He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 17, Part 201
What Lies in Earth
First thing in the morning, Frodo took Nibs out to the fields, as the dawn-light did amazing things with the shifting rain-clouds across the faces of the distant mountains, which had taken on a flush of new green in the summer rains. Frodo’s heart swelled with gladness–you could never find such splendor in the gentle Shire hills. Surely Nibs could see that, couldn’t he? Certainly Frodo thought fondly of the prettiness of his homeland, but grandeur was something else again, sometimes harsher, always more powerful. Some ancient oaks in the Shire did indeed reveal that kind of beauty, especially in the older woods, but here among the prickly flowers and the mountain-crags, the twisting and deeply creviced desert trees, the jut of naked stone in the empty spaces and the wide expanse of sky, in these Frodo had found a braver loveliness than he had ever before conceived. Wouldn’t it take his uncle’s breath away?
Nibs, however, paid more attention to the soil. He investigated every work that Frodo had wrought, studied the swales and the still-young windbrakes, tested the irrigation system, felt at the earth with his toes and then squatted down to smell and taste it. Rising again, he broke off leaves of various plants, sniffed them, held them up to the light and examined how the sun shone through them, then regarded the distribution of their colors in the shade. A few plants he pulled up, to finger the roots for any suspicious nodules.
Frodo looked out over rows and rows of green, vanishing into the distance. Way out there he watched faint specks of Nurnings spread the latest harvest of good, dark earth, transformed from the midden-heaps, to make still more of the land soft and amenable to seed. Could his Uncle have any idea how much Frodo had changed here since he first arrived last winter, and climbed up onto a plateau of sunbaked clay?
“How much I have changed here,” he repeated to himself. “One could take that several ways.” He shrugged, and strolled over to the nearest pond while his uncle regarded the little trees. Oh, the ponds! Rain had filled every single one of them to the brim, sparkling before him like a vision through tears of pure joy. He felt the increased moisture of the nearby air in the skin of his face. He smelled the damp earth. Dragonflies darted over the water, vermillion ones and green, and blue ones too dancing out their aerial ballets. He relished the coolness when he dipped his kerchief in, then bound the wet cloth about his head, before putting his hat back on over it. As he walked back to his uncle (now deep into the potatoes) water ran down his curls onto his neck, and that felt good.
Nibs whipped out his own kerchief to mop his brow under his own hat’s brim; Frodo winced at the sight of the little bursts of pink embroidery that stylized the gemstones of May’s favorite toy. He drew the lens out and regarded it for a moment; she had never even had a chance to see it again.
Something spoiled Frodo’s good mood, a certain uneasiness; the lens weighed heavy in his hand. He almost felt like he should examine something in it, but he couldn’t guess what. He did study a few potato-leaves, but saw nothing alarming, just the pleasing mosaic of healthy green cells.
His mind wandered back, (as Nibs scooped out a hole in which to test soil saturation and absorbency) back to his parting yesterday with Eldarion, whom men here called Gwaithendil. The poor prince seemed subdued after breakfast, inward-looking. He looked so much like his father, but his demeanor lacked confidence. Frodo sympathized; he knew well the challenges of growing up in a hero’s shadow, however beloved. Nevertheless, as soon as they had cleared the dishes, Gwaithendil threw the mail-bags over his shoulder and strode out towards Squatting Rock, a dark-haired figure against the golden fields, doing justice to the name of Telcontar.
At last Nibs raised himself up from stooping over the hole that he had filled with water (the rate at which the water seeped back into the soil apparently pleasing him) arched his back till it crackled, and then scanned the fields as a whole. Finally he nodded to his nephew. “You’ve done good, lad. You’ve thought of nearly everything.”
“Thank you! Er...what didn’t I think of?”
“See those poorly ‘taters over there? That low spot where they don’t grow quite so high as their neighbors?”
“I know. Over at the end, exposed. Insects cost us dear in Mordor. But I’ve learned to make a sort of soapy spray that helps.”
“Don’t blame the bugs, lad. They’re a farmer’s help betimes, hard teachers. They like the sickliest plants the best of all; you need to pay attention to which parts of your crop they settle onto and find out why.” Frodo smiled at the lecture on something he already knew, but said nothing. “Now it looks to me like those ‘taters there grew stunted afore anything began to nibble at ‘em.” Nibs walked over to the patch. “Odd–I can’t find any bug-holes at all. But see here? That yellow streaking on the leaves?”
“A mineral deficiency? I completely missed it! Yet we’ve given them the same compost that all the rest of the plants have had.”
“Then something else there spoils the soil, so the roots can’t pick up what’s good for them.” Nibs bent down and stuck his finger into the dirt, pulled it up and sniffed it. “Smells bitter, sort of nutty. Too base, perhaps.” Then he licked it. “Sour,” he pronounced. “Not bitter after all. Too acidic.”
“But we’ve always had problems with alkaline...Uncle Nibs!” The older hobbit’s eyes suddenly rolled back and his face turned red as he grabbed at his throat and keeled over, gurgling. Frodo ran to his uncle’s side, ignoring the voice saying, Oh good–you found it. I wondered where I had buried that. It had all happened so long ago...