"Hush," Hildegarde said. "I am simply pointing out a very fortunate thing. Three different people— the AA lady, the sexton, and Father Murphy—saw three different mice—"
"Me," the three guilty mice said in guilty unison.
"—but they all think they saw the same mouse! They think Saint Bartholemew's has one mouse!"
"Instead of hundreds!" Roderick called out gleefully. Around the room, from their various perches on shelves and sofas and table, two hundred and eighteen (one had not attended; he was old, and sleeping) church mice applauded with their little paws. Mouse paws are softly padded, so applause is a muted, muffled sound. But the congratulatory clapping together of several hundred paws does make a distinctive noise. Hildegarde allowed them their moment of jubilation before she called for quiet.
From the corner of Father Murphy's office, a tall clock chimed four. It was still dark, pre-dawn. Roderick yawned.
"I'll let you go now," Hildegarde said. "But I want you to understand that we must maintain this illusion. We must be as one mouse. We must not be revealed as the multitude that we are.
"Keep yourselves hidden!" she instructed them as they clambered down from the shelves and prepared to leave. "At all times! Otherwise..."
They knew how to fill in the blank. "The Great X," they murmured ominously as they spread out and began to scamper in great numbers down the halls and aisles and passages of the church.
"And all of you?" Hildegarde called after them. "Please! Pray for sun on October fourth!"
"Pray for sun on October fourth!" A sarcastic voice mimicked her. Hildegarde turned and saw her enemy, the mouse she most loathed. Lucretia, sneering casually, turned and strolled down the aisle, her wide rump swaying.
Hiding from Father Murphy
The life of a mouse can for the most part be described in verbs. Arrive. Grow. Forage. Eat. Sleep. Mate. Reproduce. Age. Die.
Of course, each of those verbs has subcategories. Foraging, for example, involves scampering, searching, finding, opening, nibbling, stealing, hiding, escaping, and countless other verbs involved in the nightly act of food gathering.
It is the same for all kinds of mice. The tiny pygmy mouse forages, eats, grows, mates, reproduces, and ages in the same way that the grasshopper mouse, the striped field mouse, the African climbing mouse, and the South American leaf-eared mouse do.
But a church mouse has a more complicated life.
Oh, there was so very much to tend to! It was Sunday, and Sundays were especially busy times. Hildegarde rose from her night nest behind the expression pedal of the pipe organ. She always rose very early, particularly on Sundays, when the organist arrived to practice well before anyone else had entered the church. Sometimes Hildegarde scurried away just as he came up the stairs to the choir loft. But she had never been seen, and he had never noticed her small nest there, just behind the pedal where he placed his foot when he wanted a dramatic increase in volume. Sometimes the expression pedal was called the "swell pedal" because it caused the music to swell gloriously. But Hildegarde thought that a rather vulgar term.
It was still dawn. She tidied her nest, making sure it would be invisible; then from the loft she entered the wall and descended past the main floor and down into the undercroft, where she turned right and made her way through the maze of wires and pipes, stopping here and there to check on the population. Good. They were all deeply concealed and well provided with food. Nighttime was foraging time, and after the church was darkened and silent, they had emerged, all of them, spreading out to check all the potential nourishment sources. The supply closet of the nursery was a great resource, for it contained paste, and usually the lid of the large paste jar was not tightly closed. The tips of crayons were tasty to some, though Hildegarde did not care much herself for their waxy flavor. There were always cookie crumbs in the nursery carpeting. She let the young mice have those because they enjoyed the game of it, vying with each other as they looked for morsels. Hildegarde had seen human children play the same game at Easter time, searching for jellybeans.
(And oh! The jellybeans they missed! Hildegarde particularly loved the black ones.)
The kitchen, of course, was the best location. The church ladies prided themselves on their tidiness, but if they only knew! The wastebaskets! Paper plates with sticky crumbs still attached! Packets of Splenda still half full! And in the cupboards: boxes, not tightly closed (and did it matter, really? For they could gnaw! Oh, they were excellent at gnawing!), of flour and sugar and pasta of all sorts. Father Murphy's office had a hidden cache of chocolates and gumdrops (he was supposed to be dieting), pipe tobacco (not too yummy, but some mice liked just a smidgeon occasionally), and now and then homemade cookies, which his mother sent him from Ohio. Plus, after Christmas, there were so many fruitcakes!
And flowers. There were flowers everywhere, in every season, and the time after weddings and funerals were particularly bountiful, though the young mice had to be reminded often that hollyberries and poinsettia leaves were poisonous. So tempting, the bright reds! But every year, despite the warnings, there was a mishap, and a sad ending for an unfortunate mouse who didn't heed the wisdom of elders.
Daylilies were delicious. And candles—there were many candles available—were filling, though not too tasty.
Hildegarde continued on, checking everyone. Millicent's babies were up and about now, with fur and wide eyes. "Keep them close and out of sight," she reminded Millicent sternly. "They haven't developed any sense yet." Millicent made a squeaky sound of assent and gathered her rambunctious mouselets, anchoring one with her paw on its tail.
Making the rounds, Hildegarde chuckled, noticing two brand-new traps baited with cheese: one in the ladies' room, one under the kitchen sink. The sexton was trying to catch the "one mouse" that had been seen. Using a thick straw wrenched from the sexton's broom, she nudged the cheese, springing the traps, and then called two of the brawnier mice to cart the cheddar pieces away and divvy them up quickly before the church day began.
Next, she made her way to the sacristy, her favorite place because of its beautiful priestly vestments: the crisp white surplices, the mossy greens and royal purples of the various robes, the narrow stoles with colorful embroidery, and the cincture, a kind of sash woven with gold thread. Hildegarde looked around, making certain everything was in place. This was her traditional afternoon napping place and she did not allow the other church mice here; young ones, especially, would have been too tempted to nibble on the array of magnificent borders and threads. It is a tendency of mice to pull and fray fabric; they mean no harm but are always looking for ways to enhance their nests. She had noticed, actually, that Millicent had woven some deep red threads into the nest of torn paper towels where she was raising her mouselets. Hildegarde suspected, recognizing the color, that the deep red had been pulled from a pew cushion. Many of the mice had used such a red, she knew, and if it was not overdone ... well, it could be overlooked. Church mice deserved some beauty in their lives. And a pew cushion ... well, there were rows and rows of them. Hildegarde had no particular feelings for pew cushions.
The sacristy, though? Absolutely forbidden. It was sacrosanct.
Hildegarde, older and self-disciplined, simply tidied things for Father Murphy. If a thread had been loosened from the hem of a vestment sleeve, she nibbled it carefully to neaten the border. If a surplice was poorly folded, she nudged it into a more orderly alignment. This morning, twitching her small nose, she looked around. Sunday mornings were the crucial ones. But today things seemed in order. She would check later, after the service, for crumbs. Though Father Murphy was very meticulous, the altar boys were careless—more than careless: sometimes actually malicious!—and there were occasionally tiny bits of communion wafers dropped. Once a Life Saver! Hildegarde always ate everything very reverently, even the Life Saver, which had been fuzzy with pocket lint and completely unappetizing.
WHOOOOOMMM! Hildegarde jumped. Trevor Fisoli had arrived and was testing the organ up in the loft. He was using the crescendo pedal, and starting with the loudest possible chord at full throttle. All right, throttle wasn't the right word. She knew that. But Hildegarde felt that the crescendo pedal was very much like the gas pedal of a car. (And yes, Hildegarde had been in a car. She had found herself trapped in a child's backpack once, when she'd been looking for cookies during Sunday School. It was a foolish mistake; she was embarrassed, remembering. It took her a week to make her way back to Saint Bartholemew's.) She pictured Trevor as the driver—sometimes like a little old lady hunched behind the wheel, going very cautiously, other times revving up like a racecar driver at the track. He always started his private rehearsal with that full-out sound. It was what kept her night nest, there under his right foot (if he only knew!), nicely flattened and firm.
Next he segued into a Bach fugue. Although she couldn't see him from the sacristy, Hildegarde pictured Trevor (often she had watched him from a hiding place behind a chair leg in the alto section), his fingers flying, his hair flying, too, as he moved his head rapturously. He should get his hair cut short, she thought. Mice were fortunate. Their fur grew, gray and sleek, to exactly the length that suited them. But humans! Well! They were left to their own devices and seemed to have no sense of the appropriate. Trevor's hair was shoulder-length and he didn't comb it often enough. Father Murphy's was short (and gray, which was pleasantly familiar), and he combed it frequently but oddly, to try to cover the balding top of his head.
The sound of the organ reminded her that she must hurry. Soon the choir members would arrive. Father Murphy would be donning his vestments and preparing the sacraments. Oops! There he was now, entering. She darted under the edge of the draperies and hid. She could see, peeking under the edge of the thick velvet (which was slightly frayed—she should nibble those borders and clean up that edge a bit), his black shoes on the dark blue carpet. The shoes walked around the room.
Then she could hear him calling to the sexton in the hall.
"Were you in the sacristy last night? I left something in here that seems to have disappeared."
"Nope. I vacuumed in there Thursday. Haven't been in since."
"Well, that's a mystery!" Fortunately Father Murphy's tone was mildly amused. Hildegarde cringed. He must be talking about the chocolate-covered cherry left beside the sink. She'd assumed he had dropped it and didn't know. Never dreamed he'd go looking for it! It wasn't even that good. Much too sweet and sticky. Now she was sorry she'd eaten it.
She waited, very quiet, while he made his preparations and donned his vestments for the service. In the distance she could hear people entering and taking seats in the pews. Usually, by now, Hildegarde was inside the wall and completely invisible. She shouldn't have dallied in the kitchen and ladies' room, but of course the cheese was a great find. As soon as Father Murphy left the sacristy to join the altar boys and crucifer and choir lining up in the narthex for the processional hymn, she'd make her escape and take up her Sunday morning duties with her own population. There! He was going now. She took advantage of the moment as the door closed behind him. She scampered across the carpet and entered the wall where there was an opening for the pipes to the sacristy sink.