Tizwot’s request – a story about the prayers we pray
by Lyndall Bywater (January 2019)
As it happened, Scratchit was the first of the three to receive her visit the next morning. The Great Spirit creature wiped his feet on her mat, which got things off to a good start, and then sat tidily at her kitchen table.
‘Thank you for coming to see me, o Great Spirit,’ began Scratchit. ‘I am most honoured and privileged to receive thee in my very humble abode. Thou art above all other beings …’
‘Erm … do you mind if we talk in normal words, dear Scratchit Cat? I get a lot of that “thee’ and “thou” from the eagles and I find it rather wearying.’
‘Yes, OK … I presume thou hast … I mean, you have read my request? Well, I would like to add a few other details, so you can see how serious this situation is, and so you can plan your strike. Only yesterday, after you’d greeted us all, that vile rat had the insolence to call you an “overgrown Guinea pig”! As I said in my request, this situation is bad, and getting worse. But I have every confidence in you. I was taught at my mother’s knee that you are the one who answers our requests, and that you are the one who conquers our enemies.’
The Capybara rubbed its ear with a webbed foot. ‘I think “overgrown Guinea pig” is a fair description … but perhaps that’s not for discussion now. I see this situation has indeed got you very stirred up, Scratchit Cat. But I have to be honest with you and tell you that I can’t do what you ask.’
The cat looked bewildered for a moment, and then enlightenment came. ‘Ah, of course! It’s because you are in your capybara form. I can see that this animal shape isn’t suitable for the extermination of rats or the knocking down of unwanted buildings. It’s rather … cuddly, isn’t it? And presumably you can’t change form while you’re with us … for some reason … but I’d be very happy to be your weapon. Give me permission, and perhaps a superpower or two, and I will be your avenging angel.’ Scratchit’s hackles bristled and her eyes gleamed malevolent green as she spoke.
‘No, it’s not that. It’s because I can see so much more than you can. For you, this rat is a problem. You don’t like him and you don’t want him around. For you, the simplest thing would be for him to go away … or be eviscerated. Isn’t that so?’
That violent word, the one she’d used the day before, being spoken by that gentle voice, made Scratchit squirm inside, but she nodded. ‘He’s a menace, and this venture of his is a curse. It’s not just me that thinks that. All the right-thinking residents in this street are on my side.’
‘Therein lies the problem,’ said the capybara, ‘I cannot take sides. That is because I cannot unsee the side you dislike so much. I see Francesca Mouse who is desperate for work, but needs to be as near home as possible because of her little ones, and I see old Reggie Horse who’s struggling to find buyers for the salad crops in his market garden. And then of course I see Wrong’un Rat, who’s very far from being all wrong. He behaves badly much of the time, but he has a heart, just like you, and this venture comes from somewhere deep within that heart.’
Scratchit snorted. ‘The only heart he’s got is to fleece this neighbourhood for all he can get. You’d be doing Fran and Reggie a favour if you got rid of him now, before he can do any further damage. The burger bar might give Fran a job and Reggie some custom, but you’ve got to weigh that against the damage it will do to this little street of ours.’
‘And what damage is that, dear Scratchit Cat?’
Scratchit was still for a moment, a sudden sadness replacing the fury. ‘Some things are plain wrong. Maybe not everyone would agree with me, but I know that this is wrong. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve tried to see it another way, but I just know it’s wrong. It will threaten all that’s good about this place. Of course it will, because it comes from the mind of a trouble-maker. If it succeeds, then he has won, and his trouble-making will go on and on.’
There was another, longer silence.
‘Scratchit Cat, I understand it. You do not want a wrong thing to happen. This situation brings much pain and fear to you, and you cannot see any good in it. But I must be honest with you and say that I cannot call this situation “wrong”. Wrong things are not the things we don’t like; wrong things are the things which threaten the fabric of life and being. I cannot promise to remove the rat or his project. I breathed him out and I inspire him still, even though he is often rebellious. Like you, he is my precious creation and I love him.’
Scratchit stood, scraping her chair hard across the floor in a new blaze of anger. ‘Then what is the point in making requests of you at all. What is the point of asking you for anything, if you can’t promise to defend us and keep us safe?’
There was a deep sorrow in the capybara’s eyes as he looked up at her. ‘Precious Scratchit Cat, you are my child and I would fight for you with every fibre of my being. To see you afraid or in pain makes my heart sick with grief. But I think that you and I may have different ideas of how I defend you and how I keep you safe. My protection does not build you a stronghold where you can hide from the things you don’t like. It does not raise a bulwark against all the things you fear. It does not fire-bomb all your enemies on demand. My protection is the clarion call to live more fully. It calls you up, to soar above the things you used to hide from. It grants you strength to face your fears, and love to befriend your enemies. I do not come to help you shrink your world till it feels safe and doable. I come to draw you on into a spacious place, where you will walk with confidence through all that is challenging and uncomfortable about this world. You are a cat, after all. I know no other creature who can stroll along knife-edge narrow places with such ease and grace.’
Scratchit couldn’t resist a purr of appreciation. ‘True, we are rather good at the fancy climbing stuff.’
‘I cannot grant the request you posted through Wesley Bear’s door yesterday, but I would still very much like to grant you a request. Could you think of another? Remember that I see all things. I see Wrong’un Rat’s heart, and I also see yours. I know that, when you think about this community, there are longings that go deeper than the closing of a café or the evisceration of a troublesome rat. These are relatively new arrivals in your world, but your love for this little street goes very much deeper, does it not?’ Scratchit thought for a long time, then nodded. ‘And so I will ask you: what is your truest, deepest longing for this place?’ Before Scratchit could answer, he hurried on: ‘Don’t tell me now. Think on my question, and write your new request on a piece of paper, then post it through Wesley Bear’s door before six o’clock this evening.’
So saying, the capybara stood up and embraced the now thoughtful cat. ‘Thank you, Scratchit Cat, for telling me what troubles you. I have heard you and your words will not be in vain.’
When the capybara arrived at Fixit’s house, there was a flipchart set up on one wall of the living-room. Along the top, Fixit had written ‘GOALS’ in large, square letters, and down the left-hand side were the letters of the word ‘SMART’.
‘Smart goals, O Great Spirit … they will help us have a more productive conversation.’
‘I am honoured that you have given this little conversation of ours so much forethought, Fixit Dog. I have always loved your can-do approach to life.’
‘I’m glad you see that, O Great Spirit,’ said Fixit, barely letting the capybara get settled in his seat before wielding her marker pen. ‘You see, this Rat Caf idea is clearly going ahead. I saw you come out of Scratchit’s and I’m sure she was trying to persuade you to burn it down or something, but that’s hardly appropriate, is it … and hardly necessary. It may not have been our favourite local development – not for most of us anyway – but these things happen. The crucial thing is to make sure we take control of it now. We can steer lots of things in the right direction if you get to work on the suggestions I’ve made in my request list.’
Fixit had to stop eventually, if only to draw breath. When she did, the Capybara smiled and gestured to the chair next to him. ‘Take a seat for a few moments, dear Fixit Dog.’
‘Well, I would, but I can’t reach the …’
‘Don’t worry about the smart goals for the moment, friend. Let’s just talk.’
Fixit looked dubious, but she sat anyway.
‘You mentioned being in control. That is important to you, isn’t it?’
‘Of course it is. We can’t stop rats from having crazy ideas. What’s done is done. But with you on hand to intervene, we can make sure things are done properly.’
‘I understand you, Fixit Dog, but what would you say if I told you that even I don’t have the power to make Wrong’un Rat comply with your smart goals?’
Fixit looked non-plussed. ‘You don’t?’
‘Well, I do have that power, but I choose not to use it.’
‘May I ask why?’
‘Because I am not a tyrant and you are not robots.’
‘But if you know you could make things better … if you saw a situation which would be greatly improved by just a few tweaks … wouldn’t you want to intervene? Of course I appreciate that you don’t perhaps know all the tweaks which might be beneficial in this local situation of ours – you must be very busy tweaking all sorts of other potentially disastrous situations around the world – but that’s where I come in. I can bring you up to speed on …’
‘Fixit Dog,’ said the capybara, his voice bubbling with suppressed laughter, ‘I know all things.’
‘Oh, yes, well, of course you do … I just meant …’
‘I know what you meant, dear one, and I honour you for caring enough to want Wrong’un Rat’s venture to go well, for him and for your neighbours. But I cannot grant your list of requests, I’m afraid. You ask me to impose my will – or your will – where I have no right to impose it.’
‘If you don’t mind me asking, then, what is the point of making any requests of you at all.’ Fixit’s tone was uncharacteristically sharp.
‘What is the point of having a Great Spirit who doesn’t follow orders, you mean?’
The amusement in his tone softened the words, and Fixit smiled. ‘Yes, I suppose that’s a fair point.’
‘I told Scratchit Cat that I have not come to take sides, and I am telling you, Fixit Dog, that I have not come to take over. You are creatures with irresistible will and glorious creativity, and I give each of you the freedom to make your own lives. I do not rearrange each of your imperfect notions so that no-one ever makes a mistake, and I do not limit my blessing to only those things which are right in every aspect.’
‘That sounds risky to me. I mean, giving us freedom is lovely, but wouldn’t it be better all round if you just fixed our mess as we went along? Or, better still, why not make sure everything’s right before we set out. That way success is guaranteed, and that’s got to be good for everyone, hasn’t it? It’s not that I want to control the rat’s project exactly … it’s just that I figure a successful outcome is best for all concerned, and if you can make that happen, why wouldn’t you want to?’
‘Because, unlike you, I am not a fixer. My way is not to quality-control every plan you creatures make. My way is to walk with you into the unknown, helping you to learn along the way. My way is to encourage you to adventure – to leave the path and forage in the undergrowth, finding the treasures that will never come to the light of day unless an intrepid soul seeks them out. Now, you dogs are meant to be rather good at that, aren’t you?’
Fixit wrinkled her large, wet nose. ‘Well, I’ve found a few truffles in my time, yes, but I got a bit tired of all the mud in my coat, so I decided tidy paths were better.’
‘You, my friend, need to rediscover the joy of a bath,’ said the capybara, looking wistful as he scratched his stomach. ‘There is more need in this world, Fixit Dog, for forging new ways than for fixing faulty plans. But if the faulty plans still bother you, take courage from this: I can influence even the most ill-fated of schemes, without needing to take control. Where I am invited in, there is the fine wine of wisdom, the oil of goodness and the fresh water of hope. I will help and heal, strengthen and renew, but I will not dictate.’
Fixit got to her feet and ripped down the flipchart paper. ‘Then I respectfully withdraw my request, and I offer you my sincerest apologies for asking something so inappropriate. I was only trying to help.’ She dashed at her eyes with a paw.
‘Oh, beloved Fixit Dog, I haven’t come to take over, but neither have I come to ignore you. Your requests are important to me. Just because you have made one I can’t grant, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t grant another one.’
Fixit thought for a while, then lifted sad eyes to the gentle creature beside her. ‘I don’t know what else to ask you for. I have always asked you to take over and put things right. You are the Great Spirit. That’s what you do. What other request is there?’
‘You, Fixit Dog, are entirely too bothered by details. You are for ever telling me how things should be done, but beneath the “how” is the “what”. The “what” is the longing which lies deepest in your heart. You may have a million brilliant ideas about how Wrong’un Rat’s burger emporium should be run, and you may see all the errors that need correcting, but your ideas and your problem-solving abilities are only one part of you. I love talking the details with you, Fixit Dog, but your request to me needs to come from somewhere deeper in your soul. The question you need to ask yourself is this: what is your truest, deepest longing for this place? I do not believe that your truest, deepest longing is a list of tweaks and corrective measures. It is something that stirs your heart and brings you to tears. When you have made that request of me, I promise I will read all your lists.’
Fixit looked baffled, but the capybara gave her a gentle pat as he rose. ‘Think on it,’ he said, ‘and write down that one request. Then put it through Wesley Bear’s door by six o’clock this evening.’
The capybara hopped up into Tizwot’s armchair, tucked his feet up and took the mug of tea from her. ‘Here I am, Tizwot Sheep, barely in your house for a minute and I’ve already answered your request. It is an honour to be with one whose requirements are so simple.’
‘Well, I didn’t really know what to ask you, O Great Spirit, and when in doubt, I always ask people round for tea. I’m a simple sheep – everyone will tell you that. I try not to get involved in any of the politics around here. Things are what they are, and all any of us can really do is accept that fact … and put the kettle on.’
‘A very peaceable philosophy, friend. I can see why you are such a loved and respected resident of this pretty little street. While others close their doors and make their stands, you keep an open mind, and open heart and an open home. I can’t help wondering though: is that really the only request you wanted to make of me?’
‘Are there not things which you’d like to see change, either in your life or in this little street?’
‘I haven’t really thought about it. And even if I had, who am I to say what should change here? That’s your job, isn’t it?’
‘I suppose you could say that I take more than an active interest, yes, but I never want to make those decisions on my own.’
‘Why ever not? You’re all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise … surely you’re the best one to decide what’s best for us. You’re the Great Spirit, the mystery of all mysteries. You breathed out the stars; you sang the oceans into being; you moulded the mountains and embroidered the meadows. What can we ever do or say or think or ask that would be worthy of you, O all-surpassing one?’
Tizwot’s gaze seemed to have drifted to some far horizon, so the capybara coughed. ‘Thank you, Tizwot Sheep. Those are beautiful words. I am indeed creator and ruler, but I have never asked to be left in sole charge. I created living things in order that we might share this beautiful world together. I gave you hearts and minds in order that we might determine its destiny together. When you make requests of me, I do not just file them away and do my own thing; I listen to them; I need them, because, in the very act of asking, you help me to create. Your longings, your hopes and your dreams … they are the raw material for what is to come … they are the DNA of the new.’
Tizwot shook her head. ‘I’ve rather missed a trick here, haven’t I? I don’t know if I understand all that you just said, but I think you were meaning I should think of a request to make. Is that right?’
‘But what about the things my mother taught me? She was a wise old ewe and she told me many solemn things. She told me that you have a plan for this world. You are the Great Shepherd who leads his flock wherever he chooses. Ours is not to find our own pasture. Ours is to follow you.’
‘Tizwot Sheep, you’ll be pleased to know that your beautiful mother is still bending my ears with her endless wisdom. Death may have taken her beyond your hearing now, but she’s not beyond mine.’ The capybara chuckled.
Tizwot laughed. ‘Oh, I am so happy to hear that!’
‘And of course, she is right. I dare not say otherwise! I am indeed a shepherd, and you sheep understand shepherds so very well. But I think you also understand yourselves, don’t you? There is nothing so stubborn as a sheep who thinks she’s found something better than what is on offer in her current field. She will force her way through hedges, wade through ditches and, in some parts of the world, even try to climb steep rock-faces to get to the richer food. Oh, I grant that you can all be terribly flock-like sometimes, but we shepherds know it’s only a ruse to lull us into a false sense of security. Deep down, you are not easily satisfied.’
Tizwot stared out of her window at her garden – the garden with the spectacular lawn, which she had acquired by brute determination. When she had come to visit the pretty little street, the estate agent had told her that the only house on offer was one at the far end with a tiny concrete yard at the back. Tizwot’s nose had told her that Number 3 had a lush, tasty lawn just behind it. The agent was adamant that Number 3 was not on the market, and would not be available for public sale at any time, but he had reckoned without the stubbornness of a sheep, and that was why she now owned Number 3, lawn and all.
‘Have you never realised that your stubbornness is one of the many forces I use to create new things?’ Asked the capybara gently.
‘No. My mother told me my stubbornness should be beaten out of me at the earliest opportunity,’ said Tizwot.
‘Spoken like a truly stubborn creature,’ laughed the capybara. ‘I can promise you that her stubbornness helped many new creations come to life – not least you, dear Tizwot Sheep.’
‘But I don’t want to become unbending like Scratchit or obsessively interfering like Fixit. I love them but they are not always kind in their rigidness.’
‘Your friends are often held captive to fear and control, and stubbornness can of course be fuelled by both of those things, but it can also be fuelled by deep love and fervent hope.’
Tizwot looked sceptical. ‘Some of my brothers and sisters were that kind of sheep. They believed in things. They put their hearts and souls into them, and then they were disappointed. Maybe I’ve given up being stubborn because it makes it easier to accept things for what they are …’ She faltered as the capybara turned his gaze back to that lush lawn outside.
‘Could you find it in you to hope stubbornly on behalf of the friends you love so much? They need that.’
‘If you wish to be even wiser than your mother, Tizwot, keep accepting things as they are, but learn to hope for what they might become. And you could practise that skill even today, on behalf of the friends and neighbours you love. Write me another request – and not an invite for tea this time, because I take those as read. Ask yourself this: what is your truest, deepest longing for this place? When you’ve got the answer, write it to me as a request, and put it through Wesley Bear’s door by six o’clock this evening.’
With that, he clambered down from the cosy armchair and gave her a little bow. ‘It has been an honour to tea with you, Tizwot Sheep.’