He Clasped Her Fast, Both Flesh and Bone
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 21, Part 205
Before breakfast, before donning hat or vest or belt, before anything, at the first light of dawn Frodo ran out into the street, calling, “Mattie! Mattie–where are you?” But only the stony echoes of his own high voice would answer him. Then he winced, turning slowly towards an alley that he knew, the one with all the little tins littered on the ground. Yet before he could make himself go that way, Mayor Aloe came out of her nearby home, wrapped in a dressing-gown and with her hair disheveled, a sour look upon her face.
“What be ye doin’, Master Gardner, raisin’ such a fuss this early in the mornin’?”
“My wife! She never came home last night, she...”
“I know exactly where Mattie has gone, so stop yer frettin’.”
“You do? Is she all right?”
“Take yer hands offen me waist! Ya had yer chance, poppet–I’m Harding’s now.”
“That’s all I can reach–tell me, please, where’s Mattie?”
“With Pearl, where she will stay for a decent interval o’ seclusion, upon my orders, until yer weddin’ day.” Aloe slapped away his hands. “Now go back to yer quarters and fix yerself up proper–yer hair sticks up like a beat-up rooster’s tail.”
Frodo stared at her, opened his mouth, closed it again without a word, then spun on his heel and walked on back to his home. Inside he passed Nibs on the stairs.
“She’s with Pearl. Local custom. I’ll explain later.” Upstairs Frodo finished dressing, then stared at the protective gear that Bergil had found for him, at his request, before the party yesterday. He studied the pair of woolen sacks, their odd, lopsided shape, bending where the heel should go. He pulled them on, and then, for the first time, the little boots, outgrown by a local child. They pinched and felt heavy on his feet, and soon he sweat in them. But after a few tries he found that he could walk in them well enough. “To think my brother must endure this every day!” he said, shaking his head.
He answered a knock on the door, and found Harding with a jingling pouch. “Mistress Mattie’s earnings,” the man explained. “From last night’s music. Aloe wanted me to bring ‘em over for you.”
Frodo’s jaw dropped when he counted up the contents of the bag. Then he hastened not to the fields, but to the shops in town, and after buying a lovely necklace of ceramic beads, he sought out those men who knew the ways of brick and beam. He made arrangements for the workers to start on his window before the sun might climb too hot for laboring--a bay window, such as one could find amply in the steep homes of Gondor. Frodo led the workmen up the stairs to sledgehammer a great hole in his wall; between them he could see the ocean in the distance, and the ship sailing away from the harbor, with his two letters on it and a few more pieces of Seaside mail. Mattie had not been the only one Frodo had hoped would arrive before fall of night.
“He’s missing,” Frodo murmured. “Eldarion should have made his rounds by now.” The second letter informed the King of what no father wants to hear. “But Mordor abounds in delays–perhaps no harm has come to him.” Rocks rained down from hammer-blows, crashing and tumbling on the earth, but silence closed around his heart, the silence of a voice one longs to hear.
When Frodo finally arrived on the plateau above the beach he found men digging in the patch that they had burned. Rainsoaked ash stuck to everything. Frodo thought that the black and gray fields looked sad, as if the earth wore mourning-garb; he fingered the edge of his vest in sympathy. Nibs came over from a nearby plot of wrygrass and watched beside him, shaking his head.
“It’s a shame, Frodo. I had hoped you could get ‘taters to take in this land of Men. They do say that the Mariner Kings of old brought the first ‘taters to our shores, planted them deep, made them our own. But only hobbits and dwarves kept them alive, long after men forgot. My dad, and his before him, said to keep the old crops faithfully that the Kings entrusted to our kind–the potato, the pumpkin, the corn–and so we’ve done. And now, with the dwarves dying out, it becomes more important than ever that we do our part, saving what no one else has valued as the greatest treasure of those ancient days, when the rest of the Free Peoples get so busy chasing after gold and magic jools and whatnot. If the Shire should ever fail of the task entrusted to us, you won’t find a single ‘tater in all of Middle Earth. And that would be a loss!”
Frodo stared at Nibs. He had never heard his Uncle utter such a speech before. “That was beautiful!” he said. “I thought only my father told old tales like that.”
“Well, your father didn’t come out of nowhere, did he?” And with that Nibs went back to scything down the wry.
Frodo saw Elenaril and “Dinwen” come up the path, Dinwen leading the blind woman. But he turned back when one of the men said, “My hands’re fair boilin’ in their own sweat in these gloves. Who needs ‘em? I gots calluses enough.”
“No!” Frodo cried before the man could tug them off. He pointed down at his own leather-incarcerated feet. “You know I wouldn’t endure these for any light reason. Keep your gear on–all of you.”
Nibs returned again with Frodo’s scythe upon his shoulder, and stood beside his nephew, just outside the burnt zone. “You folks listen to Frodo–whatever lies in the ground would’ve killed me, had I been a man. D’ye think yourselves quite so indestructable?” He made a satisfied “Hmf!” when he saw them pale and nod, then went back to his own labors.
They had dug past the midden-made dirt, and now tore at the hardened clay with picks, concentrating on a blue-green stain that had seeped up from below. Frodo said, “Kerchiefs on your faces, gentlemen,” and they masked themselves against the dust.
How appropriate you all look now. Highway robbers out to loot what little treasure your forebears left to me.
“If you count poison as treasure, that is–as only you would do. I just want to see our fields made safe again.”
Of course I count poison as treasure–and so do you. Have we not both experienced the agonies of love?
Frodo said nothing to that, turning away towards the smoke that rose from the bakery. How could he ache so much for her after just one night alone?
A powerful addiction, is it not? Oh, do not act so shocked! Of course that is what it is. Love changes the balances of the body; one feels the absence physically–it can cause ill-health, until one weans oneself away. Do you think a being as long-lived as myself has no knowledge of these things?
The two women arrived, huffing a little from the hill. Frodo asked, “How are you this morning, Dinwen?”
She smiled tentatively and answered, “Better all the time, Merry.” Frodo bit his tongue and did not correct her.
Elenaril said to Dinwen, “Tell me everything you see.”
“I see the soil discolored, in the hues of infection from the hot-damp places of the south.”
Elenaril nodded. “That would fit with the poison we suspected. Watch on.”
But Dinwen looked out across the fields. “How hard their labors look without horses! Surely I can speak to...to someone, to do something about it.”
Elenaril smiled. “Is it as I thought then, from your accent? Do you come from the land of the Horsemen? The emerald plains of Rohan?”
“I believe so, yes. Yes indeed–that much comes clear to me now. Such was my delight, the rolling hills, the pastures green, the horses running free...once upon a time.”
“You shall return in joy,” Elenaril assured her. “Now watch for me.”
Sandy-haired old Cork said, “I think I’ve come to sumpin’. Bone, it looks like.” He bent down, brushing away dirt with his gloved hands. “Somebody get me a brush or whisk-broom from the village,” he said, and work stopped while Frodo dispatched a runner.
“Make sure it’s one we can burn afterwards,” he called after the messenger.
Oh, you are being far too cautious, my little craven.
Frodo glanced over at Nibs. “Not in the least.”
And yet you dare to embrace your wife! Do you not know that all romance must end in broken hearts?
“It doesn’t have to. My parents...”
Your parents hide from the children all of the myriad disappointments, the boredom interrupted by betrayals. Do they not conceal a great deal between them? So many moments out of sight, just the two of them. Your earthen homes must muffle sound quite well, else you would have heard the shouts and accusations.
“Oh, I’ve heard them fight a time or two. But it always ends in kisses.”
Addiction, nothing more. And if they let you hear these little spats, how much worse must be the battles they conceal? How cleverly your mother must cloak herself to cover all the bruises...
“No! You’ve got it all wrong! Hobbits are simply modest, that is all!” Then he realized that everyone had stopped working to stare at him.
Cork shrugged, saying, “Right. He’s throwin’ fits again.” and he accepted a small brush from the runner, then bent to ease the dirt away from a curve of bone.
Frodo and Dinwen bent over to watch. Behind her kerchief Dinwen said, “It might...yes, it is a skull. I see some of the teeth...they look young, unworn. Now the jawbone...it narrows like the jawbone of a woman, I do think.”
She was beautiful once, Frodo. Do you think that you know beauty? I loved her before I found my poppy-field. I made the petals take the color of her skin.
Under his breath Frodo murmured, “What did you do to her, to make her so deathly pale?”
Oh you barbarian with a peasant’s tastes! Not everyone fancies females as brown as bread and just as doughy. Why do I even bother?
“Because you lack the strength to leave?”
Dinwen bent lower. “Cork has freed the entire lower jaw now, and I can see the base of the skull...one vertebra...the base shows a chip, clearly severed. Someone beheaded this woman.”
“True love,” Frodo murmured.
Do not think my vengeance so unimaginative as that. Only after she died did I bury her in six places. Best of luck in finding the rest of her.
“Ah, but you didn’t hide the next thought fast enough! None of the rest of her carries enough poison to reach the topsoil. Let her lie in peace, then!”
Or pieces. Yes, yes, I disgust you, you were about to say. The feeling is mutual. All once-close relationships end this way.
The woman of Rohan said, “I see a cheekbone, now...and the edge of an eye-socket...exquisitely proportioned–she must have been fair...” then Dinwen and everyone else who looked down gasped.
“What is it?” Elenaril asked.
“The...the most beautiful golden diadem, shaped like twigs, with emerald encrusted leaves.”
“Nobody touch it,” Elenaril said calmly. “We have found the source of the poison.”
At the same time, Frodo muttered, “You pirate of other people’s talent! You stole that design from Mírglin and Roin.”
But then the Lady of Ithilien drew breath in the deepest gasp of all. “Elenaril...Elenaril...”
“The crown has imbedded itself into the skull! The bone has grown around it!”
Alas, my beautiful, beautiful and faithless love! Why O why did you force me to do this? Did an independent will mean all that much? Yet you relinquished it so easily in the end. What a treasure indeed have I buried!
Frodo stared quietly, in silence like everyone else. Then he said, “Bury her again. Let her have her peace. Mark her grave so that no one else will come to evil here. Let no one covet this accursed gold.” Frodo turned away, and found himself facing his Uncle, who had come to gawk with everybody else. “Mankind does not need ‘taters all that badly.”