Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 20, Part 230
Riddles in the Well
“An eye in a blue face
Saw an eye in a green face
‘That eye is like to this eye’
Said the first eye,
‘But in a low place,
Not a high place.’
Bilbo waited patiently, while Gollum hissed, trembling, trying to think through a skull absolutely hollowed out with pain.
“Come, come, I told that one to your father when he was a child, and he got it on the first try. Surely he must have passed it on to you.”
The wretch clawed after memories, though it hurt. “Father? Yesssss...we had a father, once. We...I...” Sparks flashed through him, horrible lightning-strokes, and when they passed he found himself beslimed in the nasty puddle below his rock, with mud splashed everywhere. In almost a normal voice he asked, “Did Sauron just attack me, again?”
“No, lad,” Bilbo said with immense sorrow. “You did, in a sense, yourself. Your body struggles to come back to life, you see, but goes about it rather badly. Sauron is long gone, licking his wounds far away, and much too weak to find his way back to you. Now please, try to climb back up here on your rock. You stand a much better chance of surviving this ordeal if you can at least keep yourself comparatively dry.”
As the gangrel pulled himself painfully back up, Bilbo hovered there, feeling the full helplessness of existing on a different plane, after he forgot himself and tried once more to give the poor fellow a hand up, with arms that didn’t exist in Middle-Earth anymore. “Oh dear, oh dear, how long will it take for help to arrive, and did the message even get through at all?” The wretch curled up shuddering at Bilbo’s feet, moaning and twitching, every bone in his body jutting in a frightening way. “Time!” Bilbo muttered. “Suddenly time means everything to me again! How can I stay outside of it when he needs me here and now?” Then, in a firmer voice, he repeated, “An eye in a blue face...”
“The sun!” the creature rasped. “I remember, now, gollum, gollum. The sun shining on a daisy.”
“Good, good!” It pained Bilbo to suddenly realize that the dreadful sound, which Smeagol had always made, came of swallowed-back sobs in an ever-raw throat. “And yes, Frodo, you had and still have a father, who cares very much about you, and would give all the world to see you well again.”
Wincing, Bilbo said, “You are Sam’s dear boy, Frodo Gardner, named after my heir. Not Pongo, not Gollum, not a dragon, none of those, but Frodo Gardner. Now, can you try a riddle on me?”
Frodo sat up, and shrank against the wall. “What’s that, writhing in the shadows?”
Bilbo looked. “Nothing, poor child. Nothing in your world or mine. You are simply seeing things that are not there. It comes from cutting yourself off from too many dreams, you see, for too many nights–they all come back with a vengeance as the poison which blocked them dissipates from your veins, and they arrive in none too happy a mood, too impatient now to decently wait for you to fall asleep.” The spirit nodded to himself. “Well, I suppose that counts as a riddle, as much as ‘What have I got in my pocket?’ So, my turn again, it seems:
He springs up high when buried low,
He laughs outside in the sun’s warm glow.
The sun’s rays turn him all to gold
Until the weather shifts to cold,
Outdoors he’ll stand in perfect ease
Till we shall chop him at the knees.
Then still outside all day he’ll lie
Until he shrivels up quite dry.
Now beat him up, then grind him down,
Drench him and burn him until he turns brown,
He’ll puff up pleased for all to see,
And serve thee hospitality.”
After struggling a moment, Frodo said, “Grain...grain grown, then turned into beer.”
“Bread, not beer–but well done! You are getting better at this!”
“Take my next turn, Bilbo. I cannot think of any riddles.”
“Very well then:
From a single fair root shall twine two lovely boughs
Supporting each other and growing in close.
First spring’s fragrant blossoms make everything light,
Then together they bring forth their fruits round and bright,
Then they cozy together in hearthfire blaze
Until winter strips bare to the bone harder days
Yet held up together they weather the blast,
And find they’ve grown stronger when spring comes at last
Their roots run still deeper, their branches reach high
Their trunk has grown sturdy–what they have will not die!
In a husky voice Frodo said, “Oh, that one is easy! Anyone who has ever heard Mattie’s song at a wed...wed-ding...” and then he broke down and cried. “How bitterly she must hate me, Bilbo! After all she did to come clean, and this is how I repay her–she would tear me limb from limb if she ever saw me again, and rightly so. How could I have ever betrayed her so badly?”
“You were not thinking clearly, lad.” Bilbo’s voice sounded gentle. Then, more brightly, “I suppose that qualifies as your riddle–my turn again!”
Frodo sighed, and asked in a barely audible voice, “Why are you bothering me with riddles, Bilbo?”
“Since you did skip your last turn, I had better answer that one, too. Why bother you? To keep your mind active and distracted. To give you little things to live for, if only, moment by moment, to hang on long enough to puzzle out the next answer. All who live within the weave of time need something ahead to reach for; even the smallest things will serve.”
Frodo slumped back down to curl up on his side, upon his little rock, staring down over the ledge’s rim at the puddle, wondering if Ulmo bothered even to take note of so small and fouled a pool. He whispered, “Please just let me die.”
“Dear me, I’m afraid I can’t do that, Frodo-lad.”
“Because I am firmly committed to happy endings, and that is an end to it!” The spirit paced uneasily, in circles inches above the mud. “If you must die, as you shall eventually, I can only allow it after you have lived happily ever after to the end of your days. Does this look like happily ever after to you? And does it make sense that your days should end so soon? I think not.”
Frodo smiled weakly, wistfully. “Give me a bottle of what I need, and I shall end happily enough.”
“And what about your father? How happily will his days end if I let you die like this? No, you are just going to have to live through this, and come to better times, and that is all there is to it!” To himself he muttered, “Time! How much more does he have?”
But Frodo heard, and rasped. “Time is not my friend. I offended against her.”
Bilbo snapped, “She is a better friend than you will ever realize, however angry she might feel towards you for the moment–indeed, what are moments, to her?” The old hobbit tried not to stare too obviously at Frodo’s emaciation, as he rocked back on his heals, thumbs behind his braces. “She intends to heal you, Frodo, if you would just give her the chance–yes, even heal you of the very wrong which you have committed against her web. Her sister-in-law will not give her any peace until she does. Of course it would help if you would try and take a little responsibility for the mess you have gotten yourself into, by living long enough to make amends, rather than going on about dying!”
That actually got one, brief choke of a laugh out of Frodo. “Believe me, Bilbo, there is nothing quite like finding yourself cold, naked, starving, and violently ill, at the bottom of a foul and slimy pit, to impress upon you the fact that your life is not entirely going as it should.”
“Well, I must say, that is the most sensible thing that I have heard from you all day!”
Frodo smiled at that, but the smile took too much effort to maintain for long. “How did I come to this, Bilbo?”
“Pride, I suppose, like most falls. The hardest problem to solve is the one that you do not want to admit exists at all.” Bilbo squatted down beside him and gently said, “It must have stung, didn’t it, to admit that you could suffer such an embarrassing weakness? Not something, really, that anyone would want to believe.”
“It frightened me, Bilbo. The thought of finding myself cut off from all of the happiest or most meaningful moments in Shire life–not to raise a beer with old friends, not to join in celebrations, not to toast a bride, not to properly mourn. For some reason the mourning seems the hardest of all to think about, to imagine just grinding on without a wake for somebody I lost.”
“You can find many ways to express the same sensibilities as your peers, without a drink, dear boy. Harder ways, perhaps, but better.” Bilbo looked like he wanted to reach out, clasp Frodo by the shoulder, hold his hand, something, if only he could. “Society as a whole fears emotion, and so weaves drunken custom around it, both to cushion the emotional moment itself, and to enable one to repudiate the full depth and breadth of feelings on the next day, by saying, ‘It was not me; it was the beer.’ Yet though your father likes a pint now and then for itself, he shall never come to harm from it, for he has never required a drink to unleash his true feelings. I think you can learn from his example–not to go back to drinking, too much has happened for that, but to let yourself feel, let yourself experience it all and give voice to it all, the good and the bad together, just like him. For I think that wisdom runs deep in the Gardner family.”
“Wisdom!” Frodo snorted. “Look at who you’re talking to!”
Bilbo straightened up again. “I see perfectly well, young sir. I did not go through an enormous amount of trouble to cross between worlds for someone that I did not consider worth the bother.”
“Forgive me! Bilbo...I feel so ashamed, so unworthy!”
The plump old hand reached down and tried in vain to pat the bony back before him. “Lad, lad, there is no fault in having a weakness–everyone has something. You did not ask for this misfortune. The fault lies in trying to pretend that the weakness does not exist–there’s where the deviltry comes in. You would not have come to this pass had you not convinced yourself that a mugful in a tavern meant no more to you than to anyone else.”
The phantom paced again. “I really do wish you would have taken this tumble at the Mayor’s wedding; making such a public spectacle of yourself would have at least assured that you had a public to catch your fall–no secrets, there, and no more hiding from the truth. The Blue Dragon offered too many avenues of escape from those with your best interests at heart: too many poor, confused souls in like straits or close enough not to interfere, and no one stern enough to arrest you before you got in over your head.”
Frodo glanced up at that, a wry smile teasing at his cracked lips. “Arrest me? O thief, to speak so lightly of arrest!”
“I have not said anything lightly, throughout this conversation, not even the riddles. For I am not entirely insensible to your situation, young fellow. I was a Ringbearer, after all.”
But then Frodo blinked, and he realized that Bilbo wasn’t really there. Painfully he turned over so that he could stare up at the tiny spot of sky above. Stars...so Varda had not abandoned him entirely. “O Elbereth Gilthoniel!” he sighed. “If I have lost all right to ask for aid, would you listen to Nienna’s plea on my behalf? Not because I am anywhere near worthy, but because perhaps you could make something better of me, if I agree. And I do earnestly agree!”
For the first time his cravings pulled back enough to give him a little peace. He curled up on his rock and fell asleep.
Nightmares, again. He hung upside down, entangled in something horrible and sticky and unable to move his limbs, spinning and nauseated on poison. Somewhere he heard ridiculous ditties about “Lazy Lob and Crazy Cob” but that couldn’t do him much good. Then suddenly something ripped, and kindly hands pulled the better part of the stickiness off of him. He fell far, and he fell hard, landing on his head–the pain shot through him like the scream and sparks of metal forced to the grindstone. But then the shoulder of somebody shorter than himself pushed under his arm and helped him to stand and walk, though he reeled and could not properly open his eyes. “There you go,” Bilbo told him. “Come on, you can do it. A few more steps. Do not give up hope–that’s the main thing. Do not give up hope. Did you think that I’d abandon you?”
Frodo opened his eyes, barely aware that he had slid off the rock again, too weak to do anything about it, and that the pool had subsided to mere mud once more. “Day,” he said, raising his hand towards the faraway light. How long had he languished in this pit, anyway? He felt paradoxically better and worse, for much of the poison had worked out of his system, yet he’d had nothing save for muddy water to replace it.
Day...the radiance of a fire-maia who may or may not have suffered degradation at Morgoth’s hands, yet who shone on brightly nonetheless, proudly bearing her slightly damaged light from Valinor, because whatever light you could still bear in this bruised world had virtue enough in it to get you by, and not only you but those who depended upon you. He thought of Mattie singing at the Mayor’s wedding, black and blue and unbowed. And her degradation had lasted longer than his own, yet she got on with her life.
“Mattie,” he whimpered, and suddenly realized that he would accept any amount of justified fury railed against him just to feel her touch once more, even if she slapped him, even if she shoved him out the door and this time the wargs really did find him. “Mattie, what madness drove me away from you?”
“I don’t care, darling!” she called down to him, but he was too weak to do more than smile up at a hallucination more merciful than the dragonets he kept glimpsing in the shadows from the corners of his eyes.
“Ah, Mattie, beloved, would that I could hear you rant at me, call me a beast, a hypocrite, a murderer, anything so long as it came from your dear lips!
“But I don’t want to say those things,” said the tearful voice, as the vision climbed down the rope, growing larger in his sight. Indeed, his wishful mind had rendered her still plumper than she had been in their lives together, the perfect feminine ideal of Hobbiton, and wearing layers of pretty flannel petticoats blossoming about her chubby legs, such as he had never seen her wear in life. Daydreams of a future not to be...
...until he realized that real arms, soft yet strong, held him despite his filth like no phantom arms could do, real tears fell on him, and Mattie’s own real voice sobbed, “Oh Frodo, I am sorry, I am so, so, so sorry!”
“Sorry?” He gasped, ”You?”
“Yes! For now I know exactly, in excruciating detail, how much pain I’ve put you through! I could not face the truth before, I pushed it all into the past, said that was done, that former Mattie is no more, let’s not think of her again. But oh these days, dear heavens these days and nights of pain brought home to me my every wrong against you–how could I fault you without examining, in every horrid particular, the things that I had done to you in my poppy-smoking days? I swear that I am more resolved than ever to walk the road of clarity. I have not done anything to ease the pain so justly mine. Except...” and here she blushed, “Perhaps comfort myself with a few too many biscuits. And cramsome bread. And creamy spreads. And whatever else the new tea-shop might offer to console a girl.”
“Oh darling, my darling, you have no call to apologize to me!” How soft and warm and cuddlesome she felt, how fresh she smelled, her clothing pressed in lavender-water.
Quietly Mattie said, “Maybe we need to apologize to each other. And pledge to do better in the future, with each other’s aid.”
“That I can agree to, for I loathe each pain that I have caused you, Mattie, enough to die for it.”
“No, you are not going to die–I will not allow it!”
He chuckled weakly. “You sound just like Bilbo. He was here a minute ago; did you pass him on the way over?”
But the excitement had taken its toll on Frodo; he halfway fainted, still aware of his surroundings yet too weak to reply. It didn’t matter. He felt more peace now than he could ever remember feeling.
Mattie studied his hollowed face, and the remainder of his body. “Oh dear–you are in a bad way, aren’t you? And yet with you so light...yes, I can do this.” She tied the rope under his arms, and then climbed up it. Frodo wanted to say, “At least I make a good anchor,” but his mouth no longer served him. Then he felt a tugging, and he drifted upward, left the sucking mud behind, ascending out of Angband into Valinor.