The guests arrived as dusk gave way to night, and spent an uneasy few minutes making small talk while waiting for their host. The house was a fine example of a bygone era, elderly, but well maintained. We were left in the entry hall to chat, check coats, and prepare for the ordeal to come. I didn’t know anyone else in the room, and it soon became clear that none of the thirteen of us did either. We all seemed to have a similar story of mentioning a desire to experience something unusual to a friend, and receiving an invitation some time after.
As the old clock in the hall struck the hour, the parlour doors opened.
We filed in, and found seats at the table, which was clearly prepared for a party of thirteen exactly. There was no other furniture in the room. Dark curtains covered the windows, there was a thick carpet on the floor, and the table was round with just enough room for the thirteen of us to sit almost shoulder to shoulder. As we sat, the parlour doors closed. And locked.
Looking around, I saw no other doors.
A gentleman who I hadn’t yet chatted with looked around the table, and seized control of the gathering with little more than body language and a penetrating stare. He had the knack of seeing to the back of one’s skull, seemingly laying bare all the secrets therein. I leapt immediately to the conclusion that this was our mysterious host for the evening. Events soon proved I was right.
Without saying a word, he placed his hands flat on the table, and stared at each of us until we all followed suit.
We sat like that for a few minutes, just feeling the table, with fingertips possibly touching our neighbor’s, apparently all waiting for something to happen. Our host projected the posture and mood he wanted us to assume, and we all fell right in line. After what seemed like an hour, but which was certainly no more than five minutes or so, a murmur spread around the table. For it had shifted suddenly. After another minute, the table unmistakably moved.
I’m still not sure what I had expected from the evening, other than something unexpected. After all, that is about all the invitation had said: “Come experience something unusual and unexpected,” then it gave an address, a date, and a time.
The table unmistakably moved. That was something I was certainly not expecting, it had felt and appeared to be a large oak dining table, suitable for dinner service for ten, and currently seating thirteen in a more cramped setting where we just had room to set our cups down in front of each of us. It vibrated a little, then lifted, rocked and settled. Many gasped audibly when it lifted, then relaxed when it settled. Before we had time to react, it shot straight up at least a foot, the top staying roughly level, and then another foot so that the shortest among us were just able to see over it. It then settled back to the floor, dropping the last couple of inches so that it made a loud thud and rattled all the cups.
And blew out the candle.
By that point, all the other lights in the room which had been slowly dimmed, had gone out and the only light was the single large candle burning in the center of the table. Which blew out when the table dropped back to the floor, leaving us blind in a pitch dark room.
In the darkness someone, I presume our host, spoke. “The circle is set, the room is sealed. From this point forward, silence is your best option. Please take hands and complete the circle, and most importantly, do not let go for any reason whatsoever.”
Rattled, I reached out left and right and found my table mates doing the same thing. We clasped hands in the darkness, and wondered what we had done.
“Rest your hands on the table if you will, but do not let go. We are all safe and secure in this place and time. We are each other’s anchor, each other’s hold on sanity and normalcy, break the circle and there will be consequences.”
By this point, my eyes were as adjusted to darkness as they were going to get, and there was no light available to be seen. Eyes open or closed made no difference. We sat there in a degree of darkness that modern city dwellers rarely experience, listening to each other breathe, hanging on to our anchors as if our neighbors really were at risk of madness without the comfort of a human touch.
Touch. What made me imagine that word at this time? Touch. For at that moment, I distinctly felt a touch on the back of my head, as if a touch of a bird’s wing, a great silent bird comfortable flying in close quarters in pitch darkness, a bird I could only imagine as it made the rounds of the table evidenced by the sudden intakes of breath and squirming from my neighbors as their grips increased.
I took a breath, and forced myself to relax.
By the sounds of it, I wasn’t the only one, but there were a few who were still shaking.
The table shifted then stilled.
We heard a sound then, a sort of whispering voice. I say “we”, but it soon became clear that each of us were hearing different sounds. Mine was seeming to tell me things, but in distant indistinct way that made it difficult to make out. A moment of clarity came when it called me by name and told me that tonight could be my last night among the living, that I could easily be scared to death. A ridiculous notion I can hear you thinking even through the printed word. Ridiculous indeed until you are sitting in pitch darkness with twelve strangers remembering that you didn’t particularly explain to anyone where you were going for the evening. The whispering continued. Did anyone know I was here? Did I really trust the shady person to my left? Was I holding them tightly enough to prevent them from doing something?
It might be an exaggeration to say that the table as a whole was terrified, but we all considered it and we clearly were all more than a little unsettled.
Suddenly, the table lifted, rocked and settled again. That seemed to be a signal of some sort. As it came back to terra firma, everyone seemed to collectively breathe a sigh of relief. Until the voices returned, this time speaking so that the whole table, could hear.
“Carol, you know the answer.”
“Frederick, find a way forward, or fall back.”
“Althea, no, all is not well, and won’t get better until you do what you know you must do.”
“David, your mother knows.”
I didn’t hear my name called, but I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer to the questions rolling through my mind. Others seemed comforted by their answers. With each somewhat ominous pronouncement, the mood seemed to lift, and the near terror that had prevailed not that long before dissipated.
Now, when the unseen bird made the rounds a second time, we welcomed its touch. It made the rounds a third time, then a fourth, going faster with each round, then it became a spark of light in the center of the room, darting here and there, just barely bright enough to be seen as a yellow pinprick. It darted around the table, dancing, almost tracing an ethereal pattern, never touching any of us.
As it danced, the last of the fear and anxiety washed away, leaving us once again fearless as we took stock of our experience.
The tiny light flared up brightly and dropped to the candle. When our vision cleared, the candle was lit.
In the light of the candle, none of us were unchanged.
All twelve were sitting calmly, holding hands…