From the Ashes a Fire Shall be Woken
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 35, Part 282
Passing on the Gift
November 2, 1534
“Ah, what a splendid day!” Ban Cotton exclaimed. "Looks like yesterday's party weather just won't quit us yet." He rested his scythe and regarding the afternoon sun on the golden fields, glinting on the shocks of grain and the forest in autumn blaze beyond. The last of the migrating birds sang their farewells, as if reluctant to head south for the winter. He took a deep breath of fresh-cut the barley’s perfume, mingled with the scent of frost-sweetened apples in the nearby orchard. “Why, I’ve never seen the leaves stay on the trees so long, and in such bright colors as this year–nary a one has turned brown, or I’m an elf!”
“That you ain’t,” said Dorry Noakes, joining him on the way to the nuncheon table. “But you’re right, you’re right. It all fell together perfect for young Harding Gardner’s Coming of Age party.”
“A bit awkward, though,” said Boffo Budge, coming up close behind with his pitchfork on his shoulder, “having it so close to his grandfather’s eleventy-first, yet not on the money. It would have been luckier to have had it on the same day, like they say that Bilbo Baggins did with that other Frodo, way back when.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Dorry said, brushing chaff off his sleeves. “Gaffer Gardner don’t hold with beer at his parties, but a young hobbit’s got to wet his whistle for a proper coming of age. Let the old fellow have his own party, quiet and in peace, just like he likes it, and let Harding enjoy his the old-fashioned way.”
“Oh, the Gaffer didn’t mind,” Ban said, his scythe easy on his shoulder. “He never interfered with any of Holdfast’s occasions. He just went somewhere else, like he always does.”
“Just as well,” Boffo said. “The one time that I ever did see the Gaffer lift a brew, he kept a wake for Mistress Mattie for two solid months, till Holdfast went and found him and brought him home. Those Gardners don’t do anything by halves, I’ll say that much.” He shook his head. “But understandable, almost–losing Mistress Mattie was a sad blow for us all.”
Dorry asked, “Where is Harding, by the way, and his Dad?”
Ban shrugged. “Can’t say. I heard tell Holdfast went looking for something this morning, and Harding soon went out to help him. They’ve been at it all morning. Things go missing at parties when you've got so many guests, and nobody meaning any harm by it, just picking up the wrong cloak or umbrella in the dim light.” His steps speeded up as the womenfolk arrived, carrying their baskets of food, and he caught the rich aromas in the breeze. “No harm in their being gone, whatever their business–the lads work hard with or without their help and supervision–the Gardners have earned that much from us.”
Buddy Smallburrow had been listening the while and joined them at the table with the other workers, while the wives and children laid out their noonday meal. “Pity about Mistress Mattie, though.” Buddy said. “The world’s a sadder, silent place without her singing in it. Oh, she could make the trees dance and the rocks sing along, they say, when she got going good.” He shook his head. “They do say that some folly of her youth shortened her years, though, more’s the pity.”
“Aye? What was that?” Dorry asked, passing down a round of cheese after cutting himself a slice, as a young lad set forth a bowl overflowing with pears and apples, listening intently to his elders.
“Nobody knows.” Buddy snagged a fragrant, fresh-baked roll. “Some foreign foolishness or other, such as catches the innocent off their guard. Something that hurt her permanent-like, even though she long since came to her senses, just like she lost that tooth and never grew one back.” Buddy broke the roll open and pushed in cheese and sausage. “Well, plenty of leaves have blown over that grave since, and Holdfast’s taken good care of his Gaffer just as his mother would have wanted. But she was the bestest hobbit bard that ever walked this world–‘twas a hard loss to us all, whatever her past might be.”
Boffo nodded. “Magic, some say. That she sang magic.” Then he blushed. “Some as believe in that sort of thing.” And he bit into an apple to hide his confusion.
The child who had brought the fruit watched beyond the bowl, where old Gaffer Gardner himself wandered through the not-yet-harvested rows, muttering as always. “Who does he talk to?” the boy piped up.
“Who, laddie?” asked Dorry.
“Master Frodo, sir. Who does he talk to?”
Dorry shrugged. “Hisself, or ghosts, or people as ain’t there. Only the Gaffer knows for sure.”
Ban helped himself to some smoky sausage. “I’ve heard him address the crops, sometimes. Some say that vegetables grow especially green and hearty wherever he has passed.”
Boffo looked interested, but Dorry snorted. “Some say! Nobody as would admit to it without a brew or two to give ‘em an excuse for speaking nonsense. Why, you sound like one of the Maggot family.”
“Don’t knock the Maggots,” Ban said, a little defensively. “They’re good folks. Queer folks can be good folks–haven’t we all seen it close to home?”
The boy helped his mother wrestle a pot of steaming carrots, turnips and herbs in butter to the table. He asked, “Has Gaffer Gardner always been like that?”
“Touched, you mean? As long as I’ve knowed him,” Buddy Smallburrow replied, staring off into the distance, not looking at the Gaffer in the field, as though it would have been too embarrassing to glance that way. “Though I’d heard tell he was as normal and healthy a hobbit as you could wish for, up until his adventure. That was afore my time, of course.”
“Don’t go blaming adventures,” Boffo Budge put in. “Some folks come through all right. They can’t break what ain’t cracked to begin with.” He thumped the table firmly. “I say it’s Bag End as did it.”
“Bag End?” several asked, even further down the table, though they had heard the rumors before.
“Aye, Bag End. There’s something queer about that hole.” Boffo looked around at the others gathered around the food. “Madness and strangeness haunt it. My family helped to dig it and build it for the Bagginses, generations ago. We know all its history.”
“Do you indeed?” Buddy asked, genuinely interested and leaning forward on the table. “But then your father was quite the stonemason, and his father afore that.”
“And his grandfather, and on as far back as holes have needed built in these parts. And my elder brother keeps the tradition on. But something went seriously wrong with that one hole, having nothing to do with the structure of it, and it warn’t our fault.”
“Why, because it happens to have fallen into eccentric hands?”
“They weren’t eccentric to begin with, none of them.” Boffo took a mouthful of bread and sausage before he would continue. Everyone waited impatiently while he chewed. “Now take old Bungo, who hired us to build it in the first place: They say you couldn’t find a more respectable hobbit in all the Shire than him. Why, you could set a watch by his morning walk. But he did take an odd turn, in marrying Belladonna Took; my gaffer used to say that his gaffer said that everybody thought it most peculiar at the time–not like a Baggins at all, when it came right down to it. She just wasn't his type, being a Took and all, and more of a Took than most. Some claimed that he wanted the money that came with her more than he wanted the wife, but others say that he loved her well, loved her enough to build Bag End special to her wishes–almost as though she had cast a spell on him, you might say.”
People all around the table shuddered appreciatively. Dorry tried to laugh it off, but his chuckle came out uneasy-sounding. Since even the eldest of them had come into this world long after Belladonna had left it, they found this eminently believable.
Boffo went on. “It seems plain enough now that she brought something uncanny into the mix, though she never lived to see how it all played out. I don’t think she’d have wanted to drive her only son mad, but that’s just what happened. Heaven knows what she played around with, or why; I suppose she just wanted to make her husband more like to herself, poor thing, but you pay the devil of a price when you mess around in uncanniness. Not that anybody knows for certain that she did, mind you, but it kind of seems evident, now, that she got mixed up in some sort of elvish sorcery before she married, and maybe afterwards, as well; leastways some of the old folks used to swear that before she settled down she’d sneak off to the woods, and there’d be queer lights and all, and whoever she visited surely weren’t hobbits!”
“That’s right, Boffo,” Ban Cotton said. “And then came Frodo Baggins after, and he went even crazier than poor old Bilbo ever did. My great-grandaddy used to help take care of him, sometimes. And then the hole went to our Sam, bless him, and as good a hobbit as ever walked the Shire he was, but you can’t deny that he didn’t end up the same fellow that he used to be, afore he got that inheritance. He had good, solid roots to him, so you had to know him quite awhile to see it, but he had his strange side, too, put the whole Maggot family to shame, some would say as knew them both. But good folks, mind you, every last one of them, however queer. And now his son in turn, the second Frodo, has got the Bag End curse worse than anyone.”
“And don’t forget Gammer May,” Dorry Noakes put in. “You can’t chalk it up to bad blood, because she wasn’t a Baggins nor a Gardner, neither one, not to begin with.” Then he blinked, embarrassed at his blurt.
“Aw, she’s all right now,” Buddy said.
“Only after years away from the hole,” Boffo said. “And she might have become a Gardner official when she came back, but she never lived there again. That pony ranch straightened her right out.”
Dorry added, “For that matter, her father was all right, too, from a long line of sensible hobbits, before he got to messing around with Sharkey, in and out of Bag End at its worst.” He gave up all pretense of doubt as he muttered, “ Brrrr–I wouldn’t spend a night in that hole for any money!”
Ban said, “I’ve stayed there a time or two, yet came to no harm. But I took my rabbit’s foot with me every time.” When the others looked at him he reminded them, “I have kin there, remember. My great-aunt married Old Mayor Sam. She was, in fact, Frodo Gardner’s mother, if you’ll recall.”
“Did she...” several began to ask, but fell off, embarrassed.
“Did she go batty? Only for a time, I hear, running off crying into the woods and wailing strange songs. I don’t quite remember why–something set it off. But she straightened herself out later.”
Buddy said, “Well, maybe the curse has wore itself out, and had its grand finale in Frodo Gardner and Mistress May. Holdfast seems as solid and sensible a hobbit as any in the Shire. And his son Harding’s as like to him as scion to tree.”
“Yet Holdfast did take that queer wife...the Brandybuck girl. Older than him and everything.” Boffo’s voice fell to a whisper. “I heard she went a-busking for a summer–as an acrobat!”
Dorry nodded. “Just like her mother before her. But you’ll recall that Holdfast’s own mother used to busk, before she settled permanent into singing at the tea house.” He sighed. “Ah, what a voice she had. Deep-like, but rich. I was just a wee thing, but I remember!”
Ban shook his head. “How’d poor Holdfast ever come out normal?” Then he poured himself some vinagree swizzle and said, “Must be the Cotton blood in him.”
The young boy, seeing his elders all fed, filled up his own plate. As he sat down, he saw Gaffer Gardner wander from the field into the nearby orchard. None of the laborers seemed to notice.
Ban added, “You’ve got to hand it to the Gaffer, though. Mad he may be, but there never was a greener thumb in all the Kingdoms, nor will there be after, I expect. We could all use more of his kind of queerness in the world. I tell you, if I could grow apples like his, I’d call myself a gardener!” And all agreed that crazy or not, they were happy to have had old Frodo Gardner among them. Every single one of them had a tale to tell, of a family farm saved, a failed tree brought to bear fruit again, a garden made glorious for newlyweds to come home to, or hunger averted in even the hardest years.
Buddy helped himself to some potato salad. “I still say that adventure’s what done the Gaffer in. The curse might have led him to it, but he had his wits before, and didn’t have ‘em after.”
Ban set his mug down firmly. “And still came out the better hobbit for it, I say. Lads, you’re all missing the big picture. “Don’tee remember what Mordor was, before? I heard the old tales–make your blood run cold! You don’t get out of hearing tales when you’ve got Gardners in the family.”
Boffo shuddered. “I’ve heard some of them stories, myself. But it ain’t like that no more.”
“That’s right, Boffo!” Ban exclaimed. “And our master’s the reason why.” He stood up, lifting his mug. “So here’s a toast to old Frodo Gardner...”
Dorry interrupted, “You can’t raise a toast in vinagree swizzle. You need beer at least.”
“I’ll toast him in whatever I want, Dorry! And vinagree swizzle’s good enough for the Gaffer, so it’s right and proper, so to speak.”
Boffo said, “He’s right at that. And I heard tell that it isn’t so much that the Gaffer don’t like beer, it’s that he likes it too much.”
Buddy nodded. “The adventure changed him that way. Made it dangerous for him.”
“As I was saying,” Ban persisted, now putting one foot up on his stool to give himself more presence. “Here’s to Frodo Gardner. He went down into the pit of evil itself to do his duty there. It drove him mad, it drove him to drink, it left him covered with scars–but by the stars, lad, he changed it more than it changed him! He brought that dead land back to life with his own two hands and a heartful of love. And if he came back with a head full of scars, inside more than out, he came by his war-wounds honorably. I am proud to call him my cousin, and I’m proud to take his pay!”
“Hear, hear!” the others said, and tended to their food. For awhile chewing took the place of conversation, and the workers stared off into the fields as they ate.
Once he'd finished his plate, Ban raised his mug one last time. "Here's one more toast--to Frodo's grandson, come of age--may he keep his wits forever!" He downed the swizzle and pushed back from the table. “Come on, lads, we’ve work to do. Young Harding showed us a good time last night, and we owe him a mowed field when he gets back home.”
The young hobbit lad had listened to all of this talk unnoticed. He gathered up the dishes for his mother and put them in the basket. Then, duties fulfilled for now, he slipped away to the orchard, himself. The rows and rows of trunks seemed like pillars in a living hall, roofed in gold, sunlight sparkling through like scattered gems. The last fruit of the season still hung up there, wrinkled up a bit, but sweetened by the frost.
There he found old Frodo Gardner hugging an apple-tree as dearly as a person, whispering into the bark. “Don’t burn, oh never burn–no grief is worth that. She should never have danced amid the blowing blossoms, high up in the air. No grief is ever worth giving up like that. You wait till called, and not a moment sooner. I am sorry that I must refuse your cider, do not take it wrong–I love your pies and sauces. But be brave, hold tight–My wife has friends to help you, though you see them not. Never give in to despair!”
Then he turned to see the hobbit child staring at him. He smiled, asking, “So–do you think me mad, like everybody else?”
The child swallowed, then shook his head. “I think you’re magical.”
The old eyes squinted for a moment. “Do I know you? Kin to me, I think?”
“Harry Cotton, sir–your third cousin.”
“Ah yes–Harry Cotton!” The smile grew broad.
"Do you ever fear to live at Bag End, Master Frodo?"
The smile faded just a bit. "Now why would I do that?"
“They say that Belladonna Baggins did something sorcerous and bad to Bag End, way back when. Is that true?”
The Gaffer frowned, yet asked, quite gently, “What do you think, lad?”
The boy wrinkled his brow a moment. “I...I don’t think she did anything bad. They say she used to visit elves. I never heard of elves teaching magic to anybody, and they’re good folk by and large, or were, leastways in the tales I’ve heard.”
“You would be right. It was a blessing, Harry. She asked the elves to bless her hole to be, and so they did. Nothing happened that wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The boy nodded. “I kind of figured it was something like that.”
Frodo smiled again, almost mischievously, wrinkle after wrinkle framing his grin as though to emphasize it. “Harry, I think you see a little bit more than most young lads. Would you care to see more still?”
“Um...sure. Yes I would.”
The Gaffer grew grave, his scarred old hand upon the child’s shoulder. “I warn you lad, you can never unknow what you learn, no matter how you might wish to. Seeing fully is the most dangerous adventure that you can undertake. Yet the rewards–ah, the rewards of understanding surpass all hoards, all treasures of dwarf or dragon, elf or troll or king of men! I will ask you again–will you dare it?”
Harry hesitated, then squared his shoulders. “Yes. I will.”
“Are you very brave, Harry?”
The boy nodded. “I want to see more.”
“Third time’s the charm, then. I knew that I could count on you.” Frodo felt about under his own collar. “I would have passed this on to my son, or to his son, yet they made different choices.” He drew out a strange necklace, of a horsehair cord (very slightly thickened in back) adorned with fangs and beads of wood and bone, from which there hung an incongruously lovely magnifying lens set about with pink gemstones in the forms of flowers. “Holdfast chose, from the hoard of toys, a little tea set, much to our surprise. And surely no one can match him now for hospitality. Harding clasped a wee tin sword. I shudder to think of what sort of future that foretells, yet Strider assures me that he wouldn’t have chosen it if he didn’t need it. And so, my dear third cousin, I leave this gift to you.”
And with that he snapped the lens from the cord and handed it to the child. “We will always need someone who dares to see a bit more than the rest, and hang the cost.” Frodo paused for a moment, as though listening, then he straightened up, taller than the boy thought possible with so old a back. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my wife and eldest son.”
Harry stared down at the twinkling thing in utter shock. “Why thank you, sir!...sir?” For he had looked up and found Frodo not standing there at all, but curled up among the old tree’s roots, half-blanketed in fallen leaves, his eyes unblinking, with the most beautiful smile on his face.
The herbwife came when the boy went running for her. After due examination of the corpse, she determined that old Master Gardner had died sometime in the evening before, apparently, slipping out in the night, perhaps during the party. Holdfast later figured that the lens must have dropped off the old, fraying horsehair cord, somewhere in his father's ramblings. He ran what remained of the necklace through his fingers, paused at the sandy-brown lock interwoven around a faint wisp of darker brown, noted the loose spaces where the warg-fangs had vanished with Seregril's death many years ago, touched the old bone beads, their charred designs mostly worn off with time, and the ones of gray wood that the Gaffer told him looked red when fresh. "Bury him with it," he said to his son. "His memories belong with him."
So Harding wore black in his year of coming of age, embroidered with every kind of green and growing thing, and a wake soon followed on his party. But when a fallen lantern caught in the dry field stubble that same night, the wildfire swerved around the standing shocks and orchard without harm.
And that very night, after the fire had died down, and with his elders occupied elsewhere, Harry Cotton walked through the orchard in the crisp night air, looking up at all the bounty of apples, and the leaves, and the stars between. That’s when he discovered that, through the lens, he could see colors in the dark.
HERE ENDS THE ADVENTURES OF FRODO GARDNER.