January 18, 2021

Jack Be Nimble, By Victoria Dixon

Editor’s note: This story uses nursery rhymes in inventive, surprising ways. It’s an unusual tale in all the good ways, and Victoria has provided a truly fresh take here. Enjoy!

Jack ignored his pain and buckled his lederhosen before praying again. "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the legs that I stand on." Why did he bother asking for healing? What was the point? 


Though he prayed daily, nothing changed. His leg never improved. The villagers still mocked him. The agonizing question, 'Why me?' remained an unanswerable conundrum. Why would God allow an innocent child to go through this? 


The villagers said he must deserve it. Grandfather claimed it was so others could see God's glory through Jack's suffering. Jack hadn't seen God's glory yet, so neither had anyone else. 


Outside his window, the water wheel that destroyed his life whispered, "Cripple…cripple…cripple." Jack closed his shutters to block out the ugly wooden beast.  


He called to mind the angels visiting his dreams last night, andused the memory like a shield. Their songs flooded his room like the sounds of harps and trumpets. Silvery bright, they prayed and watched the road through his window. He soared, free among them, but they did not heal him. Heavenly glory was a humbug. 


Jack dressed, tightening the laces on his bad leg so the boot's edge gave his weakened calf a little support.  


He dreaded the day's work. He had ever since his leg was shattered by a piece of the miller's water wheel. 


Taking Jack as an apprentice made the miller look good to the town. The miller was not a good man. He made a new game yesterday. “To make the day go faster.” He’d stolen Jack’s crutch and laughed, watching Jack crawl between jobs. Jack still felt the miller's beating with the half-full grain sacks that left no marks. The beating came because he’d not completed a day’s work.  


The villagers knew of Connell's cruelty and some joined him. 


Outside, a young man’s voice sang. "Girls and boys come out to play; the moon still shines, as bright as day. Come with a whoop, come with a call, come with a good will, or not at all."

Jack wavered. Nell needs milking and then there's work. If I'm late, Connell will make me feel it.

Panpipes sounded, trilling music through Jack's heart. He grabbed his crutch, clicking and dragging himself downstairs. It couldn't hurt to see who had come to town.  


A crowd of children ringed a stranger. "Why, what do you know? I'm surrounded," the singer lowered his panpipes. He looked twenty summers old. Beneath a felt hat, blond hair lifted in the light breeze and gold eyes reflected the sunrise. 


The singer gestured to him. "Call me Wolfram, my friend. Your name?"  


"Jack Christianson." Jack offered his hand, but Wolfram didn't take it. 


"Why do you walk that way?" Wolfram nodded at Jack’s crutch. 


Simon, the weaver’s bulldog-faced son and Jack’s only friend, shifted from foot to foot. Another fight brewing and Simon won’t help. 


"It's not my fault I can't do what you can."  


The girls sniggered as Jack clenched his fists.    


"There's no need for that, Lad. I'm here to show you what you can do." Wolfram winked and pointed across the street. "Magic."

"Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack, jump over yon candlestick!" A lamppost towered as Jack’s impossible target.  


Longing filled him, and as if that was enough to change his life, an invisible force spun him around. The children laughed when Jack dropped his crutch, for what could he do without it?  


Jack bounded over the lamppost. I don't believe it. Faces below gawped as his disfigured leg realigned itself. It didn’t even hurt.


Cheers thundered around him when he landed. The children lifted Jack and Wolfram high. 


Jack yelled, "No, I can walk. I want to walk."  


The crowd put them down.  


Jack stood on his straight leg and stared at Wolfram. "How. . . Thank you. It's a miracle." 


Wolfram tucked his pipes away and gave an airy, devil-may-care grin. “Come, over the stile, over the stair. Run away all, we're off to the fair." 


The children laughed, playing as they passed others on the road. 


"I'm hungry, Wolfram," Simon whined.

"'Tis an easy matter to fix." Wolfram pointed to a baker's cart and pushed Simon forward. 


"Please, Herr Becker, may I have a pie?" Simon said.  


"Not that way, Lad. Watch and learn."  Wolfram licked his lips, grinning. 


"Here, you lot, what are you doing?" The baker brandished a rolling pin.  


Wolfram laughed. "Simple Simon met a pie man going to the fair."  

Simon scowled. 


Jack stepped forward and whispered in Simon’s ear. "Says Simple Simon to the pie man –" 


"Let us taste your ware." Jack's and Simon's hair stood upright when the magic forced them to say the words in unison.  


Wolfram clapped Jack on the shoulder. "Excellent, Jack. A quick lad if ever I saw one."  


The baker gave each child a pie. His befuddled expression unsettled Jack. "Shouldn't we pay?" 


"We sang a song worth sixpence for the baker's pocket full of rye." Wolfram winked.

If the magic gave everyone strength, that seemed fair. They bought what they wished, paying in magic. Simon was the only child unable to pay and they mocked him. 


Their games lasted 'til dusk. Jack squinted uphill where a crowd roiled. The baker burst from its center, pointing. "There they are!" He’d brought the festival sergeants.  


"To market, to market to have us some fun. Home again, home again, the market is done!" Wolfram faced the guards as the children ran. "Four sergeants sliding on the ice upon a summer's day, as it fell out they all fell in. The rest they ran away!"  


An ice lake cracked underfoot, then consumed the sergeants. The shopkeepers screamed and fled. 


Jack chilled. He didn’t know anyone who could swim. "Wolfram," Jack said, hesitant to question the one who healed him. "If we did nothing wrong, why are we running?" 


"Because we can." Wolfram punched Jack's arm. "Race you, limping Jack."  


Wolfram’s grin and the joy of running deafened Jack’s doubts.  

They rounded the bend and the mill loomed with Miller Connell in the broad doorway. "You’ll not come whining for pay today." A rushing wind filled Jack’s skull. The miller sneered. 


Jack Christianson, the butt of every ounce of contempt a village could muster, pointed a shaking hand. "There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked sixpence 'pon a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, and they all lived together in a crooked little house."  


Stooped over, Connell shuffled into the mill. 


Power seethed in Jack’s soul, demanding release.  


A mansion two minutes before, the miller's house sagged where the foundation gave way. The children cheered and threw stones at the house's cracked windows. 


"Quite the bit of work, Jack, your apprenticeship is done," Wolfram said. "Say you'll make a pact and away we two shall run." 


Inside the house, Frau Connell sobbed. She had given Jack a cool cloth once after the miller beat him. Jack had seen her black eye, though she tried to hide it.  

Did I hurt her? Have I become Connell? When did a need for healing change into a desire for revenge? Do I really want it? "Let me think." 


Jack didn't look at Wolfram, who left with the mob of children. 


Magic coiled inside Jack. Its sweet blight defiled him, yet he wanted more. Jack considered how much he owed Wolfram. It didn't matter. Jack looked for Wolfram. 


Chanting drifted from the mill. 


"Millery, millery dustipole, how many sacks have you stole?" Wolfram's scream matched the rising wind. 


"Four and twenty and a peck!" roared every child of the village.  


"Then hang the miller by the neck!" 


"No!" Jack threw open the doors. The howling wind dropped, and he jumped at the cracking bone's retort.  


The children's torch cast a shadow that swung against grain sacks. Jack shuddered. "Why'd you do it, Wolfram?"  


"It's what you wanted," Wolfram said.  


Jack made himself look. Connell swung to and fro, his head nodding at an obscene angle. Jack’s lust for vengeance drained like water over the paddle wheels.

"That's not what I wanted—ever."  


Wolfram's smirk said otherwise as he led the others past Jack and back outside. 


“Help!" Jack yelled. Candlelight flickered in a few nearby windows. Someone would come. 


"High diddle diddle," Wolfram said. "The priests did fiddle and the brave folk, they did swoon. The little dogs laughed to see such helplessness under the light of the moon."  


One by one, lit windows darkened. No one could answer Jack's plea.  


Wolfram's eyes smoldered yellow flame. "Bow. Wow. Wow. Whose dog art thou?" Wolfram poked Jack's chest until he howled at the transformation.  


Jack whimpered a puppy’s whine. "Oh that I was what I should be, then would I be what I am not, but what I am I must be, and what I should be, I cannot." His wolfish cries worked. He rose from four paws, a boy once more. 


"If my healing is your price. . ." Jack took a deep breath. "Then undo it and leave this town." That's not a spell.  


Too late. Wolfram prowled, yellow eyes narrowed, then snapped his fingers. 

Jack's leg crackled into pieces that jutted out from his skin.  


He screamed, collapsing as he clutched the pieces of ruined flesh.  


"Jack's gone and given me thought. Come along and see he's brought." 


Jack sweated, wanting to vomit as the children carried him to the bottom of the lane. They dropped him there and spikes of yellow slashed his vision. He cried out. 


"When the wind blows, then the mill goes, and our hearts are light, and merry-o!" Wolfram sang. Mill, water wheel and house shrieked, crumpling into a ball. They blew away like fall leaves.  


Jack groaned.  


"All together, lads and lasses." Wolfram held out his hands and the children made two rings. They danced around Jack. "Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, they'll all fall down."  


Jack's heart skipped. Bloody rashes sprouted across his arms. Sweat poured off his face and he coughed blood. Black sores festered among the rash marks.

Moonlit cheeks and burning eyes smudged Wolfram's face. His shout pierced the wind. "I gave you power which you ignore, now see the strength Hell hath in store. Even now you could stop me, Jack. Methinks it's the words you lack."  


Jack's cleverness vanished behind his pain. His rotting flesh made him gag. Around him rats squealed and died. Jack lay dying, too. I tried. I don't want to fight anymore. I can't protect myself, let alone the villagers. So much for them seeing the glory of God through me.

Yet, after all he’d done, would the silvery angels of his dreams bear his soul away?  


Fiery hope burned through Jack’s pain.  


"Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the road that I lie on. Four corners to our town, four angels protect it round; one to watch, and one to pray, and two to bear Wolfram away!" 


The rats shrieked and shriveled into dust. Prayer like living moonlight turned Wolfram into a ghostly figure. His panpipes clattered to the ground.  


The rings around Jack dissolved.  


"I have made of my friend a foe," Wolfram said. "I will be sure I do no more so."

Dawn’s finger swept the horizon. On the hillside, the monastery's matins bells rang their proud message. A shimmering presence grew. Powerful. Peaceful.  




"Leaving soon, I must be, Jack," Wolfram said. "But I'll welcome any with the knack." 


All but one of his mob had fled and dawn did not show where they went. Chubby Simon, Jack's only friend, wrung his hands, but he did not leave. 


"Rescue us from our enemies, oh Lord!" Jack reached and Simon helped Jack stand. At least I saved us. "Wolfram, get behind me in the name of Christ."  


"Ah, Jack, be careful what you wish for." Wolfram shrugged away invisible hands. He plucked his panpipes from the path and blew a shrill blast. The wind rose, keening in harmony. Dust circled the boys, stinging Jack’s eyes.  


Like a friend sharing a secret, Wolfram’s voice whispered in Jack’s ear. "Having Satan behind you is precarious, at best. You can't see what he's up to next."


Bio: Victoria Dixon is obsessed with culture, faith and fantasy literature. She throws in a love of medicine and scrapbooking to round herself out. She currently lives in Kansas, which is not monochromatic, regardless of what fraudulent wizards might say.


Image by Frederick Richardson.


Judith said...

Wonderfully creative fairytale!

Unknown said...

Charming and inventive. Loved it.

Victoria Dixon said...

Thanks! I stumbled upon it years ago while listening to a Peter, Paul and Mary song that used "It's raining, it's pouring" and a few other folky/Mother Goose rhymes.

Unknown said...

Charming and thought provoking.

Candice said...

Very clever rhymes! Wonderful tale! I want more stories from Victoria, please.

HulderMN said...

I could not put this down--so CV cleverly wrought!

Victoria Dixon said...

Thank you all so much!

Lynden Wade said...

A very original riff on some traditional rhymes. Jack goes through many trials and manages to stay firm. The last lines are extremely clever!

Maxine said...

Very inventive, loved reading it

Victoria Dixon said...

Thank you, Lynden and Maxine! I appreciate that!

Alex Harford said...

A fun but dark story. I love the inventiveness with nursery rhymes and unexpected ending. Have you written or thought about writing a sequel?

Victoria Dixon said...

A little, but not seriously. It took me twenty-plus years to get this one to a published state. LOL I tend to like stand-alone stories, so any time I write a "sequel," it's a story that's set in the same world, but that's all. That said, my current novel DOES end on a cliffhanger, so I suppose I might break my own rule someday. ;D