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Author’s Note: This story is adapted from a short parable by Elder James E. Talmage, called “The Grateful Cat” published in the Improvement Era, August 1916, pp. 875-876.
The young man lay at the edge of the precipice, hidden by the height of the cliff. He thought he had heard a tiny yipping from something concealed beneath the rocks below. And so he waited.
A mother coyote appeared from the scrub oak on the east face of the hillside. She glided quietly through the sagebrush and into the den. She was carrying something large in her mouth, probably a rabbit.
After several moments, she returned from the shadows to the sunlight and stretched herself out. In a moment two pups followed her, then a third. They rolled and frolicked with each other and then attacked her with childish ferocity, pulling at her ears and tail and the loose folds of skin around her shoulders and rump. She lay oblivious, simply raising her head from time to time to scan the land before her, alert to any danger.
Watching these creatures of the wild enthralled him. They would never know he was there and bolt in terror as long as he remained still. And so he watched them intently, motionless and silent.
Finally he stood to leave. He was surprised that the animals did not sense his movements and dash to safety. But they remained below, unaware.
Then it happened. With terrifying thoughtlessness, he picked up the large rock at his feet, held it over the void, and let it go. It was an action he would never understand-one that would bring him pain for the rest of his life. Years later, as he watched animals in the wild, meaning no harm, wanting only to observe, to study, to learn, he would remember the feel of the dirt on the ragged edges of that stone, and he would watch it fall from his fingers, twisting and tumbling, slowly, unerringly unthinkably toward the family of coyotes below.
He had examined his purposes so often that he was no longer certain of the division between reality and longing. He believed that it had been his intent to see what would happen if he frightened them; to see how quickly the pups could be carried or chased to safety. But deep down, he knew that he had wondered if, from that distance, he could actually . . .
A single, piercing cry of agony came to him as the stone struck the mother in the middle of the back behind the shoulders. The babies were gone in an instant, fleeing into the security of the huge rocks. He did not see them go. He stared, horrified, leaning over the edge of the precipice, willing the mother coyote to get up and follow her family.
She tried. But something was terribly wrong. She raised her head, planted her front feet and tried to stand, but from the shoulders back, she was dead weight. And as he finally sank to his knees, and then sat, he began to comprehend the enormity of what he had done. He watched her as she stretched her front legs and pulled herself, inch by excruciating inch, toward the crevice. And he comprehended with dreadful clarity what would happen if she completed her journey.
He ran to the back of the cliff, sprinted down a perilous ridgeline, and then raced to the entrance of the den. The mother was gone. He knelt and looked inside.
He saw no movement in the shadow-filled den and heard only the distant whimpering of three tiny animals trapped behind the dying body of a broken and paralyzed mother.
He could do nothing. The rocks were fifty times too large to move. And so he crouched there, too far into pain for tears, and covenanted with himself that he would always remember this moment.
He always did. He followed the dreams of his youth into adulthood and became a naturalist, and his heart filled with affection for wild animals. He knew, as only those know who have observed the cycles of life, that many animals are endowed with an authentic, wonderful, instinctual intellect. He spent a summer watching the glacier (blue) bears on the Yakutat Peninsula of Alaska. He spent a year observing orangutans in the rain forests of Borneo. He identified new species of hummingbirds in South America and reported in National Geographic on the life cycle of the South African fur seal.
He had always believed in a God, but it was through his relationships with the animals that he came to know something of Him. He believed he could see the hand of a joyous, careful, loving Creator behind the actions of the animals. Seeing it, his love for the animals, and for their Creator, grew together.
Finally, when he was too old for the jungles and glaciers, he settled down on a country estate in Minnesota, which he named the Coyote’s Den. He built a house surrounded by a green wood and lovely ponds. He was by then renowned throughout the world by students of natural history as one of the great men of his profession. And he was revered by the members of his congregation as a man of deep and unshakable faith.
He walked each day along the quiet and secluded paths of his estate, choosing at his pleasure the lake, the brook, or the forest. He did not walk for exercise, but for enjoyment. And a little stroll might at a whim consume an entire morning as he gave himself wholly to the observation of a flock of mallards or a tree full of chickadees. He was constantly delighted by what he saw. The animals were a source of serenity to him and his awareness of them was a kind of worship. They taught him the greatest lessons he learned.
One bright morning, at the edge of the water near the spruce thicket where his property ended, he found two boys with a basket, shouting, cheering, and laughing. He made his way to them. In the basket were three tiny, whining kittens. Two others were drowning in the pool. The mother cat was racing about on the bank, rampant in her distress.
The naturalist understood the chilling indifference of a boy’s cruelty. He remembered himself at the edge of the crag, watching the twisting, tumbling rock. He asked the boys to stop for a moment, then sat to comfort the mother cat.
The boys were not intimidated nor embarrassed. When he asked them about their activities, they answered him with respect and honesty. They were the children of the gardener of a neighbouring estate. The mother cat was the owner’s particular pet, but she wanted no other cats about, and she had paid the boys to bring the kittens here and drown them.
With the mother cat somewhat calmed beside him, he assured the boys that he knew the cat’s owner and would speak with her. He gave them each a dollar, and took the three living kittens and the basket, and returned home.
The mother cat seemed to know what he was doing. This did not surprise him, for he knew animals. As he carried the kittens, she came with him, sometimes following, sometimes alongside, occasionally rubbing against his legs. At his home, he prepared a resting place for the kittens and left them with their mother in great contentment.
The next day was his birthday, and his friends had planned a celebration. A number of friends and associates gathered to honour him. They were seated in the parlour on the ground floor, he in the center, discussing the patterns of his life, when the cat came in through a door opened to catch the breeze off the lake. In her mouth she carried a large, fat mouse. Women in the room jumped back, gasping. Men laughed and stared. One started for the cat, intending to remove her. The naturalist stopped him with a gesture. The mother cat surveyed the room with singleness of purpose and located the man who had saved her children. She then walked to him and laid the mouse at his feet.
Instant confusion and insistent questions followed, which, for a moment, the man was not inclined to answer. He stared with reverent awe at the cat, and then reached out to lift her to his lap, to stroke her back and tickle her ears. After a moment, he returned her to the floor. Satisfied, she turned and departed. When the cat was gone, the naturalist picked up the mouse and left the room by the same door. He secured a shovel, turned a spadeful of dirt, and covered the mouse. Then he returned to the party and, in response to the questions asked, told the story of the events of the previous day.
Much amused chuckling and a great deal of conversation and questioning ensued. Who would have dreamed of a cat offering the gift of a mouse to the savior of her children? It was most unusual.
The naturalist listened in bemused silence for a time and then asked for the attention of his acquaintances.
“What do you think of this gift?” he asked. “A mouse, for goodness’ sake. And not just a mouse; a magnificent mouse, robust and fat. I have watched the field mice, and I have never seen a better specimen. I understand your loathing, your amusement, your wonder. But never mind how we feel about it. How does the cat feel about it?”
The owner of the cat responded, “To the cat, this was a wonderful gift!”
“Precisely,” responded the host. “To her understanding, no rational creature could feel anything but gratitude over an offering such as this. Any sensible cat would be gratified by such a present. And let us admit that this cat cannot comprehend beings unable to appreciate a mouse for a meal.”
“But certainly you will admit,” said Mr. Stoddard, “that the spectacle was bizarre.”
“I admit it at once,” he replied. “But be careful how loud you laugh. I attended church this past Sunday with some of you. Mr. Stoddard, I think you gave a dollar when the plate was passed. How desperately does God need your money? Will the sun stop shining if He doesn’t pay the light bill? Will foreign missionary service grind to a halt without your support? Would you repay God for the gift of His Son and the miracle of salvation with a dollar? Even with a dollar every week of your life? Can you not see that your donations and your freewill gifts are as thoroughly unnecessary to His needs as the mouse is to mine?
“Mrs. Hartleson, you have provided lovely flowers for the pulpit each Sunday this season. They are always beautiful; a lovely, quiet reminder of the beauty of the world God has given us. But does God need your flowers? Does the Being who designed and planted the first orchid, the first lily, and the first rose need your cuttings to satisfy His love of beauty? Are you not bringing mice to the feet of the Almighty with your offerings?
“If what you are saying is true, then there is no reason to give at all,” replied Mrs. Hartleson. “Sacrifice and service to God are wasted exertion.”
“Wasted?” The man smiled as he replied. “No, hardly wasted. My friend, we give our gifts, as the cat did, not because God needs them, for all things are His, but because we need to give. We must somehow show our gratitude, and we know of no other way. And more than that, giving helps us remember our debt, if we give in such a way that we are brought back again and again to the gate of Gethsemane and the foot of the cross. The cat did not bring the mouse to pay off a debt, but because she remembered.”
“And so, like the cat that remembered my kindness, we come with our lifeless mice, certain that our gifts must please God greatly. How thankful we should be that He evaluates the offerings and sacrifices of His children by the standard of our current ability and willingness to give and our honest intent, rather than by the value of our gifts to Him. He understands and accepts our humble motives and honest desires to please Him, even though He, personally, has no use at all for our donations. Our need to serve Him is limitlessly greater than His need for our service. Our need to remember is immeasurably greater than His need to be remembered.”