Memento Mori VI – Or, The Gecko on the Ceiling

CW: Animal death, decomposition, grotesque imagery, grim humor

Sometime in the night, the tokay gecko had finished a battle mortally wounded, had climbed to one of the most out-of-the-way vertical surfaces in the parking structure, and had perished.

So it was that early Sunday morning, I spotted the mottled grey-and-orange corpse while walking with my family from our condo to our van. I was sixteen and living in Pakkret, just outside of Bangkok, Thailand. The tokay gecko clung to a cement support beam spanning the vast ceiling, on the face overlooking the cars, rather than the side facing the open air over the man-made Nichada Lake. He happened to be situated directly above our assigned spot.

We did not yet realize the lizard was dead—after all, dead things don’t cling to vertical surfaces on their own. We noticed him, figured he was hunting some morning insects, and forgot him in moments.

thailand-geckos-1.jpg
Close-up of green gecko’s toes clinging to glass. Photo sources.

We knew something was amiss when we returned home several hours later. The tokay gecko was still there, in exactly the same spot, firmly adhered to the cement twelve or so feet up. You don’t see tokay geckoes in the daytime—you hear their distinctive calls at night, and sometimes they’ll startle you with their presence as you take an evening walk. For one to be camping out so visibly in the early afternoon daylight was highly unusual. We called out to him to see if he’d move. He didn’t—not even the slightest startled twitch. Something seemed to be awry with his coloring, too: a strange dark stain just visible between his angular head and one shoulder.

When we squinted more closely up at him, we saw he wasn’t breathing.

Tokay geckoes are fascinating creatures. They’re big, for one thing: up to a foot long and chunky. Corporeal. Fleshy. Common house geckoes possess a certain faerie daintiness which tokay geckoes lack entirely. They’re not giant lizards—not komodo dragons or monitor lizards—but when you turn on a porch light in the early morning hours and come face-to-face with a red-speckled gecko the size of a squirrel, you’re well within your rights to yelp and leap back several paces, clutching your chest. Especially since they’re known for being aggressively territorial.

And their coloring is something out of science fiction. Rainforest creatures are famously flamboyant, and that’s all fine and good—but tokay geckoes are something else. They’re grey, but a grey almost iridescent, almost blue-ish, almost green-ish. And scattered across its smooth matte hide are rusty, orangey-red spots. To confuse matters further, the tokay is capable of some chameleon-esque magic, all the better to vanish against tree trunks—but the fact remains that they’re blue-ish-green-ish-grey with amber-orange spots and gigantic yellow eyes, leaving them resembling aliens or dinosaurs much more than parrots or poison dart frogs or even their small leafy-green cousins.

But you hear tokay geckoes more often than you see them. Their name, tokay, comes from multiple Southeast Asian words, all onomatopoeic imitations of the lizard’s distinctive mating call, which comes in two syllables and sounds like a rubber ducky being stepped on. TO-kaaaaaay! TO-kaaaaaay! When living in Thailand in the early-2000s, we had a tokay gecko claim our 9th-floor front porch for his own, and his forceful mating cries interrupted many dinners, movie nights, and evening conversations.

These periodic interjections eventually fade into ambient noise, but even still, a sudden, ill-timed click-click-click-click-click TO-kaaaaaaywill startle you from the edge of sleep or jolt you—infuriatingly—from the cusp of a brilliantly-written sentence.

The tokay gecko dead near the carport ceiling would never sound his mating call again. But our curiosity in his case lingered closer to the grotesque than the melancholic.

For, death notwithstanding, the gecko was firmly attached to his vertical section of the concrete beam, twelve feet above the ground.

There are literal equations designed around explaining gecko toes and how they adhere to vertical surfaces, smooth glass, and even ceilings. The phenomenon vexes scientists and researchers and many others who yearn to put the relevant principles to work in human-oriented inventions. I learned this in adulthood. As a child and adolescent, I’d always assumed geckoes held on tight with their little claws and were able to find sufficient purchase because their diminutive size and weight allowed it somehow.

But of course, if a gecko were simply holding on tight, his grip would fail upon death, would it not? His little muscles would relax. His knuckles would unclench, his claws would retract. He would fall away from the wall or the ceiling or the tree trunk, succumbing at last to gravity as must we all.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down—right?

Not, apparently, for a tokay gecko.

Suddenly, the sight of a large grey-and-orange gecko clinging to the wall above our van shifted from tropical backdrop to disquieting peculiarity.

To say nothing of what was to be done.

Because you can’t very well just leave dead things hanging from the ceiling, can you? It’s just a little bit sinister, isn’t it? A smidge nefarious? Gruesomely irreverent at the very least. Granted, nobody had intentionally placed the gecko there like some necromantic talisman. Nobody had slain the tokay gecko and nailed its corpse above our van as a threat or a boast or a warning. The tokay gecko had simply died there—had retreated to that spot and had expired, naturally, in the aftermath of a battle he’d likely had with another tokay gecko.

It just so happened that geckoes have vexingly effective climbing feet. Thus, it just so happened that this chapter in the circle of life ended with a grey-and-orange corpse stuck to the ceiling above our parking spot like some sort of gruesome ornament.

To get the gecko down would require a ladder. We did not possess such a ladder. I think we all assumed someone else would take care of the situation within a day or so. We left the lizard where he had perished, puzzling over the nature of gecko toes.

No one took care of the situation. I’m unsure whether cultural differences played a part—whether an unknown-to-me superstition about luckiness or unluckiness intersected with Thailand’s beloved mai pen rai approach to life—or whether nobody else noticed the body and nobody in my household made a call to maintenance regarding its removal, or whether it truly and simply wasn’t a big deal regardless of culture and I was just being weird—

Whatever the reason, the fact remains: no one took care of the situation.

And what, exactly, would they have done? Climbed a ladder all the way up there, risking life and limb with nothing to lean against in the open breezeway-style parking garage, and yanked the lolling tokay gecko free from the beam—then what? Attempted to climb down one-handed, with a deceased lizard dangling from the other hand? Dropped the corpse twelve feet onto the cement to thud with monstrous, flippant tragedy?

Once back on solid ground, then what? Toss the gecko into the trash? Seems an awful lot of trouble just to pitch the body in with the rubbish—a ghastly mashup of dignity and disgust. So what? Lob the unfortunate carcass over the railing into Nichada Lake to be eaten by the Mekong giant catfish lurking there? Doesn’t seem a whole lot more civilized than the trash idea. I mean, by the time you’ve committed to tracking down and transporting a ten-foot ladder in Thailand’s heavy humid heat, you’ve crossed into funereal territory, haven’t you? You’ve now involved yourself in the herpetofaunal obsequies. There’s no going back.

But burying the thing—obviously the most inviolate optioninvolves far more planning and orchestration than may be reasonable for a tokay gecko you never knew in life. You’d have to return the ladder from wherever you’d gotten it and request a shovel. Procure a shoebox, perhaps. Find a suitable place to dig a hole—in a tropical biome rife with king cobras and green pit vipers. Anyway, burial isn’t even the modus operandi in Thailand. Cremation is.

Nobody’s about to cremate a tokay gecko.

So—nobody did anything about the gecko on the cement beam. Instead, it remained positioned exactly where it had crossed the great divide, slowly withering, darkening, and filling with ants, which approached and withdrew in long, undulating lines across the ceiling.

Soon after it appeared above our van, the gecko’s neck muscles gave way, and his head dangled backward, destroying any final illusions of life. Perhaps a week later, one of the back feet slipped, and a few days after that, the other back toes released, drooping, shifting the corpse’s full weight to the two front feet. The spine extended, and the shoulders tautened beneath the slipping mottled hide. The head sagged further, threatening to tear away across what was now a visible mortal neck wound.

And still, no one did anything.

Why should they? This was, after all, just nature being nature. If nature had in this case encroached upon human civilization, anyone could easily point out that human civilization had started the business of encroachment. What right had I to complain?

And in truth, I can’t confidently claim that my objections stood on purely dignified grounds. If I am honest, I think my horror rested more firmly in the uncontrollability of the gruesome work of death—morbid in my sensibilities I may be, but I am still a human being. We’ve got a gossamer grasp on the nature of death. And we like to pretend otherwise.

This tokay gecko made pretending just about impossible. Respect would have us hide the remains away from sight. Respect. Not fear, not revulsion, not a need for control. But every way of hiding the corpse would betray some further nuance. Some further horror.

Another week went by before the gecko’s penultimate foot peeled away from the cement.  By this point, dismay had married itself to wonder, and I needed to know just how long the grisly tableau would mar the ceiling before gravity finally prevailed over death. I imagined the tokay gecko’s tiny suction cups (I imagined it was suction cups, like those on an octopus, only infinitesimally small) popping away one by one as the humid air and the ants and the inevitability of time broke the body down.

For days, the shriveled, sagging carcass dangled one-handed from the cement beam. The visual weight demanded resolution. I couldn’t imagine why somebody—somebody taller than me—didn’t swing a broom at the corpse to have done with it. Perhaps everyone was thinking the same thing, and perhaps no one was voicing the thought because perhaps all of us secretly wanted to see how long the barbarous natural phenomenon would last.

And then one day the tokay gecko was gone, with no sign of what had become of him. The disappearance occurred while the van was away from home. When I left for school, the gecko was there. When I returned, he was gone. I never knew anything more.

Life, at last, returned to normal. Death withdrew, parceled itself away beyond attention.

At least, as much as either ever could.


Have you ever seen anything bonkers and horrifying in the natural world? Something that made you ask yourself strange questions and think through odd technicalities? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

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Happy witnessing!

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