A Bad Time for Babies
Hildegarde sighed, a loud, squeaking, outraged sort of sigh, when she was informed that a new litter of mouselets had been born in the sexton's closet. Such bad timing! Such bad placement!
She scurried from the sacristy, the private room where Father Murphy's special priestly clothes were stored. She'd been napping there comfortably, until Roderick, whiskers twitching, woke her with the news. Oh, he was a busybody, no question! Always looking for a reaction. Well, he got one this time! She was furious.
Checking carefully to be certain there were no humans around (sometimes the Altar Guild ladies dropped in during the afternoons to rearrange flowers), Hildegarde tiptoed quickly into the large, highceilinged church itself, through the side section known as the transept, and entered the central area called the nave. Audaciously she hurried down the center aisle, ready at any instant to disappear into a pew and under a kneeler if someone entered. But the sanctuary was empty and quiet and she made her way, undisturbed, down its length.
Next she found herself in the narthex. Hildegarde so liked the formal names for the parts of the church. If she were in an ordinary house, she thought, twitching her nose at the idea, this would be known as the front hall. What an ordinary name! Narthex had a ring to it. You knew you were in an important place when you entered a narthex!
There was a tiny opening here, beside the front door, where the floor had settled slightly. Through the opening Hildegarde could enter the wall. The church mice all used this as an entry or exit because stairs were a problem for them. It was easier to ascend or descend inside the wall, where there were tangled wires and frayed insulation to cling to. Carefully, she scurried downward.
Now, having made her way below, she was in the interior wall of the undercroft. Since Hildegarde had lived in Saint Bartholemew's all her life, she knew the route by heart, especially where to scramble over the copper pipes and how to avoid the places where drifting insulation made her sneeze. There were many exits here in the undercroft: one, she recalled, amused as she passed it, into the nursery, a noisy place on Sunday mornings and best avoided. Babies in general were best avoided. They spent time on the floor, could see into crevices, and had graspy hands.
But at least babies couldn't talk, and report a mouse sighting! The group to be most feared, Hildegard thought, was the Altar Guild. More than one of the ladies had actually shrieked upon happening on a mouse. Oh, dear. Always an uproar when that happened. (Men seemed to be more sensible about such things.)
Finally, after passing countless Sunday School rooms and making her way carefully around the complicated piping of the bathrooms, Hildegarde arrived at the entrance, a small gnawed hole, to the sexton's closet. She winced when the ragged hole edge grabbed her sleek coat, but wriggled through; then, emerging on the other side within the closet itself, she fastidiously pulled her long, elegant tail through in one swoop.
There they were, curled in a nest made in the sexton's ropey gray mop: at least seven of them, it appeared, and bright pink, a color Hildegarde had always disliked. Annoyed, she looked around. She knew the mother would be nearby. No self-respecting mouse mother would leave infants this young alone. So someone was hiding.
"Show yourself!" Hildegarde commanded. She didn't use her commanding voice terribly often, even though she was the matriarch, the chosen Mouse Mistress, and therefore entitled. But she was angry and nervous. The timing of this was so unfortunate.
The mouse mother responded with a timid squeak, peeping out from between the ropey tangles of a moldy-smelling mop.
"I knew it would be you! I just knew it!" Hildegarde said.
"Who told?" squeaked the mouse, guiltily. She made her way over toward the litter, which was beginning to whimper and wiggle at the sound of her voice. She nudged them back into a tidy pile with her nose and then lay down beside the babies, looking up at Hildegarde.
"I simply guessed. It was obvious," Hildegarde said with a sniff. Of course it was Roderick who had told her. "That irresponsible little Millicent has reproduced again," he had announced in his arrogant, judgmental way, after he had poked Hildegarde with his nose and completely ruined her afternoon nap.
She peered down at the young mother. "How many litters does this make?"
Millicent cringed in embarrassment. "Four," she confessed.
"Four this year? Or four overall?" Hildegarde gave an exasperated sniff. "Oh, never mind. It doesn't matter. The point is, as Mouse Mistress, I am commanding you to stop this incessant reproduction! It's jeopardizing all of us. And particularly now. Do you realize it's late September?"
Millicent rearranged herself and the mouselets squirmed against her. "Do you mean it will be cold soon? I can make a nest near a heating duct when the furnace comes on."
"That is not at all what I mean. But you are going to have to move this litter someplace else right away. I don't think the sexton's here today. But he'll be in tomorrow, I'm sure. And the instant he reaches for his mop…"
Millicent squeaked at the thought.
"Exactly," Hildegarde went on. "Basically, the sexton is fairly tolerant. He'll ignore a few droppings. And I know he overlooked the shredding in his stack of newspapers, though he surely knew it was a nest. That was kind of him. But if he were to encounter… this!" She gestured toward the pile of pink mouselets. "Well! Do you recall the Great X?"
Millicent cringed. "I've only heard about it," she said nervously.
"No, of course you don't remember. The last Great X was before you were born. But it was simply terrible. We lost half our population! I vowed not to let it happen again. No more haphazard, willy-nilly reproduction! Careful placement! No visibility!" She looked meaningfully at the litter, sleeping now, curled in the stained mop. "We've got to get you and these mouselets moved inside the wall right away."
She considered the problem, then said, "There's a perfectly good nest left empty after Zachariah's demise." She was silent for a moment, then crossed herself, murmured, "Lord rest his soul," and continued: "It's in the wall behind the men's room toilet. A little noisy, I'm afraid, because of flushing."
"I don't mind flushing," Millicent squeaked.
"Let's get started, then. If you take one and I take another, we can get them all moved in three or four trips." Hildegarde leaned down and took a deep breath. "Oh," she muttered, "this is not pleasant at all." Then she grasped a mouselet by its neck and moved back through the hole into the wall, carrying it carefully, its miniature legs and tail dangling in a slightly wiggly way.
Preparing to come after her, Millicent paused and said in a sulky voice, "Lucretia thinks they're cute."
Hildegarde heard her but didn't dignify the comment with a response. She couldn't stand Lucretia, who had competed against her for the role of Mouse Mistress using unfair tactics, and had been a very poor sport about losing.
She continued on, carrying the mouselet. But now she was even more furious. Lucretia! Her rival. Her worst enemy. And a liar, too. Cute? These mouselets were a hideous shade of pink, and their ribs showed. They were not cute at all.
Praying for Protection
It wasn't simply a problem of placement and visibility. Those things were important, of course, because it was vital that the mouse population remain unseen, and now that she and Millicent had succeeded in moving the mouselets, Hildegarde gave a relieved sigh. Now, at least, the sexton would not open the closet door, gasp, and rush to a telephone to arrange for another Great X.
But it was the timing, too. Late September. They were approaching such a dangerous moment.
"Are you, at least, aware of the time of year?" she asked Roderick. "Millicent was completely oblivious." They were in the chancel, seated together at the base of the lectern, dining together on a selection of crumbs and a smear of apricot jam, all of it salvaged from the kitchen wastebasket.
Roderick delicately cleaned one whisker with a paw. He sucked some jam from one of his big front teeth. He and Hildegarde chose different dining places each day, and although the base of the lectern was a favorite—it was pleasant to lean back against the polished wood—it had the disadvantage of no napkins. When they dined in the sacristy, with all of its stored vestments, there was always an alb or a stole handy for wiping one's mouth and whiskers. He tidied himself as best he could without a napkin. Then he said, echoing Hildegarde, "The time of year."
(Roderick didn't have any idea what she was talking about. But he had found that sometimes, to avoid sounding stupid, it was wise simply to repeat.)
She nibbled her final crumb, and said meaningfully, "The church calendar."
"Yes," Roderick repeated. "The church calendar."
"The Feast of Saint Francis," Hildegarde said meaningfully.
"Of course." Roderick licked a little jam from his paw. "I do love the word feast, don't you?"
"Roderick! You do remember Saint Francis, of course? Look up, would you?"
Oh, dear. Hildegarde was using her extremely exasperated voice. And she was pointing. He tried very hard to recall what she meant. He looked up. Oh, yes. Stained-glass windows. Saints.
He chose one at random, gazed at it ruefully, and hoped he was correct. "Arrows in the stomach! Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful."
She gave him a withering look. "That's Saint Sebastian."
"I knew that," he said hastily. He looked around. There were numerous windows depicting people in
pain of various kinds. But he followed Hildegarde's pointing paw, and suddenly there he was—how could Roderick have forgotten?—Saint Francis, the one smiling, with a bird on his shoulder and another eating from his outstretched hand.
"Dear Saint Francis," Roderick said reverently.
"Lover of animals," Hildegarde murmured, gazing at the window where the saint, in his simple brown robe, was depicted in translucent shades of colored glass. Then she shook herself. "Anyway, his feast day is October fourth. You surely knew that."
Roderick smiled politely, hiding his ignorance.
"It's a terribly dangerous time for us. We've had some very narrow escapes on October fourths in the past," she reminded him. "Especially if it rains."
"Indeed. Very narrow."
"Oh, Roderick, you old fool. You don't have any idea what I'm talking about! And," she added, "you have jam on one whisker. Tidy yourself, please, at once."
He did so, and then held his head for her inspection. He so hoped Hildegarde would find him, well, attractive.
But she simply nodded in approval that the jam had been removed. "It's the Blessing of the Animals," she explained impatiently.
Roderick gulped. Now he remembered. How could one forget such a frightening event? "Oh my goodness," he said with a shudder. "Cats."
"Exactly. We must pray."
"Now wouldn't hurt. It's probably a good idea to start well in advance."
Roderick nodded, brushed a crumb from his belly fur, bowed his head, and cleared his throat. "Heavenly Father," he began in as humble a tone as possible, "this is a church mouse speaking. We are understandably fearful of cats."