The Woodjin: The Wood Stove by Lbilover

You go on down to the family room and start the wood stove, Elijah had said, when he noticed Sean rubbing his hands briskly together. I’ll finish making the pasta.

They were expecting the first hard frost in the pines that night, and when Sean arrived home from his pre-med classes in Bryn Mawr late in the afternoon, the digital display on the dash of his Beemer said it was 41 degrees outside. The thought of a fire in the wood stove while they ate their dinner was definitely appealing.

Sean hadn’t judged it necessary to tell Elijah that he had never, in fact, done more than throw a couple of logs into the wood stove when it was already going, and that months ago. Besides, of the two of them, Elijah was the better cook by miles, so it made sense to leave the penne all'arrabiata in his capable hands.

So he’d simply replied okay, given Elijah a quick kiss, and headed down to the family room with Rocky hitching a ride on his shoulder and Maggie trotting ahead. He was surprised that she would leave Elijah, until he remembered how the two animals loved to curl up together on the rug by the stove, basking in the heat that radiated from it.

“Hedonist,” Sean joked, and wasn’t even surprised when Maggie glanced back over her shoulder at him with a reproving look in her amber eyes. “Sorry, Maggie.”

When they got to the family room, Rocky, chattering non-stop, scampered down Sean as if he were a tree, his claws prickling through the flannel shirt and jeans Sean was wearing. He then leapt up to the highest bookshelf, where he assumed his coffee pot pose, took a peanut from his cheek pouch, and cracked open the shell. Maggie jumped onto the sofa, and with her tail held high, started walking daintily along the back like a calico gymnast on a leather balance beam.

Meanwhile, Sean contemplated the wood stove. The cold, dark rectangle of metal, decorated along the sides with blue and white tiles, and with the colorful dragon steamer sitting on an iron trivet on top, seemed somehow daunting. But how difficult could it be to start a fire in it, he reasoned. After all, while he certainly wasn’t handy by any stretch of the imagination, he was an intelligent guy. He could figure it out. Hell, he’d conquered an extremely thorny physics problem today. As for what had happened in chem lab… Sean put that from his mind. He wasn’t going to think about that, damn it.

There was a stack of old Asbury Park Press newspapers on the floor. Sean pulled a classified ad section free from the top paper, and separated the pages. Then he carefully crumpled the paper, opened the door of the stove, and set it in the middle of the empty bed. He added several pieces of kindling from a wooden box next to the newspapers, building a little teepee over the crumpled paper that looked, he thought, just right. He’d start that burning then put some larger logs in. With a nod of satisfaction, Sean took one of the extra long fireplace matches from a cast iron spill holder decorated with a stag’s head and lit it.

“Okay, here goes,” remarked Sean to his audience of two. He no longer found it in the least odd to be addressing them as if they understood everything he said, because… well, he was living with the Woodjin now, wasn’t he? He might never be able to understand animals the way Elijah did, but he would never again assume that a squirrel was a squirrel was a squirrel…

Sean crouched down and held the small flickering orange flame to the nearest edge of the crumpled newspaper. It caught at once, curling back and shriveling an ad for some sort of corporate IT position. Now there’s poetic justice for you, Sean thought with amusement as the rest of the paper quickly ignited.

Satisfied, Sean sat back on his heels and shut the wood stove door, firmly securing the handle. And watched through the small glass window as the fire sputtered and died almost as quickly as it had started.

“What the…” Sean opened the door, and then cursed as he got a face full of acrid smoke. Coughing and blinking and batting at the cloud with one hand, he fumbled the door closed with the other.

“Dammit. What did I do wrong?”

Neither Maggie nor Rocky replied. He was apparently on his own.

Well, if at first you don’t succeed, he thought, determined. Maybe I didn’t put enough paper in.

He used an iron poker to push the charred scraps to the side, and rebuilt his little teepee with more crumpled up classifieds, plus the sports section. He lit another match, held it to the paper and this time Sean waited until the whole mound of newspaper was burning merrily and waves of welcome warmth were wafting from the stove before shutting the door. Only to watch indignantly as the flames were snuffed out again. He felt almost personally affronted, as if the wood stove was doing it on purpose, which was, of course, totally ridiculous. Even in the Woodjin’s home, inanimate objects couldn’t do such things.

Sean hoped.

I should just wait until Elijah comes and have him show me what I’m doing wrong, thought Sean. But he was achingly aware of how much he still had to learn about this world in which he now lived. He wanted to prove, if only to himself, that he belonged in the pines, not just because Elijah was his partner, but because he had the requisite resourcefulness and resiliency, like Elijah’s ancestors who had settled in this seemingly inhospitable landscape and carved a living from it with only their bare hands and their strong backs and their ingenuity.

You’re being ridiculous, Sean. Could Elijah have walked into Clicktwice, sat down at a computer and written code for one of your SQL databases?

But Sean stubbornly set his jaw and crumpled up the financial section next.

“Need some help?” said a voice cheerfully from behind him.

Damn! A startled Sean dropped the papers and jerked around to see Elijah crossing the room with a very familiar rust and black feline at his side. Of course Maggie, mother hen that she was, would go to fetch Elijah when she realized Sean was in over his head. He mentally sighed. It was sometimes tough to adjust to being looked after by a cat, even one who had a habit of always being right.

“I’ve never started one of these,” Sean admitted, climbing to his feet and dusting off his grimy hands on his jeans. “I’m doing something wrong, but I don’t know what.”

“Why didn’t you come and get me?” Elijah asked, raising his eyebrows. “You didn’t have to struggle with it on your own.”

“Because…” Sean ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Because I feel so incompetent, that’s why. You ask me to do a simple thing like start the wood stove, and I can’t. I’m helpless as a fucking baby.”

Elijah stared at him. “Sean, that’s simply not true. There’s a learning curve to starting a wood stove, just like anything else.”

But it had been a day filled with small humiliations for Sean. “I should have been able to figure it out,” he argued.

Quick concern lit those blue, blue eyes, and Elijah stepped close and put his arms around Sean. “What’s wrong?” he asked, gently urging Sean’s head down onto his shoulder.

“I broke three test tubes in chem lab today,” Sean confessed in a muffled voice. “I felt like such a klutz.”

“Those test tubes are made of very thin glass,” Elijah pointed out. “They can break if you look at them too hard.”

“Maybe, but I made an even bigger asshole out of myself after that. I managed to knock over a Bunsen burner and…” Sean cringed at the memory. “I set my lab notes on fire.”

“Oh Sean.”

He could tell that Elijah was struggling manfully not to laugh, but a hastily suppressed giggle escaped him despite his best efforts. Sean's perception of what had happened suddenly shifted, and his sense of humor reasserted itself.

“I guess it is kind of funny in retrospect,” he admitted ruefully, relaxing into Elijah’s embrace.

“Well, yeah, it is kind of.” Elijah’s voice was quivering a little, but his arms held Sean almost protectively. “Did you lose all your notes?”

“Nah, the edges just got singed, that’s all.”

“That’s good.” There was a short silence, and then Elijah said, homing unerringly in on the crux of the matter without any need for Sean to explain, “Knowing how to use a wood stove isn’t what makes someone a piney, Sean.” He held Sean back, hands gripping his upper arms tightly, and continued in a serious, quiet voice, “It’s what’s in here that counts.” He touched Sean’s soft green-checked flannel shirt just above his heart. “And by that measure you’re a piney through and through, and always will be. Okay?”

Sean covered that small, capable hand with his own, and nodded. The heart that beat beneath Elijah’s fingertips was too full for him to speak.

Elijah smiled. “I'm glad that's settled. Now let’s see what’s up with the wood stove.” He knelt gracefully in the spot Sean had vacated, and sized up the situation. “You did everything right except for one thing.”

“What’s that?” Sean asked curiously, crouching next to him.

“You forgot to open the air vent.” Elijah indicated a black knob in the upper left corner of the stove front. He grasped it and slid it all the way across to the left. “Without it open, there’s no oxygen in the stove when you close the door, and the fire goes out.”

“Oh shit, I can’t believe I overlooked that!” Sean said, noticing now that the word ‘Air’ was printed in somewhat faded letters above the knob.

"It's easy to miss," Elijah consoled him with perhaps more tact than truth. He gathered up the newspapers that Sean had let drop and placed them in the stove, then arranged the kindling over them. Sean got a third match from the spill holder, struck it, and handed it to Elijah. This time when the paper was lit, he heard a muted roar as the flames licked greedily at the now-open flue vent and hot air rushed up the cold chimney.

Elijah closed the door and locked the handle, and the fire continued to burn bright. “As soon as that kindling takes, we’ll add a couple of logs.” He looked at Sean, and the dancing flames were reflected in the liquid blue of his eyes. “And once they get going, we’ll close the vent part way. You don’t want the wood to burn too fast.”

His voice had deepened and grown husky, and Sean said, “Why do I have a feeling that we’re not talking about the wood in the stove anymore, Woodjin?” He suddenly felt plenty warm, and the stove wasn’t even really going yet.

A slow smile curved Elijah’s lips. “You’re one perceptive piney, Sean,” he said, cupping his hand at the back of Sean’s neck, while his fingers teased at the short hairs at the nape, causing shivers of pure pleasure to chase down Sean’s spine.

They became too distracted to remember to add the logs, and ended up having to start the wood stove all over again. But as Elijah pointed out, it was very good practice for Sean, and practice, after all, as they knew from experience, made perfect.