By Ted Serafin
Aged 55, Professor Lim was experiencing his first bewildering bout of fame. He owed it all to the creature he'd discovered and dubbed, rather unimaginatively, the Singaporean charcoal frog.
Lim sat facing his 10th news interview of the week, eyes crinkled under the stark studio lights. He waited for the news anchor to finish the preamble — the humble ecologist turned local hero — so he could recount the story of the discovery again.
"Well, for years, I've puttered around the forests —"
"Were these scientific studies funded by the university?" asked the interviewer. Her teeth were impossibly white.
Don't stare at her legs, Lim thought. His wife might watch the interview. She hadn't watched any of the others. But maybe this one. You never knew.
"No, no funding," Lim said. "Pottering around outside has always been my hobby. A few months ago I was hiking around the forest near Upper Pierce Reservoir, and I heard this buzzing."
"The bees," prompted the interviewer.
"Yes, it was a beehive. A tree branch had fallen onto it during the rain, and I could see inside. Now I couldn't get too close, but —"
"But you had your camera." The interviewer seemed to feel if she didn't speak every few seconds, viewers would lose interest.
"That's right," said Lim. "So I zoomed in, not expecting to spot anything. But I saw something strange: this tiny black silhouette."
He'd told the story so often by now that he rattled off the rest on autopilot. He couldn't be sure what the speck was, so he had lit a handful of cigarettes. Dangerous in a forest, yes, but it was the only way he could calm the bees. Without the smoke, they would have raised up and, flaring like a like a living cloud, fallen on him with their stingers. He did not fancy dying of kidney failure in the prime of his career.
Nervous? Of course he had been. But Lim had an instinct that this dark, pearlescent shadow was something unusual. He plucked the black thing out with a pair of tongs he'd brought, and saw a frog staring back at him. But what was it doing in the nest?
He took the frog to his research lab — newly constructed by the university — and returned to the site some days later. The hive was still there, the bees busily rebuilding. Armed with a protective suit he peered into it again. Another frog had taken its place. This time he set up a camera to record the hive. A few weeks of recordings was enough to astound the world with a new species and its behaviour.
"So the frog and the bees, they have a symbiotic relationship?" asked the interviewer.
"Correct. The charcoal frog roams around the hive, eating any ants or critters that might harm the hive. In return they leave the frog alone. They even allow the frog to eat some of their honey." It was nothing short of remarkable, a hidden marvel of nature.
Only after the furore died down did Lim have time to think about publishing a paper. Always more confident on the page than in real life, Lim poured himself into his writing. Prowling his study, he rejected many a research title before finding one that he liked. "A Match Made in Heaven: Singapore's Smallest New Indicator Species." This frog, he argued, wasn't just an example of a loving relationship between two animals. It was a creature that could perfectly reflect the health of its environment.
"In an age of perilous ecological fragility, 'indicator species' like these are vital," he wrote. "Changes in their health or behaviour act as early warning signs of disturbance in the entire ecosystem." A long list of examples followed: lichens that wilted if heavy metals leaked into the water. Peregrine falcons that laid eggs with thinner eggshells when exposed to DDT. If these indicator species started to die off, experts could be sure that the surrounding environment would suffer.
His phone buzzed as he was writing his conclusion. Lim read the text from his wife: Staying out late. Drinks with the girls.
Okay darling, he wrote. What time are you back?
No problem. Have fun.
Thinking, he added a frog emoji. (His students, fizzing with pride at Lim's discovery, had shown him there was a menagerie of animal icons hidden on his phone.) No reply.
He got up to brew some tea. Halfway to the kitchen he turned back to the study and added a kiss emoji. After he'd finished his tea he checked the phone again. Still no reply. He adjusted his glasses, and went back to his paper.
Shortly after his paper was published, a pleasant surprise came. Lim was invited to a highly regarded ecology conference in Italy. He'd be staying in a lovely little town perched on the Mediterranean. Lim asked his wife if she wanted to join him.
"Darling I'm sorry, but I can't," she said, making a moue of disappointment with her lips.
"But I haven't told you when it is yet."
"When is it?"
"Two months from now," Lim said. "The 15th."
It transpired, after his wife quickly explained, that she'd already known she was busy all through the coming months. It made sense to Lim. Her work as a copyright lawyer stole much of her time. Strange, though. She was always complaining that she needed a holiday.
It was while on the trip, sipping a tart negroni with his back to the painfully blue sea, that he noticed something. He was scrolling through the phone, too shy to speak to the other attendees. By frowning at the screen and sipping manfully, he thought he might look interesting enough to approach. Somehow he rarely was.
Idly Lim scrolled to the very first messages between him and his wife.
He had met her nine years ago. It had been a party much like this, cocktails with a view. The trio of pillars at Marina Bay Sands had just opened and Lim, never a fan of heights, made the mistake of peeking over the edge. He stumbled back into her and, perhaps because she was so radiant, he felt no nerves. Blinking in the cloud of her rose-hip perfume, it didn't matter what he said — she would always be out of his league.
It turned out she liked him. Liked his thin wrists, his shy eyes. His stuttering monologue about the wildlife you could still uncover in Marina Bay. She said later she fell for his passion. The way those shy eyes suddenly glowed when he described monitor lizards and otters and myna birds. Somehow they swapped numbers, leading to the first message between them: a photo of a myna she'd snapped on her balcony.
A beauty! she had written.
Can I see you again? he replied.
If you play your cards right.
Lost in nostalgia now, with the glass of negroni sweating in one hand and his phone in the other, he noticed the pattern. It was right there in their messages, he just hadn't seen it. Up until last year, they'd texted at an equal rate, left side of the chat screen batting a message to the right. Warm volleys, back and forth. Only in the last year had his messages started stacking up on the right side of the screen, rarely answered.
Neck cricked towards the screen he started doing the maths, counting each of her messages to him. He guessed that he now sent roughly four texts for every one of hers.
On the long flight back to Singapore, the cheap polyester fabric of the seat tickling his neck, he couldn't stop paranoia from tickling his throat. Years of cataloguing wildlife numbers made him want to give shape to his thoughts. He took out his laptop and opened a spreadsheet document. Just to play around, he told himself. He gave the file an innocuous name in case anyone came across it: R.E.I.S. It seemed safer than typing Relationship Ecosystem Impact Study.
Index fingers chop-sticking at the keys (he'd never learned to type), Lim built a database. Over the next few days he would add to it with increasing dismay.
The first field of variables was their average number of texts per day. Other fields quickly sprang up: 'handholding rate,' 'kiss rate' (graded from 'cheek-only' to 'clear tongue engagement'), 'handholding duration,' 'sex initiation ratio,' 'laughter rate,' 'average daily interaction (non-sexual),' 'average weekly interaction (sexual).' All yielded laughable outcomes.
Yet it was only when he looked at one field, 'nights apart' that something lodged in his gut. In the past few months they had spent, on average, only three evenings together a week.
It was a Thursday night, a few months after Lim returned from the Italian conference. She was bright and cheery (he made a mental note to add 'two-second kiss, no tongue' to the database entry). He asked if they should go out to dinner.
"Can't. New meditation series I've signed up for," she said, unrolling a neon green top over her torso. He wondered if he should create a field for 'breast sightings.'
"What kind of class?" Slug-like he clung to the doorframe, watching her quick, fluid movements as she dressed. He loved her in motion; had always thought she moved like a ballerina. He'd told her so in one of his early texts.
"Gong meditation," she said. The newest trend. The teacher would send waves of sound over the class. Supposedly this sent you into a healing state. Lim, inoculated by a lifetime of academia against what he called 'millennial woo woo' tried not to roll his eyes. Instead he had an idea.
"I'll go with you."
His feet cold against the slick concrete, Lim took in the studio. The room was trying much too hard to feel like some kind of womb. Earth-tone rugs draped the walls. Floor lights cast a soft pink haze in each corner. A steamer puffed some kind of essential oil into the air. It was irritating his eyes.
In the centre of the room, three copper gongs hung like fat moons. After some deep breathing exercises, the class was encouraged to lay down on their yoga mats. His knees ticking in protest, Lim wondered what he was doing here. To spend time with his wife, or to catch her ogling the instructor? But the instructor was a stout, silver-haired woman who, Lim noticed when she waved hello, boasted proudly unshaven armpits.
"As I start making the gongs sing, you may feel various sensations," the woman murmured. "Vibrations down the arm. Tingling in the heart. Deep emotions welling up. The need to urinate. It's all part of the healing process."
Lim thought it sounded like a heart attack they'd paid 180 dollars for, but said nothing. He closed his eyes. Rather than striking the first gong, it sounded like the instructor was scraping its rim. A low rusty sound prowled the room. It gave Lim the feeling he was being pursued. Luckily, it was a quick opening number before the proper percussion. Lim was grudgingly impressed by how varied the sounds were, practically a symphony. Some gong strikes sounded like a yawning giant. Some like the echo of a hailstorm. Lim wondered what the nearby wildlife made of this. Was there a charcoal frog in a nearby forest who thought it was a mating cry?
Sound waves tingling down his neck, he felt himself unclench. Lim was almost asleep when an insistent rattle tugged at his left ear. He cracked open an eye to see a vibrating phone. It belonged to the young man next to him, his tattooed arm coiled with muscles. As Lim glared, a gargling snore escaped from the man. Anger flared up in him. Anger that he had tamped down for weeks as his goddamn database grew like a tumour, feeding on his pain. He tried to ignore it, but now the phone's unceasing rattle seemed louder than the gongs.
Finally it stopped. Lim breathed out. Then it started again.
Lim snaked his left arm out in the gloom, hunting for the phone. His hand found it. He had just declined the call when the young man reached out for Lim's wrist.
"What," said the man, "in the hell do you think you're doing?"
As he drove them home, Lim could feel his wife's rage radiating off her like a cold thing. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
"Sorry?" she said with controlled fury. "You threw Keith's phone at him. You spat in his face and attacked him with your yoga mat."
"I know," he sighed. "I know."
"It's only because I work with the guy that I was able to stop him pressing charges. Can you imagine the field day my office is going to have?"
Lim had stopped listening after her first words. "Wait. You know him?"
Ten days later they began separation proceedings.
He told nobody at work about what happened. The charcoal frog became more than an intellectual curiosity. Now it was a salve that kept thoughts of Keith the meditator at bay. Yes, she had known him, for just over a year. He made her very happy. They were moving to Bali.
Dwarfed by its new home, a roomy lab terrarium, the frog clung to a twig like a living shadow. After spirited voting by his research team, the creature was named Kopi. Just like a local coffee, the honey-eating frog was dark and sweet. Sometimes it let out a croak that sounded like a small coin dropped in a puddle.
Lim and his team were on the 10th site visit when it happened.
The tree where Lim found the original beehive had been struck by lightning, obliterating the only other charcoal frog recorded. Again and again they had scoured the forest for any of Kopi's brethren, but found nothing. Could it be that this curious species only lived in the warm hum of a beehive? And yet they had to mate and breed and nest somewhere else. Clambering into a ditch filled with leaf litter, a colleague grumbled that finding another black, pea-sized frog could take years. Lim didn't mind. Years of diversion would be welcome.
"Help," said a strangled voice. It was so quiet and high that Lim thought a child had joined them. "Help, Professor."
Lim looked back at the colleague. Putri, a quiet girl who Lim had hired just last year.
"Putri?" Lim crouched at the top of the ditch. "Are you okay?" He started to clamber down.
"Don't. Don't move please." Putri's moved only her lips. Her eyes ticked downwards at the object in front of her, and Lim's followed.
At first he thought it was an oil barrel, but it was too smooth for that. Then he saw the rusted head, jutting up like a shark, and realised what it was.
Lim felt oddly calm when he made the call to the police. When the bomb squad arrived, they determined it was safe for Putri to gently clamber away from the device. Not like they could have said anything else, Lim thought. His team were ordered home. The next morning he learned the details. Flicking on the TV, he saw the same news anchor who'd interviewed him — had it only been a few months ago? — giving stern updates.
"Explosive news now as the Police Department reveal they have discovered a 400-kilo bomb in the forest," she said smoothly. "Though the device is too rusted to make analysis certain, experts believe it was dropped by a Japanese bomber plane during the 1942 invasion of Singapore. It lay unexploded and undiscovered until yesterday, when a team of wildlife researchers stumbled across it."
Lim wondered how the defusing would work. He vaguely remembered a movie about a bomb disposal expert who used liquid nitrogen to 'freeze' the bomb, allowing it to be carted off like a sleeping child. Or, would they open the guts of the thing and cut some wires. Did bombs from back then even have wires?
As if answering his question, the news anchor cut into his reverie.
"— and the weight of the bomb, coupled with unstable muddy conditions, means it cannot be transported without risk of a catastrophic accident. While officials understand that this is also the site of a recent wildlife discovery, they say the safety of the bomb squad must be a priority."
Hunched on the couch, Lim listened numbly as the reporter explained that the bomb squad would soon detonate the device in situ with a controlled explosion, likely cratering the entire area.
Lim's phone erupted in a chorus of messages as his team reacted. Some of the team were outraged at the loss of the discovery site. Others were relieved that nobody had been hurt. Putri sent him a private message:
Prof, if we lose the site, do you think we'll find any of Kopi's siblings?
Lim thought of replying that the odds of finding another tiny frog in a new area were near zero. That without another female specimen to mate with, Kopi would die alone, the first and last of his kind. Instead he switched off his phone and crumpled back into bed. It felt good to press a pillow tightly over his face, just to see how long he could hold his breath.
That was Friday. The next morning, the weekend yawned open and empty. Drinking the day away seemed an excellent idea. He was on his fifth beer when he switched his phone back on and a text arrived from his wife.
As discussed, my lawyer will send the divorce papers on Monday.
Lim couldn't remember discussing it, but it seemed pointless to argue.
Okay, he texted back.
Two beers later Lim found himself in a cab, sweating in a heavy field vest brimming with pockets. He was drunk, but not so drunk that he knew he was too drunk to drive. He had a plan, one he felt was remarkably clear. The driver nodded as he told him to wait in the parking lot of the research lab. In five minutes he was back in the cab. Kopi was now zipped into the buttoned pocket above Lim's breast, left open enough so the frog could breathe. He could just about feel Kopi moving around, like a tiny second heart on top of his.
The forest was bathed in quiet. He stayed away from the bomb-site, certain it would be cordoned off. He wasn't sure he could bear to look at the open mouth of the crater anyway. Hear the silence of all the animals who had fled the blast. Instead he trekked aimlessly in the opposite direction.
For the first hour he was remarkably comfortable, considering he was in flip flops. He'd left his apartment hastily that day, unable to find his boots.
By hour three the first blisters appeared. Lim ignored them, and peeked into his pocket. He knew Kopi couldn't survive in there forever. He had to keep searching. And he would not return to his empty home, his monument to marital failure, without giving the little animal what it needed.
By hour five, the afternoon sun pummeling his skin, he stopped yearning for his boots and started yearning for water.
Still he kept going.
It was late when he finally found what he was looking for. The forest was losing its last rosy kiss of sunset, and shadows stretched all around him. His neck ached from staring up at the trees. He knew that Asian honeybees liked to craft their homes high up. Finally he saw one. A magnificent hive, a fat dark fist clenched between tree trunk and branch. A few fat, thumb-sized bees trickled out as if waiting for Lim. The hive sat nearly six metres above ground. Luckily the tree had a cluster of limbs, allowing him to clamber up, supported by its open arms.
As he neared the hive, Lim's cheek rasping against the trunk, he heard something. The urgent hum of the colony, growing louder and louder. Bee-song radiated from the hive as if coaxing him onward. It reminded him of the meditation gong. With one arm grasping the trunk, Lim stretched his other to the hive, certain it would not take much force to claw open. Certain of what he would find inside, croaking and nestled like a small black pearl.
"Don't you worry Kopi," Lim says. "She's in there. She's waiting for you."QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023