He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 4, Part 188
A Letter from the Groom
June 24, 1452–We have departed from the healing place. We make good time on Bleys, much better than on foot while herding grazing goats. Bleys is doing better, now. Everything has leafed out and turned green with the summer storms, so he does not lack for forage. And I do not begrudge the rain dripping into my face, or much miss the hat I left behind, to see the land so glad, to watch it drink its fill. Still, we need to pick our path carefully, for you never know when the ravines will thunder with flood, and all of the once obvious paths, all places broad and cleared of obstacles, have become perilous. I see now what has cleared them!
The lightning and the thunder alarm us at times. But they leave the air so refreshing! The storms work hard to scour every trace of Sauron’s fumes out of the land. Someday they will finish the job completely.
In the meantime, I feel something so quiet and complete and good that words seem to have nothing to do with it, I want with all my heart to tell you about it, yet I express it by breathing in and breathing out. Foolish hobbit! I must try to find words anyway. It is this matter of marrying. I have a wife who rides in front of me, surrounded by my arms, nestled to me like a missing puzzle-piece that has finally found its place. I feel older than ever in my life, but not aged by travails, not like I have in the recent past. I feel contentedly ancient, and timeless, and yet never old, some part of me will never grow old unless she should die before I do. I feel ripened and ready for anything, like grain in the garner. Maybe that would sound like nonsense to anyone but you.
I surprise myself by how much fruit and vegetables I now can find along the way; I must have blinded myself with anxiety before. But I had no idea that this wasteland could nourish the passer-by so well! How many have died in Mordor for lack of this simple lore? And how might you have fared, on your own adventure, had you known of the riches hidden amid the thorns that tore your skin?
The rains have much to do with it, I suspect. New buds swell everywhere I look. And some of the prickliest and most inhospitable ones conceal the finest flavor and the most nutrition. I see firsthand now much of what Elenaril once taught me by rote, bless her heart!
We have meat as well, caught by the snares that we made before we slept last night–from my hair, which I blush to say has actually grown longer than Mattie’s at this point (I promise to get it cut as soon as we reach town.) Did you know that lizards taste sort of like chicken? Fishy chicken. Rats are not bad, either. Keep in mind that these are not city rats, fed on garbage and drinking fouled water from gutters, but wholesome country rats that feed on wild seeds and drink from the healing spring. Anyway, we caught enough to keep us both well-fed. It does my heart no end of joy to see Mattie flourish with good appetite.
I wonder now why all avenues seemed shut to me except to hunt that deer. I guess I had something to learn of Mordor and vicinity, how the soul of it thinks and feels, deeper than any morgul-spell. How death gives way to life, how nobility and plenty both hide under a spiky exterior, disguised as Sauron’s own creations yet not of him at all. And how you can find beauty and inspiration under even the harshest circumstances.
I think I had to come to terms with death, death as something not antithetical to life, part of the One’s great plan, in order to open the door to the abundance of life that Mattie now gives me–the companionship, the communion of body and spirit, and exchanges of thought and comfort and burdens halved through sharing, with the promise of children to come, and eventually our final years shielding each other from loneliness to the end. Not to mention those things that she uniquely brings to me, unlike any other wife I could have chosen, my mystical bard, my conqueror of dragons, my brave messenger, this frail little person snuggled before me on my donkey’s back who has seen and done so much with her small bones.
Oh Papa, I am so much in love!
June 25, 1452–I have had the most amazing night! When we made camp I handed Mattie her harp, urging her to try it once again. She hesitated at first, wondering if she could even make music at all without the poppy to inspire her. But when she played her fingers flew across the harp! They blurred, Papa–yet that might have been my tears of joy for hearing such amazing music in the wilderness. Intricacy upon intricacy in a lace of notes built up layer upon layer all the way to the stars! Oh, I could have listened all night long!
And you should see the change in her this morning. She smiles now. She sees the loveliness of everything. She has her music back. It is her own, and she knows it now, no gift from dark alliances. Indeed, it is more hers than ever, for nothing remains to dull her back or slow her down. In song she has found her way to the very heart of who she is, who she can be--the Mattie that nothing could ever completely poison.
June 26, 1452–Well, we have arrived at Riverborn. As per my promise, I got my hair hacked off nearly to the scalp. And then, to make a longer time before I need to shear it all again, I had that fuzz shaved off. Mattie giggles and says that I look so different she feels like she has two husbands taking turns, but she had no idea that she had married an egg. For that is what I look like now, apparently, a smiling egg with eyes. It will all grow back, of course, but it feels so much cooler this way; I should have done it long ago.
I have bought myself another hat. With a fresh-shorn scalp as pale as a mushroom, and a sun as hot as burns on Mordor in the summertime, you need a bit of protection. It looks strange to me now, though, to look in the mirror and see just how brown my face has become by contrast. The family has always run towards the dusky end of the hobbit spectrum, but by now I have become at least as dark as an Easterling. Not that I mind. I kind of like it, this color like the earth. It shows that I work for a living, and that is something that no Gamgee or Gardner will ever be ashamed of.
Having no goats to quarter, we have taken lodgings among the handful of private rooms at Brandybuck Mercantile normally set aside for representatives of the company–little cottages sharing walls, around a courtyard with a well and a sort of outdoor kitchen for tenants to use at will. Brandybuck Mercantile has never established an uncomfortable trading post, by all that I have heard. Turquoise, the local manager, informed me that the next ship won’t leave until what we’d call Lithe the Second, but this does not trouble me in the least, for she has also had word to treat me like Merry himself, should I arrive. So now we rest in clean and comfortable quarters, and dine on the very best of an import merchant’s stock.
And I am no fool, Papa. I still have May’s lens, and can figure out well enough that Turquoise has orders to detain me as long as courtesy and allurements can arrange. I expect that I shall shortly entertain visitors come to assess my worthiness for my post. But this does not alarm me anymore. Let whatever happens happen as it may. If the King should fire me, I can still find fields to till in lands that will recognize my marriage until I come of age and can go back home. And do not believe that anyone can cage me for long against my will, not as I am now.
June 27, 1452–Papa, I just LOVE married life! Oh yes, I know this is but the honeymoon, and trials and tribulations await inevitably ahead, along with various drudgeries and responsibilities and the odd fight and unromantic things like that. People have told me this often enough. Yet surely throughout the entire burlap weave a golden thread must glimmer in and out, holding it all together. If pleasure and joy and love die out entirely in time, as some have said, then why do widows and widowers grieve so hard? And why does Lanethil return to the married state again and again, regardless of the consequences, more for him than for anyone else alive? And why do I see a certain twinkle, now and then, pass between your eyes and Mama’s, or rich, unfathomable gazes that interrupt your chores, both of you, for moments that you probably think we miss? And why does your hand so often steal to hers, if marriage becomes little more than a partnership of convenience over time?
Even the deepest, most unspoken burdens weigh lighter on me now. She helps me bear them just by being there. But what should I leave unspoken in her presence? What could be so strange to her that she would scoff at me, or so dark that she would despise me, or so foreign that she would look blankly on me? We have more in common than I could have ever pictured with anyone.
I delight beyond all telling in cooking for Mattie here! And she delights in cooking for me, though I have to say that I am the better chef. That is all right–she will more readily learn fine cooking than I will ever learn fine singing. The housing circles around a courtyard with a little outdoor grill and oven under shade, the gateway open to prevailing breezes so that it stays relatively cool. What more on earth could I ask?
I have discovered back wages waiting for me, along with a hefty bonus for double hazard pay. It seems that the King has remembered how I have twice fought dragons at considerable risk to myself. And yes, I recognize yet another enticement to stay put, but I don’t care. I am having too much fun after too much dole to bother to run and hide anymore.
Turquoise has thrown open the stores for us, saying that Master Merry would not begrudge us anything. Barrels of the most spicy, or subtle, or exotic, or hearty food and drink that you could imagine and some that I at least had not imagined before. And no, I have sampled none of the drink, though the sheer smell of it has tempted me, as I have never witnessed such variety. But why should a new-wed fellow dull a single sense?
Mattie is not the only one who has gained some weight. By the time the weather cools enough for britches I wonder if I shall fit in mine? Never mind, Uncle Pippin tore them for me already, and took the patched result off to the Shire with himself. I shall have to find out anyway if any tailor in Mordor knows how to fit a hobbit, if the package from my sister Rose does not arrive soon.
I had no idea how many delicacies come through this dubious trade route from the farther eastern lands. The King might well consider this in persuading people to build his channel, once we can stabilize the land so fewer folk turn robber along the way. Crystalized jhinjir, so bright and spicy sweet upon the tongue; a dark, drop-shaped fruit called feeg that tastes amazing when slightly dried and stuffed with goat cheese; and delicate candies of flower-water gelled to melt into your mouth. And ah, the many things that they can do with dates! I could spend all day tucking dainties into Mattie’s little mouth, except I must take time out to learn an Easterling trick of cooking a duck with all the bones pulled out, then stuffing it with mushrooms and vegetables that I never heard of in my life. Here I come to a land to ease its famine, and I discover such a feast for those who have the means to revel in it!
And that thought sobers me. I will, for now, enjoy the honeymoon. But how did things get so completely out of balance that some will fatten while all the rest must starve? I console myself with the thought that I have worked hard to change all that. Precariously, and still more labor must stabilize what I have wrought. But this time I pass through Riverborn and see nobody at death’s door.
So, with that thought, I shall not feel guilty for making bread to smother with butter steeped in garlkh and sprinkled with a dry and pungent cheese–they have whole tubs of butter and rounds of cheese wide enough for a hobbit to sleep on at full stretch, all waiting for destinations far from here, transported across lands that have had nothing until recently. And here we’ve been sending food by long treks from the Shire!
I have come to love the people of Mordor. But I do not like their habits of business around here. I tell you, Uncle Merry should look into it, while he looks into the whole matter of “opia” and how it got to be on his lists of herbs and spices.
June 28, 1452–Mattie got restless, and wanted to go out into the town. I will confess that I did not like the sound of that; an escaped slave should not visit too soon the places where her former master lays his snares. But when I offered to go with her, she readily accepted and even complimented my gallantry. That reassured me more than I can tell!
I do not want to be the jealous sort of husband who pulls back his wife like a sparrow on a string, if she should hop too far from the cage. I do not want to ache with suspicion whenever she steps from my sight. I do not want to rifle through her things when she lays sleeping, looking for signs of infidelity. But the lover she had before me did not play fair. I would never fear losing her to another hobbit, but to the poppy gum? Frail indeed is the freedom she has won, and might not ever become wholly sound, not without some vigilance.
I know full well the folly of marrying a slave escaped; I know exactly why nobody approves. I suffer cares that would not torture me, had I married someone else. But Papa, that figurative other would not be Mattie. I cannot help it. I love her and no one else. I tried to love elsewhere; in small part I succeeded, in a fond little way, with Crookyteeth, now called Pearl. But I knew it could never grow into the same great love that I feel for Mattie. Who else could understand me? What other hobbitess in the world could possibly guess at the heights and depths of my life since I left the Shire? Who else knows how it feels to contend with Sauron day by day? Even you don’t know the horrors of his affection, more dangerous than his wrath.
Any road, as the Gaffer would have said, I went out into the marketplace with her. And then I went down a narrow, stinking alley that meandered off from there, where filthy and teetering shops ply all manner of trades better left unplied. The shacks leaned towards each other till sometimes their eaves brushed overhead, blotting out the sun. And I gripped Mattie’s hand, fearful, wondering why she would want to go there. I did not have to ask, though, for she explained that she had left something behind, something she should not have parted with.
We entered something like a sordid little inn, with a bar and crooked music, and an upstairs where the guests referred to rooms and beds, but I do not think that people sought them out for lodging. Unfortunate women worked there, pasty-faced and eaten up by sores, faking smiles and gyrating as they walked in a mechanical sort of way. I expect they did what Elenaril had unjustly been accused of when she followed the camps to heal. You know, Papa, that I have struggled with temptations of a kind that probably had more to do with my swift marriage than I’d really care to discuss. But I saw nothing here to allure me, nor would I have done even without a wife, only griefs to break my heart with pity. It must take a brutal kind of man to find his pleasures here!
A question appalled me, one that I dared not ask. But she had already told me that she stopped short of the dreadful thing that I suspected. I had to trust her, Papa, to believe that when she embraced honesty enough to renounce the gum, she told me only truths in other things as well. And as it turned out, she repaid my trust, for I soon learned that she had sold something else entirely in this dismal place.
Looking around I saw another pitiful sight: a malnourished and scrofulous monkey on a chain, listless where he lay on a corner of the stage, except for perking up just a little whenever the band began to play. Sometimes he would twitch as though to stand, but his weakness defeated him. Yet by those movements I recognized him at last.
When he saw Mattie he let out a happy croak of a hoot and made it all the way up to a squat, clapping his hands, before he tired and laid back down again, one arm dangling off of the stage like a twig so thin you might break it with a breath. Tears welled up in her eyes. She turned to the barkeep and asked, “How much will it cost to buy Trickster back?”
The thug wanted five gold pieces. I stopped her from reaching for her purse and said, “Five? You’ve ruined him–he isn’t worth half that. I’ll give you two silver pieces for him.” Five silver pieces, the rogue insisted now, as insolently as though he had said ‘silver’ all along, but I pointed out that the animal could no longer perform, and probably would die before we got back home. He finally settled for three.
I have not become stingy, Papa. It just burned me to think of enriching someone who would use a living creature so. As I soon learned, he did not use his human livestock that much better. A woman followed us out, hollaring, “Buy me, too! Take me with you! Please! I can do more (something) tricks than that (something something) monkey!”
I turned to her, and my heart sank. How could I refuse such bruises, such desperate eyes? Yet I also saw the pinhole pupils in those eyes, and the lurching of her step. Still, I know something now of the cure for such things. I told her that I would pay off her debt to the barkeep on condition that she renounce the poppy gum. Mattie offered to help her through, reminding the poor waif about why she had sold the monkey in the first place, and speaking now of freedom’s joy. At which the woman spat and reviled us, returning to her owner. Mattie looked stricken white; I can only imagine what went through her mind to see another in her former state, and where that could have taken her.
We bathed together after that, back in our lodgings, scrubbing the grime of that place off of our feet, after we had settled Trickster down with a whole fruit bowl to plunder at his will; the poor thing could hardly believe his luck. The water here, while needing boiled before drinking, and having a metallic tang, and staining everything a rusty red, is quite fresh enough to bathe in at least, without consequence, this close to the river’s spring. And we have taken advantage of it daily, twice daily if we feel like it. No need to heat the water, after all, for it comes to us tepid to begin with, and nobody would want it any warmer than that in the weather we have had. I had forgotten how much I missed having a brother or three to take a turn at scrubbing my back for me; now I have a wife to do it even better! As for Mattie, she is sure her mother must have bathed her years ago, but she cannot remember anyone ever scrubbing her back. She says she likes it.
June 29, 1452–Mattie declares that my hair has come up velvety, and that she likes the feel of it. From what I can see it hardly qualifies as fuzz, but at least it demarcates a sort of boundary between my face and the rest of my head by now. And I do enjoy her enjoyment!
News at the gate. Turquoise has come by to inform me that Mattie and I have guests. Well, here it comes, then. I shall not run, Papa. I shall face the music like the grown hobbit that I am. I begin to catch on, finally, that there is no sort of trouble that running away cannot make worse. And better might yet come of it–look at what Mattie and I have now, and all because she faced the trouble of her own addiction, faced it down and came through to the other side!
May I say again that I love her? May I say it my whole life long?