He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 15, Part 199
The Education of Nibs Cotton
“There she is!” Frodo cried from his perch. He stood on the back of the cat figurehead, sturdy-looking despite the odd cut or bruise here and there, his bare feet clinging like limpets to the polished wood, only one hand to steady him on the prow. “Home!”
Nibs looked up in pained astonishment at the joy in Frodo’s face, as the seabreeze tossed the lad’s hair and rippled in the linen of his foreign-looking tunic. Home? And what did Frodo say the other day, about the rain helping him to feed “my people”?
Rising and dipping with each wave, Frodo looked quite striking, the pale, undyed fabric contrasting with the embroidered black vest and belt, and with the dark curls of his head and feet. Not to mention his skin--his bare limbs had browned more deeply than any Shire sun could bake them; his blue-green eyes startled the viewer in that copper face, the way they flashed so bright with yearning and delight when he gazed to the shore. Striking indeed--and alien.
“Just like May,” Nibs muttered under his breath. “Alive, but not ours anymore.” Nibs also wore a belt for May, and bore a black kerchief for Tom, with which he now wiped his brow as the Mordor sun beat down. But then his stubborn hobbit heart insisted, “No, not like May. This one we can still write to, talk to, visit, clasp, send aid and presents, and expect him someday, maybe, to return. He has not quite died to us.”
Nibs turned his eyes to the shore. He had seen enough of Mordor architecture to know what to expect, and he resigned himself to it. The same bleak blocks of stone amid the desert sand might as well make up the Shire, for all the good it did him. Beauty died with his wife. If, as his brother-in-law said often, work could heal a wounded heart, then he might as well labor here as anywhere else.
Above him, upon the wooden cat, Frodo exclaimed, “Oh how splendid it seems to me now, since the last time my ship came into dock! Look–trees! Very young trees, to be sure, likely to bend to the ground if a child should climb them, but growing, alive and green–and yes, already taller than when last I saw.” He threw his arms wide as though to hug the view, his precarious position notwithstanding. “Someday, Uncle, those trees shall shade the avenues of Seaside and the tender crops out in the field. Someday they shall scent the air with flowers in the spring, and bear fruit or nuts as the seasons turn. Someday those slender twigs, that I could snap between my fingers just like that, will swell to great boughs strong enough to embrace the storms!”
Frodo swung himself over the prow, clutched his sore side briefly with a wince, and hopped down to the deck with as glad a smile as ever. “And Uncle, no rubbish blows in the streets anymore. Starving beggars no longer die in alleyways next to their empty bowls. Instead the children play, the people laugh, and ropes of drying fruits and vegetables garland every porch.”
Though Frodo saw the village long before his Uncle could, it seemed like no time at all before the ship bumped up against the dock and sailors made busy with rope and plank, crates and barrels. “Oh Uncle Nibs!” Frodo cried with tears glittering in his eyes. “See? They have replanted the flower-boxes! I thought I had imagined the perfume blowing on the breeze as we sailed in, from my eagerness to return. O joy beyond my hopes–isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it all so heartbreakingly beautiful?”
Nibs stared at him wide-eyed, ignoring the sailor’s thumping, shouting bustle all around. And then he scanned the grim stone village. Not a real garden in sight, merely little pots and boxes tucked amid the rocks–how could so little come to mean so much? But then he nodded, after some reflection. “It’s all like Tom to you, ain’t it?” he said at last. “You’ve seen this place run down so bad–worse than I can imagine, I daresay–so that each day’s progress means something, like it’s a wonder.”
“It is a wonder,” Frodo said gravely. Then he grinned again, and waved to Mattie. “Come, my love! Let’s go get Bleys and Trickster ready to go home.”
Nibs watched them descend into the hold. Frodo’s bruises and abrasions hadn’t even healed yet from his last adventure–something the lad refused to talk about. Yet Frodo acted as though perfectly sound, even if his healing rib did catch him back now and then. Then Nibs surprised himself by grinning in his turn. “Ain’t that just like a hobbit,” he told himself, with a fond shake of the head. “He’s still one of ours, at the core, no matter what his talk or his outlandish looks.” Nibs went for his own pack, and soon joined the others on the landing.
“Well, ain’t that the queerest thing,” he remarked when he stumbled in his first steps. “My feet have forgotten the ways of solid land!”
Frodo took his arm. “Don’t worry, Uncle. They’ll remember quickly.”
Nibs glanced at him and thought, “May it be the same for you, lad. For your mother’s sake, may it be the same for you!”
Suddenly Frodo stopped in his tracks, mouth open with joy. “Another wonder! Oh, hasn’t she become lovely?”
Nibs barely stifled a shriek in time. A monster stepped forward from the looming human crowd, hurrying blindly towards their voices–rags of white hair blew around the countenance of a hag, revealing in stray gusts the masses of scar it had instead of a face, nothing left but pulsing nostrils and a withered and hungry-looking mouth.
Frodo exclaimed, “She’s starting to ripen already! Just the faintest swell of life–but oh, so full of promise for the future!”
And Nibs looked lower, and saw that the creature went indeed with child. And he remembered what his sister had told him, about a healer-woman of great courage, disfigured in the line of duty, and he felt glad that he had not shrieked after all, and gladder still that the poor thing couldn’t see him stare.
“I’ve a lesson here,” he told himself. The life-filled healer-hag seemed to embody everything he had to grasp about Mordor. “Well, I reckon I’ve learned a few lessons before now, and that part of my brain hasn’t died just yet.”
The hag embraced Frodo and Mattie with a tenderness that moved Nibs to behold. And soon others crowded up to welcome Frodo too (some hardly less deformed) to clasp his hands, his shoulders, his face, just touch him. Right before his eyes Nibs watched the habitual hardness of these faces melt, their gazes luminous with gratitude. For the first time Nibs saw Frodo as something more than Rose’s disturbed child. “He’s their miracle-worker. He put bread on their tables when they expected to die.” He shook his head. “Looks like I’ve got me some hard teachings ahead of me, all right.”
“Uncle, look!” Nibs turned and saw men struggling to haul a wagon, the leads resting on their calloused and sweating shoulders, for the poor creatures owned no draft animals to do the work for them. “Has ever grain looked so glorious, golden in the sun?” Nibs raised his eyes to the wagon’s burden. “Golden” didn’t quite describe that harvest. The sheaves looked dark for grain, almost grayish, and miserly. Undaunted, Frodo fairly danced for pleasure. “Oh, the ears grew so much heavier than wrygrass in the wild! We shall all eat well this winter.” Then once again the lad turned suddenly somber eyes upon him. “And that means something here, Uncle Nibs. I do not mean a winter with an especially good Yuletide feast. I mean a winter that everyone survives.”
Nibs dabbed his eyes with the kerchief, and put a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “Your mother told me about starvation in these parts.” he answered, a little bit hoarsely. “Then your father read passages from your letters in the Town Hall, to get the folks to ship you food with the hobbitry-at-arms to guard it for you.” Nibs had tasted something of hunger in Sharkey’s day, but nothing near so bad. He tried to take his memory of what hunger felt like, so many years ago, and then double it, triple it, multiply it tenfold. What would starvation feel like, to not have and still not have, all the way to death?
He looked at the bright flower-boxes up and down the streets, little gaudy bursts of clashing colors, under the reds and golds of loops of drying food, and a sudden memory hit him, of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, shortly after her release from the lock-ups. That shriveled little thing, pallid and still marked with sores, so skinny that she could barely walk, went to market for the first time since her imprisonment, wearing every single bead of her Bracegirdle heirloom jewelry. It had to be, without a doubt, the maddest thing that she had ever done in a lifetime of respectability, but after all she’d been through nobody said a word against her. Necklace layered over necklace, jostling against a crowd of brooches, and bracelets jangled all together on each wrist; she also wore a tiara and earrings and rings on every finger--gold and silver and bright, flashing gemstones (and glass, too, if the truth be known) in a gay cacophony of colors, a few sockets empty where those looting men had prized out stones for themselves before she could reclaim her own. But what did she care? She walked out in the sunlight again, and she captured bits of the sunlight all about her person, defying the darkest summer past for a winter full of hope. The streets of Seaside, rock pavement overshadowed by hovels cracked and worn, yet bedecked nevertheless in a treasury of food and flowers, looked just like her.
Nibs nodded. He understood, now. He rolled up his sleeves, and before he even saw where he would live, he grabbed up a man-sized pitchfork, right in the middle where he could balance its hugeness in his favor, and he helped the men pitch wrygrass onto the public threshing-floor.