Now Lost, Lost to Those From the East, Is Valimar!
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 19, Part 229
Memories in the Dark
Long Frodo dozed, barely aware of the chilly mud in which he lay. But by the time the sun rose, flooding down into the well and stirring up a razoring pain in his head, he woke completely, for the first time in he feared to guess how long. The mud crackled with frost as he moved, though the sun began to thaw it.
“I ran away,” he whispered from parched lips. “I could not bear to face Mattie, so I ran away.” Bits and pieces came back to him, like shards of glass twisting in his brain, trying to reconfigure into a window onto the past–for instance, how he had decided, upon reaching Squatting Rock, to take on the name of Pongo Sallet, because the real owner of that name had served as a messenger in the region (yet all too briefly for anyone to memorize his face) was known by rumor to have lost his job, and so could account for a hobbit at loose ends in Mordor, although unlikely to actually set foot in the country again to belie the alias. Besides, all hobbits look alike to the less observant sorts of men. Frodo smiled bitterly. “It seemed so clever at the time.”
The cold did not help his shivering, with naught to wear but a coat of the well’s clay-slime. He hugged his knees to himself, shocked by how thin his legs had become. “When did the season turn, out there in the world?” he thought, staring at his blue and shaven toes. “Has summer passed already?” Yet it hurt to try and think about time. “Vaire is no friend of mine, and shall never be again.”
It wasn’t just Mattie. He had wanted to figure something out, and to do that he felt that he needed to get away from everyone who had ever thought they knew him, all of the contradictory opinions, all of the confusing expectations, the responsibilities that daunted him, just find out who he was and was not, without Sauron anymore. He shook his aching head. “And what was the first thing I did? Became Pongo Sallet. Brilliant!”
Thirst overcame him. At one time it would have disgusted him to press his lips to the muddy seepage that dribbled from the sides of the long-failed well, but nothing seemed too low for him these days. The sunward side worked best, where the frost did not block what little flow remained. Eventually he got what he needed–in water, at least, if not in what he craved most desperately.
“Have I gone completely mad?” he chuckled to himself, despite his straits. “I was poisoning myself! Day by day, week by week–and I cannot wait for the chance to poison myself some more!”
His laughter wore itself out quickly, and his head bowed, chin to his breast. It took him a moment to realize just how horribly naked he had become, when he realized that nothing hung around his neck.
He leaped to his feet. “It’s gone! May’s lens–gone!” A deeper despair than he had ever thought possible capsized his heart, so that he lurched against the side of the pit in a sudden spate of dizziness. “I promised–I said that I would keep it safe for her.” He fingered the bare spot on his chest as though wishing could return the lens to him. He could not remember selling it, but he knew as sure as the damp chill of the well that he must have done such a thing.
“I turned my back on all of the insight that it gave me. What am I–not a true brother, no true husband, no true friend...no true son. And certainly not a hobbit anymore,” he thought, looking down at his bald feet. “I have failed everybody, starting with the Great Ones of the West and ending with my miserable self!”
Then he raged and swore about the trammeled space, pounding the clay and sandstone walls till it hurt too much to continue. “Where are you, Sauron? Where in Angband or the Outer Darkness are you? Why don’t you come back and mock me now?” Weeping, he slumped back down to suck his bleeding knuckles, getting mud into his mouth and spitting it out again.
The weeping turned to body-wracking sobs and wails as the fullness of his wretchedness came home to him. He pounded his sore head back against the wall and didn’t care how much it hurt. “I had everything on my side–Valar and maiar, captains and kings, powerful friends in spirit and in flesh–and I had a good upbringing, once, and education. And most of all I once knew love, of family and friends and a better wife than I deserved, and a dear little child who gave me the most important treasure in her life. I had a talisman of power beyond my understanding from her own sweet hand, enhanced by the sacrificial love of another close to me. And now–nothing! And I have so very much deserved every wretched morsel of my nothing that when I die of it it shall be no less than I have earned!”
He clenched his arms against their shaking, because the jarring made his nausea worse. “When did I do it? When did I cast aside the most precious piece of crystal that I could ever hold in hand?” He pounded his thoughts backwards, backwards, to those first days when he’d limped into Squatting Rock, bleary with a hangover and his torn foot throbbing. Almost the first thing he did, he realized, was spend the last coins in his pocket on two things: a poor excuse of a leech to clean out the gash in his sole, and a bottle to make the clumsy process bearable.
Not immediately did he squander his greater treasures, though. He remembered, vaguely, a number of nights in a spare but clean apartment of stone and weathered wood (not fit in size for any save a hobbit, although intended for a man) glancing down now and then, seeing that reassuring glint upon its horsehair cord.
“The wedding-ring went first,” he thought. “I didn’t want the reminder, and I needed cash, before I found a job.” And he looked at his hand, bare now of any ring, though when he rubbed off the dirt with the help of a little water, a paler band of skin showed that he had once worn it long enough to smooth a callus there around his finger. “How Mattie must hate me, by now! If indeed she has not given up on sobriety altogether, after the sterling example of my hypocrisy. She who sacrificed so much to come back into the land of the living, must despise me indeed for abandoning so much to die.”
Yet Frodo did find employment, there in Squatting Rock. In the beginning, he now recalled, he had offered himself as a clerk for the coal miners, and a decent job he’d made of it, too, from practice with all of the book-keeping for his farming projects before. He used to stay sober all the weary day long, slogging through the numbers--nothing but numbers left from the old, green days--before he’d go off with the boys for the evening’s drink.
At end of day they used to congregate at a weathered sort of bar, set up across the open side of a derelict hut that had lost a wall. An arc of smelly little coal fires made a loose and irregular sort of fence of safety around the place; many of his memories gleamed red or blue in that uncertain light, gouged deep with shifting shadows. Rubble to one side had made a handy stair up and down the farthest stool, he remembered that.
Oh yes, Pongo had become rather well-liked, in those days. What remained of the roof behind the absent wall sagged down, so that the barkeep had to duck low to fetch his refill-casks and bottles; the man used to joke that maybe Pongo should work for him, if only he wouldn’t cut too deeply into the inventory, and everyone would laugh at that, and raise a toast to the halfling in their midst. And oh it felt fine, to wind down with good company...well, with company...after a long day’s work, just feel the tensions ease up one by one, and let all the nasty numbers float away, there in the flickering firelight that made the evening semi-safe for drunks. Soon it became the one thing that felt fine, at all. Who could ask him to give up the only pleasant moments in his life?
Despite which, he did abstain for a night or two, quite deliberately. He remembered that. He even once spent several nights in a row without a drop, in those early days, just to prove that he could, that everyone had been wrong about him all along, Sauron had done him no lasting damage. And as far as the other times went, he did no one any harm, and that made it nobody’s business how he spent his evenings. He lived but a short step away from the bar, after all, and got home without mishap every single night, even if some of his fellows didn’t. And of course his morning headaches never made him late for work. Not at first. He took pride in that.
“When did the pride go away?” Now his legs twitched uncontrollably, but when he tried to hold them close to him his body only cramped the worse. Oh how he longed for that which could soothe down every muscle, and warm him from the cold, and drive his memories away again!
But once unleashed, the memories would not back down. After awhile, he realized, he did start to come in later and later for work, and people grumbled, and he pretended not to care. Well, who were they to judge him? Had they suffered nearly as much as he? Had they ever hosted Sauron the Ruddy Dark Lord as a houseguest in their skulls? Had they ever known and lost the Shire? Had they begun in utter innocence, only to suffer one moral disaster after another, to finally lose every last claim to goodness that they had once enjoyed? How dare they look at him like that! He needed more drink to wash the very sight of them away. So as the days went by he found himself alone more often at the bar, knowing that those who sat nearby whispered japes to each other at his expense. In time they didn’t even bother to whisper.
Nauseating ripples ran up and down his body, and he felt so cold, so cold, so cold. He leaned against the slimy wall to try and brace himself as the shuddering slowly built.
He’d blamed Mattie, when he thought of her, though he washed her from his mind as often as he could. How dare she drive him from their home with her probable condemnation! Who was she to look down her nose at him, when she had not been quit of the poppy gum a full year, nay but a handful of months! After all, hadn’t she been the one who had stolen, blackmailed, sold her harp, her pet, even nearly what she had left of herself? And no doubt she had gone back to her old, sordid life the minute he turned from her, the tramp! Yes, that had seemed most likely, after what he had done to her...and at that thought he would really need a drink.
Day by day, the handwriting on the ledgers grew shakier, then illegible, and he felt a duty to come to some solution. Little medicinal nips would help, he discovered, just to steady his hand. And he found that the grind went better for it, after. At first he felt a little uneasy about doing things this way, though he almost couldn’t remember why, yet soon he came to peace with a remedy that worked quite well enough; he relaxed to let his problems all dissolve, slipping in deeper and deeper into his solution, until he dissolved, himself.
He could not pin down a precise moment when he foreswore the pangs and bother of sobriety altogether, but it came to that, and no voice in his head argued for or against whatever choice he made–not Sauron, not Gandalf, not Makar, not memories of Papa or his mother. He cherished the emptiness in his head, the freedom.
And so he embarked upon his life as a liquid. He eschewed hard edges and abrupt angles, all things straight and upright and difficult. He flowed from moment to moment and from move to move, floating on an absence of pain and regret. Whatever word decided to spill from his lips would spill, and he would not impede it. Whatever impulse bubbled up would sway him. Life seemed to take on a fluid sort of grace, sweeping him along upon its currents without the bother of reflection, meandering carelessly this way and that down the path of least resistance, beyond friendships, beyond aid, beyond remorse.
He could pull it off, at first. It seemed, for quite some time, that nothing could entirely erode from him that touch of something higher, nobler, which had once infused his life, something beyond the understanding of the denizens of Squatting Rock yet not outside their notice. Even when they smirked at him, the others would part for him without even thinking of what they did, whenever he swayed past, small though he might be. One look from him, and he got away with much. For a little while that certain something even seemed to shimmer all the more within his face, the thinner and paler he became, the more unkempt his curls and raveled the strange embroidery of his vest: for he presented to the world a face that reminded them, somehow, of a proud, drowned mariner of old, cast back from paradise after a single glimpse of searing beauty.
Yet the sparkling surface of his life (as he perceived it) hid a deadly undertow. More and more the columns added up wrong. Errors on the ledger began to cost the company money. After one too many mistakes the owner of the mine found someone else to keep his books.
Frodo now stumbled across larger gaps in his memory, great chunks of his life dissolved for good. Hints managed to surface here and there, but little of a cohesive nature. He had stolen, he knew that much, though the details now escaped him. He had begged, too, but when that failed he did steal. Sometimes people would catch him and beat him, but eventually he would get what he needed to make the bruises go away, make everything go away. Yet nothing shimmered anymore, everything just faded into fog. He never did recall the moment when he sold the Lens of May.
“Sting!” he suddenly cried. A memory assaulted him so awful that it seemed to kick him in the stomach and send his body into a terrible twist. In that memory he trembled, as he did now, and ached as he did now, in what had probably been his final, desperate stab at sobriety–the day that he had realized its impossibility. Despite the need, the mounting need that crawled beneath his skin, he had honestly tried to bargain hard. “Family heirloom!” he had insisted, and “Historic sword!” He had tried to stand with dignity. He had tried to look like a mayor’s son. In his unwashed summer rags.
“Knife,” the arms dealer had corrected, “And an old one, at that.” Yet Frodo had seen the glint in the narrow eyes that examined the blade, so he’d held his ground grimly, gripping his own arms to try and keep them from twitching too noticeably out of control. Yet all at once he could take no more and cursed the man for the hardness of his heart, tears running down his face.
Suddenly the dealer’s voice shifted at the outburst, from feigned contempt to feigned concern, as he said, “Oi, forgive me! Ya seem much too flustered, me friend, and mayhaps I’ve set too low a price.” Then came that brief, speculative gleam in the eye again. “So howsabout you and I settle the diff’rence in a friendlier fashion, over a pot o’ wine?” And there the memory faded into gray.
“At least I had stopped wearing the mithril in the summer weather,” he groaned. “At least I left the dwarvish kit behind. Perhaps Mattie will send them back to Bag End and my family can cut their losses.” Yet why shouldn’t Mattie sell them, herself, when the cravings came upon her without him there to hold her fast?
Eventually his old boss took pity on him and offered him a job in the mine itself. “Pongo” leaped at the chance. He could not, for the life of him, remember when he had consented to receive his pay in bottled form, but he also could not remember objecting. It must have saved that “kindly” man a bundle, to distill from kitchen scraps what he should have paid in coin.
“For pity’s sake,” he gasped, “When was the last time I ate?” He gaped as he saw that he could close his fingers around his calf, thinner than his ankle. But the very thought of food pushed his nausea over the edge. Revulsion lurched up into his throat at the final memories of his Master, as he just began to realize what had nearly happened in his “dream”. Once he started to get sick he couldn’t stop. Every time he began to feel a little better, the smell itself would worsen him all over again, till he had nothing left in him but shuddering and pain.
Sucking water from the well’s moist walls helped a little bit. Fever started to warm him up, now, though a freezing rain came down at the fall of night and turned the bottom of the well into a shallow, filthy pool. (A lot of rain had fallen in his memory, he now recalled, as though the desert monsoon had gone on much too long. Yet maybe he remembered wrong.) Frodo found a little ledge of rock and dragged himself up onto it. The fever grew worse, and the longing, oh the incredible longing, for any potion that would magically make this all go away, turn things back into a dream again, make nothing matter, dissolve him, dissolve his entire miserable existence!
He started to sob again, as the rain pattered down on him, then he tried to swallow back the sobs, but in his sickness-tortured throat it made a nasty gollum sound, and then he laughed, thinking, “I’ve lost my precious–that is what is wrong with me. Oh, for one sweet swallow of my precious consolation, gollum, gollum!”
The rains subsided, but the clouds overhead did not admit the light of a single star; they might as well have been a roof of stone, for all that he could tell. And he could see nothing in the dark, no colors, no form, even his own limbs would not glow for him as living things once would, though his eyes bulged with the effort to see.
Suddenly he let forth a loud, thin wail, and in a throat made raw cried out, ”My precioussss! Give me back my precioussss!” And as the fever overtook him completely, there on his ledge above foul waters, he lost all trace of who he was or how he came to be there.