From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 5, Part 250
The Snapped Thread
January 6, 1453
Frodo remembered hearing somewhere that the Lord and Lady of Ithilien would stay in Rohan for an extended visit, but he had no words for Eowyn when he finally did see her, led into her infirmary (after Mattie’s turn) by a wordless maid. Eowyn, for her part, respected his right to silence, saying little, herself, as she lifted him up onto a padded table. The woman’s familiar hands pulled off the dwarvish shirt and examined Frodo all over again. He hardly even noticed her. “You are fortunate,” she finally said. “This malady commonly kills men, but hobbits are made of hardier stuff.”
“Not all hobbits,” he said, and finally looked her in the eye. The shieldmaiden flinched and glanced away. To himself Frodo murmured. “Hardy. His nickname probably would have become Hardy.” He laughed, faintly.
“I am sorry for your loss,” she murmured. “Had I been there...nay, it serves us naught to think of might have been. I could have saved a premature bairn, or one suffering from smoky air, not both at once.” Then her gray eyes went steely as she turned back to him. “Yet again I tell you, Frodo, that you are fortunate indeed. A wife of men would have perished with the child.”
Frodo nodded, and whispered, “I know.” Then he added, “Yet I would not wish my good fortune on anyone.”
Then, in businesslike tones Eowyn informed him, “You have an enlarged liver. Although you do need to gain weight, you must avoid fats and oils. You must also take especial care to avoid toxic substances of any kind–do not enter fields where others have spread poisons for vermin, nor go where chemists compound their potions, nor drink impure water, and especially you must not drink strong beverages of any kind.”
“Do you think that I don’t know that?”
“It will heal in time.” She handed him back his shirt.
“Some things never heal.”
She ignored that. “I prescribe rest for now, and rosehip tea. Eat plenty of bread without butter, root vegetables, and beans. As I have said, you have grown too thin...”
“Oh, you haven’t seen thin. The baby...” he could not finish.
“Go to your wife, Frodo. We have given you the same quarters where you stayed before. If you do not remember the way, I can call Beordred...”
“I can find it by myself.” The last thing he needed was the loquacious old retainer.
“If you need someone to carry you...”
“I can make it on my own.” And with that he left. Dim lamps barely lit the hallways; he could not make out the pictures in all the pretty tapestries. He wondered how many days before Rohan would see full light, anyway. And why should it matter? Why should any light shine, anymore?
When he opened the door, he ignored the letters on the table. What he did see by candlelight hardly surprised him. Mattie held a pipe in hand, and reached for a little round tin on the sideboard. “I didn’t leave you out,” she said. “The brandy’s over there, on the bedside table. Happy Yule.” She laughed horribly. “It’s never too late to celebrate.”
“How?” he asked in a hollow voice.
“Knicked it from the infirmary.” She loaded up the pipe. “I’m an old hand at that sort of thing.” But when her trembling fingers tried to light the pipe, she couldn’t manage it. And then the tin slipped, and spilled little black balls of gum rolling all over the floor. She threw the pipe down and hurled herself against the too-tall bed, sobbing. “I wanted to stay clean, Frodo, for the baby! I had more motive than ever...”
“And what of your vow to Vaire?”
”Vaire?” she cackled. “She who snipped short my baby’s thread?”
“No, Mattie,” Frodo sighed. “I did that.” And then they stared at each other, and the silence tortured them, but they couldn’t break it. Finally Frodo picked up the pipe (chipped and slightly cracked, now) and said, “Go ahead. It would punish me justly, to lose my wife thus, after I murdered to keep you.”
But she slapped the pipe from his hand, glaring at him. The clay shattered completely on the floor’s stone flags. Then her eyes went vague and the color rushed out of her.
“Mattie!” He cried, and caught her, then helped her up onto the bed with his dwindling strength. “You should not exert yourself so soon after...”
“After nothing.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “It all came to nothing. “ Then she opened them once more on him. “No, husband, do not blame yourself alone. I consented. I remember that distinctly, now.” Her lip trembled as she spoke. “I-I supported your choice, to slay an unknown other for my life.” She glanced down at the pipe-shards on the floor, and with more resolve in her weak voice, she told him, “No. After all, no. I will not dull the pain. I mourned for Stumblehoof–how then, could I refuse to mourn my own child, nursed here at my breast?”
The hurt just went on and on. Frodo stared at the bottle, then stepped towards it, nervelessly, as though some mindless current carried him, balls of gum sticking to the soles of his feet. He watched his hand reach for the bottle, watched the pillow collide with the bottle, crashing it to the floor with flying glass and pungent spirits.
”No!” Mattie shrieked, kneeling on the bed, her red eyes burning between the locks that had fallen into her face. “If I must share the price of your murder, you must share the price of my sobriety. Suffer! Weep with me and mourn the child we did not deserve! We owe Harding that much.”
Frodo just stared at her, his eyes stinging-dry. “No wake? How can I do this without a wake? How can I do this? Mattie, I’m, I’m holding this great, big, boiling cauldron of horri–horrible emotions, and I have no mitts, just bare flesh holding onto all of these scalding feelings–how can I go on?”
Her fury melted before his eyes into a wide-open gaze of grief and compassion. She held out her arms to him. He ignored the mess on the floor and the maddening brandy smell, climbed up into the bed and held her, just held her until she sobbed herself to sleep against his breast. He hoped that she derived comfort from it, yet he found none. Love seemed too exhausting, too easily lost to death no matter how hard you clung. He lay there and thought of Elenaril; he could see the beams above him in the flickering candlelight, but he felt as though he somehow stared through scar, dry scar incapable of tears. “Can seeing too much do that?” he wondered. He remembered having wept from the mere fear of losing the child, but now, with the fulfillment of his fear, it all seemed too much for feelings.
His physician might have prescribed bed-rest, but he knew that he would find no sleep that night. So carefully he climbed out of the bed, settling Mattie onto his pillow without her waking. He stepped on glass on his way to the door, pulled it out, felt the puddled brandy sting and cleanse the wound when he stepped back down, and walked out leaving a track of blood and spirits. He hailed the first servant bustling by, saying, “I’m afraid that there’s a frightful mess in my quarters. Accident. Please send someone to clean it up. My wife must lie abed and I...” He did not finish, just abruptly left the woman gaping, as he hastened down the hall.
He heard voices still reveling in The Golden Hall. That stinging perfume still lingered in Frodo’s memory after he left the room, now mingling with the yeasty odor of the chamber just ahead. He recalled the generous tankards of King Eomer’s table. As he walked forward someone burst into song and he almost felt as though he’d taken a draught already, the lightheadedness of illness and exhaustion transforming into something more hospitable.
Abruptly he turned on his heel. “I need a breath of fresh air,” he said and headed for the nearest door to the outside world, to the east, the neglected backside of Meduseld.
Of course he found no fresh air when he passed the threshold and stood beneath a murky evening sky. He had forgotten about the smoke. But he waded out into the frostbitten grass nonetheless, waist-high for a hobbit, out in a field behind the buildings. Soon he ventured past the reach of window-light, into a darkness that no moon nor star could reach. He felt drawn. The sound of conviviality faded behind him, superceded by the soft ruffle of wind in the grass, and somewhere the hooting of an owl. Numb–how could anyone feel so numb in the face of so much dole? He felt giddily on the brink of a horrendous plunge into darkness beyond anything cast by smoke and night, if only he might feel the smallest portion of the grief locked deep inside.
He turned back to the West, and cried out, “Satisfied? Am I punished enough? You have taken everything from me. Every conceivable thing. Nothing you can do can hurt me any more than you have wounded me already. I cannot feel anymore, and I fear nothing that you might conjure up to whip me into obedience. I have become your jaded horse, O Valar, with mouth too scarred to feel the bit no matter how you drag it. Are you happy with what you have created, O wise ones of the West, out of one who began with no greater desire than to serve you, who willingly left behind a happy life for you?”
And then Frodo turned to the East: “At least, throughout everything, I have stayed faithful to you, dear Mordor. If I have failed the powers of heaven, at least let them remember that I never truly failed this beloved Arda. For they also sacrificed everything to come here in your service. Let them remember and have mercy!”
But then he laughed harshly at his own fatuousness. “Mercy! Nienna has dried her tears and forgotten all about us.”
“No I haven’t, Frodo.”
A sudden shiver ran through him as he turned to the north. There she stood, hardly visible in her garb of black, looking small and forlorn, no more than the height of a hobbit lass.
“Oh Frodo, never believe that I cannot imagine your suffering! Do you know why I cry unceasingly? Because in hearing the First Music, before Melkor marred it, I perceived more joy than any other Vala–I saw the full beauty of each and every soul created by Illuvatar, if left unmolested. Frodo, I saw the beauty of Melkor himself! So ever after I mourn what each soul might have been, what each soul longs to be, with a yearning that cannot be assuaged, unless Illuvatar knows of some cure beyond my understanding.” She stepped forward and took his hand. “And so, you see, I suffer unending withdrawal from that great bliss which can never again exist. And yet, my friend, some have prophesied that on some glad future day I shall laugh for joy and surprise once more. If that day should ever come, and if it is permitted, I should like your soul there with me, to laugh beside my own.”
He opened his mouth in reply, yet could only stare in wonder. He had forgotten how beautiful she could be, even diminished in seeming to his stature, with starlight, some mysterious, smoke-defying starlight, sparkling on her tears.
“Will you not reconcile with my sister-in-law?” And to Frodo’s shock Vaire next stepped out of the darkness from the south, her bright curls hidden in a cloak more camouflaging than anything made by elves, for she had woven it of the very stuff of reality. “She wishes to forgive you, Frodo. Nothing is as it seems. You have misunderstood all along,”
And Vaire reached out to him, with just two arms, limiting her form for his sake, gazing on him eye-to-eye in height. “My husband did not take your child to punish you, Frodo. That thread never did go far. The thread you snapped was your own.”
”What?” He stumbled back from her.
Yet she stepped forward and took his other hand. “Have you never wondered at joining a different time than the one that fits your memories? Did it not occur to you that another Frodo actually lived those memories? When you snapped the thread, the remainder puckered backwards in the weave to the weakest part, the part which Mattie damaged by bringing you the letter out of time–indeed, that snapped thread made possible the very magic which she set loose. That other Frodo--that other you--never quit his despair, continuing on with too little food and sleep and too much drink, visiting my husband’s hall without leave several times, with increasing fascination, and we did not even mark, till too late, the straying thread with loops departing from the weave. We made mistakes–yes Frodo, for Illuvatar alone acts always without error. Not yet forewarned, we did not discover that other Frodo’s visits, for we did not look for you, and even in spirit hobbits surpass most other kinds for stealth. And so, still unhealed, still convinced by Sauron to number yourself among the damned, when Mattie returned you asked her for the poppy before she even offered, you lay with her and then you shared her pipe–too much for one so worn--and so you visited my husband’s halls to stay.”
Frodo stared at her, mouth open, then he closed it and nodded. “Yes. It could have gone that way. I know enough of myself now to see that.”
“And yet,” Vaire added, “whatever your crimes, we could not heal the land without you. Yavanna pleaded for your restoration, and I readily agreed. I find your thread, Frodo, surpassing beautiful in the weave, and I never failed in my love for you. My wrath was all for what you had inflicted on yourself.”
“And...and what of my own time?”
“The one whose past you remember? It is as though it had never been. You have no other time, now, save for this.”
Then Yavanna stepped forth from the east, and for Frodo she looked like a hobbit indeed, plump and brown and healthy, yet grave was her demeanor. “As my friend has said, Frodo, neither imagine that I do not know your suffering. For again and again I have brought forth life in Sauron’s shadow, only to watch it wither in the shoot.” Her eyes looked softly on him. “I sorrow that you have shared everything with my beloved, ravaged Mordor, yet such fate you chose while still not far from your home of birth, riding beside your father, when you agreed in your heart to become one with the land. I have heard all of your prayers, Frodo, past and future, in all of the worlds, the near-repeating patterns in the greater web. I have never left you. You served me faithfully even when you did not know me. Even when you failed me–and betimes you did–your heart never strayed far from mine.”
“B-but the child,” Frodo stammered. “Why did Harding have to die? Just to teach me a lesson in your pain? How fair was that to Mattie? To Harding?”
Yavanna cradled his face in her palms. “Poor lad! Harding died because the Frodo of this time did not bring forth any new life. Oh, he started one, briefly, when, after succumbing to all other temptations, he lay with one who did not long survive him. You see, as this tapestry originally unfolded, Mattie perished soon after the other Frodo, when Sauron conjured a lying semblance of her mother to call her into death, without even knowing what she carried. That tiny thread, which you named Harding, Vaire tugged down further in time, then stretched it as long as it could go, so that the child could at least taste milk and feel the touch of parent-love before the end.”
“Then am I doomed to have no living children, ever?”
“Not so, dear one. As my friend Vaire would tell you, there exists another thread, in yet another Arda, where you never fell, and so never reinforced Mattie’s resolve through sad knowledge of your own. In that thread, years hence, after other children, Mattie fled back to the east towards poppy-slavery again, and miscarried a child unknown to her until the opia already had too much of a grip on her to let her easily go. That thread, more developed, has enough in it to spin it into more, to add a lifetime’s fiber to it; Vaire can splice that broken-off thread into this world, for a more deserving mother–but only years hence, and only if you both hold fast to a life of clarity.” She smiled. “You might let go with one hand, if you do not let go with both.”
“So–one child, then. One can be blessing enough. I thank you, dear Valier.” He leaned his brow against Yavanna’s, and felt a peace that he had always sought, and never completely found, in brandy or in grog. Then, rather thoughtfully, he said. “So...I saved Mattie’s life indeed that day, when I brought her to the brink of coming clean, only to feel like a total failure when she weakened once again–yet it meant something after all?”
Yavanna said, “It meant everything, dear one. It made the rest of her life possible.” And she stepped back smiling, as though to let him see the vision of her beauty in its fullness.
Vaire released his hand. “It did not come without price. The elasticity of the Web of Life always seeks to spring back to its prior shape. Mattie nearly died again, but you rent yourself rather than let that happen–the very thing that cost her life in the first place.” Sternly she added, “Yet you could have trusted me, Frodo. I would have granted her life for the asking, had you approached me with humility. I had already favored you inordinately, and deserved that trust.”
Frodo hung his head. “You are right. I did wrong to force your hand. I have no words adequate for my apology, yet I do apologize.”
“Raise up your eyes to me, Frodo. Simple words have ever sufficed for the Valar, if spoken from a sincere heart. I forgive you.”
Frodo bowed...and then his brows puckered. “Wait a minute...if my act to save Mattie killed the earlier me, which caused Mattie’s death, which her other near death tried to restore, then...”
“Do not try to untangle that knot, Frodo. Only Illuvatar and I can do that.” Rather proudly, Vaire added, “No matter what the tangles left to me, I can always find a way to weave them all into the design. I know the pattern of the music, best of all the Valar. My harpstrings are my threads, and the loom my harp. In the end my tapestry shall spread before Illuvatar, and none shall find fault with it anywhere. Even the place you tore shall lend grace to its beauty.”
Then all four of them turned again to the west, and walked towards the glowing door back into Meduseld, though folks within those halls saw only one thin hobbit, still weak in the aftermath of fever, finding his way back to his room again, and to his wife, and to the weeping that needed done, and the spent peace after, and a small but growing sense of future, made possible by love.