He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 12, Part 196
Things Remembered and Forgotten
Frodo had expected the black waistcoat to feel too hot, but the rains had damped the heat back some, and fresh breezes cooled the deck, refreshing now that they had sailed beyond the stinking harbor of Riverborn. But he would have endured the vest and belt even if the weather had not changed. Not that anyone in Nurn would recognize the signal to give him space to grieve. Yet somehow it felt like the act of mourning the family’s losses in this hobbit-ritual way could make things better, on a level that not even the Glass of May could reveal to him.
He held that glass for a moment in his hand and stared at it, as it magnified the complicated lines etched in his palm. He had, at least, this one remnant of his sister still, that he could touch and know that she existed, she did not belong to some erased alternative past, forever gone.
Nibs had gotten better, and could now hold down clear broth, while Mattie had regained her appetite the day before. They both, in fact, came out on the deck with Frodo, and the fresh air did them good. Sitting in the prow (ornamented with a carving of the head and front paws of a giant cat that looked strikingly like Kitty) Frodo and Mattie told their story once again, this time to his Uncle, who scowled the entire time out over the bow, at the passing shore. “Your father ain’t a-gonna like it,” he said at last. “Master Peregrin thought you might try some stunt like this, when I passed him on the road–and now it looks like you’ve gone and done it.”
Softly Mattie said, “I have vowed to fulfill all of Frodo’s hopes and none of your fears. Take comfort in that or not, as you see fit.”
Silence followed for awhile, and the harsh landscape of Mordor rolled on past, rock and thorn punctuating naked expanses. Yet to Frodo it had a cheering look, greener than he had ever seen; once-stark plants that had seemed made of nothing but bone and spike had grown bushy with new leaves, and already Frodo saw blossoms opening all over again. Mattie strummed on her harp, in the poignant chords of the east, and the music seemed to fit the vulnerable optimism of this land of oppression, such a small thing, yet powerful–as small and powerful as a pair of weary hobbits struggling towards Mt. Doom.
“Look!” Frodo cried, pointing. “Children at play! Oh, they seem so much healthier than the first time I passed this way.” Frodo turned to his uncle. “You may not understand this yet, but Mordor follows different rules. You are used to the beauties of the Shire, and I can tell by your face that what you see before you daunts you. Yet out there I see miles and miles of hope justified, and promises kept. The rains have fallen in abundance, and so the same land that has savaged me so often now will nourish my seeds and feed my people.”
Nibs startled at his words, but then said, “You mean by poetry to win me over on your marriage? As the land, so the wife, as they say?” Nibs shook his head. “I can’t help what’s legal hereabouts, and I know anyways that the sort of mule who thinks he’s in love at your age digs in his heels all the harder if you try to stop him. But you’re a right idiot, is all I’ve got to say, after what she’s done to you.”
Frodo slapped his brow and cried, “Oh sweet heavens! I forgot whatever I must have written in that letter! Uncle, trust me--everything has changed since then. I swear it! Mattie fell under an evil spell, and now that spell has passed.”
Nibs just looked at him. “Oh. She has changed. As if I haven’t heard that one before. Well, lad, what’s done is done, and we’ve all got to make the best of it.” Then he leaned forward, in a voice pitched just for Frodo’s ears, saying, “Although you are still underage by Shire reckoning. So if you ever want out...”
“No, Uncle,” Frodo grated quite audibly to all, “I will never, ever want out!” And with that he left to see the view on the other side of the ship with his wife, as far from Nibs as possible. Frodo told himself that he really shouldn’t blame his Uncle–the hobbit did mean nothing but good for him, after all. Like Bergil’s father once had done for Bergil. Right.
“Don’t let him get to you, Mattie,” Frodo told his wife, as she climbed up onto the gunwale to sit and play her harp, braced against a hawser. “He’ll come around in time.”
“I expect many think as he does,” she replied quietly, watching the water rippling down below. “I have a lot of proving to do, and I know it. No, the one who troubles me the most is Lebadoc. We have met before, many years ago, in Bree.” And the chords took a turn now, louder, more harshly plucked.
“Indeed? Did he hurt you? And yet a lot of time has passed, hasn’t it, since you last saw your homeland.”
“A lot indeed,” she barely breathed the words. “Far more years than should have passed, had I not lifted my mug beside him on that sorry night in the Prancing Pony.” Her music shifted to a merry hobbit jig, yet with unexpected minor twists here and there.
He feared to hear more. Yet, “Tell me,” he said.
“I remember the storm that night. Oh, lots of thunder and lightning, and all of the good little Breeland hobbits quaked in their seats, afraid to venture home.” Stronger the music grew, defiant in its mirth, but the end of every stanza quivered in doubt, hanging on a few sad notes. “Me, I laughed, and raised my mug, and told them to count their blessings. I had seen real horrors; to me a little lightning seemed like nothing.”
She laughed, herself, to remember it, but her eyes looked far away in pain. “That is when Lebadoc came over and bought me a drink. He was much younger, then, yet older enough than me, someone of full legal age–someone to look up to, I thought, with an air of knowing things that I couldn’t learn by rambling in the saddle. He had come to Bree for a soap-maker’s fair. It bored him silly, he told me, and he felt relieved when the storm drove everyone to fold up their booths and hightail it for shelter.” Now the music seemed to parody itself, the jig too light, too silly to take seriously.
But then the mockery shifted back to melancholy, weariness and fear. Old hobbit-tunes nailed onto a base of minor eastern chords, it had the sound of looking homeward, where one can never go again. “Lebadoc asked me my business in town; he hadn’t seen me around before. I answered that I had served some years on the dirtiest run of the Post, over the Poros Pass and into Mordor and back, and I had had enough of it. I confessed to him (for the beer had loosened my tongue more than my wont) that not even I could handle the fear anymore.”
She turned fierce eyes to Frodo. “That is when he told me his secret. Masters of the Bath used many simples in their formulae, and knew herbs well, and had some influence on that part of Brandybuck Mercantile’s trade. Not all of the herbs made soaps and lotions, however. Many held properties for food or dye, and especially for medicine. He bought me another drink, and asked me, ‘What if I told you of an herb that offered a cure for fear?’” The song stopped abruptly, reverberating on a discord.
Frodo whispered, “Oh my heavens! There? So close to home?”
“Not quite so close. The product never crossed the Misty Mountains. I suppose if it did, the rest of the Brandybucks would soon learn of its true nature and dry up a lucrative trade.” She grinned without humor, shaking her head, then casting down her eyes. “Lebadoc told me where I could buy it abroad, however,” and here she looked over again and winked at Frodo. “I understand that he pockets a sizeable cut–before money ever reaches the ledgers of Buckland, mind--for having accommodated the trade in even a portion of the West.” She gazed out over the water once again. “I bought my first tin in an alley of Osgiliath where good people do not go, following his directions. I carried it a long, long time, Frodo, before I finally tried it out.”
Frodo gripped the gunwale until his nails dented the wood. After a speechless moment he said, “My father did say that Saruman–Sharkey–had sown evil thoughts among some hobbit families. I can see where the Smallburrows and Penniwistles might raise troubled sons and daughters, because they collaborated, and even if they didn’t listen too closely to the wicked old wizard’s agents, their children might have. But a Brandybuck? How? How could it happen?”
“Ah, but did you not know? When the Tooks and Brandybucks resisted Lotho Baggins, his men took hostages. Word of it came as far as Bree. Oh, they rescued their own back in short order, and the children said that they had not been treated ill. I often thought about it as a child, what it must have been like to have men snatch me away from my home like that. It actually sounded inviting to me, then.” She looked at him. “Did nobody tell your father?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. So much had happened, at home and abroad, that I don’t think anybody filled in anybody else completely. And he had so much to occupy him after his return, between scouring the Shire and tending my sick namesake, not to mention romancing my mother. It’s a wonder he could remember his own name, with so much on his mind. But I’ll write to him–and to Uncles Merry and Pippin–to look into who had the most contact with Bag End in those dark days, and whose children might have suffered harm. These things have remedies, if caught in time–I should know.”
He glanced towards Lebadoc, who had come out by then. The hobbit settled sullenly by the prow, looking out over the river ahead, his fingers tapping on the wood. Frodo regarded him and shook his head. “Yet we have some choice in our own ills, too. Lebadoc has a lot to answer for. And one way or another, I shall see that he does.”
“Well, we can’t do a thing about Lebadoc here on this ship. Think of something else for now,” Mattie told Frodo. “Read some more of your letter.”
“That has given me anything but comfort so far,” he protested, but he pulled it out and carried it into the shade beside the cabin, now that the sun had risen to a hotter pitch and the sweat ran under his black vest. Mattie sat nearby and strummed her harp softly.
In Sam’s hand Frodo read, “I am sorry to read how Mattie broke your heart. But you are right to quit all connection with her. No, I have never fallen in love with anyone like that. I admit that I cannot really imagine it. You must of been desperate, out there all alone of hobbit-kind until she crossed your path. I wish I knowed how to counsel you, son, but my experience has its limits. I will ask around, if that helps.”
“Oh grief!” Frodo muttered. “What on earth did I write to him? I can hardly remember at all.”
“Dont worry about talking about ugly things to me. I know that part of the world that you live in now. It would scare me if you never noticed what a horrible place it can be. But you also taught me how to find the beauty there, something I never thought that I could learn. Remember that, too. A single star shining through the smoke of Saurons reign gave me the heart to carry on.”
Frodo nodded. “Well, that much encourages me, at least. I might yet bring him ‘round.”
“Do not break your heart on too much hope for Dragon-Girl, neither. She might well prove as unreachable as Smeagol did. You have some of your namesake in you, to wish for good where it might not be. Have a care, then, lest she do more than bite you next time!”
“Aha!” Frodo cried. “When he learns of how things worked out with Dragon-Girl, that will help, right there.”
“It comforts me to hear of your successes in farming. It particularly pleases me that Lord Curudag left you some plantable taters. He might not understand their worth, but I sure do. But have a care not to enjoy your reputation for madness too much! You still have to come home to the Shire some day–at least I hope so. Please try not to develop too many queer habits that you cannot later break so easily.”
Frodo groaned, “What on earth did I write to him?”
“That drought sounds hard. I will sing for you, and Mama will, as well. Shes done a lot of singing lately. Her voice has gotten good with practice.”
Frodo murmured, “Poor Mama!”
“Now I read of your meeting with Lanethil. Amazing! And what a tragic story he sings! And how remarkable, that Mays little gift empowers you to remember it so perfectly. It does put my own sorrows in perspective. I could not have believed that any elf could call Mordor home and remain an elf, but he seems to have found his way.”
Frodo muttered, “I wish I had sung the letter instead of just writing it–I might stand a chance, then, of recalling what the blithering devil I sent home!”
“Watch Lanethil closely, Frodo. Elves do merge with the land in ways we cannot follow, and you might garner a few tips for your farming, same as watching the clouds. It is a good thing, then, that he has cleaned hisself up and joined up with the people of Seaside once again–a sign that Mordor herself begins to heal and inclines favorably towards working with the Nurnings. If anything ails the land, I expect, youll see some sign of it in him as well. For instance, judging from those warm hands that you reported, the drought might have made him thirsty! Watch and see if he sobers up when the rains return. And have a care that he doesent lead you, in your turn, against your better judgment! Elves have no idea what a hobbit or a man can handle.”
Frodo shook his head. “I wish I had read this before!”
“You were wise to release Fishenchips to the service of the herbwife. A bodys got to follow his true heart, or he cannot then be true as a servant nor a friend. I think your mother knew how Id tangled myself up in the affairs of my betters, and she suspected more than even I knew how this could sweep me away from the Shire, for who knew how long, yet she held her peace. I would not of become the hobbit she would later want to marry, if I had let her or anybody stop me from what I had to do.”
Frodo murmured, “I think that I have underestimated my mother, all along.”
“Bergil is right. Cussing is indeed a filthy Mordor habit that you ought to break right now, while you still can. It will not do to come back to the Shire talking like an orc. You will have enough hard adjustments to make as it is.”
Frodo’s hand stole to his mouth. Did he write any of those words in his letter?
“It was kind of you to provide Lanethil with the clothing that he needed. And that makes another alliance that you have wisely forged. Not that you did so out of any cynical reason, bless you, but I am glad you did. In the same vein, it heartens me also to read of the return of the Entwife. You have many good friends, Frodo, and that encourages me in these dark times.”
My but your father has become quite the politician since we last met!
“Shut up, Sauron. He must see things as his job demands. Yet he never forgets who his real friends are, or what friendship fully means.”
Even so, as you admit, leadership does shape one’s perspective. Do you really find me so different, given the years that I have had to lead the shiftless folk of Middle Earth to make a paradise despite themselves? What might your father have become, given centuries of the selfsame task?”
“Fortunately, since he refused to keep the Ring, he never found out. Now will you please let me read?”
Why should I, when...
“All right, I’m not asking. You will let me read. Shut up.” And he turned back to the letter.
“Oho!” his father wrote. “So you did concoct a cure for Dragon-Girl, you and Lanethil between you! Good for you! May I prove as wrong in every doleful assumption that I make! (Oh heaven grant it here in the Shire, too!) But what Lanethil implied about Sarumans use of Lothos body, brrrr! Here its a hot day and youve got me shivering all over.”
Frodo smiled, even though he couldn’t quite remember what he had written about Saruman and Lotho. He might well hope for paternal acceptance of his bride yet, if Papa accepted Dragon-Girl.
“It pleases me no end to hear how Beregond honored Bergils wedding. I knew hed come out right in the end about that. But you have to understand how much a father worries about who his children marry. Till death do us part is a long, long time for a mistake.”
Frodo frowned and clucked his tongue.
“Yes, I know not to anger Mattie Greenbanks. The gold will come on schedule. I will even increase it if she promises to leave you well alone.”
Yet other news must have since reached Papa, for Frodo found no leaves of gold between the pages this time–unless someone else had robbed the mail? Then he recalled what other news must indeed have reached the Shire, and his heart sank. He turned the page.
“OH SWEET MERCY OF VALINOR! Grief upon grief! Frodo, my darling son, my dear beloved son, I have terrible news to tell you. Please lay this letter down, seek out the company of Elenaril or the best healer that you can, and then read on. I will make a break here. Stop and read no further till you are ready, for this is the worst news of all.”
Frodo dropped the letter and leaped up so fast that Mattie struck a discord by mistake. In a shaky voice he said, “I don’t think I shall read any more today.”
“Then bring out your flute and accompany me,” she said, studying his face as she helped him pick up the scattered pages. “Music offers many comforts to a troubled mind.”