My 2014 Christmas card story. With the exception of the foxes, everything described herein has been seen by me on my many hikes in the Pines over this past year. (Only not, of course, the Woodjin and Sean, darn it!!!!!)
Sean and Elijah rise in the predawn dark, dress in work clothes and head out to the barn. There are impatient, hungry animals to hay and grain, stalls to muck, water buckets to fill. To Paco, Dolly, Sonny and Cher it's simply another morning.
"Still," Sean says, as if continuing a conversation, although neither has spoken as they go about their tasks, "being in a stable on Christmas morning does have a certain rightness about it."
"Very true." But Elijah is distracted by the sight of Sean scattering fresh straw in Cher's stall with easy, practiced movements, and forgets what he was agreeing to. Sean looks good enough to eat with his sleep tousled hair and cheeks ruddy from cold and exertion. But for now Elijah is content to admire at a distance.
Sean finishes and gives Cher, lipping the last oats from her feed tub, an affectionate pat before exiting her stall. He leans the pitchfork against the wall and says, "Ready, Woodjin?"
By now the sky is lightening in the east and the birds are already clustered at the feeders, dim shapes save for the brilliant red of a cardinal that the faint light can't subdue. They don't return to the house, but direct their feet toward the woods and enter them. The sand trail they travel is too narrow to walk side by side; Elijah leads, moving with the peculiar soft-footed grace that makes him appear one with his surroundings - as indeed he is.
Maybe a stable is fine for other people, Sean thinks, contradicting his earlier comment to Elijah, but this is where the Woodjin belongs on Christmas morning, outside in the Pines.
Around them the woods are coming to life. At the top of a tall pine tree a cluster of roosting turkey vultures spread their wings wide to warm them in the dawning sun. A bald eagle scouts for food to bring back to the nest he and his mate are preparing for their soon-to-be-laid eggs. A large flock of cedar waxwings descend on the holly trees to gorge on crimson berries. A phalanx of tundra swans, ghostly white, passes directly overhead in perfect vee formation. Their honking calls echo mournfully through the stillness, the measured beat of their powerful wings clearly audible.
"Sean." Elijah halts, points. Two red foxes trot effortlessly among the trees, heading back to their den from a successful hunt. The foxes pause, striking amber eyes surveying them briefly before they continue on their way.
"Ours?" Sean asks, noticing that the female has a very slight limp.
"Yes," Elijah replies, and smiles radiantly at Sean before continuing on his way.
Deer, of course, are everywhere. A few accompany them, staying, as is their wont, just out of sight, briefly glimpsed liquid eyes and white tails the only telltale signs. But most are busy foraging, although each acknowledges the Woodjin's presence among them with a respectful inclination of its head.
"This is beginning to feel like a royal procession. Shouldn't you be raising your hand and waving it like this?" Sean imitates Queen Elizabeth, and Elijah laughs, the sound merry as Christmas bells, dancing on the frosty air.
They emerge a short time later on the shore of a small lake: an exquisite gem hidden in the heart of the Pines, its existence known only to a few Pineys and no outsiders. The sun is just reaching over the crowns of the trees and the water reflects its rays, mirroring them in a shimmering tapestry of amber hues.
Sean stands close behind Elijah, wraps his arms tightly around him, and they stand in the silent reverence that nature's beauty demands and deserves. Above them the bald eagle circles, wings outstretched, catching the first thermal and riding it higher into the sky, its white head and tail feathers dyed with the dawn.
For a moment Sean envies the eagle, wishes he could ride with it; but the well-loved scents of pinesap, wood smoke and dried grasses swirl around him and he knows that he is exactly where he belongs. He wouldn't trade places with anyone, even a monarch. Suddenly he smiles, thinking of an old engraving of a magnificent Scottish stag he'd once seen in an antique store on Madison Avenue. Monarch of the Glen, it had been called. Well, there's a monarch here, too: the Monarch of the Pines. His kingdom is a million acres of woods, meadows, cranberry bogs, sand trails and cedar swamps. To be the consort of such a monarch is more than most men could ever dream of.
The swell of pride and gratitude that fills Sean then is almost painfully intense. He loosens his hold, turns Elijah gently toward him, cups his face between his gloved hands.
"Merry Christmas, Elijah," Sean says softly, all his heart in his eyes.
"Merry Christmas, Sean," Elijah replies, just as softly, and leans in.
As they kiss the sun fully breasts the treetops, and in a burst of golden radiance Christmas morning comes to the Pines.