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Across the Waters: 2. River
“Hobbits don’t belong on water! I’ve always said it!” His aunt was whispering, but her voice was shrill, bordering on tears.
“Shhh! He’ll hear you! We’ve only just managed to get him to sleep!”
Frodo was not asleep. He lay curled up in his bed, his face to the wall. His eyes wandered over the fine lacing of cracks in the plaster and he listened distantly to his aunts as they discussed him and the events of the day.
“What a dreadful thing. You should never have let him go down to the river. He shouldn’t have seen that.”
“I couldn’t stop him! He ran out before I could!”
Frodo remembered the feeling of his aunt’s hand on the back of his neck as she had tried to keep him from running out the door. He had been too quick for her, and she had only latched onto a handful of his collar. For a brief struggling moment, Frodo had been suspended in the doorway as his shirt was pulled up against his throat. He had thrown his entire slight body weight forward and had been rewarded with the sound of his collar ripping beneath her hand. He had burst from the door and raced down the path to the river.
He felt someone sit down behind him. A cool hand stroked his forehead. “Tsk, tsk, the poor thing. At least he’s getting some rest.”
“Has anyone sent a message to Bilbo? He’ll want to be here for the lad and for...” The speaker lowered her voice into a dramatic whisper. “…the funeral.”
“We sent a message as soon as we knew for certain. I’m sure he’ll be here as soon as he can.”
Frodo blinked at the mention of Bilbo’s name. When Frodo had last seen his cousin, whom he was still young enough to call, “Uncle,” it had been a fine summer evening, and he had been out in the garden with his mother and father and a gaggle of young cousins. Bilbo had sat with him and named all the stars (the ones he knew, anyway) and told him stories about Elves and dragons until he had finally fallen asleep on the old hobbit’s shoulder. It had been an evening of fireflies and shooting stars, and although it had been months ago, it seemed far more real to Frodo than this September night after a day when so many things had changed.
Frodo was sitting in the kitchen, finishing his afternoon tea, when he heard a commotion from the front hall. He put down his cup, jumped down from the long bench at the kitchen table and went to stand in the doorway. He saw an old hobbit, a local farmer whose name he did not know, in the front hall, talking to Frodo’s Aunt Amaranth with great urgency, waving his arms about. Water flew from his fingertips, and Frodo noticed that the farmer was dripping wet; only his shoulders and his hat were dry.
Aunt Amaranth emitted a high-pitched wail and threw her hands up to her round face. Frodo was so startled that he took an involuntary step backwards into the kitchen, and his eyes went wide. None of his relations saw him in the kitchen doorway as they began to rush to the front hall. Frodo noticed with surprise and a faint alarm that not one of his aunts or cousins seemed upset that the farmer was leaving a great puddle of water on their clean floor.
He knew that, as a child, he had no business meddling in the affairs of his elders, but whatever was happening in the front hall seemed far outside the normal, dull sphere of grown-up business. He stepped forward quietly and stood outside the circle of his relatives, hoping to catch some hint of what was happening. He heard his mother’s name then, and someone asked “In the river?” with shock in her voice. And then Frodo realized that his mother was not there, nor his father.
“Where is my mother?” he asked, and the babble of voices quieted as they turned to look at him.
“Oh, my dear…” Aunt Amaranth said, and a chill passed through Frodo at the way she said it, and the tears that stood in her red eyes.
Frodo did not need any further explanation. He took off at a run, dodging between his family, past the dripping farmer and out the front door as his aunt lunged for him, and tried to hold him back. But she caught only that little bit of collar, and lost him.
As Frodo ran beneath the trees to the riverbank, he heard running feet and voices behind him. He knew he was being pursued from Brandy Hall, and so he ran faster. Someone called his name, but he did not stop or even look around. His aunt’s face came to him, and although he had never seen grief before, he somehow knew that this was what he had seen in her eyes. Something terrible had happened in the river, and he had heard his mother’s name.
Frodo reached the Brandywine’s bank, where a small knot of hobbits was gathered. He pushed his sweaty hair out of his eyes and approached. No one tried to stop him; they were so distracted and he was so small that no one even paid attention to him.
He made his way through the legs of the other hobbits. When he came to the center, he saw his mother, and his father, lying senseless on the ground.
They were both drenched from head to toe, and his mother’s hair lay in wet streamers down her shoulders. His father’s hands were turned palm-up, as though he were asking for a favor or a gift. His mother’s mouth was open. They were both very white, and they did not move. They were dead.
Frodo knew this in an instant. He had seen dead birds and dead mice and once he had seen a dead raccoon out in the woods, near the edge of the Old Forest. He was a keenly observant child, and had noticed the utter stillness of dead things, which he now saw on his parents. Yet while he could recognize their death, he did not understand how such a thing could have happened, and his mind was filled with one question: Both of them? Both of them?
He stepped toward them and a whisper went up from the hobbits.
“Take that child away from here!” an appalled voice cried out, but no one moved.
Frodo crouched down between his parents and balanced himself on the balls of his feet. He reached over and closed his mother’s mouth. It was a bright, warm day, but her skin was clammy and cold. He placed his right hand on his mother’s shoulder and his left on his father’s and sat looking from one to the other. And again, he thought, Both of them? Both of them?
Frodo felt hands on his shoulders and tried to shrug them off, but they would not go.
“Come on lad, you shouldn’t see this,” a man’s voice said above him.
He turned his eyes up, but the sun behind the man’s head obscured his face. Frodo squinted at him and asked the only question that came to his mind. “Both of them?”
The man put his hands under Frodo’s arms, and kindly but insistently pulled him to his feet. “Let’s go, there’s a good lad. Your aunts are here for you.”
Frodo allowed himself to be steered away from his parents, but he cast a look back at them over his shoulder. The man who was leading him attempted to block the boy’s view with his body, and Frodo pushed him aside with a small grunt of effort. He turned all the way around to stare at his parents, not quite believing that this was true, that such a thing could possibly have happened on a sunny autumn afternoon while he sat in the kitchen at his tea.
“Frodo, come along my boy,” came a deep voice at his ear. His Grandfather took him by the hand and began to lead him away again, and then Frodo stumbled and fell to his knees. He vaguely heard a sob and several gasps from the assembled hobbits as his vision blurred. His Grandfather picked him up as though he were a much smaller child, and put him over his shoulder to take him back to the Hall.
For the next two days, Frodo lay in bed with his face to the wall, sleeping very little and eating even less. He had grown very acquainted with the pattern of cracks in that wall, and with the way sunlight roamed across the room as the day passed.
His younger cousins had been considered too disruptive and so had been kept away, but his aunts and uncles and his Grandfather had come in to speak to him. The first day, they had come with words of consolation, and a continuous parade of food that they had coaxed him to eat. Strawberry jam must have been considered an irresistible temptation, as Frodo had smelled it every time one of his aunts had come into the room with another clinking tray. To their great dismay, he had not been tempted, but had merely lain on his side and wondered if the scent of strawberry jam would now always remind him of these September days, the view of his wall, the angles of the sun and the awful quiet that shrouded the Hall.
The second day, the food had continued, but the tone of consolation had changed a bit. Hobbits are sturdy folk, not easily saddened for long. Over two days in bed without eating seemed sufficient, even for a child of twelve who had just lost both of his parents.
Frodo’s Grandfather came in the late afternoon, as the sun was beginning its final journey of the day down the wall next to Frodo’s bed.
“Don’t you think you should be getting up now, lad? Staying a-bed and not eating won’t bring them back.”
“I’m not hungry, Grandfather,” Frodo answered, his voice muffled against the pillow.
“You’re upsetting your aunts. They can’t bear to see a child without a full stomach.”
His Grandfather took a deep breath and laid his large hand on Frodo’s shoulder. “Frodo, this has been a hard blow to the family, and to you most of all. But you won’t serve anything by lying in your bed and wasting away.” He patted Frodo’s shoulder and Frodo felt him rise from the bed. From far above him, his Grandfather said, “I expect you to eat some supper tonight, and I expect to see you up tomorrow morning, Frodo.”
“Yes, Grandfather,” Frodo answered listlessly. He stuck his thumbnail into one of the larger cracks and worried at it until white plaster dust sifted out like flour.
Frodo dozed a little. In his thin dreams, he saw white hands turned up, as if asking for a favor or a gift, and they changed into a single white hand raised against a darkening sky. He heard gentle river currents lapping against the banks of the Brandywine, and listened as the sound deepened into a steady murmur. That’s the Sea, he thought in his dream, although he had never seen or heard it in his young life.
He was awakened by the sound of his door opening. The day had darkened into a violet September twilight, and his room was filled with deep shadows. Behind him, he heard dishes jingle together on a tray, and he groaned inwardly at the thought of talking his way out of another unwanted meal.
Frodo heard the tray being set down on the little table next to his bed, and felt the now-familiar sensation of someone sitting down behind him. A warm hand stroked his back.
“Frodo, my lad, they tell me you have not been up from this bed for more than two days.”
Frodo’s shoulders jumped in surprise at hearing Bilbo’s voice. For the first time in days, he broke his concentration on the wall and rolled over onto his back.
“Uncle,” he said with a sigh, and could say no more.
“My dear boy,” Bilbo said softly, and caressed Frodo’s face. “I came as quickly as I could. I am so terribly sorry.”
“Uncle, they are both gone. Both of them. I saw them at the river.”
“I know, Frodo. I wish that you had not.” He sighed heavily. “This will take a long time to heal.”
“I don’t want it to heal. Everyone here acts like I should forget them already. But I don’t want to.”
“Frodo, healing this wound doesn’t mean you should forget them. You will never forget them. No one thinks that you should. But if you continue this way, we may lose you, too, and none of us could bear that. Especially not me.” He took Frodo’s hand. “You are very dear to me.”
Frodo said nothing, but let Bilbo massage his hand, weaving Frodo’s slender fingers between his sturdier ones. Finally he said, “Uncle, I’m frightened.”
“I know you are, Frodo, but your whole family is here. You needn’t be afraid.”
“But…I’m an orphan now. I don’t belong to anyone anymore.” He dropped his voice to a low, anxious whisper. “They will all forget about me.”
In the purple dimness, Frodo saw Bilbo smile with great pity and tenderness. He shook his head, as if in amazement at the grave thoughts of this unusual child. “No one will forget you, Frodo.” He leaned forward, as if about to share a secret. “And if it ever looked like that were going to happen, why I’d come and take you home, and then we could belong to each other. Would you like that, Frodo? Would you like to live with me someday?”
Frodo thought of Bag End, with its pleasant garden and long hall and comfortable warren of rooms. He thought of Bilbo sitting by the fire in his study with his maps spread out before him and his feet up on the footstool as he pored over reams of mysterious Elvish translations and scribbled notes in one of his many journals. For the first time since he had run down to the river on that sunny afternoon, Frodo felt a spark of hope about his future, and the tight band of grief and anxiety that had drawn itself around him seemed to loosen.
“That would be nice, Uncle.”
“Good!” said Bilbo cheerfully. “But I can’t have you coming to Hobbiton with your clothes hanging off your bones. Why not sit up and eat something for me?”
Frodo glanced at the tray doubtfully, but Bilbo looked so happy that he did not want to disappoint him. “I’ll try,” he said.
“That’s my lad!”
Frodo sat up and Bilbo reached behind him to arrange pillows behind his back. As Bilbo leaned close to him, Frodo suddenly wrapped his arms around Bilbo’s neck.
“Thank you, Uncle,” he said.
“Well, you’re welcome, Frodo, but whatever for?”
“For coming all this way to see me. And for not ordering me out of bed.”
Bilbo laughed. “Well, I’ve never seen orders do much good when someone’s unhappy. And as for coming to see you, why, I’d have come much farther than this to see you. And it’s nothing you ever have to thank me for.”
Frodo had a bit of supper and was surprised to find that he did feel better after he ate, warmer and comfortably drowsy. He thought that he might be able to have his first real sleep in days.
The room was growing cool, so Bilbo lit a fire and sat by Frodo’s bed. He told him tales of the dwarves, and the hidden passages beneath the Misty Mountains and what it was like to float downriver on a barrel. Frodo was almost asleep when he heard Bilbo’s voice trail off into silence. He turned to Bilbo and sleepily took his hand. “Don’t go, Uncle,” he said.
Bilbo patted his hand comfortingly. “I won’t, my boy. I won’t.”
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