Hildegarde and Roderick, working together, patted the moss at the base of the stone statue into a soft bed, concealed by a flowering bush of some kind. All around them, throughout the cemetery, they could hear small squeaks and chitters as the other church mice prepared their own spots.
"Hi!" The talkative little one, Harvey, suddenly appeared, parting the leaves of the bushes with his paws. "You got a good bed? We do! My mom found some old dead leaves! What's your statue? Can you read it? I can't read. But see there? It's got words on it!" He pointed upward. "What's it say?"
"Shhh." Hildegarde squinted up through the darkness. "It says 'Samuel Carstairs, Patriot. R.I.P.' That means 'rest in peace.'"
"And you should do that, Harvey," Roderick added. "Your mother will be wondering where you are. Go get some rest. Every young mouse should—"
"Oh, hush, Roderick," Hildegarde said. "Let him run around a bit when it's dark. He'll have to sleep all day. Harvey?"
"What?" the young mouse asked.
"Would you make the rounds and tell everyone to gather in the center of the cemetery, by the fountain? I'm going to give instructions and make some announcements."
"Do I have to?" Harvey whined. "I wanted to play with—"
"Yes. You have to. Stop that whining."
Harvey's tail, which had been twitching, sank and dragged on the ground as he trotted away. But she could hear him delivering the message, and after a few moments she could hear the rustling in the grass as all of her large tribe began to gather by the fountain.
Drat. Hildegarde could see, as she approached the fountain, that Lucretia had already scampered up its concrete side and assumed an authoritative pose, as if she were the one in charge. Well. She'd put a quick end to that.
"Thank you for holding my place, Lucretia," she said. "You may get down now."
Lucretia, sulking, moved off the fountain rim.
"And clean your tail when you get a chance, please," Hildegarde called after her. "There are bits of dried grass clinging to it."
That was mean, Hildegarde thought guiltily. But she did loathe Lucretia.
She turned and looked down at the crowd of mice. "We're fortunate that the water in the fountain has been turned off for the winter," she said. "Otherwise you'd never hear me."
Ignatious, in the front row, cleared his throat loudly. "It's quite an ordinary fountain," he said in his loudest voice. "Nothing like what you might find in Italy. When I lived at the—"
"That's enough, Ignatious," Hildegarde said sternly.
He harrumphed and became quiet, though he muttered something about the thirteenth-century fountain in Perugia.
Hildegarde ignored him and continued. "I know most of you have never been Outdoors before. We are not, after all, field mice!"
The audience tittered. Field mice! Of course they weren't field mice!
"And we will not be here long. Probably two days. But I myself have traveled a bit from time to time, and have learned to appreciate some of the dangers of the Outdoors. So I want to alert you.
"There are things to enjoy, of course. The grass is fun. And there are still some tasty flowers, in the fall.
"Do not nibble rhododendron leaves! Mothers, warn your mouselets! Rhododendron leaves are poisonous!"
Ignatious looked up. "From the Greek," he said. "Rhodos—rose; and dendron—tree."
"Thank you, Ignatious."
"We know, Ignatious. You nibbled a lot of Greek at the university library."
He nodded with satisfaction. Hildegarde resumed her speech.
"Stay hidden in daytime. You're accustomed to that. And we're fortunate that they are no longer mowing the lawn. They stop mowing in mid-September, so our timing is perfect. A mowing machine is deadly! Many, many field mice are lost to mower blades every summer."
There was a low murmur of sympathy for field mice.
"You may come out of your nests and find food after dark. Or, yes, Harvey—you young ones may play after dark. But beware of owls!"
"What are owls?"
Hildegarde looked down. "Ignatious? Are you spry enough to jump up here? And did you nibble your way through ... what section of the library would owls be?"
"Ornithology. Yes. I know a great deal about owls. Can you give me a paw?"
Hildegarde reached down and helped him, while Jeremiah gave a boost to the old mouse's rear.
Ignatious stood, finally, on the fountain rim. He whispered to Hildegarde, "Do you want the Latin?"
"No, no. Just warn them."
"Owls are nocturnal!" Ignatious said in his biggest voice. "They operate at night!"
"Oooh," said the mice.
"There are many kinds!"
"They are birds of prey!"
"What's prey?" asked a little one.
"Prey is us!" Ignatious said loudly.
Hildegarde could see the mice looking around nervously.
"They swoop down out of trees! Almost without sound! And they snatch unsuspecting mice!"
"I want to go back to Saint Bartolemew's!" wailed Harvey. "I don't like Outdoors!"
"Thanks, Ignatious," Hildegarde said. "That's warning enough. We'll all be alert, and on the lookout, now, won't we?"
She could see that many, many pairs of wide mouse eyes were looking toward the trees nervously.
"There are two hundred species of Strigiformes—that's Latin—" Ignatious began.
"Enough!" Hildegarde said, and grudgingly he hopped down from the fountain.
"The sun is starting to rise," she pointed out, and they could see that there, in the east, behind the church steeple, the sky was lightening. Somewhere nearby, a bird twittered. "Time to get to your nests, cuddle in, get some sleep. Today the Great X will come. His truck will come right up the driveway. Do not jump up to look at it! Stay hidden!
"That's all for now," she said, and the mice applauded with their soft little paws, then scampered away in every direction.
Hildegarde jumped down and headed toward her own nest at the base of the statue. Lucretia passed her, waddling along with a kind of strut. "You're such an alarmist, Hildegarde," she said, looking down her pointed nose and twitching her whiskers. "There was no need for such fear tactics!"
At that moment, from deep in the foliage of a nearby spruce tree, came a throaty repeated hoot. Hoo. Hoo. Hoo.
"Oh my lord!" squeaked Lucretia in terror, and she dashed away.
Hildegarde chuckled and made her way to the mossy bed she would share tonight with Roderick.
Ignatius Explains the Horrors
The mice slept soundly during the day, exhausted from the lengthy nighttime exodus, from the strangeness of the cemetery, and from the finding and building of nests. Outdoors was silent, except for birdsong and a breeze that rustled the leaves.
Once, in the afternoon, they were all startled awake by a sound that was new to them and sounded dangerous. Young mouselets whimpered and clutched their mothers. Ears, whiskers, and tails stiffened, and mouse noses twitched in anxiety. But it was only a human child, whistling as he rode his bicycle through the cemetery, using the gravestones as a slalom course. After a moment they all relaxed and resumed their sleep.
Hildegarde remained wakeful. She found that it was not at all pleasant, sharing a sleeping place with Roderick. He snored, and hogged the moss. Finally, restless, she crept out of the hidden nest and looked around a bit. The gravestones were old and weathered, covered with lichens; she tried nibbling one but it was slimy and tasteless. Maybe if she were starving! But there were yummy berries nearby, and wilted chrysanthemums on several graves. No shortage of food.
As Hildegarde crouched there at the foot of the statue, blinking her unaccustomed eyes in the daylight of Outdoors, she became aware of the sound of a vehicle approaching the church. She peeked out between some tall ferns and saw the silver van with the ominous message on its side: PEST-B-GONE. She shuddered. It was terrible, being referred to as "pest"! But she knew that's what it meant: mice. Oh, all right, probably cockroaches and car penter ants—it meant those other things as well. They were pests. As were—ugh—rats.
But mice? Especially dear church mice, who knew the words to all the hymns and prayers? Who sang in their trusting, pious, squeaky little voices, with their eyes gazing heavenward and their tails reverently bowed? If Father Murphy only knew what treasures dwelt in his walls!
The Great X stopped its van there, at the side door of the church, and she watched as Father Murphy welcomed a man in a blue jumpsuit and invited him inside.
A rustle in the ferns startled Hildegarde, and she jumped slightly.
"Just me," said Ignatious. "Couldn't sleep. Affliction of old age: insomnia." He stretched and yawned. "Of course, in humans it can be treated with benzodiazepines such as temazepam, flunitrazepam, triazolam, flurazepam, midazolam, nitrazepam, and quazepam—"
"Oh, will you please shut up!" Hildegarde hissed at him.
"Sorry to offend." Ignatious did look apologetic. "It's just that I spent a lot of time in the psychopharmacology section of the univers—"
She glared at him and he fell silent.
"Look!" she said, and pointed.
Ignatious followed her pointing paw with his eyes and saw the van. "Uh-oh," he said. He squinted his aging eyes and read the title on its side. "Pests," he said contemptuously. "Don't you hate that?"
"Did they ever have a Great X at the university library?" Hildegarde asked.
"Oh my, yes. Often. We lost huge numbers. Once, in the cafeteria, well..." He stopped talking and took a deep, mournful breath.
Hildegarde patted his back. "It's all right. Don't talk about it. I've been through it. I know what it's like."
They sat silently for a moment. Then she said to him, "I don't sup - pose they celebrated the Feast of Saint Francis at the university."
Ignatious shook his head. "No. I've studied the saints, though. Actually, I know quite a bit about saints. Saint Ambrose, Saint Andrew, Saint Anthony—as you can see, I'm going alphabetically here—" Then he fell silent, seeing her face.
"I'm a saint," he couldn't resist adding. "I mean, my name is. Saint Ignatious. If I'd gotten to the Is you would have—"
"Too much information," Hildegarde said curtly.
He stopped talking and they stared at each other.
"What do you know about cats? Have you studied cats?" Hildegarde asked him suddenly.
Ignatious shuddered. "Oh, no. I've always avoided anything in that category. Makes me squeamish. Actually, I had a good friend once, at the university library. Leonard. Sweet guy. He lived in the audio section. Nibbled at the edges of opera albums, mostly. But then one day he wandered out for a breath of fresh air, innocent as you please, and there, lying right there in the sun, was a large yellow cat, and faster than you can imagine, well..." He gulped. "Oh, sorry!" he said, and began to cry, wiping his eyes with a wrinkled paw.