The dining room was just as splendid as the library and entryway. The walls were red brick with windows overlooking the outside garden; in the middle of the room, there was an elegantly sat a long barnyard table able to fit at least 25 people comfortably with the simple china. Candles and more Thomas Edison lights gave a feeling of warmth and intimacy. The table decorations of rosemary topiaries in modest terra cotta pots and wildflowers in vintage glass jars and mint julep cups were simple. They gave off a pleasant smell in what Caroline assumed would help to enhance the dinner. Each seat was marked with printed placemats, name cards, and a menu placed out for the diners. Caroline walked timidly around the table, looking for her name, wondering how she could have a seat already marked if she was just selected. ‘Why wonder? Just enjoy.’ She told herself firmly.
She finally found her seat, next to Sydney to her right and Eidolon to her left at the head of the table. She was in luck; her two new friends were sitting directly across from her, giggling at her discomfort at the seating arrangement, and Anna, who looked like the uncomfortable 5th wheel to an otherwise happy party.
“Well, this is quite the set-up,” Sydney said as he found his seat. “A far cry from the usual McDonald’s dollar menu that I hit up on my way home from work.” He held out the chair for Caroline as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do and pushed in her seat as she sat down.
“Well, you are in for a treat!” Isabella said as Watson held out her seat also. “The Chief here is amazing, and Winston, who tends to the wine list, knows a thing or two about a thing or two.”
“I don’t drink much wine myself, but when in Rome…. follow the beautiful blonde’s advice as my father always said.” Sydney chuckled and looked at Caroline. “How are you feeling?” He whispered.
“I am not sure. Waiting for the next ball to drop. Like any moment, everyone is going to realize that they made a mistake, and I will be sent back to the real world.” Caroline said while playing with her water glass.
“I know how you feel,” Sydney responded just as Winston appeared with a bottle of wine and started to pour the liquid gold into Caroline’s glass.
“What do you have for us today, dear Winston?” Isabella asked as she held out her glass.
“This is a Beaumes de Venise, a sweet fortified wine, that Pliny the Elder himself wrote about this on his travels when he was writing the encyclopedic Naturalis Histroia. He wrote later that ‘The Muscat grape has been grown for a long time in Beaumes and its wine is remarkable.’ It is also a well-known fact that it was to have been used by St. Louis on his 7th Crusade, and if it was good enough for the only King of France to be canonized by the Catholic Church, it is good enough for the newest members.”
Winston walked away, talking to each of the other members while pouring them their glasses. The comfort of the noise, the freedom of enjoying a drink while talking to new friends, the relief of not being at home eating chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream brought a new sense of comfort to Caroline throughout the meal. It was over the main course that Caroline was allowed to know the identities of her dinner partners.
“I was 16, popular in school, loved by the teachers, dotted on by my parents, high expectations were expected of me from an early age. The world had told me that I was beautiful, talented, smart enough for a woman to marry well- the future was bright for me.” Isabella told her dinner partners while leaning back in her chair playing with her wine glass. “I was spending the summer with my grandparents at their country estate in the Hudson, the days were filled with summer activities, and we spent the nights at lavish parties.
I had a new outfit for every outing; I was the bell of the ball and living my best life.” She leaned forward to pour herself more wine when her face got sad, “It was mid-summer when my grandfather came to me and told me that my parents had died—car wreck on their way back from some event in New York City. I was devastated. I was an only child; my mother had called me her miracle child. I was my father’s princess. And then, in a matter of moments, I was an orphan.
The funeral was a massive affair, everyone who was someone came. Reporters flocked to the cemetery, photographers were lining the street as my parents were driven to their final resting place, and somewhere in all that mess- I was a shadow. No one noticed the teenage girl who was hanging on by a thread. But I was expected to be the perfect hostess, to comfort strangers, to serve drinks to officials. My grief of the unknown and loss was secondary to what others needed from me.”
Caroline watched as her friend played with the food on her plate, pushing it one way and then another as she told her spoke, forgetting that she was telling the story as she remembered.
“I remember sneaking back to the house and hiding in my grandmother’s study. She had been reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and she had left it on her desk. I picked up the book and crawled under the desk to hide from the world. That is when I meet Isabella Thorpe- the mean girl of the Austen era. She was funny, beautiful, vengeful, hateful, loving, and had no idea what it was she wanted in this world, but she knew how to make everyone’s else fantasy seem like her own. And I remember that I understood Isabella, her ability to transform, chameleon-like, into whatever the people wanted her to be.
There is an art in playing a role that you are expected to be without ever seeing the script beforehand. So, if that was the part I was assigned, I was going to use Isabella as my inspiration.” Isabella came out of her memories and smiled at everyone looking at her.
“Don’t be sad, my loves; I am quite comfortable in this body. Every day is a new adventure, a new script is delivered, and I intend to play my part with the enthusiasm of Lucille Ball trying to get Ricky to allow her to perform on stage.” She laughed softly. “Now your turn.” She said pointily to Watson.
“Why is it that we have to have deep conversations without the comfort of being somewhere where I can smoke?” Winston grumbled as he fiddled with a small can of mints and popped one in his mouth before he began.
“I had joined the military to piss off my parents. I had had the grades and brains to go far in college; I had received acceptance letters from all my top choices. My parents were thrilled! Parties were thrown so that they could brag. Yale, Harvard, etc.…. My father spent weeks studying the secret societies at each and made charts on which one would lead to my eventual election as President of the United States.” Watson chuckled as he took a sip of his drink.
“Can you imagine me as President? I would be the first to install a slip-in slide and an outdoor pool bar with unicorn floaties. I wanted something more, something with excitement, which would allow me to earn my honor and name. So, I went to West Point to the dismay of my mother. But I figured you could not argue with a man going to college to serve his country. It is downright anti-American, and so off I went to exchange my letterman’s jacket with a pressed uniform and a beautiful and unsharpened sword.”
The four years flew by. I learned responsibility, leadership, how to give, and how to take orders. I was physically fit, so none of that stuff bothered me. I was smart, so I was never really stressed. I kept my head down low and my goal on graduation. It’s the only way to get through a school like that. And then the day came, orders to my unit and to my pleasure, they were deploying overseas. I was young, naïve, filled with four years of training that gave me the idea that I could conquer the world with a small squad, a skill craft pen, and 6 MRE’s. My mother cried, my father gave me a pocket watch, and off I went.”
No one explains war really to anyone. No matter how many documentaries you watch on the History Channel or guest speakers who came to talk on some past victorious battle- war is personal, and no one has the same story. Needless to say, I got hurt. Shot in the ass. Can you believe it? It was a Tom Hanks moment, and I was mortified. I was shipped back stateside to recover as there was some nerve damage in my legs, and I didn’t even get ice cream cones! Instead, they gave me a medical discharge, a monthly check, and said ‘Thank you for your service.’ Six years from my high school graduation, I was a cripple with an education.”
Watson took another long drink and filled his glass and of Isabella’s. “I was sitting at a local coffee shop, writing in my journal because my shrink said I needed to write down my feelings…a horrible exercise of recovery that turned into observations of the people around me. I was very good at diagnosing and treating strangers by the type of coffee they ordered, just not good at pinpointing my issues. However, this particular coffee shop had a lending library, a bookshelf that covered the whole back wall, and on my trip back from the men’s room, I stopped to look. That is when I saw The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” Watson cleared his throat and quoted, “the Jezail bullet which I had brought back in one of my limbs as a relic of my Afghan campaign throbbed with dull persistence.”
I felt that damn line in my ass- literally! My ass and leg decided that moment to have a dance-off, and I fell off my chair in pain. 911 was called, someone called my mother, and I was sitting in a hospital bed within hours waiting on another surgery. I was mortified- someone had called my mother! But she did bring me the collection of the Sherlock Holmes stories for my recovery. And that is when I realized that I understood who and what Dr. Watson was. I was going to recover, but I would always have a dull persistence of pain hiding in the shadows.”
Kostova looked at Watson, wondering what she was supposed to say? Sorry? Need a hug? Thank you? It was an uncomfortable situation, especially for Watson. So, the group did what was best; Isabella patted his arm and smiled at him. They let him know they were there but didn’t make inadequate speeches to cause further discomfort. Kostova looked at Anna, hoping to hear her story, but it was at that moment that Winston came in with coffee and a light dessert of fresh fruit and cream.
“I don’t think that it is the McDonald’s that is going to make me fat,” Sydney said as he happily dug into the new course breaking the emotions of reliving memories. Kostova was happy to have a cup of regular coffee in her hands, the sadness of the stories mixed with the happiness of new friends gave her a lot to think about, and her mind was already planning on her next blog. She was making mental notes of the room and Anna Clendening’s ‘Boys’ soft sounds like you’ playing in the background. She wondered why the host was quiet during the conversation, preferring to listen and silently play with his dinner. Kostova wasn’t sure if she had ever seen him take a full bite of any of the courses. What a strange man he was. And she realized that she wanted to know his story. She was looking at him out of the corner of her eye when Eidolon quietly stood up and looked across the room. He cleared his throat, and the room grew quickly quiet.
“I am honored to have our new members to the Raven Society. As most of you know, this society was founded in the 1300s by Dante Alighieri as a society of writers and thinkers who were charged with holding the secrets of those things that the majority cannot understand fully. There has been no writer before or since that has used an exile’s conditions to write a piece so inspired as what was named the Divine Comedy. Fourteen thousand two hundred thirty-three lines long, this poem describes the journey between Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso- a journey to the final truth of humanity and love. This is our journey. We are shielding that which we have been tasked to protect and keep its secrets. This journey took the society through the gates of hell with the Knights Templars in 1312. The Free Mason’s in the 1500s to 1600s. Through the Purgatorio of the Illuminati in the 1700s. On to the Saturday Club formation in 1855 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Gray Ward, and Horatio Woodman. And the final transformation to the Raven Society in the 1920s. Each of these groups has tasked us to guard the written words of our predecessors. We have been called to action once again.”
The doors to the dining room opened, and the older woman Caroline had met earlier that evening walked in the room. Her bright blue eyes danced merrily in the lights as she looked at the gapping members sitting around the dining room table—the room filled with an unmistakable smell of rain and sea air.
“What a gathering of minds you have here, Eidolon!” She said as she walked towards him. Her steps were careful and measured as if age was her constant acquaintance. In her left hand, she held on to a beautifully engraved cane with pictures of ships, graveyard markers, houses, shoes, with an open book serving as the topper. “Yes, this just might work.” She stopped by Caroline’s chair and placed her twisted hand on her shoulder.
“I am glad to see that you were able to find the entrance, young lady. Sometimes, we have to look back to move forward. But I suspect that you may already know that. Who did you settle on for your identity?”
“Kostova.” She replied
“Good choice. A strong choice. My recommendation- be known as Kostova then. Shed your old identity while sitting in the safety of these rooms.
Embrace and grow into the person that you admire. It will make the following days so much easier for everyone.” She patted her arm, walked up Eidolon with a slight smile on her face, and turned to face the room.
“Good evening, travelers. You may call me Moll; it is the name that I have been known by for more years than I care to admit.” She looked at Eidolon and patted his arm. “I have a story that I need to share, but as it is a long tale and I think that we would be more comfortable in the library.” She paused, looking around for someone, “But I think that we are going to need something a little stiffer to drink than that lovely wine. Where is Winston?”
“I am here, Moll.” Winston appeared out of the shadows and offered his arm to the new visitor. “Let me accompany you to the library, and I will make you a Whiskey Sour just the way you like. I have it on good authority that Emma made you your favorite dessert and has prepared your room just the way you like.”
Moll took his arm and laughed. “You spoil me as always. Have you asked Emma to marry you yet?” Winston rolled his eyes as they walked out the doors, gossiping like school-age friends. Kostova stood up with the rest of the table, internally embracing her new role and life, and whispered to her new friends.
“Who is she?”
“Now, that is the first mystery of tonight is it not,” Isabella whispered back. “But she seems to know you. How particular!”
“Don’t believe every worried thought you have. Worried thoughts are notoriously inaccurate”Renee Jain