Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 38, Part 68
Passing Through Midnight
(January 17-18, 1452)
“This is no time to stand on ceremony,” Frodo said to himself, as he rolled up his sleeves to help clean up the galley right along with the crew, prepping the room for surgery. Two more crewmen had come forward with wounds that definitely needed stitching up, and many abrasions carried all sorts of foreign matter that demanded removal before infection set in. Sailors brought down every single lantern in the ship to provide as much light as possible--a veritable constellation of flickering yellow glows that made the shadows misty and misshapen with their clashing illumination. Cutting through the redolence of melting tallow, the smell of that acid solution used in Mordor for disinfection stung the hobbit’s nose, and it felt harsh on his scrubbing hands, but he kept at it with the best of them. His stomach growled so loudly that the men nearest to him laughed out loud.
“I guess 'tis true what they say,” one sailor remarked with a grin. “The ra...hobbit-folk feel a missed meal more keenly than annerbody--yet in a pinch they can go without longer'n you’d reckon possible. Look at ‘im, now, laborin’ away like he don’t feel it at all!”
Frodo turned and bowed, waving his scrubrag to the side like a courtier’s hat, and they all laughed harder. Then Leech burst into a series of really violent sneezes and they positively howled. But Frodo looked uneasily at Leech, who mopped at his watering eyes and scowled, lampight shimmering on his sweat. Meanwhile, another crewman seemed to have caught the cold from him already and curled up snuffling and sneezing in a corner, shivering despite the blanket that he huddled in.
When Frodo got a chance he went over and personally washed the monster-blood off Bergil, as the man sat against a bulkhead with his arm in a splint, his face as pale as wax. Though he flinched at a touch to his arm, somehow Bergil managed to laugh and say, “You have got to stop taking care of your servant, Master Frodo!”
“You have got to stop getting injured in my service, then, Captain Bergil.”
“I shall be fine, my friend--if the good doctor can refrain from sneezing while he sets my bone!”
Frodo finished up scrubbing the crew’s long table, where the operations would take place, while most of the crew now boiled rags for bandages and hung them to dry by the cook’s fire. He went to replenish his bucket from the barrels in the pantry, groping the best he could without a lamp; his elflike night-vision did not work well in the shadows of manmade confines, he discovered, though living things and whatever they touched stood out as though lit faintly from within. It took him some time and sniffing to distinguish the water-barrels from those containing oil or pickles or whatnot, as he steered clear of the occasional rat or roach that fancied itself better hid than it was. Maybe you could blame the dark, or perhaps the fact that he stood below their line of sight, but Leech and the Captain did not see Frodo back there when they slipped in for a hissing conversation, though to him they glowed.
“What do you mean, Leech? Are you trying to tell me you threw over the medical supplies, too?”
“Just the poppy gum. Even as I said.” Leech tried to muffle a truly explosive sneeze in his handkerchief, with little success.
“I never meant that when I gave the order! You had all that under lock and key--you could’ve kept it from poor Flint. Where the devil was your freakin’ common sense?”
The doctor pulled himself up straight with all the dignity he could muster, there in the dark. “I expressed more sense in that one move than I have in two years, Captain Watersheen. Nothing is as simple as it appears.”
Sometimes wearing the Lens of May gave Frodo insight when he least wanted to have it. He watched the handkerchief shiver from the shaking of the hand that held it. Before he could stop himself, Frodo blurted, “You do not have a cold.”
The Captain started, but Leech broke into a skullish grin, though his eyes swam with desperation. “No. I do not--yet it is all right, my little friend. Your...situation...has given me the impetus to do what has needed done for too long a time. Yes, I am the second one--the one the Captain did not know about.”
Frodo breathed, “I am so sorry!” even as the Captain growled, “Leech...” his eyes wide and white.
Leech tried to shrug, but it came out a stiff-muscled twitch. “A hazard of my trade, I fear. I devote myself to relieving the pain of others, and sometimes...well, there’s no making excuses anymore, now, is there?” Almost inaudibly, then, his gaze focused inwards, he murmured, “And what a relief, now, to run out of excuses at last!” Shakily he turned to the Captain, though he tried to look nonchalant. “I managed it all rather cleverly, you see. I only used the gum at night, when no one would get a clear look at my eyes. I told myself that I only did it to sleep, of course, to make sure that the ship had a well-rested healer come morning. And I told myself that by abstaining by daylight I proved it had no hold on me. But yes...every night. I used it every single night. For the past two years, now.”
The Captain clasped his healer’s shoulder in a beefy hand. “Leech, you...curse it all, Leech!” He shook him hard. “You shoulda told me. I’d of...I dunno...given you time off or sumpin’, whatever you needed, and hang the cost! Leech...you...I owe you, man! I’d of helped you somehow.”
Leech’s smile trembled. “Do you have any idea,” he asked, “how hard it was, day after day, to hold myself back through all the hours of the sun?” Tears ran down the doctor’s face, and Frodo never felt such vivid hatred before in his life as he felt right then for Sauron. “But you needed your Leech to do his job. You gave me a reason, Watersheen, do you know that? You kept me partially alive.”
Frodo tried to remember everything that the Lady Eowyn had said about withdrawal from poppy-gum. He reached out to the twitching hand. “Are you frightened?” he asked.
“Terribly,” said Leech, still grinning like a curse would not let his face relax. “But we have more pressing problems at the moment. There are bones to set, and surgeries to perform--but my patients have no comfort for their pain. And I...” He tried to laugh, but his voice cracked when he said, “I fear my hands have begun to shake a bit sooner than I expected.”
Then it seemed to Frodo as though someone else stepped forward, and he watched from some other place, astonished, as words fell from his lips. “I know an Elvish song that might help a little.”
Leech’s smile dropped at last. He stared at Frodo for one burning moment, then grabbed his arm--hard. “Come with me, then” the healer said, “before the shaking worsens.” Leech dragged the hobbit back to the makeshift infirmary, while fear rose greater in Frodo than any he’d felt in battle. He couldn’t remember more than three notes of that confounded song which Legolas had sung over him, months ago--and he had no elvish voice! What on earth possessed him to blurt out anything so rash? Not even Legolas could make the song work steadily!
“The amputation must come first,” Leech said, feverishly sterilizing his instruments in a candleflame. “Somebody please give the patient as much grog as he can hold, for I fear we have...run out of anything stronger.” He tied his handkerchief around his lower face to stop the sneezing from interfering as much as possible. “You may start singing anytime, Mister Gardner. The sooner we can relax the patient, the better.”
The man who had bourne Frodo throughout the fight gulped at the Burning Drink with wincing swallows, which appeared to do nothing for him but make him look more haggard and forlorn by the minute. He stared at Frodo over the rim of his cup with an intensity bordering on obsession.
At first Frodo stared back; till now he had hardly noticed anything of the man beyond his ripped-up arm and the back of his head. But underneath that shock of dark hair the sailor had a blunt, knobby sort of face that reminded Frodo of some of his uncles, only bigger and coarser, and gray eyes hinting of a Numenorean ancestor, now wide and wild and increasingly bloodshot.
Soon Frodo couldn’t bear it anymore; he averted his gaze. He opened his mouth and closed it again, unable to squeeze the merest squeak from his throat. “Focus!” he told himself. “You should at least recall a single melodic phrase--perhaps you can repeat that. It might do some little good.” Then it hit him. “Focus--that’s it!” With more hope than faith, he drew out May’s magnifying glass from within his shirt and clasped it tightly between his hands. “It is my wish,” he whispered, “to magnify my memory of the sleep-song, down to the tiniest detail.” He closed his eyes, waiting with all the desperation in him for the first little strand of melody to unfurl within his mind. And then he sang.
Note by note and word by word the tune welled up from him, though he understood less than half of the Sindarin. As in a dream, his memory supplied him with each part of the song, down to the subtlest trill or warble, right before he needed it, in perfect accuracy. And yes, Frodo was no elf, though he had a pleasant enough voice for a hobbit--yet some in the room actually did fall asleep, worn out by their injuries and the aftermath of fear, and all there present felt a breath of peace, a softness settling on them, quieting the horror and comforting the pain. Captain Watersheen kept blinking and shaking his head, there where he held his axe head-down in a boiling pot. But the doctor showed the most striking difference of all. His sneezing subsided and his hand steadied and he stood up straighter.
“I think we can safely manage a skin-flap procedure here, rather than a straight cut,” he said confidently, picking up his knife. “The patient should heal faster that way.” But the sailor screamed when he began to slice the skin.
His voice shaking slightly, Leech asked, “Please continue singing, Mister Gardner.” The hobbit gaped in horror, but then he gulped and resumed. “There--much better.” The healer sounded strong again. Frodo closed his eyes, not wanting to see the blood, not wanting to even think of what the inside of an arm must look like. He forced himself to sing full-voice, as close as he could manage to what an elf might do. The patient moaned and whimpered fit to break the hobbit’s heart, but softly, and he did not scream again. Frodo hoped to heaven that this meant that the song at least eased some of the pain.
Frodo lost himself in the music and time ceased to mean anything; he seemed to have fallen asleep on his feet, himself, and he sang in that sleep with a somnolist’s abandon. The rolling of the deck soon merged with the waves of a great ocean of music, carrying him along, sustaining him effortlessly. Then Leech said, “That will be sufficient skin, I believe. You may cleave the limb, now, Captain--three quarters up the forearm, if you will,” and the sound of the THUNK! made Frodo jump awake, though he hardly missed a beat, not though the patient howled like sound alone could burst the ship apart. “Hand me the sutures, please...
And Frodo kept on singing. He did his best to drown himself again in the flood of music, to hear nothing else, not to falter even when the healer said, “Let me see your arm, Mister Bergil.” He sang through the care and treatment of every single patient on board that ship, right down to the final stitch in the final wound. Then, when Captain Watersheen shook him gently by the arm and said, “It’s over, Hobbit. You can stop, now,” he fell into a deep swoon, and didn’t wake till much later, with a blazingly raw throat, in his own hammock, grateful that someone had hung the waterskin nearby.
“I have got to start putting myself to bed,” he sighed.