He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 20, Part 204
The gentle rain soon grew, once the warriors had all gotten inside, to a cloudburst of such ferocity that it seemed as though the Sea of Nurnen had smashed down upon the village in one great wave. Thunder roared and lighting shattered the cloud-veiled dimness again and again. And then, after a surprisingly short interval, it cleared away at once. New sun poured down, sparkling in the droplets that bejeweled each thorn, and a rainbow arced the town. Strong winds blew the bluster out to sea, a nimbus-crowned curtain of gray sailing away from shore. Windblown people set forth to set up their festival in honor of Elenaril, in the open space beside the new-built hospital and its ever-replenishing fountain.
It seemed strange to his Uncle Nibs to hold a party so soon after such alarming events, but Frodo only laughed and said, “Welcome to Mordor, Uncle!” He might have felt a little giddy from lack of sleep, but a celebration seemed like a wonderful idea to Frodo. His kinsman had survived poisoning just fine, they had conquered evil in the fields, and whatever lay buried there could surely stay beneath the ground one more day before they had to deal with it.
As they left the Tower House Nibs asked him, “Where’s your wife gone to, now?”
“Oh, she went on ahead to help Pearl with the cooking,” Frodo said as lightly as he could. “And between them they shall no doubt impress everyone with their novel recipes. I’m looking forward to it.”
Nibs gave him a sidelong glance, and remarked, “You aren’t going to run wild on me, are you? I don’t want to have to tell my sister any more bad news on you, young sir.”
“I shall stand before all as a model of propriety, Uncle Nibs. I promise.”
“I didn’t say don’t have a good time–just don’t get in any trouble.”
“I mean by Mordor standards of propriety.”
“Don’t say that, you rascal!” Nibs swatted at his laughing, dodging nephew with his hat.
See what I mean? Plainly his intention...
“Shut up, Sauron.”
Nibs frowned at Frodo, but said nothing. Frodo caught it, though, and with a wry smile explained, “Dark Lords don’t have much of a sense of humor, you see...” then his face turned ugly as he stared on past his Uncle and growled, “Don’t start! That sort of vileness does not constitute a decent sense of humor where I come from!” Then he giggled despite himself, then looked horrified, then shouted, “Stop it! Stop it, do you hear me? I don’t want to listen–I don’t!” yet then he laughed again, as though torture wrung each chortle out of him.
By now they had stopped in the streets. Quietly Nibs reached into the breast of Frodo’s tunic, drew out the pink-jeweled lens, and pressed it into Frodo’s hands. “Now lad, you wouldn’t let anyone speak those kinds of jests in the presence of your little sister, would you?”
Slowly Frodo shook his head, then closed his eyes and whispered, “No. Thank you. Shut up, Sauron.” A shudder passed through him. Then he opened his eyes and Nibs watched him become a nearly-normal young hobbit again, and they walked on, talking about trivialities, Nibs guiding the conversation into every harmless direction that he could think of.
They reached the open space beside the hospital and the Fountain of Queen Arwen. Weavers had roofed the entire plaza with cloths to shade them from the noonday sun (fabric snapping loudly in the wind, but well-secured) and men had hauled long tables all the way from the Blue Dragon. Puddles glinted here and there, reflecting blue sky and white clouds, occasionally rippling when little wrens hopped in to splash about, then flew away again.
Nibs regarded them curiously. “I didn’t know that any birds except crebain ever flew into Mordor, from what your father told me.”
“Perhaps not, in his day. Yet maybe even then, out here beside the Sea of Nurnen. Do you see how long and curved their beaks have grown? That’s for working around thorns, to reach the kaktush fruits and bugs. Yavannah has adapted them well to living here.” Frodo turned solemn eyes to his uncle. “You have seen some of the bad surprises Mordor holds in store. Watch for the good surprises, too. Many good things snuck in under Sauron’s watch even at the height of his power. Like my father did.” Then he clapped his hands together and put on a grin. “Now let’s go join the fun!”
Nibs went on to seek out their table, but Frodo paced through the rows, scanning the faces of the women who laid out plates between bouquets of summer flowers. All seemed of a height, more or less; at least none that he saw stood waist-high to the rest. Mistress Pearl, on the other hand, loomed large as she ran here, there, and everywhere, directing the presentation of what she hoped would be remembered as the best banquet that Seaside had ever seen. Frodo noted that she had grown in more than social stature since last he saw her; well-rounded now even by Shire standards, butter and cream and all of the things that one could cook with them seemed to have agreed with her.
But unlike the old Cook, her generosity of figure matched her generosity of heart. Frodo watched her slip briefly into an alley where wastrels slumped against a wall, with a basket full of bread and cheese upon her arm, and come back with the basket empty. She saw him watching, and blushed, saying, “They needs somethin’ solid on their tummies fer a change. And at least they can’t put cheese into a still.”
“Hello, Pearl. Thank you for your kindness to my household.”
“Coo–that? ‘Tis nothing!” Yet she smiled and tucked her hair more tidily into its kerchief. “I owe ye, and Mattie, too.” She straightened, as though to emphasize the difference in their heights. “Hobbits belong with other hobbits–it gladdens me heart to see ye happy, Sweet.” Then she dimpled. “And I know ye’re happy fer me, as well–Lanethil as much as told me so.”
“I wish you all the blessings of the West, Pearl, for all the days of your life. You saw me through some difficult times. May Lanethil prove as devoted to you as you were to me at need.”
Even in the time that they spoke a great crowd gathered. Pearl hastened to her work, while Frodo pressed through all of the Big Folk to his place at Elenaril’s table, beside his uncle Nibs, who had already tucked a napkin around his neck in anticipation, sipping occasionally from his water-glass in the noonday heat.
The absence of spiritous beverage there did not trouble Nibs at all, for he had heard nothing but evil about the Black Drink of Mordor. And if Bergil slipped away now and then, coming back rosy-cheeked with a little something to share with the injured Fishenchips (his bandaged foot propped up on a stool) nobody felt anything but amused. Frodo did notice Lanethil dipping his own flagon into the fountain, disdaining the nearby keg, and the hobbit’s heart gladdened for the sake of the drought-freed land. But then the thought troubled him that they so recently had seen all the proof that they needed that the land remained poisoned–how might that affect the elf? “Yet he took a hand himself in purifying the potato-patch,” Frodo reflected. “That bodes well.” Under the table his dusty toe caressed the earth.
A bell rang. Women came forth carrying platters of food–wry-bread to start, with a variety of flavored butters, cheeses, and seed-pastes that seemed to match its flavor well, softened in the summer heat. Frodo stared at the empty seat beside him, and then looked around for his wife. His heart sank. Again his eyes scanned the crowd–but of course the preponderance of big folk would easily obscure a hobbit two feet away from him. Still, he could not resist looking back at the chair, and then searching one more time.
His uncle cleared his throat. When Frodo turned to him, Nibs said softly, “Angband has no torture worse than doubting the one you love.” The old farmer leaned forward, his arms high up on the table. “You can end this, Frodo. Annul the marriage now, and you can heal in time.”
Frodo lifted his chin and quite cooly replied, “I have not made a mistake.”
“I hope for your mother’s sake...” Nibs began, but the crowd interrupted him, cheering and whistling. When Frodo turned, his heart leaped as high as it had sunk before and then some, for hands lifted up Mattie to the very top of a barrel, where she beamed and tuned her harp. Then, as the monkey scrambled up the barrel to join her, she plucked three notes, quivering on the air, and the people sighed as one.
Slowly at first she played, like a breeze softly stirring the thorns. Then she picked up speed, as a wind building up towards a desert storm--her fingers blurred across the strings, building melody upon melody until they sounded like harmonies, so fast she played, so surely, exquisite music that would have pierced with pleasure anyone in any land–here in Mordor it became almost unendurable. At last, when she took breath and sang, Frodo felt like he soon must burst, so much happiness filled him and stretched him beyond his normal measure–he listened in wonder, for he had thought that no mortal could ever feel such joy anywhere but Valinor. Surely love amplified the beauty in each song, but so did talent, unbridled at last, running away with Mattie, carrying her and all of them far beyond the stain on Middle Earth, as good music will do, if only for the briefest glimpse of heights beyond.
Frodo did not later recall all that she sang–tributes to Elenaril, for the most part--but one song stuck in his head, for it caused his Uncle Nibs to sit back and change in his regard, as the music dropped from merriment, for that moment, into something deeper, sadder, and yet enriched:
“Long I ventured downward into the lonely dark,
Chasing after glimmers of some forbidden spark,
But I found there naught save splinters of a mirror bright,
Reflecting from behind me a forgotten light.
Long I disguised my age, my gender and my name,
Long I dismissed alike the pangs of hope and blame,
Yet the shards of mirrors gave sharp truths to me,
E’en when the shadows seemed too dark to let me see.
And now that I have turned my blistered feet around,
Through weary steps to climb the stony slope of ground,
I find at last the mirror which my errors mends,
Gleams warmer than a fire, in the eyes of friends.
While radiance aloft pours down unsought on them,
Reflecting from the facets of each mirror-gem,
My quest for treasure, that I thought left in the past,
Discovers here its riches, offered free at last!”
Other songs followed. At some point Nibs looked down at his untouched bread and buttered it, half-embarrased. But neither he nor any soul could turn their attention away long enough to feast while Mattie sang.
“Enough!” the mayor finally cried. “Ye’ve enchanted me village to starvation, lass–let be yer magic and let us eat!”
Laughing, Mattie hopped down into a roar of applause. She disappeared for awhile into the crowd, before she popped up again right by Frodo’s side, climbed up into her seat and finished up the last of the bread in a trice just in time for the salad to arrive–smothered in a creamy dressing the like of which Frodo had never tasted before.
“That would be one of Lanethil’s recipes,” Mattie remarked. “Oh, this should be good!”
Other musicians took turns in Mattie’s place, capering atop the barrel even as people came and went to tap it, with flute or fiddle, drum and chant or odd stringed instruments of the East. Pleasant enough, especially with Trickster doing flips and handstands wherever his monkey-logic felt it fit the music, but not so much as to interfere with the meal before them. Nibs did mention, “I’ve tasted better in the Shire,” a couple times, but he did so with his mouth full and a pleased expression. Frodo could tell, before tasting, which dishes came from elvish recipes, by the occasional look of humbled delight on his Uncle’s face.
Nearby Bergil and Fishenchips chattered away in fine form, now laughing uproariously, now sharing maudlin reminiscences, altogether enjoying the occasion, while Elenaril smiled in amused patience. As Bergil brought over refilled tankards for himself and his friend, he asked, “I cannot help but wonder, whatever happened to Belzagar’s ring? Do you still have it?”
“Naw,” Fishenchips answered, hooking a tankard and taking a frothy swallow. “Used t’wear it on me right hand. Th’acids o’ a sea-monster’s guts eat at it now.”
“Good riddance, I suppose,” Bergil reflected. “That old brute took all and gave back nothing, from what you say.” Bergil thumped Fish on the back. “You deserve much better, my friend.”
“Aye–good riddance, and a toast to all sea monsters! Long may they thrive–as far as may be from these shores, I might add.” He clicked tankards with Bergil, then mumbled to himself, “That old Fish died, may he rest in peace!”
But Bergil caught the words. “Indeed–may he rest in peace, like Dragon-Girl has done. Long live Spring!”
Here he toasted again, waving his cup in the general direction of the little girl, who plaintively asked Elenaril, “Do I have to eat the goat? ‘Tis red inside.”
“Here, darling,” the herbwife answered. “Let us find you a piece cooked through and through.” And she sniffed over the platter before her till her sharp senses caught the aroma of meat well-done.
Just then a dish of beans and herbs came by, swimming in a buttery sauce of spices unknown to the West. “Here, Uncle,” Frodo said. “You cannot say the Shire cooks this better, because they don’t cook anything like this at all.” And so the feast went on, merrily enough, more gladly than folks could feel who have few sorrows to compare their happiness to. Nibs himself got into the spirit of the day, grinning more broadly and laughing more loudly than Frodo had seen since his aunt had died.
At last, after the second or third dessert, Mattie said, “Enough! If I cram in one more mouthful I won’t have room enough to fill my lungs full-depth and sing the closing songs.”
Frodo laughed and said, “Then just sing softly, just for me,” pushing a mint confection her way.
She did take it, smiling, but then shook her head. “I must go. After this point I can pass the hat, you see, and we need the money, darling.”
Before her seat had a chance to cool, as Frodo heard somewhere the tuning of her harp, Mayor Aloe had muscled into her place beside him, and her face looked stern. “What’s this I hear, chickie, about ya leadin’ me people astray?”
“Beggin’ your pardon?”
“Livin’ in sin! After all yer fancy talk about the virtues o’ the West.”
“Indeed! That’s a fine word to use, after all the times you tried to...”
“That ‘twere then and this be now, pet. Ya had to come and teach folks better–I’d take it kindly if ye’d live up to yer own preachin’, that’s all.”
“But I do--I married Mattie! We had an entwife for a witness...”
“Yadedadeda–I’ve heard the story, chickie–th’entire town’s been laughin’ about it since ye arrived. We both know entwives don’t exist–Aule made the dwarfs wi’out enough womenkind t’go around, and so Yavanna turned around and did a worse job still o’ makin’ the ents, without a female to their name.”
“Is that what you’ve been told? Some old orc’s tale? Let me assure you that...”
‘Let me assure you,” she interrupted with a hard grip on his arm, “That I expect some changes around here in Seaside–no more little girls sufferin’ like I had to do. And I expect my Master Royal Gardner hobbit person to lead the way in the changes that he started, set a proper example, see. I expect a fittin’ hobbit wedding here, right in public in Seaside fer all the folks to witness.”
“But that would be a second wedding,” Frodo protested, then gasped as her nails dug in.
“Then let it be a second wedding, if ye insist! But let folks hereabout see ya tie the knot the way it should be.” With that she left.
Nibs asked, “Nephew, do you want that last piece of pie?” as though he hadn’t heard a thing.
“No, go ahead, take it.” Frodo sat and listened to Mattie sing lighter, easier songs for children, in honor of Elenaril’s blessed event to come. Many children indeed got up and danced; some turned to Frodo, inviting him to join them, but he felt embarrassed to share in such a far mutation of the Springle-Ring in front of his Uncle. Perhaps if he didn’t participate, Nibs wouldn’t recognize it, simply appreciate the dancing for itself. Besides, the last thing on earth he wanted was for his Uncle to observe him numbered among the children!
Eventually the sun sank towards the horizon, and the music stopped. Frodo waited at the table, watching the crowd disperse. He waited some more while women picked up the dishes and the litter, and then he had to get up when men came for the tables and the chairs. At last, when nothing remained of the feast but a few forgotten bones in the dirt, and a candy-wrapper blowing in the wind, Nibs said to him, “Let’s go. Maybe she’s gone ahead to the tower.” But when they got there they found everyone in the household preparing for bed except for Mattie. Frodo wouldn’t let Bergil bar the door until the night had closed upon the town entirely. That evening he slept on the downstairs bench, but no knock ever came.