New | Short Fiction | Vikram Mervyn | How To Write: Lessons From A Frog, An Elephant, And A Manatee


Artwork by Harshh Kumar


Although you want to write something, you’re good like this. You’ll write anything really—a story so flimsy it may collapse any moment now, a poem that neatly balances on rhyme, a drawing claiming to be writing, an imaginary note about an imaginary elephant, something about a ghost, a phone number, a name (even your own), an illegible to-do list, a grocery list written in shorthand or puns, anything at all—all that’s true about what you desire, but the simple truth is you’re good where you are.

The ceiling fan spins above your head or inside it, and the recurring croaks mark each round the blades take; makes it easier to count. You haven’t done anything to the regulator, but the fan is old enough to spin at the right speed for the right breeze. The breeze smells like old rice. You haven’t eaten rice in two months.

The last time you ate rice you had Double Singapur Noodals because the waiter told you that this sort of noodles was a mix of rice and noodles. You thought you benefited double for just hundred and fifty so that’s what you ordered. When it came to your table you saw that the noodles looked like red hair, so you requested another plate, separated noodles and rice, and ate only the rice.

Remembering that now, you think of all businesses as vultures. They are bald headed thin birds. They feed on the dead. They want you dead. Small businesses are just small vultures which means a sleeker beak. You don’t want to bother your mind with all this. You want to write. You look up at the fan. You meditate on the rounds of the blades. One. Two. Three. Four. Sometimes when you’re sitting on the sofa, you like to pretend that the croaks of the fan are from a frog. You close your eyes. Fluorescent bars, perhaps from the afterglow of  tube light, flash before you as though they’re actually there. That’s  of no concern. You listen intently to the croaks. They are deep, and within them you distinguish smaller crackles, all arranged together giving the illusion of being a continuous rumble, a sort of growl. You wonder if frogs would produce roars if they were as big as lions.

This wondering, you think, this what-if-ing around, that’s my secret juice. You swallow some saliva, pretending it’s the secret juice. Your saliva is thick. It goes down like food rather than drink. This only helps your cause. This is the same as when you hear the click on a lock, or the switch of a button, or the pushdown on the Enter key on your keyboard. It tells you something’s about to happen. When you swallow that lump of saliva, its viscosity helps you know that now you’ve crossed the barrier to a potential world. You can now write. You listen to the clicks within those croaks, bobbing your left ear a few degrees this side. You tell yourself: these croaks are from the mouth of a frog.




You’re right because when you open your eyes, on the wooden stool kept for the wifi-modem, you see a frog. Although the frog isn’t as big as a lion, it’s only slightly smaller than you. Its skin is the color of dry leaves. Its eyes look like murky puddles. You make out a dark slit in that murky puddle. Over its eyes there’s fat glass. You’re barely able to distinguish glass  from its eyes.

“Can I have some water?” The frog says. “I’m very thirsty. I’ll need some for my skin too. Look, I’ve become so dry outside  water.”

“I thought you were amphibious,” you say, smirking.

“Yes, I am. But you seem to have me confused with the Toad, who prefers the land more than  water. That’s not the case with me. I’m a creature of water. Now, if you will please get me some water,” The frog says, coughing on to its webbed hands.

You examine the frog, looking it up and down. You look at its toes curling into themselves. You watch its meandering eyes, staring at you,  from your nose to your mouth to your eyes and back to your nose. It sits weakly, crunching its frail chest. It curves its back into its belly; its arms hug its knees, and its feet barely want to be on the ground. To you, it seems the frog will turn into a ball any moment now.

The frog is right: its skin is very dry as must be its throat, but you find that a small flame of rage from behind your sternum would like beating down on the frog, bullying it, dissecting its desires, imagining all the things it could do with a knife to the frog’s neck, to its eyes, to its soft belly, and to its frail chest.

“I’ll bring you water,” you say. “If you’ll tell me how to write.”

“Sir, please. I’m only a frog. I don’t know how to write,” the frog says, gasping. “I don’t know how I got here but leave that! Here I am! Please, I’ll just need some water! Please bring me some water…”

“How to write?” you ask, looking elsewhere, disinterested, or at least pretending to be. What you want from this refusal of eye-contact is for the frog to know that it has no option but to tell you how to write.

“Alright, alright, alright,” the frog wails. “Let me think. Let me think!”

The frog wipes away its tears with its fingers. You’re reminded of toothpicks when you look at its fingers. Or perhaps knitting, because of the webbed skin in between the fingers, you tell yourself. The frog gasps, holding its stomach, clutching it so that its flesh bulges out like jelly. You observe the frog’s breath growing calmer, slower, like a fan coming to a stop. Its clutch is no longer strong. You see acceptance. The frog looks up at you. You see moisture on the fat glass, and on its face, you see the twitching remains of a strong frown.

“So, sir, if you want to write,” the frog says. “I’d suggest you write about Memories.”

There’s a glint in your eye. You lean towards the frog.

“What do you mean by that?” You say.

“Sir, as a frog, I don’t have a very good Memory,” says the frog. “Of course, perhaps I am not the animal with the worst memory, but mine is pretty bad.  Since Literature’s work is to illuminate us, I suggest you write about Memory. Now, may I please have some water, sir? Please?”

You lift a finger up to the frog’s face: just a minute. You pull out your phone and type into Google “can frogs remember,” and Google says, “learning and memory: certain frogs have been shown to have the ability to learn and remember.”

You cackle.

“Your species has just now shown the ability to remember!” You say, spitting a big lump of saliva on the frog. The lump lands on its right shoulder, and you can tell the frog is relieved from the wetness of the spit. You go to the kitchen, bring a magenta bottle from the fridge, and throw it at the frog. The bottle hits the frog’s eye and falls on the floor. The bottle  pops open and water gurgles out as though bottles have the capacity to burp.

“I want to write about the Coming World,” you say, looking up at the fan. “You won’t understand all this.”

“I don’t remember exactly, but meet the elephant,” the frog says slurping, rolling, and frolicking on the spilt water. “It’s in the balcony.”




Your balcony has many plants. Gardening is a habit you’ve picked up from your aunt. You know your aunt can’t have children, which is why she has plants—a bougainvillea creeper growing over the terrace ledge, a guava tree, a slim neem tree, a young mango tree, a banana tree that rejuvenates every time its chopped, a jasmine creeper at the back, and a lone rose flowerpot.

            Your balcony is small. It can barely accommodate the bougainvillea. Your garden has six money plants, three big snake plants, a bonsai (you’re conflicted whether the bonsai process is cruel or not), and two monsteras.

Your single-plant cactus collection is on the left. The only plant in the collection is a Mexican Snow Ball, which is a succulent. You were told last week by a friend that all cactuses are succulents, but not all succulents are cactuses. You’re reminded of the vultures that businesses are. Leave all that, you tell yourself. Where’s the elephant?

When you look at your cactus collection, you find two plants. The second plant looks like a sea urchin. It’s a maroon ball about the size of a guava. The skin is dry, and miniscule hexagonal patterns repeat, row after row. You could get lost in it if you stared for long. Or perhaps if you held it tight in your hand the patterns will drown you.

How? You don’t know. But you know if you held it, it will drown you, so you only touch it. The skin twitches. You jump back. The ball unravels to expose a trunk as thick as your little finger, four bent legs, and two paper thin ears. Ah! you think, that’s the elephant!

“What do you want?” the elephant says.

“I met the frog, and it said I should meet you if I wanted to write,” you say. You omit the part of the conversation regarding the Coming World and Memory. You don’t want to tarnish whatever the elephant may say.

“What can I offer you?” the elephant says.

“Advice,” you say.

“Advice?” the elephant says. “Look, sir, all I can tell you is this: write only about what is to come. Hope for things or be anxious. Dream, or dread the doom to come, but write only of what is yet to happen.”

The embers behind your sternum come alive, as though someone is blowing on dead coals. Now you have a small flame inside your ribcage. You want everything the elephant has to offer. You won’t spare it until it has exhausted itself.

“I want to write about the past,” you say.

“I remember everything,” says the elephant. “I have been reduced to the size of a mouse because Memory has eaten up the rest of me. Even now, it sits on the cornea of my eye, and on my spine, latched onto my tail, my toes, everything! It slowly nibbles at me and my mind. I would not advise that you bring Memory into your books!”

“That’s exactly what I want to do,” you say. “So, tell me everything you remember.”

“No,” the elephant says. “I don’t wish to bring my state upon anybody else. Look at me. I’m now a statue. I cannot move. I have become the Past, the dead itself. So if you will give me anything at all, even a ray of the Future, of possibility, I will give you a little bit of what I will remember.”

“Tell me the thing you remember first,” you say, smirking.

The elephant’s skin twitches, this time in ripples, as though there is only water beneath its surface. Its ears sway back and forth. The elephant opens its mouth and lets out a pearl. The pearl rolls off the ledge on which your cactus collection lies and falls to the ground with a clink. You squat and pick it up, but the tips of your index finger and thumb sizzle. The skin on your fingers produces a thick, white tower of smoke. The smell from either your fingers or the pearl (you don’t know) is so pungent you begin to cry. At first, a small teardrop rolls off your cheek and falls to the ground. You feel a big mass on your chest, pushing outward, against your sternum, your ribs, your lungs, and your small flame. You feel as though the elephant is standing upon you. The mass flows about your organs, burning everything in its way. You feel your throat churning, and unless you puke you will cry. You open your mouth. A yellow cascade of things fly out and fall on the floor.

When you’re done, you begin to weep anyway. You hold your face in your hands. You let out sounds ranging from whimpers to wails. Your palms and fingers are wet. You feel your knees and calves trembling. Your chest is hollow. You look at the elephant.

“The only possibility available to you is death!” You spit your words.

“Thank you,” the elephant says.

You leave before the elephant can continue.



You want to piss so you go to the toilet. As a child, you were scared that the commode was a shark and that it would bite your bum. Now you know you can sit there safely. Here the air is stale, still smelling of rice, but also of Dettol, detergent, and emptiness. You flush once you’re done, put on your pants and zip up.

“Sir, come towards me,” a voice to your left says. You jump up in a start. You almost fall, but the floor isn’t wet. On your left, a manatee is sleeping. It is big enough to occupy the whole bathroom except for the section where the commode stands; you only have enough space to open the door and piss.

“Who are you?” you ask, fed up by now of creatures jumping at you.

“I am a Manatee,” the manatee says.

“What do you want?” you ask, moving as far away from it as you can. You can feel your heart thumping on your throat and its echoes are heard at the back of your head and behind your ears.

“Nothing, sir,” the manatee says. “I have been hearing all your conversations with the frog and with the elephant, and I understand you want to write?”

“Yes,” you say, since that’s all you’ve wanted, to write anything at all.

“Ah, but I see you’re scared,” the manatee says.

Your forearms are drenched in sweat. Your heart hasn’t sunken back to the chest, it seems stuck in your throat. You attempt to quieten your mind, rid it of any thought, but that’s only making it noisier, louder, the mind grows more pregnant with thoughts. You feel your head bulge and subside, bulge and subside, as though it is the waves on a beach; it pulsates. You look at the manatee.

It’s a large creature. Its skin is blue or turquoise, or something in between; all you know is that it matches the walls of the bathroom. This is perhaps why it wasn’t even noticeable; you think. Its eyes are tiny holes in its head. Small tunnels that lead deep into its mind. The body is segmented at many places, but that’s only the folding of fat. The fat manatee looks like it’s been constructed from playdough, put together by some child… Like this, you articulate what’s in front of you to yourself, you can see the flooding of thoughts subside into a mere stream. The pulsating on your head and behind your ears has become bearable now; it sounds like a distant radio; only a rhythm.

“Leave whether or not you’re scared of me,” says the manatee. “Let’s talk about what you want. You wanted to know how to write?”

“Yes,” you say, still calming yourself, one breath at a time.

“Let me tell you,” the manatee says. “Complex answers are never answers. My answer is simple. Writing is simple. You must simply write. That’s all.”

You find the answer satisfactory. The answer is simple, you think. To write, one must simply write. Unknowingly, a smile grows on your face. Watching you, the manatee moves its whiskers, exposing its grin.

“Ah, I see you’ve understood what I’ve said,” the manatee says. “But, sir, don’t be deceived, the biggest chasm of all is the one between intention and action: what one intends, one doesn’t do. And the digger of this chasm is none other than fear!”

You shut the commode top and sit on it. You hang your head in relief. You sigh, and take a deep breath. This time when you swallow, the saliva is liquid, like sweat. Now you can write if you can handle the fear.

“Let me teach you how to handle fear,” the manatee says. “Just step forward and give me some pats on my head, sir.”

You smirk. You hold a finger to the manatee: just a minute. You google it: “can manatees be dangerous?”

“No, manatees are not dangerous,” says Google.

You sigh and stand up. You put your hand on the manatee’s head, and smile. The skin is cold to the touch. Its hairs prick your fingers lightly, like when you run your hand across a folder full of crisp paper. The manatee grins, pushing its whiskers to either side. You run your hand back and forth in the fashion of petting a dog or a cat, that’s when the manatee flicks its head backwards and snaps off your arm. Blood sprays everywhere. The manatee inches forward towards you, slithering as best as it can. You kick it in the snout, and shut the door on its nose. You run out.

You scream until the air around has dried your throat. You can only flail one arm since the other is spraying blood. Your legs tremble. Somehow, they feel like water or air, or perhaps like light, you don’t think they can support you. You’re on the sofa. Since you can’t trust your legs to hold your weight, you collapse on the sofa. You try not to look at your arm, or the absence of one. You shut your eyes and attempt to listen to the fan blades croak.

The breeze smells of rice. You hear the fan like it’s far away. It is croaking. Is it the frog, you think. No, stop. You count the rounds of the blades anyway. One. Two. Three. Four.




 You open your eyes to the wifi-modem’s lights blinking. The light for the internet is dim, unclear whether there is any internet at all. The fan’s blades spin slowly, croaking. You examine the dust at the edges of the blades. You remind yourself to clean the house. You saunter to the balcony. All six money plants, three big snake plants, a bonsai (what to do now that you’ve bought the bonsai, might as well care for it), and two monsteras are there. The cactus collection holds only one plant: The Mexican Snow Ball. You look out at the streets. The flies about the money plants and the cars moving far away are the same size. When you open the bathroom, your heart’s thumping stops completely, you doubt if you’re dead. You examine the mirror. You clean your left nostril. Below the mirror, there are two toothbrushes, a crushed Colgate tube, and a pink razor. You look at yourself in the mirror and sigh. How to write, you ask yourself. You frown at yourself: congratulations, you have written nothing.




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