I Will Not Say the Day is Done
Nor Bid the Stars Farewell
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 20, Part 117
Vigil With Invalids
March 5, 1452--"Forgive me if I ramble on a bit. I mean more than usual. Time drags, Papa, when you have little to do but watch over a couple of invalids. Yet I don't dare turn my back on them to tend the fields. Leech is so very, very sick. And Mattie, well, I don't dare turn my back on her, either.
"I don't even know if these pages will reach you. I just have to assume that if Mattie gives up the poppy gum she will become a different person, stop interfering with the mail, and respect the boundaries that she hasn't observed for years. People do change a lot, Eowyn said, when they break free. But not always. It might turn out that Mattie has forgotten any reason to observe the decencies that Shirefolk--and Breefolk--take for granted.
"And maybe she won't break free at all. She has made promises before. Most people don't come back from Sauron's slavery, actually. I keep hoping that her hobbit nature will give her more strength than most, enough to make the difference. Bilbo Baggins did escape the Ring of Power, after all, when nobody else ever did before, and Sauron put the same kind of enchantment of seduction into both his ring and his white poppies. But Bilbo had Gandalf in all his wizardly might to help him. My namesake, in the end, did not. You and I both know that Frodo Sr. had an ordinary hobbit doing the best he knew how to help him resist--someone remarkably like myself--but the best wasn't quite enough, was it, Papa? And if you failed, how can I succeed?
"Never mind that; I'm just in a bleak mood. That goes with the territory around here, I guess. But life goes on, and the jar-sprouts in the kitchen look ready to eat. I have another jar beside the first, where the sprouts still look quite pale and thin, but will soon spring into full life and take the place of their green and crunchy brethren in our salads. And beside them another jar holds wet seeds just beginning to poke out little roots like they all stick their bitty tongues out at me. I'm glad you taught me all about the Fell Winter and how folks survived that time, because the knowledge sure stands me in good stead now! But I have learned that you have to soak the seeds more often here than they did back home; the air's that dry.
"Anyway, we mainly dine on goat cheese and sprouts these days. Sometimes I grind up sprouted grain into a sort of rich flour and bake bread. The chickens don't lay much anymore, away from the ever-lit lanterns of their old coop, but what they do lay tastes better, and I imagine they'll pick up on production when we reach true spring--very soon.
"All in all, we're doing better than we were. I think we will have food of one sort or another right up to the day that the next ship arrives. That amazes everybody--and we haven't even harvested our first field-crop yet! Not that we've grown rich just yet. I have lost so much weight that Sting's belt wraps half again around me when I put it on. But we've made a good start.
"Anyway, I'd better look in on Leech. Fishenchips has just finished fashioning a strange sort of bed for him, taking two planks of driftwood and suspending them from the roof, then stretching sail-canvas taut between them to form a kind of extra-wide hammock. The poor man tossed so much that he kept falling off the cot we provided. I can hear the beams and ropes creak and groan with his restlessness, but they will hold, stout tower-beams like that. It sounds mighty like a ship, though; I wonder if that brings him peace?"
Later, in a wearier hand, the letter read, "Leech is much the same. Sometimes he knows us, sometimes he does not. Fishenchips will not leave his side, sponging his brow, changing his sweat-through sheets, bringing him water or the chamberpot at need. Leech cannot eat anything so harsh as sprouts, though I have gotten him to sip a tea I made from them. I also got him to eat a little curd. I just got back from Hando's with a poor-laying chicken allowed me for the special need. Mama always said that chicken-broth can do a hobbit wonders in a good cook's hands, and I imagine men are much the same.
"Mattie has offered to help--if we would allow her but a little smoke to make her useful, just for now, she said, just till Leech recovers. She claimed that I have enough on my hands with one invalid without taking on two. But Leech chose that moment to become lucid and explain almost too objectively how it is nearly as easy to care for two patients as for one if they conveniently sicken at the same time. So she ran upstairs in tears and then commenced to cleaning everything in sight. The last I heard she shouted down the stairs, "Men! They couldn't clean up after themselves if you tied a mop to either foot and a feather duster to each hand, and sewed sponges to the seats of their pants for good measure!" So that at least came out healthier than what she cried before, when I marveled at how much energy she had. I will not print here the sort of words she used, but the gist carried all kinds of fear.
"Leech explained it to me. The poppy gum no longer damps her energy back, but the abstinence-sickness hasn't yet hit her full-on. As a matter of fact, he says that the abstinence-sickness is nothing more than suppressed energy gone haywire. The body gets used to compensating for drowsiness all the time; take that suddenly away and the body winds itself up tighter and tighter, till bursts of energy turn into trembling, then cramping, then bone-wrenching fits. And all the unwept tears overflow, and the nose and all the innards overexert themselves as well. He called it a sickness of violently returning life! I never realized that.
"But now Leech has lapsed back into delirium. Sometimes he addresses me as though I were a dragon, or Fishenchips as though he were Captain Watersheen. Sometimes he tries to get up out of bed to tend wounded men that he insists lie everywhere. Now and then he raves about vermin, or describes his own symptoms as though they belong to someone else and advises us to bury
"that man." Most of the time, though, he just rolls on the canvas, eyelids fluttering but not quite open, mumbling things incomprehensible to me.
"And here I sit, upon the stairs where I can look down on Leech below me, and listen to Mattie up above me slap a mop around like she'd punish the floor for how she feels. And once again I find myself pulling that cursed little tin out of my pocket, to stare at that stag's head with the snifter between the antlers. How did it come to this? Does Uncle Merry think that he markets medicine, some herbal simple? It does sound innocent, does it not, an extract of a flower that calms a troubled heart, as though we speak of chamomile tea. And Eowyn says that surgeons in the eastern wars have found it indispensable for saving the lives of those under the knife. Oh, brave little flower! Does Merry know, does he have any idea, what poppy-gum really is?
"Mattie just came down and sat with me a spell. I think the tin drew her, like Gollum to his Precious, but no, she insists that's all behind her, she came down to apologize for even asking for a smoke. She has worked out her fury, she has regained her resolve, she's just scared, that's all. I could feel her shivering beside me, pressed up close in the stairwell. I could feel the dampness steaming off of her. But she merely sneezes and sniffles, nothing worse so far. She claims it's only fear that makes her tremble so, and then she scoffs at the word "only." She had forgotten, she says, what a terrible thing fear can be.
"She did stare at the tin in my hand as though she would snatch it. But she did not. Instead she said that she used to do the same thing that I do now. For months. After she bought her very first tin. She would take it out of her pocket and contemplate it, telling herself all the reasons why she shouldn't. And then she'd put it back in her pocket again and go on the next leg of her run--that horrible Poros Pass run where fear rode with her till she thought the silence would smother her alive. One day it got to be too much, when she carried the solution in her pocket all along; she remembered the merchant telling her that one little gummy black pill in her pipe could vanquish her fear for good, and she thought, 'Why do I torture myself for nothing?'
"She sighed when she told me that, resting her head against my shoulder. Then she went on to say, "The other powers I discovered later, on my own." One late afternoon running precariously close to night, with noplace safe to stop that she could see, strumming her harp on Stumblehoof's back just to put some courage into her, she tried a bit more gum in the pipe than she had dared before. She held the pipe in her mouth, the bowl braced on her harp, and she just kept right on strumming; that's when it happened. She felt a darker song uncoil in her breast. She finished that pipe and then let the song waft from her mouth like smoke. She saw the tormented spirits all around her, saw them and felt no fright. She watched them part before her. She saw a path open up that led to shelter and safety, even comfort. Never had she felt more powerful!
"All of this Mattie told me, and then she looked at me, then at the tin, then at me. 'I used to sit like you do now,' she repeated, 'just staring at it, not yet daring.' And she left."
Dark lines framed the next part of the letter. "Papa, you told me to tell you whenever I felt tempted by anything dreadful. Well yes, Mattie is right. I do feel tempted. And yes, it does help to tell you so, even though I doubt you will ever read these words. Because when I tell you I also tell myself, and it's easier to fight an enemy I know than one that I pretend does not exist. Didn't you tell me something like that, yourself?
"But do you know what helps the most? Remembering May. Remembering my beautiful little sister May, and how readily Mattie would have destroyed her, destroyed a child utterly, in vengeance if I should tell the King anything that menaced her access to her gum. Any enchantment, no matter how enthralling, that could make a person threaten such a thing has no place in my life."
March 6, 1452--"Maybe I'm fooling myself, but it seems to me that Leech stays lucid longer now. He has taught Fishenchips a thing or two about patient care, so I'll head off this morning to the fields. I want that soil soft and crumbly for the tender sprouts, but these heavy-handed Nurnings have probably hoed through half the crop by now without me there. Mattie has gone fiercely sick by now, but Fishenchips treats her as tenderly as he would his own sister, if he had one."
Again, a weary hand wrote further down the page, "I should never have left. Leech and Mattie are both worse. Everybody did just fine in the field--I should have found my work here. Remember what you said about following your heart over your head? I should have listened. But to be honest, I can see no fault in Fish's care.
"Mattie will get better, though right now her misery just goes on and on without a break. But Leech! Maybe we will just have to lose Leech all over again. I see nothing fair about it, a great big pit of unfairness that I stare down and fear I must drop into, but that's just the way life goes sometimes--especially here. I feel so downhearted that if he died right this minute it wouldn't hardly register, because I feel like I've already gone as low as I can go."
Then a still wearier hand, almost illegible and slanting downward, went on to say, "Never mind what I last wrote. I have found a lower level. Mayor Aloe came by to check in on Leech, since news of his return has swept the village. She stared at him as he is now, sunk so deep in his illness that we can hardly give him water anymore, and then said 'twas a pity, because she wanted to consult him on yet another murder.
"Mattie heard the whole thing, on a cot in the downstairs room where Fishenchips could take care of both. As soon as Aloe left she wrenched herself up to her feet and stared at me, her eyes wild and red and her curls all dripping sweat, and let out the vilest stream of cussing you ever did hear, like I'd want to ream out my ears clear down to my heart to come clean of them. Somewhere in all that she declared that she'd reached the last straw, she knew now for a fact that she didn't commit those murders. And so she stumbled out the door, late though the hour, and didn't come back until well after dark, after I'd worried myself half dead for her and Leech both, came back reeling drunk on smoke and smiling like she'd expected to see me pleased. I turned my back. I couldn't stand the sight of her. I didn't turn around till I heard her uneven steps spiral all the way up the stairs and her door closing.
"Leech chose that moment to come lucid, perhaps for the last time. He opened his eyes, and took my hand, and told me to let go. That's all anybody ever tells me, is to let go! Like I should find it easy or something. Could you ever let go of Mama? Could the King let go of his Evenstar even if she labored under such a dismal spell?
"I darn near broke down in tears when I demanded what I should do, what I did wrong, why couldn't I ever break her free? He smiled, weak though he was, but in a sad way, and he told me that every single time she's tried she's tried for me. She hasn't once tried for herself. It's always been my idea. 'How can she learn the strength to fight the poppy gum,' he asked me, 'except from the strength of following her own counsel?' Mattie can't get well until she wants it on her own. I didn't do anything wrong, but I can't do anything right--I can't do, period. It's all got to be her.
"Which means it will never happen. Why should she change? She doesn't feel any of the bad stuff that poppy-gum causes in her life. She feels powerful, she feels blissful, she feels no fear. She can't worry about what it's doing to her because it takes all worry away--without good reason.
"At least I now know that she commit no murder. So where does that leave me? Back to the prime suspect, I'm afraid. Tonight I will ask Fishenchips to tie me to the cot, and untie me in the morning. This awful day has turned into a terrible night indeed."
March 7, 1452--"I didn't go out to work today. Fishenchips has asked for help, unlike him though that is, and boy does he look like he could use it. He stayed up all night with Leech last night. Apparently Leech's eyes rolled back in his head and he started to seize up or something--Fish thought sure he would die then and there. It passed, but Leech has grown so weak that he can no longer lift a hand to guide a cup to his lips. Fish needs sleep. Yet he awakes now and then from his makeshift bed on the bench to insist on caring for Leech some more.
"Mattie does well as a nurse to spell me, taking on even the most difficult or disturbing tasks (and some have alarmed me indeed--there has been blood, Papa, as though Leech falls apart inside) but why should I acclaim her for it? Nothing disturbs her. I heard her humming to herself as she washed the canvas while Fish held Leech in his arms, fighting the sobs that welled up so that his chest shook with the effort. To her, no doubt, Leech's death will be the subject for yet another sad song.
"Now I take my turn to sit beside this healer whom we cannot seem to heal. He sleeps quietly at the moment, almost serene if you discount his ghastly color. I heard him whisper, "Hullo, Watersheen," and I saw him smile. He might well die in such peace that I could live with it. I can hardly hope for anything else, at this point.
"To distract myself, between bouts of writing this letter, I contemplate this tile that I picked up from that strange mud pool near the Poros Pass. A long time has passed since I looked at it. Exhaustion must have struck me feeble-minded, for I have no difficulty translating the strange word now. 'Atelanedhel', it says--lost elf. I suppose there's a story behind it. And like most stories in Mordor, I expect it would have to be a sad one.
"I cannot help but wonder if that healing mud would bring Leech back, if only we could get him there. But even if we had a ship it would take too long, on too hard a journey. He would not survive the attempt.
"I know it would do Mattie no good. I remember the hobbit-sized boot-prints that preceded my arrival. It says something that she still sought healing when she feels no pain. But it doesn't say enough, by half."
In a slightly refreshed hand the letter continued, "I have just had another visit from Mayor Aloe plus one very surly man. Our latest ship has arrived a day early, it seems, full of sailors spoiling for a fight. Everybody back at Riverborn figured that something must have happened to Watersheen for him not to show up on schedule--Aloe had her hands full convincing them that we Seasiders had nothing to do with it; she finally had to escort their captain here to witness Leech in the throes of sea-poisoning--they all know what that's like, so now the captain believes her that the ship went down. The man tore off raving about how he wants to go dragon-hunting, but Aloe showed me one of her sour smiles behind his back--it won't happen. For one thing, no one has sighted the dragon lately, anyway--well-filled with men, no doubt, and drowsing in the depths.
"Aloe says to expect a more generous ration than usual. Because of the coin I have spent here, many have sent away for purchases and do not want so much of the King's leavings. I will admit that I'll find it hard to return to such food, myself, after eating the gifts of elves and dwarves, but at least I now have seasonings enough to make anything palatable. For that matter, I admit that I have sent for a few dainties on my own account, such as spicy pickled carrots. Not bank-breakers, mind you, just little comforts.
"There--that series of thumps on the porch must be our portion arriving. It was nice of Aloe to send it over to us. And we have some chicken left to cook with it, since Leech could not eat the meat, only the broth. We shall eat well tonight. Those of us who can eat.
"And now Mattie has departed. She said that she had mail to gather. Bergil and Elenaril still have Stumblehoof, so she has borrowed Bleys for now. She will sail back with the ship's return. She will tour the villages for the next few days. We have lost our opportunity.
"Papa, I have no words to describe. You must guess how I feel.
"Or I do have words. These words. I give up. I let go. I won't even try to persuade her anymore. I will pull my heart away from her, though it tries to cling and rips. How can she ever see the error of her ways when her ecstasy blots out all pain, all remorse, all fear? I never guessed that the absence of pain could cripple love, but if you cannot feel anguish at the thought of another person suffering, love becomes flimsy, useless. I accept that Mattie cannot repent, cannot consider change seriously, and cannot truly love.
"I know. I, too, have made my promises and broken them. Is it really love, that resembles her craving for the gum? Maybe I will show her the way by forcing myself to give her up. No--barren thought, that. Maybe giving up's impossible. Maybe I can only give her over, commend her to gentle, healing Este, in the Gardens of Lorien, in Valinor. But no--isn't the poppy Este's flower, originally? Then what a foul thing indeed has Sauron done!
"I don't know where to turn, Papa. I just don't know.
"I did ask Mattie, on her postal rounds, to find Elenaril and send her back. Mattie laughed and said she had to, anyway--the couple still ride Stumblehoof, and Bleys is no post-horse. She laughed. People dream of endless happiness, but I have seen it, and in this world, at least, it is horrible.
"I know Elenaril will heed our call, honeymoon or no. She, at least, feels the suffering of others acutely. Her lore in healing Mordor's ills goes deep; maybe she knows some trick of medicine beyond us here.
"Oh, who am I kidding? Why hope in her, or in anything at all? Hope stops at the Mountains of Shadow and does not enter in. Ships sink, beauty shrivels to a scar, people starve, some lose their souls, and crazed children wander in the dangerous night without mothers to watch over them. My crops will fail, the lifestock will die or wander off, none of it makes any sense, I don't know why I bother trying. Maybe Mattie has the right idea, maybe she seeks the only pleasure left in this wretched land.
"But now I remember that two small hobbits, no bigger than myself, once breeched the Dark Lord's defenses and brought hope in with them. They never gave up, no matter how dark and hard the road. They kept right on, without food or water, rest or prospect of survival, and between the two of them they tore the darkness down. Thank you, Papa, for blue skies here in Mordor, and for people who want to learn better ways, and for good hearts behind the skin-deep scars, and for marriages and yes even funerals returning to a land that long forgot the ways that rituals honor and uphold, and thank you most of all, Papa, for rendering Sauron down to an annoying little gadfly who will even whisper against his own erstwhile realm if that'll tempt me to despair, but who has no power--absolutely none!--that we do not give to him.
"When I think of you and what you and my namesake achieved in this selfsame land, then it doesn't matter if every sprout withers in the field, if the chickens all die and wild beasts take the goats, because just my being here has already changed some hearts, in ways I can scarce describe, yet solid for all that. People believe in themselves and each other and in a power beyond ourselves that blesses where Sauron would have cursed. And every heart changed today changes ten more hearts tomorrow. So if I fail it doesn't matter, because someone else down the line will find the strength to succeed--I have made success possible, whether I author it myself or not.
"Sometimes, Papa, the most important seeds you can plant don't go into the soil, but into hearts. That feels like something you taught me, though you never spoke it out loud. Thank you Papa. Thank you once again."