She cleared her throat and murmured the words under her breath, preparing. "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts," she murmured. Down the wiring she scrambled, leveling off on the floor below. She scurried along toward the furnace room, murmuring still. The echo was nice here, she thought. "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done..." Okay. She was in good voice now.
Hastily she scurried to the spot where, perched on the furnace oil tank (somehow there was a good reverberation there), she could best be heard by her own congregation.
No human knew this, of course. But each week Hildegarde led all the church mice in confession. And they sang.
A Nighttime Raid
Father Murphy had, as usual, spilled a little wine in the sacristy. Hildegarde didn't touch the stuff herself, but Roderick liked a nip now and then. She summoned him after things were closed up and the church was empty. Then she watched while he cleaned the counter, licking the wine tidily. She had just overheard very bad news, and he would be the first to know about it.
"There," Roderick said. He sat up, balancing himself with his tail, and looked around. He hiccuped. It didn't take much wine to make Roderick a little tipsy. "Any more?" he asked hopefully. "Sometimes he dribbles some on the floor. I could get it before it soaks in."
They both peered down and examined the carpet from where they were perched. "Just old stains," Hildegarde said. "Nothing worth licking."
"I guess not." Roderick looked a little dejected. He always hoped for a major spill. But Father Murphy was pretty careful with the wine. "Well, I think we're finished up in here, then." He giggled a little. "Thank you, Hilly. You're a dear."
She glared at him—she hated being called by that nickname—but he didn't notice. "Time for a nap!" he announced, with another small hiccup.
"Wait. I have news."
"News?" Roderick hopped down to a low shelf. "Don't tell me Millicent's expecting again. Puhleeze!"
"No, no, it's not that." Hildegarde jumped down and sat beside him on the shelf. She noticed a satin ribbon extending from the edge of a prayer book. Satin was tasty, and she was tempted. But she let it go. "We've been so vigilant about Millicent's babies," she said, "that I fear we have not been sufficiently attentive to some others."
"Others?" Roderick asked.
"Vivian's litter," Hildegarde said.
"Them? Awful bunch. Poorly behaved." Roderick gave an exasperated snort.
"Indeed. And Vivian allowed them to run loose. All around the sanctuary. They played hide-and-seek among the kneelers. She said they'd been cooped up and needed some exercise."
"Just before the service. I was in the kitchen at the time."
"Were they seen?"
Hildegarde nodded. "The entire Altar Guild."
"Oh, no! Was there shrieking? And eeks?"
"Apparently. I didn't hear it. Others did. I was dealing with the traps, getting the cheese extricated."
"Oh, and thank you for that, dear," Roderick said. "It was a lovely Vermont cheddar."
"Yes, I know. I had a taste. At any rate, the Altar Guild saw several of Vivian's offspring—"
Roderick made a tsk-tsk sound. "She should have better control of them."
"Well, of course she should. But they're five weeks old, Roderick. You know what that means."
"Oh, lord. Adolescents. No controlling them." Roderick rolled his eyes.
"I told her to give them a lecture this morning after confession. Explain to them what 'We have done those things which we ought not to have done' means."
"They won't listen. Adolescents never listen."
"I fear the consequences," Hildegarde said ominously. "They know now that we are more than one."
"You really think? Consequences?" Roderick had become drowsy because of the wine. But now his eyes widened. "Oh, no! A Great X?"
"A Great X," Hildegarde repeated. "I heard Father Murphy talking to the sexton before they closed up the church. They used the X word. We must try to find a way to stop it."
They sat together, thinking. Finally, Roderick said, "I have a plan."
"I know you think I am just a doddering fool. I know you have little respect for my intelligence, Hildegarde. I know you become impatient when I go on and on—"
"As you are doing at this moment," she pointed out, glaring. "What is your plan, exactly, Roderick?"
He drew himself up as if to make a pronouncement. "We must go in to Father Murphy's office," he said, "before it's too late..."
"Too late for what?"
"Before he has called in the Great X."
"Well, today is Sunday. He's at the rectory having a pot roast dinner. Then he'll read the New York Times, watch football, and take a nap. Tonight he'll watch Masterpiece Theatre. He won't do anything meaningful until tomorrow," Hildegarde said.
"We must do it now, then."
"Do what, Roderick?"
Roderick took a deep breath. "It won't be easy," he said.
Roderick hiccuped again, excused himself politely, then said in a determined voice, "We must eat his telephone book."
It was certainly not going to be easy. Hildegarde and Roderick quickly gathered a group of stealthy, strong helpers. Frederick and Marvin were well known for having once gnawed through the base of the pantry door. They made an opening small enough that it went unnoticed by the humans, but large enough that during the night several regiments of mice entered and removed a great many peanut butter crackers that had been stored there for use on a Sunday School hiking trip.
Jeremiah was famous in the church mouse community for having chewed access, once, through the base of a heavy polyurethane trash can at a time when a Youth Group pizza get-together had deposited many leftover crusts still daubed with cheese—quite a find.
There were twelve of them altogether, most selected on the basis of their proven chewing ability, and a few, such as Norma and Charles, picked because of tidying skills. It was important not to leave any evidence, and so some mice had been chosen to be the cleanup squad.
Now, knowing that Father Murphy, next door at the rectory, was watching a football game on television and drinking a beer, which would make him very sleepy very soon, the team of mice, all twelve, gathered in the narthex. The church was empty and silent. There was no need to sneak, for a change. So, boldly, they marched, two by two, led by Hildegarde and Roderick, down the center aisle, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" as loudly as their squeaky little voices could manage.
Then, after they had turned right at the chancel and passed through the south transept into a hallway, they stopped singing. At the end of the hall they entered Father Murphy's office silently in single file. The room was tidy, with everything neatly arranged. His cache of candy was well hidden, and the solitaire game was gone from the table, the playing cards neatly in their box. Magazines were stacked and the newspaper was folded.
Good. Hildegarde had worried that it might be in a drawer, but the thick telephone book was right there on his desk.
"It's huge," squeaked Frederick.
"Humungous," Jeremiah agreed, "and it won't even taste good."
One by one, Hildegarde leading the way, they jumped first onto Father Murphy's chair and then to the desktop. They surrounded the thick book, eyeing it with apprehension. "I have a thought," Hildegarde said suddenly.
They waited, listening.
"If we could open it..." she began.
"I think we can!" Marvin said. Marvin was the strongest of all the mice. He moved forward and put his front paws on the side of the book. He riffled the edges of the pages. "If we all push at once, it will open, I think."
"Well," Hildegarde explained, "if we can push it open to the Xs—"
"Brilliant!" interrupted Roderick. "Why bother eating the As or Bs or Cs? We just need to find—"
"THE GREAT X!" the mice shouted in unison.
They lined up along the edge of the book. "Count of three," Frederick said. "One, two..."
"Three!" Everyone shouted squeakily, and pushed. The thick book opened slightly at the middle.
"Hop inside and keep pushing!" Frederick directed. Huffing and puffing, the mice scrambled up the side and into the opening. "I'm too old for this," Hildegarde complained. But she held her own.
"Now push!" Frederick commanded. "Really, really hard!"
Grunting with the effort, they all pushed and the book opened wider. "Don't let go, or we'll be squashed!" called Jeremiah. Determinedly they pushed and pushed, and finally the book fell completely open on the desk.
"Whew!" Hildegarde fell back in exhaustion. Around her, the eleven others all collapsed on the open pages, panting but triumphant.
"Uh-oh," Roderick muttered, looking down. "We opened to the Ps."
"How far is that from X?" asked Norma. "I can never remember the alphabet."
"Quite a distance, I'm afraid," Hildegarde said. She stood up. "But from here it's easier. We'll just turn a few pages at a time until we get to X. Look!" She lifted a page with her paw and they could see how light it was. But there were such a lot of them!
"Or we could eat them," Marvin suggested. He took a small bite of a P page, and made a face. "It tastes awful," he said.
"Hey!" Frederick shouted. "Look!" He aimed his tail carefully and flipped a page open with it. "We can do it with our tails! Are all of your tails in good shape?"
There were squeaks and nods.
"All right then. Line up."
It took them a little while to get the hang of it. But after a bit of practice, and with Hildegarde calling directions (her own tail was a little weak, having once been caught in a door), the mice began turning the pages quite rapidly by using their tails as tools.
They made their way through the alphabetized pages until finally they arrived at X. There they stopped to rest.
"My tail is tired," Charles said.
"Mine too," echoed several other mice.
"When we get back, we'll go to the hot water pipe by the men's room and drape our tails over it for a while," Hildegarde said. "A little heat treatment will fix us right up."
She jumped up on the open page. "You know, we don't even really need to eat all the X pages. We just need to find the Great X and destroy that page. If we do it carefully, and then close the book again—"
The other mice all groaned. Closing the book would mean another huge pushing effort.
"Well, maybe we could leave it open. He'll probably think he left it that way. We'll just have to nibble the edges so carefully that he won't notice the missing page."
"Norma and I will tidy it up," Charles said. "We're very, very good at that."