He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 3, Part 187
The Four Sisters
June 23, 1452
Now at last Frodo, Mattie, and Bleys arrived, bruised and torn, at the little hollow high up in a hillside, where ruins of fair stonework stood, unshaped by human hands, enwreathed in flowering vines. Bean pods rustled in the hobbits’ saddle-bag, gathered along the way, awaiting their supper for the night. Mists indeed softened the view of the basin of bubbling mud, but not stifling like the haze of Measse and Makar. Birds sang here, and now and then breezes whispered through living leaves, clearing the air in patches for glimpses of loveliness (soon veiled again) that throve only in this place.
“We’re here,” Frodo breathed with a sigh of relief. He slid off of Bleys with a groan and helped Mattie down. The abrasions of yesterday’s tumble down the gravel-river slopes had already begun to pucker, and he felt a light fever wearing at himself, but they had arrived in good time, before the worst of the effects could hurt them. They had not, after all, gotten fouled water into their wounds.
Bleys nuzzled Frodo repeatedly, while he tried to unload their gear. “Easy lad,” Frodo told him. “You have nothing to apologize for–you fell under a spell a bit too large for a poor beast like yourself, that is all.”
“That is not all,” Mattie said, studying the animal. “He has known more fear and confusion in a short space of time than a simple creature ought to bear.” She turned to Frodo. “He needs to go into the bath with us.”
“Indeed?” Frodo had never been in the habit of bathing with barn animals, but the more he thought it over, the more it made sense. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt–a donkey can swim through mud as well as a hobbit, I daresay.”
“Who’s first, then?”
“You go on ahead, dear; I have some setting-up of camp to do.” But Frodo did not do much in the way of setting up; mostly he sat leaned against the saddlebags and watched Mattie strip off her clothes–a sight that had not ceased to fascinate him. He pictured, with pleasure, how she would someday look and feel to embrace after he had nourished her properly. Yet it saddened him when she unlaced her boots and bared those pitiful little feet, with the fur nearly all rubbed off by years of tight-laced leather; who could say if, by now, it could ever grow back properly? Even so, he thrilled to watch her stretch, and then step daintily into the mud that filled the ancient, tiled pool. Step by step she sank deeper, to knees, to hips, to her flat little belly, to the plumlike breasts, up to her neck...she startled him for a second when she closed her eyes and sank all the way below the surface, and then bobbed back up again, her hair now thick with clay, looking like a ceramic sculpture not quite finished, only the gray eyes startling and bright when she opened them.
“Come on in!” she called, waving her mud-drenched arms. “It feels wonderful!” Frodo quickly doffed his own clothing as she went on, “I had no idea it could feel so good–I do not remember anything so, so vivid the last time I came by.”
Without reins on the animal, Frodo led the donkey in by touches and coaxing. At first Bleys shied at what Frodo seemed to want of him, till the hobbit waded in a bit himself, his arms hugging the big furry neck. Once the healing mud reached the fetlocks, however, Bleys heehawed with delight and plunged in all the way.
It felt as Frodo remembered it, yet different as well. Not only did the mud tingle in and scour clean his scrapes, not only did his fever rapidly sweat free of him, but he also felt the warmth leech out his weariness of soul, the mud supporting him all around . He drifted forward as though pulled by a subtle current, all of that soul-fatigue transformed into a pleasant drowsiness of the flesh that simple sleep could soon make right.
“I have been through a lot since last I came this way,” he thought, and shook his head to realize that at the time he thought he had been through plenty indeed, that he had fancied himself quite tested and mature. “And yet not so much as a year has passed since then to now!” Yet the further he swam, the less it troubled him. The mud did not turn back the clock, did not hide any truths from him the way the poppy might, but quietly revitalized him to bear his experiences, even his self-disappointments, more easily and with a peaceful heart.
By the time he crawled out at the other end, Bleys had already emerged, and Mattie coaxed the donkey into the pool of crystal water at the end. Frodo soon joined them, releasing himself to the shock of refreshment, this second bath so pure, so cool, rinsing back the mud and with it every stain of heart and soul. He swam over and joined Mattie in splashing Bleys, combing clay from the fur, as the beast closed his eyes in relief as plain as anything that Frodo could have put into words. When they came out again, Frodo went back for the curry brush, dripping as he was, to tend his steed as thoroughly as he might, and then he took a second dip. Contentment settled over him as he stretched out on the tiles, letting the sun and breeze dry him off, too sleepy for more than a little affectionate nuzzling, eyes closed lazily, content to perceive primarily by touch. It took him awhile to notice that his wife soon left his side.
“Mattie?” He looked all around him. ”Mattie?” He didn’t know why he felt such fear. His heart told him where to turn, someplace he hadn’t noticed in the fog the last time that he'd come this way. Up above the fountain stood a hill, and nestled into the side of that hill a level space spread out between four pillars, so overgrown with vines that they appeared like trees at first glance, with the arches connecting them each to each other in a box-bound X, forming a leafed-over canopy. Light and shadow played so trickily in the space between that he didn’t at first see Mattie standing there, naked and tiny beneath their looming.
“Mattie!” He ran up the slope to her, unsure about why the glimpse of her there terrified him. But when he saw her his heart plunged. Her eyes had glazed over as though she had sunken back into the drug. She shivered–no, not her but the air. As he watched, helplessly, the air shimmered and shuddered more and more around her. He tried to rush in, crying “Mattie, take my hand!” But he bounced against an invisible barrier like a taut-held canvas stretched between the piers of stone.
As he watched, dust began to fly up from the ground within that space, swirling around his wife, faster and faster, half-obscuring Mattie from his sight. Even now she did not blink. Light scintillated from the murk like flecks of diamond, thickening until he couldn’t see Mattie in the center of it all. Pebbles now flew up, and then full-sized rocks, whirling with the dust, riccocheting off each other, sparks flashing amid the glitter. Frodo pressed his hands against the unseen barrier, his lips moving silently to plead, to whom he couldn’t say.
Then the dust fell abruptly. The ground darkened. The space seemed now to fill up with water, welling up from the ground with sprays and gurgles, though none spilled out between the pillars, no matter how high it reached, splashing and foaming as it rose. The light turned blue and flickered with curving lines of brightness. Soon Mattie’s hair floated up above her head, her hands slowly drifting upward as her body swayed. Bubbles swirled around her as the rocks had done before. But none escaped her lips; she did not appear to breathe. Frodo held his breath just to watch her.
Then light flashed! Frodo’s hands recoiled from the sudden heat as flickers of red and yellow spiraled all around his wife instead of the blueness, her hair puffing and coiling in smoke. No more bubbles now, but flames ran up and down her body, clothing her nakedness in brilliance, while she gazed on, entranced. Suddenly Frodo screamed to see his lover’s hair curl and crisp, her skin redden, bubble, blacken--and still the eyes did not blink! Frodo threw himself again and again upon the invisible barrier though it should burn him, too, cursing and crying, but it would not yield.
All at once the light turned normal, and Mattie seemed as sound as if nothing had happened, her face fair and smooth once more–indeed, smoother than it had been. Frodo wiped his eyes and hope ached in his breast again. But then she raised her arms and began to whirl, herself, her short hair whipping all around her face. As he watched, her feet lifted up from the ground; she danced higher and higher into the air, her face no longer frozen but ecstatic, her eyes closing at last. When she brushed the top of the arches she sighed and drifted down to earth again, her feet settling down, sturdily planted on the soil as a hobbit’s foot should be.
Then Mattie opened her eyes and stared at him directly. Something in her gaze told Frodo that she now knew more than he could ever know. She stepped out from between the pillars. Her eyes never left his face. She walked straight to him, each step a measure in a slow, determined dance. She embraced him and kissed him hungrily. They celebrated their marriage right there in the sweet, soft grasses, in the dappled sun and shade.
Long afterwards, after they had bathed again, and made a fire and dinner, and after one thing led to another, more quietly this time, after the sunset had blanketed them in the tenderest of colors and after the stars took over, Frodo realized that an important thing had changed. He remembered the brush of something soft and luxurious about his ankles–something that his hobbit-blood had missed beyond all words. He sat up and stared at Mattie’s feet, at the thick and glossy curls that grew on them.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” he asked her.
“Maiar,” she breathed, and fell silent, staring up at stars between the mists.
Frodo waited awhile, before inquiring, “And...”
“After I rinsed off in the cold water I felt so tingly fresh, so full of life that I just had to walk somewhere.” She glanced down at her furry feet and their newly toughened soles. “You know, it never even occurred to me to put my boots back on. I can’t remember the last time I went barefoot like that.”
“So you climbed up behind the fountain and found the, uh, area...”
“The place of the four pillars. They are more than just stone, you know.” At Frodo’s quizzical look, she leaned towards him and whispered, “Maiar live in them.”
“Four Maiar, one each of earth, water, fire and air. An elf brokered peace between them long ago, though how during the reign of Sauron any elf could...”
“I know the answer to that one, and I shall tell you later. But what happened to you...”
“The elf fashioned four magical pillars for the Maiar to anchor themselves to, so that the chaos all around them would not whip them apart and back into madness. They hold each other in perpetual embrace. In return for his healing of them he made them promise to create a place of healing for any in this land of the lost who sought their services.” She looked away, rocking slightly. “Earth and water made mud that fire warmed, air and heated water rose up into mist, fire and earth made tile, earth and air made clouds of dust to hide the healing-place whenever malice would destroy it.”
“That makes a lot of sense out of what has bewildered me before. Did you learn all of this by stepping into their anchoring-place?”
“I learned this when they shot right through me.”
“They did what?”
“Each of them passed through me in turn.” To his shock she raised his own magnifying glass from the cord that now hung around her neck. “They passed through this.”
“Mattie! I am your husband now–you need not steal what you can ask to share.” How had he not even missed its absence?
“I didn’t know at the time why I did it. But earlier, when you drowsed beside the pool, I slipped it from your neck to mine, in a kind of ritual, really, pressing my cheek to yours, so that it never ceased to encompass one hobbit or the other. I guess it seemed to me a sign of our joining on more than the physical level.” She smiled radiantly on him. “And it worked! You did not notice its absence because it has never been absent from you–we are more one than ever!” She leaned forward to kiss him, and while they did so she slipped the talisman back from her neck over to his.
He fingered the lens; it felt warm from her body. “So the Maiar passed through you?”
“Yes.” Her eyes went distant again, as though in remembering her trance she re-entered it. “Faces flew out from the pillars into the glass, one after another and linked together, ghostly-transparent and real, they rushed through me, then sped away, in something that felt outside of time, a piercing instant, a floating eternity. First had come the root-haired brown one, hard but crumbled to a dust, she who pierced through me like a thousand tiny missiles, too dry in their passage to let me bleed. Then came she of the rippling water hair, stormy-eyed and cold, gushing through me like a river in flood through reeds. Then a fierce maiden with flames for hair and eyes like blazing suns, who burned through me like fever. Finally she the distant intimate, the amorphous one with locks of cloud, inhaled into me, suffused me, and exhaled herself out the other side. I know that at some point I had dropped the lens, but the horsehair kept it with me.”
She turned to him the most intent gaze that he had ever seen in waking life. “I have lost nothing, Frodo. Whenever I need, I can see the spirits of the pass again, more clearly than before. I have real vision now–vision based on a free-made gift, not on poisoning and lies. I am more myself than ever–who I should have been, I think, had I sought for help in the pass from another quarter.” Then she came down to earth to him again, as her eyes watered and she swallowed back a sob. “I used to sing to them, not knowing who I sang to. They have watched over me here, once every fortnight for years and years, whenever I would stop by and spend the night, hungry for their healing--but Sauron’s magic held them off and they could do but little for me. In all that time they have ached to give me more.” In an awestruck voice she told him, “They have given me everything!”
Frodo nodded and then kissed her, but he had no words to answer such a revelation. He just put his arm around his wife, as they watched the boots that she had tossed into the fire now blacken and crackle and slowly fall apart into a pile of ash.