For some time now I’ve been ruminating on Aesop’s fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” On the surface, the story tells of two mice-one from a rural environment and one from an urban environment-who interact with one another inside the home territories of the other over a meal. In Jerry Pinkney’s version of the tale, the City Mouse wants to show the Country Mouse how much better the food is in the city so they journey there. As they prepare to dine, a cat interrupts them and nearly makes them dinner. The City Mouse then tells the Country Mouse of their great fortune in not having to encounter the dog who has a history of interrupting mealtime. With that, the Country Mouse decides to head back home. According to Pinkney’s version, the moral of the story is this: “Poverty in safety is better than riches in peril.” I understand how one could derive this meaning from the tale, but a more pressing element of the story emerges in my reading about what it means to be a good guest or the recipient of hospitality.
In Pinkney’s version of the fable, the Country Mouse works deliberately and with great care to gather food to share with her cousin who she has invited for dinner. Though the City Mouse tries to appreciate the meal, she simply finds it too meagre and so she invites her cousin to take leave of the country and travel home with her to the city in order to enjoy a more bountiful feast. When they arrive in the city at a grand mansion featuring a table where the remains of a banquet await, I was struck by the Town Mouse’s exclamation: “Look at all the good things here!” This was striking in light of the diligence that went into preparing the country meal as we are told that the Country Mouse “worked all day to prepare the dinner, gathering a few peas, a stalk of barley, a crust of bread, and cold water in a green leaf to drink.” Unlike the banquet remains that sat available for easy scavenging, the country meal required careful, skillful work; why should such thoughtful, deliberate, careful, and skillful work get translated into poverty? I don’t understand why performing such labor makes one poor. Instead of being honored by being the recipient of such great care, the Town Mouse rejects these gifts of hospitality for a bounty that actually resulted from another’s waste.
When I reflect on my childhood, it seems like the entire experience was designed to teach me what it meant to be the recipient of another’s care. It seems that my earliest lessons were in learning to show gratitude for the food that was made for me, the cleanliness of my environment, and the plans that were made on my behalf; these were all things that I needed to be grateful for. I was taught to believe that I owned nothing; everything that I even thought to claim was at best borrowed and could be taken away at any moment. My grandfather made it clear that while I could lay claim to having a “home,” the “house” belonged to my grandmother and to him; “my room” was actually a space where I slept but where my mother could enter at any time and determine its condition. For me then, being a guest in someone else’s home was very much like being in my own in that I was residing in a space that did not belong to me and so I needed to honor those who were providing me with it. I was taught that my physical labor as well as the verbal acknowledgement of my appreciation were forms of payment that I could use in showing gratitude to my hosts. These were valuable lessons. As a child, then, I was being introduced to the work of asking myself to discover the contributions that I could make to my environment and to my community despite my not having money, credentials, authority, or possessions.
I was talking to my neighbor about her nephew who stays with them off and on during the summer and she tells me that he treats her “like the maid,” or as she says, “like his idea of what it would be like to have a maid since his family has never had the means to hire domestic help.” So her nephew occasionally fails to make-up the bed and when he does, it looks nothing like the neat and tidy bed that she prepared for him or that approximates what the other made-up beds look like in the house. He never acknowledges the work she put into preparing a meal with any kind remarks about the food; he only sometimes thanks her for cooking. When he washes dishes, he only washes the ones that he uses. As I listened to her describe all of the things that her nephew failed to acknowledge, I saw him as the Town Mouse who expected bounty to await him and who overlooked the bounty that was gathered on his behalf.
It is still worthwhile to keep in mind the work that is done for our sake; to see this work as our bounty. This work commits us to repayment. Dismissing the Country Mouse’s work as a sign of poverty removes it from the terms of responsibility and thus from acknowledging debt. Constructing poverty in this typical way assumes that the poor can’t be owed anything as they are without anything of worth or value that they would have or could have contributed. What Aesop’s fable shows us is that while Country mouse did not have money, she did have talents and skills that allowed her to extend hospitality. The lessons of my childhood taught me a similar lesson: I was without money, status, and power but I had my labor and my talents to offer as thanks. In my reading of the fable and its larger significance, Town Mouse had a responsibility to pay tribute to Country Mouse for her deliberate, thoughtful, and skillful work, but she did not honor her responsibility. In not doing so, Town Mouse failed at being a good guest and this failing marks her impoverishment despite her ability to find food in mansions.