1. Died Singing
It was when early spring drove scudding rainclouds across Hobbiton that Hamson came walking up the Row. Sam was out in their small garden, sowing peas and carrots, and the first he noticed was his Gaffer straightening with a jerk, to look out over the fence.
"Now if that ain't–!" he muttered, and Sam got to his feet in a trice, batting clumps of wet earth off his hands.
Hamson was striding up quick. For a moment Sam expected him to swing up and vault over the garden gate, but instead he stopped on its other side and thrust his walking stick into the sodden ground.
"Hullo, Dad!" His reddened cheeks glistened from the drizzle as had been dousing the Hill since the early afternoon.
"Good evenin', son." The Gaffer unlatched the gate and pulled it open with a rough creak.
The sun was just dropping below the blanket of clouds in the west, her rays painting the fence-posts a slick yellow. Hamson stepped in, and when he wrapped both arms round their father, tugging him into a fast embrace, Sam felt his throat closing up with sudden worry. The Gaffer clapped Ham's back, then held him off by his shoulders.
"What's this now?" he asked, squinting against the sun's glare.
Hamson took the cap off his nut-brown curls ere he answered. "'Tis your brother, Dad, our Uncle Andy. He's dead."
All as could be heard for a spell were the light taps of rain on the turned soil, and every fine drop caught a parting glitter from the sun till they all ran together. Then the Gaffer made a burring sound in his throat and raised his hand, balled to a fist, to rub his knuckles across his mouth.
"That so?" he croaked, clearing his throat only to repeat, "That so, Ham?"
"Aye, Dad." Hamson raised one hand in an unsure motion, perhaps meaning to reach for him again, but the front door opened right then, and May and Marigold came dashing out.
"Hamson!" they cried, running up to him. May near dropped the ladle that she held when he embraced them with one arm each.
As he stood by, Sam noticed that his brother's clothes showed the wear of a forced tramp through the Northfarthing where he must have slept roofless more often than not, bedded down on the old cloak now dangling from his pack. Dry pine needles still stuck to the sleeves of his jacket, and dirt darkened them at the elbows.
Hamson kissed the top of May's head and cupped Marigold's face in his large hands, pinching her full cheeks. "What a pretty lass," he said, showing the first smile. "And how you've grown!
"You too," he added, turning towards Sam. "Big and strong you've grown for true! I'd hardly've known 'ee."
Sam's breath clogged in his chest when his brother's arms went round him. Beneath the scent of resin and winter-savory that clung to Ham's jacket, different smells lay hid – smells of oil and flax and others that Sam couldn't put names to – and it seemed as if the years gone by settled about them like evening shadows under the chestnuts. Behind them, the Gaffer was ordering the girls back inside, to ready the supper table for one more.
Their hole seemed dim as a byre when they entered, though a lively shine from the kitchen fire slanted and jittered along the smial. With slow, scrupulous movements, the Gaffer latched their front door, while Mari took Hamson's coat. Her eyes darted back and forth between Ham and their dad with a first stirring of trouble.
In the kitchen, May heaped large portions of stew into their bowls. The firelight flashed on her wrists and her bare forearms, and the steaming scent of kale filled the entire room.
"Sit you down!" she called merrily, but as she swept back round, she caught sight of the Gaffer's grim mien, and her face turned all to stillness.
Their dad said naught till everyone was seated, Hamson on his left and Sam on his right. Then he stood at the head of the table, chafing the knuckles of his clenched hands together, and said, "Your brother's come to let it be known that your uncle, my own brother Andy, bless him – he's gone on his last journey."
"Bless him," they all murmured. May bowed her head, both hands flat on the table on either side of her bowl, but Marigold looked on their father with a disbelieving stare. She'd been but a wee lass when Uncle Andy last came to visit and had never travelled to Tighfield herself, yet her eyes filled with tears all at once.
Their father sat down slowly, pushing his coattails aside as he did so, and looked on her with narrowed eyes. "Eat!" he said. "There's no cause for letting May's cooking go to waste." When Mari picked up her fork and spoon with trembling fingers, the Gaffer added, "We'll hear the full tale when we're finished. Eat."
Sam reached for his own bowl. Thanks to Mr. Frodo, they had a couple of smoked sausages to go with the kale stew, but even though Sam forced himself to chew slowly, mindful of the rich, salty taste, it scarce slipped through the memories that took hold in his senses.
Eleven years ago it was when Andwise and his eldest son had come to visit Hobbiton, on their way to an Overlithe Fair in the Southfarthing. Their cart was stocked to brimming with rope, from a tough, slender twine as might serve for propping roses or stringing curtains to a heavy, thrice-braided cord as thick as Sam's wrist, and bright straw-ropes that would be used for bee-hives. What he remembered the most was sitting beside the cart, by the paddock at the end of the Row, the sunshine of a cloudless afternoon falling on Uncle Andy's hands and casting shadows in sickles among the heaped and tumbled ropes.
The Gaffer'd been at work in Bag End's garden, and Halfred out in Overhill, to help storing the last of the hay, so that only Sam and Hamson remained with their visitors.
"Now then, lads!" Uncle Andy had boomed, a sopping mug of ale in one hand and his free arm draped across the side of the cart. "Anson and me shall give you a show of our trade. Keep your eyes peeled and learn summat useful!"
Behind him, Anson stood on the cart, swart as his father but leaner than he, an eager glint in his eye. They'd brought not only ropes to sell but a collection of fibres, strands and half-braided strings to show how their cords were made. As he watched, Sam couldn't help thinking that Uncle Andy wasn't aught like the Gaffer with his wide chest and the laughter always seeming to roll in his strong voice, like a ring of distant drums. And when he did laugh out loud, he roared, his head thrown back and one hand clasped over his jiggling belly.
Sam had squatted beside him on the flowering grass, his eyes fixed on the coiling, twisting twine that seemed to jump to life at a snap of his uncle's fingers. The light danced across it in sharp reflections as though it were glancing off a swift water. On the side, Anson described the workings of their ropewalk to Ham, and how they went from spinning the yarn to laying the cordage, but Uncle Andy lost few words on his craft as he pulled out a beautiful rope of laced cotton-yarn, for his hands spoke in ways more lively and fluent than words ever could.
"The true art of making rope is twisting fibres into strands in one direction," he'd said, stroking his fingers along the coil, "and then twisting the strands together into the rope in the opposite direction, so they all lie smooth, see?"
When Sam mumbled something unsure in reply, his uncle clapped his back with a chuckle. "Never you mind, Sam-lad! Let your uncle teach you how to tie a real bowstring knot that you won't unloose again once it's pulled fast."
After the bowstring knot, he'd showed Sam how the weavers-eight was tied in both directions, and the double overhand knot as made such a powerful stopper. On the paddock fence they'd practiced the clove hitch, and all the while, Sam had marvelled how Andy's large hands could be so nimble when they got to looping and twisting the rope, never once slipping or pausing. He'd never forget the look of those hands neither, with their dusting of dark hair and a rough patch on the side of every finger, where sliding yarns had left their mark.
Ham had big hands like that, and near as capable. By the time their uncle took off again, it had been decided that Hamson would follow him up north on the return journey, to become a 'prentice roper. Not that the Gaffer had shown much joy at the notion. Sam remembered how he'd looked his brother in the eye across the kitchen table, his jaw set tight on doubts and cautions he wouldn't speak. But there had to be a future laid out for Hamson, him being thirty-one at the time and not having learned a proper trade yet.
Sam looked down into his bowl, startled to find it near emptied. The memories still lay so close that he could feel the sunshine prickle on the back of his neck. Across from him, Hamson had put his spoon aside and leaned back in his chair to pass a pleased hand over his stomach. Sam could see the rope-making marks on his splayed fingers, and how the flesh beneath his chin had softened and the corners of his mouth deepened, giving him the look of one who's grown comfortably settled.
Meanwhiles, the Gaffer had finished with his supper, and May got up to refill his cup. He didn't have to say a word neither; one glance was enough to bring Hamson upright in his seat.
"Uncle Andy was hale and spry as a trout in the Water," he began, "always was, through all his years. Come daybreak, he'd be about the ropewalk whistling, and in the eve he'd tell us to go and give our beer mugs a dandle, while he saw to it that all the coils and stacks were laid as they'd ought to be."
The Gaffer snorted and set his elbows on the table, fretting his linked fingers. Sam could hear the crackling of his dry skin, closer than the pop and hiss of the fire.
"He worked the hardest, day in and out," Hamson continued, "but you couldn't tell from the looks of him. 'You're been blessed with the hide of an ox,' Mr. Whinstone – as is our neighbour and a kettlemaker in Tighfield – used to say. 'You're blessed with the hide of an ox, Andy, and the mettle of a brock.'"
"'Tis true," the Gaffer muttered.
"Aye, and when he ever got to shouting at us for being lateward, he'd shake the roof on the 'walk with that voice of his." Hamson smiled his quick, cockeyed smile, scratching his cheek. "On Highday of the week afore last it was that he went to Brocklebanks in the afternoon hours." He glanced over at Sam and spread his hands. "'Tis a ham in the lower fold of the White Downs, at the north end, and lies beyond a good stretch of forest. Uncle Andy went off to take a truss of plough-straps to Farmer Pottles, for their pony'd sprained a leg, and the wife was near labour. He walked on foot, Uncle Andy did. He never had a mind for setting the mule to the cart, 'less it was to market."
Sam shifted slightly in his seat, against a stealthy cold that inched like a flurry of ants down his back. The Gaffer, he noticed, had fixed his eyes on the table without blinking.
"Aunt Immy didn't expect to see him back till after nightfall. We was all in the kitchen, having our own supper, when the storm broke, rattling every shingle on the roof." Hamson lowered his voice. "A bad storm it was, right bad. Tore the thatch off many a cottage and smashed the market pole into the smithy's stable, driving it smack through three solid inches of wood, if you can imagine. But while we was dashing about to fasten up the shutters and lock the goats in the shed, we thought that Uncle Andy was sitting snug and sheltered 'neath the Pottles' roof." He turned his eyes to May and Marigold, adding, "'Tis a black wind as gets caught in the Downs and twists itself there, such as I've never seen nor heard of southaways."
"But Uncle Andy wasn't at the farm, was he?" Sam had let the question fly without thinking, and it earned him a hard stare from his dad.
"No." Hamson flung the word out like a stone sent skimming over dim waters. "Not that we knew it that night, mind. The storm got worse with pitch dark, and the thunders so loud as to shake us from our beds. Aunt Immy said that Andy would be spending the night with the Pottles, and the wiser it'd be."
While Mari was listening with a fresh sheen of tears in her eyes, May had started wringing her hands beneath the table.
"The storm'd passed on the morrow, but there wasn't hide nor hair to be seen of Uncle Andy, and when he'd not come home by mid-morn, Aunt Immy sent us out to go looking for him." Hamson breathed out, his brow furrowed in remembering. "And so we did, Anson and me, and a half score lads from the village with us. We'd nigh made our way through the forest when we found him at last, where he'd lain all night. Lightning'd struck a giant old tree beside the road and split it in two, and Uncle Andy were caught under it when it fell."
A shiver went through Sam as though a last ripple of thunder were trapped beneath his ribs, and it left a cramped pain in his chest. May sniffled into her hitched-up sleeve. Beside her, Mari clapped a hand to her mouth, but the Gaffer only pressed his palms flat together.
"There's little more to tell," Hamson finished. "He were laid to rest aside grandfather Hobson, six days ago it was, and a fine chestnut he's got growing there, with deep roots and twenty ells of shade."
In the hush that followed, Sam listened to the fire's rustles as if the sound were drifting up across the width of the Bywater Pool, while the knotted ache in his chest only pulled itself tighter. Not one of them stirred a toe or a finger till the Gaffer said, "I'd like a walnut tree o'er me one day, if I could have it."
He got up in a brusque motion, reaching for his pipe and satchel on the shelf. Sam watched him, his whole body locked tight with what hadn't been mentioned, with the question their father hadn't asked. Hamson must've been waiting for it too, but he didn't seem eager at all to say more of his own accord. The Gaffer's face was drawn taut, the hollows under his cheekbones daubed with shadow where he stood, while his fingers worked slowly at untying the satchel and plucking out strands of cut leaf.
"What kind of tree was it?" Sam asked in a lowered voice. "The one as struck him down."
"A mighty old oak, but the rot'd gone crawling up inside, as it were. The storm tore off half its crown."
There was an old tree like that by the Highgroves' fields, beyond the Water: a huge beech with a dead side, its leafless branches spreading a pale fretwork against the crown in summer, like a bird's bones baked dry. Hamson sighed, casting a troubled glance at their dad, but the Gaffer showed no sign of paying them any heed.
Next Highday, they'd invite such family and friends as lived nearby, to eat with them and remember Andwise Roper. The table would be laden with pasties, dumplings, and cakes as it never was otherwise, at its centre the big loaf of waybread that wouldn't be touched until last. Only when their guests left again, each would take a piece of the waybread and chew it standing, and speak a word or two for Andwise who'd gone on the path they'd all take in good time.
Sam could nigh taste the bread in his mouth, spiced with rosemary and cloves, and it grew sharp as tears at the back of his throat. Over on the side, the Gaffer had finished filling his pipe. Marigold slid from the bench to light him a candle that he took with a curt nod, carrying it down the smial. The small flame shuddered and leapt in the draught as he opened the door.
"You'll be wanting water to wash, Ham." May rose to fetch the kettle and a basin that she set on the floor. "Don't be slow, Mari," she added with a toss of her head, "the dishes want cleaning!"
Amid the clatter of bowls and water gurgling from the kettle-spout, Sam padded towards the door. The Gaffer had seated himself on the bench outside, sucking on his unlit pipe, for the candle'd gone out. The drizzle had faded to nothing, but there was a fierce wind dashing about the Hill now, dragging at his greyed curls. He scarce seemed to notice when Sam picked up the candle and turned back inside to light it anew.
In the kitchen, May was kneeling by Hamson's chair to wash his calves and shins. He'd settled back with his arms folded, but when May bent over, he splashed his feet in the basin, sprinkling her frock.
"Stop twiddlin' your toes, or I'll douse 'ee in the swill!" She slapped the wash-clout across Ham's knees, her lips twitching with humour more than annoyance.
The sight of them opened an odd little hollow in Sam's stomach, and he pushed past in a hurry, to set flame to the wick again.
Outdoors, wilful blasts tore on his breeches, flapping them about his legs. Sam planted himself right afore his father, to light that pipe of his. Red glimmers started between the Gaffer's palms that he'd cradled about the bowl, and a first thread of sweet smoke curled up. It had Sam's eyes watering in no time, so he turned aside to collect the hoe and the seed-bags full of slumbering grains. He'd been so bowled over by Ham's arrival that he'd clean forgotten to carry everything inside.
When all was cleared away and stashed in its proper place, Sam lowered himself on the bench beside his father. The Gaffer was sitting bolt upright, the pipe jammed between his teeth as he blew out long ribbons of smoke.
"There you have it!" he muttered as Sam took his place, slapping his hands on his thighs. "What business had he, walkin' out in such a weather, I ask you?"
Sam knew better than to try answering that, but the anger in his dad's voice squeezed his heart like a fist.
"The numskull!" The Gaffer pulled the pipe from his mouth to jab its stem at the roiling airs. "The trouble with Andy was that he ne'er expected no mishap nor ill fortune catching him up. And look what's come of it!"
All the same, Sam wanted to say, you'll have to ask Hamson the rest of it, or how can you think to remember Uncle Andy? And how can we all? His face was growing numb from the chill wind that brought the night in too close. On the westward horizon clung a last amber sheen, but higher up amid ragged clouds travelled the waxing moon's sickle.
The Gaffer released another puff of smoke, and his shoulders slumped. "The world's full of trouble, mark you," he said, his voice scratchy and low. "Closing your eyes on it won't change it none. If you do, you'll be smote by the aftercrop, as sure as night follows day."
"Aye, Dad." There wasn't aught else Sam could say, so he just sat beside his father till he'd finished smoking. There'd come another eve, in a week or a month, when the Gaffer would pause beside him to throw an arm over Sam's shoulders and give him a hard squeeze with his knotty hand. Then Sam would lean towards him and they'd stand like that for a space, joined in quiet remembering, and he'd feel his dad's grief run in each breath as he drew.
When Sam entered his room, a bit of a while later, it was plunged in muffling darkness, but he could hear Hamson's breaths and the bed's faint crackles of wood and straw. Though Ham had fastened the shutter, Sam found his nightshirt where he'd left it hitched over the bed-post without any fumbling nor groping.
"How's Dad?" his brother asked, sounding none too sleepy.
Sam merely huffed in his throat, for surely his brother could guess how their father'd take such a blow.
"He's never worn such a windless look before," Ham went on. "Leastways that came to my head when I first clapped eyes on him. He's not working up the Hill no more, is he?"
"Only to lend his hand in a pinch..." Sam stepped from his breeches and yanked the shirt over his head, draping both over the chest at the foot of the bed. "But he's free with advice on all matters of planting and tending."
"Aye, I can picture it!" His brother gave a low chuckle. "More'n you need, I'll wager."
"There's plenty to be learned from him," Sam said shortly, though in truth the past years of serving Mr. Frodo had taught him numberous lessons about errands and affairs well outside the Gaffer's ken. Disentangling the sleeves of his nightshirt, Sam pulled it on quick. The cloth fell in cool folds against his belly and thighs, swinging about him with the night's breath that crawled past the shutter.
"You're a patient one, Sam," his brother said with a touch of amusement, "always was."
Not always, Sam thought, and not now... Instead of answering, he sat down on the side of the bed and released a shivery breath. Rankling bits and starts were swarming about his stomach, but he'd no real cause to be cross at Ham, or the mood he'd put on.
His brother had always had a fast-roving head on his shoulders, the sort of mind as wanted to know and try out a part of everything. And that was why, Sam thought as he swung his legs up and pulled the blanket over himself, why Ham hadn't picked his own trade till he'd driven their Gaffer to fretting and fuming.
Sam remembered one eve in the Ivy when Hamson had helped the innkeeper with settling the bills for a travelling party from Whitfurrows, and they were all taken with Ham's speed at counting up. The Gaffer hadn't been half pleased though.
"What's the use of it?" he'd asked all and sundry as he dropped his own pennies on the counter, slanting Ham a galled look. "'Less you're wanting to work for one of them pipeweed merchants!"
Sam had felt the rebuke whip through to his toes, but Hamson had grinned and shot back, "Well, why not?"
He'd always had a gift with the numbers, and a marvel it was to Sam and many a young village lad. Ham could point to a big basket of freshly picked apples and reckon in a trice how soon they'd all be etten if a score lads each received one apple on the first day, two on the next, and so forth. Sam had pictured the numbers whirling through his brother's head like a swarm of midsummer midges over the Water, while Ham juggled two apples and finally sank his teeth into one, laughing as he chewed.
"What'll you be doing now?" Sam asked. Beneath the wool blanket that they shared, Ham's solid limbs were giving off a pleasant warmth. But after these seven years that Sam had slept alone, there was a strangeness to it all the same, like the scratch of starched linen to the skin.
"Why, the same as before." Hamson shifted on the mattress to blow his nose. "Anson's head of the family now, and it's for him to take over the business. A fair roper he is, and good at getting our helpers to work their hardest." Ham crossed his arms behind his head, claiming the one pillow all for himself. "A fair roper, aye," he repeated, "but I'm better."
"I'd never doubt that you are," Sam replied.
Ham chuckled at that, but fell silent again soon. Sam guessed that his thoughts must be scrabbling about the future and got stuck on something there. He'd half a mind for asking when his brother spoke again. "He'll build himself a cottage, Anson will, what with the old house packed tight as a hen-coop, and then he'll wed, I expect. None too soon, as some might say."
"Who's to be his bride then?" Sam asked, but his brother made only a short motion like a shrug.
"We shared a room all these years," Hamson said after a few moments more, "and I'm so used to him snoring right at my shoulder, I don't know how I'll sleep." He snorted and tucked the blanket up over himself.
Sam listened to his even breaths in the quiet that seemed mournful of a sudden, and drained like the silence in the wake of a storm, settling about battered trees and drifts of fallen leaves and branches. He tried to picture that Northfarthing forest, nestled dark as shade between rugged slopes, till Ham put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a short shake.
"You're thinking, Sam. You won't catch a single wink in twenty if you don't stop it."
"I'm wondering..." Sam swallowed, setting his eyes on the grey paring of starlight round the shutter. His brothers never liked sleeping with the window unbarred to the night, but the room was too close now, and the fit of their bed no longer the comfort it used to be. He shifted to lie on his back, his toes tucked into the frayed end of the blanket. "Did Uncle Andy have a chance of singing ere he died?"
His brother breathed out in a sigh that stirred the air over Sam's face. "Who's to say," he replied at length, "who's to say?"
But that was worse than no answer at all, and Sam rolled over brusquely, turning his back on Ham.
The custom was older than the Shire itself: Sam had oft heard it said that the wandering hobbits of yore took to singing when their end neared. Their families roamed the hills and lived scattered among forests much vaster and gloomier than aught as was known today. Through the cold season, they hid in small, dank holes that they dug out when no caves could be found. And when life was about to leave them, they sang for the birds to carry the tune over hill and brook and hurst, so that their roving kin might hear of their last lonely journey. Those hobbits long ago had marked their paths and their resting places with songs instead of tilled fields or flower beds, Sam had often thought, and that was how they found their way about the lands.
Though there wasn't a need for it anymore, not a body lived in the Shire as didn't learn the custom from their elders: The tune didn't matter, so long as one's last breath were put into song. That someone had died singing was another way of saying that his passing was all as could be hoped for.
Not that there weren't those who scoffed at the notion, but when they found themselves in their waning hour, they'd oft be heard chanting loud and clear as the lark. And others who'd been merry singers their good life through scarce breathed a few notes out of some half-remembered ditty.
Their mother had been quiet like that. Between coughing and straining for air, she'd sat up at the last and hummed bits from a lullaby that Sam'd known longer than he could think. But the words to the song were lost that eve, vanished away in the cold, stale air together with the thready puffs of his mother's breathing. It had been late in the winter, and Yule two months past, so there'd been no question of taking her outside. But the door had stood wide, filled with frost like a wall of dark glass.
Sam had walked out later and stood on the doorstones in naught but his shirt and breeches, waiting for the chill to reach his skin. The sounds of his sisters' weeping behind him and the lullaby still humming in his breast while the dark bowed round him like a cradle that kept his mother's voice, and always would.
"Don't be so pricklish now, Sam," said Hamson from the side, in that gruff tone he often used in place of apologies.
Sam rolled onto his back, his heartbeats measured tight and slow to the lilt he remembered so well. "I'm not."
Ham snorted again. "See, it was like this..." He stretched his legs, trying to make himself more comfortable. "When we found Uncle Andy out in the wood, he'd been dead long enough for his limbs to grow stiff and cold. But the tree didn't strike him dead all at once neither. We could see that he'd pulled up and out a bit, propping himself to a big branch just so, till he couldn't move no further."
A faint thrill skittered about Sam's middle. "So he did have a while!"
"Aye, but there's no telling how much breath he had, his chest being crushed and broken as it was."
"He did," Sam said with full belief. "He had enough." Such a broad chest as his uncle's and the stout heart inside it wouldn't give out when it mattered. "Can't you hear him, Ham? Hollering right along with the thunder and the wind..." He could picture it in his mind, too, the strips of lightning leaping through the wood, the crack and crash of tearing branches, and in the midst of it all, Uncle Andy with his fearless eye and his curls ruffled like a crow's nest.
"Maybe..." Ham sighed again, sounding wistful more than unsure. "Maybe you're right."
"Tell it to our dad." Sam leaned up on his elbow. "Tell him tomorrow."
"But none heard him sing, Sam. Not Anson nor Immy, nor a body in the house or the village. We'd know if they did..." Ham made a vague gesture that Sam could feel in the dark. "Besides, Dad never asked."
"You know why. He's afeared of the answer." Sam lay back and counted the moments of waiting till his brother gave in with a grunt.
"All right then, I'll tell him." Hamson pulled on the pillow, stuffing it more firmly under his head. "And now let's catch us some sleep. Good night."
When Sam closed his eyes, he could see Uncle Andy's face, wet with slapping rain, his curls streaming, and the line of his jaw etched in pale licks of lightning.
"Good night," he murmured, wishing he could send the sound soaring over the White Downs and through stands of sombre trees. "Sleep well."
Sam returned home early the next day, when the afternoon lay in bright swathes on the slope of the Hill, raising a fine mist from the leas below. It'd rained again till noon was past, but now the clouds had broke up in places, and wetness glittered all about in the strengthening sun of spring. A mass of dark thunderheads was looming in the east though that'd likely bring a heavy downpour ere midnight.
The garden gate to Number Three stood open. From a good ten strides away, Sam could see Hamson and the Gaffer on the bench by the turf wall, and another hobbit seated on a kitchen stool. It was his cousin Halfast, Sam realised on the next breath, with his heels braced apart on the ground and his feet dipping back and forth as he talked.
"Good evening!" Sam called from the gate, and sure enough Halfast swung about on his stool, returning a broad grin of welcome. It seemed that Ham had taken their dad on a walk to Overhill, to see Uncle Nol, the Gaffer's younger brother, and let him hear the news.
Sam clapped his cousin's shoulder. "How's your dad, Hal?"
"Glad of spring's coming, and more so than the rest of us," Halfast answered, wrinkling his nose a bit. "Winter's hard on him, so it is."
Sam nodded. They'd need a pony trap to bring Uncle Nol to the farewell feast. His withered left foot didn't let him walk more than six strides a day, and he'd been ailing for years.
"Ach, he's no worse now than he was last year or the year before," said the Gaffer, "'tis nursing his plaints as keeps him tough as peapods. He'll live longest amongst us all, you'll see!"
With his face still turned where the Gaffer couldn't see it, Hal rolled his eyes and winked at Sam. His cheeks and round nose were daubed with freckles, as though he'd spent every hour of sunlight outdoors.
"So you all passed the day in Overhill, I see." As he looked about, Sam noticed the tidy rows of patted earth on his right. They'd finished all the sowing too, and a neat row of hazel sticks awaited the climbing beans.
"Aye, and your brother's handed out news from the Northfarthing in bushels," the Gaffer returned, his voice revealing some cheer. "Your second cousin Violet, her being the granddaughter of your great-aunt Holly, had twins last Afterlithe."
"Two lusty little lads they are," Hamson spoke up. "The family calls 'em nobut Wobbles and Bobbles, seeing how they won't keep still for a single waking minute."
"They'll be a'wandering ere they talk," Hal predicted when the door opened and May stepped out, three mugs of ale clasped to her bosom.
"What's the celebration?" the Gaffer asked, shading his eyes against the sun-beams that were slanting low through a rip in the clouds.
"Why, we've got Hal visiting, don't we?" May returned with a slightly grieved note as she handed him his beer. "Hullo, Sam! I'll fetch a mug for 'ee right away."
"And a seat, if you please," their father grumbled.
"I can see to it myself." Sam followed his sister across the doorstep and added in softer tones, "He's not grudging the ale, May."
"Don't I know it!" May sighed and clapped her hands together as they entered the kitchen, casting about for another mug.
Filled to slopping over, Sam carried it back outdoors, and a stool alongside. The gap in the clouds had widened, and the shadows of the fence were drawn out sharp across the grass and a fringe of sprouting wood-rush. Sam seated himself with an eye out to the open sky and watched a couple of grey-feathered siskins turn idle loops.
"There now!" Halfast clacked his mug against Ham's. "Your good health, lads, and may we get together again feelin' no worse than we do today."
"I'll drink to that," said Hamson, while the Gaffer lifted his mug wordless and didn't look as if he held much faith in Hal's wish.
"And to yours, Hal," Sam murmured. The ale tingled in his mouth and seemed to taste of the sunshine skimming so crisp and brilliant along Bagshot Row, just as it had during the Ropers' visit, eleven years ago. On the other side of the Row, the trunk of a young rowan stood awash in the clear light.
To you, Uncle Andy... Sam raised his mug again and took another long swallow. And to all you ever wished for.
It made him think of Mr. Frodo who kept celebrating Mr. Bilbo's birthday and spoke a toast to his health each time. Five years and a half had passed since Mr. Bilbo'd left, and no other dinner party could rival the splendid feasts that Mr. Frodo gave on the twenty-second of Halimath. It wasn't on account of his own birthday, Sam knew that well enough, nor did Mr. Frodo need any reminding that Mr. Bilbo hadn't breathed his last yet, that the wide world kept him just as surely as others were kept by their tuck of land and their sheltered holes.
All by himself in his study, or with his legs stretched among the old oak's burly roots on top of the Hill, Mr. Frodo was as certain of it as he was with his friends and kin gathered round the dinner-table. But there'd arrive that moment on the eve of the party when all the bowls and tureens had been emptied and the windows thrown wide to ease the steam and noise, when all the guests had loosed their collars and Sam made another round with the bottle to top off their glasses. Then he'd pause at the back of the dining-room, awaiting the toast that would follow. Mr. Frodo would push from his chair, raising his beaker with a gleam of secret delight in his eye. At that moment, Sam often felt that Mr. Frodo had the whole gathering at his fingertips, that he could tip them into a satisfied lull or rouse them to a gambol.
"To Bilbo's good health and long life, wherever he is!" The toast could grow longer or shorter, depending on how loose or heavy Mr. Frodo's tongue might feel after hours of eating and drinking, but always he'd look into the round, from one face to the next, till his guests echoed the toast – "to Bilbo!" – after him, or murmured something suitable of that sort, clinking their glasses together. Only then would Mr. Frodo toss his head back and empty his own beaker, all in one draught.
There was a challenge behind his cheer, Sam knew, a dare to refuse the memory of Mr. Bilbo jolting them all from the content order of their days with a prank, or an outlandish tale, or by popping up where none'd expected him.
Sam had known as much since the twenty-second of the first year, when Mr. Frodo held his eyes across the table, last and longest, or so it seemed to Sam. That look didn't convey a dare though, for Mr. Frodo had no cause to doubt Sam's tightly held belief. Instead, a sparkle of quiet mirth had lit his eyes.
You know, of course, it seemed to say, but it is my obligation to remind these pleasant fools, isn't it, now that Bilbo is no longer here to surprise them.
Sam had raised his own cup a little higher, blushing heartily at these wayward thoughts, but he'd not turned his glance aside neither.
As he thought on it now, he wanted to bolt to his feet and shout a toast to Uncle Andy, loud enough to burst those heavy clouds pushing towards Hobbiton. But his Gaffer wouldn't see no cause for shouting, and so he just drained his mug in silence.
It'd grown quiet all about, and the sinking daylight pierced the clouds in scattered, slender beams. While the Gaffer had leaned back against the cushioning turf, his eyes half-closed, Halfast pulled a piece of string from his pocket that he twined through his fingers, back and forth, ere letting it slip free again.
Only Hamson was starting to fret. He swung his leg back and forth, then raked his toes through the curls on his other foot. Though Sam gave him a heartening glance, his own insides were starting to twist a bit, too.
"Dad..." The Gaffer looked up sharply, and by the flicker in his eyes Sam could tell that he knew what Ham meant to speak of. Hamson cleared his throat. "There's none as heard Uncle Andy sing, or I would've told 'ee..."
"I know that, son." Their father turned his face aside, his neck taut.
"That's not all though," Ham went on. "He lived on long enough for his own bit of song. Mayhap the storm carried it off a far ways and out to the North Moors."
A reply seemed to spring to the Gaffer's mouth, but then he pressed his lips together and climbed to his feet. With short, stiff strides, he walked over to the garden gate, setting his hands on the bleached wood. When Sam made to follow, Hamson pulled him back by his sleeve.
"Leave him be a while," Ham said under his breath.
Sam clasped his seat with both hands, shifting his weight to the need of sitting still. The Gaffer stood rooted fast by the gate, like a wind-bent tree himself, his shoulders turned hard into a gale that'd long since passed.
What kind of song do you think it was that came to Uncle Andy? Sam wanted to ask him. He'd heard a few tunes that Hal brought back from travelling northwards with Mr. Boffin, but none of those seemed fitting.
Sam looked at the ground between his feet, a heaviness seeming to thicken the airs as though the time itself were clouding up. What am I here for?
For a moment he wished himself away, back on the Hill where a fresh breeze might ruffle the grasses. But Bag End would lie asleep behind the shimmering windows, and the thought of its wide rooms standing hushed and empty wasn't a comfort neither. He could only sit here and feel the air move in and out of his breast, growing stale with each round.
You could ask Mr. Frodo to let you go early, Hamson had suggested in the morning, but Sam wouldn't hear of it. As it turned out though, Mr. Frodo had accepted a dinner invitation from the Hornblowers of Waymeet, and after taking his afternoon tea, he'd made ready for the road.
"You should go home, Sam," he'd said as he settled a bottle of Old Winyards that was to be a present to the Hornblowers into his pack. "I hear that your brother has arrived for a visit."
Sam hid his bafflement by shaking out Mr. Frodo's cloak and giving its collar a quick dab with the brush. How Mr. Frodo could have heard about Hamson's arrival so soon was a mystery that'd take some unravelling.
"When was the last time that you saw him?" Mr. Frodo asked, flashing Sam a quick smile over his shoulder as he laced his pack. "Surely it must have been years ago."
"All of three years it is now," Sam answered.
"Really. Then you must be all the more eager for his company." Mr. Frodo polished one of his jacket's buttons with his cuff and glanced about, as though he might have forgotten something he'd need on his walk. "Cleaning out the pantries at the back can wait until next week," he added, "so don't trouble with that now."
"Yes, sir," Sam murmured and held out the cloak. But Mr. Frodo must have caught something in his face or in his tone, for his brows were starting to knit slightly, and his glance returned from its roving to settle fully on Sam.
"You must be delighted." With the slightest hint of a question, he was inviting Sam to tell him what the cause of this visit might be. And maybe now he got to thinking, too, that a Gamgee didn't walk five days only for missing his family.
"'Tis a pleasure that none of us were expecting." Sam stepped around to swing the cloak over Mr. Frodo's shoulders. Though Mr. Frodo asked nothing more, Sam could tell by the tautness of his neck that he was waiting and wondering. Yet there wasn't a way for Sam to tell him what had happened, not now. Such words of grief didn't ought to be spoken in the close space of his home, with none else to hear them. The thought alone tied Sam's tongue: He knew that Mr. Frodo would turn to him with kindness, ready to share a sorrow that spoke to his own. Sam could picture the look in his eyes, welling soft with memories that never left him.
If I'd been there to hear Uncle Andy singing, Sam thought, I'd tell him about it, I'd tell him now. He moved round to fasten the cloak, but Mr. Frodo's nimble fingers had been quick at work and smoothed down the fine russet wool in a long sweep.
"Thank you, Sam." Though his tone was as courteous as ever, Sam could hear the fleet touch of disappointment as Mr. Frodo reached for his pack.
"Have a good evening in Waymeet, sir." Sam stood back but couldn't stop himself from adding, "If those storm-clouds break tonight, you'll be safer staying there than returning."
Mr. Frodo's eyebrows rose a bit at that, and Sam shifted, uncomfortable under his questioning gaze. "Well, perhaps. We shall see."
They left Bag End together, but when Mr. Frodo had locked the front door, he stopped on the porch for a moment, as he so often did afore setting out, to look across the lands that sprawled below the Hill. Sam stood beside him, searching out the ancient beech by the Highgroves' fields with his eyes. It could barely be seen now, its dead silver branches wrapped in a haze, mere ghosts against the darker grounds. He shivered, caught unawares when Mr. Frodo touched his shoulder lightly.
"Well, Sam, what kind of puzzle has captured your fancy?"
"If somebody were to call from the old beech across the Water–" Sam waved a hand towards it, "would we hear him?"
For the space of a moment, it seemed like a sensible question, then his face warmed at the foolishness. Yet Mr. Frodo showed no inkling of surprise, he looked across to the tree and gave the matter serious thought. "I should think so... Surely we would, if the caller had a strong voice."
Sam had bowed his head, for tears rushed to his eyes of a sudden, and the memory brought them back now. He was on his feet without noting that he'd got up. This time Hamson didn't try to keep him back.
Thin as yarns, the day's fading beams slid through the grass and lit a few wandering sparks on the Gaffer's curls. He'd not moved an inch and didn't stir when Sam came to stand beside him.
The growing gloom and the line of willows along the Water hid the old beech from sight. But after a moment Sam could hear that the Gaffer was humming, very low in his throat. Like a bird soaring where the eye couldn't follow, the sound rose and lost itself in the still evening air.
A/N: When Sam mentions his Uncle Andy, he refers to "him that was the Gaffer's eldest brother" (TTT IV.1: The Taming of Sméagol), which implies that Andwise died at some point before the Ring-quest. Andy's son Anson is known only from the family trees.
The nickname 'Nol' for the Gaffer's younger brother Halfred appears in one of Tolkien's drafts for the family trees in History of Middle-earth 12. His son Halfast is Sam's "cousin Hal" of Overhill who gets a brief mention in The Shadow of the Past.
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