Elijah was standing at the stove pouring golden batter from a small ladle into a sizzling frying pan when Sean entered the kitchen. There was already an impressive stack of pancakes piled on a platter on the counter beside the young man, and a mouth-watering odor hung in the air. Sean’s stomach growled its impatience again.
“Hey.” Elijah waved the ladle by way of greeting. “I hope you don’t mind me saying,” he added with a smile as he took in Sean’s appearance, “but you look one hell of a lot better. Go have a seat at the table. Food’ll be ready in a couple of minutes.”
But Sean didn’t move or reply. He was too busy staring. There was a squirrel perched on Elijah’s left shoulder, its beady dark eyes regarding Sean with suspicion. Its gray bottlebrush tail began to quiver with alarm, and it started chattering loudly as if expressing disapproval of this new arrival. With a sudden bound, it leapt from Elijah’s shoulder to the top of the refrigerator, where it continued to scold Sean from the safety of its perch.
Elijah began to laugh. His laugh was high-pitched, almost a giggle really, and so infectious that Sean had to smile. “Oh shit,” he said as he expertly flipped a pancake. “I’m sorry, Sean. I forget what a madhouse this must seem like to outsiders. That’s Rocky- you know, as in Bullwinkle and Rocky. He’s not very friendly, I’m afraid- too much of a piney. He doesn’t like strangers much, but I promise you he’s harmless. The most he does is scold or throw the occasional acorn top.”
He canted his hip forward and delved in one of the front pockets of his tattered jeans. Sean’s eyes were drawn to the movement, and how, as Elijah forced his hand deep into the pocket, the faded denim was pulled taut across the young man’s crotch. He caught a glimpse of light blue plaid through a small rip, and felt discomfited and thrown off balance by the sight.
Sean quickly averted his eyes, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. Elijah would think he was some kind of pervert if he caught Sean checking out his package, and Sean had always prided himself on being above that kind of behavior- not to mention that he’d never checked out another man that way before in his entire life.
Elijah’s hand emerged again holding a peanut, still in the shell, and he tossed it underhand to the chattering squirrel, who caught it deftly in his small paws, and turned his attention from insulting Sean to the task of opening his prize. Little bits of tan shell went flying through the air, but Elijah appeared unperturbed. Clearly this was not an unusual occurrence.
“So, are there any other unexpected- um- guests I should know about?” Sean asked cautiously. “I met Fred in the bathroom. Not very talkative, unlike your pal Rocky up there.”
“Fred is the strong, silent type,” Elijah joked. “But you’ve met all the indoor inhabitants… people included. I live here alone, in case you were wondering.”
Elijah’s words seemed almost overly casual to Sean, as if he was trying not to make too big a deal out of the fact, but Sean was intrigued by the revelation, for Elijah seemed very young to be living on his own this way. He made no comment, however, but went and sat down at the kitchen table, which was covered in a blue check tablecloth, and set for two people. At one end of the rectangular table stood a green-glazed ceramic vase, obviously hand-thrown and by a very good potter, filled with an artful arrangement of berry-studded dark green holly and other greenery he didn’t recognize.
Someone had certainly raised Elijah well, Sean decided, taking in the neatly folded paper napkins and precisely arranged silverware, and remembering his own housekeeping skills- or lack thereof- when he was Elijah’s age. Anna had not exactly been the motherly type.
The piercing whistle of a teakettle interrupted Sean’s musings. Elijah snatched the kettle off a back burner and poured hot water into a blue willow teapot he’d set ready on the counter.
“The animal population does tend to fluctuate, though,” Elijah went on as he carried the teapot to the table and set it down on a trivet. “I’m a licensed wildlife rehabilitator among other things, although Rocky and Fred have become permanent residents.” He looked rueful. “I tried to release them back into the wild, and they refused to go.”
“I can understand why,” Sean said at once, and was surprised when the younger man actually blushed at his words. He added softly, “I’m serious, you know. You’re a very kind man, Elijah, and that’s a rare quality these days.”
For a long moment their eyes met, and then Elijah said quietly, “Like I told you before, Sean, we take care of each other around here. Help yourself to some tea. But give it a few minutes to steep first, okay?” He turned away and went back to the stove.
Sean felt rebuffed, as if Elijah had suddenly held up a large ‘no trespassing’ sign. He’d meant the words as a simple sincere statement of fact, but of course Elijah had no way of knowing that. He didn’t know Sean from a hole in the ground, after all.
Afraid that he’d made Elijah uncomfortable, which was the last thing he wanted to do, Sean turned his attention away from the young man and looked around the room.
The kitchen was rustic but homey, with bunches of dried herbs and shiny copper pots hanging from the ceiling beams, braided rugs scattered on the rust-red tile floor, and an oak hutch that matched the table and chairs dominating the wall on one side. The hutch shelves were filled with weathered glass bottles in soft hues of blue and green and ivory, a set of matching blue and white ceramic canisters, and a colorful jumble of antique teacups and plates neatly displayed.
A large picture window in the opposite wall gave a view of the back yard, and a sliding glass door at the far end of the room led out to a wooden deck. As a result of so much window space, the kitchen was filled with light and there was a variety of healthy-looking plants on stands or hanging from the ceiling, positioned where they could enjoy the sun’s benefits.
The room could not have appeared more attractive or appealing. And neither could the young man who was currently rummaging through a cupboard. Despite his resolve, Sean couldn’t keep from studying Elijah out of the corner of his eye as he moved around the kitchen with a lithe grace that Sean found captivating.
Elijah had opened one of the upper cabinets, and he was standing on tiptoe to reach the top shelf. Where his flannel shirt had fallen back, Sean could see a thin strip of bare skin in the gap between his tee shirt and the top of those light blue plaid boxers. His body was lean but clearly strong- Sean recalled how effortlessly his arm had propped him up in bed- but with that pure pale skin, those luminous blue eyes and delicately etched features, Elijah Wood was... well, beautiful. It was not a word Sean would normally have associated with another man, and there was nothing in the least feminine about Elijah. Yet he could not think of a more suitable word to describe his host than beautiful, and with a beauty not simply of face and body but of spirit. It shone from him like some inner light, that kind and gentle spirit.
Who was he? What on earth was such a young man doing living all alone save for a few four-footed friends in a place as isolated as the heart of the Pine Barrens? It’s none of your business, Sean, he cautioned himself. You’re a very temporary guest. In a few hours or less you’ll be gone, remember?
But reaching the solitude of his beach house, which had been all-consuming when Sean left the city yesterday, suddenly seemed far less urgent. Frowning, Sean picked up the teapot and filled the yellow ceramic mug Elijah had set by his plate.
“That’s an herbal tea, Sean,” commented Elijah as he shut the cupboard. He must have been keeping half an eye on him, too, Sean realized. “I’m sorry if you’d rather have had coffee, but you were in pretty bad shape when I found you last night, between the cold and those scratches, and the tea has a lot of healing properties. It’ll really help your sore throat and stiff muscles. The taste’s a little bitter, but there’s honey on the table you can use to sweeten it.”
Sean took a sip of the muddy-looking brew, and made a face. It was bitter all right. He reached for the honey pot, and added a couple of teaspoons. Sweetened, the tea didn’t taste too bad, and he had to admit that his raw throat started to feel better almost at once. “You’re right,” he said, sounding more like his normal self. “It does help.” He took another sip and felt the soothing warmth spread through his aching body.
Elijah came to the table juggling two plates piled high with pancakes and two bowls filled with fresh fruit salad. He slid a plate of pancakes and a bowl of fruit in front of Sean. “I’m glad. As for those scratches, I cleaned them as best I could last night and put salve on them but you’ll need to look after them, Sean,” Elijah cautioned as he sat down. Maggie jumped up onto the chair next to him and began industriously cleaning her whiskers with one dainty white paw. “You don’t want to risk getting an infection.”
“I’ll look after them,” Sean promised while a little firefly of warmth sparked in the pit of his stomach at Elijah’s obviously genuine concern, and at the mental image conjured by his words: those small fingers carefully smoothing ointment on his face and hands. He wished he had been awake, but at least he had the memory of Elijah’s gentle voice soothing him when he woke from that nightmare, and of his hand stroking over Sean’s hair...
“Eat up,” Elijah said, and Sean started and turned his attention to his food.
There were butter and real maple syrup on the table. Sean threw his ongoing diet to the winds, added both to his pancakes, and cut into the stack with his fork and knife. He took a bite and nearly moaned aloud. Chris never bought or made them anything even remotely fattening, since they both found it all too easy to put on a few pounds if they weren’t careful, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d indulged in something this rich. “God, these are fantastic, Elijah. Did you make them with fresh blueberries?”
“Huckleberries are what we call them here in the pines,” Elijah corrected him, though he looked pleased by Sean’s enthusiastic reaction. “But nope, they’re frozen. From my own backyard, but they’d taste even better fresh.”
“It’s hard to imagine anything could taste better than this,” Sean said thickly as he savored the melt-in-your-mouth sweetness mixed with the tart tang of the huckleberries.
For some time, the two men concentrated on their food in silence, but it was an undemanding sort of silence, as if there was nothing that needed to be said that couldn’t wait until they were done. The contrast between this restful atmosphere and the hectic lifestyle dominated by cell phone calls and business meetings that had become Sean’s lot was stark indeed. I’m not going to think about it, Sean vowed. I’m just going to enjoy the peace and quiet while I can.
The kitchen table was positioned directly in front of the picture window, and through it Sean could see a small barn with a split rail paddock attached. In the paddock were a pair of blanketed horses, one brown and one chestnut, standing head to tail; a very fuzzy gray donkey nosing at a pile of hay; and a sheep curled up dozing in the pale winter sun. There were several birdfeeders located around the yard, all of them doing brisk business, and there was what Sean took to be a rabbit hutch although Peter Rabbit was not currently in evidence. Elijah was an animal lover, it seemed.
“You said you’re a licensed wildlife rehabilitator ‘among other things’, Elijah. What else do you do?” Sean finally broke the silence, hoping Elijah wouldn’t think he was being intrusive again. Chris was always warning him not to be so nosy with strangers. But then her interest in people normally didn’t extend beyond their potential as a client for the business- and she most definitely would not put Elijah in that category. Thank God. Sean was so sick and tired of talking to people with dollar signs in their eyes.
But Elijah didn’t seem to mind the question; in fact, a small smile tucked in the corners of his lips as he replied, “I’m a woodjin.”
“A what?” The word was totally unfamiliar to Sean.
“A woodjin.” Elijah spelled the strange word for him. “That’s what we call it in the pines. I suppose you’d call it a guide.”
“Do you mean nature trails and hiking? A sort of forest ranger?” Sean hazarded, with only the most vague concept of what that would entail. He was swimming out of his depth, and he knew it.
The smile had widened. Elijah looked almost as if he was enjoying a private joke. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Aren’t you awfully young to be a forest ranger?” Sean asked in surprise. “I mean, no offense, but I’d have guessed you were still in college.”
Elijah sighed as if he’d heard that comment before. “The curse of my baby face,” he complained. “I’m twenty-five- or as close as makes no difference.” He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Besides, I’ve lived here in the pines since I was born, Sean, and no one knows the area better than I do. I’ve been a woodjin for ten years now.”
Sean considered this statement while he mopped up a little pool of maple syrup with his remaining piece of pancake. Elijah had presented him with an opening… if he wanted to take it.
Elijah had been wonderful not to press Sean for any explanation for exactly how he’d ended up unconscious outside his house last night. But he simply wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t at least a little bit curious, would he? And besides, now that some time had passed and bright daylight had chased the shadows from the woods, Sean realized that he wanted to tell Elijah what had happened. He felt an almost compelling need to share the fantastical events with someone.
It was out of the question to tell Chris, of course. She would almost certainly consider it another manifestation of what she persisted in calling Sean’s ‘mid-life crisis’, and advise him, yet again, to see a shrink. He couldn’t imagine either Mackenzie or Anna believing him, and he’d lost touch with his few close high school and college friends in the years since graduation, since the business, and Chris, had taken over his life...
But Sean had a feeling that Elijah might actually believe him, or at the very least be receptive- as receptive as anyone possibly could be to such a wild story in this day and age.
“If that’s the case,” Sean said at last, hoping his intuition was on target and Elijah wouldn’t come to the conclusion that he was completely nuts, “then you’d be familiar with the wild animals that live around here as well as the, um, local legends, right?”
“Yeah, I’m familiar with them,” Elijah replied, and once more that tiny smile quirked his lips. “And local legends have always been sort of a special interest of mine.”
Sean set down his fork and knife on his now empty plate. He stared out the window at the sunlit yard with its bucolic scenery, and beyond it the forest of pines and scrub oaks that appeared so benign in the daylight. It seemed almost incredible that just last night he had been literally running for his life through those trees. He transferred his gaze to his abused hands: the network of vivid red scratches that crisscrossed them reminded him that it was anything but incredible.
“Elijah,” he began hesitantly, “I’m sure you’re curious about what happened to me last night, and I feel I owe you an explanation, especially after all your kindness to me. But it’s going to sound, well, crazy, to put it mildly.”
“Unless you tell me you met the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti in the woods last night, Sean, trust me, nothing you tell me will seem crazy.”
Sean looked at Elijah sharply. The young man’s face was no longer smiling but serious, those intensely blue eyes steady on his own. Jesus, those eyes… he could lose himself in them, forget about everything… and be happy to do so… Sean brought himself up short, but for a moment it was a struggle to remember what they’d been talking about.
“I’m a good listener, Sean,” Elijah continued quietly. “And I promise, I won’t pass judgment on anything you tell me.”
Sean began to fiddle with the half-empty mug, turning it round and round on the tablecloth, staring into the murky brown depths while he steeled himself to begin.
“The truth is,” he said at last, abruptly, “I didn’t meet the Loch Ness Monster or the Yeti in the woods last night, but something equally as unlikely. It was… It was…” Shit, I can’t bring myself to say it aloud, it’s too ridiculous.
“The Jersey Devil?” Elijah supplied when Sean hesitated.
“But how…?” He hadn’t expected such immediate understanding, such calm acceptance.
Elijah smiled faintly. “I told you, I’ve lived here my entire life. I’ve even seen the Jersey Devil myself a time or two. Besides, what else could it have been to make you so hesitant to speak its name aloud? People nowadays are afraid to believe in anything that smacks of the otherworldly. But most legends are founded in some degree of truth, Sean. The Jersey Devil exists. You aren’t crazy or delusional.”
The matter of fact manner in which Elijah spoke was as reassuring as his actual words. Sean hadn’t realized just how tense he was until that moment, until he felt his shoulders imperceptibly relax as if a weight had been lifted from them.
“I know this is going to sound strange, Elijah, considering that it’s some kind of monster we’re talking about, but I’ve got to admit that it’s a relief to hear you say that it wasn’t a figment of my imagination,” Sean said. “But Jesus, you sound so calm. That thing I encountered last night was no laughing matter.”
“No, he wasn’t,” agreed Elijah soberly. “It must have been a pretty terrifying experience for you.”
“I’ve never been scared so shitless in my entire life, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Of course I’ve heard of the Jersey Devil, who hasn’t? Hell, New Jersey even has a hocky team named after him. But I never for one moment imagined all that hype was based on something real.” Sean felt a chill, remembering those pitiless red eyes glowing in the darkness and the shadowy impressions of vast wings and razor-sharp claws.
“Oh, he’s real all right, although some of the stories you’ve probably heard or read are apocryphal.” Elijah leaned forward slightly, elbows resting on the table, hands lightly clasped. “You know, you really don’t owe me any explanations, Sean. If you don’t want to talk about what happened, if it’s too upsetting for you to relive it, it’s okay.”
But oddly, Sean sensed a hint of sadness behind the words. He didn’t understand why Elijah should be sad, but a sudden compulsion seized him to reach out across the table, to cradle that pale cheek with his hand, to offer comfort and to… undoubtedly scare or offend the shit out of Elijah and cause him to send Sean packing pronto.
Instead, he shook his head and gripped the mug hard enough to make the scratches on his hands pull and sting. “No, it’s not too upsetting; as a matter of fact, it’d be a relief to tell someone- someone who won't think I'm crazy, that is.”
“Then please, go ahead,” Elijah invited, and settled a little in his seat, fixing his eyes on Sean’s face.
Elijah was looking at him in a way that was unlike anything Sean had ever experienced before. It was as if every atom of his being was completely focused on Sean to the exclusion of all else, as if there was nothing more important at that moment than listening. It made Sean feel for the first time in a very long time that someone honestly and truly cared what he had to say, that it wasn’t a polite pretense.
“Thank you,” he said, as a surge of gratitude for Elijah's kindness warmed him inside as effectively as the tea he was drinking. “All right. Here we go then…”
To his relief, Sean was able to tell Elijah about the fantastic events of the previous evening conherently, concisely and without emotion. Maybe it was because he was aware every second of that intent blue gaze on him, steady and non-judgmental as Elijah had promised. Sean didn’t go into his reasons for leaving the city in the dead of winter to drive to his summer beach house. He was afraid that once he got started on that topic, he’d never shut up, and Elijah certainly didn’t deserve to be subjected to the pathetic, irrelevent details of Sean’s personal life.
But when Sean finally reached the part of his story where he stumbled to his hands and knees in the sand and looked up to see the white stag, he fell silent, for it was enormously difficult to put into words the absolute wonder and magic of that moment. Elijah didn’t press him to go on, however, only waited. But the very air suddenly seemed hushed and waiting with him. Even Rocky had stopped his quiet conversation with himself atop the refrigerator, and Maggie’s huge amber eyes were fixed unblinkingly on his face.
Sean took another sip of his now lukewarm tea, then said slowly, “If you’re interested in local legends then I expect you’re familiar with the legend of the White Stag of Shamong?”
“I am.” Elijah dropped his eyes for the first time and began to fidget with his knife and fork, turning them over and over, while the unusual silver ring he wore caught at the light. Sean wondered idly what the engraving on it meant; the letters weren’t from any language he recognized. “The white stag has been living in the pines for as long as the Jersey Devil has, Sean, since the 18th century… though far fewer outsiders have seen or even heard of him. He doesn’t have so much as a pee wee baseball team named after him,” Elijah joked lightly.
But Sean didn’t laugh. “What about you?" he wanted to know. "Have you ever seen him?”
Elijah nodded without looking up. “From time to time.”
Sean would have asked him when and where he had seen the stag, but there was something in Elijah’s voice that told Sean he didn’t want to be questioned about it. Sean could respect his reticence- after all, wasn’t he having trouble talking about the white stag himself?
“Well, you must suspect what I’m leading up to here, Elijah. It wasn’t just the Jersey Devil I encountered last night, but the white stag, too. In fact, he’s the only reason I’m still alive to tell you about all this. He fought off the Devil and then carried me here.” Sean shook his head and huffed a small laugh. “You know, it’s a damn good thing you have that book on Pine Barrens folklore in the bathroom, or I’d be doubting my sanity for sure.”
The sudden upward sweep of long black lashes and the vivid blue revealed as Elijah finally raised his eyes was so startling that Sean’s breath actually caught. Those eyes… Memory stirred and vanished again, elusive as quicksilver. And in any case, Elijah’s next words drove everything else away.
“That’s why I put the book there last night, Sean. I was hoping you’d be curious enough to pick it up and read it, and it might relieve your mind a little if you were worrying or wondering.”
“You put the book there last night?” Sean repeated. “You mean… you knew that the white stag rescued me?”
“I guessed. But it wasn’t hard to guess, Sean. It’s not the first time the stag has brought a lost or injured traveler here,” Elijah explained.
Why that explanation should be so deflating, Sean couldn’t say. Yet he had felt something… some profound connection… with the white stag when their eyes met across that starlit clearing. But it was ridiculous to think that that connection was unique to him, or that bringing him here had been some extraordinary act. If the stag rescued others like Sean, where else would he bring them for aid but to this kind and compassionate young man?
“Were they also victims of the Jersey Devil?” Sean asked, suppressing his childish and unworthy feelings, ashamed of them.
Elijah shook his head. “Not necessarily. People become lost in the pines for a lot of different reasons, not just because the Devil tricks them with an ignis fatuus. The Pine Barrens cover over 3000 square miles, Sean, and even he can’t be everywhere at once.”
“What’s an ignis fatuus?”
“A will o’ the wisp,” Elijah said. “The yellow light that you saw, that he used to draw you into the woods. He’s a trickster, Sean, and very clever.”
“I guess you’re going to tell me that he disabled my car, too, huh?” Sean said, and understood completely now Elijah’s cryptic words of earlier that morning.
“I’m afraid so. You definitely stopped in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Well, all I can say is, he’s one hell of a mechanic,” Sean commented dryly, and unexpectedly Elijah burst into laughter, rocking back in his chair and startling Rocky, who began chattering indignantly again, and Maggie, who let out a plaintive meow.
“I’m sorry,” Elijah apologized when he finally regained control of himself, but Sean saw absolutely no reason for him to apologize. Elijah’s laughing face was lit by an inner glow that made the sun appear dim by comparison. “But I’d never expect someone who’s just been through what you have to start making jokes about it.”
“I can only joke about it because I survived more or less in one piece,” Sean replied. “Otherwise I’d be cowering under the table with my head over my arms.”
Elijah grinned. “Somehow I doubt that.”
Sean grinned back, but the grin faded and he grew thoughtful. “When I was a kid,” he said, “all my favorite books were fairy tales, especially the ones that had fantastical creatures in them like unicorns and dragons. I used to dream about them and wish I could meet one for real some day.” He gave a huff of disbelief. “And now I have, Elijah. Last night I was privileged to see a fairy tale creature step right out of the pages of a book and into my life, and he was more beautiful and more magical than in any dream I ever had. I guess when it comes right down to it I wouldn’t trade what happened last night for anything. I’m so damned lucky to have met the white stag.”
There was a silence.
“You really feel that way, don’t you,” Elijah said with evident amazement, and Sean sensed a sudden difference in the younger man, as if something had shifted inside him, some invisible barrier relaxed. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“Yeah, I do. There’s so little magic left in the world anymore, Elijah.”
“You’ve got it backwards,” Elijah replied. “The magic is still there. It always has been and it always will be. What's missing are the people like you, people who are willing to open their eyes and see the magic in front of them. That makes you pretty special, Sean.”
This time it was Sean’s turn to blush, and he felt his entire body grow warm. “No, I’m not,” he protested, squirming a little in his seat in his embarrassment. “Believe me, I’m probably the most boringly ordinary guy in the entire country.”
Elijah only smiled and said, “Well, we could argue about it, Sean, but if you’re done eating, I have a few animals I need to check on- how about instead we go outside and I'll introduce you to the rest of my menagerie?” Elijah hesitated then, as if hit by a sudden thought. “Unless you’re in a hurry to get on your way, that is," he said, sounding awkward. "I don't want to hold you up.”
I’d welcome any excuse to stay, Elijah. For a moment, Sean was afraid he’d spoken the words aloud. “I’d love to meet your menagerie, and you won't be holding me up,” was what he actually said. “And thank you, Elijah. For everything.”
This time Elijah didn't reply, 'You don't have to thank me, Sean, we take care of each other around here.' He said: "Thank you, Sean, for trusting me."