Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 25, Part 235
Down in the Ravine
December 1, 1452
A new day dawned. Shakily, Frodo emerged from the cave, burrowed under the thorns, out into the dim morning light. New...how the word fit, a brand new life, a brand new chance. Fresh dawn colors flooded the crack of sky over the ravine, while dark and misty blues of stone and foliage resolved into their rightful hues before his eyes.
Then he struggled to stretch, but fell back to a crouch before he even realized it. Attempts to straighten hurt, and never lasted. “I must look like an orc!” he exclaimed.
“No! Not at all! Mattie brought over hot porridge for his breakfast. “You are beautiful!” Indeed, if he could have seen from her point of view, his pale face framed in dark curls, high cheekbones under large and haunted eyes, he would have seen a terrible and pitiable beauty. “Here,” Mattie said, handing him the bowl. “I only wish that I could smother it in cream for you.”
"Cream?" Hungry though he was, Frodo sickened anew at the thought.
"I know. Even if I had a cow, Elenaril warned me that you cannot handle fats just yet."
"Oh, some might be well worth handling," Frodo said with a gallant smile at her curves, though he ached simply to remain there on his feet. She curtseyed, her own smile masking, for a moment, her concern.
He sat down upon a rock beside the stream that shimmered in a silver thread between the greenery crowding to its edge, and as he ate he listened to its song. He tried to picture such music copied in the voice of a girlchild hobbit. He tried to stand, to bring his bowl over to where Mattie washed up the breakfast things, but he hobbled like an arthritic old gaffer. “Why can’t I straighten up, Mattie? The mine bent the backs of men, surely, yet its tunnels reached more than tall enough for me.”
She gave him a playful swat on the rump. “You need more weight down there to counterbalance holding your head up high. Elenaril explained it to me. She told me everything I needed to know to take care of you, based on what Eldarion saw, whenever I should find you.” She winked. “And by the way, it’s good to see you start to question things like that.” She dried and packed the dwarf-kit, putting together the puzzle-like pieces as well as Frodo ever could.
Frodo went back to his rock and rested. He watched Mattie fill up their waterskins from boiled water of the stream. He wanted to help Mattie care for Bleys and pack up all the saddlebags, but he couldn’t find the strength. So he paid attention to details, sensations, trying to fall in love all over again with the world of clarity, of unencumbered senses. He tried to appreciate that he wore warm clothing, snug wool buttoned up around him, which Mattie had brought for him from his sister’s gift. His finger brushed embroidery–still the mourning weskit and belt, almost like his old clothes hadn’t worn away, almost like the nightmare never happened. But the fingers that brushed the weskit looked like bones, jutting from cuffs too big for them.
Mattie took her time. He hadn’t realized that he had dozed, right there on the rock, till he woke to Mattie asking, “Ready to leave?”
“Oh. Yes. Right.”
“So, Royal Gardener,” Mattie said as she helped him onto the donkey’s back. “Where do you want to go?”
“Go?” It seemed odd to him, someone asking him what to do next.
“On your botanical survey, of course.”
“Yes. Of course. Are there marshes by the sea of Nurn?”
“As a matter of fact, this very brook pours into the major one.” She took Bleys by the bridle and led him downstream. “Why do you ask?”
“I just remembered something that my father told me once, about a marshland plant that seemed to filter water. People could use that around here.” Memories began to trickle back to him, of conversations by the makeshift bar. “Not everyone has fared as well as Seaside, without Queen Arwen’s Fountain.” He shifted his weight, already uncomfortable with how his bones ground into the saddle. “Riding hurts nearly as much as walking,” he complained.
“It will get better as you put more meat on your bones,” Mattie told him, “Speaking of which, in the frontmost pocket of the left saddlebag you will find some sandwiches which I’ve made for your second breakfast. More jerky, of course, and a sort of pickled bean-paste that I've picked up in my travels, but it's not half bad, and I have tucked it into some of the best cramsome bread ever made this side of the Anduin. I'm afraid we must wait on sausages and cheese for awhile, though heaven knows you could use the weight.” Frodo found the sandwiches, and as soon as he unwrapped one he breathed deeply, for it smelled as heavenly to him as elven-fare.
“Weight!” Mattie sighed. “I only wish that I could give you some of mine.”
“Why?” Frodo exclaimed with his mouth full. “You’re gorgeous!”
“I got fat. I’ve been eating way too much from worriting so long.”
“By human standards, maybe, but not by hobbit reckoning. You are precisely perfect as you are–round and cuddlesome, yet not cumbrously so. You have traveled too long among humankind, I think.”
“In that case sir, see that you eat twice as many sandwiches, for you’ve a long ways to go before you become a proper hobbit, yourself.”
Frodo sighed in his turn. “So my mother always said.”
“Well, if she saw what you look like now, she would faint on the spot.”
“Mama is much tougher than she lets on,” he replied, then devoted his full attention to the sandwiches.
Frodo’s pleasure in the morning faded quickly, as the canyon widened and the full light showed him just how far it differed from a Shire landscape. The red and ocher folds of cliff looked stark to him, with the vegetation all a sickly greyish green. What had seemed so lush, on the brink of dawn, he now could see proliferated with thorns, not the northwestern leaves and tendrils of his childhood. Bare patches of ground between showed not a single blade of grass, only rock and gravel and an unforgiving clay. Even so, he remembered that once he saw beauty in places like this. He clung to the memory of feelings which he could not elicit anymore.
“I miss softer lands,” he said.
Cheerfully Mattie replied, “When we reach the marshes it will soften up as much as you could wish for.”
“That is not what I mean and you know it.”
“Ah. I see you’ve entered another moody phase.”
“My feelings are not phases! They are my feelings!”
More gently she told him, “They feel like they belong to you, right now, but they aren’t really yours. They’re just a dreadful aftermath that you will have to go through for awhile. Cheer up, my love (or at least put trust in the hope of cheer.) This will pass, as well.”
“Some things will never pass.”
“No.” She agreed. “Some things never will. I would lie to you to say otherwise. But better things will make it all worthwhile.”
“It does not feel that way right now.” On top of everything else, his feet itched where new fur attempted to grow back, even as his toes ached from cold, and every move he made left him weary. So much for appreciating the joys of clarity!
Mattie studied him, then went over to Bleys’ other side, and dug around in the saddlebag. “Here–I almost forgot. Here is another friend long lost to you, that you left behind in Seaside.” She handed him the little clay pipe that Lanethil had sized especially for his fingers. “And here’s my harp,” she said brightly. “Shall we make some music while we travel?”
“Mattie, no! I can’t. I don’t think that I can ever make music again.”
“Oh yes you can. I know. It will come back to you.” And she plucked some simple chords, of a childhood tune, and he found that he could play along with them, and that it even made his heart a touch lighter. Presently she swung into a song:
”Hush little roots beneath the snow,
And sleep until it is time to grow.”
Frodo found himself joining in:
“The winter’s not forever, no,
For spring will soon its colors show.”
He sighed deeply. “I suppose they sing the same lullabies to their children in Bree as we do in the Shire. But lulling is the last thing that I need right now. I did not know the meaning of the word ‘weary’ until I came to Mordor!”
“We will not go far before resting. We have no schedule, and plenty of supplies. In any case we shall have to stop so that you can do your job.”
“The plants. Yes. Survey the plants.” He looked around him. “You are quite right; I do not recognize much that grows here.”
They played a number of songs together as they traveled, progressing in complexity, till Frodo began to feel that he might not be such a bad musician after all. The harp dropped out, and Frodo soloed for awhile on his flute, playing snatches of remembered tunes in the mournful minor keys of Mordor. Then they both fell silent, as Frodo caught his breath and looked around him. He assessed the creek and the steep banks with more professional eyes. “Ravines make a good growing environment for the region–water, shade, protection from the wind...”
“And the chief channel for flash floods.”
“Why must you spoil everything!” At her look he quailed and said, “I am sorry–you did nothing wrong. I need to consider such things.” He sighed, closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them again. “I suppose that the flash floods also carry the richest and the lightest soil with them. The plants here must cast down deep roots and grow tough yet flexible, to remain after the floods pass. I wonder if one could plant them as a sort of brake, to capture as much good soil as possible?”
Mattie led Bleys over to a low tree and tied him up. “Why don’t you dismount and check them out?” She helped him in his painful climb off of the ass, brought out his ink-set and paper, and his flower-press.
He tottered forth, pushing against his weakness, and took notes and samples, as she prepared yet another meal (she insisted upon feeding him the traditional six times a day, though it seemed strange to him to even eat on a daily basis.) Cutting open a stalk, Frodo said, “Just as I expected. There’s good fiber here; you could make some decent rope. My northern cousins would take an interest.”
“Mm,” Mattie replied, not looking at him. She had that certain tension in her shoulders that a husband learns to recognize, if he is wise.
“I really am sorry,” Frodo repeated. “I had no call to snap at you.”
“I forgive you,” she said, drawing water for the beans.
“I miss Sauron,” he said.
Mattie set the pot down by their little camp. “Why on earth?”
He shrugged, not answering.
“You don’t need him,” she said, gathering wood for a fire. “We get well faster when we run out of people to blame.”
“It isn’t that! He...he understood.”
“How it feels to be evil. To have no hope. To try and go on anyway.” He sat down abruptly, staring at a leaf that he had plucked for pressing. “I told myself that I left Seaside so as to figure everything out, where Sauron left off, where I began, who it was who throttled Lebadoc, whose fury blew him out the window.”
Mattie sparked the tinder and fed in kindling as he spoke, but he could feel her listening to him above the little crackles.
“I thought that if I could just get away from everybody bothering me, all responsibilities, all people who thought they knew me and could confuse me with their ‘answers’, that I could find myself again. Yet every time I came close, I couldn’t stand it. I drank to hide from who I was--who I had become.”
Mattie left the pot of beans upon the fire and came over to sit beside him, putting her arms around him. “How innocent we all were, once,” she said, not looking at him.
Frodo started to cry. He felt the tears shake his body before they even ran down his face. He buried his face in Mattie’s shoulder. “I just want to stop hurting! Is that too much to ask?”
“Yes,” she said sadly, holding him close, stroking his back, “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
Something about her saying it out loud braced him up again. He kissed her, then picked up his survey things and went back to work. Yet all too soon he tired again and had to sit down. “You’re right,” he told her. “I could do with a few pounds more.”
“That is true.” Mattie stirred the beans, and tossed in a soup-bone. “You not only have the grog to overcome, but starvation as well. It complicates matters.” She looked up at him. “It is not all pain, you know. Much will come your way, when you are ready, much greater than the pain.”
Frodo spread the leaf against a page, saying. “This is all so tedious. I am tedious. You must be sick of me.”
Mattie smiled as she tossed in peppercorns. “This is Mordor, darling–nothing stays boring for long. I imagine that before you know it we shall encounter more adventure than we really want.”
“Charming,” he growled.
By the time he had filled in his sketches with more detailed drawings, and added some possible planting charts for a silt-catching brake, the beans had finished, and they tasted good to him. He realized that he had come to think of taste as something to blank out, to get out of the way as quickly as possible, because Mordor brewed such vile grog. Good, simmering beans reminded him of home, hearty meals brought out to the fields by his mother and his sisters. He could almost feel like he took a little bit of the Shire into his mouth and incorporated it into his body, to carry with him always. “Do these beans come from the Shire?” he asked.
“No, they come from Seaside’s own fields. The ham-bone comes from Ithilien, but we shall soon raise our own, for some have now bought pigs, on the advice of Nibs Cotton.”
For a moment he felt crushed. But then he thought, “This is exactly what I have hoped for, all along. I should rejoice.” Aloud, he said, “I am tired. I need to rest.”
“I have already laid out your blanket for you, on a mat of the softest foliage that I could gather. Not all is thorns down by the creek.”
Frodo slept, but dark dreams haunted him, vague and sorry deeds in unending coal mine tunnels, corridors without hope of light, where fearsome things slithered, barely glimpsed, somewhere in the depths. He opened his eyes, and saw the canyon all around him, late sun shafting through the scrubby little trees. Mattie sat beside him.
He did not look at her when he said, “I still remember what it felt like.”
“I know,” she said, squeezing his hand.
“Not the grog–the poppy gum.”
She hesitated, then said, “I remember, too.”
“It had everything.”
“Yes, everything–except for love.”
“And the light of Valinor.”
“They’re the same thing, silly.”
He sat up. “We cannot spend the night here, can we? We need to find someplace more sheltered. I...I fear that I am not yet up to doing a turn at guard duty.”
“I scouted ahead a bit while you slept. Caves and folds riddle this whole ravine, with thorns enough to ward them. We shall not have to go far.”
As they packed up again (Frodo helping this time) he said, tensely, “I can’t remember it, Mattie. I can’t remember anything at all about the light of Valinor. I can’t picture anything except for plain, ordinary light. There is just dark, and non-dark. Maybe that’s all there ever was.”
“No,” she said, putting down the saddlebag and coming to him. “You have it backwards. Plain ordinary things hold extraordinary beauty, when we remember how to see them. The light of the West is not mere light. There is no such thing as ‘mere’ anything.”
As she took his hands he stared into her eyes. “What do you mean? How can you know that?”
“Remember how we linked minds before, when I went through my own ordeal? We can do that again, Frodo.” She took his hands and pressed them around his lens, and held them between her own. “I can give back to you what you once gave to me.”
And now he looked around the glen, and saw, and tears washed free his sight–not self-pity’s tears, but something cleaner, freer. And when he blinked them all away, he saw beauty everywhere he looked, and he most deeply gazed into her face.
“It has been too long,” he said to Mattie in a husky voice, “since I was your husband indeed and you my wife.”
“Do you feel strong enough?” she asked, but she also unbuttoned her chemise.
“I think so. Yes. For the first time in a long while, yes.”
They found their shelter much later than they’d planned on, when already the blues of twilight had begun to steal all other hues away, and night-things chirped beside the chuckling creek. But Frodo felt stronger now, more truly himself. And he finally understood that this self included more than just his folly and his tragedies, his shame and sin. Somebody loved him, somebody not a fool, and powers had assured his survival even when he fought their help, and he had work, and things to live for, and his own thread in the Web of Life, weaving in and out until even the flaws made part of the design. That night, for the first time since he fled Seaside, he slept all the way till dawn without a single nightmare.