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Hildegarde, beside him, murmured her own version, and together they explained the dangerous situation coming up and asked for heightened security and a day with bright sunshine. "If it be Thy will," Hildegarde added politely at the conclusion.

"Yes, of course," Roderick said. "Amen."

***

The Blessing of the Animals took place every year at Saint Bartholemew's—outdoors, in the churchyard garden, if the weather was good, and fortunately it had been, for several years now. Rain? The whole thing moved inside. For the church mice, a rainy October fourth was much to be feared.

The ceremony was held in honor of the twelfth-century monk Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis had, it was said, so loved all living creatures that he had preached to the birds and they had silenced their twittering, sat very still on their branches, and listened attentively. The stained-glass window indicated that they had sat on his shoulders and in the palm of his outstretched hand, as well, though there is no way to know, after more than eight hundred years, whether that was true.

Each year the parishioners were invited to bring their pets to be blessed. Each year the ceremony had become larger and larger in numbers, and the previous year, the procession had wound out of the churchyard and down the small road that led to the church.

The church newsletter had requested that pet owners, when appropriate, bring scoopers and plastic bags. Golden retrievers, especially, overwhelmed by the magnificence and solemnity, often let loose on the flagstone path.

Cleanup wasn't necessary, of course, for turtles or canaries, and there were always several of both. Children carried cages and terrariums. Dogs walked beside their owners on leashes. Toddlers clutched pet bunnies. Last year a young girl had brought her horse, its bridle entwined with fall asters and ribbons. Walking beside its owner, the horse suddenly paused and peed what seemed to be gallons onto a groundcover of periwinkle. Everyone in the procession waited politely, because there is no way to interrupt a horse mid-pee. The priest, Father Murphy, a passionate gardener, closed his eyes during the wait, and many people suspected he was praying for the survival of his periwinkle. Nonetheless, when the horse, who was by then loudly munching a bouquet of late daylilies that he had wrenched from a decorative border, reached the front of the line, the good father smiled benignly, touched the coarse mane with a few drops of holy oil, and bestowed a blessing.

Hildegarde, recalling this, could imagine the loud clop of horse hooves on the tiled center aisle had the day been rainy last year. But the sun had been brightly shining on the October morning. She and other church mice had watched the event, as they always did, from inside the sanctuary, through peepholes and windows. Several brave adolescents had made their way up into the belfry, and later described the view of the procession from such a high place. The horse, they reported, seemed as small as a mouse; a Saint Bernard was minuscule as they looked down on him; and the cats—the many, many cats—were barely visible, just pieces of fluff in children's arms.

Video cameras always whirred in the background, and in recent years the local TV station had sent a cameraman and a reporter, who whispered into a microphone as if she were commenting on a golf tournament. Two years ago the perky reporter, eyes widening in amazement as a large, stately animal led by a woman holding its halter strode past, had murmured into the mike, "My goodness! I believe this is a llama we're seeing!" But the creature's owner, overhearing the reporter, turned with a frown and corrected her tersely. "Vicuña," she said.

It was a memorable, impressive event every October. But Hildegarde and Roderick, praying now for divine protection as the time of the ceremony approached, understood exactly what danger was facing them at the Blessing of the Animals.

The procession and ceremony grew bigger and more disorganized every year.

If it happened to rain, it all moved inside.

Inside was where the population of church mice lived.

And there were always, always cats.

Chapter 3

Hildegarde Holds a Meeting

Church mice had inhabited Saint Bartholemew's for generations. Occasionally, during a Great X (the thing they feared most, even more than they feared cats) their numbers would be decimated, for a Great X was a hideous thing and cost many lives. But with their capacity—the same capacity that Hildegarde was trying now to curtail—for what she called "incessant reproduction," they always fought back and increased their population once again.

Hildegarde was not wrong to try to limit the numbers. Too many church mice was a very dangerous situation.

Many humans came and went at Saint Bartholemew's: Father Murphy, of course; Miss Vickery, the church secretary; the Altar Guild ladies; Trevor Fisoli, the organist/choirmaster, and his award-winning men-and-boys choir; Alcoholics Anonymous members, who met on Thursday evenings; the sexton; the scoutmaster and his scouts; the visiting bishop; and countless others. Occasionally someone glanced down, saw a mouse, and said something such as "Yikes" or even "Eek." (Or, if it was an Altar Guild lady, particularly Ruth Ellen van Riper, "Oh my GAWD!")

But that would be the end of it. Perhaps the person would say, "There's a mouse in the church." But by then the visible mouse had scampered away and become invisible. People shrugged, chuckled, and forgot.

Ironically, they all thought they were seeing the same mouse.

It was Hildegarde, actually, who realized that they were making that mistake. She attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on a Thursday night in late September, hidden, of course—in fact, quite concealed behind a potted plant in the corner of the room. She liked AA meetings because they served cookies and always had a lot of leftovers.

Waiting for them to adjourn so that she could collect their leavings, Hildegarde drowsed a bit (their meetings were very boring, she thought). Then, suddenly, she heard the word "mouse." So she sat upright and listened.

Later she called a meeting of the church mice (just before dawn on Saturday, a time when the building was certain to be empty of humans). They streamed, more than two hundred of them, into Father Murphy's private office. They liked holding their meetings there because of the many bookshelves. Carefully they arranged themselves in rows, each mouse seated in front of the spine of a leatherbound book. Sometimes one of them, overwhelmed by temptation, nibbled at the leather, though there was an unwritten rule against that.

(But never Bibles. The church mice never nibbled Bibles. It would have been unthinkable.)

Hildegarde stood on Father Murphy's desk, next to his calendar (on which she noted BLESSING OF

ANIMALS written in red ink and coming up very, very soon) and watched as the population arranged itself.

"Harvey!" she called to a young mouse who was frequently inattentive. "Stop that right now! Don't make a mess of that!"

Harvey twitched his tail and made a face. He was perched on the coffee table in front of Father Murphy's couch, and he'd been poking with interest at an arrangement of playing cards that was laid out there in an unfinished game of solitaire. Sometimes, in the late afternoon, Father Murphy amused himself that way.

Roderick, on the desk near her, saw a way to impress Hidegarde with his intelligence. He whispered, "The red three could go on the black four."

Hildegarde gave him an exasperated look. Then she tapped for silence, using a pencil against the telephone. "The reason I've assembled you," Hildegarde began when they were all comfortably arranged and quiet, "is because Thursday evening I dropped in on an AA meeting—"

"Oooohh!" squealed a young female named Desirée. "Cookie crumbs, cookie crumbs, cookie crumbs!"

Hildegarde glared at her until she contained herself.

"—and I overheard someone, a woman, say that she had seen a mouse in the ladies' room."

She looked around the office. "This would have been Thursday, about seven p.m.," she reminded them.

"Anyone?" she asked, meaningfully.

No one stirred for a moment. Then, finally, obviously embarrassed, a middle-aged female named Norma raised her paw. "That would have been me. Sorry. I went through the ladies' room because it was a shortcut. I hate making my way around the wiring in that wall."

"Yes, the wiring there is awful. One of us is going to be electrocuted someday," another mouse called from his high perch on a shelf where The Lives of the Philosophers were stored.

"I knew there was a meeting going on but I thought AA was all men," Norma explained. "I thought the ladies' room was safe."

"Oh my, no," Hildegarde said. "Half women. Including the church secretary."

"So I was wrong, obviously. And there I was, in the middle of the room, when a woman came in. I scampered away, but I know she saw me. I'm sorry. Is it a disaster? Will it bring on the Great X?" Norma wrung her tiny paws nervously.

A low, frightened murmur made its way around the room.

"Not by itself. But hear me out," said Hildegarde. "The next day, Friday—that would be yesterday—I was in the sacristy, about to take my afternoon nap—"

"She always naps in the sacristy," Roderick interrupted loudly, hoping that all the mice would notice what a close and special relationship he had with Hildegarde. She glared at him. He looked the other way and fell silent.

She continued, "—when I overheard the sexton talking to that woman who heads up the Altar Guild. The woman with the ugly hat?"

The church mice nodded their heads and murmured. They all knew the hat. "She's the one who says 'Eek,'" someone said, and they all giggled.

"Well," Hildegarde went on, "the sexton was teasing her a little, I think. He told her to watch out if she took that hat off and set it down, because it looked like a good nest for mice, and he'd seen a mouse—"

"It would be a great nest!" squeaked a youngster who'd been perched on the arm of the deep red sofa. "If she ever puts it in the rummage bin, we should grab it!"

Hildegarde glared again. She hated interruptions. When they were silent, she continued. "He told her he'd seen a mouse that morning in the kitchen, under the sink."

"Oh dear, oh dear. That was me." A large male mouse stood up on his back legs, raised one front paw, and continued his confession. "I came up beside the water pipe. I was going to grab part of an SOS pad and take it back to my nest. I like a little firmness to my bed. But just as I got there, someone opened the cabinet door and reached in for a sponge. So I took off. I didn't realize he'd seen me.

"I'm so, so sorry. Does it mean the Great X? Please, no!"

"Shhh. Let me finish. I heard the sexton describe that sighting to the Bad Hat Lady, and he said, 'We seem to have a mousie in the church. Someone saw it last night in the ladies' room.'"

"A mousie?" Dozens of them repeated the word, tittering.

"Shhh!" Hildegarde admonished them sternly. "Finally, last night, as he was leaving for the rectory, Father Murphy said to the sexton, 'That mouse really gets around. I saw him scoot across the hall when I went to the men's room!'"

"Him? Him?" Millicent sounded outraged. "Does that man not recognize a nursing mother when he sees one? I was hurrying home to the mouselets. All right, I shouldn't have crossed the hall in broad daylight, I know that—"

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