Poor as Church Mice

My eyes adjusted as I stepped through the threshold of the old church; the nave appeared little by little. First the altar, flanked by saints gazing down upon the congregation, then the aisle with its rickety wooden pews. A simple wooden crucifix hung from the ceiling; the Christ seemed tortured and sorrowful. 

The church was empty, save for a hooded figure slouched on a pew; a woman, old and old-fashioned with a black lace mantle draped over her gray hair. She sat, head bowed, hands on her lap, twirling a rosary. I heard the soft whisper of prayer. 

I walked up the aisle and stood before the ancient colonial wooden altarpiece, so old the wood had bent and shrunken as if it hoped to wither and die before the musty pews. The saints were chipped and cracked, the stations of the cross so faded and darkened it was almost impossible to know what they depicted. This humble church smelled of incense and dank; tarnished candlesticks stood on the altar table. 

Footsteps sounded behind me. I turned. A priest click-clacked towards me and I noticed the shabbiness of his collar, and a moth-eaten hole in his sleeve. Poor as a church mouse, I thought. He smiled and nodded a greeting as he passed me. 

I gazed at the crucifix, as old as the church, yet the only image in decent condition. The old lady glanced at me, and smiling, stood beside me and whispered,

“We’re a poor church, señorita, but we are proud of our 16th century altarpiece, however dilapidated. Everything else is just as old.”

“Can’t the town restore it?”

The woman shook her head.

“We had the money once, long ago. We worked and toiled, scrimped and saved. A famous artist came. He worked for two days, then vanished.”

“What happened?”

Oro, señorita. They say he found gold and fled. We could have used it, but… I hope it made him happy.”

She smiled and left; stale jasmine and mothballs wafting in her wake. 

Alone in the church, I walked to the donation box under the loving gazes of the humble saints. The tinkling of coins resounded as I dropped them into the box. I glanced at the Christ. The dim light caught the gold coin as I held it up; it gleamed in my hand. 

“I’m not my father; he squandered his luck. I’m returning these, they belong here.”

As I dropped the last coin into the box, the sun shone through the darkened stained-glass windows. A breeze blew from the door to the altar, the candles flickered and the church hissed a ghostly sigh of relief.


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