Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 35, Part 65
A Funeral on the Backwards River
(January 16, 1452)
A thick fog lay about the ship on the day they held Jo’s funeral, a foul miasma stinking of everything that ever rotted in that river. The vessel floated in the center of the current, all of the water around them one big mystery and not a glimpse of shore. The helmsman clung to his rudder like the dankness glued him there, his eyes wide with trying to see through what no sight could penetrate, not even, Frodo thought, with the Magic Glass of May. One anxious crewman peered from the prow for any sign of obstacles suddenly looming up from the gloom, listening for a change in the water’s music that might indicate danger ahead, while another made soundings, his cord slipping down into apparent nothingness. Frodo shivered within his close-wrapped, dew-soaked cloak, and dew slicked the deck as well, so that he couldn’t imagine how anyone might walk its tipping surface safely wearing boots. Indeed, a number of the sailors went as barefoot as the hobbit, though their furless toes looked blue from cold.
Bergil stared at him from the ship’s starboard side for awhile, his glower drifting in and out of focus in the haze, his face pale amid the wet, black curls, but then the man shrugged and came over. Leaning down, he murmured in the hobbit’s ear, “And how is your ‘guest’ today?”
“Quiet,” Frodo replied. “I think he did himself more damage than me with his attack yesterday. I haven’t had this much peace in a long time.” Peace, but no comfort, as he watched the men start to gather on the deck for Jo’s funeral.
Bergil nodded and knocked on a bulkhead’s wood. He hesitated, then said, “Do you think he might...well, that he might make some foul use of poor Jo’s soul? After all, he was not called The Necromancer for nothing--he had a reputation for trapping those who died, uh...wrong.”
Frodo forced himself to explore that place beyond the senses where he had always perceived the blowfly. “No,” he said at last. “Sauron has lost too much strength--he feels very far away.”
Bergil looked over at the funeral preparations, the men securing the ship to drift on without them as much as possible. He asked Frodo, “Will you tell the Captain?”
Frodo hesitated, then shook his head. “He would put us ashore.”
“He might. That would be his right. In which case we have marched through perils before, and we can again.”
“But it doesn’t matter, really. The monster sleeps off his injuries--let him lie!”
Bergil laid a hand on Frodo’s shoulder, opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, and then, instead of what he originally intended, he said, “You should go down beside the cook’s fire and warm up--if you shiver any harder you might throw yourself into another seizure.”
“Shivering has nothing to do with it,” Frodo grumbled. “You know that.”
The man sighed. “I suppose not.”
All the crew that could be spared now congregated midship, and the Captain gestured with his head for the passengers to join them. One sailor brought forth a flute, on which he played a mournful tune, as soft and sad and sharp with tear-moist cold as the fog around them. Meanwhile the Captain drew up his drum and tuned it with some difficulty in the dampness, twisting the pegs with a critical ear, tapping the taut leather lightly or running his finger along it to make a faint moan. Then, satisfied at last, he struck a slower rhythm than the one which normally set the rowers’ pace. In time to his strokes six crewmen carried up the corpse from the hold, sewn in its rock-weighted shroud.
As the sailors lay the body down, all of the men burst into an eerie eastern song. Frodo might have called it “caterwauling” in any other land, and not have liked it much. The style had annoyed him, in fact, on the previous day when the men sang at their oars--or at least he had told himself so. But here in Mordor the music spoke to him, and at this service he could no longer deny it. It tore out raw from the sailor’s throats, wailed all up and down the scale, call and response, in strange sequences and combinations not at all like the merry tunes of home. Yet it fit exactly what one felt in lands like this, especially standing in the presence of a death before its time. It touched Frodo on more levels than the immediate funeral; it answered his experience, his sufferings on the road, his fears for the future, and yes, even his yearnings filled with hope. It rose beyond the hour’s grief somehow; it acknowledged beauty where beauty was not supposed to exist. The voices sounded ragged with emotions that would embarrass the hobbits of his home, but here they cried, “I still feel! Hardship has not yet beaten me down to numbness--even in pain my heart is still my own!” Somehow with death right there in their midst, the men celebrated survival, which was and yet was not the same as celebrating life.
The song trailed off. The Captain laid aside his drum and approached the corpse, his eyes a wet and angry red. For a long moment he just stood there and scowled down on the remains, his arms tightly crossed, and Frodo heard no sound except the groan of rope and wood and the sorrowful lapping of the river. Then the Captain scratched one bristly jowl and looked up.
“In the old days,” he said, “Our masters would cut a dead slave from his chains and toss him over the side--no shroud, no rites, no nothin’.” His voice took strength as he said, “But we have outlived those days!” Murmurs of assent went round. “These days we might not know all the highfalutin’ rituals of other lands, but we do know this much: Our Jo here led a life that meant something, that deserves remembering. He might’ve been a scraggly poppy-fiend and a cheat at cards, but this man felt our joys and our sorrows, he did his share at the oars, he broke bread with us and traded jokes and tales--gar, he even amused us sometimes telling of his poppy-dreams! He had his faults, sure, but he was so much more than that. He was a hand on yer shoulder when life just seemed so bad ye didn’t know how ya’d drag yerself through another day. He was a wink and a smile when life seemed so good ya could live forever, with bosom buds like him. He could listen in full measure when ya needed listenin’ to, he could shoot the bull when ya didn’t dare take life too serious--he played a part in all our lives, and a good one, too, in his way.” The Captain sighed. “And now he’s done with all that...but he’s not done.”
Something radiant filled the rough and ugly face. “Oh no, my mates, my river-brothers, our Jo ain’t done. He’s left his body behind, and all its troubles, but he’s sailed on, he has, on to that Better Country that we’ve heard about--someplace so fine that the Queen of Gondor herself put aside her elvish nature to get a chance to go there. Someplace our masters never wanted us to know about. The land where all men stand up free!” His shout could shine if words could show their light, and the men responded in kind. “Free!” they cried out, there in that lonely little galley in the midst of endless fog. “Free!”
The Captain nudged the corpse with his toe. “Jo don’t need this no more. He’s unchained, he is, from the poppy-gum and from my nagging after him, unchained from the body itself. But when we toss it for him, we do it with respect, not like dumping garbage overboard. For he worked beside us with this back and walked beside us with these feet, smiled on us with these chops and clasped us in these arms. Up with it, boys--ye know the song.”
The men lifted up the body, all of them at once, so that they could collectively hold its weight on fingertips above their heads, as they sang:
"This river, she’s a graveyard that we sail,
Not a mile but doesn’t have a man of ourn,
And until this Middle Earth should fail,
We will remember,
Aye, we will remember,
That it’s on the breasts of comrades we are borne!”
They chanted the same verse over and over in a round as they circled three times about the ship, till the tears ran unashamed down their scarred and hardened faces. On the third cycle they carried Jo’s remains to the gunwale and tipped him over the edge. They all heard the splash of the river receiving him, though no one saw his passing in the mist. Frodo could not possibly imagine Sauron getting hold of a soul so respectfully blessed for its journey.
As the men dispersed to their chores, speaking softly among themselves, Frodo said to Bergil, “He’s a good man, this Captain.”
“Aye,” Bergil replied noncommitally.
“Better than you could expect from the kind of life given to him.”
“No doubt about it.” Bergil showed intense interest in the state of his fingernails.
“The words he said about Jo--they had their own rough poetry about them, don’t you think, like the growing things of this land?”
“I suppose you could say that,” said Bergil as he took out a small knife to clean his nails.
Frodo’s voice caught a little when he said, “Bergil, he might have said much the same about Mattie if...” He couldn’t finish.
“If Sauron had taken offense earlier in our journey?” Bergil put the knife away and looked at him.
“Yes,” Frodo whispered. “Believe me, Bergil--I had no idea that the dirty little blowfly could do that.”
“When you do not know all that might result from your situation, you do well to consult with others.”
“Getting back to our Captain...”
“If you wish.” Bergil unsheathed his knife again and attended to the other hand.
“I just...I am so impressed.”
“Mm hm.” Bergil gave a critical eye to a ragged edge, and trimmed it with care.
“I think he deserves...” and then the hobbit stopped.
“I think we need to talk,” Frodo blurted, and left for the Captain’s cabin. Bergil smiled in the mist and nodded. He tossed the knife in the air, caught it, and slipped it back in its sheath.