In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 5, Part 76
Chickens and Other Living Things
(January 20, 1452)
When Frodo reached the ground floor he found Fishenchips stacking dishes on shelves by the hearth, managing surprisingly well by carrying them nestled in the crook of his stump--unexpectedly handsome pottery of the local ruddy clay, painted with designs of fruit and vegetables and grain, all the good things that the makers hoped the hobbit would bring to them. Frodo looked about him and saw that his servants had more than half furnished the round stone room before he rose; already it felt less cold, almost homely, in fact (though Frodo saw that he'd have to polish out some scratches in the floor and stairs where Bergil had dragged down a table one-armed.) His eyes watered to see that Bergil had cut down the chill of the place somewhat by hanging Billie-Lass's old blanket on the wall, washed clean of her horsey scent, with the green and yellow zigzag stripes that his sister Rosie had woven into the russet cloth.
Leech rested nearby on a stone bench built into the wall, softened with more folded blankets into a sort of couch. No more twitches or tensions of the muscles troubled him; he just looked utterly spent. Even so, the healer lit up at Frodo's approach, and beckoned the hobbit over to sit with him, while Bergil prepared some eggs for Frodo's brunch.
"You look dreadful!" Frodo blurted before he could stop himself.
"So do you," the doctor said genially. "Would you care to talk about it?" He made room on the bench beside him and Frodo sat down. "As for myself, the worst has passed." With a lopsided smile he added, "I no longer see vermin crawling in every shadow, for one thing. And how are you doing?"
Instead of answering, Frodo accepted a plate from Bergil and asked, "Where do these eggs comes from, anyway?"
Leech answered, "Seaside does have a henhouse--a pretty big one, in fact. You will inspect it after you eat--if you feel up to it, that is."
"They taste flat."
Leech smiled almost shyly. "They do to me, too. But no doubt this will pass for you as much as it will for me."
"No. There is definitely something wrong with the eggs." He put the plate aside. "I cannot eat them." Fishenchip's eyes lit up, so Frodo handed the food over. "Go ahead, if you want."
"They're as good as any I've ever tasted," the sailor said with his mouth full.
Abruptly Frodo stared straight into the healer's eyes and said, "What is there to talk about? You know my problem. It's Sauron--and he won't go away. Many madmen hear voices in their heads that give them no rest, but mine is for real." Suddenly he cried, "He's the friggin' Dark Lord for Eru's sake!" He'd never used such language before in his life and now he didn't care.
A shocked silence followed. Then, to everyone's surprise, Fishenchips went and stood before Frodo. "Okay, so you gots nothin' to talk about. Can I say summat?"
Frodo stared up at that pale, pale face with the burning eyes. "Uh, sure, Fishenchips."
"We all gots things to deal with, things we canna change." He waved his stump under Frodo's nose--freshly rebandaged, but still raw. "I ain't gonna grow me a new hand anytime soon. You think I'm used to that yet? You think I can ever get one hunnerd percent used to that? I can still feel it! Yeah--that's a fact. I can feel every rip in every finger, an' the deep gash that split m'palm in two, and the chomped-on bones, and the tooth marks all up and down the wrist, just like I pulled it fresh from the monster's jaws."
Frodo stared at him, aghast. Bergil bit his lip and looked away, and Leech seemed wearier than ever, but both had heard such things before. Not so the young hobbit.
"But I gots ta go on," said Fishenchips in a calmer voice, though earnest still. "And Master Frodo, so do you." He squatted down to look Frodo in the eye. "Now, ever since the Liberation I heard tales o' yer father's deeds, and those o' the fella he named ya for. They had kind o' the same problem, didn't they? With the ring an' all? Just exackly whose voice spoke to them out o' that ring? Even apart from its owner as it was. But those two carried on--and so do we all, to this day. Strong or weak, Sauron's the same now as he ever was back then--always tryin' to win, by foul means or fouler, if not through what he can do then through what he left behind. If ya let him break ye, then what did yer Dad do it all fer, anyway? If all the rest o' the world gave up, Frodo, Sam Gardner'd want you at least to carry on! I remember what Dads are like!"
Frodo stared at Fishenchips like the man had stabbed him. Abruptly he rose to his feet and reached for his cloak. "Come on...I have a henhouse to inspect."
Leech said, "Frodo, you have survived an accumulation of shocks; you don't need any more for a little while--give yourself a chance to heal." He caught the hobbit by the cloak's hem. "Go easy on yourself, my friend--at least for today."
"But not too easy," Bergil amended as he pulled his own cloak on over his sling. "I have come to know you, Frodo. You cope the best when you have work to do." He struggled to fasten the brooch one-handed, holding the collar in his teeth. When he spat the wool out he said with a smile, "Fortunately we have no shocks on today's itinerary--if the good Leech prescribes boredom, then you should feel on top of the world in no time."
Frodo gave him an ironic grin of his own and said, "Thank you ever so much."
Leech looked at Bergil for one moment, then thought better of what he wanted to say, and instead curled up on the bench, resting his head on a cushion that Fishenchips hastened to bring him. The healer said, "I will be here when you return, Frodo. I feel no inclination to go anywhere else just yet." Fishenchips spread a blanket over Leech, as Bergil threw more wood upon the fire. Leech smiled up at the maimed sailor. "And you should lie down, too, Fishenchips, old friend--Numenorean or no, you should not have even gotten out of bed."
"I just wants to put the place in some order, 'sall."
With a wink at the ranger, Leech said, "Well, if Mister Bergil prescribes work for his master, I see no harm in Frodo moving a few chairs about for himself. You, on the other hand, need rest."
Frodo found his gloves and said, "I am well, you know. Perfectly well. You needn't trouble over me, Leech, but stay if you like."
At the door Fishenchips handed Frodo a woolen scarf. "'Tis wicked cold out, sir." He glanced down and added, "Y'sure ye won't do summat fer yer feet?"
"I am well-equipped to walk the winter unshod, but thank you anyway." He thought of that steam-enshrouded glimpse of Mattie's feet, with the fur worn thin from years of wearing boots, and he shuddered. But when he stepped out on the crackling surface just outside the door, it felt nearly as painful as the chill of his latest dream. Snow powdered the ground, shimmering white on dark, while swirls and laces of ice covered everything he saw, dripping in needle-fine icicles from eaves and clotheslines and the tree beside the door, sparkling in the sun.
"'Tis the mist from off the Sea of Nurnen," Bergil said, his words making visible puffs upon the air. "On winter nights it drifts ashore and freezes here. But this looks thick enough to last the whole day long."
Frodo stared at the tree beside the door, icicles adorning the twigs like harsh jewelry, snow caught in the bark in almost guessed-at patterns like a gown of silver-white brocade. "I don't remember there being any tree here yesterday afternoon."
Gently Bergil said, "You were in no condition to notice much of anything by the time we arrived. But it looks familiar enough to me."
"Yes--that bifurcation of the lower trunk. I know that I have seen it before. Just not here, it seems." He puzzled for a moment; then, at Bergil's look he made himself laugh and say, "What a foolish notion, that!"
Standing in the doorway, Fishenchips sized up the tree. "I don't recall it neither, but I warn't payin' much attention. Still, it looks dead enough to make good firewood, at least."
"No!" Frodo surprised himself as much as his servants by his shout. "I mean...that is to say, I think it is still alive. I can feel it. A nut-tree, by the look of it; I'd almost swear a hazel, if not for the size."
Bergil eyed it dubiously. "A giant among hazels, if so. But who knows what experiments Sauron might have conducted on trees?"
"I don't think Sauron had anything to do with this tree thriving so," said Frodo, placing a hand upon the trunk and finding it almost warm. "It might not be what it appears, but perhaps closely related enough to bear nuts. We don't want to kill a source of food."
"Good point," Fishenchips said. "Still, we were lucky enough to rate a log last night, but it's bundled sticks from here on out. Maybe a few branches..."
"Wrong time of year to prune," Frodo put in hastily. "Just, just leave the tree to me--I'm the gardener, remember?"
"Okay, Guv," Fishenchips said, a little puzzled, and went back in.
The mayor's hut and its courtyard, it turned out, stood practically next door, and so Mayor Aloe sashayed out to meet them the minute she heard them emerge, her shawl and petticoats fluttering about her, waving one skinny arm to summon them and then immediately turning about and striding off, not looking back to see if they followed. Frodo scrambled to catch up.
"Long abed, eh, my sweet? But then ye had quite a journey, dincha? Poor wee pet! No harm in oversleeping one day, chickie, so long's ye don't make a habit of it--'tis unseemly in a farmer."
"I know," Frodo answered. "It won't happen again. I like the dawn." He sniffed the air. "But what's that sm..." and then he knew. He had grown up around chickens, but he had never smelled their manure in such burning concentration before, so that he could hardly stand to breathe.
Aloe brought him to a long, low building. "Here we are, pet." He thought the smell could grow no worse. She threw the door open and it did. Chicken after chicken after chicken crammed in wing to wing, trapped in the stench without hope, sitting in rows of wire baskets, over piles of filth so thick that they ran together in ranges of peaks and he could not discern the nature of the floor. On seeing where he stared, Aloe said drily, "'Tis more efficient this way--so long as we give 'em the stay-well stuff they don't need clean quarters. But we're runnin' low."
Frodo stared, appalled, at all those bleary eyes and drooping heads, remembering the lively hens he'd rounded up with his sister May mere months ago. Here he'd find no expression of the emotive chicken nature that had so amused him back at home--what could be the use of expressing anything in such confines? Then he noticed something that he simply couldn't take in before, something so horrible that...
"You've cut off their beaks!"
"Of course--don't ye do likewise? They'd peck each other to death if we didn't."
"Not if they had enough space--why aren't they distributed throughout the community?"
"That wouldn't be efficient, pet."
"I have had it up to here with Sauron's ideas of efficiency!" He darted in, holding his breath, his bare feet skidding on the slime, and he grabbed the nearest chicken from her basket. He brought her outside, but as soon as he set her down the bird fell over on her side, unable to stand, making a weak imitation of a squawk. Frodo could not look away from her lifeless eyes in her mutilated face, as she flapped a little and made feeble leg-scrabbles that achieved nothing except to smear the snow-dusted dirt. He could feel the wideness of his own eyes and the mouth that gaped in one great O but could not scream, could not do anything. Frodo kept trying and trying and trying, but this time he could not wake up...
He saw Bergil's shadow join his but he could not respond. The man laid a hand on the hobbit's shoulder and said, "It seems that the whole nation of Mordor lies in that state." Frodo found that he could at last look away from the chicken, up into the face of his friend. "Much work needs done."
Frodo closed his mouth, swallowed and nodded. He took a deep breath, coughed on the henhouse fume, and stood up straighter. "Mayor Aloe," he said hoarsely but with gathering strength, "I will need you to implement certain changes for me."
"Indeed, chickie? And what might they be?"
"First, you will select the most patient and reliable families in the community and, once properly prepared, you will distribute to them about a half dozen chickens each. You will provide them with the corresponding percentage of the feed allotted for that number of birds. We shall have a meeting as soon as you have made your selections, and I will train them in the art of poultry-raising--I shall hold classes every day. Then, when I have them trained, you can entrust them with the hens."
Frodo turned to face the henhouse. "Next, you will find able-bodied men to gather all the manure in this coop, plus whatever the goats provide, and pile it into one big heap on the edge of the fields, in layers alternating with straw, old dead leaves, and scrap-paper. You will recruit women and children to gather up the bones and any cooking refuse from the streets--old peels, stalks, any inedible parts of vegetables, and bring them to the heap, plus whatever rags you find unfit to wear. Arm your strongest men of all with sledgehammers or what have you, and have them pound the bones into dust. Or find another way to grind the bones, if you have it--Sauron must have left behind any number of machines. Crush eggshells, too. Mix this dust in with the layers of the midden-heap, along with the chopped-up garbage and the shredded rags. Bring any cracked, unuseable leather, too--cut it into bits about an inch big each way. Find some task for every adult, even the ones too weak to do aught else but sift bone bits."
Aloe pressed a hand to her breast and rolled her eyes. "Coo, next he'll be callin' himself mayor! What makes you think I can make an entire village drop what they're doing to serve at your bidding, O Lord High Royal Gardner?" And she mocked him with a curtsey.
"The fact that you can do whatever you need to survive. And the fact that people only follow someone who can help them all survive, too. And the fact that you're still mayor, Lady Aloe."
She brayed with laughter. "Mayor I am--you got that right, chickie! But a lady? Never!" She whacked him between the shoulderblades so hard he choked. "We'll do it! Anything else?"
"Lots and lots--but first things first. This beginning will take everyone we can muster. As for dropping what they're doing..." He turned pointedly towards a couple men across the street kneeling in the dirt, who had just burst into a shouting-match over a throw of the dice. Then Frodo looked back at the mayor with one raised brow.
"I'll need to hold some off to see to the wee ones, if ye don't mind, chickie," Aloe said drily. "And to cook and suchlike."
"Oh. Of course. You know best."
With an acid voice and a wink to soften it, Aloe said, "That's what mayors do, chickie--we see the big picture. But doncha worry--I'll flog enough to do yer biddin', as many as can drag 'emselves from bed i' the morning."
"But not for me," Frodo protested. "Not for you, not for flogging like they still had orcs over them--for themselves. It has to be for themselves, and for feeding their families, or they won't put their heart into it. Can you make that clear to them?"
"That's another thing a mayor's for, chickie."
"I know," he said with a little acid of his own. "I am the son of a mayor."
"That's right, ain't it?" She planted one fist on her hip and squinted at him, pretending to study him. "'Ere I was just seein' ya as the son o' some hero who pops in and out of a tale and goes away, leavin' others to clean up the mess after his 'Victory'."
Frodo stared at her, mortified. "Would you rather he hadn't?"
She laughed. "By Sauron's ruddy eyeball, no! But we did seem to get the short end of the stick hereabouts, no matter who won."
Frodo felt very young and quite overmatched, but he drew himself up as tall as he could and stared up at the woman twice his height. "My father did win the victory, and he did not abandon you afterwards--he trained and sent his eldest son to 'clean up the mess'. I am sorry that it took so long, but I could not grow up in a day." And before she could retort he spun on his heel and walked away as fast as he could.
For once it was Bergil who had to hurry to catch up with him. The ranger barely restrained his laughter and it soon burst out of him the minute they'd gone past the Mayor's earshot. "Did you see the look on her face? She is a hard one to fence with, but you held your own, Frodo!"
Frodo found himself smiling, too. All those incredibly tedious town hall meetings that his father dragged him to had finally begun to pay off.
"By the way, Bergil," he said as they walked. "You never saw a Mordor henhouse up close before, either, did you?"
Bergil threw up his hand in surrender. "I concede as much. I never had the occasion."
"I get the impression that Leech has."
"So that is what he tried to warn me about. I will admit that I agree with you on one thing--compared to omelettes in Ithilien, eggs from Mordor do taste fl..." Abruptly Bergil halted. Frodo looked where he glared. At first Frodo could see nothing that would make the ranger scowl and turn white, but then he looked over the rooftops to the bluff beyond the village. A four-legged creature moved with the oily grace of a cat, but if the intervening buildings gave any clue to scale, it had to be enormous! Frodo had never seen a wild thing so beautiful, swirled and spotted in gold and black and shades of russet, moving like some deadly dream. As if sensing their regard, the animal turned towards them and sat, regarding them from a distance with unnatural intelligence. Frodo stood spellbound.
Quietly Bergil said, "Hello, Kitty." Then he wrenched his gaze away and strode on in a sort of simmer, his free hand clenched in a fist. As soon as Bergil moved Frodo felt the spell break and he hastened after. They spoke no word for the remainder of their journey.
When they reached their tower-home, Bergil went on in ahead of him, as Frodo paused before the tree, regarding it. Then Leech's voice called out, "Master Gardner--will you please order Fishenchips to rest? He has already fainted once today!" So Frodo went on in. Time passed. Messengers came and went. Packages arrived with the household's rations till the next ship came. Branches spread so slowly that quick-eyed mortals couldn't catch it. Frodo emerged once more, escorting Leech back to the ship, assuring the healer that he felt much, much better, and thanks for all the kind words and sage advice. Twigs crept over the walls, by fractions of an inch, by sways of wind, by unseen growth. Frodo returned, and soon cooking smells wafted through the window-slits, each westward one now framed by branches and twigs a-trembling...