Nothiní up my sleeve . . . Presto! There. I always hated that squirrel.

Mysterious Jesse
by Michele Winkler ©2010

Uncultured by any other standards, the Stack family had elevated the art of practical joking to that hazy realm between Heaven and God. No matter how Laura (a Stack by marriage) pleaded, scolded, or punished, the sugar bowl held white pepper as often as not, invisible alarm clocks shrilled at inopportune times, and the kids still snicker about the time four-year-old Nell stretched a seamless layer of plastic wrap across the toilet bowl in the guest bath.

Uncle Bob LeRoy led the pack, especially when he'd drunk freely of his sister-in-law's prize-winning parsnip wine. Bob would pull quarters from the boys' ears or lemon drops from beneath the girls' chins, then hold the smaller kids upside down by their skinny ankles and shake walnuts and marbles from their pockets. The Stack kids were a gullible lot in those days-cable TV had not yet reached the valley.

Bob LeRoy's favorite target was young Jesse, a sweet, serious boy with huge gray eyes and bewitching smile. Jesse's father had died in a tractor accident five years ago, two months before the boy was born. Bob had a soft spot for his late brother's youngest child, who favored his daddy in looks but was saddled with Laura's serious temperament.

"Got your nose," Uncle Bob would crow, and what appeared to be a small pink nose would materialize between his pudgy fingers.

Jesse tried to grab at his face, to feel if it really was his nose that Uncle Bob waved before him, but Bob would take Jesse's small white hands in his ham-like fist and hold on tight.

"How do you get it back?" Bob winked at the other children.

Jesse snuck a glance at Laura, busy reading her Bible.

"You tell lies," he whispered.

"Lies?" Bob echoed, too startled to keep his voice down.

Jesse tried to get a hand loose, but Bob's grip was too tight. "You know. Like Pinocchio."

Laura frowned as she set the Book down. "Really, Bob, I don't think-"

"Cover your ears, woman!" Bob gave her a mock glare. "This here's man talk, between me and my man!" He pulled his giggling nephew onto his ample lap. "Okay, son, let's have a small white lie for a small pink nose-with a couple of brown spots for freckles!"

Jesse's brow puckered, a miniature replica of his mother. "I rode home from school today on a big old cloud," he announced. "It tickled. And when I slid off, my pants were wet!" His face reddened as the other children hooted.

Bob gave Jesse an extra bounce. "That'll do for the little white lie. But what have you got for the brown spots?"

Jesse, who had stuck out his tongue at his brothers and sister, quickly pulled it in again. "Cows."

"Little brown spots are cows?" Laura asked, curious in spite of herself.

"They look kinda small from up there," Jesse explained, and blushed when the laughter started again. He ran his fingers across his face, and only after he was convinced that a new nose had indeed materialized did his famous smile appear.

***

"What happens to the first nose, mama?"

Startled, Laura looked up from her reading. Jesse stood in front of her, his faded blue blanket wrapped tightly around him.

Nell frowned at his bare feet. "Slippers?"

"Nell hid them in our game and she forgot where. I'm not cold, Mama, honest," he said between shivers. "Where does the first nose go?"

Laura pulled her son onto her lap-my, how big he was getting! and set the Bible aside. "What are you talking about?"

"The one Uncle Bob pulls off-and it doesn't even hurt."

"Oh, honey it doesn't go anywhere. It stays right there on your sweet face--it's just that you can't see it, or you'd know."

Jesse squirmed from her arms. "Then what about the nose I get when I tell a lie?"

Laura resolved to have a serious talk with Bob before breakfast. "Uncle Bob can't give you a new nose, Jesse. Why, only God could do that! It's just one of your uncle's tricks, to make you laugh. Understand?"

Jesse nodded, but the doubt never left his face. "Goodnight, Mama."

"Goodnight, dear. Now, where-oh, I remember. " Laura hoisted herself from her armchair and started towards the stairs. "Nell!"

***

Harvest time meant long days of hard work, but the kids always managed to break away at least an hour before dinner. They would gather in the orchard, pelting one another with half-rotten fruit and playing hide-and-seek beneath the full boughs. If dinner ran late-which it often did during those hectic autumn days-they searched the trees for nearly ripe apples.

Paul, Laura's oldest, saw Jesse quietly chomping away and winked at the others. "Whatcha got there, kiddo?"

Jesse swallowed and held up a half-eaten apple. "Want one?" he asked.

Paul gave an exaggerated shudder. "I wouldn't eat one of them apples, not if you paid me. They're wormy."

"I eat around the worms." Jesse held out the core for inspection.

"What? You ate an apple with a worm in it?" Paul's eyes grew big. "You know what that means, doncha? It means you ate thousands of tiny worm eggs, and now the worms will hatch and crawl around inside you forever---

The apple rolled from Jesse's small fingers and hit the ground with a thud. "That's not true! I didn't see no worm eggs!"

Paul winked at the others. "Everyone knows worms lay invisible eggs. Soon they'll hatch and you'll feel them crawl right out of your belly button onto your sto-"

"Shut up!" Jesse's small fist gave Paul's jaw a solid smack.

The older boy blinked in astonishment. "Why, you little-"

Before he could finish, Jesse doubled over and started retching. After he'd been sick several times, Paul said gruffly, "Heck, crybaby, I was only teasing. Ain't no such thing as invisible worms. It's just a joke, silly, like when Uncle Bob says he's got your nose--"

"He does too take my nose!" Jesse howled, still clutching his stomach. "And when I tell a lie I get a new one! You saw."

"Course we did. I just forgot." Paul gave his brother a clumsy pat on his shoulder. "Let's go inside now, okay? If you promise not to tell, I'll take you piggyback."

***

Laura wasn't too worried when Jesse didn't eat his supper-she had warned him about the perils of ingesting green apples-but when he refused breakfast and lunch the next day she badgered him into a full confession.

"So won't you eat now, darling?" she asked Jesse, after a thoroughly chastised Paul had glared at his brother behind Laura's back and slunk out to split a weeks worth of kindling, rubbing his backside.

"Not yet." Jesse looked hungry but resolute. " Uncle Bob told me how to starve them. If I don't eat for a whole day, they'll die."

Laura's eyes widened. "Honey, I don't think--"

"Please mama, can't I go now? We're playing tag." Laura gave a reluctant nod, and Jesse rushed away, stumbling on the threshold.

"Be careful," she called. "Don't climb any trees until you've eat-"

"Laura, relax. " Uncle Bob shifted his bulk forward in his chair. "You know how high strung Jesse is-and since even I couldn't convince him Paul was lying, I had to give him some way out." He took a long draw on his pipe and let the smoke out slowly. "You wouldn't want him worrying about them worms till he was grown, would you now?"

Laura clutched her Bible the way a man might grip a shotgun. "Lying doesn't solve problems, Bob. It just makes them worse. Why, the Good Book says..." her voice trailed off as she started flipping pages, and Bob adroitly used the lull to his advantage.

"It ain't really a lie, Laura, More like a fable, or a tall tale." Bob waved his pipe, and billows of smoke permeated the room. "Nothing in those pages against tall tales, is there? Nothing against Paul Bunyan or Davy Crockett or even the Easter Bunny?"

Laura looked up. "Of course not! The Bible came way before all that nonsense!"

"Exactly. So it can't know everything, now can it?" Mistaking Laura's shocked silence for acquiescence, he warmed to his subject. "Why, some folks even think some of what's written might be--well, not false, but stretched out a bit, like cookie dough." "Take Noah, for instance. Or Jonah. Now, really--"

The spark in Laura's eyes told him he had gone too far. She closed the Bible with a snap and stood up. "Lying is wicked, whatever the reason!"

"I'm not disagreeing, Laura. I'm jest saying, there's lies and there's lies--"

That's when they heard the scream. Bob's pipe clattered to the floor, Laura's Bible landing right on top, as they rushed outside. First they saw the axe quivering next to the new pile of kindling, the evening sun harsh against its red-tipped blade. Jesse lay curled up beside it, shrieking as he clutched what was left of his right hand.

***

"I am so, so sorry, missus. If it was just a finger, I maybe could have sewed it back--" the doctor droned on and on, as if his reasons for failure meant anything. "How did your youngest come to trip over the pile of kindling and dislodge that axe?" he asked. "He's the careful one."

"He hadn't eaten. It made him light-headed." Laura looked at the floor as she spoke, but Uncle Bob shrunk visibly at her words. "When can he come home?" she asked.

"I'll know better in the morning," the doctor said. "Go get some sleep, missus. Jesse won't be awake before morning, that's for sure."

She hesitated. "Go rest a spell, Laura," Bob said. "I'll stay, just in case..." He blinked rapidly as his voice trailed off.

Laura's chin trembled. "Just for an hour," she said. "If you need me, I'll be in the chapel down the hall."

The doctor waited until the sound of Laura's footsteps faded away. "A bad, bad business." He shook his head. "Why don't you go down to the cafeteria, get yourself some coffee? "

"I want to see him now, doc."

"I told you. He's asleep."

Bob folded his arms across his chest. "He's waiting for me. I can feel it." The doctor started to refuse, but something in Bob's eyes made him say instead, "Five minutes. Any excitement-"

Bob fell into step beside him. "I get it, doc."

***

Bob leaned over the rail and took Jesse's small left hand in his. "Hey."

Jesse's lips tried to form the word back, but drugs and despair kept him silent.

Bob pulled up a chair and sat next to him, sorrow overflowing his heart like a flash-flooded creek. It took him a while to feel the light tug of Jesse's fingers.

"My h-h-hand..." Deep purple shadows framed Jesse's eyes, making them bigger than ever. "Where is it?"

Bob fought to keep the horror out of his tone. "You don't really want to see it, Jesse. Trust me, it looked better on."

"Course it will." Jesse squinted at Bob as if he was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. "But first you gotta hold it up...in the air."

"Hold it up." Bob echoed, feeling like a badly scratched record. He remembered the doctor's warning and fought to keep his tone soothing. "Why, son?"

Jesse's breath came in short gasps. "So I can tell a lie. A big one. You know."

Bob felt as if every one of Laura's exhortations against lying had lodged inside his throat. "Jesse, I don't think..."

"Before I fall asleep. Or it'll be too late." Jesse's sob stretched into an unwilling yawn, and Bob's heart twisted at the panic in the boy's eyes. "Please, Uncle Bob."

Bob's trembling fingers stroked his nephew's sweat-soaked hair. "Then I guess I'd better hurry."

***

"You want what?" The doctor's squeak could have shattered glass. "Sir, that's crazy. First of all, I'm sure it's been disposed of. Second, that is the most ghoulish, depraved-"

Bob gave the doctor a rueful smile and hauled himself upright. In the doorway, he paused. "Say, can I use your phone?"

"There's a public one in the hall." The doctor gestured down the stark corridor. Bob's shaggy brows pulled upwards. "That'll do, doc. If you're sure you don't mind."

He was nearly out the door when the man's curiosity won over. "Mind what?"

"Why, me talking to my lawyer where anyone can hear." Uncle Bob pulled the door closed behind him and started counting.

He'd been banking on ten seconds, but it took only five.

***

Jesse watched expectantly while Bob settled himself in the chair beside the bed. "Now, Jesse, this is gonna take an awfully big whopper-much bigger than you need for that little button of a nose. So think real careful now..."

Jesse squinched up his face. "Show me."

Uncle Bob sucked in his breath as he held out a clump of blood-soaked bandages. Jesse scrunched up his forehead. "Yesterday I saw a unicorn in the orchard," he began. "And a lion, and a giraffe, and a..a...polar bear." He stared at the bandages. "And I could fly, and I took my bike and rode it over a rainbow, and found---" he shook his arm, glaring at the place where his hand used to be. "Where is it?"

Bob kept a firm hold on his grisly package. "Keep tryin', Jesse. Never no harm in tryin'."

Jesse started to shake; long, trembling shudders that wrung Bob's heart. "I went to a circus, " he continued, "and the clowns let me ride in their little car, an' I stuck my head in the lion's mouth and everyone clapped."

Bob held his breath as Jesse gazed at his arm. "That's the biggest lie I ever told, Uncle Bob." Tears rolled down his cheeks and trickled past his chin onto the thin hospital nightgown. "Why won't it come? It always worked before."

"What did, honey?" Both of them jerked as Laura entered. An hour in the chapel had soothed her; through the grief in her eyes shone the peace of resignation.

Before Bob could intervene, Jesse raised his stump. "My hand, mama. I've told whopper after whopper, but it won't come back."

A sick horror replaced the calm look on Laura's face as she realized what Uncle Bob held in his hands. Quickly she stepped in front of Jesse, blocking his view. "That's not...you didn't..."

"Please, Laura, not in front of the boy!" Bob reached for her but she wrenched away, eyes blazing like a cornered cat.

"Robert Bruce Leroy Stack! Of all the twisted, vile, despicable things---" Bob's shoulders drooped.

"No, mama! Uncle Bob's helping me get it back, like he always does!" Jesse struggled upright and tried to clutch his mother's arm, but his one tiny hand couldn't grasp it. He moaned and sunk back onto the bed. Another yawn took him, and his eyes grew wide with terror. "Could we go home now, mama?" he begged. "Maybe it only works at our house."

Laura snapped. "You horrible man!' she cried. "Isn't it bad enough that your falsehoods crippled him? Now you torture him with false hope!" She pointed to the doorway. "Get out!"

"Don't make him go, mama, please!" Jesse's little chest heaved like a rowboat on a stormy sea. "Then it'll never come back."

"Of course it won't!" Laura cried. "Bob can't give you back your hand. It's all lies, Jesse, just wicked, wicked, lies!"

Jesse went still as a mouse that knows it's being watched. When he finally spoke, his voice came from very far away.

"Is that true, Uncle Bob?"

Bob glared at the ugly clock over the bed. He wished he could twist back the hour hand and make it yesterday again.

"Well, now, son, it wasn't lying exactly...more like having fun. When you're older, you'll-"

Some primal force propelled Jesse to his knees. His one tiny fist hammered against Bob's chest, while the stump waved like a branch in a storm.

"I hate you!" he shrieked, and though the high, shrilling voice was still a child's, a man's anguish surged through. "You're not my uncle! You're a bad, bad man! I'll hate you forever! I wish you were dead!" He beat his head against the bedrail, howling.

Bob's face sagged like bread dough that has risen for too long. Clutching his chest, he staggered back and half-sat, half-fell onto the metal waiting room chair.

"Now...Jesse..." Bob struggled to find the right words, but something big and hard in his chest blocked their way out. Funnily enough, it wouldn't let any air in, either.

"Bob!" "Uncle Bob!" Mother and son's voices rose as Bob choked and spluttered, his gasps drowned out by Jesse's wailing. Jesse squirmed around the bed railing to the floor and launched himself against Bob's chest. "I didn't mean it, Uncle Bob, honest!"

With a massive effort, Bob forced air through his clenched teeth. "Did'ja hear that, Laura," Bob wheezed. "The boy says he didn't mean it." His eyes pleaded with her.

Hope and conviction warred within Laura's soul; but, in the end, hope won. "Why, Jesse Stack," she said, putting equal emphasis on every word, "I do believe that was the most enormous whopper you've ever told."

Jesse's head bobbed up and down. "Yes, ma'am. It was a big lie, the very biggest lie, an-up-to-the-sky-high--my thumb!" he shrieked.

***

Bob wondered why those who had least to say were born so full of words they gushed out like water from Miriam's well. The doctor talked and pointed, shook his head, pulled his beard and started all over.

Jesse, well schooled by his mother, did not speak until the next lull. "Is it growing back like it should, doctor? It's not too small?"

Under Bob's glare, the doctor swallowed. "N-n-no son, it's fine. Just fine. " Jesse wrinkled his forehead. "Then why did the nurse..."

Bob winked at his nephew. "You surprised-I mean, she ain't used to-well, Jesse, between you and me--" he lowered his voice, "--you know how women are."

Jesse grinned at his uncle, a smile made sweeter by recent despair. "Yes, I sure do."

The doctor found his voice again. "You're going to be famous, young man!" He reached for the phone on his desk.

Bob's fingers closed over his. "I don't think so, doc. Better this stays our own little secret. Right, Laura?"

Laura closed her Bible and looked up. She seemed confident, as if she had found the answer to a troubling question. "That would be best, doctor."

"But, missus, that's is imp-p-possible! Medical history-"

Bob gripped the doctor's arm. "A boy getting his hand back is more important than you getting your picture on the front page of the Valley Bugle, don't you think?" He gave a generous squeeze. "Say yes."

"Y-y-es," the doctor echoed. "But people have a right to know--"

Bob smiled. "It ever happens again, doc, tell anyone you want."

***

The next week Laura invited Bob to dinner. Nell brought Jesse downstairs, his left arm in a sling. Bob swallowed as he saw five short, pale fingers wriggling at the edge of the cloth.

"Does it hurt, son?" he managed.

Jesse shook his head. "Itches. And it's taking a long time. How come, Uncle Bob? Wasn't it a big enough lie? I could tell some more..."

Bob pictured Jesse with one normal hand and the other the size of a frying pan.

"You did just fine," he said hastily. "You'd have to expect something big like a hand to grown more slowly than a little pink nose." He looked at the limb, soft as a baby's, that had emerged from the severed wrist. It was already half the size a child's hand should be. "I bet by the time kindergarten starts again you'll be just like new."

Jesse grinned. "Mama said if it wasn't big enough by then, I could whisper a whopper or two into my pillow at night, to help it along."

Bob could not have looked more surprised if he'd counted six fingers. "She did?"

Laura ran her hand over the cover of her Bible. "The Lord works in mysterious ways, Bob." Her expression softened as she looked at Jesse. "Though I don't think I could endure any more wonders in this lifetime."

Bob's grin nearly split his face in two. "Why, Laura, I think you and I have finally found something we agree on." He crooked a pudgy forefinger at Nell. "Say, little girl, did you wash your neck this morning? Because I think I see something growing out of that crease--"

Jesse batted his half-grown fingers against Bob's pant leg. "Me next, Uncle Bob, me next!"

"--or not." Bob thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "Hey, who wants candy?"

x x x

A sweet story for a sweet farewell to this year, I thank Ms. Winkler for this delightful tale. My best to you this holiday. May it find you well and leave you better. Seasonís greetings and blessings, my dears. -GM

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