In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 20, Part 91
Letter With Pressed Flowers
At this point in the letter the margins of the pages filled to bursting with sketches of herbs and flowers never seen by any in the Shire save for Mayor Gamgee, and he recalled only a few--dimly--none of them in bloom. Leaves and tendrils and the occasional thorn overflowed the margins and poked in among the words, which had to bend around them. Many of the blooms seemed strange and prickly--nothing you could slip into a buttonhole or a maiden's hand. Yet even Sam could see the beauty there, captured by his son's deft pen. (Indeed, Frodo's artistic ability had blossomed like the flowers themselves, nourished daily by attention and exercise.)
Still other herbs seemed so armorless and fair that Sam wondered that the Dark Lord had ever overlooked them; these were the sort Sam found, dried and delicately transparent, inserted in the letter. For Frodo did not leave everything to the imagination. Pressed flowers and petals clung between the pages, leaving traces of pigment on the paper, gold and pink and pale grey-green, with dusts of yellow pollen. And their scent lingered on as well, sweet and perfumy, or herbal and medicinal, or musky and exotic, but overall good, in their own peculiar way. Sam laid aside a flattened spray of violet bells to continue reading his son's accounts.
February 15, 1452--"Beebee took me rambling from dawn's first light until the brink of night, teaching me every herb, grass, tree, kaktush, vine, flower, shrub, and fungus that sprouts, creeps, towers, twines, or dances in the wind, by scent, by texture, by shape, by taste, and even by color as described to her by her loremistress before her. She has unlocked for me a treasure-trove of seeds, grains, beans, nuts, fruits, rinds, capsules, pods, pollens, petals, stamens, buds, pads, leaves, stalks, tendrils, spines, thorns, fibers, straws, roots, rhizomes, tubers, bulbs, nodules, saps, juices, gums, galls, pulps, and resins. I feel so crammed with herblore that my skull might as well be a salad bowl!
"In the midst of her lessons Beebee argues with herself, though sometimes she thinks that she argues with me. Now and then her voice catches when she explains her craft; I think that if she could cry, she would. One minute she makes plans for what she shall do at Seaside, all quite matter-of-factly, telling what she intends to do with certain algaes that she hopes to seek in the tidepools about the Sea of Nurnen. The next minute, if I respond just as matter-of-factly, she shrills at me for assuming that she would do any such thing, that she has no intention of ever leaving Bristlescrub and the surrounding country for as long as she lives.
"In between such altercations she asks a thousand questions about Bergil. What is he like now? Does he currently go shaven or unshaven? How is his career? How are his parents? Do the scars on his chest ever pull? Hasn't he said anything at all about a girlfriend? How she can squeeze all this in with the absolute flood of information about herbs is beyond me, but she manages.
"Those algaes, by the way, are an interesting lot. She says that they eat poison--not a surprising development in this land, but certainly useful. And digesting it, they break it down to harmless elements. I have never seen their like, and neither has she, but she has memorized everything taught by the crone before her, repeated to herself to fill up her hours in the dark.
"What I have seen, though, is the white poppy of Sauron. Finally. We came across it in full bloom, in the course of the day's rambling. It is actually quite beautiful, in a haunted sort of way, with huge gauzy petals that ripple in every breeze. Beebee says not to despise it completely--not even Sauron can make something wholly evil. With its aid they perform surgeries in these parts that we wouldn't dare attempt back home. She felt at the pips beneath the petals when we found it, but said it was too soon to cut them for their gum. I asked her if the seeds were still good for making poppyseed cakes, or if Sauron had poisoned those, too. She laughed and said yes, they made fine garnish for cakes and bread.
"Forgive me; I have not yet described Bristlescrub to you, and already it is time to leave. But, as I said yesterday, I was ill; I didn't get around town much. Not that they have much town to get around. Just a few families in mud brick huts, huddled behind a thorn fence, with a well and a goat enclosure. The goats are a sickly lot; inbred, I expect. They could use an infusion of new blood.
"They also have some fields, hidden in a box canyon that you don't see until you practically fall into it, but down there life grows green and lush, and a little stream trickles even in the winter. They don't build down there because it floods in summer, but they have planted curving rows of the toughest, meanest, thorniest shrubs you ever saw, to slow the floods and catch the fertile effluvia, and so the water trickles deep into the soil. My, but you learn a new trick every day, as you've always told me.
"I can see how Sauron would have overlooked this village completely. From a distance you don't even know that the thorn fence is anything but natural growth; in fact, in places, it consists entirely of a tall and impassible kaktush hedge. I knew it! Such a hedge works well to keep out the predators of Mordor, better than a wall that the worst of the beasts can scale. I asked Beebee about it, and she says that Kitty never took man nor goat in the streets of Bristescrub, though she's taken plenty in the field.
"If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go do something that I have not enjoyed for far too long. I am going to go out with Fishenchips, and lay on the roof of this blocklike house, and stare up at the stars."
February 16, 1452--"Last night I had one of your Mordor-dreams, Papa. That sounds strange, because here I am in Mordor as it is--you would think there would be no need. But the desert looked different; I think it was more in the worst part, around Mt. Orodruin (which in my dream still stood, and dominated the landscape as it did of old) and it seemed like nothing grew at all. Smoke blackened the sky overhead just like you'd always told us, but you didn't tell me how just a little light came through, in a dirty brown twilight all day long. Anyway, I walked with this robust hobbit of middle years; I kept thinking I had met him before somewhere, but couldn't place it. He had a round and kindly face of respectable cast, but with just a bit of the imp about it, and he looked like he'd been on the road awhile himself; he had lost all of the buttons on his weskit, for one thing. Also he wore Sting, not me.
"We ran into rough terrain, just like you've described, but I came to it in good shape and had little difficulty scrambling up and down the craters and such, though I must say it did make me puff. My companion did fine, as well. But then he stopped me and pointed, saying, "Go to them; they need you." I looked to where he pointed, and I saw you! You, Papa--young. And my namesake, too, I think--a dark-haired hobbit, maybe handsome once, now gaunt and very pale of face through all the dirt. You lay unconscious with your arms around him, protecting him, and both of you shivered in your sleep. And oh, you both looked so thin and worn, right to the verge of death! I saw the scabs upon your lips so dry I felt your thirst like my own, Papa. Well, what could I do but go over there and wrap you both in my arms? I pulled the two of you up into my lap, I rocked you like babies. My tears splashed down on you and left spots and tracks in the dirt on you. But before I woke I felt you stop shivering, and I saw you smile in your sleep.
"Well, today we hit the road. Beebee has decided to travel with us, at least to help Seaside with the planting. Whether she will actually meet with Bergil remains to be seen. So to speak. I never before pictured one of the Big Folk looking so fragile and, well, small, but she strikes me sometimes as if one rough word could crumple her. Yet I know that can't be true. She'd have to be tougher than dragon-hide to have survived everything she has and still come out on top. But she is scared, Papa, and in a funny kind of way I wouldn't have expected. I mean, all these years she assumed that Bergil had rejected her, and you'd think she'd had time to get comfortable with the idea. But the thought that it just might not be true has her all knotted up inside; the risk of suffering the same blow twice, I suppose, when she didn't know how she survived it the first time.
"Sad to say, the flowers are all dying and dropping already. It's a sorry sight that we find as we go, the withered blooms, and the bug-eaten buds that never got to bloom in the first place. Even the wild things have yielded to Sauron over time, never showing their beauty for long, going into hiding as fast as may be. Yet Beebee says that they've left the country full of seeds, lost in the sand where you can't see, waiting for another rain."
February 17, 1452--"Fishenchips speaks to me as little as possible, and looks at me not at all. I can't help but notice anymore, as time goes by. I want to talk things out with him, if that would help, but I don't know where to begin. I don't know what to do with this difference in privilege between us--I can't go back in time and give him a happy childhood!
"What makes it even harder is that Beebee is right--I'm starting to pick up random images from their minds. I think. Maybe. Mostly it's incomprehensible flashes--momentary smells, tastes, textures, sudden sounds, and from Fishenchips a glimpse of board, a flash of light on water, the curling sight of a descending whip. I think I might get visual flashes from Beebee's earlier memories, too. I distinctly remember something about plump female hands gently pulling an herb up by the roots--did she used to be plump?
"I don't like this. I find it all quite unsettling and frankly rather useless."
February 18, 1452--"Nightmares last night. In them I wandered lost down the alleys of Seaside. I suddenly saw eyes in the walls! Glazed, pinprick-pupiled eyes, or sometimes the eyes of mindless chickens. As much of a start as that gave me, I felt still more grief, even horror, to watch them, two by two, blink out or fade back into wall. Because every time they did the alleyways grew darker, and I felt more lost and more lost still, and then increasingly certain that something stalked me, perhaps a warg."
"When I woke up, Fishenchips snored nearby, and Beebee watched (in a manner of speaking) much to my surprise and consternation. She stood, her head turning slightly this way and that, listening, her nostrils flaring as she sniffed the wind, her arms spread slightly as though she might feel something in a change of wind rippling through her wide desert sleeves. When I stirred she smiled and dropped her arms. 'You are both tired still,' she told me. 'You both needed sleep.'
"And then she turned as though to face the dawn. 'Tell me of its colors,' she said. But when I started to speak she hushed me. Then I knew what she meant. I stood up on a rock so I could see out over the thorn fence that we had built for ourselves, and I stared at the dawn, and I took it in with my whole being, and I thought about it just as hard as I could, holding the magnifying lens. I made a deliberate effort to remember the Light of Valinor and how it lay behind the veils of Middle Earth and still shone somewhat in the sun. When I did that she gasped and clasped my hand, and I knew that something of what I saw could reach her.
"What am I, Papa? Who am I is not really the question--I know I make that myself, as I go along. But what? What am I becoming? What are all these forces doing to me? May's lens, and Sauron, and Gandalf, and Ulmo, and that strange, strange hobbit, and the Light of Valinor, and some nagging memory of a feast that maybe I dreamed but cannot really place, and the poisoned water of a maddened sprite, and the other power of the healing mud, and mingled rites of elf, dwarf, and ent that never mingled before, and dragon-spells, and heady evil flowers, and sacred desert smoke, and especially the land Herself, the half-crazed, suffering, lovely land. What will I become before the end?"