassertive. Yet, as was obvious, the young men still cared for each other. Serunting approached Aria Tebing and kissed him on the lips. He knew better than to try to insert his tongue into friend’s mouth.

* * *

“No tongue!” Aria Tebing had shouted, pulling away from Serunting when they first kissed in a corner of the schoolyard two years earlier.

“S-s-sorry,” stuttered Serunting. He squatted on his haunches in the turf of the schoolyard, his head bowed.

“Don’t get so low down.” Aria Tebing took Serunting’s hands, raised him up, and kissed him hard on the lips. “My tongue is very bitter.” Serunting laughed. “I’m not joking.”

“No, I’m laughing because a lot of the kids call you ‘Bitter Tongue.’ They say your words are often that nasty.”

Aria Tebing laughed too. “And they are right to talk about me that way.” He paused and looked at Serunting, wondering if he could trust him. “Not only words spew poisonously from my bitter tongue…”

Serunting cocked his head and furrowed his brow.

“I shall explain later,” Aria Tebing replied, “after we really get to know each other.”

On their way home from school, the boys made themselves comfortable high in a banyan tree on a bed of twigs and leaves constructed by some passing orangutan. But the creaking of the branches scared Serunting. “What if the limbs collapse and we fall?”

“I can prevent that,” said Aria Tebing. “Tree, be stone,” he chanted and then stuck out his tongue.

The creaking stopped. “That is the bitter power of my tongue. It can turn anything into stone. And so now that we are safe here, you can relax, Ting.” Serunting was trembling even though the bed was now secure. “I do have another power, a sweet one,” Aria Tebing said as he entered Serunting. “I can turn those I love into…jelly.”

With the eyes in the back of his head, Serunting watched Aria Tebing move. Firmly. Tenderly. The panorama excited him. Later, when he had turned into the embrace of Aria Tebing, Serunting was tempted to tell him what he had seen and how he had seen it. After all, hadn’t Aria Tebing trusted him to know his own magic power? But there was nothing ugly about a bitter tongue, Serunting thought, whereas those two extra sockets sunk into his skull would repulse his new lover! No, there was no need, really, to reveal his secret to Aria Tebing.”

* * *

“Not now, Ting. Let us fulfill our other passion first.” Aria Tebing pointed to the waiting durians above them.

“You aren’t afraid of the bloody heads of corpses?” Serunting asked.

“I am not afraid of anything,” his friend replied.

Without warning, Serunting violently tackled Aria Tebing, pushing him more than a meter from where they had stood, until they both toppled to the ground.

“What are…?” yelled an angry Aria Tebing, his tongue hanging from his mouth as he grabbed Serunting in a headlock.

“Wait, Bing,” Serunting choked out. “Look back there. Let me go.”

Aria Tebing saw that a huge durian had fallen right where he had been standing. Serunting had saved him from a nasty headache. “How did you know it was going to fall, Ting?”

In fact Serunting had seen, with his rear vision, the durian begin its descent. But even after all the ups and downs of their relationship, Serunting could not bear to tell Aria Tebing this truth. “I heard it falling.”

“You heard it?”

“Yes, it rustled the leaves just below.”

“And you took that as a warning that it was falling?”

“Well, Bing, you know me. I…I was afraid it was falling…and so I reacted.”

“I do know you very well, Ting. And I find it hard to believe your hearing is that good.”

“But there’s the durian. What other proof do you need?”

“A test. I challenge you to a durian-hearing contest. But first, let us enjoy the fruit that almost clobbered me.”

The durian’s fall had cracked its external armor enough for Aria Tebing’s hands to slip within the fruit and rip its shell in two. Each boy took a hemisphere and sucked madly on every section of the ambrosial pulp within. Dizzy from riches so quickly devoured, they lay back. But their hands, dripping with the sap of durian, soon found each other’s naked body, and they dizzied themselves with lovemaking until, satiated, they slept.

Serunting opened his eyes before Aria Tebing awoke. Although the sun had long since risen, he saw no other living people in the graveyard. He crawled the short distance to where Aria Tebing was snoring and sniffed at his exhalations. There was no bitterness. He licked Aria Tebing’s lips. There was no bitterness. Serunting made to slip his tongue inside Aria Tebing’s mouth, but thought better of it. Aria Tebing opened his eyes and whispered, “It is good to have you close to me again, Ting.”

“I think we need to go before someone comes.”

“I’m not worried. The amazing ears of Serunting will hear anyone approaching long before they can threaten us.”

Serunting smiled sheepishly.

“And that reminds me,” said Aria Tebing, “we cannot leave now. There is a contest scheduled to determine which of us can better hear the fall of a durian.”

“No, Bing. I have no special power. I just know my durians.”

“We shall see. Who knows? Maybe you will learn that you do have a gift you never before recognized!”

Dares and challenges—all of which Aria Tebing had to win! These endless, needless competitions had led Serunting to give up on his friend many times before. But still in the afterglow of their passion, Serunting listened to Aria Tebing set forth the rules of the game.

“You lie facedown there, right under that same branch still heavy with ripe durians. I’ll climb the tree and, without warning, you shake the branch just enough to loosen a durian or two—”

“Or three. Or four!” Serunting whined.

“Maybe. Maybe. But if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the durians falling, right? Then—and only then—get up and run away before you get bashed.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“No, Ting, this will prove to me you have balls as big as mine. And after your turn, we shall switch roles.”

“Yes, if I survive.”

“Yes,” Aria Tebing laughed.

Serunting was confident he could pass this test, not because of his hearing or his courage, but because he would be able to see when the first fruit began to fall. He lay down under the great tree. As his friend climbed the tree, Serunting shook his hair out of the eyes on the back of his head. Aria Tebing noiselessly climbed past the ripe fruit on the lower branches way up to the top of the tree. Instead of shaking a limb, he found a big durian near the trunk and twisted its stem until it separated from the branch. Aiming through a clearing among the leaves, he fired the fruit directly toward his friend’s back. It would hurt Serunting, Aria Tebing knew, but it would not kill him.

Serunting saw it all. And so as soon as Aria Tebing threw the durian, his human target clambered up and away from the tree. The durian dug itself into the ground Serunting had just vacated.

“How did you hear that?” Aria Tebing yelled as he returned to the ground. “It didn’t rustle any leaves.”

“I heard you grunt,” lied Serunting.

“You did not.”

“I know that sound. It’s the same noise you make when you come.”

Aria Tebing laughed. “Yes, that is possible, I guess.”

“I win, Bing.”

“Not yet. I’m going for the tie.”

“It’s not necessary.”

“You climb up the tree, Ting. I’m laying down just where you did.”

“Okay. Okay. But I’m playing by the rules. Your original rules. I’ll shake the branch of ripe durians. You listen for the rustle of the leaves. Once you hear the durian falling, get out of the way.”

But Aria Tebing had no intention of listening for a faint ripple of leaves since his hearing was not nearly as acute as Serunting had demonstrated his to be. Nor was he about to embarrass himself by escaping too quickly. Or at all. He knew exactly how long—47 seconds—it had taken him to climb to the branch of ripe durians. Adding a few seconds to account for Serunting’s lack of athleticism, Aria Tebing would count to fifty and then turn the branch and all its fruit to stone. Serunting would be unable even to shake the branch and so fail this part of the game miserably. If Aria Tebing’s timing was perfect, he smiled, Serunting’s attempt to shake a suddenly petrified tree might jar him into losing his balance enough to slide back down the tree trunk into the soft turf just below Aria Tebing’s feet. It would hurt Serunting a little, but it wouldn’t kill him.

However, Aria Tebing’s count was far from perfect. By the time he chanted, “Branch and durians, turn to stone,” Serunting had already shaken loose a large ripe durian. It calcified as it plunged and crushed Aria Tebing’s skull when it landed.

Serunting sped from the tree and placed his friend’s bloody head in his lap. Aria Tebing was dead, and Serunting bent over and kissed his lips forcefully as if this were a fairy tale in which love conquers even death. But this was no fairy tale. Serunting’s own tongue finally found his lover’s, and, indeed, it was bitter.


***There are various versions of the folktale, some far more complex than mine, some far less. Sometimes called “Si Pahit Lidah” (Bitter Tongue) and sometimes “Si Pahit Lidah dan Empat Mata” (Bitter Tongue and Four Eyes), they emanate variously from the neighboring provinces of Lampung, South Sumatra, and Jambi on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

None of the original tellings of this legend, nor any Indonesian folk tale of which I am aware, has gay characters. The sexual orientation of the characters in this version is my invention. The various cultures of these islands are sometimes naive, sometimes censorious, and sometimes quite tolerant regarding LGBT people. My reworking of the tale is intended to praise the possibilities inherent in the traditions of the archipelago.


BIO: A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors’ Choice Award. Penha edits TheNewVerseNews, an online journal of current-events poetry. You can find him on Twitter: JamesPenha.