From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 17, Part 262
The Barren Lands
February 15, 1453
“I have no excuse for my feelings,” Mattie thought. The noonday sun hardly warmed her at all. They had reached the Barren Lands: that territory which Sauron had so contaminated that precious little could grow back again, after all these years. So the unobstructed wind blew hard across the distance, shoving back her hood again and again, letting in the cold. Yet she shivered for more reasons than that.
She had not crossed this stretch in clarity for many a year, until today. She gazed about her at the gale-sculpted rock, and the fine, airborne current of sand that scoured over it perpetually, flowing just an inch or two above the surface in a rough, dry flood. Sometimes the wind whispered, as though of sad things witnessed that none dared speak too loudly; at other times it groaned, beyond words, beyond any coherent expression. Occasionally it wailed, inconsolable. All of the bleakness of her earliest journeys, before she had discovered the poppy, now drove into her as though the wind had breached her heart. Worse, for she knew more than she had before.
“It hadn’t always been so bare,” she whispered to herself. The poppy had shown her that. Under its spell she used to ride through forests that once had cloaked the slopes to either side...maybe. At least she had believed that she did. She remembered every tree, every faintly glowing bough as though she’d really seen the trees alive. “Ghosts,” she murmured. “I used to see the ghosts.”
It had not occurred to her that murdered trees could haunt a place as readily as creatures who had walked and spoken. Oh, she had seen it many times, but she had never needed to think about it before; she knew, but it had not occurred, that is, become solid enough to present itself to her consideration, to question whether or not it might have really been. She had simply taken her hallucinations as they came.
Now all that she could see, for miles around, was windswept rock and dust, and a rare–very rare–gray bush, now and then, clinging to life with a certain bitter stubbornness, hoarding a few spare leaves huddled against the blast. Clouds overhead continued the grayness, till the beige and brown tones of her companions seemed like extremes of color. She glanced down at the vivid green embroidery on her cloak’s black hem. It seemed more unreal than the ghost-woods ever had.
Mattie’s heart welled up with so much mourning that it spilled out from her eyes, she couldn’t help it, and the cruel wind made her wet cheeks burn with cold. Barren lands–she had never really thought about the name much, except as a designation for someplace bare. Now, her hand upon her belly, she understood a little better. The land mourned, even as she did. How many seeds had fallen here? How many seedlings had sprouted, only to wither as soon as their roots began to seek out nourishment from the earth–and found, instead, poison?
She remembered feeling happy here. That seemed strangest of all to her now. She remembered how she used to sing out loud, just to hear her voice echo off the naked rock. Nothing used to touch her in those days. She glanced over at Frodo, who stared all around him in surprise at a phantom-wood that he had not expected. It got lonely, she recalled, letting nothing touch her. Another thing that she had known, that had not occurred to her.
Maybe something of it had been real, after all. Plainly her husband witnessed something, and one could hazard that he saw truer than all of them put together, whatever Lord Elboron might think. Yet how could she know that he saw the same woods? Had his new sight brought them closer, or further apart?
She tried to distract herself with gossip. “Your father may not have mentioned it in your letter,” she remarked to Frodo, “but the note that your mother has sent on to Nibs reports that Hyacinth Brandybuck is expecting again.”
“Mattie, you really shouldn’t read other people’s mail.” He tried to look angry, but a twitch of a smile rebelled against his efforts.
“Habit. Sorry. I keep forgetting.”
He broke out in an irresistable chuckle. “Amazing, which habits turn out the hardest to break.” For a moment their glances connected; then Frodo went back to studying the invisible forest. Mattie didn’t begrudge him the discovery, yet she felt as though the silence would drown her. She remembered birdsong, too–did the birds still fly as ghosts, or merely the melodies? Now she could only hear the wind moan softly over the rocks, and the tired clop of hooves upon the flinty ground. All of that slaughtered happiness!
“What if my son had lived?” she asked herself. “Would he have married Hyacinth Brandybuck’s daughter?” She enjoyed the fantasy for awhile. Perhaps the lass would take after her mother–another busker in the family. Perhaps the daughter would travel for a time in a wagon painted in all the colors of the world, big daisies in bright, unlikely hues, and fruits of all kinds growing off the same branch, and curious birds sketched into the foliage with curling, stylized feathers, all depicted on the sides of a tinker’s cart strung up with bells, so that every village would know by the ringing when the mummers came to town. Harding might attend a show, and the performance would enchant him, and then he’d travel to the next town and watch it all over again, and dream that night of a stage-painted face, and so one thing would lead to another. Oh, she would settle down, of course, Hyacinth’s notorious daughter, once she married Mattie and Frodo’s son. And become respectable, no doubt, even as her mother had, as Mattie herself aspired to do. Yet perhaps sometimes, when the menfolk didn’t see, this daughter-in-law might do some handsprings and other acrobatics, to music that Mattie could strum, while their scrubbing-water heated up. Maybe Hyacinth herself would join in with bells in hand.
Yet Mattie had no son. She would never embroider Harding’s wedding-weskit. Hyacinth’s daughter would marry someone else. Oh, but what a handsome bridegroom he would have made!
That thought reminded Mattie once again of her dream of Harding in the Halls of Mandos, right before his sojourn to that shore where the blessed dead of men and hobbits await a certain vessel, long in the coming, that will one day ride in under the glow of a dawn beyond her comprehension. “I have no excuse for my feelings.”
She gazed out at all the lifeless hills, where phantasms used to distract her from the truth. “What happened in the dream–it counted. I know it really happened. I know.” Then she bowed her head. “Forgive me,” she murmured. “Forgive me for wanting anything less for you, dear son!” She punched herself in the leg. “What is wrong with me? I have all the answers–I have seen what few have even guessed. Why do I keep forgetting? When will it really, truly occur to me?”
When she sighed it made her breasts hurt. Her body remembered Harding, even when her spirit tried to move on. Her body wondered why Harding didn’t nurse, and she could not explain it to the flesh. “You’ll catch on in time,” she told herself. The Lady Eowyn told her to be patient with herself.
“Father, look!” Mattie glanced over to what the boy pointed at, and then shook her head.
Elboron said, “Leave it alone, son. Alas! When will the King send someone to dispose of these bones along the road?”
Frodo stirred from his silence to pull short the rein and ask, “Why not us?”
“Oh come–we cannot bury every skeleton along the way and still meet our objectives.”
“We can bury one,” Boromir put in. “That would make a start.” He looked pleadingly to his father. “I would want someone to do it for me.”
Frodo did not wait for Elboron’s permission to dismount. Boromir and Mattie quickly followed suit. Then Elboron shrugged and did likewise.. He wasn’t a bad sort, really, just had his head up in a cloud of courtly smoke. Mattie watched Boromir unpack his shovel from Amon’s back and hand it to his father; so often children resembled the grandparents more than the parents.
She gasped at the thought. Would Harding have been anything like her parents? Yet he would have also carried the blood of Rose and Samwise Gardner; he would not have been a Greenbanks only. But then again, she thought of her husband and his struggles: drunkards on each side of the family? Not auspicious at all. Perhaps it did the lad a kindness, to snip the thread so short.
“Yet I will have another child,” she murmured under her breath, awaiting her turn to dig, watching Boromir fight with the stony ground. “The Valier promised.” What was it that Frodo had once said about his foster-sister, Ted Sandyman’s daughter? That with a heritage like a potato-vine, she could choose to harvest the root or the leaves, to nourish or to poison. Mattie would have to hope the same for her own child, the one not yet born. Maybe by then she would know how to raise a child right.
Her turn came up. She declined the shovel that Boromir offered in preference to the spade in her own gear. Though not made in the Shire, she’d had the handle halved in Rohan, and the lip of the blade’s top bent backwards by a smith, to make it suit her foot. Human spades hurt the unshod sole. As it bit into the soil she marveled that she had already forgotten, for a moment, that she had ever traveled shod. Perhaps someday it would surprise her to realize that she had forgotten mourning.
She studied the bones out of the corner of her eye as she dug. Thirty-some years of wind-blown grit had worn them down, split fine, dry cracks into the ivory. Under the poppy’s influence, she might have found them beautiful. Now? She did see a sort of poignant grace about them, weathered and sad; it moved her heart, but not in the same way as before. It touched her.
Frodo took his turn. He finished the grave, climbed out with the man’s help, and nodded to someone whom Mattie no longer had the capacity to see. Then Elboron, with the toe of his boot, tumbled the skeleton into the grave. “Poor old, forgotten bones!” the man murmured. No, he was really not a bad sort at all.
“Forgotten?” Mattie asked him, staring down at the skull. It grinned so wistfully! “Here, perhaps, but maybe not in Harad. Maybe he’s still missed. Maybe someone cannot forget, no matter how hard she tries.” Mattie hugged herself, remembering. It took a larger grave this time. But these poor bones must have started small, must have once curled up tiny, nestled in the circle of a woman’s arms. So Mattie stood in for that mother, thirty years ago bereaved, who had never had the chance to stand at her baby’s grave, who never knew for sure what fate befell him, who perhaps to this day might live to tense and listen whenever steps approached her door, wondering if he had finally found his way back home.
It calmed her heart, somehow, even though it saddened her. “Everybody mourns,” she told herself. “Sooner or later. We all bear that in common.”
Elboron started with the rocks, but the others soon followed his example. Raising a small pile of rocks, to denote that someone rested in this earth, even though no one knew his name. Someone deserving of a little dignity, no matter what the flag he followed.
They saddled up again. She heard Boromir say, “Let us make this a custom of the road. Every time a party rides through, they should bury one skeleton. We could clean it all up in no time.”
“Will they meet?” Mattie wondered. “Will this soldier of Harad meet my son, out on the lightless shore? Perhaps Mandos has kept him, all this time, in the shadowed hall, where the poor lad tried and tried to unlearn the lessons that Sauron had taught him. Yet only today he goes free to join the others on the beach, finally released from bitterness, finally able to forgive the Westerners who had left his bones unburied, the cold wind blowing through his ribs. Perhaps he knows, now, that we all have things in common. Yes, he might well find my son, and say to him, ‘You may not know me, but your mother stood in as a mother for me, and so we are brothers, now, who never could meet in life.’”
More and more peace flowed into her. Even here, in this murdered countryside, they had found a good thing to do. Good seeped in like water, every way that it could. You couldn’t keep it out, really. You could clog it, you could pollute it, but some always got in to soften the hard, moisten the dry. Enough? Not always. Withering happened, now and then. But some, yes, some always got through.
And she did see it, now that she looked for it. The light of Valinor. It didn’t really depend on sun or moon, stars or magical trees, or towering lamps of ice. It suffused all of these, as well as the candle and the hearth, the lantern and the campfire, and even in places as dark as the inside of a grave, it could shine there, too. Even now she saw it glancing off the mica in the stones. The clouds overhead luminesced with light in their bellies, and though they soon darkened and gave birth to rain, the rain shimmered. Then, when the rain subsided and the clouds parted once again, the puddles flashed with so much light that it made her eyes tear up.
“It is a liquid, this light.” Yes indeed, for the Valar used to dip it up out of pools, to nourish all things with its radiance. “It is a liquid.” An ordinary light could stop at anything, not flow around, leave shadows where it couldn’t reach. But not this. “It saturates us all.” Maybe she didn’t do it justice even to call it the light of Valinor. It felt still more ancient, older than Middle-Earth. Frodo had tried to explain it to her, what he had glimpsed on that horizon on the brink of death. That’s where the real light came from–and even this could not compare to the radiance yet to come.
“It will all work out,” she told herself, remembering Harding’s smile, letting it warm her in the aching chill. “Hearts will mend, in the balm of that light. The dead rejoice in hopes to come. We will not hurt forever.”