From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 29, Part 274
The News from Uncle Nibs
March 2, 1453
Frodo stood, clasping his own hands in front of him, in the Mayor’s presence, and listened with his head bowed. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“And if ya ever turn up derelict in yer duties again,” she railed, flapping his letter about, “me’n me folks will hunt ya down, drag ya back, throw ya in irons fer a day or two, all so’s we can run ya out o’ town all over again. Ya hear me, chickie?”
She propped one fist upon her hip. “Just so’s ye know, pet, I’ve banned both poppy-gum and working-dust from Seaside entire, save fer what Elenaril needs in her business.”
“Wise of you,” he said softly.
She tossed the letter onto a table, then paced fretfully, tugging her shawl tight around her shoulders, for drafts played about in the old stone house. “Now, it seems they’s a party fer Bergil and Elenaril’s annyversary this very afternoon. Tell me ye won’t cause any trouble there–don’t make me ban grog, too. I’m sore tempted.”
“I won’t. It’s a friendly drink for those not pressed with my affliction.” He raised his head. “In fact, I gave Bergil and Elenaril my good wishes before I came to meet with you. They understand why I will not attend their party.”
She paused in her pacing and stared at him, her face changed. “Ohhh chickie.”
“It is all right.” He squared his shoulders. “I can miss parties, if it means missing all that go with them, for me.”
She took his chin into her hand and her gaze softened. “Ye’ve had a hard time of it, haven’t ye, pet?” Frodo just shrugged. She stepped back from him, picked up the letter again, set it back down, and looked at him again. “All right, then–apology accepted. Work in the field’s already begun–I expect ye to be there. No more laggin’ about.”
“Yes Ma’am.” He bowed and left her watching after his back, her eyes watering just a bit, had he but known it.
He walked at a swift stride, carrying his hobbit-sized shovel on his shoulder, the soles of his feet itching for the old, familiar clay. He found a corner of the plateau where men worked at leveling out the field for sowing. He took a deep breath of the scent of fresh-turned soil. Then, without a word, he pitched in, breaking down the surviving ribs of earth to tumble them into the cracks, over the gravel-buried, pierced clay pipes. Down went the few withered plants left on the surface, tumbling roots to the sky, there to rot, to feed and aerate the soil. He had never fully realized the cruel side of gardening until he had come to Mordor.
Gradually he noticed how much quieter things had become around him. He looked up and found almost all of the workers staring at him, leaning on their shovels. The lone exception, it pained him to note, was a hobbit with his back turned, busily raking away at new-poured compost, topping off the filled-in cracks.
In a gruff voice Cork asked, “So–ya come here to work, didja?”
Frodo nodded. “Yes. I have.”
For a moment Cork and the rest just stared at him. Finally Cork returned his nod. “Well, I seem t’recall somebody sayin’ that we can only make things better around here by imitatin’ the best in each other, not the worst.”
Frodo nodded. “I am here because you are.”
Cork broke into a grin and clapped him on the back with a grubby hand. “Well, that’s good enough fer me! How ‘bout the rest o’ ya boys?”
“Aye!” “Sure enough.” “I can go with that.” Even Nibs shrugged, though he didn’t turn his head.
Someone behind Frodo said, “Me, too, Frodo. I’m here because ya showed up again.” He heard a swallow. “I came back–sorta--th’day y’sailed inter port.”
Frodo turned, and saw Starboy, looking much thinner and yellowish, his hands shaking on the handle of his hoe. Frodo nodded to him. “Work beside me for awhile,” he said.
At first they said nothing. Frodo shoveled, and Starboy broke up the clods and scraped them into place. The hobbit could plainly see that this young man was in no shape to lift any heavy shovelfuls, himself. It saddened Frodo, yet it also heartened him that he himself had progressed enough that others could rely on him to take on more than they could.
After awhile Starboy spoke as he labored. “I had it all figgered out, Frodo. Work hard by day, drink hard by night, nobody’s business but me own, so long as I pulled me share.”
Frodo nodded, wiping his brow. “I know. I came to the same conclusion, over in Squatting Rock. It worked...until it didn’t.”
They said little beyond that throughout the morning. Sometimes Frodo would steal glances at his uncle, who did not look back at all. But Frodo could see the weariness in the profile of his face, the hanging jowls of loose skin on formerly fat cheeks, the downcast eyes.
As the sun rose, the area looked more and more like a field and less like a disaster. Frodo’s muscles felt glad to remember their old work (even if they did ache, too) and his sweat felt purifying. He reached for a waterskin, but stopped when he smelled something like apples within. “What is this?” he asked.
Nibs said, “Vinagree swizzle.” Even now he didn’t look at Frodo, though his voice sounded kindly enough. “Just water and apple vinagree, with a little sweetening. Not cider, if that’s what worrits you. Maybelle used to make it for me.”
“Oh yes. Now I remember.” He found its tartness refreshing for a work-dried throat.
At noon, as the men put up their tools and headed back to town, Starboy asked, too casually, “So...are ye goin’ t’the party? I mean ya bein’ Bergil and Elenaril’s special friend and all?”
“No. I have already wished them well.”
Starboy took a deep breath and nodded. “Me neither,” he decided.
“Why don’t you meet my wife over at the bakery? She’s taking over the counter for Pearl today. I will join you shortly. I just have to finish up a few things here, first.”
Starboy grinned. “That sounds good enough–I think me appetite’s comin’ back a bit.”
Frodo called after him as he left, “Then the bakery’s a good place for you. Your food’s on my tab.” He watched the young man leave, shaking his head. “Not as bad as I was, then, if he can put in a morning’s work so soon. He’ll be all right.” Frodo himself felt that a morning’s work had been quite enough for a beginning. He leaned on his shovel and rubbed his aching back.
A throat cleared. “Am I one of those few things that you need to take care of?” Nibs asked him from behind.
“If you wish,” Frodo said, not daring to turn. “I meant every word of my letter, you know. I still wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes, horrified to think that I punched my own uncle in the nose.”
“Oh, hang the nose! My anger has nothing to do with a bloody nose!”
Frodo straightened. “Then tell me what it does have to do with.”
“It’s the family, and what you’ve done to it, young sir. It’s about Rose, and her Sam even more.” Frodo could hear the fury building, imagining his uncle’s face turning red. “How does it feel, Frodo, to be the instrument of Sauron’s vengeance on your father? How does it feel? Do you have any idea how proud he used to be of you?”
“I wish I didn’t, but I do. And I have sent him...”
“A letter? Oh you have no idea, you young whelp! Nobody who’s never been a father could possi...”
“Uncle Nibs, Mattie lost the baby!” He whirled around, the shovel falling, his fists clenched by themselves. He saw his uncle staring open-mouthed, the red face paling suddenly.
“A baby? She...she was...oh, Frodo!” Nibs ran to hug his nephew, then stared at him aghast. “Good heavens almighty but you’ve aged!” The hobbit fingered a silver-edged curl and gazed on Frodo’s weathered face.
Frodo smiled wryly. “I’d be mightily surprised if I hadn’t, all things considered.”
“You’ve...I had no idea how much you’ve paid for what you’ve done. Elenaril warned me, but I suppose I didn’t want to listen.”
“I still owe you my apology, nonetheless. And to my parents even more.”
“What happened, Frodo? What happened to your child? And to Mattie?”
Frodo felt a quiver in his back, where the muscles threatened cramp. “Forgive me, Uncle, but I’ve put in more work than I’ve become used to, and I’ve a long way ahead of me to the bakery. Must we stand?”
Nibs drew an arm around him. “Come, come, there’s a dry place over here where we can sit a bit.” Nibs bent his knees with a groan to sit on a bank beside his nephew. “Your wife can keep Starboy out of trouble till you get there. Now tell me all about it.”
“She was about five or six months along, when we both took fever...” As Frodo told the tale, Nibs’s face puckered with remembered pain. Yet after awhile the younger hobbit’s stomach rumbled, reminding him of the time. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for the party, yourself?” he asked.
“Ah no, lad, I’ll pay my respects tomorrow. This isn’t the Shire, you know.”
“So I have noticed,” Frodo said with a smile. “But what difference do you mean? Bergil and Elenaril are good, decent people; you have nothing to fear from them.”
“Not from them, no. But I’ve had plenty of cares, Frodo, since you left.” Frodo thought his face looked more lined than ever. “I had no idea how hard it would be to take your place–disaster after disaster! Yet even in the floods folks laughed and said it could be worse, that it was worse, in fact, before you came, and for some time afterwards, at first, until you changed things about somehow, every way you could.” He shook his head and looked shyly at his nephew. “All of this, and dragons, too! And worse besides, that devil tormenting you night and day. I shouldn’t wonder that you got in trouble.” He straightened out his clay-stained shirt. “So I kept on the strait and narrow, Frodo, just in case, by grace of your bad example, begging your pardon. It seems that once a body starts to slide here in Mordor, you can’t grab onto much to break your fall. It’s no use going overboard just once on a bad day and thinking to do better on the good days, because you can’t count on the good days to just appear without some help.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
Nibs took a deep breath and blew it out noisily. “Call me silly, but I’ve been scared to death to pop into the pub at all, lad, for fear I might never pop out again.” He mopped his brow with his kerchief. “Then my poor sister would have had twice the grief.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’re in too much danger,” Frodo said, patting his uncle on the arm. “But I won’t call you silly, either. Mordor does make it hard, a whole lot harder, just to stay close to normal about anything.” Frodo stood. “Well, then–if you won’t go to the party, then come with me to the bakery. We can make a merry time of it after our own fashion.”
“I would, lad, but my lunch is on its way already. See–there.” He also rose, and pointed. In the distance Frodo saw a woman laboring up the slope from the village road. His enhanced sight made out that she carried a picnic basket balanced perfectly on her head while her hands occupied themselves by lifting her skirt clear of the mud, a graceful gesture. And he saw, too, that her skin was black, as black as the richest earth.
Nibs smiled for the first time. “That would be my Raven, coming up to feed me.”
Frodo turned in shock to his Uncle, who seemed to take no note.
“She’s a good woman, Frodo. Oh, if I hadn’t had her support, through all the hard times, no matter what happened, I fear to think of what I would have done. She has been a comfort like I can’t tell you. Your mother would like her, if they could ever meet. I’m sorry that they can’t.”
“Uncle Nibs!” Frodo cried out at last, finding his voice.
Nibs straightened, looking him sternly in the eye. “I will have you know that my intentions are honorable. It is true that I have been staying in her home–in a cellar room by myself, mind you–but only to learn her language from her mother and her brothers, through hearing it day and night.” He made a strange utterance, full of clicks and twitters, like the greeting of a bird. “See? That says ‘I am happy to see you.’”
“But a human woman?” And suddenly the gulf of the King’s ban, against men ever setting foot in the Shire, opened up between them though they stood so close that they touched.
Nibs gazed at his approaching darling with yearning. “I love her, Frodo, and that’s the beginning and the end of it. She’s the sweetest, gentlest thing I’ve ever encountered in all of this cruel land.” He shook his head. “Poor thing. See, some folks here still made raids for slaves long after the War of the Ring; it took the King years and years to bring civility out as far as he has. Raven and her family came from a deep raid into the land beyond Umbar, where her father died. She misses her home so hard.” He turned shining eyes on Frodo, and some of the lines seemed to melt away. “Do you know, they make their dwellings out of earth, with round windows and doors? Why, it’s almost like hobbit-holes!”
“But it isn’t, Uncle Nibs. Are you....are you thinking of going there?”
Nibs nodded once, sharply. “That I am, lad. Why so shocked? Who are you, of all people, to think it queer?”
“But Uncle! It is one thing for me, for a time, to go to a distant land where the mail can take a month to reach the Shire. It is another thing to go forever, to a land so far that no post can ever reach it.”
Nibs looked at him solemnly. “Frodo, there is nothing back in the Shire for me anymore. Your mother and all the rest of the family will have to understand that: nothing except sad memories. Everywhere I look there, I see things to remind me of Maybelle, and of the child who never got to be. All of my hopes died there, Frodo. I need new hopes to get by on.” His gaze scanned out over Nurn. “But I will not end my days here in this desert, not once I’m needed here no longer. Raven tells me of a greener land--the greenest land in all the world--from which the raiders stole her.”
Nibs looked down the road again. Frodo could see the woman still more clearly, now. Her smile gleamed as pure and white as foam upon the sea. She had the soft, round curves so prized by hobbit-kind, and her clean limbs shone like polished wood. “I’m not as old as I look, Frodo. Cares have aged me early, even as yourself, but I’ve got plenty of good years in me yet. And I came to realize that my wife died, but I did not. It’s high time that I started living again.”
“Uncle Nibs, this is so...so unlike you!”
“It might seem like a Tookish thing to do,” Nibs admitted with a smile. “Yet while I’m not partial to adventures for themselves, I’m not afraid of them when they come to hand, not anymore. I will go with Raven, when the time comes, to bring her and her family home to their people again. My people, what am I saying? They shall become my people.”
He laughed, scratching his chin. “I suppose it is, at that. I never was one for traveling, you know that. But when duty called, I did it. Well, I’ve gone out and seen the worst, and gotten it over with. Now who can blame me for wanting to go on and see the best?”
Faintly Frodo asked, “What do you know of this country of Raven’s, Uncle?”
The older hobbit smiled almost dreamily. “Do you think that the Shire is fertile and good? Raven’s mother says that no land in all of Middle Earth is as rich as the one from which they come. The ground’s so spongy that you feel like you walk on clouds, all the time. A seed can hardly touch the earth without sprouting. And there they grow a kind of ‘tater, only huge, three times the size of ours, and sweet as any fruit. In that land, Frodo, you can travel for miles and miles under a canopy of green, swimming through the ferns like a dolphin in the sea. And oh, she says, the sweetness of the air! I can almost taste it, from her describing it.”
“You don’t know any of this. For all you know her homesickness has colored her memory beyond all recognition. She had left it as a child, after all. And there might be dangers that she hasn’t told you about.”
“If so,” Nibs sighed,” then I will see it just as colored by my love for her. As for danger, yes, they have some: fearsome wild beasts, and venomous snakes, and fell diseases carried on by biting bugs–all manner of deadly things. Raven has concealed nothing from me, bless her honest heart. But how, Frodo, does that differ from here? If you can make a life here, surely I can make a good life over there. At least they have no dragons.” He laughed again. “Big, fierce water-lizards the size of dragonets, that they do have, but without fire or malice or sorcery.”
Frodo laughed, himself, though shakily. “I think I might have encountered a few of those, myself–from a safe distance, mind you...” and he told his Uncle about some more of his adventures as they walked down towards the woman with the basket on her head, before Frodo split off for the bakery.
He felt safe, secure in love, when he stepped into the bakery, and Mattie brought out calf pie for lunch, and there sat Starboy, looking better with every mouthful. But as Frodo breathed in the pleasant odors of the bakery, he wondered about the scent of “the greenest place in all the world.”