He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 11, Part 195
When Dreams Come True
Frodo didn’t get to the letter until the next day. Mattie and Nibs both got sick soon after the boat set sail, and needed attended to. Years had passed since Mattie had last traveled by water with her full faculties, and she found the sensation upsetting. Fortunately, she felt better before noon. Not so Uncle Nibs, who could only gasp deprecations against muddling around upon the water, when he could talk at all.
Lebadoc did not give them any trouble at all, for he slept most of the time. When asked if he felt all right, he pronounced the voyage boring and grumbled that he saw no reason to stay awake for it.
Nibs had a different opinion, when able to talk from a hammock nearby, while Lebadoc snored with the rhythm of the waves. “Him! That one revels like an elf, around the clock. He’s gone nonstop for Midsummer since the day before Lithe 1. Of course he wants his sleep! Mark my words, he’ll burn hisself up before ten years have passed.” He snorted. “Youth! They think that nothing can kill them.”
“Lebadoc isn’t young, he’s in the prime of life,” Frodo contended.
“To you, maybe, but not to me.” As Frodo sponged his Uncle’s face, the elder hobbit wagged a finger at him and weakly said, “‘Tain’t wholesome for a young hobbit to traipse about too far from family and the people he should answer to. I don’t see much space between Lebadoc and you, you know–you’ve been running wild, from all I hear, and it’s small wonder that you’ve paid the price.”
Frodo almost retorted something about Peregrin Took, but then remembered how that worthy had wanted him committed. So he just humbly said, “Well, at least the Nurnings do not celebrate the Lithe days, certainly not aboard this ship, which is as much of a relief to me as I daresay it is to you.”
He answered a gentle tap at the door, and found himself facing “Gwaithendil”, as they agreed to call Eldarion during his travels incognito, along with his “father-sister” Eowyn, or as she called herself for the journey, “Dínwen”. The young man said, “Let us take over, Frodo. We know the healing arts better than you do. We have a compound that can soothe your uncle and your wife.” And a sweet scent of jhinjir and mint, and subtler ingredients stole into the cabin with them.”Come, Dínwen–you will remember much as your hands move.”
“Oh, by all means,” Frodo said with a bow. “Do your best, your H...Gwaithir”
“Gwaithendil,” Eldarion corrected with a smile.
“Yes. Quite right. Pardon me.”
“I believe you have a letter you wish to read?”
“Of course! Of course–thank you very much!” Frodo smiled, trying to hide how his heart sank. Now that it came to it, he feared what the letter might contain.
The young prince understood why Frodo had taken over tending the sick. “All will be well,” he said, clasping the young hobbit by the shoulder. “Great storms nourish more than many might believe when the travail surrounds them. I cannot see as clearly as my father might, yet I believe great benefits shall follow whatever has gone amiss in your homeland–better than what might otherwise have happened without the griefs of today. Trust the blessing upon your family–especially when it seems most fled.”
Frodo nodded, unable to come up with a reply. He left the cabin to slip down into the hold, where he could find himself some privacy. He nestled into a little nook amid the cargo beside his chest from home, while the ship rocked gently on the river and the boards around him creaked. He broke the wax seal (carefully tucking the wax pieces into the chest, since Mordor had taught him thrift) and unfolded the paper anxiously.
“To Frodo, to my dear, dear son so far from home!
“Disaster has struck. Its bad. I do not know how to tell you just how bad it is, how to start, how to finish, how to anything. It happened hours after I sent you my last letter, dropped off at the post in Buckland, where I went to meet with Buttercup Klaefields brothers, Tubby and Toby. Big, stout fellows, too, they think themselves, though as I am used to spending my time with the likes of Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, they did not impress me nearly as much as they wished. But had they been trolls with two heads each theyd not have done me the harm that one small, sneaking fellow did that day!
“Oh but my heart aches, Frodo! How can I write any more?”
Frodo bit his lip, the letter for the moment trembling so badly in his hand that he could read no further. Then he braced himself against the crates so that the paper would not shake.
“I must. I have promised you honesty in all things.
“How much of this is my fault? How have I failed in my duties? Saruman promised to wreak as much ruin on the Shire as he could, such as would take lifetimes to set right. I thought he meant the land. I rolled up my sleeves and cleaned out all his filth, I planted and cultivated, I tore down and built up, and I entered politics to finish the job right. I thought I had gotten it done. I little reckoned beyond that, how Saruman’s worst weapon had always been his tongue. I never thought of what seeds he might have sown in children’s hearts, through things said to their parents. And now that those children have grown, I do not understand them, Son. I do not understand them at all.
“Tubby and Toby put the blindfolds on me and little May. They said that they would take us to their sister, her mother by birth, so that Buttercup could get one last look at the child she was about to sign away. I understood that. Ted had wanted the same thing, with far less reason.
“I thought I could hear somebody follow us. Ive been sharp at these things, you know, ever since I wore the ring. But I shrugged off my fears, for the step behind us sounded so much like that slinker, Gollum, that I believed my mind played tricks on me, what with the blindness and my concerns for the child entrusted to my care.
“My mind had not played tricks on me. I should of listened to my heart–it has never failed me. Things only go wrong when I fail it.
“The next thing I knew I saw stars and sparks inside the blindfold and then nothing. Somebody had knocked me cold. One well-thrown rock was all it took, from the rotten sneak behind us.
“That miserable Rolo Penniwistle had followed us around for days, it turned out, sniffing about for a scandal to get back at me for deciding a property dispute in the Smallburrow’s favor. Anytime a fellow meets another in a secret place (and especially when word gets around that the Mayor is trying to go as unnoticed as possible, that far from home) his kind get interested. I should of seen that ahead of time. Well, he found what he wanted, all right. He out and out spied on our conversations and learned the whole story–Mays birth to Buttercup by Ted, Rose and me taking her in unofficial-like, the entire mess. Heres a precious find for a wretch out to make hisself a little trouble!
“Rolo threw the stone that knocked me out. Toby and Tubby might be large and full of bluster, but their also slow on their feet, more cows than bulls in a real fight. More stones hit them while they were still turning around, I expect. By the time the three of us woke up Rolo had long since gone and poor May with him!
“The worst of it, Frodo, was that I think I heard May screaming the entire time. Heard and could do nothing about it, couldent move, couldent even open my eyes, couldent be sure that I heard at all, just some terrible far-off sound, going farther and farther away, all tangled up in headache and sickness and the spinning of the world.
“Rolo stopped his sneaking right away with me out cold–couldent anyway, they say, the way that May carried on. But he shouted out the ugly truth to all who ran to see about the fuss, all the while scrambling as fast as he could run towards a boat on the Brandywine, where Jody Rockie waited for him, paid ahead of time. I wouldent of thought it of old Jody, but come to think of it he never asks questions as to why anybody pays him to ferry them anywhere, or what they might load onto his boat, and maybe he should. Anyway, Rolo told all and sundry, every step of the way, that he planned to row on up to the Bridge, then ride on to Bree to give May to her so-called real father. So even though May fought like a lion-cub to get away, folks hesitated to stop him, not quite sure of which side of the law they might land upon.
“And right there, thats the weakness of the Shire, the little crack that Saruman could pry open and seed with his rotten words. The way we prize respectability. Instead of doing as we respect in ourselves, we all too often worrit ourselves about what other people might respect, loving a good name when we ought to love good deeds, and the rules when we ought to love the things for which we make the rules so as to hold them up the stronger. And if property would make us look more respectable in the eyes of our fellows, then a broke-souled hobbit might well do some things that no one should respect to get them. Like the Penniwistles and the Smallburrows in their feud for land. Like Lotho under the spell of Saruman before them.
“So nobody stopped Rolo, for fear of breaking some foul, accursed rule! I did wrong. I admit it. I should of up and adopted May straightforward, never mind poor Buttercup’s feelings on the matter–sparing her back then has not spared anybody in the long run. But what about the fact of my acting out fatherhood towards May in every way possible? What about that? Rules dont always fit–not even for the mayor.
“If Im still mayor in anybodys eyes. I dont care.
“Nobodys exactly clear on what happened next. A great wave out of nowhere swamped the boat before they could set foot on it, and old Jody nearly drowned. In all of the commotion of dragging him out of the water, May broke free. Some say she vanished with some kind of Bag End magic. Others say she ran all the way to the Hedge and dived through some hole that only a child her size could find. Many disputed that such a little thing could run so far, while a few folks claim to have seen it with their own eyes, but dident dare to follow even if they could. Most called that impossible, though, and the vanishing more likely.
“I know that she could run that far. We raised all our children strong, on hard work and good food, and while we arent always the fastest in a footrace, we can outlast anyone in the Shire in a race for length. Even the smallest one of us.
“I know she went into the Old Forest, Frodo. I know.”
“I missed all this. It took me awhile to wake up. Now its close to morning, and I am here in Brandy Hall while Merry organizes a search party. He says to wait an hour more for daybreak, lest we trample some clue in the dark. In the meantime, he sent word for me to Bag End by the fastest riders he could muster.”
To Frodo’s horror he saw bloody fingerprints on the next page turned, and words blurred here and there by tears.
“Disaster upon disaster! Your brother Tom would not listen to reason. The post ran fast to Hobbiton, night notwithstanding, for the weight of such strange news; the family got my message by a pounding on the door some time past midnight. But before anybody else could react, before they could stop him, Tom saddled up his pony, still in his night-shirt, and raced across the countryside all the way to the Hedge in a matter of hours, right into the Old Forest! He made that weary pony rear up for him and knock the Brandybuck Gate clean off the hinges. Old iron, old rusty hinges–nothing like that could stop him.
“So in he rode. And I ran after, being already up and thrashing through the fringes there with Merry, looking for little footprints or a torn-off bit of thread, with the first good light. I followed the sound of the gallop, and then the fresh-cut hoofmarks, shoving aside each scratching branch that thrust itself in my way a-purpose.
“And not in my way only. I heard a sickening thud in the distance. I found Tom’s pony soon after, heaving for breath, riderless and the saddle soaked in blood. I followed the red trail spattered on the ground, and when too much foliage blocked me, I threatened to burn the whole forest down if they dident let me pass, so that finally a choking-narrow pathway parted for me, but with menacing creaks and moans all around me, snaps and rustles, building and building with my every step.
“I found Tom lying in the dirt, his eyes wide open in a face drenched red, and a bloody branch dripped over him at the height of a rider’s head. I wailed my heart out because I thought him dead, but then Merry ran up and found his pulse still strong in his neck, thank the Valar, though his breath came shallow. Tom’s body felt all stiff like the rigor of death, and yet he lived. But I saw one pupil wide and black and the other small, and I knew that couldent be good.
“I had to choose, Frodo. I had to either search the woods for May, or take Tom home and see if I could mend him. I took care of the child who came to hand.
Merrys still searching, so I hear. But he has had no luck.
“Tom is going to live! Its the next day from the last time I wrote to you. Your mother is here beside me now, with Molly the Herbwife. Tom woke up and drank some broth. Nobody could smell your mothers cooking and stay half-dead, Im sure of it; she makes you want to sit up and take nourishment. Molly says hes out of danger, though it may take awhile to find out how much damage, if any, lingers. So far he hasent spoken.
“Its tomorrow. I arrested Rolo Penniwistle. He cant get away with knocking people out with rocks and grabbing children. He says hell say everything if I drag him into court, I say they already know. And I dont care. Even if I were the worst criminal the Shire ever knowed, I would still have my rights. He came right back with words of his own, that we could say the same thing about Ted Sandyman.
“Next day. Rolo got fined for brawling and released. I cant make the Sherrif banish him for a bump on the head. Sherrif made him pay a hefty fine to each of the Klaefield Brothers, and double to me, but that wont bring back May, nor heal poor Tom. Then I had to hand half the fine right back, on account of my breaking the law regarding adoptions. Could have been worse. Rolo sneered at that, till I advised him that if he dident want every least move he makes scrutinized for illegal activity for the rest of his life, he might decide that the climate in Bree suits him better. So the Smallburrows are going to get the land they wanted and then some, at a good price, too, but I dont want to see them either, I avoid them wherever they go. Their feud cost me too dear for me to ever count them as friends again.
"Buttercup has come out of hiding. She wanders the streets at night like a crazy little ghost, her sleeves pushed down off her shoulders and her skirt hiked up like I never saw in the Shire before, only in certain streets of Minas Tirith that we hurried past on our visit some years gone. She tells everybody wholl listen that she dont know if Ted was father to May, that she was bad with lots of hobbits, so he cant have her, can he? And then she laughs in a cracked sort of way, with brimming eyes. Nobody with any sense believes her, of course. I told her brothers after court to take her in hand, she dont know her own best interest right now.
“It is now some days later, and I write from Bag End. I dont know what day, not sure if its the same month. I havent kept track of the calendar for awhile. Fredegar Bolger has been acting as Deputy Mayor while I tend to the sick in my family. Your mother has done most of the tending, though. I spend too much time gazing off towards Buckland, and if I put my hand to anything, I cant keep my mind on it. I never realized before just how hard my counsel to you could be, to work the melancholy out.
But remembering you, dear boy, I finally did it. I got some gardening done. I never hoed the earth so hard! And yes, I did feel better–then almost felt I shouldn’t ought to, like that made me a bad father, to find a moments relief. But Rose is right–she says the children need me, that I have to do better for them.
“Tom is not good. Frodo, he does not know us! At first he had no speech. Then he started to parrot what we said, better than a baby, but we had to teach him all over again. Then he caught up in a matter of days and now can tell us when his head aches bad or when he feels sick. But he does not know who we are. He takes it on faith that I am his father, but he has no memory of our family-life. The only person he remembers is his pony. He spends as much time with Strider as he can, and we let him, hoping that the good beast might lead him back to who he is–may he prove to be a healer like his namesake!
“I expected your mother to break under the weight of so much sorrow, but shes proved to be the strong one. She got her weeping done, then she set to teaching Tom everything from scratch. Shes in the kitchen right now, showing him how to make muffins. Tom is kind of clumsy, he moves like a drunkard or a faund, but he gets better every day, and she keeps him moving so that his muscles get more practice remembering how things go all the time.
“Rosie lets me know how lucky we are that we got Tom back at all. People start over all the time, she says. When floods ruin your hole, you dig another one. When rats eat your corn, you grow more corn. Toms still the same loving lad he always was, he just got set back a pace, thats all, and hes catching up as fast as he ever rode in any race. That branch dident knock him stupid, it just wiped out his library, so to speak, and hes got to stock it up with new books, so to speak, and we mustent take it too hard if he has to scrounge up different books cause the old books are gone for good. And Frodo, I am trying, I am really trying, but its hard!”
Frodo pulled the black waistcoat with the ponies out of the chest. Partial mourning, then, for a partial death. Tom still lived, but all of their years together as brothers might as well have never happened. Magic, it seemed, was not the only way to change the past. Frodo saw dark dots upon the cloth before he even realized that he wept. He turned back to the letter for news of May.
“No word yet on your sister. I wish I could say better.
“I am writing to you now from Brandy Hall again. I rode into the Old Forest today. I sang that old song that Tom Bombadil taught us so many years ago. I felt like a child singing out a nursery rhyme, half-certain nothing would come of it, we must have imagined that old adventure, maybe I even imagined Tom Bombadil showing up at Farmer Maggots funeral.
“The trees did not like me there. I could feel them not liking me. I could hear them groaning and snapping the way they do, all around me. My path grew dense in all directions so I just stopped. Twigs poked at me no matter where I moved, so I just stood my ground. My pony neighed and fidgeted beneath me, but I just patted her neck and bade her be still as well. Then I heard the singing. It seemed to come from all quarters at once:
“Ho Sam of Hobbiton! Ho Samwise Gardner!
What brings you wandering here so far from court and garden?
You are not the Master here, nor am I your partner
Enforcing rules that arent my own, to punish or to pardon.
“To which I found myself answering,
“I come not as the mayor here, but only as a father,
Seeking, with my hat in hand, for my missing daughter.
“To which the voice in the woods replied,
“May has found the friends she needs in unexpected places;
Do not seek her secrets out, do not search for traces,
Do not try to find the paths that no one ever mappéd;
She has found her safety here–with you it hadent happened!
“Frodo, I dident know what to say to that. I turned around, crushed. If Bombadil hisself has turned against me, what chance do I have? At least he says shes safe. Maybe some act of mine might put that safety in peril–why else would he warn me off? I couldent risk it.
“I must hold onto what he said. May is safe in the Old Forest. She has found strange friends. Tom Bombadil would not lie to me.”
And there he had it--the other little death that was no death. Frodo’s sister had survived, but no longer walked among her own kind. What could he make of that?
“I am back at Hobbiton, now. Your mother carries on briskly, throwing her energy into teaching Tom everything. He walks near normal, now, and speaks haltingly but clear. Rose does not show her grief to Tom, who cannot understand it, but she cries sometimes in my arms at night. And I watch her once-red hair turn more and more to white, each day a little more. Its kind of peachy, now, poor lass.
“I have your letter, now. I must not be selfish. You have great concerns of your own. I must find it in me to answer what I can.”
Frodo put the pages aside. He could bear no more for awhile, certainly not to read of his own small concerns. He pulled on the black waistcoat, and buckled on the belt, over his linen tunic. He closed the chest and rested his head against it for a long while, as Bleys nearby made sympathetic noises. He stood then, hugged his donkey for another long while, his face buried in the fur. Then he fetched a man-sized rake and got to work at cleaning up the stable.