I bought Jerry Pinkney’s Caldecott winning book The Lion & The Mouse for my son but I barely let him near it. I probably would be afraid to let him near it even if it were a board book because he has a habit of moistening, biting, and tearing those too.

Front cover of Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion & The Mouse

Pinkney’s version of this tale only comes out when I think Miles might be too groggy to want to handle it.

Back cover of Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion & The Mouse

The watercolor paintings throughout the book look lifelike and make identifying animals an easy and sumptuous pleasure. In his “Artist’s Note,” Pinkney identifies this story as his favorite of Aesop’s Fables:

The tale of a mouse who accidentally disturbs a lion from his rest, and the lion who makes a life-changing decision to release his prey. When the mouse remembers her debt, she frees the lion from a poacher’s trap. For me, this story offers far more than a simple moral of how the meek can trump the mighty […] as an adult I’ve come to appreciate how both animals are equally large at heart: the courageous mouse, and the lion who must rise above his beastly nature to set his small prey free.

When released, the mouse returns to a family of dependents. The only words in the story are the sounds of animals and when the mouse hears the lion’s roar, the images show the mouse moving towards the sound of a lion caught in a poacher’s trap.

Jerry Pinkney The Lion & The Mouse

The mouse must work diligently to free the lion. Over at least four frames, the mouse frees lion and returns home.

The power of Pinkney’s interpretation of this fable comes from his presentation of a possible upside to debt. In this case, debt tied the mouse to the well-being of another creature. When presented with an opportunity, the mouse served as a witness to lion’s good deed. The mouse’s actions honored the memory of lion’s mercy.

Now I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make mention of Toni Morrison’s Beloved at this juncture. In that magisterial work, Stamp Paid offers an account of debt that differs from Pinkney’s but has just as much responsibility in it. Morrison writes that Stamp Paid:

Born Joshua, renamed himself when he handed over his wife to his master’s son. Handed her over in the sense that he did not kill anybody, thereby himself, because his wife demanded he stay alive. Otherwise, she reasoned, where and to whom could she return when the boy was through? With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything. Whatever his obligations were, that act paid them off. He thought it would make him rambunctious, renegade–a drunkard even, the debtlessness, and in a way it did. But there was nothing to do with it. Work well; work poorly. Work a little; work not at all. Make sense; make none. Sleep, wake up; like somebody, dislike others. It didn’t seem much of a way to live and it brought him no satisfaction. So he extended this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery. Beaten runaways? He ferried them and rendered them paid for; gave them their own bill of sale, so to speak. “You paid it; now life owes you.” (184-185)

With the priceless sacrifice of his wife, Stamp Paid became free from artificial economic debt but not organic human obligation. He decides that his obligations to other people from whom life had extracted similar exorbitant fees make life worthwhile.

The work of gnawing through the nets that hold animals or people in captivity links Morrison’s presentation of debtlessness with Pinkney’s presentation of indebtedness. Banks try to make debt a morality tale. From the perspective of Morrison’s work, it’s a tale of soul murdering exploitation.

It may be impossible to stand outside of debt. In Pinkney’s case that might be a very good thing. Debt binds a world of distinction and difference; it commits you to others and acts against indifference. Debt is worthwhile when it assists in forging community; same with debtlessness. Debt may be stumbled upon in the natural world just like the mouse who unwittingly disrupts the lion’s rest. The gravity of this accident should prompt us all to think carefully about the debt we choose.