From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 22, Part 267
Reflections in an Opaque Pool
February 19, 1453
The hobbits passed between two looming boulders. far from the road and the canal-work. Frodo had not remembered them in his last journey here, and would not have found his way without Mattie’s help. He stared in astonishment at the mist-filled dell below them. “I can’t believe we’re here already! The sun has not even reached halfway to noon.”
“You are not stumbling on sore feet in a fever, but in decent health and riding a goodly steed.” Mattie smiled for the first time since that morning; Frodo thought she seemed awfully subdued for someone traveling to what she called her favorite place on earth.
Frodo inhaled deeply the fragrant air. “So close to the hot spring–how could this much good exist in such a troubled land?”
“Well, the blessed water from the mud-bath does feed the hot spring, through an underground course–didn’t you realize that?”
“I had no idea.” Then he frowned. “Yet the water turns wrong–very wrong indeed–just a little further downhill from the spring.”
Mattie shrugged. “That’s elvish magic for you–it’s mostly good, but when it goes bad, it goes really bad. Probably something to do with falling from a higher place.”
“And more to do with the poor creature who took over that pond, perhaps hoping for healing, herself. May she find her way home soon, now.” Hooves clopped down into the little vale, until the fog entirely engulfed them. Frodo stared intensely into the grayness.
Mattie said, “I can feel the four sisters rejoice to come home again.”
“I can see them. They dance, hand in hand, swirling around in circles just ahead of us. Earth-maiden stamps and skips, kicking up the dust–right there: can you see it? Her sister of Fire shimmies and flutters faster than a blink. Water-maiden flows smoothly, move into move with slower grace. Air-maiden wafts as lightly as a sigh of contentment. They all seem happy, each after their fashion.”
Mattie smiled. “You may see the dance, but I hear the music.” Then she dismounted, and Frodo did likewise. “How soft the grasses feel beneath bare feet, and how sweet the scent each step releases! Thank you, Frodo, for burning my boots in this place.”
Frodo put his arm around his wife as they walked. “What is a hobbit, without sole to the soil? Well may we respect all that is higher or deeper, but our kind has no reason to hang our heads in their presence, either. For we belong to the living Middle-Earth between.”
Arm in arm they reached the pool of mud, with its broken tiles all around the rim. Mattie grew solemn. “I thank the Lords of the West that I no longer need the kind of help that I used to seek here! Yet I do need healing now, of a different sort–perhaps more than ever in my life.”
Frodo gazed upon the weariness in her face, the deeply shadowed eyes that seemed to find no rest. He stroked her cheek, dry of tears mainly because weeping had grown too tiresome. “I understand,” he says. “It’s an awful lot of pain to have to bear, so soon after dodging pain for years.”
“It’s the emptiness that hurts the worst of all. Especially in my arms–they should be full of son, my arms.” She held them in front of her, then crossed them over her chest, protectively. “Oh I know, better than anyone has a right to know, that he has moved on to great happiness, and I do rejoice for him, Frodo, with all my heart. But that cannot change the fact that right here, right now, I don’t have him.” She looked out over the bubbling mud. “Nothing can heal that fully–not even this place.” Then she looked Frodo fiercely in the face and said, “And I think it shouldn’t. What are we, if we cannot mourn? Smiling ghosts–I lived too long like that.”
Frodo nodded, not without his own ache inside. Gently he uncrossed her arms for her, taking her hand in his. “Gandalf once told my father, before I was born, that not all tears are evil. Very well, then–may you and I both find exactly what we need, here–no more, no less.”
Mattie gazed again at the pool, with a yearning that seemed to burn from her. “Yes indeed–for if I desired numbness, I know where to find it.”
Faintly he replied, “One never forgets, does one?”
Mattie let go of his hand and stepped out of her clothing, gravely, as though preparing for some symbol of rebirth, as lately had begun to spread across the eastern lands, people creating rituals to wash themselves clean of Sauron’s lies. Solemnly she then sank into the heated mud, and swam forward, her eyes distant, seemingly entranced.
Frodo joined her, and they moved through the thick matter together. He felt the mud draw out from him the nightmare of his months in Squatting Rock; it stung in a queerly wholesome way, as it scoured out the wound where Sauron had so recently resided. He still felt the scar there, the hollowed-point where he had lost a fragment of his will, yet no longer raw, no longer waiting open for something new to poison it.
“I remember dancing for coins,” he said suddenly as he swam, surprising even himself. “I can’t have been very good at it, not a true busker like you. Yet people laughed and threw coins, enough to numb me for another night; I suppose entertainment came so rare in Squatting Rock that anything might amuse, at least for a little while. I don’t recall my career in the performing arts lasting very long, however.” As he said it he felt a change in his body: the final traces of toxins pulled out through his pores. He chuckled at himself, and it seemed to free his breast with cleaner air. “What a fool I’ve been!”
In a distant voice, Mattie replied, “I became a bard long before any craving in the blood compelled me to seek coin. I first learned to sing to comfort my father; it calmed him whenever his mood became violent. At the best of times the music gave me something very like the poppy, only more real, more nourishing. I wanted that all the time, though–that special moment when every note came out just right, when I felt more than mortal–only I desired to attain it without so much effort. I never wanted to come down from wafting on a song, far from the troubles of the earth.”
Her brow knit, then, remembering. “The poppy seemed to deliver on its promise, yet it nibbled at my talent, all the time; this fear loomed ever behind the surface gaiety, that I would one day forget entirely how to sing. The only reason that I could hold onto any talent at all is right here, in this healing earth. Every week I visited it, in my coming and my going.”
Then she sank beneath the surface, and rose up again masked. Frodo did likewise, felt the heat applied to his face and scalp, then bobbed up to suck in the moist and scented air. “I think,” he said, “that the music kept me in love with you. It kept me hoping that not all of you had gone up in smoke.”
“The land kept me hoping for you, when you fell in your turn. Your father said that he felt it through the soles of his feet, the land missing you–well, so did I. Yet even in your darkest days you could not pull far from it, Frodo. Why do you think that when you fled farming altogether, you wound up in a mine? Why did I find you sheltered from wild beasts, deep within the ground?”
They reached the end, and helped each other to climb out, heavy with mud. Then they rinsed each other off in the refreshing water of the fountain. Frodo studied the broken old statue from which the water issued. “Este,” he said, “The Lady of Rest and Restoration, the Healer of Valinor, dreaming Irmo Lorien’s fair wife.”
Mattie gazed up at the statue, its smile still sweet though green with moss. Then she turned slowly to Frodo, cupping her breasts, saying, “They have dried up. Just now, in the mud-bath. I can feel it. The Lady Eowyn’s ointment did not help. Perhaps because we nurse our children longer than human mothers do, perhaps some other reason, but they would not dry till now. They have finally let Harding go.”
Frodo didn’t know how to answer that, with congratulations or condolences, so he just took her into his arms and nestled her head upon his chest. And then, only with the greatest of tenderness, did he give her that which she had finally healed enough to welcome, in the soft grass where the steam held winter at bay. At last he kissed her eyelids shut and slept along with her, each wrapped in each other’s warmth.
They woke to find the day still luminous on the mists. They felt like new people when they rose, and donned their clothes, and fixed each other food.
“I was wrong,” Mattie said.
“When I said that the Four Sisters came home.”
“But they’re right here, now. I see them dancing still–weaving in and out, taking each other’s hands to endlessly blend each other’s properties. Now earth dances with fire and water to make heated, healing mud. Now water and fire dance with air to make soothing steam. I wish I could show you the beauty of their dance!”
“I didn’t say that they weren’t here. Yet they didn’t come home.”
“Well, they certainly look at home to me!”
“They never left, Frodo. Some part of them always remains here. And some part of us, as well. And Lanethil, and everyone who has ever come this way.”
“How? I thought only elves with Rings of Power could work such magic, yet the Three have long since passed.”
“Can’t you feel it, Frodo? An older magic, deeper, more primitive. Something so deep that Sauron skimmed right over it, missed it completely.”
“I do,” he said, “Now that you mention it. I suppose that I needed you to confirm it for me, bring it to my attention, so to speak. It feels like those bones in the cliff near Seaside, so ancient that the earth around them has turned to stone. Does it preserve, then, like Galadriel’s magic in Lorien?”
Mattie considered a minute, then said, “No, I don’t think so. That would go against the Great Music.” She hummed a few bars, as though listening to something, trying in vain to translate it. “Music is an adornment upon time, Frodo, and so must ever change.”
“Then maybe it preserves or restores the meaning of all things, that which stays constant throughout all change.”
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, toying with a blade of grass, “that sounds closer to the mark–that which makes an acorn always grow into an oak, and not an alder or a beech, and what makes the fallen oak-leaves and the rotting boughs crumble into soil, to nourish acorns yet to come.”
“Lanethil must not have created it, then; he just discovered it and made good use of it, like his long-lost kin discovering and gathering berries before plows ever creased the earth.”
“Tom Bombadil has always known it, and never will forget–the very essence of where Songs of Power come from–real power, not the enemy’s deceitful prize, but the power of willing submission, to flow with the Great Music and not to try and wrest it into something else. Luthien knew it, too.” Her eyes widened. “And I know it.”
Frodo looked on her with wonder, and stroked her hair. “Only a great bard indeed could gain such insight,” he said.
She smiled, tentatively. “All bards capture a faint air of the Great Music. Didn’t you know that? Sometimes it drives us mad. Sometimes it makes us so thirsty for more that we seize on lying substitutes like poppy-gum or grog. Yet the Four Sisters told me all the details, Frodo. I may not see them like you do, yet I can hear them. And that, perhaps, has something to do with my being a bard, as you say.”
“How fortunate, wife, that you have them with you always.”
“No, Frodo, I don’t.” She turned and gazed into his eyes, and she looked strange to him, seeing something hidden to him even with the Lens of May. “Tomorrow we will leave this vale, and they will remain, and not go with me. I don’t need visions anymore–I have had too many in my life. The Sisters lingered with me as part of my healing, in order to wean me off of what I found harder to let go of than the poppy-gum itself. I shall rely on your visions now, husband, since you seem doomed to them beyond return. When I went into the mud I let go of more than Harding.”
“Ah, wife!” He embraced her. “What a loss, for you!”
“No; I don’t feel it as a loss, not any longer. I will diminish from a pitch of power too great for me. I will become Matthilda Gardner, bard and wife, and someday mother once again. To be a bard brings magic enough into my life–the more so if I stay true to who I am.”
He held her shoulders before him, and chuckled, saying, “Then will you take your guidance from a hobbit whom everybody else calls mad?”
She caressed his hands and smiled, yet tears suddenly welled in her eyes, and she abruptly turned away. He frowned, not daring to say a word. “If you’ll excuse me,” she said a little too brightly, “I know all manner of edible things that grow in this hollow. If I start gathering now, we can have a merry supper indeed, full of fresh stuff. My my, but we do get to missing fresh food on the road, don’t we?” And with that she hurried off, and the fog swallowed her from sight.
Frodo waited for her, propped against a pillar. The gardener in him scolded him, saying that he ought to follow this expert in local herblore to see what he could learn. “Give her her privacy,” he told himself. “I don’t have to know every plant in the world–no one farms in Seaside in conditions anything like this.”
He stared around him more attentively, into the mist. Shapes moved there, phantom forms of visitors long gone. Men slipped in and out of focus for the most part, though he saw Lanethil, too, in many forms, crooked or straightened, at labor or at rest. He saw Mattie return again and again, always getting just enough healing to retain some measure of herself for another week, never quite enough to go free until she finally chose to free herself. Frodo watched his own phantom come and go with Bergil. And once he caught sight of an orc, repulsed yet fascinated, overcome with curiosity, who might or might not have been Lobbie Aadar in her youth.
“Did this, then, make it possible to dislodge me from my place in time, and enable Mattie to do the dislodging? Well did Gandalf warn my forebears, in days gone by, not to meddle in matters too great for us!”
I never spoke in vain when I walked this Middle Earth, though some of course might dispute the matter.
“You! It is about time you showed up! Where were you when I needed you by the Poros Canal?”
At my proper business, Frodo, which I should have you know involves much time and effort. I cannot always linger to hold your hand, young sir. Besides, you did not need me. You managed quite well enough by yourself. If I took care of everyone who wanted me to, no one would ever grow–and I would never get anything of consequence accomplished.
Then Frodo asked the question that troubled him the most. “Gandalf, am I mad?”
Well now, that is another matter of some dispute, wouldn’t you say? Does your wife love you as you are?
“Well, yes, but...”
And do you have the strength of mind to do the work set out for you?
“I’m not sure...but yes, I think I do.”
And can you still perceive beauty and truth and wonder?
“I suppose I can.”
Then you’ll do. Some have achieved renown with less.
Mattie found him some time later, lost in thought, after she had returned with her apron full of herbs and succulent roots and even a few edible flowers. She said nothing to him, and he wished no words from her, but silently led him to the warmth of their campfire. Nor did they need words when she gave him vegetables to chop, so that together they made their evening meal, and ate it in each other’s company, the silence as rich and complex as a Shire patchwork comforter nestled all around them. They did not need to speak to lay them down together, and to fall asleep in each other’s arms, and no words whatsoever entered into their dreams.