Bedside Reflections of Bell Gamgee, The
5. Memory and Nightmare
Frodo’s eyes were open, but unfocused. The shadows beneath his eyes seemed almost black in the dim light. His breath came in brief, shallow gasps, as though a weight lay upon his chest.
Bell sat beside him and rubbed his chest. “Is it worse, Frodo?”
Frodo shook his head. “The same,” he said. “It hurts.”
“I think we’ll try the physician’s ointment again, Frodo. That helped before, do you remember?”
He closed his eyes and nodded.
“I’m going to make you a bit of breakfast. Do you think you can eat a little?”
A grimace passed over Frodo’s face, but he said, “I’ll try.”
Bell prepared a thin, milky porridge for Frodo. He ate half of it, and then turned his face away.
“A little more, Frodo, please,” Bell implored him.
“No. I’ll be sick,” he said, and Bell decided it would be better to let him hold on to the little bit he had been able to eat, than to make him lose all of it.
She brought him a small cup of hot milk with a little of Bilbo’s rich brandy stirred into it: the milk to warm and nourish him, and the brandy to relieve his pain and help him sleep. When Frodo had eased a bit, Bell stirred the fire to keep the room warm and unbuttoned Frodo’s nightshirt to apply the physician’s ointment.
The ointment was thick and oily, and smelled of eucalyptus and peppermint. It was warm on Bell’s hands, and she knew that it must give Frodo a little comfort. Already, his breathing had become a bit slower and deeper, although it was not much of an improvement.
“There now, isn’t that better?” Bell asked soothingly.
“Mmmm,” Frodo said, and fell asleep.
Gently, she sat Frodo up and removed his nightshirt, one careful arm at a time. She turned him over onto his stomach. Before she began to massage the ointment onto his back, she looked with sorrow at the pattern of bruises on his back from yesterday’s treatment. In her mind, Bell knew she had been trying to help Frodo, but in her heart, she grieved to have inflicted such blows upon him.
As she massaged Frodo’s back, she noticed something she had seen before and wondered at: a fine crisscross of long-healed, white scars across his back. She could count six of them, two seemingly heavier than the rest. She recognized them as switch-marks, and she wondered who at Brandy Hall would have given the boy such a beating, and for what offense.
Bell heard a heavy step come down the smial’s long hall and she looked up just as her eldest son appeared in the doorway.
“Hamson,” she said, and smiled. It was good to see him.
“Morning, Mum,” he said and stepped into the room. “Dad wanted me to check on you and Mr. Frodo. He walked to the bed as quietly as his husky frame would allow. “How is the lad? Dad said he was faring quite poorly.”
“Aye, that he is,” Bell said quietly. “But at least he’s sleeping now.”
Hamson looked down at Frodo. “Goodness, Mum, there’s barely anything left to him!”
“I can’t get much food in him, and the fever burns away what I do.”
“What happened to his back? He looks like he’s been beaten on.”
Bell sighed. “‘Twas the physician and my own self, Hamson. We were trying to clear his lungs.” She looked down at Frodo’s back, and traced her finger over the old scars. “But look at these, Hamson. Someone gave the boy a sound thrashing once. Hard enough to mark him for life.”
Hamson looked at them thoughtfully, and then said, “I overheard Dad and Mr. Bilbo talking once. Mr. Bilbo was in a right state, saying that Farmer Maggot had beaten his cousin bloody for stealing mushrooms. That’s probably where those marks are from.”
Bell looked up in surprise. “Farmer Maggot, from the Marish? He beat him hard enough to leave marks like these?”
“Aye,” Hamson nodded. “Mr. Bilbo said that Mr. Frodo had gone over there with two good-for-nothing cousins, and they just took off and left him there, and never once looked back. I heard old Maggot striped him right down to his ankles.”
“And what did those Brandybucks do when he turned up home like that? I hope they gave that Maggot a piece of their mind!”
“To hear Mr. Bilbo tell it, the boy never said a word. He went home and tended to himself, if you can you believe that. Mr. Bilbo told Dad that if it’d been one of them Brandybuck boys, they'da been screamin’ bloody murder. If the boy’s aunt hadn’t found blood on his shirt, no one would ever have known. Dad says they never paid much mind to him, over there, after his parents drownded.”
Bell stroked Frodo’s back and made a tutting sound with her tongue. “I can only imagine what Mr. Bilbo must have done when he found out!”
Hamson shook his head. “By the time Mr. Bilbo found out, months had gone by, and the boy begged him to leave it be. ‘Tis a good thing he did, for you know how Mr. Bilbo feels about the lad. If Mr. Frodo hadn’t stopped him, Mr. Bilbo would have likely knocked Maggot’s head clean off his neck!”
“And it would’ve served him right!” Bell exclaimed. The lad couldn’t have deserved such a beating over a few mushrooms!”
“Oh, Dad says Maggot’s got quite a temper…and a pack of savage dogs, to boot. At least the lad’s lucky old Maggot’s dogs didn’t tear a strip off of him. Ah, well…it couldn’t have hurt for a boy his age to learn a thing or two.”
Bell looked at Frodo’s narrow shoulders and porcelain hands, and imagined fat old Farmer Maggot flogging the boy’s slight frame. Moved by motherly outrage, she would have liked to march off to Maggot’s with a firm willow switch and teach him a thing or two about tolerance, and kindness, and mercy.
She finished her ministrations and re-dressed Frodo in his nightshirt. She wound a blanket around his shoulders and settled him against his pillows. He seemed deeply asleep, and Bell was grateful for this brief rest.
Frodo was asleep and yet not. His eyes were closed and he did not respond to the world around him, but his ears heard, even as his thought drifted. If Bell Gamgee had known that Frodo could hear her, she would have spoken even more softly than she did, but her words slipped through the thin veil of his delirium. And though his failing body remained in his bed at Bag End on a bleak late winter’s day, his mind took her words and wandered with them, and he found himself fourteen years old, on a blazing day in August.
It had barely rained all summer, and the dirt of Farmer Maggot’s farmyard was so dry that Frodo could make out the dust his cousins’ feet raised as they tore across the yard, to freedom and safety at the end of the path. They left me! he thought frantically, even as heard Farmer Maggot shouting behind him.
“Wait!” he called out, but Frodo was younger and smaller than they were, and could not run as fast. The gate was yet so far away that Frodo knew he was caught. He tried to run faster, but he heard Farmer Maggot’s heavy footsteps catching him up, and when he threw a desperate glance over his shoulder he stumbled and fell forward into the dust with a painful thump. A shadow came over him and his heart sank.
“Young Mr. Baggins…been left in the lurch, have you?”
Frodo thought that if Farmer Maggot busied himself with talking, he might yet have a chance to escape. But Farmer Maggot was swift with his hands as well as his tongue, and before Frodo could regain his feet, Maggot had seized the back of Frodo’s shirt in one fist, and given him such a shake that his teeth knocked together.
“I would have liked to have gotten th’other two…this ain’t their first time on my land. But if I can only get one, then one I’ll take.” He yanked Frodo’s braces from his shoulders, then pushed him down into the dirt and held him in place. “And I’ll give the one a lesson meant for three.”
Before Frodo could wonder what Farmer Maggot meant by that , he heard the high whicker of the switch, and he flung his arms behind him to deflect the blow. But in his prone position Frodo could do little to protect himself, and the switch came down squarely on the small of his back, with a pain so razor-sharp and shocking that he could not even cry out.
Frodo had been struck before, but never by someone outside of his family, and never with such enthusiasm. The shock of this, combined with his horror at having been caught, rendered him immobile beneath Farmer Maggot’s switch. He made no attempt to escape; he only squeezed his eyes shut and counted every whistle of the switch and every sharp crack of it against his back and legs. He had counted to thirteen when it finally stopped.
“That’s four stripes for each of you, and one for good measure,” Farmer Maggot said and pulled him to his feet. Frodo shook his head to clear it and heard dirt and small stones pattering out of his hair onto the ground. He looked about himself and realized that Farmer Maggot was not dragging him down the path to his fence, but away from the fence, to the back of his brick farmhouse, and he suddenly remembered what his cousins had told him about the farmer’s dogs.
He goes into the fields and catches rabbits for them, they had said. Then he throws them to those dogs—alive.
Why does he do that? Frodo had asked, his eyes wide with horror.
For the killer instinct, said Merimas.
For blood lust, said Merimac.
He wants them to be good at catching small things… said Merimas.
…and tearing them to pieces, finished Merimac.
It was only then that Frodo began to struggle.
“Please!” he said, the first sound he had uttered since he had been caught. “I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!” He tried to wriggle out of Maggot’s grip, but the hold on him was so tight, and Maggot was marching with such long strides that Frodo’s feet barely touched the ground.
“Oh no,” Farmer Maggot laughed. “You certainly won’t do it again!”
Farmer Maggot half-dragged, half-carried Frodo to a fenced paddock, where his three fierce dogs paced. He threw Frodo up against the fence and the dogs came, barking and spraying foam from their jaws. Frodo shrank back and tried to wrench himself away, but the tough old farmer was too strong, and Frodo was dizzy and sick from the beating and the heat, and from fear and shame. He felt the dogs’ hot breath on his face and he shut his eyes and tried to pull his head away from them.
“Do you see this boy?” Farmer Maggot said to his dogs. “Baggins is his name, and a little thief is what he is. If he comes ‘round here again, make short work of him, lads!”
He released his hold and Frodo’s knees buckled. He collapsed onto the ground and then to his horror heard the sound of Maggot drawing back the latch on the dogs’ fence.
… good at catching small things…tearing them to pieces, Frodo heard, and then, in a panic, thought, He’s going to set those dogs on me!
“Give ‘im a taste of what to expect!” Maggot said and roared with laughter as the dogs tore out of their pen.
Frodo had not known he could run so fast. It seemed that his feet were actually flying several inches above the ground, and yet he could still feel the dogs’ breath against the backs of his legs. He knew that if he turned around to look he would be torn to bits, so he ran blindly, gasping for air until his lungs burned.
After a while he realized that he no longer heard the dogs behind him, and he dared to stop and turn around. Frodo was amazed to see that he had already run far beyond Farmer Maggot’s fence. Farmer Maggot stood at the fence with his three awful dogs, their tongues lolling and their tails wagging as if they had had good sport. He stooped and scratched their flat heads.
“Let that be a lesson to you, boy!” he called out, and that was enough to make Frodo turn back and begin to run again, less blindly, but just as swiftly, until the farm was far in the dust behind him.
Frodo gingerly pushed his braces back onto his shoulders and began the long walk home. It was not long past noon, and the sun still rode high and white in the sky. The road back to the Hall wound through brush and open, un-shaded fields and Frodo looked with longing at the tree line in the distance. How dark it would be beneath those trees, how cool! If he could only crawl into that cool darkness and sleep, just for a little while. Yet he was afraid that if he did so he might sleep the day away and would not return to the Hall until after dark. If supper were already being served, he would never be able to slip into his room and avoid explaining what had happened¯and then his Uncle Rory or one of his aunts would most likely take another switch to him.
The sun was so hot, that even with his head down, Frodo could feel its exact position above him, and its potency beat against the back of his neck. His mouth felt as dry as the dust beneath his feet. He had made it half the way home, when he had to sit down in the brush and rest. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against his knees, listening to the high-summer whir of hidden insects in the brush. The sound buzzed in his head until he became dizzy. Without warning, he leaned over and vomited between his feet.
Frodo stared at what he had thrown up for a moment, feeling desperately grateful that his cousins were not there to witness this humiliation. Then he pushed himself a bit away from it and wiped his mouth on a handful of leaves. Suddenly overcome with fatigue, and sickness and shame, he put his hands over his eyes and cried.
A small yew tree stood in the field at a little distance from where Frodo sat, and a thin circle of shade lay beneath it. Frodo looked up at the sky. It’s so early, he thought. Even if I sleep for two hours, I’ll still be home by teatime. He wiped his sleeve over his eyes and stood up shakily, then threaded through the high brush until he reached the tree. He lay down gratefully in its shade, pillowing his forehead on his arms and letting the breeze pass over his stinging back. He was asleep within minutes.
Someone was stroking his back, a cool hand, a light touch.
What has happened to you, my son?
Frodo rolled over onto his side. His mother, dead these two years, sat beside him on the dry summer grass. Frodo felt tears come to his eyes.
Oh, Mumma…I was where I shouldn’t have been. And I got myself in awful trouble.
She touched the side of his face. Frodo closed his eyes and sighed. Since his parents had died, hardly anyone touched him this way anymore.
You must be more careful, Frodo. I cannot protect you.
Don’t worry, Mumma, I won’t ever go back there. I won’t get in any trouble, ever again, I promise.
His mother smiled at him sadly. I cannot protect you, she said again.
What do you mean, Mumma?
The sudden rustle of some small animal through the high grass jolted him awake. He looked up groggily, the dream-touch of his mother’s hand still lingering on his face. The light was now golden and the shadows were long. It was late afternoon; he had slept for hours.
Startled by the lateness of the hour, Frodo leapt up, forgetting his injuries. Immediately, he felt the stiffness that had set into his back and legs and the painful pulling-away of his shirt from the bleeding welts. Frodo touched his back and felt wetness there; craning his head over one shoulder, he saw bright red stripes on the back of his shirt.
“Oh no,” he whispered in dismay, but there was nothing he could do other than return home, and offer whatever explanation he could.
As it happened, he needed to offer no explanations at all. He let himself in through the kitchen door just as dinner was being served, and he met a terrific bustle. He stood for a moment in the doorway, unnoticed, wondering how he would cross to his room without anyone seeing his back, when one of the housemaids caught sight of him. She paused, a gravy boat held between her two hands, and looked at him with exasperation.
“You’d best get yourself cleaned up and take your place!” she scolded. “Dinner’s almost on the table and you look like you’ve been rolling around in a haybarn all day! Shoo!”
Frodo shooed. He went to his room and quietly shut the door behind him. No one else in the kitchen had paid him any mind, or noticed his bloodstained back. As Frodo changed his shirt and washed his face, he realized that he had missed teatime, and yet he, somehow, had apparently not been missed at all. Frodo was not surprised, for tea was a casual meal, without the sit-down formality of dinner, and he often went unnoticed in the great crowd at Brandy Hall. He rolled the bloody shirt up into a little ball and tucked it underneath his bed, then went to take his place at the table.
Dinner was a miserable affair for Frodo. In spite of his long nap beneath the yew tree, he was tired and aching, and his head had begun to pound in time with the passing of plates and the clatter of spoons. Each time he shifted, he felt his new, clean shirt sticking to his back, and he hoped desperately that he would not bleed through this one, as well. He sat up as straight and stiffly as he could and pushed the food around on his plate. Would this interminable meal never end?
Half in a daze, Frodo suddenly heard “And what did you do today, Cousin Frodo?” from across the table. He looked up and saw his cousins Merimas and Merimac there, gazing at him with great, feigned interest, barely suppressed mirth on their faces. They were both twenty years old, and as they were both the eldest sons of their respective families, they had grown up brash and presumptuous. They were a great, noisy presence in the Hall and Frodo both admired and feared them. He had asked them for so long to take him along with them on one of their adventures. Frodo knew they viewed him as a childish nuisance, yet today, for the first time, they had let him tag along. He was certain that they must know what had happened to him, but that if he cried or acted like a baby, they would not only mock him mercilessly, but would never allow him to go anywhere with them, ever again. He would show them that he was made of stronger stuff.
He smiled at them as cheerfully as he could and said, “I went down to the river, and walked by the edge of the Forest.”
“Oh, is that all? Well that is a switch , isn’t it?” Merimas said. Merimac put his hand over his mouth and spluttered with laughter, although it wasn’t a terribly funny joke. Frodo realized with dismay that they were not at all impressed by his endurance and nerve and he put his head down and did not talk to them for the rest of the meal.
At last, dinner ended. Frodo pushed himself away from the table and went down the hall to his small room, grateful for its isolation from the rest of the household. I’ll wash my shirt out, he thought, knowing he could not leave it until morning. And then I’ll just go to bed. They won’t miss me at supper.
“Frodo, what is that on your shirt?”
Frodo stopped and bit his lip. He turned around and saw his Aunt Esmeralda in the kitchen doorway. It was now twilight, and the hall in which Frodo stood was shadowy and dim, but enough light came from the kitchen to illuminate Frodo’s small form. His aunt had caught an unlucky glimpse of him before he had reached the safety of his room. “I don’t know,” he said miserably. “Is there something?”
“Yes,” she said. “Come here.”
He went to her reluctantly and allowed himself to be turned around.
“Why this looks like…” She tugged at the shirt and Frodo could not suppress a small hiss as the fabric pulled away from the fresh wounds. “Frodo! You’re bleeding! What happened?” She turned him around to look at her, but he cast down his eyes and shook his head, too ashamed to tell her the truth.
Aunt Esmeralda stood up briskly and took him by the hand. Frodo held back for a moment, certain that she was going to march him straight to his grandfather, but she looked down at him and said, “Frodo, I want to see your back. Now be a good lad and come on.”
She took him back to his own room and unbuttoned his shirt with maternal efficiency. Frodo winced when she took his braces down, but held still as she turned him around and slid his shirt from his shoulders.
Frodo heard his aunt take in a sharp, dismayed breath. “Frodo,” she whispered. “Who did this?”
Frodo swallowed hard and put his head down. He knew that he could not keep silent, or act as if he had merely had an accident. He took a deep breath and told his aunt what had happened. He told her almost everything, yet he did not tell her that he had been in the company of his cousins, and he could not bear to tell her that he had thrown up and cried by the side of the road. When he finished, he turned around and looked at her beseechingly.
“I know it was wrong, and I’m sorry. Please don’t tell Uncle Rory. I’ll wash the shirts out myself.”
“The shirts? Where is the other one?”
Frodo nodded and got down on his knees. He felt under the bed and pulled out the shirt he had stuffed there. It was so stiff by now that it almost creaked as he unfolded it.
Aunt Esmeralda took the soiled shirt from him. It was a far uglier sight than Frodo had noticed earlier, for the mix of blood and sweat had painted it with gore. He knew that he would be punished for trespassing at the Maggot’s and for ruining his clothes.
“Oh Frodo,” his aunt said, and to his amazement, tears stood in her eyes. He looked at her with his mouth open. Then, to his utter astonishment, Aunt Esmeralda wrapped her arms around him, and kissed his cheek, and held him.
It had been so long since anyone had embraced him that he stood woodenly in his aunt’s arms, staring wide-eyed over her shoulder. The embrace brought to him a recollection of his dream beneath the yew tree, and the warm, forgotten touch of his mother’s hand. Slowly, he became aware of an ache that seemed to come from his very bones, the kindling of a desperate, long-denied hunger for affection and touch. Hesitantly, as if he were made of glass, he wrapped his own arms around his aunt’s back and laid his chin on her shoulder. His mouth began to tremble with tears and he put his head down and pressed his eyes against the crisp muslin of her dress.
She pulled him closer and patted his back lightly, avoiding the switch-marks as best as she could. “It’s all right, dear,” she whispered in his ear. “It’s all right.”
Frodo allowed himself to cry onto his aunt’s shoulder, and after a little while his sobs tapered off into quiet sniffles. He turned his cheek onto Aunt Esmeralda’s shoulder and sighed, and shifted a little within her embrace. He became aware that he felt hot, and a bit sick, and suddenly his aunt’s arms seemed very tight around him.
“Aunt Esmeralda…” he said, and tried to push himself away. She did not answer, and Frodo felt a strange alarm creep into his mind. “Aunt…” he said again, and pushed harder, but she did not release him. Her arms scraped against his back and he caught his breath from the pain. “I don’t feel well…that hurts…please…”
It had grown very dark by now, and he could no longer make out the features of his room. Frodo felt the arms around him slide upwards, and now hands grasped him by the back of his neck, not by his collar as Farmer Maggot had. The hands were fiery against his skin, and it seemed that claws dug into his flesh. This was not his aunt.
Frodo scrabbled at the hands but they were like a white-hot fetter of iron upon his neck, and he shuddered with pain. His switch-marks suddenly seemed as insignificant as mosquito bites; this was anguish. He heard a sound behind him in the darkness, an awful sound of hungry, panting breath. He was wheeled around and he faced not dogs, but a wolf, a great black, red-eyed wolf, and it howled and snapped slavering jaws at him.
“Do you see this boy?” a voice said above him, and Frodo could not see its owner, nor would he ever have wished to. “His name is Baggins. He is a thief. He has what is ours. Make him give it back.”
Frodo shook his head wildly. “I don’t have anything!” he cried. He was thrown forward and he staggered to his feet. He ran blindly into pitch darkness, but the wolf bore him to the ground and turned him over. He closed his eyes and waited for it to tear out his throat, but it bayed and sat upon his chest until it seemed that his lungs would burst. “Please! I can’t breathe! Please!” he gasped, although he knew he wasted his scarce breath begging such a creature for mercy. He looked up into the beast’s red eyes and it seemed that he now saw but one eye above him, terrible, blazing like fire. It filled all his vision.
The weight upon his chest became unbearable. Just one breath…if I could take just one breath… he thought desperately, but when he tried to breathe the pain was so immense that he was certain his breastbone was cracking and he felt himself choking as thick, vile liquid filled the back of his throat.
Author's Note: Frodo's nasty cousins, Merimas and Merimac, are not meant to be the same as shown on Tolkien's Brandybuck family tree--they were both much older than Frodo.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.