For Into Darkness Fell His Star
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 40, Part 181
June 17-18, 1452
Now Frodo felt Matthilda’s nausea, her pain, the crawling of the skin, the cramping muscles that could not relax. But he felt it in a ghostly way, a bearable if ghastly haunting of the flesh as they shouldered the burden together. Gloom also settled on his heart, so that all things he touched or heard, saw or sensed, revolted him, until life became a prison and even the songs of birds brought him no joy. But whenever he looked on Mattie his heart lifted, even in this drear, for he saw that she no longer threw up nor convulsed, though illness remained within her, as in him.
In a little while Mattie rose and put back on the tunic that Frodo had cleaned for her, dried upon the sun-baked surface of a rock. She mostly rested in these final hours, though sleep eluded her; she tossed within her hollow aimlessly, while Frodo paced around her in the baking heat, shuddering like the bitterest winter sank its teeth in him.
And then they reached a turning point, where slowly the symptoms ebbed from Frodo, for they had shrunk to where Mattie could take them back and live. Peace swept over Frodo. He saw beauty once again, like opening his eyes to the faces of old friends after the nightmares of delirium. He managed to catch some sleep, that night, if only for an hour or two before the dawn, when the worst of Mattie’s symptoms had abated.
Yet Frodo gained little value from it. Shock after shock awakened him, though later the only dream he could remember put him back in the depths of the ship and the frantic clatter of hooves on water-bounding wood, riding ahead of Uncle Pippin and Uncle Merry, and Papa and Mama and the King, and other people lost in the dimness of the hold. They all conspired to take Mattie away from him forever! Yet he would save her, he knew he had to, even if heaven and earth stood in his way. Once more he galloped up the falling ramp, Sting raised to slash its way through the fabric of the sail. But when he cut the belly of the cloth a gout of blood gushed down on him, drenching him from head to foot–hot, sticky blood, stinking of mortality!
When he woke he found that Mattie had crawled to his side and now lay shivering in his arms, curled up against him on her dead horse’s blanket, her cheek upon his chest. Poor little bones! He pulled her closer.
“I am a murderer!” he whispered to the ceiling. “I knew–I knew!–that I snapped more than just a thread.” And with that realization a cold shudder of his own wracked through his body.
But Mattie, sick as she was, stayed with him and held him through his own crisis. Patiently, nestled against him, she listened to Frodo’s halting account of the loom of Vaire and his sin against it. “For my sake,” she reminded him. “Some do kill to save another life, and none may call them murderers.”
“Not when they slay the innocent.” He stroked her in the growing light that leaked between the twigs of their entwife guardian. “Oh, but I didn’t mean for it to go so far! I didn’t really plan to tear the fabric, I meant to bluff, don’t you see, a gamble that Vaire would believe me capable of mayhem. But somehow–you know, in dreams and visions thoughts become actions so much more easily than in our waking lives. I gripped that cloth so hard, and somehow it just...a thread just snapped.”
“An accident, then. I am sure that the Higher Powers take that into account.”
“An accident under circumstances that should never have come about in the first place–some mischances we do answer for. Mattie, I had a childhood friend, Timmy Roothollow–well, if anybody could really call him a friend. We children more or less stayed on his good side out of fear more than a desire for his companionship. For he had a rough sense of humor–all right, plain and simple, he was a bully. I avoided him as much as I could, though I treated him politely when we met, and joined him in games while they remained harmless. Others joined him in games of a worse kind, laughing when he wanted them to laugh, although later none of them would say that they found anything funny about the joke. Sometimes, when I saw the chance, I would help his victims to escape. Sometimes his victims later joined his ranks, glad for a chance to let somebody else suffer for a change.
“Anyway, he had some skill at toss-knives. Less than he thought, as it turned out, but he impressed us all with how often he could hit his intended target on a split-second’s impulse. Sometimes he might aim for somebody’s cuff, or the corner of one’s coat. One time he happened to target the dirt between my left big toe and the next beside it. I laughed along with everybody else that time, and drew my foot back without a scratch. I didn’t want to appear afraid, you see. Fearful children earned his especial attention.
“One day a new child moved to Hobbiton: Bobo Beesom--a thin, pale twitch of a thing, small for his age and cursed with a whiny voice that made it a challenge for even the best of us to sympathize with him. It did not help that his seamstress mother made him wear this big lacy collar of her own design–a sort of walking advertisement for her work. Poor Bobo! The only thing that anybody liked about him, really, was a little toy boat that he often played with on the Water. It had a black sail that his mother had embroidered for him just like the King’s sail, with a tree in tinsel floss and tiny beads for stars. That boat led him to Timmy and his Bywater gang, more’s the pity.
“It surprised nobody that sooner or later Timmy would try his favorite trick on Bobo. But something went wrong--the poor lad bolted in panic in the wrong direction so that the knife, aimed for Bobo’s fancy collar, hit him square in the throat instead. Timmy cried out as if he’d stabbed himself, and grabbed the child, and tried to staunch the blood, but you cannot tourniquet a neck; by the time the first adult arrived at a run from the marketplace, the eyes had glazed over and Timmy sat there sobbing with this little body pulled up in his lap, all that white lace soaked in red. It happened so fast that we hardly had the chance to breathe.”
Mattie asked, “And what does this have to do with you?”
“Timmy had the same kind of ‘accident’ that I did. No hobbit ever killed another a-purpose in the Shire, and we all knew that this was no exception. Yet that didn’t cleanse him of his guilt. His family had to move to a Breeland farm outside the Shire bounds, outside the bounds, in fact, of any village of hobbits or of men, high up on a hill where the pines whistled lonesome in the wind and people seldom walked along the road. I know the place because I paid a visit with my father, to see that they had settled in properly. Papa did right by them; he made sure they could fend for themselves well enough in exile, even arranged for some business to come Master Roothollow’s way; the fellow did rear healthy pigs and smoked a decent ham. But the Roothollows had to know that nobody wanted their son living anywhere near them, and that they shared the blame for raising up a bully in our midst.”
In the dimness Mattie looked oddly on Frodo. “What happened to Bobo’s mother?” she asked.
“Widow Beesom? After this latest death she couldn’t get herself to sew anything but shrouds and funeral embroidery for families in mourning, and she never put her own black weeds aside. She has a whole wardrobe for different occasions, now, some with designs that recall her long-lost husband, all full of bees and flowers, for he had been a beekeeper by trade. And some she wears for Bobo, black chemises with the same elaborate white lace collar, and silver designs of tree boughs and stars like what she made for the toy boat’s sail.”
“So she lived on?”
“Yes. She lived on. Queer though her garb might be, her reputation has spread across the countryside; she sews for almost every funeral in the Shire or parts beyond, and never lacks for work. She has by now a wistful cheer, if you can picture that. She says she hopes someday to meet, in Mandos’ hall, her son and spouse again, along with everyone she’s ever sewn into a shroud, all healed, all ready to move on to joys beyond the heavens that we know. She has found, in time, her own particular way to deal with grief.”
“And what became of Timmy Roothollow?”
“Him? Well, it seems that loneliness made a scholar of him, and shame has taught him gentleness, along with ample caution. The last I saw he had come down into Bree at last, and now holds a quiet job as a market clerk, writing down exchanges for farmers who cannot read nor write. His reputation says he’s honest. His voice has softened over time, and his eyes refuse to meet another’s. They say that he bears no knife, not even for his meals. He foregoes meat to dine on beans which need no cutting.”
“So–he did not simply throw himself away, like my mother or my father did?”
“No–and thank you for pointing out that hope to me!”
“Frodo, I have more hope still to give you.” Soft and fragile came the words she whispered. “For I think I had my own encounter with Vaire–I marvel that you describe to me what none have ever told to me before, and yet I saw, myself.”
He leaned up on an elbow and stared at her. “Tell me!”
“It happened during my very last poppy-dream–no, don’t look at me like that! Truth does come through, at times, even in the realms that Sauron rules. Didn’t your father find it so?”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right on that. Go on–tell me everything.”
“I had been savoring the best dream ever, under the apple trees, with the blossoms all a-blowing in the wind, dancing with my mother. But this time I felt my feet upon the ground, bare to the soft grass, and we gazed eye to eye, with our arms around each other–I danced with her as her grown daughter, Frodo! Tears of joy glittered in her eyes like jewels, as she said to me, ‘Oh Mattie! Thank the Highest, Mattie! You have taken the path, the long but true path that shall lead you back to me at last!’ And I told her, ‘I know that after this I will not see you again for years and years, but when I do, it shall be more than just a dream.’ And oh how beautifully she smiled!”
Then Mattie’s eyes grew wide as she stared up at Frodo leaning over her. “Suddenly the entire scene tore right down the middle as though it had been nothing but a tapestry–me too, right across the middle, so that I thought that I must die! And behind the tapestry lay a much realer world, somehow more dimensional, like all that I had ever known before had been naught but a flattened bit of art, a copy of something else. And in that world I saw lots and lots of looms in a light so blazing that it hurt and healed and stunned me with a beauty past the power of the strongest poppy-gum.”
Her voice fell hushed. “I saw a flame-haired woman there, dancing between the looms, weaving on all of them at once–but no woman of human nor of hobbit kind was she, for she had many arms, yet all of them graceful, all busily at work. She...Frodo...she turned to me the most beautiful and terrible of faces!”
Then Mattie’s voice grew powerful as she imitated the Vala. “She said to me, ‘Heed me, Child of Woe! Dearly bought is the beating of your heart–never fail in gratitude and humbleness for a gift beyond your measure. Vow to me on what you hold most dear that you will never fail this gift, falling back into the wiles of the Enemy.’ I felt truly moved by what she said, more than just afraid. I offered up to her my harp, but she dashed it aside. “That you sold before and would sell again! Nor would your very flesh suffice, for that you have abused. Find something else more precious still.’ I offered up my love for you, but she shook her head and said, ‘He is mine already, to deal with as I choose. Yet you have loved another longer.’ That is when I swore an oath upon my horse to her, to renounce the poppy-gum for good.”
Then Mattie gasped and stared up at the cave’s rock ceiling before she spoke again. “Vaire took my horse as sacrifice! Frodo–do you suppose Stumblehoof paid for your tearing of the tapestry?”
Hope flared in Frodo’s breast, but soon gave out. “I wish I could say yes, but I think that Vaire kept a separate pact with you. My heart tells me that a price remains to pay, more grievous still.”
“Then we shall pay it together, you and I–for I feel no regret that you saved my life, Frodo, however you might have done it.” With a trembling finger she caressed his arm. “And you and I have bonded, Frodo, in ways I cannot understand.”
“But who might it be, Mattie? Who shall die for my folly? Who might already have died, without me hearing of it, here in the wilderness? Mama? Papa? One of my brothers or sisters? Surely not May!” His voice grew shriller and shriller as he sat up. “Oh dear heavens--what about the terrible dreams that I have had about my littlest brother Tom? Or, or it might not fall upon my family. Perhaps Bergil or Elenaril have died back at home, or Fishenchips, dear Fishenchips never living long enough to become the healer he desired? What if Pearl died, paying yet again for my mistakes? Mattie–what if it was the King? Oh, what will become of the nations if I slew the King?”
“Hush,” she said, and she drew him back down and held him close. “The Valar would not punish so many for the offense of one.”
“But they didn’t–I did it. I snapped the thread.”
“I doubt that a thread so densely intertwined with others as the King’s must be would snap so easily. One would have to exert considerable will. An accident would not suffice.”
“Y-you may be right. But oh, the little ones in my family! How vulnerable their threads, so early in their lives–how I have endangered them! Oh what a fool I have become–what an unworthy son of my father, and ungrateful heir of wondrous gifts!” Exhausted, he could hold back the tears no longer. His weakened body shuddered with the sobs, as violent as Mattie’s paroxyms, suffering a withdrawal of his own indeed, for he relinquished all pretenses of himself and felt the agony of his lost illusions. Far deeper did the pain wring him than his mourning after Drift’s demise, for here he had not merely driven another to do an awful deed–he himself had severed the life. He had nothing to hide behind–not work, not drink, not weary wakefulness, not the rags of an excuse. He wept so long and hard that he made himself ill with it and lost all track of time.
And as Frodo surrendered fully to his grief and shame, there arose in Mattie that strength that can surge up in female-kind even in their weakest hour. Mattie cared for him the whole day long as though he had been the afflicted one, wiping off the sweat and tears that stained his face, giving him water, holding him when he wanted held and stepping aside when he begged to be alone, until at last he sank into a worn-out sleep.
When Frodo woke he found her tottering over him on her own two feet, and an enticing aroma filled the cave, for Mattie had cooked a thin bean soup for him. It surprised him to discover himself hungry and capable of eating, surprised that he could taste something so wholesome and friendly to the tongue, surprised him that he could enjoy anything at all. But had not Mandos himself counseled Frodo against self-punishment, leaving his judgment to his betters instead? He looked up at Mattie’s worn-out face and wondered, as he ate the soup, that she could find the strength to do this, even endure the smell of food for him.
“Eat it all,” she urged him. “I cannot manage yet.”
“Tomorrow you must eat, then. Tomorrow you will feel better. I can sense it in the bond between us.”
“No, Frodo.” She smiled sadly and shook her head. “That was the last of the food. Rats have eaten the rest. This was all that I could salvage.”