Molla ran down the aisle between the two rows of dilapidated pews.
Heads poked up from beneath bundles of rags, children curious about the ruckus. Everyone feared the coppers would come to the abandoned church and raze the place, kicking the pack of unwanted church mice into the gutters. In the church they had shelter. Four walls to buffer the wind. A roof to keep off the rain and snow. Somedays the roof leaked but the roof was a roof and better than open sky in an ally between two buildings.
When the other children saw Molla they waved off her hurried pace, knowing her rush had no real urgency.
They went back to eating the gruel Cookie had scraped together for them–more water than mush but at least it was warm–or to the card games they played.
Light waned through the main cathedral’s windows. Most broken. The once beautiful panes of rainbow shattered. Molla saw the disappearing light as a call for her to hurry. She loved the first blinkings and that was at sunset. And the day had been clear. There would be no better night for gazing than tonight.
She had a spoon held in her mouth and an empty bowl in her hand.
As if some alter to ward off hunger, a cauldron hung over a meager fire at the front of the church’s cavernous cathedral.
Molla tossed her empty bowl–cracked and wooden but able to hold a meal–to the boy who was himself as round as a pot, rare in a church filled with child-sized starved skeletons. He wore an apron over ragged cloths the same as all the other children, grease stains marring a front that had one day long ago been white but was now a dingy grey. At thirteen Cookie was one of the older church mice. While as a bigger boy he could’ve ruled the little gang of church mice, he was too affable to kick people around and make sure at the end of the day they brought in enough coin for food or, baring no coins, stolen food.
Cookie deftly caught the bowl in the hand not ladling gruel into a bowl for another small girl, who was two years younger than Molla’s eleven. He tipped a wollen cap to Molla in thanks and flashed her a smile, bright and white with a wide gap at the front.
Cookie was a nice boy. Unlike Molla’s older brother.
A foot shot out in front of Molla, tripping her.
She stumbled, her own feet tangling as she struggled but failed to find her balance, and was flung to ground.
Three boys chuckled at her misery, at the silent tears welling in her eyes.
One of those boys was Jock. Her big brother. A handsome boy if not for the cruel hook to his mouth, his narrow eyes, and his hawkish nose. Through shear force of will and regular beatings, as an older boy he ran the church mice.
Molla struggled to her knees, hissing at the carpet burns across her palms and down her chin.
“Where you goin’, pixy?” Jock asked with a tone that said if Molla didn’t answer correctly she’d get another bruise.
She drew in a breath. “Upstairs. To the roof.”
Jock rolled his eyes, rubbed his face, and let loose a cackle. The other boys around him joined in after a breath of fearful consideration. “You spend too much time daydreaming. Did you even bring back anything today?”
Rubbing her stinging hands, Molla answered, “Handful of coppers. Stole half a loaf of bread too. Couple days old.”
That earned her a snear. Jock raised his hand. “That’s all? Are you kidding me, pixy?”
One of his cronies took pity on her. “Leave the pixy alone. She’s your sister.”
“She’s another mouth, Dox,” Jock snapped. “Just. Like. You.”
The other boy, Dox, shrunk back. He was bigger than Molla’s older brother but less nasty.
Jock’s hand swooped down.
Molla gasped and threw up her hands to protect her face.
A screech of pain tore through the air.
The air in Molla’s chest abandoned her but no blow fell on her.
She dropped her arms and looked around for the source of the scream.
Jock had snatched Long Tail the Cat by the tail and was with the other hand roughly picking up the animal by the scuff of the neck. Long Tail hissed and swept a clawed paw at Jock’s face. Jock laughed, tearing up.
“Here’s another freeloading mouth,” Jock said, mischief in his eyes. “All this mouth does is bring us dead mice. We’ve got enough mice hanging around this place here.”
Molla stepped forward, hands stretching out in supplication toward the black cat with its tail as long as four hand lengths.
Long Tail bared its long, sharp teeth at Jock.
“Least he kills the mice he brings,” Jock conceded. “Damned if the mice around here ever get to our store.”
Jock turned Long Tail to face Molla as he met his little sister’s gaze. “This mouth here–” he bounced the cat, the animal hanging like a man strung up by a noose and dancing to save his life “–pulls his weight. Unlike you, pixy.”
“Please, give him to me, Jock,” Molla pleaded.
With disgust Jock tossed the cat to Molla. “Whatever. Bring in some nickel bits tomorrow why dontcha.”
A relieved breath escaped Molla’s lips and she took this opportunity to rise to her feet and run, the cat at her heels.
She snatched her long coat and scarf from the front pew before making her way with Long Tail up the church’s tower stairs. The tower is where the old bell hung silent and retired, it’s knocker stolen long ago, its hinges rusted.
Molla opened the trapdoor and climbed up, Long Tail curled around her shoulders along with her scarf.
Cold wind swirled around the tower, catching the hem of Molla’s coat and setting it slapping. Long Tail huddled close, sticking his long tail inside Molla’s coat for warmth.
Around the tower a stone railing protected the former bell ringers from accidental falls in olden times when the church was still… well… a church. A lot of the railing was now chipped. Broken off. One such section was completely gone even, a gap in a mouth with crocked teeth. Molla walked through this hole in the railing and out along the bell tower’s rim.
Long after the orphan mice had infested the church, before Jock had become the meanest oldest boy, someone had erected a platform.
The platform stretch away from the bell tower’s height, high in the air, out over the roofs of the buildings neighboring the condemned church. When Molla had first discovered how to get on to the platform, she’d tentatively jumped on the wooden construction, testing its stability. While the wood yawned against a strong enough breeze, it never swayed. Enough boards had been nailed together and to the sides of the tower to provide support. Even out at the very tip was safe. Though the narrow outstretch did dip a little if more than one person perched there. Otherwise, it was the perfect spot for a stick-thin girl and a more starved cat.
Molla strolled fearlessly out across the platform.
Above her the sky was turning a deep bruise. The only type of bruise Molla enjoyed. A deep, pretty purple faded from sunny orange. This evening no clouds marred the picturesque marvel, although the sky seemed to swirl as day transitioned to night before Molla’s eyes. A tapestry or quilt woven with dull colors at the fringe near your toes and deepening to dark hues toward the top where your head peaked out. Night said hello. Day said seeya later.
Poking through the dark blanket of oncoming night soon came the pinpricks of light.
Molla clapped her hands in front of her face and giggled, shaking away the chill as warmth spread throughout her body. She sat down, pulling her legs into her chest.
Long Tail meowed against the tremor in Molla and leapt down. He circled around her ankles, did an impossibly long stretch where his tail curled questioningly, then he coiled up next to her. His green slitted eyes gazed up to the sky.
The pinpricks blinked awake. Thousands upon millions. Some as large as her thumb. Others no smaller the a needle’s point. But even the smaller stars shone brightly, the bigs holding no contest and glad to share the sky.
Magic twinkled at the girl and the cat, putting on a dazzling show of wonder that the factory’s smoke stacks belching black tarry gunk couldn’t ruin. She didn’t know where the stars came from and that mystery, their sudden stage appearance every night, only deepened Molla’s amazement.
One of the stars exploded suddenly, brilliant in its brightness, and then fell from its over exertion. The tail of its arching decent Molla followed, her ears tickling with her own awestruck excitement.
She scrubbed her hand through Long Tail’s fur. The cat gladily accepted the attention, purring, arching its back to lead her hand.
Molla made a wish then. A secret confession.
I wish this would never end.
Then she fell back, arms flung out, and laid down along the platform. Her breath misted in front of her face as the stars continued their pulsing song, a quiet concert just for her.
Long Tail bound atop her chest. A gust of breath pressed itself out of a Molla along with a giggle. He laid down then and snuggled his face against Molla’s chest, content to watch the starry concert for two with her.
For a moment, Molla forgot herself. And that was just fine.