Tulip in the Backyard

A secret to extend the shelf life of a relationship from an animal that rescued my grandpa from the darkest year of his life.

In life, there are two kinds of people: people who you thought were friends until they disappear the moment they’re in a relationship, and people who still show up no matter what. In the good old days of the internet, if I updated a Facebook post on a Sunday afternoon and someone left a comment, I counted that a genuine friendship. Those days are gone. People’s social media discipline has been reduced to the occasional ‘like’ on my synced Instagram photos on Facebook, the ones that seem to shout ‘Look, Sam is still single and he went to all these places by himself.’

I’d only start to hear back from them when they had just fought, or when they needed to talk things over. Most of the times they were just looking for reassurance – someone with the ability to lie like a medic on a battlefield, telling a critically injured soldier everything will be okay.

I always find myself sitting across a troubled friend at a cafe and giving relationship advice. If they’d stick around instead of vanishing from my life, they’d witnessed my own dysfunctional track record when it came to relationships and the table would turn.

Eddy, my high school friend, was in Bangkok one afternoon, and he called me asking if I’d like to hang out. It’s been a year and a half since I last saw him in person. I sprung from my bed and jump in an Uber to meet him for coffee. I thought we would be like those people who can pick up conversation where they’d left off.

We weren’t. It was like we’ve just met for the first time, trapped in an eternal loop of “What have you been doing? Where are you going next?” I made a mental note to prepare a stash of reformulated answers the next time someone hit me up on short notice, so I could focus my brain power on my appearance—if we’re going to rehash the same conversation then at least I should look different.

It’s always in the middle of the meeting that you really dig into what you really want to discuss. I wish I had the skill to fast forward the introductory part. Eddy believed his new girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend had casted black magic on her. He was in Bangkok to consult a spiritual professor, looking for a way to break the spell.

“One night she screamed a strange name in her sleep. I’m not the sort of person who believes in supernatural shit, but damn, that worried me.”

“Her ex-boyfriend’s name?”

“Not really. Her ex-boyfriend’s cat.”

Having tried everything, Eddy still believed that his new girlfriend was trapped by black magic power, clinging to her from her previous relationship.

“The professor said the painless way to end this is to put the cat to death. With this this poison.” Eddy shook a tiny bottle filled with black liquid, clinging to the glass like tentacles. Come to think of it, it might be just squid ink. I slowly covered my coffee cup with my palm and pulled it closer to my body.

To prevent him from killing an innocent animal, I suggested, “It sounds to me like she’s just missing the cat, that’s all. Maybe you should get her a new cat.”

In that moment I made a quick observation about my own life. I have been living alone without an animal companion for almost a decade. Throughout my college years, I’ve been thinking about getting a hamster, a ferret, a goldfish… a pet of my own, but time flies and before I knew it the only animals that share the living space with me are cockroaches and small lizards. Maybe the key to curing my loneliness and fixing my dysfunctional relationships was right in front of me all along. A pet, a living thing I could take care of. It’s a sure-fire method. It was proved to me by my grandpa’s last animal companion.

After grandma died, my grandpa rescued a cow from a nearby animal slaughter house and name the animal Tulip. The fully grown beast, refrigerator-sized, proudly sported a tail which swung in slow motion, like women’s hair in a shampoo commercial. “I saw grandma in my dream the other night, and she presented me this cow,” he said.

I was a little kid when we had Tulip. Our family lived together in the same part of town. My grandparents lived with my aunt and uncle on my mother’s side in a housing estate.

Their house was bright, with wall-to-wall windows that once featured a view of their over-decorated lawn, a view now ruined by Tulip. Tulip ran amok, licking water from their white marble fountain and devouring my aunt and uncle’s award-winning orchids growing in their small backyard. My grandpa was amazed. He’d blow out his cigarette smoke and scattered grandma’s ashes on the lawn. He would chuckle while watching Tulip sniffing the ashes. “I could watch this all day,” he’d say. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm. The day his neighbours started complaining about the noise this beast living in their estate made, things changed in papa’s universe.

“Your dog never stop barking!” He retorted when scolded by one of his neighbours.

“Yes, my dog barks every now and then, but at least it never leaves large turds on our street and attracts flies in our estate.”

“Why can’t you just look the other way?”

“The world is changing, old-man. Maybe it was fine for people to have cattle runs loose and wild in your time, but we are doing it no more. We are not going to live like savages.”

One by one, the neighbours would drop by to talk with my aunt and uncle about getting rid of the animal. An online forum in the estate’s website cropped up, complaining about grandpa’s cow. One anonymous commentator suggested raising funds to buy the cow from my grandpa and sending it back to the slaughterhouse near the estate, where it belonged. A plan—to return peace and sophistication to the estate, once and for all.

They won. But my grandpa refused to return Tulip to the slaughterhouse. He kept saying, “Tulip’s my purpose in life, after my fifty-year marriage came to an end.” It was his wife who gave him his purpose, but it was my uncle who came with salvation.

His solution: relocate Tulip to our rambutan yard. My grandpa could visit Tulip as much as he’d like, the turds on the street would vanish, but the noise from the slaughterhouse continues.

Concerned for my grandpa’s mental stability, my aunt asked me to move in with them. I was basically Tulip’s replacement. “It’s just temporary,” she assured me. “Your house isn’t that far. Besides I’ll buy you a bicycle so you can go back to your house anytime or go anywhere you want!” My grandpa was a bottomless wallet and every kid’s sweetest dream; I was more than happy to live under the same roof with him, even without that bicycle offer.

The adults seemed to agree that a human he could take care of was better than a beast that could end up on our dining table. But still, grandpa would often look at the half-eaten orchids in our yard and sigh. “Poor Tulip,” he’d murmur, “we can’t have him stay here, just because he is our food.”

“Well, grandpa,” I said, removing my bicycle helmet. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Make yourself useful then.”

He began taking me to our farm on the weekend. My uncle would drive his Toyota pickup truck, grandpa sitting shotgun. They weren’t farmers — it’s just something they did as a hobby. The window was always rolled down, letting hot air float in scented with a hint of burning ashes from passing farms. I’d just finished watching Babe Two back then; the key takeaway from that movie was that a pig could be cute with just the right presentation. So these trips to our farm excited me.

Our farm is small, no larger than a gas station. It was grandpa’s idea to plant rambutans there, instead of going for a more marketable plant like rubber trees or oil palms. He had no interest in doing business.

“The fruit is sweet and these trees are gentle. That’s why I like it,” he’d explain, his eyes gleaming at the sight of Tulip in the backyard. “Bees like it here. You don’t see no beehive on palms.”

There were other farm animals; hens, chickens and pigs; but Tulip was our first cow. As uncle and I strapped on our boots, grandpa made a beeline for Tulip. Some people would pretend they didn’t care, but for grandpa it seemed like there was no time to waste. The two of them looked like war veterans reunited decades after victory. He patted Tulip’s back, as though he was going to put a saddle on him.

I accompanied my uncle to the pen where we housed the pigs we were raising for sale to the local merchant. The animals ran wild everywhere, not realising what fate they were destined for. A rooster sunbathed on the roof of our cabin. My uncle’s donkey hi-five a wild squirrel. Tulip was isolated and left by himself. He didn’t get along with the other animals. His arrival came with a unique privilege.  Unlike the others — he would surely never get killed. A duck would waddle close to Tulip, but changed course the instant their radar detached Tulip’s presence. My grandpa’s visits guaranteed that Tulip won’t be chopped up, sliced and diced to serve humans. The entire animal farm had already made its verdict.

Back home I put the videotape in the VCR and watched Babe One. The goose in the movie asks the pig, “Why don’t humans eat cats?” Before the pig could answer the goose interrupts: “They are indispensable. They catch mice.” I laughed and wondered if they were using the same pig in Babe One and Babe Two. Who would have thought a pig can act.

“Grandpa? Do you think the pig in Babe One was dispensable after the end of the movie?”
There was no answer. He stared blankly at the screen, the question hitting him in a way only people his age would understand. The next morning, before school, I was looking for grandpa so I could hassle him for extra lunch money. “Grandpa is at the bus station,” My aunt told me It turned out my grandpa was catching the first bus of the day to get to the farm. It became a daily habit in no time. It was my duty to be up early – otherwise I’d miss getting my extra money for school. I rarely saw grandpa. When it became clear that I couldn’t get up that early, I started asking for money in advance – earlier in the evening, when he came home. No matter how tired he was, he always took a shower, and I began hearing his singing as he threw water from the bucket.

I didn’t know how news traveled from our estate to my school, but soon, all my classmates knew about the cow. One asked, “Did you ride it to school this morning?” His friends burst out laughing. More and more of my classmates looked down on me because they didn’t look at the cow the way I did. Unlike in India, where cows are considered a holy animal, here it’s just a stupid animal. The people who own them are as dumb as the cows are.

Tulip was sick. This much my uncle knew. I overheard this from the arguments he had with my grandpa, arguments over whether it was time to put down the animal.

It was a real pain. In order to get my grandpa’s permission; my uncle had a nurse disguise herself as a veterinarian to convince him to put Tulip to death. “It’s the humane thing to do,” She said. The last time I saw Tulip, I went to the farm with them in the hopes that they‘d stop at a DVD store on their way back.

“The cow is not some kind of midlife crisis possession,” my uncle would yell. In response my grandpa took his case to grandma, the grandma of his hallucinations: “Your mother advise that we should save his life.” The rooster would flutter down from the roof to eavesdrop on the conversation. Afraid the DVD store would be closed by the time we got back to the city, I tried to end the drama, saying, “I wouldn’t want to be in pain.”

“Remember that when you think about putting me on the ventilator. Both of you!” He pointing accusingly at us. He’s not the kind of person to shed tears; instead he’s upset. He spent almost an hour saying goodbye to Tulip. The animal moved slowly behind our Toyota, the way you might see in movies, lurching forward as far as his leash allowed. “Stop the car!” grandpa yelled. I exchanged looks with my uncle through the rear-view mirror, thinking grandpa was about to change his mind and get out of the car.

There was a pause; the three of us listening to the buzzing hiss of the car radio, which was losing signal. Finally he said, “Alright, let’s go.”

Grandpa kept his daily routine even after Tulip was put to death. Euthanasia was unusual for a farm animal like Tulip, and there was extra cost incurred by hiring a nurse to pretend to be a veterinarian, a secret my uncle and I had to keep. Grandpa became an old man riding the first bus to the suburb and hailed a beige motorbike taxi to get to his farm. He stuck my school money on the refrigerator with a tulip magnet before he starting his day. They were my grandma’s. When I got home from school, I often heard something I didn’t expect — my grandpa singing in the shower.

I followed him to the farm from time to time. I made a cross from plywood and pin it into the ground. Underneath, Tulip in the backyard rested in peace.

It never occurred to me how unappreciative I have been of the childhood I had. To have a farm is a privilege. In this time and age having a cow is a sign of wealth. How many people can say they had a cow?

“Tulips.” My grandpa was talking in his sleep. “They have beautiful tulips there? Do you want to go there together?”

Somewhere in the back of his mind were memories, memories of his beloved wife. He knew that he had to let her go, but in his dreams, he never let go of her.
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