top of page
The Stars


By Mahika Mukherjee

     I run my hands over the marble countertop. “It’s pretty,” I say.

     And clearly not in use. The windows are all sealed shut, and there is a thin film of dust in places. This is a house, not a home. 

     “My mom did it up for the most part,” Varun says.

     He cages me from the back, both his hands on my waist. I tense. I’m itching to push him off me. A week ago, I wouldn’t have even been fazed. I would have leant in, to feel his heart thud against me. Because it was Varun of all people: the guy who gets me pistachio ice-cream even though he hates it. Who massages my forehead when I get migraines.

     He pulls me a little closer. “You good?”

     I stare at my feet. “Yeah, why?”

     He hums, chin resting on my head. “You seem to be in a mood since we landed.”

     I manage to turn around with a smile on my face. “When is your gig tomorrow?”

     If he realizes I’m evading the question, he doesn’t mention it. “Noon to seven. I’m kind of nervous,” he laughs. He’s holding me firmer now, palm splayed across my lower back. His fingers tap a beat—probably one of his songs. The inside of my cheek stings from how hard I bite it. I pull his hands away and say with a bright voice, “You’ll be great.”

     He presses his lips to my forehead. “And you should rest tomorrow.”

     I nod. “I’ll do a little reading.”

     He chuckles. “I said ‘rest’.”

     I smile dryly. “Reading is resting.”

     “Not when you do it.”

     “I’ll read for pleasure, dummy.”

     He raises an eyebrow. “So no more gruesome frog papers?”

     I actually laugh at this. “They’re research papers!”

     “It’s vile, what you do to them,” he says with mock-disgust.

     “Oh hush, you.”

     “I’ll get the rest of the stuff in, okay?”

     He walks off unrushed, and my smile fades. He makes it difficult to be mad at him. 


     I am supposed to rest. I want to flip through an Agatha Christie, chase a few beers and go for a walk, like I’ve done for these past few days. 

     “Ma,” I say in between puffs of my cig, adjusting my phone to my ear. “Don’t be nosy.”

     She sounds affronted. “I’m only telling you to be less cold. You both make a lovely couple, is all I’m saying. He’s a good boy.”

     “Then adopt him.”

     “No one talks to their mother like this!”

     I wince. “Don’t scream in my ear.”

     “What is the problem now?”

     “The problem,” I say, gritting my teeth, “is that you both booked a flight and forced me on a trip here without telling me.”

     She sighs. “It was a surprise for you.”

     “I don’t like surprises,” I mutter.

     “You cannot be in charge of everything, Aastha. I hope you didn’t say that to him.”

     “Of course, I didn’t.” I couldn’t turn around and shout at him once he told showed me the tickets. “I was polite.”

     “I doubt it.”


     “This is you we’re talking about. Not one grateful bone in your body. How old are you already? You both should be thinking about settling down seriously.”

     I pause.

     “Why are you bringing that up now?”

     “What do you mean, ‘why?’”

     I shake my head. “Nothing. I don’t want to talk about this.”

     “Yes yes, Miss Independent.”

     “Okay bas, I’m hanging up now. Love you.”

     I take one last drag before putting it out in the sink. Since we came to the villa, this bathroom has become a refuge. 

I do all of the things I do before heading into an experiment: I tie my hair back in a tight bun, disinfect my hands. I don’t have a white coat, so my long jacket will have to do. I have already set up my Observing Station, as I like to call it, which is a camera on a tripod. I really miss my gloves now.

     The amphibian egg sloshes away in the water. I’m only assuming, of course. It has a jelly-like consistency that reminds me of frog eggs. But it’s too large, the size of a golf ball, and I had found it alone, without any other eggs in sight. Not to mention that frogs have been at most, tolerant towards mild salinity: an ocean is a death wish. 

     I had gone to the beach sometime yesterday. It was a holiday after all, however unwelcome, so I decided to take things in stride. Had it been low tide? I don’t quite remember, but the sun threatened to char me darker. Even the sand felt corrosive under my heel. The water was icy, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I was weaving between the foamy waves and the odd seaweed when I felt something even colder touch my foot.

     A twitchy, twitchy egg.

     It twitches now too. I rush to turn the camera on, focus it. The embryo has grown much larger since last time, the head more pronounced. Hell, there are even four webbed feet in there. It prods its head against the egg sack, and finally breaks free, shaking the slime off it and then swimming slow circles in the tub. 

     “This is Record Number 2,” I say behind the camera. “Specimen has hatched. Not sure if the unidentified species is in a transitional state or resembles its adult form. Presence of legs may suggest it is the latter, but we can only know after identification. As for the state of it, it seems to be—wait, it’s trying to get out.”

     I had to fill the tub to the brim to make sure there was enough swimming space but didn’t account this. Its claws look for purchase on the lip. I pause the recording.

     I worry my lip. It’s probably not safe to touch it at all, but I don’t have much of a choice. Before I lose my nerve, I pick it up with a towel. It’s just the right size that I can cup with my hands.

     Its skin is milky, but has that faint sheen of blue—or is it purple? I can’t tell. Its dark eyes sit on me. it’s got a pointy face and front-facing eyes, and what looks like a frill around its neck. I carefully take the edge of the cloth and lift the frill, only to find the pink slit of gills. Whatever it is, it isn’t a frog, that’s for sure.

     It’s still watching me. It doesn’t look like it’s having a tough time out of water, but I put it down just in case, draping the towel on the bottom of the tub so it has something to hold onto. It swims a little only to turn back and wrap its finned tail around my arm. 

     “You ruined my experiment,” I tell it. “There’s no way I can present this now that I’ve contaminated you. Do you know how difficult it was to lug up seawater till here?”

     It blinks its black eyes at me, the eyelids being thin membranes that move sideways.

     “Well, like Professor Shiv always said, I’m better with dead specimens than live ones. What do I do with you? I don’t even know what you are.” 

     It tries to climb up my sleeve, leaving wet tracks. 

     “So you’re fine with air huh. You fascinating thing.”

     I grin, and I swear it tries to grin back. Only I don’t have long rows of sharp teeth. 

     “You’re kind of cute,” I say. “Neel?”

     He cocks his head sideways.

     “Neel it is.”


     If Varun finds two less fish in his fridge, I don’t know where they went.

     I crack open two eggs, whisk till it’s cloudy and pour in the pan.

     “You’re humming.”

     I turn to look at him setting up the table. “Hmm?”

     He shakes his head. “Nothing. It’s just been a while since I heard you sing.”

     I roll my eyes. “Humming isn’t exactly singing…”

     “You still sound lovely though.”

     I huff. “Flirt.”

     “It’s true,” he says, coming at me with that cheeky smile of his. “Don’t you remember? First time I met you, you were—”

     “Croaking during karaoke? I remember.”

     He’s next to me now, his cologne settling around me like a blanket. “I knew I had to speak to you then.”

     I slide the omelette off the pan and into the waiting plate. “Why? Did I offend your musical sensibilities?”

     Laughter is almost on my tongue. But I see one hand of his fidgeting in his pocket. I have a few guesses. Okay, one guess. And I’m not liking my odds.

     The vultures have descended.



     “There is an animal in the spare bathroom.”

     He takes his hand out—empty, thank god—and plants it on the counter. “Wait. You mean the one in my parents’ bedroom?”

     I nod. “Yes. The tiles are lovely, by the way.”

     “Let’s get rid of it then.”


     “What do you mean no?”

     “He’s mine. I got him from the beach.”

     This is an expression I’ve never seen on him before. I’m waiting for him to say something, anything.

     “You went to the beach without me?”


     I don’t really like inflatable pools, but it will have to do. 

     The water laps at my shoulders while the plastic slightly sags under the weight of my head. My braid looks like a snake in the water: Neel keeps playing with the end tuft, settled on my chest. I wiggle it around, keeping it just out of his reach. 

     “Who’s bamboozled huh? You’re bamboozled!” I coo. 

     He headbutts my hand. He’s the size of a baby now, much larger than he was two days ago. 

     “It’s a little ugly.”

     I take my shades off to look at Varun through the mesh screen. The sheer audacity. “Don’t be rude to Neel. He’s basically a water puppy. Isn’t that right baby?”

     Neel chirps in what sounds like exclamation marks. 

     He opens the screen to the balcony, standing right over me. I almost have to look at him upside down. “A water puppy?”

     “Stop repeating me.”

     “You just sound a little juvenile.”

     I roll my eyes.

     “I can’t believe you’ve picked up a…” he clears his throat. “Anyway, it could be dangerous.”

     “I’ve got the situation handled.”

     “Have you? Maybe you should take it to a professional.”

     “I am a professional.”

     “You know what I mean,” he says.

     “Not really.”

     “Oh, stop being so flippant,” he snaps. “I know I’m not the expert here, but you’re being irresponsible.”

     “Oh no, you love being responsible, don’t you.”

     “At least I’m not hiding behind my sarcasm.”

     “And at least I don’t hide behind my girlfriend’s mother. You’re gonna marry me with that attitude?”

     He stills. “I think you may be misunderstanding something,” he says in a cool tone.

     This slimy ass. “I found the ring when we were packing to come here.”

     “It could have been a ring for my sister.”

     “Your sister? The five-year-old?”

     “She’s sixteen.”

     “Definitely diamond worthy.”

     “I can’t believe we’re arguing over this. What do you even want me to say, Aastha? Yes, the ring was for you. I care about you. You always knew that.”

     My eyes turn to slits. “Not enough to respect my opinion. I’m not getting married. Not now, not ever.”

     Varun tries to step closer.

     Neel hisses, frill raised. The edges of the frill are magenta, so he looks like a very violent flower. Something warm blooms in my chest.

     Varun smoothens out his forehead. “We’ll talk later.”

     I close my eyes. Truth be told, I’m tired. I’m so tired that I would sink, not float if I were in open water.

     “I wish I could float away.”

     Neel tentatively walks over my chest, then snuggles in the crook of my neck. He rumbles against me.

     “You want me to stay with you?”

     Another rumble. 

     We’ll do just that then.


     “Get in the car.”

     He looks stern. I’m not used to this. I’m used to him being soft, pliant.

     I sigh. “Fine.”

     “Bring that thing with you too.”

     Should I bite him? Would it bring even a molecule of satisfaction? 

     Looking out of the window doesn’t really help. He’s cornered me.

     “You know,” he says, looking straight ahead, “I love you.”

     The seatbelt presses against my sternum. 

     “I love you, and I wanted to see if you saw me in your future.”

     My mouth runs dry. “Varun…”

     He gives a self-deprecating laugh. “Now I know that’s not the case. I’m sorry if you feel like I went behind your back, but I just wanted to surprise you. Your mom doesn’t know about this.”

     I nod again. It’s all I can do, really. “It’s,” my voice cracks. “It’s simply that you knew marriage was never something I wanted. I told you. On more than one occasion. I wish you had at least asked about it.”

     “I’ve never understood that actually.”

     I sniffle my nose. “You may think this is childish, but I can’t. It doesn’t matter how much I love you. It’s too much for me.” There is nothing really lonely about solitude. “I want nothing, nobody tying me down.”

     He clenches his jaw. “Is that how you see me? a weight on your neck?”

     “Then you tell me, Varun.”

     He finally meets my eye. 

     “What do you see when you look at me?”

     His eyes flit away. “I don’t know anymore.”


     The waves are rougher than last time, foamy and gray. Probably high tide. 

     Varun nods to me. “You know what to do.”

     I clutch Neel tighter. He’s wiggling in my arms, excited by the water. “Why are we here?”

     “You’ll have to let it go.”



     “You can pry him off my dead body.”

     “Think rationally for once. What happens once we go home?” he asks.


     “How will you look after it?” he says, voice softening. “You don’t even know what it is. We’re not staying here forever, Aastha. Would you rather leave it now than later?”

     “Have you not been listening to me? I’ll take him with me.” 

     Neel is gnawing at my shirt buttons, clearly agitated. As much as I hate to admit it, Varun may have a point. Who am I to play God with this vulnerable creature’s life? The very thing that has shown me nothing but trust? If I hadn’t found him in the first place, he would have been born with the ocean as a mother, not me. he would have struggled, he would have been feral, and most important of all, he would have been free.

     My eyes are burning. I’m sure it’s just the sand, except Varun’s soft hand brushes something off my cheek.

     “You always cry when you’re angry.”

     I tilt my chin up, my jaw set.

     “I know you care for him. But you have to do the right thing.”

     “That’s not fair,” I say, keeping my voice level. 

     “Neither are you.”

     I move to brush Varun off me, and Neel manages to slip between my arms. 


     A puff of sand rises below him, which startles him so much he keeps pouncing on it, closer and closer to the shore. The first wave crashes into him and he disappears.

     “Shitshitshit,” I mutter, frozen.

     His head surfaces, bobbing with the water. I can hear his high-pitched chirp, legs fluttering at the sight of me. He’s circling in one spot. “Cra!”

     I’m crying for real now, hot streaks down my cheeks. 

     Neel cocks his head, clearly not understanding my silence. “Crr?” He dips away from view only to get closer.

     Varun holds me by the elbow. “It’s for the best.”

     I don’t answer, eyes fixed at the horizon. 

     “Let’s go back, okay? Let’s go home.”



     His hair flutters in the breeze. I brush a stray strand back. “I do care for you.”

     My throat hurts. His eyes widen, a smile tugs at his lips. “That’s good to know.”

     I bring his hand to my mouth. It’s not even a kiss, really. I simply press my lips down, the way he does.

     “Which is why I’m sorry.”

     His eyes knit in confusion. “What?”

     I rip away from him. The sand resists under my feet, but I push back harder, my calves twinging with what feels like a possible cramp. Running into water is not easy. It slows you down. But Neel is shrieking with joy. Sinking or floating is not an option. 

     I dive.

Mahika Mukherjee (20 years old, India) is not a reader or a writer, but a secret third thing. She would tell you, but it is a secret after all. She ignores her Biology textbooks and crochets in her free time. You can read her musings at, and her evolution blog at

bottom of page