He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 18, Part 202
Remembering Uncle Nibs
Frodo huddled on the downstairs bench and would not let go of Mattie’s hand, while Trickster ran leathery little fingers through his hair, making sympathetic noises. Mattie told him, “Don’t worry–your uncle just happened to keel over in the town with the largest collection of leeches in the entire country.” Frodo watched the stairs, as men and women climbed up and down, carrying water, bags of charcoal, tubes and basins and all manner of things he didn’t recognize.
He remembered walking down a country Shire lane with his Uncle Nibs, way back when the hobbit stood so much bigger than him that it took Frodo’s entire hand to wrap around one great finger. But his Uncle walked slowly, patiently, keeping to the pace of a faund’s small and wobbly legs. He remembered the big, dusty feet beside him, planting themselves solidly each in turn upon the path, the easy rhythm of it, a life-pulse that pleased him. He remembered the scent of cherry pie wafting from Aunt Marigold’s kitchen. He remembered calloused hands so large that they clasped him from armpit to hip, lifting him up over the sill that kept the rain in season from rushing into the hole.
Most of all he remembered a comfortable sense of rightness in the world, that it should rest upon the shoulders of such stalwarts as his uncles and aunts and parents. He had not yet heard of death. The white bird had not yet flown out of the west with a jewel about her neck. It had not occurred to him that uncles and aunts might not last forever.
“I reckoned on the white bird as my earliest memory,” Frodo thought to himself. “I was wrong.” Then he shook his head. “I don’t even know if that happened in this version of time.” He gazed back up the stairs. Maybe other recollections ought to exist in this thread of the Fabric of Life, but he couldn’t imagine a one that might not hold fond memories of Uncle Nibs in it. “Did he really carve funny figures with jointed arms and legs, that he rigged up on sticks and strings, so that when we children pulled the cords they did acrobatic flips around and around and around? Did he really lift me up high on his shoulders so that I could see the blue eggs inside a nest?” Or did other things happen, other reasons to love him? They must have, for the assumption of love came so naturally to them both–even when Nibs didn’t understand, or didn’t approve, something steadied the bond between them, something built on years, something that no strangeness nor sin nor folly could cut through.
At last Fishenchips came down, drying his hands, a friendly grin on his face. “Ye can stop yer frettin’, little buddy. A hearty hobbit breakfast saved yer nuncle’s life–slowed th’poison down, it did, so’s we could save ‘im.” He grimaced, for a moment, glancing away. “But that poison works fast–a hobbit’s lungs shout loud, and men run fleet, else he’d be dead by now.
“Can I see him?”
“Awr, Nibs needs his rest more’n he needs company right now. But when he wakes up later, he’ll be hungry like a bear in spring, mark my words, and ye can sit with him then.” Fish patted Frodo roughly on the head. “We gots all th’poison out o’ him afore it did its work. Never ye fear. That Dinwen taught me a thing or two, I can tell ye–she’s a clever one.”
“Do you have any idea what caused this? What lies in the soil?”
“Some idea. It acted like a deadly compound o’ the Dark Lord’s store--used t’use it to draw gold from rocks. ‘Twould kill anythin’ downstream o’ the mines, too, fish and whatnot, and often as not the odd miner with ‘em, but what did he care, he always could capture more. It’s a part o’ why nothin’ decent can swim the Sea of Nurnen alive. But he also used the’same stuff t’gild baser metals, make ‘em look like sumpin’.” Fish brightened. “That’s where Dinwen helped. She might have trouble ‘memberin’ a thing or two, but that don’t stop her from gettin’ creative with what she learns afresh. When she heard what I had t’say she took that golden brooch of hers and ground it down to a powder. We mixed th’gold dust into the’charcoal slurry so’s to bind th’poison, and...but the details get kinda messy. You dinna want t’hear it, I expect.”
“How do you know all this? About the gold-mines, I mean.”
“Garn, the gold had t’travel someways to the outer world, din’t it? Gifts an’ bribes an’ like that, harf the time wi’ sumpin’ nasty added, venom or magic or what have ye, or maybe nuthin’ o’ the sort, a true mark o’ th’Dark Lord’s favor–a body just never knew. That’s how the privileged ones found out they’d fallen from his favor, often as not–they got sumpin’ pretty what killed ‘em, or ate their souls alive.”
Fishenchips shuddered, and then went on. “Most o' that happened afore my time, o' course, but the stuff remained after Sauron fell, and it all had its market--an' the stories to go with the goods. Folks talk as they lade th’ships, y’know, and sailors listen, glad to hear sumpin’ ‘sides the same old voices. We learned a lot, goin’ up an’ down the river.”
Fishenchips gazed up out the high windows, and his voice fell soft. “An’ the old captain, now, Belzagar, he trusted me t’guard th’gilded stuff, warned me not t’touch, make sure nobody else did, neither. Said it warn’t out o’ followin’ orders that he stopped us thievin’–it cost money to buy slaves; he’d rather they din’t die on him. So o’ course he had t’tell me why.” Fishenchips scratched his chin thoughtfully with the tip of his hook. “Don’t know why he trusted me so. Don’t know why I let ‘im. But he kept me that tangled up inside, that he could, an’ he did.” He lowered his hook suddenly. “That Fish don’t exist no more. A sea-monster tore his hand off, and he died. Sea monster bled all o’ that old Fish out o’ me.”
Frodo bit his lip, turned away, then suddenly spun to face the sailor/medic again. “I know a little more about what poisoned the field. Not much, but it might help. Sauron buried something there. He buried it so long ago that he had forgotten where he put it. Something happened, something changed for him, but I don’t know what.”
“He said so, did he? Well, I’ll bring it up with t’others, when we confer. They know a sight more’n I do, any day.” Fish nodded. “Might turn up important.” He went back upstairs.
Mattie kissed Frodo on the cheek, as Trickster leaped up onto her shoulder. “Will you be all right if I leave now–now that Nibs has passed all danger?”
“Why?” Frodo asked, trying to sound casual. “Where are you going?”
“You’re worried about money. I know how to make some.” But before Frodo could ask more she skipped upstairs, and came back down with her harp, beaming. “I’ve become more than half again the bard I used to be, and folks have money to spend, now, on what I have to offer. For weddings especially–they have become quite the fashion, since the Mayor announced her engagement.” She curtsied with her free hand, as though she wore a skirt, not a tunic. “Pearl has promised me some good leads for who might want to hire me–she has her hands full keeping up with all the orders for cakes.”
“Pearl?” Frodo asked in surprise. “Wouldn’t she, uh, wouldn’t she feel...”
Mattie laughed. “Jealous? You don’t understand females. She would bend over backwards to not appear jealous at all–especially since she has another lover in her life.” Mattie winked. “Pearl would want everyone to assume that she has come out the better in the deal, and that she appreciates me taking you off her hands with the least amount of fuss. And who knows? Maybe she does!” And with a toss of her head reminiscent of her old insolence, she waltzed out the door, singing.
Frodo felt like he sleepwalked through the rest of the day. He roped off the toxic land, shuddering to think how close he could have come to getting poisoned, himself, maybe when he planted the potatoes in the first place. If he had not stubbornly persisted in bathing long after the others gave it up for the drought’s duration, who knows what he might have conveyed to his mouth?
He fell into a rhythm, swinging his scythe to and fro, so automatically that his work couldn’t hold his memories at bay. Nibs had looked so unnatural, his face oddly red and rubbery. And small. He had looked like a child in Fishenchip’s arms, when the man had run towards Frodo’s screams and scooped the old farmer up–and that seemed the most unnatural of all. What could Frodo possibly have told his mother if Nibs had died? “I buried your brother far away, in that land that makes you shiver just to hear its name. He’s never coming home, Ma. His bones will not mingle with his place of birth. That’s the thanks I gave you for the care you gave me, sending your own blood to my aid.”
You could add a slight laugh as you tell her, twist your smile up on one side, while your eyes frown ever so slightly, glinting. That would make your words even more effective.
“I will tell her no such thing! My uncle is alive and soon well, no thanks to you!”
You’re welcome. He is a stuffy bother, isn’t he? Listen, if you would like, we could arrange another accident, more effective...
“Shut up, Sauron! No, wait...don’t shut up quite yet. Just exactly what did you bury out there in the field?”
Trouble, the voice said gleefully.
Frodo waited for more of an explanation, then spat with frustration when none came forth, and swung his scythe with fury, messing up his rhythm. “Oh, you’re hopeless! You talk when I don’t want to hear anything from you, and shut up when I ask you questions.”
Not always. If you ask the right questions, I would be more than happy to answer all that you wish.
Like how best to kill your uncle and make it look like an accident. You do realize that he has come all this way for one overriding concern, do you not? To straitjacket you back into the miserable restrictions of Shire propriety. Your freedom has quite gotten out of hand, in his opinion, and he means to end it–unless you do something to stop him.
“Shut up, Sauron.”
And Sauron did indeed fall silent–or seem to. But now something creepy happened. Frodo could not shake the feeling, however irrational, that he had some part in his Uncle’s misfortune, that some buried aspect of himself must have wanted it and therefore caused it. Every displeasure he had ever felt towards his uncle now reared up to indict him. It seemed to Frodo as though he did not need to speak a curse out loud, that all of his minor aggravations, at Nibs’s various hints of disapproval and questions as to Frodo’s sanity, had somehow reached a critical mass to cause the hobbit to stick his finger into the ground precisely where the poison lay. It did not matter if Frodo remembered that he himself might well have done the same thing, had he been the one to come across stunted potato leaves streaked in yellow. Frodo felt guilty simply for Nibs having to come to Mordor in the first place, where poisons abounded.
After his labors, Frodo returned to the Tower House, his scythe heavy on his shoulder. Yet his heart did finally lighten a little at the site of Mattie approaching from a different direction, her harp slung on her back and Trickster on her shoulder, carrying a basket heaped full of cakes and biscuits, with crumbs around her smile. As soon as she got within earshot she exclaimed, “Pearl has been so nice to me! I never did get around to checking out her leads all day. I didn’t quite expect that. Oh, I expected a certain studied civility–the whole ‘I am far from jealous!’ performance–but she was really kind!” Mattie burped slightly, blushed, and excused herself.
“And generous, I see.” Silently Frodo thanked Pearl that Mattie had not wandered past the sight of friends. “Did you thank her for us both for the cramsome bread?”
“That and more. I gave her some new recipes. I used to do all the cooking for my Pa, back in my Staddle days, after all. Of course Pearl already had some beauties from Lanethil–it seems the smith has more uses for a fire than a forge–but she couldn’t quite get the hang of some icing nozzles that he made her for her cakes, and I’m an old hand at that, making butter-icing roses and pansies and such, so I helped her.” They went around back to the barn.
“Wait a minute. I thought she said she’d never speak to Lanethil again.”
Mattie giggled. “‘Never’ isn’t very long at all when someone handsome and romantic fancies you. And he kept finding new and inventive ways to apologize–did you know he encoded love notes into every recipe he gave her?”
Frodo hung his scythe on its peg in the barn. “No, but if anyone could manage it, I expect he would.” Pleased that those who had borrowed Bleys had returned him well-curried and in good shape, he scratched between the long ears and accepted some nuzzles, then checked his manger and water (both full) before leaving.
“Guess what?” Mattie gushed as they circled back to the front door.
“I couldn’t possibly guess anything right now.”
“Pearl has declared that all hobbits who bring her recipes may sample her wares for free, forever!”
“Wonderful! But I hope that her ‘forever’ lasts longer than her ‘never’.”
As Frodo opened the door, Mattie rummaged through the basket and brought out something pink. “See? Pearl improvised this from a Shire recipe that you gave her. Kaktush cakes.”
Frodo laughed, feeling cheerier with every step. “Excellent! Her offer does lighten my finances some. But you had better save room for dinner, darling.”
“Oh, I will. These are for later. Mostly. Some of them.” She nibbled the cake, blushing just as pink. “Just one more, please?”
Frodo laughed. “Far be it from me to stop you!” He went with her indoors, where she hung the basket on a peg of one of the hanging shelves.
“Pearl has become a wealthy woman, you know. People come from other villages, even, to buy her wares. Nobody has ever tasted anything as fine as hobbit recipes around here. She’s had to hire help just to keep up with it all.”
A voice boomed down from upstairs. “Is that fresh bread I smell? Bring it up! Bring it up!”
“Uncle Nibs!” Frodo cried joyfully. “Of course I shall, as fast as I can climb.”
“Good to hear! I almost thought my nephew had forgotten his poor old uncle, left him up here to starve.”
“Never–and when I say never, I mean it!” Frodo felt Sauron fade back like one feels sunshine when a cloud that one has grown used to suddenly withdraws from the sun. The basket did not stay on its peg very long at all.