Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 23,Part 53
Memories, Dreams, and Visions
(December 29, 1451)
Frodo opened up his writing-kit while the others slept, and began a letter by the coals’ red glow.
“Dearest May, my best little sister!
“O May, never, ever doubt that you are and shall always be my sister, whom I love so much that my heart can barely hold it all!” He bit his lip, trying to think in simple words that the child could read. “You know how Papa got Bag End? By being a brother to Frodo Baggins--not born in the same home, but a brother no less. Kin are those who love you more than the heights and depths and breadth of the world. Just so we love you, dear May, and just so we know you love us.”
He paused as Mattie giggled suddenly in his sleep, muttering, “No more ribbons, no more bows, no more mud between her toes!” Frodo glanced his way, shrugged, then muttered, “Oh well--at least he isn’t screaming.” Frodo turned back to the letter and wrote, “Yes, it is true--and a deep, deep secret--that you did not just fall by chance to the Gamgee family. We wanted you.” His eyes watered as he wrote, “I never laid eyes on a fairer babe as when I peeked into your cradle the day that you were born. We wanted you so bad that we would do anything to keep you.” He thought a moment, and then felt it prudent to write, “No, we did not steal you, if that is what you fear. Your first Mama and Papa...” He paused, considered a long time, and then wrote, “...were too sick to care for you.” That came close enough for the child’s purposes, he decided.
But surely May guessed more than that from what Robin read out loud. “Your first Papa did do something bad. Don’t ask me what--for I don’t quite know, myself. But this I do know, and it is all that matters: you are good, no matter what he did. You can get the color of your eyes, or...” He frowned a moment, thinking of what he knew of Ted Sandyman, “...the skill in your fingers, from those who went before you, but you can’t get good or bad from any but yourself.” He hoped that dadburned blowfly could read everything he wrote! “Once you plant a ‘tater, it won’t grow up to be anything but a ‘tater, but you can choose to feed yourself on the good, healthy food in the root, or the poison in the leaves. I know you, May. I know that you will choose the root.”
Frodo cleaned the brush and put his things away, then settled with his back against a rock for his watch. He did not want to think anymore about the horrible things Uncle Merry had told him, or how May had to cope with it. His mind instead went back to that night’s dinner conversation, when they had finally roused up Mattie enough to let him eat something; Frodo remembered feeling the hobbit’s shoulderblade through the jacket when he shook him awake. Mattie had blinked with swollen eyes at the pipe smouldering on the ground before him, and then at Frodo gazing down on him. Abruptly he sat up with a frightened look and asked, “Does he...?”
Bergil said, “Yes, Mattie. He knows. He figured it out for himself.”
Mattie sighed and relaxed again, but curled in on himself, arms about his knees as though to protect his vitals. He whispered, “That’s something of a relief, actually,” as Bergil handed him a bowl of sausage stew. “And we hobbits, of course...nobody’s pure, not when you get right down to it...” He picked up his pipe, then, and puffed it back to life with defiance in his smile, looking up at the other hobbit. “Frodo, M’lad...surely you’ve nipped down to the pubs now and then, I suppose, back in Bree...Shire, I mean, back in the Shire.”
Frodo said, “I will not deny it,” as he sat down beside him and started in on his own bowl, after making sure that the wind blew the other way. “Uh...aren’t you going to eat?”
Mattie grinned wickedly at him, pipe in his teeth. “I will--but only if you tell me about the very first time you ever found yourself flat on your rump drunk, Frodo!”
Bergil started, and expected Frodo to flinch, but the hobbit did not. “The Gaffer’s wake,” said Frodo gravely, pausing until Mattie ate a spoonful. “Meaning my grandfather, of course. After we washed and tended the body, Papa summoned me from among the younger children, and our uncles came round and joined him, and we all carried the coffin to the Green Dragon, while the womenfolk dropped by Bag End to sew and see to Mama and Elanor.” Frodo ate some stew, himself, and watched to make sure Mattie ate some more. “I had never tasted beer before.” Suddenly Frodo laughed. “I can’t say as I thought much of it at first, but I soon got the hang of it!”
Mattie nodded. “I remember...very first time...long ago...”
Frodo said, “We all got to telling stories about the Gaffer--well, you know how it goes--and pretty soon I didn’t know whether to laugh my head off or bawl my eyes out, so I did a little of both. It was the right time and place for it, you know. Everybody else did pretty much the same.” More solemnly he said, “Even my first hangover the next day felt right, because it put my head in line with my heart, so to speak--I didn’t want to feel no different than I did that day.”
“Righ’ time and place...how respectable...Mayor’s son...” Mattie did not look at him anymore, just stared sourly at the fire, puffing at his pipe. Then suddenly he glanced at Frodo once again. “But did you like it?”
“Like it? My Gaffer had just died.” Frodo bit his lip, staring at the fire in his own turn, stirring up the memories. “I hurt...I remember how the pain became something I could handle, clumsily, like picking up a hot cauldron while wearing big, soft oven mitts.” He looked at Mattie, wanting to add that he couldn’t go through life wearing mitts, nobody should, that it would, in effect, maim him. But he didn’t dare. What Mattie read in his look the rider didn’t say.
Reaching for the salt, Bergil asked, “Do periannath--‘hobbits’--always do that? Divide the men and women in mourning?”
“Only the first night,” Frodo answered, and shrugged. “It’s just an old custom. It seems wise to split off with so much strong drink and strong feeling going on at once. People might not be on their best behavior, you know, might not want the other kind to see them that way.” He certainly would not have wanted his mother and his sisters to watch him laugh and cry like a fool--nor the girl he’d had a crush on at the time. “It just seems best for all concerned.” But afterwards they’d need each other--he remembered his father in his mother’s arms.
Mattie muttered something halfway intelligible about not everybody getting wakes, and then he fell asleep again over his half-empty bowl. Bergil took the pipe from the hobbit’s fingers and spread a blanket over him, and they finished the meal in silence.
Now, hours later, Frodo gazed on his sleeping companions, silvered in the moonlight, both of them restless, tossing in their blankets. Bergil muttered “Elenaril!” in some dream, and seemed to grasp a moment before his hand fell limp. Beads of sweat broke out on Mattie’s brow in the cold night air, while he muttered over and over, “No more memories. Stop the memories. Please. Stop the memories.” in a voice too weak for pleading. Then, as Frodo stared, he whisper-sang something that sounded sort like, “Dance me round the apple tree, when the orchard’s all in blooooom...” but his voice soon faded back to nothing and his lips moved only faintly.
But now Frodo had his own memories to deal with. Reliving the conversation led him back to the older recollection it brought up, one so vivid that the mist enshrouded rocks and herbs did not seem near so real as the Green Dragon. He had then, as now, felt sleepy beyond words yet struggling to stay awake. He recalled how he’d sat up on his barstool that night, desperately afraid of falling off, when feminine hands had touched him here and there, measuring his arm, and the distance from the nape of his neck to his waist, and then deft fingers folded up his weskit and wrapped the tape-measure around his middle. “Sit up, lad,” the lady had said. “There you go.” He remembered fearing to sit up straight and wishing he had never heard of beer.
But when she went to measure him about the hips his father spoke up. “Here, now, lass, he’s too old for that--it’s only family should be measuring him there.”
“Oh I don’t mind,” Frodo had said, and couldn’t understand why everyone cracked up.
“Then take the measurement yourself, Sam,” she had said, to general mirth, “If you can still read the numbers, that is.” Her voice sounded saucy and a little lazy, like she had enjoyed a few drinks, herself.
“You don’t need that,” Papa had replied. “Jes’ get the lengths from his old clothes. You shouldn’t ought to’ve come here tonight, gal--not the night for it.”
At that she laughed--a high, carefree sound that thrilled Frodo like something brand-new in his life; he remembered grinning, and wishing she would measure him some more. But suddenly he heard a loud smack behind him, as the lady snapped, “Hands to yourself, Ted Sandyman, afore I tie you up in tape!” The barroom filled with snickering. Frodo hadn’t dared turn in his seat to find out what had happened, though, he just clutched the bar, quite certain that the tavern had begun to move and he did not entirely like it.
His father had said, “Let her go, Ted--she doesn’t fancy you.” Amid more hilarity and cries of “Who does?” somebody else called out, “Well, they do say your old master liked to breed half-orcs--p’raps he left behind a bride for you, Ted!” and the crowd just roared, while Frodo strove to figure out what in the world they were talking about.
Frodo did not remember much that happened after that point, aside from vague struggles to try and appear adult enough to deserve his company, while he drifted further and further from the tavern and the people and the grief and even his own body. Except, he now recalled, that sometime in the night shouts of anger and dismay broke out, and his father had gently swung him from the barstool into the arms of one of his uncles, saying, “Get the boy out of here,” while Frodo tried to find his feet.
“How could I have forgotten?” Frodo whispered to the mists of the Ephel Duath. No, he could not escape in old memories! Because now, years later, Frodo recognized the voice of the maiden who had measured him that night--the sweet, vulnerably slurry voice of Buttercup Klaefield.
Papa had not waited the next day for his mourning-clothes to arrive, but pulled on his ordinary wear and left the rest of the family to grieve without him. Frodo should have figured out by that that something odd had happened. But Mama told him, “You know how it is, being Mayor--always some crisis. They cannot give him any peace,” and he had accepted her words, preoccupied with his own headache and the throbbing hole in the family where the Gaffer used to live.
“It happened that night,” Frodo breathed. “How could Sandyman--during a wake?”
Frodo struggled to drive from his head the pictures that haunted him, unwanted imaginings about what Ted Sandyman had done, but pushing those away only led to other thoughts to torment him a different way--thoughts that bothered him more and more the older he got, till at times they almost drove him frantic. Never mind Sandyman’s distortion--in the normal way of things, what, precisely did lady and gentlehobbits do that brought forth children into the world? He had some strong suspicions, certainly, and some rather embarrassing dreams that offered vivid suggestions, but he really, really wanted to know firsthand! He had seen things on the farm, of course, but further inquiries only led to his father's curt words, "It don't go that way with our kind," and no further explanation followed as to how it did go. Would he have to find out by trial and error on his wedding night?
Then Frodo's spirits fell--who knew when he could marry, with this mission far from home? He shifted uncomfortably where he sat. “Sauron,” he sighed, “are you putting these ideas in my head?” He perceived a nasty chuckle in response, but of a voyeur rather than a conspirator. No, Frodo’s brainstorm didn’t come from Sauron--for Frodo wanted nothing at all like whatever Ted Sandyman did. He wanted someone glad of him, even grateful--oh, wildly grateful! He tipped his head back and soon lost himself in picturing every luscious curve and dimple of this imaginary wildly grateful hobbit lassie...
...Did a dainty little finger just brush him from shoulder to elbow, taking his measure--or was that a breeze? He opened his eyes (which he had not intended to close) and discovered that the most beautiful hobbit maiden in the world stood before him. “I’m dreaming,” he whispered. “My watch--I ought to wake up.” She just smiled in the shadows, though, silver moonlight tangled in her dusky curls. Frodo’s strange night vision showed him cheeks blushing like ripening fruit, delectable plumpness soft beneath the folds of cloth gathered up teasingly so that he could plainly see the feet, glossy in their fur. He gazed upon that sable velvet and he shivered, imagining what those feet might feel like brushed against his ankles.
“It’s all right,” he told himself. “Anything you do in a dream has got to be all right.” He forgot completely about guard duty as she beckoned him forward, then ran laughing down the canyon. At least he thought she laughed; he felt a sort of echo of it in his head as he ran after her, muffled in a shroud of fog. He pushed through aromatic shrubs and skipped over boulders, laughing himself, a little dizzy, but sometimes you do feel that way when you sleep. His feet always seemed to know exactly where to land, though he could hardly see an arm’s length ahead of him at any time--oh how magic filled the night! Huge white flowers opened unexpectedly around him, looming up from the fume, petals full of moonlight, heavy with intoxicating scent. He hardly felt his feet beneath him--surely he could not have bounded through the wilderness so lightly in his waking life! How marvelous, to know he dreamed, to know himself permitted anything!
She paused at the side of a pool. He heard the waters lapping on the stones, as he caught his breath. She played with the water with one toe, and then unlaced her weskit, tossing it to the brush with an insolent flip--did she want to swim? Now she gestured to him as if to say, “Your turn”. Happily Frodo shrugged off his mithril coat in a tinkling like the music of falling rain. She undid the sash of her overskirt, winked at him, and let the cloth fall down with a delicious little wriggle; as she stepped from its folds he saw that the chemise she wore beneath just barely passed her knees; for an instant he forgot to breathe. Again, she pointed to him, smiling impishly. Frodo hesitated, then with trembling fingers undid the buttons at his waist. His own chemise billowed around his thighs when he let his britches drop, and the cold made his shins tingle. His heart beat almost too fast to bear when her hand went up to her neckline, but instead of untying the cords of her chemise, she pulled forth a little locket, eased the chain up over her head, and with a smile dropped it on the stones. At her gesture Frodo reached for the pendant about his own neck, got the horsehair cord up over his head, but then the lens passed over his eye...
"NOOOOOO!" he screamed, dropping the lens, stumbling backwards when he saw that gaunt and horrible and fanged thing crouched before him, glaring at him hungrily, and he knew he did not dream...