The Hanging Table, p.1Neill Russell
The Hanging Table
Copyright 2014 by Neill Russell
The oak panelled room contained a trove of memories for sale; a pharaoh's tomb repeatedly plundered for commerce and trade. The auction house was a hive of activity. Punters worked over items for sale, placing their personal degree of value upon each prospective possession. The chant of the auctioneer spilled out from the auction room and reverberated over the antiques and objects of art.
Amidst the hubbub and the high-end bric-a-brac, an elderly man stood, transfixed in the centre of the chamber, staring at an old antique table that had seen more years than he had. Despite being surrounded by other people's memories he had succumbed to his own. He stood still, petrified with shock and embalmed in horror. Asker Wood had, many years ago, owned this very table.
Dark, bold and Jacobean, as described by the manila sales ticket, the table had once dominated Asker's living room, not by its size but by its sheer presence. It had brooded in the corner. Adorned with coasters, magazines and a photograph of his late wife, it had begrudgingly served as a coffee table.
Asker found himself transfixed, as he often had, by the table's dark whorls and knots. Mesmerised by the still patterns in the table's surface, the ripples and eddies of wood, Asker drifted along his own river of time and unsurfaced memories he had long forgotten.
He remembered his son, Tom, jumping from the table; eyes lit up with joy whilst in momentary flight. Misguided, and with the careless abandon of an amateur, Tom had crashed into the table many times when learning to walk. Asker and his wife had dismissed these little mishaps as a part of the learning process; they had laughed at the suicidal tendencies of toddlers. It was only when Tom split his lip and lost a tooth that they had shamefully moved it to a corner of the room.
Asker also remembered his own blood running over the table, a large volume for such a small cut. The accident had transpired swiftly. Asker had, with no extra force or lack of care, returned his teacup to the centre of its companion piece. Moments after the customary chink of china had sounded, the saucer had voluntarily disbanded. Asker flinched as he recalled his hand following straight into the razored remnants. He recollected the broken cup; overturned next to shards of the shattered saucer, a porcelain jigsaw no longer complete, in a perfect circle of red.
Returning to the present, Asker found the table's surface clear: no blood; no broken cup. The silver bound, monochrome stare of his other half was missing; only the hypnotic grain remained. Not without some spite, he resigned himself to the fact that the table had outlived his wife. It had some burn damage and a new leg; otherwise, the table had been restored by skilled craftsmen. Asker could appreciate that but he had no attachment to it, he never had.
Nestled in woodland at the edge of the village, Taigh nan Craobhan - the House of Trees - was a new start for Asker and his young family; a new life and new beginning. Tom had been born months after they had moved in, filling the house with cries of laughter and anguish, nappies and laundry, in a way only a newborn can.
Encircled by silver birch, their bark shining like watchmen shrouded in armour, Asker had felt protected there - until he discovered the table, that is. He had found it buried under a mouldy dust sheet in his garden shed, cleaned it up and given it a place in his home. Asker's family hadn't inherited the table; it had inherited them.
As more and more accidents surrounding the table accumulated, Asker's superstitions about it swelled. He began to feel that the table was an intruder in their nest, an inanimate cuckoo. Asker resolved to rid himself of it.
Behind the village shop's front door, where you might cast your eyes long enough to see it, and then forget it, was a billboard. Papered with flyers for local services and handwritten notices for second hand goods, it was a collage of local trade. No one knew how old these adverts were. Some looked as if they had been pinned there for years. Asker's printed paper, containing a photo of the table and the hard fonts detailing it, looked thoroughly modern next to its neighbours.
'Moved into Taigh nan Craobhan, have you?' a gruff voice questioned from behind the shop's counter.
'Yeah, how did you know?' Asker replied.
'It's a small place. Word gets around. Anyway, it's the only place that table's ever been. I've not seen it for a long time, mind. I'd forgotten all about it. You're wasting your time. No one will buy that,' the shopkeeper said, 'not a local anyway.'
As the history of the table was revealed to him, Asker began to understand the shopkeeper's proclamation that it would never be sold to a villager. The table was well known throughout the village and had gained a place in its folklore. Asker hadn't been the first to suspect its propensity for misfortune. The grocer recounted numerous incidents whereby people had been hurt in its vicinity. Broken limbs, illness, spells of bad luck; all had been blamed on the table at some time.
'Don't play cards on that table,' the shopkeeper warned. 'Everyone will be called a cheat and it will end in a fight. Don't ask me why. It's the way it's always been.'
The MacIntyre family had owned Taigh nan Craobhan for as long as people could remember. They had been carpenters and furniture makers. According to local myth, the MacIntyre's had cut the table from the village's dule tree. It had fallen in a storm. A dule tree, Asker learned was a gallows tree, a hanging tree, a doleful tree. The MacIntyre's fortune had suffered ever since. Locals had been telling each other ghost stories about the table for generations. Now rooted in the village folklore, Asker felt his superstitions gain credence.
A pyramid of timber enclosed the flourishing fire. Entombed within the heat was the table, surrounded by dry sticks of birch. White as bone, they kindled, cracked, slowly lost their form and tumbled into ash. The table stood resolute, charring slightly, seemingly incombustible. Asker had thought it would be an apt end to the table; an exorcism of the torment trapped within it; a memorial to those who had once died on the boughs of its progenitor. So he had used it as the centrepiece of their bonfire; a throne for the Guy, let alone a penny.
'It's not a French word - bonfire,' Asker recalled the shopkeeper's words, as the flames began to dance over the pile of wood and garden debris.
'It's not a "good" fire. No, it's an old word. Banefire, we used to call them. A fire of bones. The bones of the beasts we'd slaughtered for winter. Before that it was the bones of battle we'd burn. Aye, we've been burning things long before Guy Fawkes.'
The night sky was peppered with fireworks, metal stars bursting to life and extinguishing in an instant. Pyrotechnic peonies and chrysanthemums faded and bloomed with varying colour. The fierce red glow of the fire reflected off cold, bare cheeks. Wrapped for the weather, Asker's new-found friends gathered together holding hands and sparklers. Shadows played across faces, disguising those once familiar, momentarily casting menacing looks over smiles. A waft of sulphur drifted over the gathering, as the wind stoked the fire. The table still refused to burn.
Reports from a roman candle echoed and reverberated, mimicking rifle shot. The rat-a-tat-fizz of a rocket sounded as it flared into the night sky. Suddenly, the crowd turned in unison, startled not by a bang but a scream; the howl of a child, not a painless cry but a wail brimming with hurt. Every parent knows their child's scream. Asker froze in recognition then ran towards the source of the shrieking.
Disorientated, surrounded by hospital white, lost in labyrinthine corridors, Asker could only focus on one thing; he had caused his son's accident. He had placed that infernal table in the fire. Asker should have known his plan would come to no good. Others had failed to destroy it. What made him think he would succeed? He could still see the avalanche of flames shift towards his son, as the leg of the table gave way. Now Tom lay dreaming with his burned limb exposed
Asker was lost. Each ward looked the same. Patients waited while visitors came and went, ghosts all of them. Colour coded hallways took him left and right, blue and red but never out. He had to get out. The table was still there. Asker wanted it gone.
Warm to touch, as if it were alive, the table stood proud, protected by a circle of ash. Undaunted by superstition Asker stepped into the remnants of the fire. Clouds enveloped his feet while he walked over cinders. It was dead wood. Asker had to believe that, as he grabbed a leg and dragged it, belly up, to his car. If he couldn't destroy it he would abandon it. The table was as heavy as a corpse. Asker struggled with the weight of it, wrestled with it, until finally the table lay upturned like a turtle in the boot of his car. Asker tied the rear door shut.
Framed in the rear view mirror, the three remaining legs of the table jutted above the back seat. Asker glanced back at them, a nervous driver taxiing an unpredictable client. The sun rose, illuminating the horizon, as he drove out of the village. Ambling along, only too aware of his cargo, Asker came to the village's periphery where the dule tree once stood. A new tree stood in its place, watching over its predecessor's stump. Overhead, a squadron of black wings beat a silent morning departure from their arboreal abode. The murder of rooks came to alight on the tree where they clicked and cawed their guttural song.
The crack of a gavel hitting wood echoed around the auction room. Chair legs scraped, people stood. An ebb and flow of bodies developed as some left and some joined to bid on the new lot. Asker looked up from the table to see Tom emerge from the throng. It was one of those moments that startled Asker. Seeing Tom was like looking back on himself: young, empty, a blank canvas, with the potential to become what he was now or, as Asker hoped, something else.
Tom didn't remember the table. He had recovered from the bonfire incident with vigour, hampered only by a slight limp on his right side. Whatever physical ability might have been taken from him, he made up with enthusiasm. This made him a popular character amongst his peers. He was never the last to be picked for a team and had manage to enjoy a decent sporting life. Now studying to be an architect, Tom had an found an interest in art and antiques. He joked that he needed to fill his buildings with something.
With a triumphant smile, Tom edged towards Asker. Asker had learned to ignore Tom's limp and the memories it triggered, but today every step his son took distressed him. Asker relaxed momentarily, as he felt a hand on his back and the embrace of his son. Glancing down at the table and back at his father Tom proudly said, 'Do you like it? You always had good taste, dad. I've just bought it.'
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About the author
Neill Russell is a Scottish writer based east of Edinburgh.
Neill Russell never thought he could write, not like his teenage heroes, Hemingway and the Beat Generation, so instead he read and he scribbled unfinished fiction.
Neill Russell can write. The Hanging Table is his debut short story.
The Hanging Table by Neill Russell / Science Fiction / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on15 votes