In Mordor Where the Shadows Are
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 6, Part 77
A Letter from Mordor
"January 21, 1452--Yesterday's faint snow has melted. It left a slurpy, sloppy mess behind, every road a river of mud. The tree still looks bejeweled, though, with a thousand glistening droplets where the icicles once hung, falling now and then like tears from the barren twigs. Snow never lasts more than a day here, the others tell me--too far south. Somehow the land looks even colder without it, more desolate if you take my meaning.
"Today I taught my first class in poultry husbandry. Believe me, Papa, I would rather have spent the whole day at hard farm labor, than staring at all those eyes staring back at me! I never before realized the difference between knowing something and teaching it to someone else. Then it dawned on me that this entire mission is going to involve one long teaching--this is what I have come to do. It all looked so much easier when I thought in terms of digging and weeding and such like that. May the Valar have mercy on me!
"I won't mind telling you, Papa, though I wouldn't dare tell anyone else, that I still feel, how can I put this, fragile. That's not a very heroic thing to admit, but I'm not you. That healer I told you about thinks I may be very slightly cracked--I sure do feel like something broke, just a wee bit, but it still needs mending, and yet there is none to be had. I feel like I've got to handle myself carefully lest I snap the whole way. Oh I shouldn't bother you with such nonsense! I'll be all right. It's just that on top of my duties and the hardness of this land, Sauron puts a pressure on me that only you can imagine. Legolas could, too, come to think of it, but he's in a tree and you are far away. At least I can write to you."
"January 22, 1452--The ship left today. It doesn't have a name, which seems to me like a crying shame. Folks in Mordor aren't big on naming things, except they do like to name themselves, now that they've got the right. It has always been just "The Ship," or at most, "Watersheen's ship." Anyway, I went out to the docks to say goodbye to the friends I'd made, especially Leech. He looks good, now--I hadn't realized that the waxiness of his face didn't come from age; he's no older than Bergil is, I think. It gladdened me to see him well.
"I did get something of a shock, though. As I arrived I saw the crew loading up crates of pottery for the return journey. Good stuff, too, from the little I could see. I thought everyone said that the Nurnings had nothing to trade for food! Captain Watersheen called it payment--some to him for delivering the food, the rest to the distributers along the way. His own cut seemed modest enough, and reasonable, but no matter how I tallied it up, even allowing for the hazards of the pass, the bulk came out to way too much for supposedly free food sent in charity to a starving nation! And believe me, Papa--it is not good stuff, what we eat in Seaside. Whatever Gondor might intend to send, what reaches us is dregs, and apparently never quite enough to last till the next shipment. Now I'm all in favor of trade, but call it trade and not charity, and give decent goods for the price!
"I'd like to know where all the Shire-grown food winds up, that the Brandybucks have supplied so diligently without a shipping fee, because we sure don't see it here! I know for a fact that Uncle Merry doesn't charge, because he had me do his books for him along the way. Somebody's not playing fair. I think you'd better alert Uncle Merry, and I'll put a word into my letter to Strider, too.
"I thought of fishing, but Bergil says that's no good, here. Poisons have killed off everything in the Sea of Nurnen except for monsters, and those who eat such meat slowly turn monstrous, themselves. Every so often someone gets desperate enough to try it anyway, though it is against the law, gambling that a little bit won't hurt them. And sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes they risk it more often than they realize, and change in ways that nobody wants to talk about. I rather hope I never find out more.
"They do say that the Dark Lord fed this meat to the flying creatures that the Nazgul rode, and when I heard that I felt Sauron chuckle in my head, doting on the memory. Strange to say, he seems to have had a sort of affection for the beasts, though it didn't go very deep, not enough for him to mind putting them in harm's way. I have learned from his thoughts that there can be such a thing as fondness without love. Certainly he seemed to delight in ruining what might have been perfectly good creatures in their way. I wish I could escape learning such things!"
Evening: "Seaside may be rough around the edges by day, but it gets downright disconcerting after dark. Not that I ever go outdoors at night, mind you, nor does anybody sensible. But you hear things just outside the walls. Tonight we all heard a definite snuffling sound, circling around and around us, and even though I knew nothing could break in I can say it made my hair stand on end, to just sit there and know that a few feet away some critter as would like to hunt me sniffed upon my trail. Then we heard what sounded like a blow, and the yipping of an injured animal, like a big dog only nastier, slowly fading as though it ran away. Bergil thinks it must have been a feral warg. As to whatever struck it, that's anybody's guess--it seems that even predators have their predators hereabouts."
"January 23, 1452--Not much sleep last night, but I've got classes to face, anyway. Bergil had nightmares again, over and over, screaming so nobody could get any rest. Finally Fishenchips urged me to sing to Bergil. I didn't know what he meant. He said that since I started singing in my sleep nobody on the ship had nightmares, but they couldn't hear me so well through the thick tower floor, as they could through the thin walls of my cabin. So, not knowing what else to do, and having nothing to lose, I just opened my mouth and let the sounds pour out, as I felt moved at the moment. And something marvelous happened, Papa, that made the whole bother worthwhile--I found myself singing in elvish! Apparently, I know by heart every song that Legolas ever sang to us, though I understand less than half the meanings of the words. It seems that when I asked for magnification of any memories I might have had of that healing song, back when Fishenchips needed help through his operation, I got the whole kit and caboodle!
"I do think I'm beginning to get the gist of this teaching thing. I try to pretend I'm you, and show to them how you showed me. Sometimes I pretend I'm the Gaffer, when we've got a hen in there and it's a hands on kind of lesson--he always did do best with that sort of teaching. Sometimes I pretend I'm Mama--she taught me a lot more than I realized until now, when I'm imitating her style. I guess teaching just comes natural, if you let it, kind of an extension of what families do all the time.
"It's a shame about the chickens, though. They can't hunt and peck to supplement their diet. We will have to provide every morsel that they eat, which doubles their expense. So much for Sauron's efficiency! I will try to see that we get us some roosters and save back some eggs for a generation with beaks, from the best layers, but now I learn that Mordor hens don't brood; they have grown too stupid to even notice that they're mommies--you need to rig up special arrangements to keep the eggs warm without them. More of Sauron's efficiency. He just had to control every detail, didn't he?"
Evening: "Today I finally got up the courage to explain to Mayor Aloe about Sauron. It did not go well. If she wondered about the state of my sanity before, she now has no doubt as to my madness. She will work with me anyway, of course--what other choice has she? But the peculiar business of Legolas's healing went clean over her head, as the incomprehensible practices of peoples she has never seen and barely believes exist--and without that, nothing else I said made sense to her. Bergil understood something of the things I spoke about, Fishenchips would rather believe me than not, regardless of the logic, Leech (after some initial doubt) recognized the truth of my words from his own relationship with Sauron (which he didn't fully understand till then, so he tells me) and as for Watersheen, all the sea-captains on the Backwards River believe in ghosts. But bless them, without their backing me up, I think that I would finally doubt myself. Nevertheless, at this point, even Bergil agrees that I must keep word of my unwelcome guest to myself, lest I do my mission any more discredit. I hear voices, Papa, that say bad things--what would you think, if you hadn't had the history to know the things you do?
"Papa, I am lonely in my burden. Please write back and tell me that you believe me, too."
"January 24, 1452--Today, after lunch-break, I returned to chicken-class from the back way, down a narrow alley that appeared to be a likely short-cut. I found a pair of my students there, hidden around a bend, male and female. The woman had her back to a wall and a knife in her hand to push away the breastbone of the man. Something about the way they glared at each other put me in mind of the thing Ted Sandyman did, and with the skin prickling on the back of my neck I remembered that he learned that thing from Men. The man backed off with his hands raised, turned to me and said, 'You didn't see nothing!' and took off at a run, while the woman stood there shaking. I offered her my arm to escort her out of there, but she slapped it away--for a moment I thought she'd skewer me! Then she pulled her disordered clothing back about her and stalked away. She didn't show up for class.
"Suddenly I understand why Mattie wears boy-clothes."
Evening: "I still feel a little queer about sleeping so high up off the ground. I can feel how far away the earth is from my tower-top room, if that makes sense. When I go to bed at night I try to pretend that I'm up in an elvish flit, just like you've done, maybe even Mírglin's flit--she is my ancestress, after all. That does comfort me a bit. But I do remember that her daughter, also my ancestress, dwelt safe and cozy down amid the same tree's roots. I fear I am far more the child of Míryave than of Mírglin."
"January 25, 1452--Today I saw a round-bellied child with matchstick legs fight for a scrap with a stark-ribbed dog; one sharp blow of a rock to the head and the clever little boy had dog-meat as well--such as it was. I watched him drag the puppy away by the tail. I stood there froze a moment, then ran after him, but I lost him quickly in the twists and turns of Seaside's warren. Never mind second breakfast--how on earth can I force down a single meal in the presence of such need?
"Food's running low all around, but I'm managing okay. Tell Mom thanks for all the thrifty tricks she taught me in the kitchen. Some in the community have come up short already. They're caught in a vicious cycle--they're so hungry when the ship arrives that they gobble up everything at once; then they run out sooner. Starvation happens slowly in Mordor; people eat, then do without, then eat again, but never quite enough to catch up; little by little they lose ground till they die. It hits the young ones worst."
Evening: "Tonight seems to be Fishenchip's turn for nightmares. Nobody's immune. Whatever he dreams of, he won't tell. But he settled right down when I sang to him. He did; I did not. Instead of sleep I sit here trying to draw vines by candlelight in the margins of this letter, but they all wind up looking like the tentacles of sea-monsters to me. I do not sleep well these days, and screams in the night do not help. No kingsfoil grows in Mordor, Papa. I wish to heaven it did."
"January 26, 1452--Class is over! Mayor Aloe has distributed the chickens among my graduates--thank heavens and all the Valar! We have torn down the old henhouse, the better to get at that soil-enriching dung in some fresher air. All goes according to plan except for one thing. That one woman never did return to class.
"I did see something disconcerting on my way out the door this morning. One of those blood-sucker bats, dead, somehow skewered on a twig right by my bedroom window. This is a land to make the blood run cold! But you know that, Papa."
"January 27, 1452--Despite everything, the goats thrive on the weeds and shrubs that they most helpfully clear out of the fields for us in preparation for spring. They have visibly gained weight, in fact, and it's all I can do to keep the butcher away from them. Bergil says that's what goats do best--make a living off the worst terrain in the world. I wish we could chomp on every twiggy weed we chanced upon. Already our food runs so low that no meal ever seems quite enough--and I have striven so hard to be careful!"
"January 28, 1452--Today I had a horrible shock. I came across no I won't write that it is no good describing what I found. Not in any detail, anyway, though the details haunt my thoughts and keep on coming back to me when I want so badly to forget. Maybe even you can't understand, Papa--you saw men slain in battle, but you have never found what remains of a child after a predator has dined. Suffice that it is nothing like an arrow-wound or the clean sweep of a sword. And Kitty always prefers the weakest, smallest prey, though she's game to take on more if challenged. Bergil knows it was Kitty by the tracks; wargs cannot retract their claws, but Kitty can walk softly when she wills. Even the warg fear her. I caught a glimpse of her in the distance back up on the bluff, out of reach, daintily licking the blood off of her paws. And she is still beautiful, curse her! What a terrible place you have sent me to!"
"January 29, 1452-- I have found a refuge of sorts, nestled in amid the roots of the tree outside my door, resting my back against the trunk. It seems shaped to fit me perfectly; I could sit there for hours, if my duties permitted. The root-system fans out into two main wings, and these cup a little sheltered space just my size. This is where I'm writing this letter, as a matter of fact--right in the lap of the tree. It seems strange to describe a tree as "motherly" but I feel comforted here like nowhere else in this entire country. I wish I could sleep here. Truly I am a son of Míryave! It's little enough rest that I get these days. I had to sing Bergil to sleep again last night. His nightmares have gotten worse. Tell Mama I miss her. I miss you, too."
"January 30, 1452--Today was a momentous day for all of us! Bergil got to shed his cast, Fishenchips got his temporary hook from the local blacksmith (he will get the permanent one when his stump settles down to the size it will stay) and I get a pair of two-armed servants, after a manner of speaking--and in good time, too, with the midden due for turning. We celebrated with a small toast in my dwindling supply of brandy, but just a sip each--a little goes a long way on short commons.
"Bergil cracked his own cast; Leech had fashioned it with grooves to make that easier to do. Bergil seemed downright vehement about handling it himself, wanting to see no medic here in Seaside. And as soon as he got it off he went straight into a frenzy of scratching, getting clay-dust and old skin flakes all over the floor. And then, leaving the mess right there, he lost no time in shaving his face at last, thereby worsening the state of the floor even further. He said he'd meant to do it as soon as we'd reached our destination, but he hadn't reckoned on broken bones. It's some quirk of his about beards being for the wilds, shaved faces for civilization--well, such as we have around here. As his first two-armed task I made him sweep. But he was only too glad to do that, plus the midden-turning next, though he ached like fire afterwards, needing to build his muscles back up in his left arm.
"I didn't let Fishenchips at the pitchfork or shovel, though the man wanted to help. He is still so pale it frightens me. True, he lost less blood per pound than I did in Hollin, even though he lost a hand along with it; the crushed limb bled more slowly than my nicked artery, and Leech managed his amputation well. But he is only a man, even if he is Numenorean by ancestry. And he needs to eat. I remember how hungry I got after my own wounding, building my blood back up. But I don't have the right foods to feed him; I don't have quite the right foods for any of us, but what to us is a few day's bad diet is for him a crisis of some significance. He just plain can't heal right."
"February 1, 1452--Today I forced myself back to the butcher's shambles. As I thought, the soil there is rich and dark, soaked time and again with blood--the best sort of dirt for growing grain. We should dig it up and add it to the midden, replacing it with earth from the field, ready to soak up more.
"It did not come easy for me to go back there, and to try and talk to the butcher like nothing happened. He is not a bad man, actually, just trying to get along like everybody else in this miserable part of the world. Hand O' Plenty (that's the butcher's name, Hando for short) inquired politely into my health, and I told him I was fine, thank you, even though I still feel like what we've scraped out of the chicken coop. I really should be fine by now, but I am not. I don't know what will make me fine. Got to go on anyway, I suppose.
"Anyway, that was not the only bloody ground I saw today. Crossing the village square, I saw Aloe supervise the flogging of a man who ate the feed meant for his chickens. That did not help. Someone in the crowd shouted out, 'You might as well 'ave eaten the blighty chicken, mate!' I went on home to fix my own supper. I felt horrible.
"Not that I had much to feel guilty about, in my own prosperity. Today I gathered up the very last scraps of food that we have, into our final meal until the next ship arrives. We none of us ate our fill, not even close. And yet we all made as merry as best we could. We all knew the situation, and resolved to make the most of it, enjoying every swallow, every taste. We laughed, and sang songs, and told each other funny tales--even Fishenchips had some shiplife anecdotes to raise a smile, and if he can find something amusing in the life he's led, then anybody can.
"I do enjoy a certain peacefulness in this household in the evening, after we bar the door. Outside snufflings no longer trouble me--nothing will break in. We have settled into a routine that comforts me. Except that after tonight, for awhile, we will no longer sit at table and eat. I must find something useful in the evenings to do instead of cook. My clothes need mending; I suppose that will do."
"February 2, 1452--After Mayor Aloe and I put a guard on the goats, and checked about for the safety of all the chickens, we sat long talking in the little courtyard of her home. She did not believe me at first when I said we'd need to look into sowing weeds--she even inquired as to whether my 'voices' told me to do this. But I explained to her that this year's midden will only go so far in making arable acreage--the rest must go under a cover-crop, and what better than to plant it with the only vegetation that can crack this brick-hard soil? (I knew the situation was bad, Papa, but I didn't know they hadn't squeezed a single crop from those fields for the past three years! They lived by selling clay vessels until something happened to the market that I don't understand.) I have noticed that the ground does seem a little looser under the scrub that grows outside the fields. The goats and the plough will get it all under control when the time comes to expand our plantings.
"Trees, too--we will plant deep-rooted trees that can bring up good soil and provide much-needed firewood when we're done, not to mention piles of leaves to help hold water in the earth, and to cut that blasted, ever-blowing wind! Some low, scrubby trees do grow hereabouts now and then, I saw that on the voyage here, though the need for firewood has taken all within a day's walk of Seaside, except for the one beside my door.
"It would be a plus if we could find any uses for the weeds themselves, while we were at it. After all, kingsfoil turned out to have a lot more to offer than anyone in the Shire ever figured. Aloe recommended that I visit an old, blind herbwife in a nearby village, famous for her knowledge of weeds. I agreed to do this as soon as Fishenchips got his strength up for a journey. I will need someone to accompany me, but I can't spare Bergil; he has been an officer and knows more about administration than I do, by a mile. I would leave him in charge in my absence, even as I have leaned heavily on his advice while here.
"Oh, Papa, there are things that I can only say to you. That scrawny woman flirted with me throughout the entire conversation! And so help me, I have gotten so used to underweight figures around here that she is actually starting to look good to me. I begin to see beauty even in the sight of her collarbones peeping up through her neckline! Sort of like the shapeliness of winter branches. And she showed me no mercy. She saw where my eyes went and posed to give me a better view, sometimes stroking the bones lightly as she gazed on me and talked about chickens and goats and weeds. I had no idea the common tongue could hold so many innuendoes in words pertinent to chickens and goats and weeds! Papa, the woman has no shame. But then shyness does not go far with rulers, Tar Elessar being an exception only because he has the will to drive himself against his nature at need.
"And then she I cannot tell you everything Papa, except that she was merciless! Nothing overtly bad, all rather subtle, really, but she tormented me and I went home one very, very lonely hobbit in a great big human world. I mean the whole thing is ridiculous! What could she want in somebody my size?"
Evening: "I have sometimes skipped meals from being too busy, and I remember how many days you marched hard without any food at all. I thought it would be easier than this to go through one entire day without anything to eat all day long. But come supper time, all I could do was stare at those dwarf pans by the fireside, empty and useless."
"February 3, 1452--Last night I dreamed that I saw Uncle Hamson wandering about in a desperate sort of way, looking pale and as gaunt as a starveling Seasider--not at all the round and jolly fellow that we know. He staggered so that I thought him in his cups, but no, it was all weakness that tangled up his feet and made him look fit to keel over at the next step. In his daze he stumbled straight into the Old Forest! I ran after, though the trees terrified me--so huge and old, with the resentful memories dripping off of them and cluttering the air like sheets of ancient moss. It seemed we went on for miles and miles, and it got all mixed up with Treegarth somehow, downright suffocating and dim, but with this aching sadness under everything, cold as a toothache, yet this tension hung in the air like it would take just one spark to ignite the entire woods with an anger that would engulf it all in rage and pain till naught remained but the bitterest of ash. Anyway, Uncle Hamson reeled up to the ancientest, bitterest tree of all--a gigantic hazel spiky with ice that just about stopped my heart to gaze up at her. You never saw a tree so cold and full of fury--well maybe you're one of the few, from what you've said about Old Man Willow. I feared for Uncle Hamson the way you can only fear in a nightmare! Yet when he fell against her trunk the tree thawed before my eyes. She took pity on him, lifted him up in limbs that could crush a barn if one fell on the roof. This next detail is embarrassing, but it's crucial to understanding the dream. You know how trees can sometimes grow knotty roundnesses that might bulge out from the trunk? Well she lifted Uncle Hamson up to a couple of these and suckled him in her boughs like a baby. And he got younger and plumper before my eyes, till he became a baby indeed, gurgling and happy, and in the peak of health.
"Well, I woke up before the dawn, as is my custom. When I came downstairs I stopped at the mid-floor landing and tiptoed in for a peek at my men, you know, see how they slept, since they'd suffered so from bad dreams lately. Well, Bergil slept soundly enough, but Fishenchips tossed and winced in his sleep--and I suddenly remembered how when I first saw him I thought he looked like a young and skinny version of my Uncle Hamson!
"That sparked an idea--and as crazy an idea as it was, it sort of grew on me and insisted on itself more and more, till I could barely hold myself back to wait for when the dawn's first light showed it safe to unbar the door. As soon as I could do it I did, and went out and looked at that big, hazel-like tree. A wound or crack had opened up in the bark in the night, and it dripped sap, though it's the wrong time of year for sap to flow--shimmering greenish golden tears of resin. I had that idea that would not let me alone. I gathered up the sticky lumps, brought them in and dissolved them in a little brandy, then poured the solution into hot water and boiled it into a tea. I knew exactly what to do, though I don't know why. You know, I didn't notice at the time, but those ent-draughts had a faint scent of resin and sweet herbs. This had something of the same scent, only stronger--medicine, not draughts, some concentrated essence. As soon as Fishenchips stumbled down the stairs yawning and scratching his chest, I made him drink a cup of this tea. He balked at first at its bitterness, but then gave it a second sip and declared it no worse than some beers he'd had, and said it sort of grew on one. As he finished it I saw the color flush into his cheeks immediately, and his eyes sparkled. I am going to give him another cup at lunch-time (or what we used to call lunch-time) and another cup for his dinner.
"Anyway, after that I took my turn with certain others at stirring up the midden heap. It sure would be a lot easier if we had the normal run of chickens! Steam rising from the heap alarmed the villagers I worked with, but I laughed and told them that's exactly what it's supposed to do, that's a good sign indeed--the ferment's building up a heat to kill the weed-seeds in it. I did my part with a man-sized pitchfork and shovel, though my head spun with hunger. And it's only been two days! The Nurnenites fast like this regularly, on the last few days before the ships arrive, and some of them never quite eat their fill before they must go hungry again. But I told you that already."
"February 4, 1452--Smoke rises all over Seaside, in thin black streams. People do without fuel in their homes, and spend the nights with the whole family in the locked-up shops, huddled about their kilns. Pottery goes through its final firing today, preparing for the coming ship.
"I've got my own finishing up to do. Mattie should come along with the next shipment--hopefully with word from you! Take care, my dear, dear father, and give my love to my mother no less dear, and to each of my beloved siblings! May the sun shine more brightly on you than she has on me here in the sunny south. I must lay this letter aside and write one to Tar Elessar. He must learn of the ruses and corruption perpetrated in the name of his charity, of the employment of hobbit-children as riders of the post, and of the illness of poor Mattie Greenbanks, known as Heathertoes.
"Frodo Gamgee Gardner,
Your slightly cracked son."