"All right," Hildegarde announced. "Let’s find the Great X." She looked down at the page she was standing on and read: "X-Treme Bodybuilding."
"Nope," Frederick said. "That’s not it."
"X-cellent Cake Decorating."
Hildegarde read on and on through the three full pages of Xs.
But the Great X was simply not there.
Dejectedly the mice decided that it would serve no purpose to eat the entire telephone book. To make themselves bloated and sick, and for what?
They gave up. One by one they lowered themselves from the desk. Tails drooping, they left the office and trudged down the hall, through the transept, across the front of the chancel, and back down the center aisle, heads bowed in disappointment.
Lucretia appeared, waddling across the narthex. She stared at them contemptuously. "Problems?" she asked, with a malicious smile. Lucretia was always hoping for some way to oust Hildegarde and elevate herself to the position of Mouse Mistress. "Something you can’t solve, Hildegarde? Getting a little old? Need my help?"
"No," Hildegarde replied tersely, and continued on past.
Ar The line of dejected mice entered the wall one by one. It was rather like a funeral, Hildegarde thought, as she brought up the end of the slow, sad procession. But at least at a funeral, there were flowers to eat.
The Great X
Father Murphy made the call first thing Monday morning. Hildegarde was watching from behind the radiator. She had taken the shortcut through the wall to his office and emerged beside the radiator pipe. It was a route that was too dangerous in winter, when the pipes were hot. But now, at the end of September, the furnace had not yet been turned on.
She saw him turn the pages of the telephone book and then run his finger down the page until he found the number. Amazingly, it was near the front of the book, not the back, where they had found the X pages.
Hildegarde was puzzled by that. She hoped he would leave the book open so that later, when he had left the room, she could check. Perhaps all by herself she could eat that page, in case there was a next time. But for now, it was too late. Father Murphy picked up the receiver and dialed. At the same time, he called to the church secretary, who was in the small room nearby.
"I’m making arrangements to have the rodent problem taken care of, Sylvia," he told her.
Hildegarde shuddered. To be lumped like that into the category of rodent! Awful! That category included rats, a terrible enemy of mice! She knew that technically church mice were rodents. But to have it said so blatantly! Well. Well!
She waited, listening to his conversation, then watched while he hung up the phone, rose from his desk, sneaked a couple of gumdrops from their hiding place into his mouth, and left the room. "He’ll be here Wednesday," she heard him tell the secretary.
Quickly she scampered over to his desk and examined the opened telephone book. Too late for this time. The church mice would have to deal with Wednesday and what it would bring. But next time—if there was ever a next time—they’d be better prepared.
The page was in the Es. And there it was: a little boxed ad, with silhouettes of mice displayed (not very well drawn, she observed; the ears were too small, and the noses overly pointed, giving the silhouettes an evil appearance). And she could see immediately the mistake they had made. The person Father Murphy had called was actually the EXTERMINATOR.
So it was EX, not X. Well! Live and learn!
And Hildegarde had an EX of her own now to plan, she realized—a special kind of EX she had learned about from listening to readings from the Bible. She had saved this word for the moment it was needed, a moment she had hoped would never come.
She grabbed a gumdrop—a green one, her favorite flavor; no sense wasting the opportunity!—and scurried back across the room and down into the radiator pipe opening. When she reached the undercroft, she went first to her secret place. Everyone knew about her napping place in the sacristy, and most of the mice knew, too, that she slept in her night nest under the organ pedal. But no one knew of this secret place, behind the breaker panel, where she hoarded small treasures. Carefully she stowed the green gumdrop there, rearranging the pile of gold threads—she had unraveled them, one by one, from Father Murphy’s vestments; she was so attracted to gold—and a red satin ribbon that had come loose from a prayer book.
Then she hurried away, because she had work to do. There was so little time, and so many mice! But they had trained for this. She would start by announcing the biblical word and having it passed on. Oddly, it seemed to go well with that other word: exterminator.
Hildegarde took a deep breath. Then, loudly, she made the announcement: "EXODUS!"
Dutifully, because they had been taught the procedure, the mice passed the word along, calling to one another, so that the message made its way throughout the interior of the church walls.
"Exodus! Pass it on!" Vivian squeaked to her adolescent children, and shooed them off to be messengers.
"Exodus! Pass it on!" Jeremiah called through a furnace duct. In seven different locations, other mice heard it and repeated it so that the news went from mouse to mouse to mouse until each one, all but the smallest ones, knew, and knew what it meant. They all prepared to flee. They were going Outdoors.
Monday night was spent organizing, collecting food, hiding evidence of their existence, and instructing the little ones, who were caught up in the excitement but didn’t know why.
"What’s exodus?" the small mouse named Harvey kept asking. He was an annoying little fellow with a very whiny voice. "What’s exodus? What’s exodus?" When his mother, busy with other things, didn’t reply, he scampered about and bothered everyone else. Finally someone told him to go find Ignatious.
"Ask Ignatious," they said. "He’ll explain."
Ignatious was very old, but new to Saint Bartholemew’s. He had lived for a long time at the university library, and had become a church mouse quite by accident when he had foolishly crawled into the pocket of an overcoat that was draped across a chair during a lecture. He had fallen asleep there. Next thing he knew, the overcoat, and its owner, Father Murphy, transported him to Saint Bartholemew’s and he had been there now for several months.
It wasn’t much different from the library, actually. Pocket crumbs to eat still, and he had made himself a nice nest from some shredded hymnal pages. He wasn’t fond of crowds and tended not to attend meetings (on the night Hildegarde had gathered the mouse congregation in Father Murphy’s office, he had stayed behind, eaten some small tobacco flecks that he’d been saving, and gone to sleep), but he understood what was happening now and was preparing, like the others, to leave.
Harvey, the little whiny mouse, sought him out and pulled at his tail to get his attention. There were few things Ignatious hated more than having his tail yanked. He turned irritably and said, "What?"
"They told me to ask you what exodus means." Harvey folded his paws politely and looked up with big eyes.
"Departure," Ignatious replied. "It’s Greek." Actually, he could forgive a tail yank if someone was genuinely seeking knowledge. And he remembered Greek fondly, from the university library. He had nibbled quite a bit of Greek. "An ancient language."
"Greek?" Harvey giggled, and said it several times. "Greek? Greek?" It was so close to squeak that it amused him. Ignatious gave him a meaningful dark look and he subsided.
"It means ‘the departure of large numbers.’"
"In this case, mice."
Ignatious sighed. He knew that once a young one started with why there would be many whys to follow. "Because we’re in danger. We have to escape."
Harvey squealed nervously. "Outdoors?"
Ignatious held up one paw in a STOP gesture because he could see that Harvey was about to ask why again. Ignatious liked imparting knowledge, but he found a litany of whys annoying.
"Go," he said. "Stay with your mother and siblings. If you run off by yourself, you might never find your way back here. I myself made a foolish mistake once in leaving the university library, and…" He stopped himself. Too long a story. Not of interest to young ones.
"Oh, we’re coming back?" Harvey asked.
"Of course. When the danger is past. Now GO!"
So Harvey scampered off to find his mother, chattering away, telling everyone what he had learned—"It means ‘departure’! We’re going away in a large group! To Outdoors! We’re escaping danger! We’ll be coming back! It’s Greek! Greek’s an ancient language!"—until finally someone swatted him on his rear and told him to shut up.
They all slept on Tuesday, all day, preparing themselves for what lay ahead.
Then it was Tuesday night and time to go. They left under cover of darkness, led by Hildegarde, with Frederick and Jeremiah dashing along the side of the procession, back and forth, keeping everyone in order and silent. No singing allowed. Mothers helped their children. Even Harvey was quiet and wide-eyed. Then, silently, they flattened themselves and more than two hundred mice squeezed under the heavy wooden front door of Saint Bartholemew’s, out into the night, into Outdoors.
When he realized why the church mice were all jumping about and giggling, Roderick explained. "It’s grass," he told them. "It’s called grass."
Almost none of them had ever seen, or felt, grass before. It tickled as they made their way through it in the night.
"Is this Outdoors?" Harvey squealed. "Is this what Outdoors is like?" He dashed about in the grass.
"Yes. Shhh. Come this way!" Hildegarde called. "To the churchyard cemetery!"
"This is quite an ordinary grass," Ignatious muttered, as he strode along, talking to anyone who was listening. "The correct name is monocotyledonous graminoids, by the way. That’s Latin. I spent quite a bit of time in the botany section of the university library. Nibbled quite a few books about grasses. There are many varieties. There are some amazing ornamental grasses, for example. And on a golf green, the quality of the grass is very important. A golfer…"
No one was paying any attention to Ignatious. He talked on and on, but they had reached the little cemetery now and all of the church mice had spread out. They rushed around, looking for the best places to create their nests. Here and there they stopped to nibble on a flower or two. But Hildegarde was reminding them that they had to find a nicely hidden place.
"When you’ve found your spot, settle in and get comfy. Then before it turns light, I’ll call a meeting and make a few announcements," she said.
"I’m going over there, to the base of that statue," she confided quietly to Roderick, and pointed. "Join me if you wish. I see some nice mossy crevices."
Roderick was flattered. Normally Hildegarde remained aloof. But of course this was not an ordinary time. Each of the mice felt a little insecure in such unknown territory. But at least they felt safer here than in the church. They would hide in the cemetery during the visit tomorrow of the Great X—and perhaps they would have to stay out here one more day, because a Great X sometimes sprayed poisonous fumes and they would have to wait for those to subside—but then probably Friday night, again under cover of darkness, they would make their way back into Saint Bartholemew’s, just in time to prepare for the next dangerous time: the Blessing of the Animals.