by Anita Goveas
Marcella met her soulmates on a school-trip to London Zoo, swept along in a gaggle of knee-socked girls and grubby boys to the Reptile House. In the midst of disdainful snakes and over-active lizards, a lime-green bulbous-eyed Waxy Monkey frog stared right back at her. Wise and thoughtful, with luminous skin like pista halva, it could walk in the trees. She thirsted to know more. She asked for books about her-pe-tol-ogy, spelt out carefully with a damp finger. Her father took her every weekend to see the Brazilian blue poison frogs at the Horniman museum, while her younger sister Camila played netball. She studied their delicate toes, while they gazed around with their beady black eyes.
The last present he gave her before he disappeared into the hospital was two African dwarf frogs in a five-gallon tank. Marcella spent her weekend mornings in the library, afternoons watching the air filter bubble, evenings reading under the bed-covers. She learned a new fact every day: they ate brine shrimp, liked to hide under plant-pots, average life span was five years, but some lived up to twenty. Everything had to be perfect for when her father saw them. But he never did.
Hoppy and Sleepy were excellent listeners. She made up stories about them
when Camila was restless, how they saved the world from evil fly supervillains
and too much homework, how they sometimes worked with a dark-haired man
with a strong chin and thick eyebrows.
Uncle Filip helped her write them down on green paper, drew her pictures of lakes and forests. They were one of the few things that made her waning mother smile. She mur-mured about the place she grew up in, Mangalore, and soon the frogs jumped about in rice paddies and saved trees from over-enthusiastic wood-cutters.
Three years later, when Grandpa Bob moved in to help out, he told them stories of their father as a small boy, counting tadpoles in their pond in Manningtree, learning to climb trees. Marcella liked those stories better, but still remembered her amphibious super-heroes. She found all the drawings one day in a cupboard in the kitchen, neatly lined up in a folder labelled ‘Artwork’. They were crumpled and dog-eared and mysteriously streaked.
The frogs had just made it to their seventh birthday the month before she left for University. Marcella wrote down their routine for care and maintenance for Uncle Filip
to follow; he had been the one who helped her the most. Mother insisted on ironing
her jeans. Camila was reading War and Peace, and Grandpa Bob was staring over
The Times at them, his thick eyebrows drawn together.
“Aren’t you taking those things with you to Lancaster?”
Uncle Filip kept writing, but she heard the iron hiss as if pressed too hard, and the
flip of pages stopped. Sleepy hid under a piece of flowerpot, a strategy she admired.
As she got older, the stories about her father changed. Her interest in amphibians grew, and she watched only wildlife documentaries and spent weekends helping at the pet shop where Uncle Filip worked and Grandpa Bob talked more about her father’s interest in chess, in crosswords, in doing his homework. Interests that didn’t involve frogs. He also talked about how sad it was that someone couldn’t follow in her father’s footsteps.
“I’m not sure they’d survive the journey. They’re fragile, Grandpa.” His heavy sigh indicated this wasn’t important.
He always took Camila to her netball games and to her computer club, never went with her and Uncle Filip to the Horniman. Her mother didn’t attend any of the activities the girls did. Marcella never begrudged the time to herself after the busy days at the hospital; now she wondered if she hadn’t wanted to take sides.
“Well, if your mother’s brother flips out again, I’ll be the one who has to flush them down the toilet,” said Grandpa.
The time she’d begged Uncle Filip to come to parent’s evening had been three years ago. She’d not really understood what his Asperger’s meant then, how much it took out of him to be around people. All he’d done was lie down on the floor, but Grandpa Bob had added it to his stories as a lesson. She’d never been sure who the message was for.
There were words that might fix this, but Camila had those. All she could think of was that her version of her father bought those frogs, but he seemed very far away.
“Frogs are important to the ecosystem; it’s all a very delicate balance.”
Grandpa unleashed his contemptuous snort. “And that’s why you’re dumping them on us.”
Uncle Filip slammed down his notebook, marched out, and Marcella watched Hoppy sneak under the flowerpot before she followed. A hum of triumph joined the flip of pages. The faint hint of burning invaded her nostrils, but her mother held the iron mid-air.
After University, Marcella took the first job she was offered.
She settled into American academic life. The worst part was the pressure. The pressure to publish, to obtain funding, made her studies seem different every day. A landslide or a flood was devastating for the people from a region, but could impact flora and fauna for years. The balance between the thoroughness needed to be objective and the speed needed to make sure that the object of the study was something that still existed made her head spin like a centrifuge. Her lab in Wisconsin was better equipped than where she’d done her Master’s, but money wasn’t everything.
The slam of the door meant Tanya had arrived to the lab. Her PhD supervisor was
the noisiest person Marcella had ever met. The sound of her slurping her herbal teas
echoed from the next room. Marcella put down the slide she was about to examine.
Tanya demanded everyone’s full attention.
“Marcie, you’re going to want to listen carefully.” Something supressed ran through her voice like carbon dioxide bubbling through lime water.
“The good news is, I got it, the money came through. I can finish my research in the field! And the better news is I want you to come with me!”
Marcella moved a beaker away from Tanya’s pointing fingers. Marcella straightened out her forceps, the pipette, the box of cover slips, to give herself some time.
“But you’re studying the impact of man-made pollution on rural farming, I’m swabbing frogs for anti-bodies to fungal pathogens. How on earth can your research proposal involve me?”
“Come on, how many times have I heard you give your ‘frogs are bio-indicators speech’? It’s your party piece! Your frogs are going to help find those toxic chemicals we know are out there. And you’ll never guess where we’re going!”
The lab benches seemed to shake; Marcella rubbed the crick in her neck. Tanya smiled with all her teeth, as if she’d already heard the yes.
Two weeks later, Marcella stood in the paved-over garden outside the terraced house. She’d forgotten how small it was. She hadn’t willingly come back since that first and
last row with Grandpa Bob. After her frogs died, it had become easier to spend her weekends in the lab and the holidays in the library. Her mother and Uncle Filip came
to watch her graduate with a First in Biological Sciences. Camila had been on her term abroad in France. Grandpa Bob hadn’t been well enough to travel. Her mother’s smile had been enough. Then, hen Marcella applied for her Master’s, with included a chance for her to take a year abroad in America, she’d needed to work to save up for the fees. Uncle Filip had already mastered Skype to talk to Camila. Marcella’s news never took long to report. And after Grandpa Bob’s funeral happened the same day that the Life Sciences Symposium commenced, there had been even less to say.
The doorbell still played ‘Frere Jacques’, higher pitched than she’d remembered, like the whine a record made before it stopped. She listed all the frog diseases in her head twice before a grey-templed Uncle Filip opened the door.
“I own the shop now,” he said, peering through the sliver of light he’d created.
“That’s great Uncle, I’m really pleased.”
“I bought two Leopard frogs; they’re in a twenty-gallon tank in your old room.”
“It’s ok, I’m not moving back home. Just … can I come in?”
A faint voice asked, “who is it?” Uncle Filip kept the door open at the exact same angle, but turned his head.
“It’s Marcella,” he said, then walked away, leaving the door open.
She followed after him, but the door stuck a little, and he’d vanished when she hurried down the linoleum-covered hallway. Her mother sat in a worn green armchair, squinting at Cosmopolitan.
She’d hadn’t worked out how to say hello and stood in the doorway, hands clenched.
Her mother looked up, pushed at her blue-framed glasses.
“You didn’t phone? No need to upset Filip like that. He missed you, thought you
stopped coming because he didn’t keep your frogs alive.”
“I’d have lost my nerve, you know that. I’ll explain this him.”
Her mother slapped the magazine’s shiny paper with her palm.
Then she stood up and leaned her square chin on Marcella’s shoulder.
“We both missed you. The house is ... quiet.”
Marcella lifted her hands, felt the sharp bones of her mother’s shoulder blades
under her thin turquoise cardigan when she hugged her.
“I should phone more, I know, but I wanted to see you before I went away.
I’m going to Mangalore.”
A wall of heat hit as she stepped out of Mangalore airport. It almost knocked her back. Marcella’s face took on the glow of over-exertion, or embarrassment, and she could feel the ten-hour flight in her shoulders. It was supposed to be cooler in April, but monsoon was on its humid way, and the air was moist and heavy. She searched for the faces she’d memorised from photos and Facebook. She should have asked what they’d wear, how they did their hair. She’d never been to a place where everyone had the same skin colour as her, and she towered over their heads. People waited in erratic groups. Her earlobes sweated. The cool air of her tidy lab in Green Bay seemed distant. A pig-tailed girl appeared in front of her, holding a card saying “Paddock.” Marcella smiled at her gratefully.
“I think that’s me.”
“Come, my daddy’s waiting.”
She pulled Marcella through the intent crowd, which barely moved out of the way. After three sweaty minutes of walking, they reached an oval-shaped car and an angular-shaped man who she’d only seen smiling in two dimensions, her cousin Salvador. She slid into the backseat of the large boxy grey vehicle and the man slammed the door shut. The little girl sidled over to the middle next to her, then put her feet up into the gap between the front seats. A woman with neatly plaited hair turned towards her from the left side. At least they seemed to drive on the side she was used to.
“Marcella, this is my beautiful wife, Lia, and my irrepressible daughter, Alysa. Move over, you’re squashing your auntie enough. We need her fresh for the party.”
“Just ‘Marcella’ is fine, I’m not used to being an auntie. What party?”
“Everyone is auntie here and everyone is waiting to meet you. Welcome to India!”
Marcella tucked her socks back into her hiking boots and placed her sodden hair back up into a bun. Ranipuram peak loomed through mist. Water seemed to have soaked into her eyeballs. But frogs thrived in water, and she had to find her specimens. The agreement between her and Tanya, to examine the native purple frog population for the impact of pollution, had left out the part where someone had to catch them while standing knee-deep in the lime-pickle green Shola woods. Monkeys bounced through the leaves and mosquitoes buzzed up her nose and ears. It was difficult to listen for a tell-tale splash when her neck was dripping into her trousers. She held the handle of the flapping net above her head, the chirp of cicadas mocked her, and the hum of forest noises were resolutely splashless.
Marcella had had enough for one day. She gathered up her bucket and water bottle to head back to the lab again in Karasgod. She was still squeezing out damp bits of water from her when she got there and didn’t notice that Tanya was talking to anyone until
she and the other person abruptly stopped in front of her.
The pale-skinned, thick-necked man was bursting out of a spotted green tie, as if he
was wearing an escaping yellow-spotted lizard. He stalked away on awkwardly long
legs, wrinkling his nose at the trail she’d left.
“Is that someone from the Institute? I thought they were all Indian.”
Tanya had been wining and dining agricultural scientists and research chemists. Farming was essential to the communities that lived along the Western Ghats, and crop failures could devastate whole regions. She’d been reaping the benefits of the local efforts to figure out long-term solutions to changing weather and growing populations.
“No, just another American working round here. You’re not going to drip like that in the lab, right? I don’t want you to mess up my notes.”
The hairs on Marcella’s neck rose, a primal instinct. She walked towards the bath-
room, slapping down her feet slowly and deliberately until Tanya disappeared behind
her computer screen.
Aftwerwards, she walked towards the entrance to check the sign-in sheet, with the man’s name so neatly written it was almost printed; the company’s title, on the other hand, was a blurred scrawl:
‘Jason Thomas, Emerald Mining.’
She tried to ignore it as she ate dinner at her cousin’s house, something her Aunty Valerie’s large eyes tracked as if it were research. Which fish did she take more of, which vegetables did she ignore, how many servings did she take? This was something she did during every meal, for the last nine days. Today’s fried kingfish flaked apart like falling leaves, but Marcella wasn’t craving the spicy crust or the firm meatiness. Instead, she gulped water as if she hadn’t been soaked all day.
“Salvador, she doesn’t like it. Buy some chicken tomorrow.”
“Sorry Aunty, I’m just tired. I’m probably jet-lagged, and I’m still getting used to the lab here. Can I have it for breakfast?”
“There Mumma, relax. She loves it. She wants it for every meal!”
Aunty Valerie dug a sharp elbow in the roundness above Salvador’s right hip, and brought Marcella tiny brown-skinned bananas from the garden. Their perfumed softness seemed flesh-like.
Salvador brought a sliced cheese and white bread sandwich to her room, really Alysa’s room, which was plastered with pink butterfly stickers. Marcella dug her thumbnail into the crust. Green chutney oozed out.
“Are you really tired? You can tell us if you want to eat something else.”
“The food is wonderful! I’ll just have to let all my trousers dry first.”
Marcella couldn’t stop her sigh.
Salvador rubbed his pot-belly and smiled, but didn’t leave. He leant expectantly
against a neon pink wall.
“What is the Emerald mining company?”, Marcella asked.
“Have you seen that bilious billboard? Some American company. They’re trying to buy land to building a school in Madikeri. Obviously, they want something; no one is sure what, though. There used to be hematite mining in the mountains, but it’s been illegal for 10 years or more.”
She drove past a giant green billboard advertising the school on her way back to the forest and frog-hunting the next day. The sign squatted over the dusty red road like
a hooded cobra. As she stood in the woods, Marcella returned to the face of the man which had approached Tanya earlier on in the lab. He had a bland, smooth countenance, only marred by his reaction to seeing her.
The stillness was rippled by a slight splash. A glistening purple frog stared at her, so round and flat it looked like a piece of amethyst with white-tipped feet. She pressed her tongue against her teeth as she lowered her net, not breaking eye contact with the frog.
After unloading the net unto her palm, she cradled the frog, then placed it
in the prepared bucket with a layer of water and mud. The frog didn’t try and
escape; it nestled into the bottom as she covered it with mesh and then hurried
back to the car.
The small and spotless lab was empty when she entered. She gently transferred
her prize into a tank. The frog sank into the sand while Marcella tidied away the rest
of the equipment.
Tanya bustled in. Marcella stood in front of the tank, now hoping not to hear a splash.
“Empty-handed again? Not to worry, Marcie, I think I’ve found a way out of your little problem.”
Marcella focused on the yellowish spot on her supervisor’s lab-coat collar, an escaped drop of green tea. It throbbed in the fluorescent light, a visceral bruise.
“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into networking, thinking about the uses of what we’ve been studying, while you’ve been enjoying yourself in the mountains.” Marcella willed the tea spot to grow tiny webbed fingers and aim for Tanya’s throat. Tanya went on: “A great opportunity has landed in our laps, real money to do real research!”
“I am doing real research, Tanya.”
Her supervisor chewed at her fat slug-like bottom lip.
“Just hear me out; it’s gonna make your life much easier.”
Tanya spread out her hands, as if inviting Marcella to dance.
“There’s this American company trying to get a footing here and they’re looking at ways to get involved in the community. They’d pay us to set up a new lab in Bangalore, study the impact of mining. They’d pay us for that report.”
Marcella’s breath swelled in waves up her throat. She fixed her eyes on Tanya’s, willing herself not to blink.
“You want us to move away from a place where the effects of mining are everywhere, to study the effects of mining? And why would a herpetologist be helpful for that?”
Tanya looked away. Marcella smirked.
“Ok then, you got me. It’s a stupid amount of money, Marcie. For whatever reason, they want to give it to us. It’s the smart move to take it, do what they want, then use the money to do something good somewhere else. Even the frogs are screwed here. This placed is fucked.”
Tanya shuffled out, swung her hand back into her usual slam-the-door position, and hesitated. The tiny click still echoed.
Marcella stayed in the lab that night, so late that even Aunty Valerie gave up on and left dinner on a plate for her. Marcella was up with the neighbour’s vigorous rooster the next day, left behind a sleeping Saturday-lazy household, and even worked through lunch. Salvador found her peering at a microscope slide, a pen stuck behind her ear. Marcella kept rolling her shoulders, as if they were powering the lights. She pushed the slide away and whipped round, her mouth relaxing when he sheepishly waved.
“I know, Aunty Valerie sent you. I’m sorry, I thought I’d be back in an hour. I won’t be long. Save me some lunch.”
“It’s 8pm.” Her body drooped, as if he’d hit the latch of a collapsible table.
“Oh no, is everyone upset with me? This is a horrible insult, isn’t it?”
Salvador’s round face flooded with something intangible, like her mother’s
when Marcella caught her asleep at her father’s desk every night after he
didn’t come back.
“There’s a problem, cousin, isn’t there? Have you made a mistake?” His eyes were suddenly her mother’s, mahogany-brown and warm.
“I’ve been checking to make sure I haven’t made a mistake. This frog seems to be resistant to disease. This would be a huge breakthrough, and I don’t know what to do about it!”
It cascaded out, how a lack of frogs are an indicator of a dying ecosystem, how long she’d been searching in Karasgod, how frogs everywhere, from South America to Australia, were being decimated by fungal pathogens that no one could be sure wouldn’t get worse as the climate warmed, that this frog could be an advance for the environmental science and medicine, and how someone was trying to destroy everything.
“How can I take on a whole mining company? I’m alone now, without Tanya. Who else have they bought in the lab?”
“My very sweet, very English cousin, you’re related to at least half of the neighbourhood and its surroundings; we’ll think of something. You think we haven’t noticed how the quarrying made the floods worse? People lost their animals, sometimes even their houses; no one listened. Now, we can protest about these frogs!”
When Protest Day arrived a week later, it became clear that no one knew what a frog protest should be like. Salvador and a shy cousin at technical college printed off purple frog t-shirts, and several people wore them. Some people sported deely-boppers and carried windmills. Someone painted faces purple, green, yellow, and stripes of red.
There were placards saying, “Save the Ghats,” and, “Hands off the frogs,” and, “Big Business Out”. Someone even dressed as Kermit—top-half nylon frog, bottom-half sensibly dressed in shorts and chappals. What swelled in Marcella’s throat was not
the different ways in which people decided to save the frogs, but that so many people had something to say. It wasn‘t just her, or even Salvador, with Lia dragged alongside him. Her dad would have laughed and ruffled her hair. It was glorious.
There were speeches. A thin, balding man whispered about being forced to sell his farm, and then work for the mining company, a young woman in red plastic glasses and skinny jeans talked about the landslides in Kodagu, a plump man in a frog t-shirt and a lungi shouted about how climate change made the most impact on poorer communities and that’s why no one listened. People cheered after every speaker. The technical cousin filmed everything, and Marcella watched the videos later, on YouTube, in her borrowed bedroom, and afterwards, on the Kannada news channel as well. She turned her phone off after the fourth call from Tanya. She was fixated on the TV screen until Alysa skipped into the room with the house phone. Her mother was talking on the other end.
A crowd waited for Marcella to accompany her to the airport. She decided to ride in Joseph’s (the technical cousin’s) purple Tata Tiago, because it made her smile. He
still communicated with her mostly in nods. She’d used so many words talking to journalists, about Tanya, resigning from college, and while discussing fungal path-
ogens over the phone with Uncle Fillip and in person with Alysa, who’d taken down
all the pink butterflies and replaced them with hand-drawn rainbow coloured frogs.
They drove past the Madikeri school, with operations being completed by a charity. Marcella felt her gut sink as she recognised the thick-necked man from the mining company, the one she wasn’t supposed to know about, talking to a paint-splattered workman. They’d won a small victory. Emerald mining caved to the publicity’s disapproval of their actions, but some of the pollution here was irreversible, and big companies had experience on rewriting the narrative.
Salvador seemed to glow in the airport’s light. She hugged him tightly.
Their foreheads touched.
“You’ll be back, cousin. We have lots of things to do.”
“I’ll be back, cousin. Maybe the University of Bangalore would like a herpetologist.
And Mum definitely needs some time in the place she taught me to love.”
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Little Fiction and mac(ro)mic. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically at @coffeeandpaneer.
Her debut flash collection, ‘Families and other natural disasters’, is available from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com.