A thin, mute girl leads the two into a dark and spacious dining hall. A long table extends along one side of the room. Dark hardwood paneling climbs the lofty walls and lends a forest atmosphere to the chamber. Tulip-shaped clouded glass sconces reach into the room, glowing frostily.
A woman heads the table set for ten, flanked by a motley assortment of guests. Three twisted silver candelabras top the table, dripping wax among covered platters, carafes and chiseled glass goblets. Their fractured surfaces scatter the light in tiny fires across its length. Seven other guests shift and mumble in their shadowed seats in a language of clicks, hisses and scattered syllables.
The seated woman's grey eyes follow the pair as they approach the gathered dinner guests. She watches the servant girl as she guides the couple to their seats at the far end, and watches her struggle with a heavy high-backed chair to seat the young woman. The serving girl nods her head of stringy blonde hair and curtsies in an aproned grey shift before dashing back through the door. It swings behind her and closes with a distinct click.
The matron rises to greet the new guests. Her high-collared black dress is fastened at the neck with a round brooch. A chain falls to her waist, weighted with a heavy brass medallion. A firmness in her features has frozen her age. Dark hair is tightly wound into a coil on top of her head. She reaches for a curved cane at her side. Her companions fall silent.
The young woman who has just joined the table smiles uncomfortably. Her hair hangs in a crisp golden bob, covered a small flowered hat trimmed in black netting. She wears a short black dress, and places a small black clutch purse on the table as she removes white gloves. A small white rose is pinned above her breast. To her right, the seated man wears a priest's collar and the black garments of his profession. He regards her through small rectangular glasses.
They were returning from a funeral, they say. He was giving her a ride back, they say. The storm broke before they could cross the river and the road is washed out. The road floods so easily, it's such a shame they can't do something about that. There used to be a dam. You won't be able to pass at least until tomorrow morning. The rain is letting up. Please join us, it won't be any trouble. We were just having a reunion. We do every year or so. You know, old friends, catching up. Two of our number could not make it this year, so the places are already set for you. No, it's no bother at all. Make yourselves comfortable, we will begin in a moment.
A girl appears at the woman's side with a silver pitcher of cold red wine and fills a glass. She gathers the gloves in her bloodless hands and moves down the table.
The figures at the table nod and begin to hum and trill. A thin-lipped man or woman with close-cropped hair sits closest to the couple, across from the priest. High cheekbones and a rounded jaw, with a down of soft hair grazing the lip.
At the side of this guest, a hooded form emits a deep huff and grumble. Thick arms extend from the fold, a man's hairy hands toying with the dull knife beside his silver plate. Across from his place at the table, a much wider chair admits the bulk of a large tortoise, craning its wrinkled neck toward a plate topped with red lettuce leaves. Its mouth snaps at the salad and it settles back.
The figures further away are harder to read, as the shadows from the sconces obscure these seats and the sputtering light from the silver candle trees hardly reaches the edge of the table. A large orange cat appears to be seated beyond the guest with close-cropped hair. It stands on a plush velvet chair, gazing with feline disinterest through deep violet eyes.
Opposite the cat, a large owl is perched on a carved wooden stool. The horned peaks on its head resemble a cat's ears. It turns its head without moving its body and two orange eyes survey the newcomers for a moment before it twists away to watch its neighbors on the other side, twitching its feathers in irritation.
At the final seats by the head of the table, a coiled form undulates on one side, while the dim light barely admits a glimpse of a large crustacean's claw hovering at the table's edge.
The matron moves across the room to a fireplace, the click of her cane sounding each step. The hearth leaps into light as she sets it ablaze and her shadow stretches across the chamber. The hooded being snorts and the cat yawns. A trio of identical girls swarm into the room with covered trays.
Courses are uncovered in front of the silent newcomers. A cluster of fungus suspended in a bowl of pale gold broth. A small section of raw fish on a bed of kelp, surrounded by radishes carved to resemble coral. A cluster of purple berries arranged artfully on one half of a game hen. An aubergine boat stuffed with pearls of grain and poppy seeds. The woman and priest join the others in the feast, not watching as their fellow guests fall upon their meals with beaks and maws. Only the mistress of the manor and the slender short-haired guest match the stranded strangers in their command of the utensils, though the cat licks its paws with pleasure as it finishes its fish.
For the final course, a single pomegranate seed is presented in a small black bowl. They eat them politely, a single crack and burst of sour sweet juice, and the plates are cleared away.
The mistress waits in the center of the room as the assembled guests slowly emerge from their chairs. A clatter of wood and the squeal of chair legs on stone, and the company move to join her. Elegant strides, dignified small steps, lumbering gaits, a scaled slither, a slow trudge, a haphazard clack of shell on stone. The thick flutter of wings as a bird glides a short distance.
Mosaic tiles sketch a pattern on the dark stone floor. Nine spokes etched in gold divide a wheel into ten wedges. Glazed in vivid hues, colored shards form ten image images, stylized like a cartoon zodiac.
Five depict roughly human forms. Five, animal.
The woman taps the floor with her cane and points to each figure as she speaks the name.
She pulls back the cane to rest at her feet.
She taps the final two.
"Now we are ten," she says.
The figures around the circle match eyes, the hood falling away from the bull-headed man's snout, the lobster scuttling forward, the size of a child. A thick-bodied snake takes its place beside the dog-sized owl, and the giant cat blinks its amethyst eyes.
The priest and the widow watch while at the table their shadowed figures fall forward, jaws slack and half-lidded eyes gazing at the empty plates.