Inspired by a 2009 nor'easter. This story is a personal favorite of mine.
A Winter Storm Warning is in effect into Monday afternoon.
Snow will spread throughout the region this evening and become heavy at times overnight. Winds will also increase late tonight allowing for blowing and drifting of the snow with visibilities falling below 1/4 mile at times.
Based on the latest forecast track of the storm... it appears as though 12 to 14 inches of snow will fall.
The steady snow is expected to taper off to snow showers on Monday afternoon.
Travel will be very hazardous into Monday and any planned travel should be postponed until after the storm ends.
“The National Weather Service upped the snow total again, Elijah,” said Sean, scanning the EmergencyEmail.org message in his MacBook’s inbox. “They’re calling for 12 to 14 inches now. Looks like you’re right again.”
“Of course I’m right. I’m always right,” Elijah said without false modesty, for when it came to predicting the weather in the pines, the Woodjin was always right. He’d told Sean and the rest of the pineys that a major nor’easter was on the way, and exactly how much snow it was bringing with it, several days before the local TV and radio stations started reporting on it. “When are you finally going to accept that I do a much better job of forecasting than the NWS office in Mount Holly?”
“Oh, I accept it,” Sean said. “I just like to compare their forecasts with yours. Although it’s pretty scary how often they get it completely wrong.”
“Good thing I’m around to let everyone know what’s really going to happen,” Elijah said. “Although in all fairness,” he added, holding the teakettle’s spout under the faucet and turning on the cold water, “March nor’easters can be pretty freaky. Remember the March blizzard in ’93?”
“Oh yeah, I remember. The city was completely snowed under, and the streets were empty. There were photos in the Times of cars and trucks simply abandoned on the highways.”
“Dad got called five times in two days to rescue stranded travelers,” Elijah remarked.
“Five times in two days?” Sean repeated. Hell, he could barely handle Elijah being called once every couple of months. The very idea of him going out into a blizzard five times in such a short space of time was nausea-inducing.
Jesus, how did Debbie bear it?
“I never saw Dad so exhausted,” Elijah admitted, and it was no easy admission for a Woodjin to make. “But we saved them, every single person.”
“We?” Sean stared at Elijah. “Hang on. Are you telling me that you went with your father?”
This was the first Elijah had ever mentioned that he’d accompanied Warren Wood when he was called. Somehow Sean had assumed that Elijah’s training hadn’t involved actual on the job experience. A stupid assumption, he now realized. Any apprentice needed that real life experience, however risky it might be. And what could conceivably be more risky than to apprentice as Woodjin?
“Yes, I went with him,” Elijah replied, shutting off the tap. “Dad hadn’t planned on testing me like that so soon. I was only twelve, and hadn’t been transforming for very long.” He shrugged, as if it were no big deal. “But he needed my help.”
Sean didn’t need to ask what his mother had thought of her twelve year-old son venturing out into a blizzard with his father, and no guarantee that either would return safely or at all. Scared shitless. She had to have been.
But that line of thinking was unproductive, and went counter to the private vow he’d made not to allow his native caution and fear for Elijah’s safety to rule him. He didn’t want to cast any shadow over this miracle of love that they shared, as the love of Elijah’s parents had been shadowed and nearly destroyed.
“I bet you were the cutest little Woodjin ever,” Sean said, striving for lightness, and Elijah laughed.
The mental image his words conjured was charming: the Woodjin and his eager, wide-eyed son – a slighter, shorter version of the magnificent stag he now was – bounding side by side through the snow-covered woods.
But the reality had been very different, and Sean’s lightness was only a façade, and Elijah saw straight through it.
“Sean, this storm won’t be nearly as bad,” he said quietly. “It’s pretty doubtful I’ll be called even once, much less five times.”
“I know that, I really do, but even so let’s hope people have the sense God gave them and stay safely at home.” A soft ping alerted Sean to incoming email. He read the subject line, and this time the lightness in his voice was genuine as he added, “And speaking of staying safely at home, the college has already canceled classes for tomorrow.”
“Now, why are you sounding happy as a skunk in a whirlwind?” Elijah set the kettle on the back burner and turned on the flame. “It’s not because they’ll have to reschedule your physics test, is it? I don’t know why you’re worried. You’re definitely going to ace it.” He spoke matter-of-factly, as if there was simply no question whatsoever that Sean would succeed.
“I’m glad you think so,” Sean replied, shaking his head a little at Elijah’s unfailing confidence in his abilities, a confidence he couldn’t quite share, even though he was making good grades so far. “But no, it has nothing to do with my physics test, and everything to do with being snowed in here with you. If you think for one second I’m not ecstatic about that, you’ve got to be kidding.”
After their long, painful months of separation, Sean wasn’t about to look any gift horse in the mouth. In fact, his mind was already conjuring up tempting images of a long, lazy day spent in bed, making love while the fire crackled and the snow fell outside the windows, enclosing them more than ever in their own private world.
Elijah grinned. “I’m proud of you, Sean. That’s real piney thinking,” he said.
“As long as the other pineys aren’t hoping to be snowed in with you, too,” Sean joked.
“They better not be. I want you all to myself.” Elijah crossed to the kitchen table and looped his arms around Sean’s neck, bending to nuzzle the tender spot behind his lover’s ear with a tiny throat-murmur of content.
Ripples of pleasure spread through Sean as warm breath ghosted across his bare skin, raising goose bumps. The atmosphere in the kitchen suddenly shifted; it had almost the electric feel of the air just before Elijah transformed.
“We’ll have to think of some way to pass the time,” the Woodjin whispered. “Got any ideas?”
“Hmm… let’s see.” Sean pretended to give the question serious consideration, even while his body tightened, his breathing quickened, and his head swam with the heady scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses. Deliberately, he lowered his voice to the husky baritone that he knew from experience turned Elijah on – those weeks of phone sex had been good for something besides exercising his right hand – and said, “We could watch a movie or play computer games.”
A playful head butt rewarded his unimaginative, if sultrily spoken, suggestions, but the sudden deepening and sharpening of the wild pines tang in Sean’s nostrils told him that Elijah was indeed turned on. And that response fed his own, calling to a corresponding wildness that he had never suspected existed inside him until a certain blue-eyed Woodjin had come into his life. It bubbled just beneath the surface of his civilized, workaday self, like the limitless aquifer under the sandy pines soil, and now rose up, a flashflood of need and desire, as Elijah bit lightly at his earlobe, and then nibble-licked his way down his neck.
“I don’t want to watch movies or play computer games. I want you.” Lips like sun-warmed satin pressed against the thrumming pulse at the base of Sean’s throat then a damp tongue flicked out, tasting the saltiness of his skin. Elijah’s hand moved, sliding down to cup around Sean’s growing arousal, and shape it through soft denim. “I want this.” He followed up his bold words with a possessive squeeze.
“Jesus.” Galvanized into action, Sean abruptly swiveled in his chair, catching his MacBook with a careless elbow and sending it perilously close to the edge of the table. He pulled Elijah, almost roughly, down onto his lap. “You want it, you’ve got it. But first, there’s something I want.”
Elijah let out a choked cry as Sean cradled the sides of his skull between his palms, and his thumbs sought out and stroked the exquisitely sensitive yielding surface of the raised round calluses that so enthralled him.
“Sean.” Elijah almost sobbed the word. He pushed his head into the caress in a blind demand for more, while his lower body rocked rhythmically into Sean’s, making it blatantly obvious what else he was demanding from his lover.
Without a second’s thought, Sean lifted Elijah bodily onto the table, and joined him there. The wooden salad bowl went flying; it hit the tile and spun crazily like a top, scattering greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms broadcast across the floor. The table groaned a little under their combined weight, but it was solid oak, sturdy, and had been expertly crafted in an earlier century when things were made to last. The oh-so-21st century MacBook, made of all too breakable plastic, was teetering on the verge of symbolic doom, but was saved at the very last second by Sean’s outthrust hand. He slammed it shut and shoved it away from the edge without missing a beat, no mean feat considering his mouth was fused to Elijah’s in a searing kiss, and Elijah’s fingers were digging painfully hard into his hips as they strained together.
There was no time for finesse or foreplay; the growing urgency that thundered through their veins screamed now not later. No longer afraid to let go, Sean threw himself willingly into the flood and let it sweep him away.
Jeans and boxers obligingly vanished from their bodies, or so it seemed to Sean – perhaps, he thought dimly, it was some magic of the Woodjin at work. He tore his mouth away, gasped a frantic, “Wait,” and groped for the olive oil intended for their salad dressing. He thumbed the cruet’s glass stopper free and made quick work of slicking his erection, even with fingers that were shaking as if he had the apple palsy. Then Elijah’s knees were draped over his shoulders and, ah bliss, he was buried deep where they both wanted him, and moving in an explosion of passion that still took him by surprise no matter how often it occurred.
The force of his thrusts pushed Elijah’s knees uncomfortably past his ears, but he only urged Sean on with hands, heels and wordless pleas for more and harder. Sean braced his elbows on the table, and buried his fingers in the soft auburn strands that hid the outward evidence of his lover’s otherness. He stroked the pedicles with oil-slick pads, matching the circling motions to the quickening rhythm of their joined bodies, and silenced the guttural moans torn from Elijah’s throat with an almost savage kiss that was returned just as fiercely.
Their coupling was hard, fast, mind-blowing in its intensity, and over far too soon to suit either of them.
In the aftermath, Sean laughed weakly into the crook of Elijah’s neck where his sweaty, flushed face had come to rest. “Oh my god. We just had sex on our kitchen table. Using olive oil.”
For a guy who for years had believed his libido was basically non-existent, this was pretty amazing stuff, although he had a feeling that he was never going to be able to eat a salad again without blushing.
“We did indeed just have sex on our kitchen table, using olive oil,” Elijah agreed, sounding not only unembarrassed by their improvisation, but positively gleeful. “You need to get more school closing messages if they’re all going to have this effect on you.”
“Not to poke holes in your theory, Elijah, but I think your effect had a lot more to do with it.” He lifted his head with an effort and studied Elijah’s stubble-reddened cheeks, his bruised mouth, his eyes, translucent as a moonlit tidal pool, blue as a storm-washed sky. Once he might have worried that he’d been too rough, asked Elijah if he was okay, been secretly a little dismayed by the total abandonment of his cherished self-control. But no more. Brushing a whisper of a kiss across Elijah’s swollen lips, he said, “That was fucking amazing. You are amazing.”
A shrill background noise intruded itself into his consciousness as the blissful buzz of his orgasm receded. It was the whistle of the teakettle. “The water’s boiling,” he added more prosaically.
“Uh-huh.” But Elijah tightened his arms around Sean’s damp back under his rucked-up tee shirt, and he feathered kisses along his jaw and throat with a hum of pleasure. He seemed in no hurry at all to silence the kettle, or move from their awkward perch among the salt- and pepper- shakers, napkin holder, and oil and vinegar cruets. And who was Sean to complain?
Then an unexpected, low giggle tickled his ear.
“We have an audience.” Elijah gestured with his chin.
Sean didn’t panic, only because he figured Elijah wouldn’t be giggling if their audience consisted of a gaggle of fascinated pineys gathered outside the picture window. There had been some close calls over the past six months, mostly involving Katie Jenkins, who had a habit of popping in without warning to see how they were ‘getting on’, and had several times narrowly missed seeing the Woodjin and his lover actually getting it on.
When Sean craned his neck around, however, there was but a single pair of eyes fixed on them. Tiny round red eyes that belonged, of course, to Fred, lured with un-tortoise-like speed into the kitchen by the unexpected lettuce largesse. He was crouched next to the overturned salad bowl as if he’d discovered a long-lost cousin.
“Fred, I’m disappointed in you, buddy,” Sean told him. “I have it on the best authority that box turtles are supposed to be tactful.”
Elijah muffled his helpless giggles against Sean’s shoulder, but Fred only blinked and continued to stare while he pensively chewed on a shred of escarole. He was, Sean decided, probably ruminating on the folly of humans who would abandon a perfectly good salad just to have sex. There were some things a box turtle simply couldn’t understand, even one as bright as Fred.
That long, lazy day spent in bed never actually materialized, but on a certain level Sean hadn’t expected it to. This wasn’t New York City, after all, where one’s taxes paid for others to perform essential services. No amount of money could get city water, sewers, or natural gas installed in a remote corner of the Pine Barrens - not that Sean would have considered it even if he could. Life in the pines wasn’t primitive by any means, but it was necessary to be more self-reliant – a challenge Sean was genuinely enjoying, even if the learning curve could be frustrating as hell, and he sometimes doubted he’d ever reach its end.
After cleaning up the mess on the kitchen floor and resuming their interrupted lunch, he and Elijah bundled up and went outside to make some necessary preparations in advance of the storm. The two men worked steadily all that afternoon through falling temperatures and lowering gray skies, until the first fat snowflakes began to spiral slowly down shortly before nightfall.
In some ways, these were the times Sean liked best of all, for he had never shared this easy camaraderie with anyone before, not even Chris in the early days of Clicktwice, and he knew that in Elijah he had found not only the love of his life, but his best friend. They didn’t talk much as they brought in wood for the stove from the shed where seasoned oak and pine logs were stacked, or as they carried bales of hay down from the loft to spread out for the foraging deer after the storm passed – but they didn’t need to. The silence between them was comfortable, their communication accomplished with a touch, a glance, a nod. The aftershocks of what they’d shared in the kitchen still lingered in their veins, like the buzz from a fine champagne; every so often their eyes would meet and lock, then they’d grin and continue with what they’d been doing.
Sean topped off the bird feeders with oiled sunflower seed while Elijah uncovered the snow blower in a corner of the mudroom, checked the oil level, and added gas from one of the red plastic containers that Sean had filled at the local Wawa earlier that morning when he’d gone to pick up the Sunday Times and emergency Butterscotch Krimpet rations to get them through the storm. Elijah promised to give Sean a lesson in how to use the snow blower. There would be plenty of opportunity, as they’d need to clear a path from the house to the barn, which had to be accessible to care for the animals, as well as the walk in front of the house. Together they carried the heavy metal snowplow from the barn and wrestled it onto the front of the Toyota so that Elijah could plow the driveway when the storm was over. No way was Sean’s Beemer ever going to make it out otherwise.
They led Sonny, Cher, Paco and Dolly in from the paddock where they’d been dawdling by the fence, in hopes of some of the peppermints Elijah always carried in his coat pockets for them, and shut them in their stalls. After cleaning and refilling their water buckets, and feeding them their evening hay and oats, they went into the hospital, which was more heavily populated with injured wildlife than Sean was accustomed to. Elijah had warned him that this time of year, when the hibernating animals started emerging from their long naps to look for food and mates and didn’t always pay attention to cars on the road or other hazards, was an especially busy one for rehabilitators.
There was a new litter of baby squirrels in the incubator, five of them this time, whose mother had met an untimely end in the claws of a raptor, as well as two very friendly (and, to Sean’s relief, harmless) skunks who’d gotten the worse of their encounters with cars; a rabbit whose leg was torn by barbed wire; and an extremely talkative Canada goose with buckshot in its left wing that had been found by Pete Gunner floundering in a canal along one of the cranberry bogs.
The injured were at varying stages of recovery, but all were doing well, and the orphaned squirrels, pink skinned and frighteningly helpless looking when they’d first arrived, were now three weeks old, nearly covered in gray-brown fur, and thriving.
Sean was completely enamored of the tiny creatures, and the memories they brought of the very first time he’d ever assisted Elijah in the hospital. As he slowly and carefully fed one of the squeaking, greedy, demanding babies some formula from a syringe, he couldn’t keep from smiling.
“You really love these little guys, don’t you,” Elijah remarked softly.
“Yeah, I do,” Sean admitted. “I know I’m not supposed to get attached, but there’s just something about them that gets to me.”
Elijah leaned over and kissed Sean’s shoulder - the nearest spot he could reach, as he was juggling his own squirrel and syringe. “You have a loving heart, Sean. There’s nothing wrong with that, and don’t think they don’t know it, or that it doesn’t help them survive.” Then he gave a sly grin and added, “Only don’t let Rocky find out how you feel about them. He’ll be jealous.”
“I’d never break his heart that way,” Sean solemnly promised. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life dodging acorns in the kitchen.”
They ate an early dinner, fed Maggie and Rocky – Fred was still full from lunch – did the washing up, and then spent much of the evening on the phone talking to friends and family, among them Hannah, who promised Elijah that she’d bring Jordan out to the cabin on Tuesday for a snow play date with his uncle; Katie, who was with great difficulty dissuaded from sending Bill over the next day to help them dig out; Anna, who was out in sunny southern California visiting Mack and making noises again about moving there permanently; and Ian, who growled at Elijah not to pull any ‘damn-fool stunts’ and drag him out of his warm bed in the middle of the night.
By the time they finally went to bed, the snowflakes were no longer large and lazy, but smaller and falling rapidly as the massive storm system moved in and settled over the pines. Sean was weary after their busy day, but it was the good kind of weary that came from knowing that everything that needed to be done had been done, and now he and Elijah were free simply to kick back and relax for a time and let the snow fall.
When he entered their room after finishing his nightly ritual of washing, brushing, flossing and communing with Fred, Elijah was already under the covers, propped up by a mound of pillows and balancing an issue of Rolling Stone on his upraised knees. Bessie Smith was singing the blues from Elijah’s iPod, and the fire was burning brightly. Sean could hear Rocky in his nesting box, chattering to himself as he settled down for the night. Maggie blinked sleepily at him from her favorite spot on the hearthrug.
A feeling of ineffable peace stole over Sean as he took in the homely scene. His home. His Elijah.
I wished I had some good man, to tell my troubles to
That good man that Sean had miraculously found to tell his troubles to looked up from his magazine and smiled at him: a shining smile of pure joy that went straight into Sean’s heart and nestled there.
“Bessie sure has a magnificent voice, doesn’t she?” Elijah said. He set aside the magazine, wrapped his arms around his blanket-covered knees and rested his cheek atop them. His eyelids drifted half-closed as he listened.
I need a little hot dog, on my roll
I can stand a bit of lovin', oh so bad
“She does,” Sean agreed. But it was the rawness and naked longing in the words that pulled at him as he stared at Elijah’s slim, ivory-pale back bowed over his knees, the shadowed hollows of his spine and ribcage, and the clearly defined muscles of arms and shoulders that belied his slender physique. A bit of lovin’, oh so bad - Sean could stand that, oh yeah.
But he didn’t yield to the temptation, mindful of what had taken place in the kitchen, and the inevitable soreness Elijah must be feeling. Instead he left Elijah absorbed in the music with a far-off expression on his face, and crossed to one of the two large windows in the room. He pulled back the butter-yellow curtain, and practically had to plaster his nose to the cold glass to see anything, for it was pitch-black outside. There were no streetlights here to illuminate the darkness.
Dimly, he could make out the ghostly shapes of swirling snowflakes, thick as bees swarming around a hive, whipped in a counter-clockwise direction by the powerful northeast wind. Through the faintly tinny sound of the old ‘20s recording, Sean could hear it howl like some lost and desolate creature, and barely repressed a shiver. The sense of peace and content drained away, as if a stopper had been yanked from his soul.
Please, god, don’t let Elijah be called tonight. Please.
He wondered if Debbie had stood in this same spot on the night of the blizzard in ’93, staring out into the blackness while she sent up the same silent plea to the heavens, only to watch her prayers go unanswered not once, but five times. He felt sick.
He let the curtain drop from his white-knuckled grip, plastered a fake smile on his face and turned around.
“How is it out there?” Elijah asked. His cheek still rested on his knees, but his eyes were wide and watchful.
“Near white-out conditions,” Sean replied. “The wind’s really picked up. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be out there tonight.” He paused for a beat, realized what he’d said, briefly closed his eyes. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
“Sean, come to bed,” was all Elijah said, in a gentle voice. He sat up, retrieved the remote for the iHome and shut off the music.
Just as well, Sean thought. The next track on the playlist had started, and as Bessie Smith was frequently featured on Eljah’s iPod, he knew the song well. Empty Bed Blues it was called, and the first lines cut him like a knife.
My new man had left me, just a room and a empty bed
He shrugged out of his plaid flannel robe, wishing he could shrug off his somber mood as easily, draped it over the back of the chair, and slid into bed beside Elijah. Their usual routine was to read for a while before turning out the light, but tonight Elijah didn’t give him time to retrieve a book from the stack on the bedside table. Before Sean even pulled the double wedding ring quilt up over himself, Elijah had switched off the lamp.
He made no move to lie down, only sat leaning with his weight on his left arm and the covers pooled around his hips while he stared down silently at Sean. Backlit by the fire, he was limned in gold, heart-stoppingly beautiful, but remote as some angel painted on the ceiling of a medieval cathedral. His eyes were huge and shadowed and faintly glimmering, like those of his great-grandfather in Hannah Wood’s painting that hung on the wall just behind him. In that moment he was no longer simply Elijah, but the Woodjin, too, bound to a duty he could not and would not set aside, even for Sean. Sorrowful understanding was in his face as he reached out and with a gentle hand stroked the curls back from Sean’s brow.
“It’s okay to worry sometimes, Sean,” he said. “Do you think I don’t, too?” His fingertips traced a burning trail down Sean’s cheek, his neck and chest, and came to rest over his heart. “I have so much to lose now,” he whispered. “So much.”
Unable to speak past the sudden tightness in his throat, Sean covered that small hand with his own and held it against his chest much as he had held the baby squirrels out in the barn earlier. Elijah leaned in and kissed the corners of Sean’s eyes, first one then the other, and then drew back slightly. He was so close that Sean could see the faint tremble of his lips and hear each minute hitch in his breathing. Then with a small sob, Elijah closed the short distance between them; their mouths met and clung in a kiss of sweet desperation.
Their loving this time was as quiet and unhurried as it had been fierce and frantic in the kitchen, but the climax was no less shattering. Sean fell asleep held protectively in Elijah’s arms, his last fleeting memory Elijah’s whispered, “I love you.”
When Sean awoke, a bleary-eyed squint at the alarm clock told him it was 5:45 a.m. Dim gray light suffused the room and he was alone in bed. But he didn’t think of the Empty Bed Blues, or tumble into a panic. He knew Elijah hadn’t been called, as surely as he knew his own name, for the urgent, wordless clamor that accompanied the callings, as if an alarm bell had been set off inside him, was absent. Elijah had undoubtedly gone out to the barn to feed the squirrels and check on the other patients, as he did at least once every night; in fact Sean had a vague, sleep-blurred impression of Elijah climbing out of bed, of a rush of cool air on his skin as the blankets were briefly lifted and let fall again.
He’d given up worrying and arguing with Elijah over bearing the brunt of the disrupted sleep. For one thing, he figured he’d have his share of sleepless nights after he became a doctor, and for another, whether it was a manifestation of Elijah’s stag nature, or possibly Maggie’s influence, but he seemed to derive as much benefit from a short cat nap as most people did from eight solid hours of sleep. Sean had never known anyone who could drop off as quickly and deeply as Elijah and then awaken just as quickly fifteen minutes later, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It was a talent Sean envied.
Still, as he sat up, yawning and rubbing the heels of his hands into his gritty eyes, Sean wished that this once Elijah had woken him. He didn’t like the thought of him going out into the snowstorm by himself, even just to walk across the yard to the barn. But that was frankly absurd, considering who and what Elijah was. He was eminently capable of looking out for himself, and there could hardly be a less likely candidate for becoming disoriented and wandering off never to return.
“Maggie, I said I’m sorry.”
It was Elijah, speaking sotto voce, and muscles Sean hadn’t even realized he was tensing relaxed. He was safely back. Thank god.
“Mrowwr rowr rowr rowr.”
“There’s too much snow on the ground for you to go outside. You’d have been buried alive.”
Maggie sure sounded pissed, Sean thought, biting back a smile. She no more liked being left behind than Sean did, and she never hesitated to let Elijah know when she was upset with him.
“Shh. You’ll wake up Sean.”
“No, that’s not an excuse to end the conversation. Now hush.” Elijah, clad in jeans and a too-large brick-red flannel shirt that technically belonged to Sean but he had appropriated, tiptoed stealthily into the room on stocking feet with a visibly annoyed, tail-thrashing Maggie at his side.
“It’s okay,” Sean announced. “I’m awake.” He chuckled at Elijah’s guilty expression, even while he couldn’t help but notice how the glow in his cheeks, ruddy from the cold, intensified the brilliance of his eyes. If Elijah had seemed remote as an angel last night, this morning he was entirely of the earth, vibrant and brimming with life.
“Oh gollykeeper, Sean, I’m sorry,” Elijah apologized. “I was hoping you could sleep in for a while, and instead we went and woke you up.” He gave Maggie a reproving look.
“Nah, I was already awake.”
The unrepentant Maggie bounded over and jumped onto the bed. Vocalizing insistently, she climbed onto Sean’s lap and butted her head against his chest. “Good morning to you, too, Maggie,” Sean said, petting her. “But there’s nothing we can do about him. You know how pig-headed these pineys can be.”
“Hey!” Elijah started to protest, but was interrupted by a sudden stream of indignant chatter. It was Rocky, who stuck his head out of his nesting box and scolded them for a few seconds before retreating again. He wasn’t, Sean had discovered, an early-squirrel-gets-the-acorn type. That was for lesser, less spoiled, squirrels. He enjoyed his beauty rest.
“How much snow have we gotten so far?” Sean asked, rubbing Maggie’s belly. She was draped upside down across his lap now, purring loudly.
“About 8 or 9 inches. It’s still coming down, but the wind’s not blowing so hard.” Elijah crossed to the hearth and knelt to add wood to the fire.
“Everything’s fine,” he replied. He carefully set two large pine logs crosswise on the grate, closed the metal mesh fire screen and then sat back on his heels, arms loosely draped on his thighs.
“Let’s just hope it stays that way. You wouldn’t want to piss off Ian.”
Elijah laughed. “Did Dr. Ian ever tell you that I once got called to rescue him in a snowstorm?” he asked.
“No, he never did.” This was news to Sean, although not particularly surprising, given how many hours Ian Holm spent driving around the pines, visiting patients.
“He was trying to make it out to Pete’s cabin with some extra supplies - kerosene and food - and his car slid off the road into a ditch alongside one of the bogs.” A reminiscent smile lit Elijah’s face. “He was fine and so was his car, but he was cranky as a progger whose turtle got away when I showed up. Said he was too old for riding on the back of a damn deer.”
But Sean didn’t smile. “He should have been counting his blessings. To have that once in a lifetime experience... My god, Elijah,” he exclaimed. “How could he not treasure it?”
Cold and shock had blurred his awareness of all that was happening the night the white stag had rescued him. He could only remember bits and pieces of their journey through the starlit pines, but certain things stood out, still, with crystalline clarity, and always would: the warmth and softness of the stag’s fur; his scent, so like Elijah’s but even sharper and wilder; the sense of safety and security he had given Sean, even in the midst of the greatest terror he’d ever known.
He became aware that Elijah was staring at him with a furrowed brow and a puzzled expression on his face.
“Why do you say it like that?” he asked. “You sound almost… well, sad.”
“Because I suppose I am sad, in a way.” A wistful note crept into Sean’s voice. “After all, I’ll never have that experience again.” Then he huffed a laugh, ruffling Maggie’s fur. “I know that sounds totally crazy. I mean, I have you, but I guess some small part of me will always be a little envious of those who have a chance to ride on the white stag.”
A creature straight from the pages of a fairy tale, more beautiful than dreams, Martha had once said to Sean, and so he was. And though Sean’s intellect told him that Elijah and the stag were one and the same, though the image of moon-shadowed bare footprints changing to hoof prints in the snow was seared into his mind forever, though he’d witnessed that incredible transformation several times now, the stag remained a being separate and apart from the man he loved: mysterious, magical, wild as the pinelands he guarded.
Elijah rose fluidly to his feet and came and sat on the edge of the bed, as he had that first morning after he’d rescued Sean. “You only have to ask,” he said, taking Sean’s hand and fixing him with a very serious look. “In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered why you never have.”
“How can I ask that of you, Elijah?” Sean protested. “How can I be that selfish?”
“Selfish? You’re not still fretting over what Hannah said about how transforming ‘exhausts’ me, are you?” Elijah rolled his eyes in exasperation. “My sister is such a pain in this stag’s behind.”
At another time, Sean might have chuckled over Elijah’s use of that particular expression, but not now. “No, I’m not fretting over what she said. Or at least,” he amended, “not much. It’s not that. It’s…” Sean hesitated, searching for the best way to put into words what had held him back from asking Elijah to transform for him.
Elijah waited patiently for him to go on; one of the qualities Sean most loved in him was his willingness to listen – really listen. Finally, choosing his words with care, Sean continued, “What you do as the stag you do for a very special reason: to save people’s lives. I would never disrespect that or the importance of your calling by expecting you to carry me on your back simply for my own gratification, as if you were… Hell I don’t know, a performing animal in a circus act, or a beast of burden.”
“I would never suffer myself to be used like that by anyone.” It was the Woodjin, not Elijah, who replied. His eyes flashed, his nostrils flared and his head unconsciously lifted in an almost defiant gesture. For an instant, the ghostly image of the stag’s head hovered over his familiar features, as it had on other occasions when his less civilized stag nature was in ascendance. His hand clenched around Sean’s, gripping it hard enough to hurt. “I’d rather die than endure that.”
Maggie’s amber eyes were fixed unblinkingly on Elijah. She was no longer purring. Even the fire seemed to still in the wake of that quiet but impassioned declaration. Sean held his breath.
Then the Woodjin gave himself a little shake, relaxed his tense grip, and became Elijah again. “But you’re not just ‘anyone’, you’re my lover and my mate, and to bear you would be no burden, but a blessing.” He lifted Sean’s hand to his cheek and cherished it against the smooth, warm skin. “I love you, Sean, and I want to share every part of my world with you that I can, whether as man or stag.” He stood without releasing Sean’s hand, and smiled down at him. “Will you come?”
“You mean right now?” Sean was startled. He’d assumed that their conversation was, at least temporarily, in the abstract, not the concrete.
“Yes, I mean right now, this very minute.” The excitement and anticipation trembling in Elijah’s voice were unmistakable - his eyes were shining with them - and it hit Sean that Elijah welcomed this chance to transform, to become the stag, simply for the pure, unadulterated joy of it.
“All right,” Sean replied, infected with Elijah’s enthusiasm. Maggie jumped from his lap, and he let himself be pulled to his feet. “And at least if I fall off,” he added with a rueful smile, “there will be plenty of snow to cushion my fall.”
“You won’t fall off,” Elijah said with absolute conviction. “I won’t let you.”
“There’s something wrong with this picture,” Sean remarked as he shrugged into his blaze orange down jacket and zipped it up, while Elijah took off his jeans and hung them by a belt loop on one of the hooks by the back door. “Here I am bundling up while you’re getting undressed.”
Elijah, who was naked except for a pair of white flannel boxers with a blue snowflake pattern, laughed. “I’ll be wearing a fur coat shortly and warmer than you.”
“Yeah, but even so…” Sean looked out the window at the winter wonderland on the other side and wondered if they were crazy. The snow was almost knee deep and still coming down hard, although at least, as Elijah had said, the wind was blowing less fiercely. A vivid splash of red caught his attention: a male cardinal, glowing like a ruby, swooping in to perch on the edge of a large house-shaped wooden feeder already crowded with hungry sparrows, juncos, chickadees and titmice that were jostling for position.
“Put on your headband and scarf, and stop worrying, Sean,” Elijah instructed firmly. There was a trace of impatience in his voice as he added, “A few minutes out in the snow won’t hurt me. Besides, you know I don’t feel the cold like you do.”
Which was true, Sean acknowledged as he obediently wound his green Polartec scarf around his neck and then tugged the matching headband down over his disheveled hair to cover his ears. Elijah didn’t feel the cold the way most people did, due to his unusual metabolism. But that didn’t mean it would be any easier for Sean to watch him walk barefoot through the snow, even if it was just far enough away from the house to transform. His own feet were warmly encased in heavy wool socks inside his insulated L.L. Bean boots, but they still bore faint scars from being rubbed raw and bloody the frigid night Elijah had been shot and Sean had carried him home; a twinge of remembered pain had his toes briefly curling in sympathy for Elijah.
Elijah had stepped out of his boxers and draped them over his tee shirt on another hook. He now stood unselfconsciously naked in the coolness of the mudroom as he waited for Sean to finish dressing. Sean removed his ski gloves from the pockets of his jacket and pulled them on, averting his eyes from the puckered, pale pink scar on Elijah’s right shoulder, legacy of the bullet wound he’d suffered just over a year earlier. To bear you would be no burden, but a blessing, Elijah had said. He had to stay focused on that.
“Ready?” Elijah asked, reaching for the doorknob.
Sean’s heart gave a mad leap of joy. My god, he thought. My god, I’m going to ride the white stag again.
“Yes, I’m ready.” I’ve been ready for this moment for over a year.
Powdery drifts of snow blew in through the door as Elijah opened it, scattering across the floor like grains of sand. The cold was ferocious, biting at Sean’s exposed cheeks and chin and making his eyes water as he followed Elijah out into the yard. After walking just a few feet, he almost gave into the impulse to snatch Elijah up in his arms and dash back into the shelter of the mudroom.
This is madness, he thought. Elijah is going to catch pneumonia for sure. But if the Woodjin himself had any misgivings, he didn’t show it. His steps never faltered, nor did he utter a single sound as his bare legs moved through snow up to his knees.
Sean waded after Elijah, thankful that at least the snow was light, fluffy and offered little resistance as they walked. Snowflakes quickly frosted Elijah’s kitten-fur auburn hair, and melted into tiny rivulets on his hotter-than-human body. Sean was too busy questioning the wisdom of what they were doing to take more than absentminded note of what would normally have held his attention riveted: the elegant lines of Elijah’s narrow-hipped torso, the flex of his rounded buttocks as he walked, the way his skin, white as the snow itself, almost glowed in the diffuse light. When they reached the middle of the yard, Elijah halted, and tilted his face up to the cloud-wracked sky. Delicate lacy snowflakes landed softly on his nose and cheeks and caught in his spiky black lashes; a smile curled his lips, as if he felt their touch like a caress.
Sean was irresistibly reminded of the black and white portrait that Martha had taken of Elijah - until he tilted his head down again, and opened his eyes, and the shock of vivid gentian blue in an otherwise monochrome world stunned Sean’s senses.
“I’m ready,” Elijah said, blinking away the snow.
“Elijah…” But Sean couldn’t go on; so many emotions fought for precedence.
“We won’t go too far or for too long this first time,” Elijah said, “and remember, I won’t let you fall.” Then he grinned impishly, his eyes sparkling. “Just relax and enjoy the ride, Sean.”
Sean was startled into laughter, sudden as the flash of the cardinal’s wings as it darted from the feeder back to the shelter of the pine trees. “Don’t you mean, Fasten your seat belt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride?” he teased, and ducked as Elijah scooped up a handful of snow and flung it at him.
“Lucky for you I’m not a vengeful stag,” Elijah retorted, dusting off his hands.
“You’re not a stag at all yet. Now get transforming, will you? I’m having sympathy shivers looking at you.”
“It is kinda cold even for me,” Elijah admitted. “Okay, here goes.”
He closed his eyes and concentrated; a furrow appeared between his dark brows, his hands fisted loosely at his sides and his lips soundlessly moved. The black Lenape tattoo above his right hip and the silver ring on his finger seemed to pulse with energy, and the gradual electric change in the air raised the tiny hairs on the back of Sean’s neck. Then the very air started to shift, to move, to melt like the snow glistening on Elijah’s now-distorted body. A light sprang into being; a single firefly’s glow that multiplied and became brighter and brighter, blazing forth, until Sean was forced at last to close his eyes against its dazzle.
When he opened them again, Elijah had vanished, and in his place stood the white stag. His deep blue eyes - Elijah’s eyes, but not - regarded him gravely. Already the snow was darkening the ivory velvet of his fur, and gathering on the tines of his antlers.
It wasn’t the cold blurring Sean’s vision now. “Jesus,” he said in a shaky whisper, almost unable to credit what he was seeing, though he’d witnessed this miracle several times now. He stepped forward and set a trembling hand on the stag’s snow-damp neck. “Jesus. I always think I’m prepared. I always think I remember just how beautiful you are. But I never do.”
Elijah would demur at being called beautiful. He couldn’t truly see that about himself, no matter how hard Sean tried to convince him otherwise. But the stag, oh the stag knew, and he gloried in his magnificence. He held his proud head even higher, and his sensitive skin quivered under Sean’s palm. But then, as if the lure of the pines was too strong to ignore, he snorted and tossed his head, scattering snow from his antlers in a shower of silver-white, and danced back a few paces, before carefully folding his limbs and lowering his body into the snow so that Sean could climb aboard.
Sean lifted his right leg and slid it across the broad warm back, as he’d done that long ago night in a sandy clearing beneath the stars, but never since – until now. His heart thundered in his ears as he settled into place, and gripped the stag’s bony withers between his gloved hands. Anticipation, and a frisson of fear, too, coursed through him.
He drew a deep breath. “I’m ready.” The words had hardly passed his lips when the stag gathered his haunches underneath him and surged upward.
“Ohhhhh, shit!” Sean exclaimed, clamping his legs around the stag’s barrel sides as the world tilted dizzyingly on its axis for a few seconds. He prayed he wasn’t going to be unceremoniously dumped in the snow before they’d even left the yard.
On his feet, the stag snorted, a cloud of lingering white, and turned his head to look at Sean, who was certain the look was comprised of equal parts amusement and exasperation. “So sue me, okay? I’m a city guy. I only ever pretended to be a mounted policeman. I never actually took riding lessons.”
With another snort and a toss of his head, the stag set out at an easy walk toward the woods. His long legs cut easily through the snow, making a soft shushing sound, like the diagonal strides of a cross-country skier, and in no time at all, they were in the shelter of the pines, where the snow still fell, but not as heavily.
For a while, Sean was too preoccupied with remaining upright and not disgracing himself by falling off to pay much attention to anything else. Elijah might have said he wouldn’t let Sean fall, but Sean wasn’t quite buying it. The stag moved smoothly, however, and his broad back was surprisingly comfortable to sit on. The warmth of his body seeped through the legs of Sean’s Goretex snow pants, and the slide and shift of his muscles as they bunched and relaxed, and the beat of his heart against Sean’s left calf, created a physical intimacy completely unlike the intimacy he shared with Elijah, but equally wondrous in its own right.
Gradually, without quite realizing it, Sean relaxed, and allowed his hips to move freely with each swing of the stag’s powerful hindquarters. The fear of tumbling off passed, and only then did he really start to take note of their surroundings.
He was reasonably familiar now with the trails around the cabin, able to negotiate them in the Toyota with increasing confidence. But the sand trails had vanished, as had the low-growing vegetation in and among the pitch pines and scrub oaks.
The woods resembled a sea: a sea of pristine white from which the trees stood out like spars, or the skeletons of the white cedars in the swamps. There was not even a hint of other life; no paw or hoof prints broke the unrelieved expanse of white. The normally ubiquitous deer and other wildlife that accompanied the Woodjin whenever he traveled through the pines were not in evidence, and no red-tailed hawks or turkey vultures could be seen soaring overhead. They had all taken refuge, in dens, burrows or roosts, and were waiting out the storm.
All that is save for Sean and the white stag. They might have been the only two living beings in the entire world. It blew Sean’s mind to think that only fifty miles away lay New York City, where commuters were crowding into the subways on this rush hour Monday morning, while he rode the white stag through an enchanted forest, watching the snow filter down through the branches and listening to the stag’s soft snorting breaths.
Of easy wind and downy flake.
Robert Frost had it nailed, Sean thought. That’s exactly what it was like.
A sudden violent gust of wind had set the pine trees to swaying, and a considerable quantity of snow was unexpectedly dumped on his head. An icy trickle snuck down the back of his neck beneath his scarf and the upturned collar of his jacket.
“So much for Robert Frost,” he muttered.
The stag halted and craned his neck around to look curiously at Sean.
“Someone up there has a bizarre sense of humor,” he said, running his gloves through his hair to dislodge the clumps of snow. Then he reached forward and brushed off the smooth surfaces of the stag’s antlers, and the soft fur on the top of his head between them. The stag touched his knee with his whiskery muzzle in silent thanks, but Sean thought he detected a gleam of amusement in his blue eyes.
They went on until they reached the same cedar swamp that Elijah had taken Sean to see the day after his encounter with the Devil. Sean ducked down to avoid snow-heavy branches, and pressed his cold cheek against the stag’s warm neck as he delicately picked his way among the trees. Eventually they emerged into open ground and the swamp lay immediately before them.
Once again the stag halted, this time so Sean could admire the view. He sat up, resting his hands lightly on the stag’s withers. “Wow,” he said. “This is incredible.” The wintry scene could have graced a Hallmark Christmas card, for it was the essence of peace and beauty. The deep green boughs of the pitch pines that surrounded the swamp on all sides were frosted with white like icing, and the falling snow whispered and hissed as it settled onto water that reflected the steel gray of the lowering clouds above it.
The stag stood stock still with his head held high, and the steady beat of his heart beneath Sean’s leg and the wisps of steam rising from his damp fur were the only evidence that he was flesh and blood, not a statue graven from ivory and ebony. After a few minutes he stirred, hooves describing restless circles in the snow, and turning left, he began to move swiftly along the border of the swamp. The four-beat pace of his walk quickened, and like a race car driver shifting gears, he moved smoothly into a two-beat trot.
“Ohhhhh, shit!” Sean exclaimed again, pitching forward. He’d never felt so undignified in his entire adult life than at that moment as he flopped helplessly on the stag’s neck. God damn it, he thought, I was the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation. I refuse to imitate a sack of potatoes. Bracing his hands, he pushed himself back into an upright position. But he was so tense that his stiff body jolted with a teeth-jarring rattle with every stride; he might have been sitting in a car without shock absorbers.
Just relax and enjoy the ride, Sean. Sean wasn’t sure if he was recalling Elijah’s words, or reading the stag’s mind. The stag’s ears were pinned flat against his skull, and Sean caught a flash of blue as he glanced at him from the corner of his eyes. He realized with dismay that his jouncing around must be just as uncomfortable for the stag as it was for himself.
Damn it, he could do this. He’d studied relaxation techniques, which were absolutely essential to master when you had a job as stressful as the one he’d had. He just needed to apply them to this new situation. He forced his runaway breathing to slow and allowed the tension in his shoulders, arms, legs and back to flow out of him. He stopped fighting against the stag’s springy gait, and instead visualized the two of them moving in concert, as a seamless whole, like the horses and riders he’d seen on television in the Olympics.
After a few minutes Sean decided that, while he might not win any gold medals, he wasn’t doing half bad, either. Maybe he had the makings of a decent rider, at that. And at least he’d stopped imitating that sack of potatoes, and wasn’t likely to give the stag (and Elijah) a sore back.
As Sean’s balance and seat grew more secure, the stag gradually quickened his pace, his cloven hooves flinging snow to left and right as his knees flashed up and down. Daringly, Sean raised his arms and held them out to the sides, the way he and Mack had as kids when they were riding their bikes through their Queens neighborhood on lazy summer afternoons.
“Look ma, no hands!” he joked, and the stag, snorting, gave an impish bound. Sean quickly repositioned his hands on the stag’s withers. “Hey! I thought you said you aren’t vengeful.” He grinned as the stag mischievously kicked up his heels again. This playfulness was totally unexpected, charming - and a little sad. This is why Elijah wanted me to ask, he thought. He’s had no one with whom to share this side of his stag self since his father died.
The stag settled down, and trotted easily along the edge of the swamp for a quarter mile or so before turning back into the trees, heading in a southerly direction, toward home. A part of Sean wanted to protest, to beg the stag not to end this wondrous journey through the silent, snow-shrouded woods so soon. But other parts of Sean didn’t agree. The muscles of his inner thighs, muscles he hadn’t even known he possessed, were beginning to feel the strain of this unaccustomed activity, and protesting vigorously. Not to mention his ass. A long hot bath was definitely going to be on the agenda for later.
But if Sean thought the magic was over, he was wrong. The stag had one more surprise in store for him. The path they were traveling gradually widened and merged with an abandoned logging road wide enough to accommodate a full-sized car. The road had been built by Elijah’s forebears to haul cedar, oak and pine from the deep swamps and forest, including the timber used to build the cabin. It unfurled straight, smooth and flat in front of them, like a drag strip, and its effect on the stag was exactly that.
With a snort and a plunge, he put pedal to the metal, and leaped into a run, taking Sean completely off-guard. He flew along the trail as if he’d sprouted wings, his powerful strides eating up the ground. A blinding spray of snow flew up around them, and billowing clouds of steam emerged in rhythmic bursts from the stag’s distended nostrils.
Sean held on for dear life, while exhilaration unlike any he’d ever experienced surged through him. The icy wind whipped at his already numb cheeks and nose, the snow stung his face, and his eyes watered, the seeping tears immediately freezing on his cheeks. The deep snow muffled the stag’s hoof beats, so that their mad dash down the trail was silent save for the wind whistling around them and the stag’s snorting breaths.
It was dangerously wild, absolutely mad, and utterly, utterly brilliant.
“Yeeeee-haaaaa!” Sean let out a primal yell like a rodeo cowboy, and the wind snatched the sound and sent it spinning away, but the stag must have heard because he lowered his magnificent antlered head and ran even faster.
Much, much too soon for Sean’s liking, the stag’s strides began to shorten, and his breakneck hurtle down the trail slowed first to a canter, then a trot and finally a walk. Sean wiped the tears from his streaming eyes with the back of his glove, blinked hard, and saw the house ahead of them, just beyond the shelter of the trees. Their magical ride was over. But there would be a next time, and a time after that, and many others over the coming months and years. He’d worried that asking Elijah for this would be selfish and self-indulgent, but it was clear exactly how wrong he'd been. They needed this, both of them.
The stag stopped just outside the mudroom door so Sean could dismount. He noticed that the footprints he and Elijah made when they left the house had been completely obliterated by the still steadily falling snow. It seemed somehow symbolic to him of the journey they’d taken that no evidence of its beginning remained, as if they’d been magically transported into another world. And in a way, he thought, they had.
Sean slid down from the stag’s back with some difficulty; his legs wobbled like Jell-O when they touched the ground, and he winced and bit back a gasp of pain. Comparing this discomfort to what he’d experienced after Elijah had topped for the first time was inevitable. He’d had trouble walking then, too. But that had gotten easier with time, and so would this, he decided. He leaned his weight against the stag’s sturdy side, giving his legs a chance to recover, and grinned ruefully, imagining what Elijah would say to the comparison.
Steam rose from the stag’s sweat-damp neck, his back and heaving flanks, the fur on his legs was encrusted with snow, and tiny clumps of ice dotted the whiskers of his muzzle. But his great blue eyes were brilliant as the winter stars as he turned his head to look at Sean, and he saw reflected in them his own profound joy.
“Yeah, it totally fucking rocked, didn’t it?” Sean said, and impulsively threw his arms around the stag’s neck and hugged him. He buried his face in the damp velvet of his fur, and breathed in the wild scents of pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses. “Thank you,” he whispered, as he had that blessed night he'd met the white stag for the first time, and kissed him. Then he stepped away, moving a little shakily. He waited for the stag to transform back into Elijah, and wondered if he would ever stop feeling a small tug of regret whenever he lost one for the other.
But there really was no time for regret, because before the dazzling firefly glow had completely faded, a snowy, naked, jubilant Elijah had Sean wrapped in a full body hug with his legs around his waist. Sean staggered a little, but managed not to fall on his ass.
“Oh my god, Sean,” Elijah said exuberantly, “that was so much fun! When can we do it again?”
Sean threw back his head and laughed, and Elijah’s infectious giggle joined his laughter, dancing brightly on the frosty air and setting the snowflakes to chiming like bells.
One long, hot, shared bath, two dishes of herb tea, and a giant mound of pancakes, butter and maple syrup later Elijah nodded off against Sean's side on the sofa in the family room. Maggie, her raspy purr barely audible, was curled up in Elijah’s lap, and Rocky was snoozing on Sean’s shoulder. The television, volume low, was tuned to the Weather Channel, and the cameras showed shivering pedestrians hurrying through the snowstorm along icy city sidewalks, while plows cleared the roads and spread salt.
It was still possible, of course, that Elijah would be called. The storm wasn't over, and not everyone had a magical white stag to ride in safety through the snowbound pines. But the future, Sean decided, could take care of itself. He wouldn't feel guilt, not for what they'd shared that morning. A reminiscent smile curved Sean's lips, and he held the Woodjin closer in his arms.