He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 23, Part 207
Gossip from Nibs
Tower House in Seaside
Nurnen of Mordor
Gondor, Ithilien Jurisdiction
I just wached my last letter sail away, time to start a new one. Today is the 8th of July. I have now settled into the same holl as your poor addled son. Tower, rather, not holl--I have to climb stairs! But I think I told you that in the last letter. I still am not used to it, so still mentioning it.
I am feeling good as new, otherwise–or would, if this infernal heat would let me be. I told you that last time, too, after I got poysonned, but I know my sister, you will want me to tell you that the recovery took hold.
We had a funny business, today. Frodo and a team of men dug up what poysonned me. He wore boots, Rose, but only for this one occasion, and I don’t blame him one bit–you don’t want any part of you touching that dirt, not if you could help it. They found a skull, with gold and jools sunk right in it–a morbid bit of work, I should say! I suppose that passes for art around here. I wonder who made it–and how? But what else can you expect from such an uncouth people?
The rygrass harvest goes well. Its ugly, prickly stuff, and tastes a bit on the bitter side, but it keeps the people fed, that’s all I’m asking of it. Not like you’d eat in the Shire, but then this is not the Shire. But it’s a big improvement over my expectations. I expected to be served rat chops for dinner. When I said something about that over supper everybody started giggling sort of nervous-like.
That human woman that Frodo got mixed up with awhile back, used to be called Crookyteeth, but now she’s Pearl–well, she’s found ways to cook ry flour that tastes surprisingly good. I never thought you could make that stuff into cakes, but she does a fine job of it. That and buckwheat flour, and some kind of sweet flour from a bean tree of all things. One very resourceful lady, in an art that’s closest to my heart. She’s a fine figure of a lady, too, although too tall, of course, and she laughs like Frodo’s donkey. It makes me kind of sad–I wish she had been born a hobbit, even with her rude laugh–I could get used to it. It would of been better for Frodo all around.
Her gentleman friend, the smith (who we’re not supposed to know is an elf, but your Sam already let that slip) has shown her how to make sugar from the roasted heart of a big, dangerous sword-bush. I do not kid you–that plant grows as gray as iron, and consists of nothing but a great bristle of leaves longer than I am, all of them thick and hard like blades, with sharp, serrated edges that really can cut you, coming to a mean, sharp point. You do not want anyone prone to fainting anywhere near a sword-bush. And its deadly poison before you roast it, but afterwards it becomes just as sweet as spring in the Shire.
Today is the 9th of July. Frodo left me to work in the fields all by myself without him. He had many errands, he says. Well, I did the job I came to do whenever it might chance that he couldn’t find it in hisself to do it, just like I said I would. The heat’s enough to stun an ox, so his absense does not surprise me.
All in all, however, I do think he does better every day, from having a little help. Peregrin Took told me that he wept all the time, but I have not seen that so far. Frodo seems surprisingly joyful, in fact, all things considered. He gives me a breath of fresh air just waking up to his stubborn happiness every morning. You just wait–he shall be strong and sensible again, before I leave. All he needs is someone with good hobbit sense around him for awhile. Much as I respect The Took, and meaning no harm, I am not sure that he qualified. Be that as it may, I think that Frodo also needed a relative, not some make-believe “uncle”, but real blood-kin. He needed a good, healthy dose of his Harfoot roots, if you ask me. Some of these Tooks and Brandybucks got no more sense than a Breelander, and consort with all kinds of queer folk.
Family–it means everything, don’t it? I had a hard day today on account of missing Maybelle. I can say that to you, big sister. I know its been more than a year, I’m supposed to have done with mourning, and to everyone else I have, but you remember what a special lady she was. Laboring under the southern sun, I kept remembering her bringing a cool picher of her vinagree-swizzle out to the fields when the work got hot back in the Shire, she all looking like a windblown blossom, wafting up through the rows with her pink skirt gathered up by one hand and the picher in the other, and oh, how good that swizzle would taste in a parched-dry throat, and how lucky I would feel, looking over the rim of my mug at her smile.
Its not so bad anymore, really, this mourning. Its just times like this, when I dip myself a tin cup of the warmish, bitter stuff that passes for water hereabouts, boiled afore anybody dares to drink it, that I remember what I had and what I lost.
Frodo’s “wife” is still in what they call secloosion, till they can marry again fit for the local laws or some such thing, although I thought I heard tell that Mordor didn’t have marriage at all until Captain Bergil brought it up just this year. Well, now they must have marriages, just like civilized folks. Meanwhile, nobody believes Frodo and Mattie’s tales of witness-bearing tree-ladies in the Effel Dwath, though sadly I think that they do, themselves, and mean no lie by it. The poor addlepates probably saw some narls in bark that looked sort of like a face, in a tree that bobbled at them in the wind. They both saw what they wanted to see, I reckon, as sturdier minds than theirs have done. Ah well, do not despair! No Shire law will hold them to it, at Frodo’s age. And he has already accomplished enough that doubtless some legitimate wife of the future can overlook the errors of his youth.
But I cannot see Mattie mixing up vinagree-swizzle and carrying it out to the fields for him. Though she does strum up a good tune, and no mistake. I know–we all had hoped for something more respectable than a wanderlusty mounteback for our lad, but as buskers go I do have to say she’s a talented one, if that is any consolation. Kind of classy, really; she doesn’t prance about in tights and a skimped-up skirt, dancing for the lads and doing flips and handstands and whatnot with her petticoats flying, juggling and jiggling and heaven knows what–she just sings and plays the harp, so that’s not quite so scandalous. Even the Queen of Gondor has played the harp, I hear, though never for coin, of course.
In fact, Matthilda looks a whole lot like a boy when she performs–no white stage-paint for her face, with round red spots of rouge or anything like that. But then everybody here wears the same loose tunics in the summertime–hard to tell, sometimes, the lasses from the lads.
Ours wouldn’t be the only Shirefolk with a lady-busker in the family, you know–aye, even the finest families in the Shire have their stories, if the truth be known. I heard tell that one of The Took’s older daughters ran off with a traveling show for a whole summer long, though they hushed it up, touring the countryside in a bright painted wagon strung up with bells. Old Andy Gamgee claims to’ve seen a missy do a slack-rope act up his way, and she looked an awful lot like the Took girl–Hyacinth, I believe they said it was--walking that slack-rope with piles of dishes balanced on her head and on either end of a pole, as surefooted as a goat in red and green tights. Of course he couldn’t swear to it, through all of that paint. But he does say she had Hyacinth’s giggle, and that little bump on her nose.
If the rumors be true, and that really was Hyacinth Took, that would be the one they married off to Ilberic Brandybuck in such haste, as you’ll recall, though he was twice her age. Well, Ilberic always did have an odd sense of humor, and exotic tastes, and he likes to frequent the traveling shows, hisself, even went off a few times to see the new stage in Bree. And it must be ten years since his first wife died childless, poor thing, so its about time he took another shot at matrimony, though what his last wife aimed to do up on the barn roof in the first place nobody ever explained to my satisfaction. I don’t think Ilberic ever found out, hisself. He does go for the peculiar ones, though, doesn’t he? Wasn’t she a Took, too, at least in part?
I suppose Ilberic and Hyacinth must be happy together; I caught a glimpse of them, myself, when I passed through Buckland, the two of them walking arm in arm and laughing over who knows what, and it seemed to me that her eyes shone when she looked on him. I can’t see Master Peregrin hitching up his daughter to anyone she didn’t like, however wild she might be (he always did indulge his young ones too far, if you ask me.) And someone like her, well, maybe she likes those as are older and a bit more worldly, less easily shocked. By all accounts she still smiles a lot, and sings, and shows no sign of missing any life other than the one she’s got right now; by all indications Hyacinth has indeed settled down, become at least respectable enough for those queer folk across the river. But Jolly’s Meg did catch sight of her juggling clothespins, once, while hanging out the wash. And some say she’s knit the baby little tights in red and green.
And what was Meg doing in Buckland in the first place? Buying orris-root, from what I hear, for grinding up and powdering her face. I swear, Jolly’s wife powders herself up so much you’d think she was Wil Whitfoot after the town-hall collapsed. Trying to hide the wrinkles, I’d say. All those long nights out with him, playing darts just like one of the lads, is finally catching up with her, I’ll just bet that’s it. She looks more like a mounteback, herself, than Mattie ever does.
Of course, and as you know too well, the harp-playing for money isn’t the most scandalous thing about Matthilda so-called Gardner. She’s been staying sober since they both came back from the wilds, but for how long, I ask you? Ah well, my nephew’s had his own battles, from all you told me–maybe they need each other, to prop each other up. I might countenance this marriage after all, if that’s the case. Like understands like.
I just hope they don’t go drag each other down instead, like Piggy Wiggler and his poor wife June. You remember that sad case? Her large family came for miles around, from every corner of the Shire to her funeral–which they could take the time to do, everybody tells me, because she was so thoroughly pickled that not even the summer heat could do her body damage–I heard tell she lay in state for a full week, if a day, and no smell to her but a lingering aroma of port. But the Wigglers have never been what you’d call a respectable family; June took her chances marrying into that clan, living out on the fringes the way they do, where they can do any old thing and not fear what the neighbors might think. It can do a body harm, not having to be responsible to decent society.
You’ll be glad to hear that the Prince has just now returned a-foot. Something out there kilt his horse. That doesn’t do much towards making me feel any more secure about this land! But don’t you fret, dear sister–everybody here looks out for Frodo, and strong, armed men mind his safety even when he doesn’t mind it hisself. Loony or not, he has won them over. Lots and lots of good people and bad will see your son delivered alive and mostly whole back to Bag End, for he touches even the hardest hearts. His own’s about as big as the four farthings, and folks turn to him like sprouts to sunlight.
I don’t know about this prince. He’s a skinny one, hardly looks like he could ever wear a crown without crumpling under the weight. And he’s supposed to lead men, but some say he’s less than half human. Mind you, he is real sweet-natured and a delight to travel with. But he’s too soft-spoken and he smiles like a girl. Of course your son tells me that the King hisself’s a soft-spoken one, when he’s not up on the throne being King, so maybe this young one can find it in him to bellow out orders when he must. Anyway, Frodo says he drew the prince a bath today, and got a good clear look at sword-scars all over him, so maybe the man is tougher than he looks. Not my business, of course, how Gondor runs their affairs. They don’t lay claim to the Shire anymore, from what I hear, although Sam does give the King some kind of allegiance on behalf of us all. I never quite figgered all that out.
Today is the 10th of July. Frodo and I had to sleep downstairs with a passel of men who had no chance to bathe since laboring hard in the heat for him. Your son took it in his head to hire them to punch a great hole in the wall, of both his room and mine, though I don’t exactly understand why. He worked them after dark to beat the heat, with a great fence of thorns all around to keep the night-beasts out–thats what kind of place this is.
They started in early this morning, too, before the dawn, all a-clattering and battering upstairs so that none of us could lie abed in peace, “singing” like nauseated wolves while they were at it. Not that I had a proper bed, but rather spent the night on a cot that Frodo had left over from his travels. Nor did I get much in the way of rest–that son of yours can snore fit to wake the Barrows! He fell asleep before his men finished their work the night before, and slept on through their mayhem in the morning, then shot out of bed (or his stone bench equivalent) as bright and cheerful as if he had good wit, and fixed breakfast for everybody. I’ll admit I forgave him all after the second breakfast–he knows his way about the kitchen, but then he had two good teachers in his Ma and Pa.
I got a good peek at all his scars while he changed for bed. Oh dear but he looks like a ruffian by now. The sword-cut on his left shoulder, claw marks of a wild animal on his right, a cut on the soles of each foot, several thin scars on his left thigh and a thick snaky one on his right–it’s as plain as plain that he has seen some hard usage. I’m telling you now so you won’t be too horrified when he comes home. Also, in some lights you can just barely see a fine mesh of scratchlike marks all over him, face and everything–but most of the time it doesn’t show. At least his Mattie doesn’t seem to mind–that’s one more point in her favor; at least I’ve got to give her that.
Frodo did his share of work today, helped by that donkey of his. He works plenty hard enough, really, if in spurts.
Today is the 11th of July. Heat got to me. I passed clean out, and woke to Frodo sponging me off with water hardly cool enough to make a difference. He told me you can’t just work through the daylight hours here same as you would in the Shire, not in the summertime. I thought people just knocked off in the afternoon out of foreigner laziness, but it seems they have their reasons.
So now here I am, back at Frodo’s home, with that hook-handed man fussing over me, fanning me in great, big swoops, and making me drink some oddly brackish concoction. (And why can’t Gondor have someone big and manly like that for a prince? He looks a lot like a tall, lean version of your brother-in-law Hamson–altogether reassuring, out here in the wilderness.) Folks seem to account him the local expert on hobbit health and well-being, so that’s who Frodo sent for. Used to be Frodo’s own servant, I hear, before he took to medicine. I must say that Mordor is hard on the constitution! I feel kind of feeble right now. But at least this is not the worst part of the land, where your husband nearly dropped dead just walking across it. I will get better in no time, I am sure of it.
Frodo says cheer up, the Nurnings will hold another festival soon. Something to do with the fruit of that abominable kaktush that grows everywhere around here. (I’m still finding stickers in my breeches from my last encounter.) My stars! When do they get any work done around here? But your son says that they don’t throw nearly as many parties as hobbits do, all told, and these days they figger to make up for lost time, finally having the wherewithal to party with. I like the sound of that! Here my nephew works himself into a state of mental collapse trying to get these starving folks some food, and what do they do? They want to squander it all away as fast as we can reap it!
But to that Frodo said that this festival hasn’t really got much to do with food. Oh, this just gets better and better! They already harvested the kaktush fruit, and theyve been fermenting it some time now, and soon comes the official day to sample the wine they made. Wonderful! Exactly what my nephew does not need! He says he will not participate, just stay quietly at home. I think I ought to stay here all the same, myself, and keep an eye on him. But no, he says I should go out and meet people, and I would enjoy this wine, it doesn’t taste a thing like the Burning Drink, what they call “grog” hereabouts. Then his eyes grew sad as he told me that he tasted it only once, but that once was enough to show him that he should never try it again, hisself.
I shall enjoy lying here abed (or a-cot) while I can, before the racket starts at evening once again. Old Hook-Hand says to take it easy for awhile, and I just don’t feel like arguing. The workers have left that thorn fence up all day long and intend to leave it in place for some days more, though it’s a blamed noosense having to get a man to open and close it every time I want to go in or out. They did more work on that great big gaping hole in the wall, first thing this morning. I could hear the hammering and clanging like the mill in its worst Sandyman days, all the way up in the fields. But at least Sandyman never sang like an Easterner haunt.
Theyve got some strange purpose involving the Lady Eowyn for the thorn fence after the workers finish with it, though we’re supposed to call her Dinwen, not Eowyn. I think the name means something like Silent Lady or some such thing; Frodo told me once. And we must call the Prince Gwaythendil, which Frodo tells me means Loves the People. I suppose that when you’ve got fancy titles and all, but then take it in your head to want people to treat you just like folks, then you’ve got to change your name and sneak around a bit. I know the Prince’s father did the same before him, but it just doesn’t set right with me. It makes them seem like brigands or something.
Something’s gone wrong with the Lady Eowyn, but nobody will talk about it. Her memory’s just not right, and she doesn’t seem to think quite clear. This morning she reached for sugar for her tea, then looked confused for a moment, and put it on her eggs instead–then ate it that way as though anyone should like it. I think she’s getting old, and her mind’s gone feeble faster than her body. Men do age sooner than a hobbit does. Why they’d let her run around in that state, I don’t know. Yet she played some important role in fixing me up after I got poysonned, I know that much, so maybe she’s still more there than not.
Poor men! We went so many years thinking they were stronger, braver, more heroic than our kind, just because they were big. And it made us all feel secure to leave the larger matters of the world in the hands of the Big Folk while we went about our own business. That just seemed right. It makes me sad to learn that actually they are rather frail, as people go. It makes me feel less safe, even though the world has in fact gotten safer after the War. But that, too, leaves me uneasy, to think that hobbits had to finish that whole business up for men.
Most Shirefolk don’t know nor care about any of this, of course, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t of paid it much attention either, if anybody but your Sam told me. Don’t get me wrong–he’s a good one and he’s been pure gold to you, and I’m glad to have him in the family. Its just that if one hangs about him for too long, one learns things one would just as soon not know. I do not fault him for that, neither. I spose a mayor has to make it his business to know uncomfortable facts, for the good of all the rest of us. I just never reckoned on having a mayor in our family.
Today is the 12th of July. We have pretty much wrapped up the rygrass fields, and started in on the porridge pease. I do love a good pea soup! Frodo has planted enough to feed Sauron’s old army if it was still around.
I look around at all these green fields, and I look at the hard rock and clay beyond them, and I start to guess at what our Frodo loves here. This land hands you nothing. If you want food, beauty, kindness, goodness of any kind, even life itself, you have to find the courage to make it, yourself. And that kind of sets one up proud. These fields, their the most beautiful thing in all this land, as far as I’m concerned, because so much hard work made them happen–so much sweat and groaning from our lad and those with the sense to follow him. And here, he has done it! You don’t see this lush kind of green anywhere else, as far as you might look–just a sort of moldy grayish green, if you find any green at all. Each day of laboring in this merciless heat impresses on me just how much Frodo has acomplished, and how much pride he has a right to, no matter what mistakes he made along the way. I’ve improved the soil in my day, but I never had to make my dirt from scratch!
You show that lad something foul and stinking, and he will ask, “Can I compost it?” Show him the meanest, ugliest plant ever misborn on Middle Earth, and he will ask, “What fruit does it bear? Can I extract something from the roots? What else might it give?” He has even found some sort of use for pond scum, though I don’t rightly understand it. I swear if a viper bit him, his last act would be to pry open the jaws and grab hisself a fang or two for the ivory! In the poorest land in the world he has made hisself rich, by accounting anything and everything as riches.
Maybe we could use a little more of his kind of madness here and there.
Now Frodo has just done something truly crazed. He has invited his former human ladyfriend to tea–along with that elf-smith who courts her now–both together. He has left the field early to start fixing something up special. Oh, I can just imagine the conversation! But at least I count it a good sign that he can move on bravely when a mismade romance runs its course.
I will write more later, dear sister. Just know that your boy is in good hands, many different good hands of all shapes and sizes. No one’s going to let anything hurt him too bad, nor hisself neither. Now I’m off to tea–oh, this should be juicy!