Learning to be afraid
No one was more delighted with the stories of Mohammed bel Halfaoui than the storyteller himself. He had learned them from his mother, in the rhyming phrases of Arabic folktales. He would recite them in Arabic, then in French. Though the stories delighted me in the language I could understand, Mohammed always rued how much they lost in translation.
Still, the stories are layered and rich, even in English. This one seems sadly appropriate for the week after a crazed gunman in Arizona opened fire on Congresswoman Gabrielle Griffins. As I type, she lies in a hospital, a bullet hole through her head. Six others died.
It’s the day of their memorial service. Sarah Palin is accusing her opponents of “blood libel” for objecting to her placing shooting targets, aka crosshairs, on a map of Democrats (including Giffords) who voted for health care. President Obama is flying to Tucson to attend the service. His 2008 election unleashed a flood of racism and rhetoric that heightened the pervasive fear broken open by the attacks of September 2011.
The tragic shooting is leading to a lot of soul searching in a nation where bombast has replaced rational discussion in all too many arenas. Mainstream and independent media are filled with discussions about mental health, gun control, political discourse, social justice, and the need for civility.
The simple tale of a mouse and a kitten is ostensibly about two creatures who are predator and prey by nature. Their coming to that realization is normal, in the scheme of things. However, folktales are never about the surface story. Children are not born knowing who is predator and prey. They are not born recognizing The Other as enemy. This little story points out the problem, not the solution, but perhaps it can lead to some open discussion about tolerance and accepting differences.
One day, a little mouse said to his mother, “I’m big now. Let me go outside and play on my own. It’s not fair to keep me cooped up in this hole.”
The mouse’s mother had always watched over him carefully. She feared the dangers that threaten small mice. Most of all, she feared the cat, who would pounce on her child and eat him.
But at last, seeing how much her son had grown and how keen he was to explore the outside world, she agreed. “Very well, but don’t stay outside too long, and, above all, beware of the cat. He is our greatest enemy.”
The little mouse was thrilled. At last his dream was coming true. He was going outside alone, with no parents to scold him.
He ran outside, cheerful and proud. He felt like a grown-up mouse. He could go anywhere he wished, all by himself. He scurried around. Sometimes he stopped and raised his head, looking to the left, then to the right. Then he ran back and forth, delirious with happiness.
He was full of his new-found joy when he saw a little cat. “Oh, hooray,” he said to himself. “I can have a nice friend if this pretty little creature will play with me.”
The kitten was also out on his own for the very first time. As soon as he saw the little mouse, he said to himself, “What a pretty, sweet little creature. If only he wants to play with me!” He approached the little mouse as softly as he could.
The little mouse was delighted. “Do you want to play with me?”
The cat replied, “Yes, I do!”
The two young animals began to play tag. They wrestled and rolled on the ground. They boxed with their paws. They bit each other’s ears. They ran around in circles, chasing each other’s tails, but always gently, delighted with their game.
They forgot everything else until the sun began to set. The little mouse said to the kitten, “That’s enough for now. I’m afraid Mama will scold me. Goodbye.”
The kitten replied, “I’m sorry we have to stop. Goodbye. But tomorrow morning we’ll meet again and play like we did today.”
The little ones returned to their homes. When the mouse saw her son, she was relieved.
“Where were you, my child? I was so afraid for you. You were gone the whole day. I was very worried. I was afraid the cat had devoured you. Never stay outside such a long time! It’s not safe.”
But the little mouse was full of the day’s fun. He was impatient with his mother’s warnings. Finally he interrupted, “Oh, if I told you everything… I made a friend. We played together all day long. Oh, Mother, if you could see how cute he is, how handsome, how friendly. I’m sure you would like him. From now on, when I go outside, I won’t be alone. Now I have a friend to play with, from morning till night.”
His mother grew thoughtful. “Yes, my son, that’s good. That’s good. But tell me a little about your friend. Can you describe him to me?”
“Oh, Mama, if you only saw him! It’s true he’s a little bigger than I am but not too much. And his head is a little large and round. And his fur is as soft as silk, so nice to stroke. And he is yellow, and his tail is about that long and thick. And he doesn’t talk the way we do. It’s so pretty to hear him. He says, ‘Me…ow! Me…ow! Me…ow!’ Or he says, ‘Me…ew! Me…ew! Me…ew!’”
Mother Mouse was no longer listening. She had nearly fainted. What she had dreaded most had happened. It was a miracle her child was still alive.
“My dear child, your little friend is a cat! Creatures like that eat mice. He must still be very small and not yet know that mice are his daily food. But beware. His parents will tell him. Don’t go near him again.”
The little mouse didn’t understand a thing his mother said. How could such a sweet little friend ever think of eating him? He turned to his father.
Father Mouse laughed softly. Finally he said, “My little son, cats are our most dangerous enemies. Listen to your mother. Stay inside, safe from the cat. We’re warning you for your own good.”
That was the scene in the mouse’s home. Now let’s see what happened when the kitten went home. His mother was also upset and asked why he had stayed outside so long.
The kitten said, “Dear Mother, if you’d only seen the little friend I met. He’s so handsome, so cute. We played together all day long. We pretended to fight. He bit me; I bit him. He made me fall down. I made him fall down. I’m so lucky to find a good friend. I’ll never be alone when I go outside to play.”
Mother Cat was delighted to see her child so happy. Finally, she said, “Tell us about your pretty little friend.”
“Oh, Mama, if you saw him! He is little, much smaller than I am. He has a pretty, thin little tail. His little head isn’t round like mine. But he has such a pretty nose, narrow and pointed. His ears are pointed too, and so small. And he doesn’t talk like us. He says softly, ‘squeak, squeak’.”
“Little fool,” said his mother. “And you didn’t eat him? That was a mouse! And mice, you little nitwit, are what we eat. Do you understand? Cats eat mice. Always. And you actually had a mouse between your paws and let it get away and are proud of yourself? I am ashamed to have such a stupid child. Tomorrow, you must look for him. As soon as he is near, pounce. Grab him and gobble him up. Do you understand?”
The kitten could not believe his ears. “Eat him? But why? And then who would I play with?”
His father burst out laughing. “My son, listen to your mother. Cats eat mice and have since the world began. Tomorrow we will see what kind of cat you are. As soon as the little mouse comes near, jump on him and devour him. Show us that you are a real cat.
When morning came, the kitten went outside in search of the little mouse. But there was no trace of the mouse anywhere. Not in the courtyard. Not in the street.
Then the kitten saw a tiny hole. He watched it carefully and recognized the shiny eyes of his little mouse friend, safe inside his home.
In his sweetest, slyest voice, the kitten said, “Hello. Come on out, and we’ll play as we did yesterday.”
But the little mouse cried out, “Never! Everything your father and mother told you yesterday, my father and mother told me.”
And so the story ends, of the mouse who learned about cats and the kitten who learned about mice.
A post script: In an opinion piece in the January 11th issue of the New York Times, Robert Wright has this to say: “The point is that Americans who wildly depict other Americans as dark conspirators, as the enemy, are in fact increasing the chances, however marginally, that those Americans will be attacked.” His piece is aptly titled: “First Comes Fear”.