The Woodjin: Forever Vigilant by Lbilover


I was called this morning. No, not like that. The call came through on my cell phone - the old-fashioned way, as I always think of it. It was one of my patients, Ellie Birdsall. "Dr. Sean, I've got a terrible pain in my side," she said. Ellie's a widow, lives alone. She's in her seventies, and a Piney through and through - stubborn and stoic as they come; if she said she had a terrible pain, she did all right. From the answers she gave the quick succession of questions I asked her, I was reasonably certain it was a kidney stone, but I only said, "I'll be right there, Ellie," and rolled out of bed. It was 3 a.m.

Elijah got up with me; he always does. While I changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, he went to the kitchen and made me a thermos of coffee. A small coffee maker is kept filled and at the ready. It's herb tea for Elijah when he's called, and coffee, black, for me.

It was the Woodjin who bestowed his blessing on me before I left. It was Elijah who said, "I love you, Sean. Be safe."

"I love you, too." Then we kissed.

To outsiders, it might have seemed like overkill. That's why they're outsiders.

The most direct way to Ellie's cabin is to cut across country. On a bright sunny day, that's exactly what I'd have done. But not in the dark of night; I stuck to the roads.

It was, as I suspected, a kidney stone. Ellie had all the classic signs. She was bad, but not bad enough to need hospitalization - if I could have convinced her to be admitted, that is. I gave her pain medication, instructions on what to do to get that stone flushed out and how to trap the stone for analysis when it passed. I stayed with her until she was comfortable again, and then (over Ellie's objections, but I ignored her) I called her daughter Claire who lives in Brick, and she promised to come over in a couple hours.

"I'll be back this afternoon to check up on you," I said to Ellie, packing up my medical bag. "Be sure to keep drinking lots of water - you need to drink at least 2 quarts a day."

"How much do I owe you, Dr. Sean?" Ellie asked.

"How about a dozen of your famous chocolate chip cookies?" I countered. I'd learned better than to tell a Piney they didn't owe me anything.

"Make it two dozen," Ellie said. I'd also learned that Pineys almost always bargained up, not down.

"You know I'm getting the better of this deal, don't you?" I said. "But two dozen it is."

Ellie laughed. I try always to leave my patients laughing if I can. It is the best medicine, after all.

She saw me to the door, despite my protestations that I could let myself out.

When she opened the door, it was to a world transformed. As can happen in the pines, especially when a chilly night gives way to a warmer dawn, a heavy mist had sprung up as the sun started to rise, so heavy that I could barely see my Jeep on the driveway, and the house seemed suspended in a sea of ghostly gray.

"You be careful, Dr. Sean," Ellie said worriedly, and I knew what was troubling her: the Devil. There's a good reason we call a mist like this 'the Devil's fog'.

"I'll be fine," I told her, and gave her a comforting pat on the shoulder. She didn't look particularly comforted.

"I wish the Woodjin was with you."

In truth, so did I, but I only reassured her again, told her sternly to go back to bed and get some rest, and took my leave.

I can't deny I felt a certain tension inside as I climbed in the truck and turned the key in the ignition. The engine immediately leapt to life with a reassuring roar, and I let out the breath I'd been holding. Some memories never quite fade, and once you've met the Devil, he stays with you.

I set aside my original plan, to take the faster, cross-country route home. In a mist like this, only a fool or the Woodjin would take such a chance. I backed the Jeep up and swung it around, intending to head down the driveway. But instead I stepped on the brake, and stared in awe at what stood on Ellie Birdsall's lawn, silhouetted against the swirling blue-gray mist.

It was a stag, a magnificent white stag. His antlered head was held high, in an attitude of watchfulness or waiting, and in the faint glow from the Jeep's headlights, his blue eyes glimmered like stars. He hardly seemed real, as if he'd stepped out of the pages of a fairy tale and into my world.

But I knew him as well as I knew the beat of my own heart. And I knew why he was there. Forever vigilant, he'd come to lead me home.

I let my foot off the brake and the Jeep edged forward; the stag tossed his head, whirled on his haunches and trotted down the drive. He only went a short distance before turning into the woods, where there was a gap in the trees - no road this, but an unmarked sand trail barely visible in the mist. I followed without hesitation and with absolute faith and trust in him. For he was the white stag, the guardian of the pines, and the most magical being that it has ever been my privilege to know - and love.