Warning: This story began with a threat and a joke. Elements of this may appear throughout.
When Kasih wasn’t careful, she often ended up wondering, in that cursory way which we wonder things usually taken for granted in our lives, how she had a giraffe for a cousin.
That’s not to say that it had never happened before – inter-species marriage had become quite a thing around the time she was born – but to have a herbivore for a cousin, when you are so decidedly a predatory carnivore, can’t be a very common thing. But her tigress aunt had fallen in love with an ape, and they had decided on adopting a giraffe. Love did funny things to animals.
When they were growing up, her mother and her aunt had forced them to play together very often, perhaps to acclimatise them to each other and to prevent her from eating her cousin when she grew up. There was this newspiece back when she was little, of a lion who had eaten his tapir brother-in-law over a game of football; one of them had tackled the other and the ensuing argument had got rather out of hand. Aunt May and Mama’s worries were legitimate. And as a result of their combined parenting, Kasih and Derek had grown to be best friends. Kasih would scare off his bullies with a quick snarl; Derek was great at reaching the cookies hidden on the high shelves. They made quite a team.
But at times though, she wondered.
Like today, as she prepared a huge salad (blergh) for brunch. Derek and his futsal friends had come barrelling through her apartment at 10am after a solid three hours of playing, and they were famished, and could Kasih whip something up for them, pretty please? She was the best cook Derek knew; he’d never trust anyone else with his friends’ digestive systems.
That was one way to put it, she thought, looking out into the balcony where they were playing Pictionary very noisily, smelling rancid and gamey and quite delicious. She consumed herbivores everyday, or had he forgotten that? If she were hungrier and hadn’t had that ribeye steak last night, this would have been difficult.
And it didn’t help that Derek had such a random group of friends as well. There was the online activist/hobo vigilante Bobo, whom they referred to jokingly as ‘the Lord’ (she thought him rather bossy, a little pretentious), who had been chainsmoking into her oregano plant the whole time they’d been here. She was going to have words. And off to the side, eyes watery red and nose twitching constantly, was the rascal Bonsiah, called ‘Bon’ for short. He was a shrewd rabbit with what she suspected was a bit of ADHD, though Derek had chosen not to comment on it. He’d picked up yoga recently to “centre” himself, and of course, he stepped through her door that morning in those garish purple yoga shorts of his.
At the very least, Marc had offered to help her in the kitchen, shooting dirty looks at his friends who had made a beeline to the balcony and her boardgames. She would’ve agreed too, only his long orange hair had a tendency to fall into the food, and she never quite got over the incident with the jelly pudding at her birthday party which Derek had organised.
All these males at the same time in her city apartment. Her father would have a mighty fit if he knew. She could just imagine him roaring into the videophone, his jaws unlatched for maximum effect, “What do you think this is, a zoo in the 1970’s? Are you insane? You are coming home, cub!”
By the time she was done with the salads (one vegetable and one fruit, for all the above reasons), it was obvious that Derek’s team was winning, and Bon wasn’t reacting to it very well. These lawyer types never did.
“I am sure that the indentation of the paper would indicate that you lifted your pencil during the no-lifting-of-pencil round!” he was yelling, eyes blinking twice as fast as they normally did, which was saying something. His long ears were working up a fuss as well and nearly knocked the bowls out of her paws.
“Bon,” Marc said, in a voice far calmer than hers would have been, “with all due respect, shut up. You lost. We won. Your epileptic ears are giving me a headache. Thanks, Kasih.”
“My partner argues that the evidence would prove to the contrary,” Bobo piped up, flicking ash between the railings. Kasih bared her teeth a little in response; she’d always been averse to cigarette smoke and it never settled well in her lungs. She glared at Derek, who tossed his neck apologetically, in that universal gesture of offering to do the dishes after this.
“To use your own words against you, Bon, ‘deal with the damage’. Now put out your fags, thank Kasih, and dig in.” Derek’s plate was already piled heavy with leaves, which was his biological advantage, she supposed.
“Terima kasih, Kasih,” they chorused. Oh, they were funny.
“Kasih,” Bon mumbled, mouth full with roasted carrots, “weird name.”
“I agree, Bonsiah,” she growled a little, wondering if his huge ears ever detected sarcasm. “I don’t know what my parents were thinking.”
“Well, they did name your brother Jaguh,” Derek pointed out, a stalk poking out of his mouth thoughtfully. “And look how that’s turned out.”
“My parents were very goal-oriented, what can I say.”
“So…your parents wanted you to… find love?” Bobo asked, nostrils flaring with smoke. Derek noticed the flash of her carnassais teeth as ash from Bono’s cigarette landed on her hydrangeas, and he nudged the pots away with his nose. “Careful, man.”
“Ah, sorry,” Bobo said distractedly. “Why, though? Why the emphasis on love? I mean,” he sat up straighter, “your parents named your brother ‘champion’, pretty much. Why would they name you ‘love’? Why would they want that for you?’
“Nothing wrong with wanting your child to find love,” Marc said in between chews, pulling his orange hair away from his face. “Sometimes it’s the least a parent could hope for.”
“No, but why is it considered an achievement? I mean, I know, me, last person to talk about what it’s like to have kids, but as a parent Marc, why on earth would you want to set a precedent for your daughter to find love? To have to seek love and…and conquer it? Isn’t that sort of sexist? Boys must win things, be a champion; girls must love.”
“And love like fools”, Bon piped in, chewing noisily on a carrot she’d left in one of the salads (it seemed a nice touch), ears raised in the air and expanded. “Females sacrifice so much for love. They quit their jobs, squander their education, give up their life savings, follow their husbands to high heaven or earth, raise their progeny (a thankless job if ever there was one) and gain nothing – nothing in the end.”
“Preach, brother, preach.” Bobo gave him a lazy salute. Marc kept his head down; Kasih suspected to hide the grin she saw peeking out. Derek flexed his long neck, face amused. He knew her too well.
“Oh, what a great load of the finest bullcrap I have ever heard!” Kasih said frustratedly, her canines bared to full display. “First you boys assume the reasons behind my name, and then you explain it off with the sorriest psychoanalysis a person could conjure out of their butt, never mind that I was just bloody sitting right here. You lot are far from Lacan. Far. From.” She let herself enjoy the startled looks on their faces as she glared at them, one by one. “And for another thing, you!” she pointed at Bonsiah, who jumped in his seat but looked her steadily in the eye. “What is your problem with love? Didn’t you ever watch Disney when you were young? I can maybe understand the lack of faith, but God, are you always this nasty?”
“Disney is the opiate of the weak, romantic masses,” Bobo mumbled through a mouthful of purple banana.
“Didn’t ask you, Bobster.” She kept her finger in the direction of the rabbit’s face. “You. What have you got against love, that you have to spew such sexist crap? What makes you think females become incompetent in the face of love? What, we meet Prince Kimba, get knocked up and have babies and cook all day long? That’s our default setting, is it now?”
“I can see how you’re not related,” Marc mock-whispered to Derek, who grinned lazily.
“Yeah, Bon,” he hollered across the balcony, where Bon sat unfazed, waving the carrot stem around like he would a cigar. “Why the bitterness?”
“Oh, don’t get the bunny started,” Bobo muttered. “Please, don’t. Just… Bon, apologise to her. Spare us all.”
“I believe that love is a social construct,” Bonsiah started, ignoring Marc’s chuckles and Bobo’s deep, tobacco-filled sigh. Derek sauntered out of the balcony, ostensibly to escape. “It’s a ploy, a game, a great big joke, which mostly females seem to swallow wholeheartedly. And ‘love is all you need’ is crap advice, because it’s wrong. I mean, look around you – wars, domestic abuse –“
“How are they different from wars?” Marc mused.
“ – poverty, starvation, homelessness – I mean, tell me you can fix all that just by loving a little bit more, and I’ll give you everything in my wallet, right now.”
“The problem with you, Bon, is that you think with your – ”
“Kasih,” Derek came back out on the balcony, passing her some cold cuts on a plate, watching her only from the corner of his eye. The others looked on with squeamish interest; Bonsiah crossed his legs at the sight of the meat. “Eat.”
He sighed. “Fine, just…if I have to call to report a homicide – Bon is a lawyer. You’d actually want him on your side, so don’t, you know.” Bon shifted in his rattan chair, his purple shorts squeaking as he did.
“I’m not that desperate,” she growled, teeth set on edge. “And you probably wouldn’t taste good anyway.” She glared at Bon.
His ears were now sitting flat on his head. “I… well, go on,” he said, nose twitching.
“As I was saying,” she glared at her unfazed cousin, “your taking those lyrics to a song literally is like taking idioms literally. The Beetles wanted to sell records, and it was a catchy phrase on a catchy bar. Who told you to make it an absolute truth or assume that everyone else believes the same? Also, if you think that all women follow that outline you gave – that they suffer for the sake of love and suffer foolishly – then your social circle must be sorely lacking. And even if women chose that path, how is it wrong? What is wrong with wanting to have a family, to have children, and who says a female can’t leave her job to become a mother, or that she has to keep a job, or that those roles are mutually exclusive?”
“To put yourself secondary to another person for the rest of your life, because you think that’s what love demands of you, that’s healthy?”
“You’re confusing social expectations and sterotypes with emotions!”
“Love is a mental illness,” he said calmly, but with ears fully waving in the air “Plato called it that. The thing that doesn’t make sense and leads people to desperate acts that defy logic. People make it a priority and sacrifice near everything else for it. You don’t call that foolishness? You think that the high of an emotion is worth leaving everything else for? How is that different from addiction?”
“You know,” Marc said slowly, lifting his palm as though in a classroom. “I love my two little girls. I love my wife. I’m not, you know, moping the whole time like a sopping idiot even though I am hopelessly all for them. I’m not gushy or melancholy, although my wife says some public affection would be nice. I’m doing fine. The females in my life make me want to be better.”
“Not everyone is as blessed as you are, you lucky orangutan,” Bobo clapped a hand on his shoulder genially. “Not everyone has your sense.”
“But that’s the point I’m making,” Kasih insisted. “That thing Bon says is the result of love – that’s not everyone.”
“But it is, pretty much,” Bon retorted.
“I love my mother,” Derek suddenly piped up. Kasih stopped snarling for a moment and felt herself smile at her cousin, his slender neck curved down towards the rest of them in conversation. “We are…so different. She fell in love outside her species – I mean, she married an herbivore!” Bobo nodded; Kasih knew he’d tried dating a panther before and how it really didn’t work out. “Nobody thought it would work. My grandparents issued security outside their first home, in the off-chance that a domestic would turn, you know, bloody.”
His neck trilled with laughter. Bonsiah’s ears were folded in a pensive pose atop his head. “But they endured, although the temptation must have been strong, now and then. And then they picked me up from one of those safari orphanages nobody really goes to, and, I mean, who picks a giraffe for a kid anyway? But, as Ibu says, they fell in love with me, and so they told each other, ‘we have to take him home’.” Derek’s voice broke on the last word. “I have tigers and apes for cousins. Half of them should rightly want to eat me for lunch, and some small part of me will always be relieved that they don’t.” He winked at Kasih, who grinned back. “But I never think about it. We never think about it. We love each other, and although I try, I cannot imagine another life, or loving them any less than I do.”
He swung his neck so that it was poised just above Bon’s head, forcing the rabbit to look up. “You have parents, Bon. I know they’re great parents. That’s love. They had you because they loved each other. And, you know, a few hundred years ago, our animal kinds wouldn’t be as nurturing as they are today. They had wider, more fragmented families and some seriously twisted mating habits. So that thing that pulls us all together? It’s love. Our mothers raised us as an extension of that love. At the end of the day, how can it be all that bad, if it makes us what we are – if it continues to shape us through the years?”
Bon seemed to consider this, as he took a cigarette from Bobo and lit up. Kasih finished an entire cut of salami as they took a breather and waited for Bonsiah to retort, chewing on it slowly, trying to study her opponent. Not only was the topic unexpected, but it was getting ridiculously preachy, and fast. These cubs, she mused, looking around her, are some of the biggest saps she knew. So much for males having killer instinct. This lot wouldn’t last more than two days in the actual jungle.
“But come on,” Bobo spoke up after a nice silence, puffing a huge ring in Derek’s direction, “love songs. All those bleeding love songs. What was the name of that armadillo? The one with the booming voice? Adele? That song of hers that keeps replaying itself on the radio, Some Kind Like You? That’s just…I mean, that’s sad, if that’s what love is. That whining inability to forget and move on. That selfish desire to mope about an animal that’s no longer yours.”
“But we all want to have a cry sometimes,” Marc said. “That song is cathartic.”
“No, that song is nuts,” Kasih nodded. “But we all do that. Not just the females, but the males as well. We mope, we cry, we sacrifice. Because that’s what you do when you’re in love – you compromise, you take on their pain because it inevitably becomes a part of yours, you care for them. You try to become everything that they need, as much as you can.”
“Well, I believe that’s dangerous,” Bon said. “I believe that a lot of love is dangerous, and that this obsessive search for it endangers us. I mean this manufactured idea of love – different from the one we experience in real life with our parents and our family – it’s desperate and manic. ‘I will climb the highest mountains and swim the roughest seas for you’ – honestly? How does that prove anything?”
Derek nodded, bowing his head low in thought. “But Bon dude, those are just songs. You know, poetry to express how you feel. Hyperbole to illustrate the magnitude of one’s emotions that are pretty much incomparable to everything else previously experienced.” Kasih gave him a curious look and wondered how he was doing with Alicia. To his credit, his face betrayed nothing.
“But it conveys desperation, and it’s influencing the masses! They’re so desperate for love they no longer freaking think about it. They think it’s some sort of ridiculous magic. One sight and poof! A goner. ‘I would do everything for you…’”
Bobo shook his head. “No. No no. Don’t sing, Bon. No.”
“But love’s not magic. It’s effort.” Kasih plucked a branch of oregano and shredded it on her plate. “It’s a choice. You choose to love. You decide, every day, what to do with that love, with this person. You make decisions based on that love, some of them great, but most of them mundane.”
“Exactly. But the media, in films and songs and television, is telling us to be ridiculous about it. Like that movie, what was it called? Gelora Cinta? Deruan Asmara?”
“Lautan Cinta,” Derek provided, looking at his furry friend amusedly.
“Thank you, yes. That cub was raped! And then she wanted her rapist to marry her! And then they fall in love? And… is this rubbish what we’re telling our females? That this is okay? That love will conquer all in the end, so by all means, marry the man who sexually assaulted you – given the right musculature prowess, he’ll probably be not that great of a jerk?”
Bobo looked alarmed. “Bonsiah, have you actually watched this film?”
“My sister made me,” he said quickly. “But my point is just that. Love is ridiculous. Love is an exaggeration. It’s become this stupid aim in life, and if you never find it, you’re told you might as well jump off the Kinabalu free-style and end it in a gory mess of blood, muscle and tendons.”
“Dude,” Marc shuddered, “enough with the imagery.”
“Fair enough,” Derek said. “Bon does have a point, Kasih.”
“I know that,” she growled at him in mock-anger. She sighed, filling her lungs what little air wasn’t already contaminated by secondhand smoke. “And I agree. But to dismiss how important love is because you don’t agree with the way it’s played out…”
“I don’t agree with the way it’s perceived,” Bon reiterated. “I don’t agree with people who fall in love unthinkingly and live the rest of their lives that way. I don’t agree that we are lesser animals if we have not experienced devastating love. I think that’s bullshit.”
“It is, but we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for love,” Marc pointed out. “Continuation of the species, anyone?”
Bobo grinned. “Oh, you don’t want to know my solution for that.”
A collective “Bobo dude, NO” rang across the balcony.
Later, when the males had all left (save for Derek, who was put to work cleaning the cobwebs near the ceiling), she found a heart-shaped card with four different animal prints on it, propped up in one of the salad bowls.
“No,” she laughed. “No – Derek, you didn’t!”
He peeked in from the living room, all teeth and dust. “It really wasn’t my idea. I told you, they’re all right cubs.”
We know we’re a bit of a pain, and we don’t always show it, but we like you. Thank you for never kicking us out when we come. Forgive Bon because contrary to that fluff on his butt, he’s a bit of an ass. (Get it??)
Happy Valentine’s Day!!
“Oh,” she said, chuckling. “That is rather cute of them.”
“So we can come again next Saturday after futsal?” He waggled his ears.
“Only if you buy me steak the night before.”
Syazwina spends her days subediting legal commentary for erratic punctuation and her nights doing editorial work for writers she believes in. She rants @syazwinasaw for a better Malaysia, or so she hopes.