Throughout my childhood, I wondered what was in the box my father kept on the mantel. He’d given my sister and I clear instructions never to touch it, in a tone of voice so authoritative that we dared not give in to our curiosity. Our only clue was a small label on its side that read “Russian Nesting Dolls”. Since none of the boxes in the house were properly labeled, we weren’t sure what to make of it. I only discovered the truth one night several years ago, when my father and I were sharing drinks and watching a hockey game. I confess: I was not expecting what he told me and showed me that night. I think that, had it not been for the half-dozen Molsons he’d downed that evening, he would never have opened the box in front of me. My dad pushed his recliner back, a bottle in his hand, and watched the Zamboni make its way onto the ice. With a quiet sip, he began telling me the story.
Much to my surprise, he revealed that he had an older sister, Jessie. Up until then, I thought Uncle Steve was his only sibling. When my dad was seven years old, Jessie got into a car accident after a night on the town. Automobile versus tree, and the tree won by a landslide. The damage was so severe that Jessie needed a closed casket funeral. Dad’s old man insisted they cremate her body.
Once dad had gotten a little older, his mother revealed more details about the accident: a branch had taken Jessie’s head nearly entirely off her shoulders, and her body had been crushed and twisted at unnatural angles. Some of the rescue workers on scene, seasoned professionals used to blood and gore, quit their jobs after that night. As my father spoke, he pushed himself off the couch and walked over to the box on the mantel. I asked if her ashes were inside, but he shook his head. He brought the box over to the sofa, took a seat, and ran his hand delicately against its grainy surface.
After a slight moment of hesitation, my father pushed open the small wooden slab at the front of the box, revealing a Russian Nesting Doll tucked neatly in a bed of straw. He told me the box had come in the mail exactly ten years to the day after his sister’s death. There was no postmark or return address. He turned the slab over to expose a sentence written in red ink: “I will always be with you.” it read. The name “Jessie” had been signed underneath and the dot on the “i” had been replaced with a heart. Dad insisted it was her handwriting, and tears welled up in his eyes as he gently grazed the now faded markings with the tips of his fingers. I had never seen my dad get so emotional before. It was a little uncomfortable. I took a sip of beer and leaned closer, examining the doll in the box. It was painted like any typical Russian Nesting Doll: a beautiful young woman’s smiling face, a floral shawl around her neck, small arms at her sides, a rose on her stomach, and a red base. My father followed my gaze to the doll and sighed. The game came back on, and he set the conversation aside to watch, his stern face locked on the screen.
Holding my tongue until the break between the 2nd and 3rd periods, I barely paid attention to the television. From the disapproving groans being emitted by my dad, I could tell our team was losing again.
As soon as the 2nd period ended, I turned to my father and asked him why he never put the dolls out on display. He said he would show me why; if I was man enough to handle it. I puffed my chest in an exaggerated manner and snarled “Nurgh. Guh! ME MAN!” in a caveman-esque voice. He clutched the doll and pried it open, pulling out the smaller one inside. She was creepier than the first, but still looked fairly normal. She had all the same features, except for two things: she was frowning and the rose on her stomach was black. Noticing the unimpressed look on my face, he popped the second doll open. The third doll filled me with a sense of unease. Its face seemed more demonic, and small fangs protruded from its painted lips. A thorny vine had replaced the rose on its belly, and her clawed fingers gave her a monstrous appearance.
Okay, I was beginning to understand why he never showed these off. My father cringed, not wanting to reveal the next doll, so I offered him another beer to soothe his nerves.
A few minutes passed in silence before my father freed the fourth figure.
This one really stunned me. It had devilish horns and an angry face. It looked evil. I could feel a weird pressure in my chest. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt like it was getting harder to breathe. The doll had thick eyebrows, soulless eyes, and a goatee. Instead of a shawl around its neck, it had barbed wire. Its long, bony and clawed fingers were holding the severed head of the first doll in the series. Just looking at it made my skin crawl. Goddamn, there was something seriously wrong about it.
My father downed the beer in his hands and slipped it between his knees. He plucked the doll open and showed me the fifth and final one. It was a little girl with a tormented face. She had blood dripping all around her neck. Her base was painted to look like flames. Of all the dolls, that one scared me the most. I could practically hear anguished screams coming out of her wide-open mouth. Chills ran up and down my spine as I took it in. If I wasn’t freaked out enough already, my father said something that ensured I would not sleep that night: “Looks just like Jessie.”
The array of dolls disturbed me greatly, and I cursed my innate curiosity. It was then that I noticed a crease in the middle of the smallest doll. Against my better judgment, I asked my father if there was another doll inside. He shook his head. His pained lips turned into a light, almost mournful smile. He carefully opened the lid, revealing something wrapped in a yellowish newspaper tied together with twine. He slowly started to undo the knot, and my heart raced faster and faster with each passing second. I wish I could un-see what I saw that night. I knew what it was before my eyes even caught a glimpse of it. It was as though my brain had filled in the blank all on its own. Inside the newspaper was a shriveled human finger. It had been ripped off at its base, and a broken metacarpal bone stuck out of the old-raisin-like flesh dangling at the bottom. I brought a hand to my mouth and bolted towards the washroom, expulsing beer and peanuts into the porcelain throne. Why had he kept it?! What if my sister and I had seen it? What if it had fallen from the mantel and opened somehow? Did mom know? Was it even LEGAL to keep human remains? Between the gurgles and flushes, I heard my dad snapping the dolls shut one by one. He moved the box to his room the next morning. I never confronted him about it.
One little detail kept nagging at me, and though I tried to forget about the whole thing, I couldn’t get my mind off of it. How had his sister sent him her finger after she passed away? Maybe my grandmother had found the box in the garage one night and left it out for dad without checking its contents, but then, how had the finger gotten inside? I needed to know. Earlier this year, I was watering my parents’ plants while they were away on vacation, when I saw the box on dad’s bedside table. I took it home and ordered a DNA testing kit. Along with a few pieces of my dad’s hair, taken from his comb, I sent a piece of the finger to the lab. I’d forgotten all about it until today. It’s not like on TV: it can take months to get results. Just so you know, all humans share about 99.5% of their DNA. The remaining 0.5% contains family markers, so to speak. Though there are exceptions, the DNA between siblings usually matches up at around 50%, as opposed to, say, fourth cousins, who match up at 0.20%. Which is to say, when I received the results in the mail today and they came back at a mere 0.09% match, I knew the finger did not belong to his sister.