March 2021

Back to Issue 9

No Tulips in Kenya

By Dave Gregory

Mother met me at the door. “Your cousin Renee is here. She’ll be staying a while.” She scanned my face for a reaction.

     Squeezing a third person into our cramped apartment would be awkward. We had no guest room and the kitchen, living and dining areas were wedged into one small space. I’d also have to share a tiny, windowless bathroom with two women. Yet I liked the idea because Renee was my favourite cousin.

     “That’ll be fun,” I said. When I was younger, Renee babysat every few weeks and taught me how to whistle, play tambourine, and climb trees. She even let me “help” with her homework, which made me feel incredibly smart. When I started high school the previous fall, Renee was a senior – and the coolest person I knew. She could drive, had a boyfriend, went to house parties and used fake ID to get into night clubs – and still had the highest grades in her class.

     But the husk I saw that afternoon, face down on our sofa, had lost all spirit and energy. Renee didn’t even look up when I entered.

     “Is she dead?”

     “Don’t be rude. She’s had a bad spell and we’re giving her a quiet place to rest.”

     Renee had four rambunctious younger sisters, so I understood her need for quiet, but I had no idea what was wrong. Mother warned me not to pry and gave no hint whether she even knew what troubled her niece.

     For two days Renee kept a heating pad beneath her stomach and alternated between sleep and tears. We grew used to her deflated form on the worn leather sofa my father left behind years earlier. She sipped pink protein shakes through a metal straw and never got up except to go to the bathroom, where she let the water run whenever she was inside.

     After washing and drying the dinner dishes on Friday, Mother and I found Renee sitting, reading the titles on the closest bookshelf. Hope shone from Mother’s eyes, her mouth curved into a smile.

     “Cole and I were hoping to watch a movie,” Mother said to Renee, “if we’re not disturbing you.”

     Renee shrugged. We picked a comedy. Although she didn’t laugh, Renee remained upright until the credits ended.

     Without speaking, Renee joined us for pancakes on Saturday morning. At lunch time she surprised us by offering to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

     While we ate, Mother suggested, “Why don’t you kids take a walk in Victoria Park? It’s spring out there. Fresh air would do you both good.”

     “I’d love to,” Renee said, then took an hour to shower and change – the first time she’d done either since arriving.

          As I waited, I recalled the spark in Renee’s eyes when Mother suggested our outing. My favourite cousin was back. Almost.

     Renee and her family lived an hour away. Throughout my childhood, they made a priority of getting all the cousins together. Every month or two, their mini-van rolled into our driveway and relatives spilled out. But Renee had outgrown those visits. Just before Thanksgiving, she stopped coming and spent time with her boyfriend, instead.

     Renee emerged from our bathroom, donned a black baseball cap and sunglasses, and reminded me of the gulf still between us. “Just – don’t ask anything personal. Okay?” Her disguise hid any expression.


     My cousin and I stepped outside, beneath an overcast sky. Our apartment, one of four units in an aging, subdivided house, was two blocks from a massive city park, boasting a small lake and abundant gardens. Renee walked slowly. I didn’t know what to talk about.

     Renee broke the silence by gasping, “Those are swans.” She removed her hat and sunglasses. Her eyes widened with surprise. She rushed to the water’s edge and stood on a large, flat rock. Two swans, swimming in tandem, caught sight of Renee and altered course.

     “They showed up last month,” I said. “They’ll swim right to you. They think anyone standing there has food. Too bad we’ve come empty-handed.”

     Renee giggled for the first time all week. “It isn’t about food. They’re introducing themselves.” The swans glided in, confident yet aloof. Renee addressed the first one to arrive. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mister Swan.”

     My cousin’s voice changed as she imagined the swan’s reply. “And who might you be, sad girl?

     “I’m Renee. I come from far away and am in search of enchantment in your paradise.”

     Mister Swan eased back as the second creature arrived. Renee continued voicing both parts. “This is my wife Odette. She is happy you have joined us. She knows you shall find whatever joy you seek.”

     “How does she know?”

     “The tulips, my princess. How can anyone not be enraptured?” In unison, both swans angled their beaks slightly left.

     Renee and I followed their line of vision. On a long, narrow bed of freshly turned earth, hundreds of luminescent red buds rose above a sea of swirling green leaves. Renee said, “Thank you,” to the swans, who nodded and floated away, graceful as soft white clouds.

     “How’d you know the swans would look at the flowers?” I asked.

     “Why wouldn’t they?” Renee blinked and raised her eyebrows, implying I’d missed something obvious. “It’s time we smelled the tulips.”

     A curly-haired boy in tiny denim overalls beat us to the flower bed. Three years old, at most, the kid hadn’t perfected walking. His feet bounced as if on springs. Leaning forward at an increasing angle, gravity pulled him faster. His mother screamed and ran after him but was too far away. She’d been sitting on a park bench, distracted by her phone.

     Before falling, the boy bulldozed through the garden, taking down a dozen tulips and scattering petals like confetti. He didn’t cry but roared with laughter, which bubbled across Victoria Park. He got up, kicked more stems and toppled more red buds.

     His mother arrived, lifted the boy, and scolded him for running off. He continued laughing while she brushed clumps of damp earth from his hands, shoes, and knees.

     “Wasn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” Renee asked.

     “No.” I was honest. A swath of destruction, wide as an unruly child, interrupted the perfect red ribbon-like line of tulips. “The kid needs a smack for killing those flowers.”

“Come on, Cole. That would send the wrong message. He didn’t do it maliciously. Could you imagine being that height and running through such a vibrant blanket of colour? He’s probably got pollen on his nose. It’s a sensory overload for him.”

     Renee and I walked around the lake. Clouds darkened and it began to rain. I suggested running home but Renee sheltered beneath a massive oak.

     “What should we do next?”                                 

     I shrugged, doubting my cousin would be interested in the comic book store I frequented.

     She pointed to a row of red-brick buildings and two tall towers. “Let’s see what’s happening downtown.”

     “Okay, but I’ve got no money.” I seldom did.

     She pulled jingling coins from the pocket of her jeans. “I’ve got three whole dollars.”

     “We can’t do anything with that.”

     “Just watch me.”

     We walked through fine drizzle until a used bookstore captured Renee’s attention. It was my first time inside. The shelves were dusty and one wall sported a series of framed New Yorker magazine covers, which Renee examined as though they were paintings in an art gallery. “Tell you what,” she said, looking at newlyweds in a taxi from a June 2007 issue, “we’ll each buy the cheapest book we can find. My treat.”

     “What’s the point of that?”

     “Trust me. It’ll be magical.”

     Only my favourite cousin could’ve interested me in such an absurd scheme.

     We split up. Renee went to a rack of poetry chapbooks, while I searched for a comic section which didn’t exist. I opened random covers, seeking the price written in pencil on the first page. Most books were in the five to ten dollar range but within twenty minutes I discovered one called “Hiking the Shubenacadie Trails.” Almost forty years out of date, the paths it described were three provinces away. The original two dollar price had been crossed out and it was marked down to fifty cents.

     Renee remained at the poetry rack, weeping – but they were different tears from those spilled on our couch. “This touches my soul,” she said, smiling, breathless. One hand held a book against her heart, the other wiped a tear. “And it’s fifty cents. How much is yours?” When I told her, she replied, “We’ll have tons of money left.”

     My blue, hardbound volume, with golden embossed lettering, didn’t impress the grey-bearded clerk but he whistled at the twenty stapled sheets of discoloured paper that comprised Renee’s book.

     “You got the last one,” he said.

     “The last what?”

     “The last Jelani original.” His tone signified a holy relic.

     Confused, Renee and I looked at each other.

     The talkative clerk explained that Berko Jelani, a retired factory worker, began showing up in the late 90s. “Each visit, he dropped off a dozen copies of his latest poetry book. He wanted to call himself a published author and be able to tell people where his books were sold. We could sell them for whatever we wanted; he said to keep any profit. Maybe twice a year he brought copies of his newest book, always arriving right after the old volume sold out. And they always sold out. His kids and grandkids probably bought them.

     “About four years ago, he stopped coming. We had two copies left. An English major bought one in the fall and you’ve got the last. My guess is Jelani died and his family forgot the game of buying his books.”

     “What a lovely story.” Renee’s eyes were wet again. “Maybe he’s alive and just moved away.”

     The clerk, less optimistic than Renee, cast his eyes downward.

     Renee paid her dollar and we walked outside. The rain had stopped. Purple and yellow tulips filled a concrete planter next to the bookshop. Water glistened on each petal. Renee smiled, touched one stem, and licked a drop of rainwater from her finger.

     “Now what?” I wondered what we’d do with such obscure books.

     She sat on the planter’s edge. “Now we read until we find something beautiful.”

     “Really?” I turned to a description of campground restroom facilities. “If I’d known that was the game, I’d have picked something else.”

     Renee read aloud. “‘Cinders and cider and whispers and liars.’” She closed her eyes. “Don’t you love the rhythm of it, the alternating almost-rhymes?” Eyes open again, she looked at me. “I think it’s genius. I’m seven words in and already have an image of old men standing around barrel fires at a railway yard, drinking hooch from brown bagged bottles, trying to outdo each other with outlandish tales.” The sun came out while she spoke. Her eyes grew brighter.

     “You got all that from seven words?”

     “The picture is as vivid as these flowers. Whenever I see tulips, I’ll imagine a running child gleefully kicking them over. Now you read.”

     “I don’t think my author can compete with your poet. These are dry descriptions.”

     “Nonsense. How could a Nova Scotia hiking trail not be beautiful? Start with the dedication.”

     I flipped through the pages. “‘For Heloise, whose hand I held as I walked every trail.’”

     “Do you see? A zinger, right off the bat. Maybe he’s a widower who wrote the entire book to commemorate the one true love of his life.”

     “Could be.”

     “We’ll never know but it isn’t it pretty to think so?”

     We took turns reading aloud. Both books had gems on almost every page. Renee found verses that attained “the highest level of Zen” or were “paths to enlightenment.” I mostly read captions and showed her the accompanying photos. My favourite was, “Three cardinals gather in a white birch tree while a red fox sniffs snowy ground.”

     “Not bad for fifty cents, right?” Renee patted my shoulder.

     “It makes me want to take up hiking.”

     “So, regarding these books, what’s the moral of our story?”

     Years earlier, helping with Renee’s homework, we studied fables and this was always the key question. After a long pause I ventured, “The price of a book is no measure of its value.”

     Her eyes widened and she pointed at me. “Not bad.” She rubbed her chin and said, “But I was thinking: love is the fabric of every book ever written.”

     A chill tingled my spine.

     Our legs grew numb from sitting on the concrete planter. Renee got up and asked if there was a thrift store nearby.

     “There’s one on Kent. Maybe a fifteen minute walk. Why?”

     “I’ve taken all the beauty I can from this book and I’m trying to reduce possessions, not increase them. So, I want to donate it.”

     I led Renee down King Street, then followed Stirling to Charles. I hoped I didn’t look like a regular when we entered the large, modern building that furnished my bedside lamp, nightstand, half our living room furniture, all our cutlery, and much of my wardrobe, including the green shirt I’d put on that morning.

     Renee beamed with delight when she learned the store’s profits were distributed to Mozambican children orphaned by a recent cyclone. They also provided reusable sanitary products to teenaged Kenyan girls, so they wouldn’t miss several days of school each month.

     We donated both books and Renee spent her last two dollars on a vintage-style milk bottle vase.

     The day had grown cooler by the time we left. I zipped my jacket and Renee took the hat from her coat pocket and put it back on. Halfway home I asked, “Why the vase? Aren’t you trying to reduce possessions?”

     “I am. This is for your mother, for putting up with me.”

     I doubted Mother needed an old milk bottle but Renee had a plan. We stopped in the park and gathered tulips sundered by the feet of a laughing boy. We easily filled the vase. Mother was grateful to the point of tears.

     I was twenty-one before Renee admitted, via e-mail, she’d had an abortion the day I found her, face down on our sofa. Her boyfriend left her, and her parents pressured her to keep the baby, but Renee wanted to graduate from high school and attend university in the fall.

     When she completed her education, Renee boarded a plane for Kenya to teach English at an all-girls school. She’s still on the faculty and is writing a book about her experiences. Love will, no doubt, be woven into the fabric.

     There are no tulips in Kenya. If Renee ever sees one again, who knows whether she’ll recall that running boy, but every spring when tulips break through the soil in Victoria Park, I think of the Monday morning after Renee vacated our couch. Those brilliant red flowers were the most beautiful thing in the apartment. They sat on the kitchen table and caught a shaft of sunlight from seven-thirty until almost eight. For those magical moments the diffused, rose-coloured light permeated the entirety of my tiny world.