"My Strangest Experience"

A shapeshifting table and a tragic tale of merry old England

Editor's Note: From time to time we receive emails from readers who have amazing stories to tell, so we decided to publish some of them as an occasional feature we call "My Strangest Experience". Today's amazing story is from "Edna" of Greenwich, Connecticut.

When I was five, my father, a military aviator, perished during a training exercise in Maryland. To cope with the hardship of bringing up a daughter on her own, my mother would send me to my Aunt Hester's home near Boston each summer for a few weeks, giving my mother time to cope with her loss on her own terms, without having to worry about providing for me. Aunt Hester was, in my opinion, "rich", having inherited a home in Melrose that once belonged to her grandfather, who had been an executive with the Boston and Maine Railroad.

Aunt Hester never married, and in those days (it was the late 1950s) we called women like her spinsters. Her only companion was Moritz, her beloved Siamese cat, and a housekeeper named Hildy. Aunt Hester's home was spotless, yet it maintained an aura of a musty museum, with numerous pieces of antique furniture arranged throughout the six bedroom home.

Even though Aunt Hester's dining room was quite grandiose (at least it appeared that way through my youthful eyes), my aunt preferred to eat all of her meals in the sitting room. In fact, I had never seen Aunt Hester so much as set foot in the dining room throughout the four summers I spent with her.

That first summer, in 1959, stands out in my mind because that was the summer I had my first experience with her antique dining room table. I had been playing with a rubber ball in the hallway and Hildy, in a playful gesture, gently kicked the ball with her foot in my direction. The ball skittered past me, struck a heavy accent table in the hallway, and caromed into the vacant dining room, coming to rest underneath the black wooden table.

I went inside the dining room and crawled beneath the table to retrieve my ball, when I noticed the intricately carved feet, which resembled lion's paws. I found this to be quite fascinating, almost as fascinating as Aunt Hester's bathtub, which also had feet shaped like an animal's paws. Having grown up in a modest home in Maryland with primitive furniture I had never seen claw-footed furniture. I found them impressive, yet comical, at the same time.

Later, when I asked Aunt Hester about the table with the funny "animal legs" (as I called them), a strange look came over her face and she swiftly changed the subject. Nothing more was ever said of the table, until my final visit with Aunt Hester in 1970 at a nursing home in Marblehead, just weeks before her death.
I gave the table no further thought and the summer continued. One rainy day in late summer I had just some in from outside, cold, soaking and shivering, and Hildy promptly ushered me upstairs and changed me into new warm clothes. I passed the afternoon in the bedroom, reading a book, when I decided to go downstairs and see what Aunt Hester and Hildy were up to. I descended the stairs and stood in the quiet hallway, and heard their voices in the sitting room, at the end of the hallway. I passed the dining room and something compelled me to look inside. I glanced at the table and, to my confusion and astonishment, noticed that there was something different about the table. Everything appeared to be the same, except that when I looked at the table's legs, the bear's claws had been replaced by what appeared to be horse's hooves.

I never mentioned what I saw, thinking that perhaps I was seeing things because I had been out in the cold rain for so long. Summer came to a close and I returned home to my mother in Aberdeen, Maryland.
The following summer, the summer of 1960, was once again spent with Aunt Hester. Much to my disappointment, however, Hildy was no longer there. When I asked my aunt about her, she explained that Hildy had gone back to England to take care of her cousin, who had been injured in the collapse of a lead mine. That summer, it was just me, Aunt Hester and her old cat, Moritz.

Near the end of summer a big storm descended upon the Boston area and the electricity went out. Aunt Hester and I lit some candles and we tried our best to keep ourselves entertained. The evening wore on and Aunt Hester fell asleep in her favorite chair in the sitting room. I went upstairs to bed, and was just about to fall asleep when I heard a cry coming from downstairs. Startled, I lit a candle and tip-toed to the edge of the stairs. I heard the lonesome wail again, and sighed in relief when I discovered it was only Moritz.

I went back to bed but could not sleep; Aunt Hester's Siamese continued to whine throughout the night. Thinking that he was scared of the storm, I decided to go downstairs and bring him up to the bedroom with me. I traced his mewing to the dining room, and found him beneath the old black table. With Moritz cradled in my arm I left the room but some mysterious force caused me to pause in the doorway. I turned around and looked down at the legs of the table. But this time I didn't see lion's paws or horse hooves. This time, the feet of the table resembled the feet of an elephant. I ran upstairs as fast as I could, locked my bedroom door, and tucked my head beneath a pillow until morning.

The next two summers passed without incident, but that was probably because I closed my eyes and ran past the dining room without peeking at the table. By now, my mother had learned to cope with the loss of my father, and had found work at a silk mill. Now that she was mentally and financially able to support me, I no longer had to spend summers with Aunt Hester.

In January of 1970 I received word that Aunt Hester was ill. I was nineteen at the time. My husband, Roger, drove me to the nursing home in Marblehead so that I could pay one last visit to my aunt. She seemed to be in good spirits, although she knew her time was short. She said she was prepared for the inevitable, and we spent three hours talking and reminiscing. As I was preparing to leave, I had a mental image of the old dining room table. Even though I had not thought about that table for ten years, it popped into my mind suddenly and I finally told Aunt Hester about what I had seen as a child-- or what I thought I had seen. At the end of my story and laughed. "Isn't that the most ridiculous thing you ever heard?" I asked, expecting Aunt Hester to laugh, too. But she didn't laugh. Instead, a strange look fell over her face. I immediately recognized it as the same look she had when I first asked her about the table with the funny "animal legs" back in the summer of 1959.

"No, Edna, it's not ridiculous at all", she finally replied. "My grandfather bought the table from a furniture dealer sometime in the late 1890s. The story was that it had been made by an expert carpenter from Derbyshire, as a gift to a nobleman of the Cavendish family. Whether he was a duke or a baron nobody remembers, but it was said that this nobleman loved to hunt.

"Right before the end of the century, the nobleman, along with his two sons, journeyed to India on a hunting expedition that was to last for several months. On the morning of their first hunt, the eldest son of the nobleman was crushed to death by a stampeding elephant. Stricken with grief, the nobleman and his youngest son found themselves hopelessly lost, roaming on horseback through the state of Assam, with the lifeless body of the eldest son wrapped in a blanket, and fastened to the horse of the surviving son.

"Darkness fell and the two survivors stopped in a quiet part of the wilderness to camp for the night. The smell of blood from the dead son's body must have attracted a Himalayan brown bear sometime during the night. The father was awaken by muffled screams, but his youngest son was nowhere to be found. It is believed two bears had raided the camp; one dragging away the nobleman's youngest, the other dragging away the corpse of the eldest son.

"The nobleman, hysterical and frightened, jumped on his horse and rode into the wilderness, not knowing where he was going. Many weeks later, a riderless horse trotted into a village in Assam. The villagers identified it as the horse belonging to the British nobleman, and they scoured the forest for days looking for him. He was never found."

According to Aunt Hester, the nobleman's manor fell into disrepair after his disappearance and the unfortunate death of his two sons. Finally, the decision was made by a relative to sell the manor and all of the nobleman's possessions. How the table came to arrive in Boston is unknown, along with Aunt Hester's grandfather's reason for purchasing it.

I was astonished, yet relieved. Part of me was glad that I was not the only person who had seen the mysterious clawed feet of the antique table change shape. Aunt Hester admitted that she had seen it as well. And Hildy must have seen it too, I reasoned. But when I asked Aunt Hester about Hildy, she informed me in a flat, brusque tone that she never had a housekeeper named Hildy.

"Sure you did, Aunt Hester!" I insisted. "She used to bring your dinner to the sitting room, remember? And she would bring you coffee and those tea cakes that you used to love so much. I distinctly recall hearing your conversations from the hallway and from the top of the staircase when I was a child. Surely you remember Hildy!"

She looked me square in the eye. "Edna, dear," said Aunt Hester, "I assure you that I never had a housekeeper named Hildy. In fact, I never had any housekeepers. It was always just me and Moritz. And you, during the summer."

Maybe Aunt Hester was seeping into dementia. Maybe she was trying to frighten me, although for the life of me I have no idea why she would do that. But after my aunt died, I attended the funeral and kept my eyes peeled for Hilda, or anyone who resembled her. She wasn't there. I visited the hall of records at the county courthouse, searching for some proof that Hildy had been in Melrose or Boston, but was unable to find any evidence that she had ever existed.

Family legend states that after the British nobleman disappeared, his wife went mad and committed suicide, while other versions of the story have her being committed to a mental asylum. Some versions claim there was no wife at all, but a daughter who was left behind. Could one of these women have been named Hildy?

Do you have a true story you'd like to share with us? Email your strangest experience to annanewburg@yahoo.com. We look forward to hearing from you!