Part I: Into the West
“Are we almost there?” I asked Gandalf, looking up at the billowing sail, devoutly hoping the answer would be yes, because my shoulder was aching fiercely and I knew I would be sicker than sick in a small matter of hours. It was soon after supper and I had hardly been able to swallow more than a few bites. Everyone seemed too excited to notice.
Gandalf replied that he thought we should be there close to morning, maybe sooner if the wind picked up. It was raining and already getting dark, so I stumbled down below deck to our cabin to lie down. Bilbo followed me anxiously. I shucked off only my cloak and vest, fell into my bunk and pulled the covers up to my chin, rolling myself into a tight ball. Bilbo bent over me and pushed back a few strands of my damp hair, his bony hand shaking slightly.
“Should I call for Lord Elrond?” he said in a quavery voice. “You don’t look well, my boy.”
I didn’t answer. I shut my eyes tight. I could hear the wind picking up outside. Good, maybe that meant it would blow us there sooner. I hoped he wasn’t going to scold me about that little escapade of mine a couple of days before, when I had taken a crazy notion to go swimming in the sea with the dolphins, telling me, there now, he knew I’d be sick, and I hadn’t listened, had I? Next time I would pay more heed, wouldn’t I? But he said nothing about it. I shuddered and clutched at my pillow.
Maybe there wouldn’t be a next time.
I heard Gandalf’s footsteps on the stairs outside the cabin. They paused as he stopped to speak to someone. But I could not hear enough to understand what he was saying. My head was spinning.
“Bilbo,” I whispered hoarsely, sitting up and throwing the blanket off, feeling as though my insides were about to turn out all at once, “help me to the privy, quick…”
I swung my feet to the floor, and only managed to fall right on my face as my knees buckled. Bilbo yanked me up and steered me toward the privy door. We didn’t make it quite in time, however, and as if that weren’t revolting enough, I heaved up my supper, such as it was, all over myself, the wind roaring in my ears louder than ever.
Gandalf came rushing in. It didn’t take him long to figure what happened. He had a nose, after all. He twitched a blanket off the nearest bunk and thrust it at poor old Bilbo, saying, “Get those things off him and put this around him. I’ll go get some water.”
With that, he turned and flurried back where he came from and Bilbo helped me out of my clothes and wrapped the blanket around me. Then, in spite of the nasty mess I’d made of myself, he put his arm around me and held me close. I think he would have taken me on his lap like a little child if I had let him. I shivered and moaned, clutching my shoulder and leaning against him. He kissed my temple and told me it was all right, although I felt anything but all right. I felt like I did when I had the flu, only ten times worse. I could barely lift a finger. The room was whirling and I could hear a faint screeching in my ears like rusty hinges on a giant’s coffin.
Gandalf came back with a basin of water and some rags, and between them they cleaned me off, got me into a fresh nightshirt and tucked me back into bed. My bones felt like rubber and my head was a whirlpool, and it felt as though an icicle were working its way through my left shoulder. Bilbo hovered over me. I could imagine how anguished and helpless he was feeling, but in my present condition I could not empathize much. I saw Gandalf gathering up the soiled things and I think I told him to pitch them overboard, but I don’t know if he heard me or not. He hastily stuffed them into a sack, then hurried out again, saying he was going for Lord Elrond.
I lay flat on my back. My left hand felt like ice as Bilbo took it. I barely had the strength to open my eyes, so I left them closed. At least that way I couldn’t see the ceiling whirling. My stomach and bowels cramped fiercely and I was too weak to cry out so I just groaned. This was the worst I could ever remember being.
“If we don’t get there soon,” I heard myself whisper, “this will be the end. The way I feel now, it would be a mercy.”
“Don’t talk so, Frodo-lad,” Bilbo said tearfully. “If you go, then I go with you. There’s nothing for me there if you’re not there too.”
“The storm is getting worse, isn’t it,” I said. I heard a horrid shriek and turned back on my side again, grabbing the cover and pulling it over my head, then clamping the pillow down over my ears.
“There’s no storm, Frodo-lad,” Bilbo said patting my good shoulder. “It’s all in your head. It’s just raining a bit, is all.”
Then, remembering, he took my free hand and guided it to the pendant hanging around my neck. I clutched at it and the screeching died down considerably. I gasped for breath and allowed Bilbo to remove the pillow from my face. Then he took the star-glass, which I kept on the little table between our bunks for light in the night, and held it to me. I murmured the words and the beautiful light that began to emanate from it drove back the roaring in my head. I held the phial tightly in my free hand. It warmed the iciness and some of the feeling began to creep back into it.
Lord Elrond came in, bearing a cup in one hand and a steaming pot in the other. Gandalf followed, bearing two larger pots. Lord Elrond must have known I was sick before it even happened.
Sometimes I forgot I was among Elves.
I could smell that familiar green leafy smell and it soon drove out the nauseating stink from the room as they set the pots down on either side of my bunk. I thought it smelled like an apple orchard in late summer, shortly after a rain. Lord Elrond stooped down beside me and raised me up on one arm, without wasting any time or breath asking me how I felt. He held the cup to my lips telling me, “Drink this, Frodo. It will ease your pain and settle your stomach. Don’t drink too fast, just sip it slowly.”
I expected it to taste bad and my stomach clenched up again, but to my surprise, the flavor was not unpleasant. Slightly sour, but drinkable. I couldn’t lift a hand to hold the cup so he held it for me, giving me soft and patient encouragement. Gradually I felt the churning in my stomach subside. The pain in my shoulder began to abate as well.
“More?” I said when I had drained the cup. Lord Elrond smiled ever so slightly.
“Not yet, Frodo,” he said. “Just lie back and let it take effect. You’ll feel better very soon. It won’t cure you, but it will ease you until we reach our destination.”
He kept his arm around me and I wanted to lean my head on his shoulder, but it seemed too much of a liberty. I found I was still clutching at my pendant, and he was looking at it. I felt ashamed. I had tried to give it back to him the other day, but he told me to keep it. Now I wanted to apologize to him…for what? For falling in love with his daughter? I’d never told him I had, of course, but he must have seen me gawking at her at Rivendell, unable to take my eyes off her whenever she floated into my sight as though all the stars in the heavens had taken the shape of a woman. What must he think? That I was wicked, presumptuous, conceited or just plain ridiculous…but if he thought any of those things, he gave no sign of it.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured foolishly as the icicle melted away from my shoulder and the spinning in my head subsided.
“For what?” he said. “You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, Frodo. I know how it feels to love someone forever beyond your reach. Do not add shame to the pain you were already feeling.”
I blushed hotly. Clearly there was no hiding some things from him! Now that I felt better, however, once more I was worried about him. “I'm sorry for taking her place on the ship, I meant,” I said quickly, in a tone that might have been inaudible to a mortal, but he heard me just fine. I lowered my eyes and drew the covers over the pendant.
“Why should you feel sorry about that?” he said, almost sharply. Bilbo whispered to me that he had to use the privy now, and hurried out. I think he’d had to go badly, but had to be sure I was all right first.
“Well…” I said, turning the blanket this way and that. I wanted to ask him not to hate me. Which was stupid, I knew, but I wanted to say it. The brusqueness, probably unintentional, in his tone played on my frayed and feverish nerves. Surely he must hate me because I was here and his daughter was not, that he would never see her again, and I was in her place where I had no right to be and did not deserve to be, and was silly enough to adore her on top of everything else. Certainly he must be resenting me fiercely. I found myself clutching at his garment, or maybe it was at his long hair, and I felt him pry my fingers loose and take my hand in his.
That gesture surprised me, because I’d always been in awe of him and felt that he was a little cool and distant with me at times. I’d asked Gandalf long ago if Lord Elrond disliked me, and he said of course not. Lord Elrond just did not like to let himself get fond of mortals because we were so short-lived, he said. It would be difficult for me to understand why it was that those who were destined to live on and on had a hard time letting themselves get attached to those of us whose lives were just an eye-wink by comparison. I thought about this and considered that perhaps I should avoid trying to make him like me. Bad enough that his daughter had married a mortal and would die herself. He did not need any more attachments to mortals, surely.
The thing was, though: I wanted him to like me. He had saved my life, and when someone saves your life you can hardly pass that off lightly, can you? Selfishly, I wanted his friendship. I felt somehow responsible for him, and I badly wanted to help him through his terrible loss, although I knew I never could. That went very hard with me, that I could really do nothing for him. I had an idea how Sam felt now, wanting so badly to help me and not being able. It was a wrenching feeling, and I ached for him and Sam both now. I couldn’t do anything right, it seemed.
I wanted to tell him all this. I felt a half-crazy urge to ask him not to flee from my sight. Then I looked up at him and saw there was no need. He drew my head to his shoulder and I closed my eyes and rested against him.
“Stop it, Frodo,” he said and I jerked my head up and looked at him guiltily. My stomach lurched a bit. He chuckled and pulled me back to his shoulder. “I mean, stop all that eating your heart out about your so-called failure. Isn’t it time to lay all that to rest?”
How did he know about that? I had never told him. I ducked my head and involuntarily began chewing on a fingernail, an old habit I’d had since childhood. He gently moved my hand away.
“I would if I could,” I sighed. “But…well, the thing is…I just feel as though I do not deserve to be here. That no one knows…well. I…”
“Frodo-lad,” Bilbo said and I started to see he had returned; I hadn’t heard him approach, “you listen to Lord Elrond, and you listen good. I want you to stop all this nonsense at once. I won’t have it any more, you hear me? Don’t you realize that the Elves have never allowed a mortal to enter the Blessed Realm before in the entire history of the world? Do you think for a single minute that they would allow anyone they considered unworthy across its borders? Do not tell me you are cheeky enough to set your own wisdom above the oldest and wisest race on the planet, or I’ll shake some sense into you, my dear boy. You only think you’re sick now. You’ll catch it hot and heavy if I hear one more word about how you don’t deserve to be there; do I make myself clear?”
“Listen to your uncle,” Lord Elrond was smiling now. “And to me. I do understand, believe it or not. Was I or was I not the one who took Isildur into Mt. Doom to destroy the Ring?”
I winced at the mention of It. No one had spoken of It to me in a very long time, it seemed. I nodded.
“You want to know about failure, Frodo?” he said. “I could not make him let it go. I should have tried to wrench it from him, or push him in, or throw both of us into the fire. For ages I felt I had failed. I had led a battle against the forces of evil. Surely I could have made one man destroy a Ring? But I did not. I stood by and allowed him to keep it when I should have done something. And I did nothing. I could do nothing, and do you know why? Because the Ring paralyzed my will as it paralyzed his, and yours. If you think you were unable to do what was entrusted to you, I know all about it. And how long have I lived with that knowledge? Count yourself fortunate that you will not be living with it as long as I have. But I’ve come to terms with it, because it was either that or I would be good for nothing but to brood on my ‘failure.’ You accomplished far more than I did, Frodo. You are small, you are mortal, you are young, comparatively. All the odds were against you, and yet you surmounted them all. Yes, you had help, but you would not have had it if you had not earned it. Such devotion as Sam’s did not come from a vacuum. I have never seen anything quite like it before, and do not expect to see the like again. I have observed much of him, and I can tell you, he could never have cared so deeply about you if you had not done much to deserve it. You can lay any doubts to rest. You brought about a victory of which I could only dream.”
Bilbo nodded emphatically. I blinked back tears, and felt some of the tension melt from my body.
“I have a suspicion,” Lord Elrond said, “that you are suffering from wounded pride, my friend, of which I also know a little something. Perhaps you expected to come home a hero, and could not content yourself with being merely an instrument of good?”
“I did not expect to come home at all,” I said. “Often I’ve wished that I had not. As for heroes, Sam was the true hero. He really did it all. And I…I put him through so much. He went through so much misery and grief on my account. That’s why I left, really. Well, there were other reasons, but that was the main one, I think. I could not let him watch me die. Because I would have, if I had not gone.”
“It was the biggest favor you could have done him,” Lord Elrond said. “To watch someone you love die can be harder than dying yourself. As a healer, I have seen both more times than I care to remember.”
“I wonder if he has got home yet,” I murmured after a long moment. “Poor old Sam. I should never have written that poem…or, at least not copied it into the Red Book.”
“Oh…I wrote a poem a few months ago—‘The Sea-Bell,’ it was called. It came from a dream I had several times over the past two years. I dreamt that I had passed into the West, and no one would speak to me, and so I grew old and mad, and still all ignored me until I left and became a…a wraith. I had almost forgotten I wrote the thing, or I think I would have torn it out. I pray he never sees it, but I’m afraid he will.”
“Can you remember any of it?” Lord Elrond looked genuinely interested, which surprised me.
I thought for a moment. Then I softly recited:
I walked by the sea, and there came to me,
as a star-beam on the wet sand,
a white shell like a sea-bell;
trembling it lay in my wet hand.
In my fingers shaken I heard waken
a ding within, by a harbour bar
a buoy swinging, a call ringing
over endless seas, faint now and far.
Then I saw a boat silently float
on the night-tide, empty and grey.
'It is later than late! Why do we wait?'
I leapt in and cried: 'Bear me away!'
It bore me away, wetted with spray,
wrapped in a mist, wound in a sleep,
to a forgotten strand in a strange land.
In the twilight beyond the deep
I heard a sea-bell swing in the swell,
dinging, dinging, and the breakers roar
on the hidden teeth of a perilous reef;
and at last I came to a long shore.
White it glimmered, and the sea shimmered
with star-mirrors in a silver net;
cliffs of stone pale as ruel-bone
in the moon-foam were gleaming wet.
Glittering sand slid through my hand,
dust of pearl and jewel-grist,
trumpets of opal, roses of coral,
flutes of green and amethyst.
But under cliff-eaves there were glooming caves,
weed-curtained, dark and grey;
a cold air stirred in my hair,
and the light waned, as I hurried away…*
“That’s just the beginning,” I said as I saw him looking at me in utter astonishment. I blushed. I was rather proud of the poem when I first wrote it. I’d written a Lament for Gandalf long before, but it wasn’t very good, I thought. I had not known I could write poetry at all. But I didn’t know how Sam would take this one. I should have torn it out and brought it with me.
“Frodo, I had no idea you had such strange and wonderful things inside of you,” Lord Elrond finally said as Bilbo nodded awe-stricken. “Although perhaps I should have known it. Why would you not want him to read anything so beautiful?”
“It gets…rather morbid,” I said, my voice sounding hoarse all of a sudden. “It may frighten him.”
“I think not,” Elrond said and he was fairly glowing. “I hope you will be inspired to write more such things, when you make your home. And I've a sneaking feeling you did want him to see it, deep down.”
“Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe he’ll just think it’s a pretty bit of foolishness,” I tried to reassure myself with a little shrug, wondering if Lord Elrond knew more about me than I did. “Or he won’t think I wrote it. Maybe he’ll think I just read it somewhere and took a fancy to it, and copied it down for him. I hope so, anyway.”
The look on Lord Elrond’s face was something to see. His lustrous eyes softened to a stellar glow, and hid nothing. Their depths seemed ageless, dimensional, encompassing the vastness of history and memory. They absorbed me, owned me, almost against their will. Abashed, I looked away.
He needed no more mortal attachments perhaps, but obviously, he had one whether he wanted it or not. And I was at fault, without consciously trying. Just by wanting to be, I suppose.
“Sir,” I said after several minutes, looking up at him, “you will see her again, someday. I know it.”
He looked sharply down at me and I wondered if I had said the right thing. I had not meant to say it exactly. It just came out in my voice. It was as if someone else had spoken through me. I wanted to tell him about when I was a boy and had been deathly ill, and I had seen my parents—really seen them, it was no dream—and they had sent me back, saying I had a special mission to perform—how could they have known?
But before I could say it, I yawned hugely, and before I knew it I was asleep. I slept fitfully, waking from time to time hearing strange voices, ugly singing, small creatures fleeing and skittering from my footsteps; black snowflakes, empty shells crawling. Horns stuck into my head with the sharp ends pointed at my brain. Fingers lying on the ground with the nails gnawed to nothing. Ropes, snakes, bloody waves, teeth…
Black came a cloud as a night-shroud.
Like a dark mole groping I went,
to the ground falling, on my hands crawling
with eyes blind and my back bent.
I crept to a wood: silent it stood
in its dead leaves, bare were its boughs.
There must I sit, wandering in wit,
while owls snored in their hollow house….
I awoke shuddering, the phial lying on the floor, and Lord Elrond was still there; he brought me a little more of the drink and put the star-glass on the little table to keep back the evil dreams. I slept much better then. But suddenly I was awakened by running footsteps on the stairs, and a commotion above, a humming like that of a massive hive. Gandalf burst through the door, white and gleaming like a sail in the moonlight.
“We’re in sight of the harbour!” he said. “Frodo, how are you now?” he asked as he saw me sit up in bed.
“Better,” I said. “I want to go up and see!” I tried to swing my legs around to the side of the bunk again, but Elrond held me down firmly. Bilbo popped out of the other bunk, saying, “Sticklebats!”
“One moment, my lad,” Elrond laughed a little. He found my robe lying on a chair and helped me into it, then snatched my cloak from the peg on which it hung and wrapped that around me. He fetched Bilbo’s robe and cloak as well and handed them to him, then lifted me into his arms and carried me to the doorway. Bilbo followed, pulling up his breeches, then putting his hood up over his head and indicating for me to do the same. Gandalf offered to carry him but he wasn’t having any, he might be old but he wasn’t dead yet, he said and scuttled along after us. So Gandalf brought up the rear, and up the stairs we went to the deck.
The rain had slackened, and it was getting on for dawn, dim and grey. It was cold, but the wind had died down to a light breeze. A few Elves looked with concern at us, but most were too excited to take real notice.
I couldn’t see much, just something pale and misty far ahead, as though a fragment of the moon had fallen into the sea. I strained my eyes but all I could see was grey fog and rain. Everyone chattered like a tree full of birds over the rush and flow of the waves beneath us, but grew quiet after a few minutes. Then as the sky grew a bit lighter, I saw what appeared to be a white gull flying toward us.
I knew we were too far from the shore for a gull to be flying toward our ship, and this one appeared larger than the gulls I remembered. I gazed in wonder and delight as it wheeled gracefully and luminously in the dim sky, then headed straight toward us. I was about to tell Lord Elrond to watch out, when it fluttered its great snowy wings and landed on the ship’s rail. I saw it indeed was no gull, for gulls have webbed feet, and this one had claws of bright gold. It was like a dove, but larger, and its neck was longer, rather like a swan’s, but the beak was different and it was too small for a swan, and swans are freshwater birds. Its tail was plumy, its eyes gold and glittering, and a starry light shimmered from all its feathers.
Everyone exclaimed in soft wonder as the beautiful bird descended from the rail to the deck. It seemed to be looking right at me and Elrond, and then, even as I gazed, a dazzling light shot up from it, and then in its place stood a tall, radiant woman in white with long dark hair, so like to Lady Arwen that I think I must have swooned, because the next thing I knew someone had taken me from Lord Elrond’s arms and he had gone to the woman and was embracing her. I could see she was taller than Lady Arwen, her hair more wavy.
I supposed it was Gandalf who had taken me, but as I looked up to see his reaction to the appearance of the woman, I was startled to see it was Lady Galadriel who was holding me.
There are some things to be said for being sick.
“She is his mother,” she whispered to me, her face transfigured into ineffable beauty.
“Elwing?” I said disbelieving. She nodded. Her abundant golden hair tickled my cheek so that I “accidentally” let my hood fall away, and her heaven-blue eyes glittered with happy tears in the ship’s lantern-light. I held onto her with one arm, telling myself to enjoy this moment to the fullest because it would never come to me again. Oddly enough I felt sleepy once more; it must have been Lord Elrond’s drink taking effect, and I struggled to stay awake, for I didn’t want to sleep through our arrival.
And I saw I was still clutching my glass, no longer glowing, but she did not seem to notice. I looked at Lord Elrond and his mother again, still embracing, and a glimmer of joy started within me, and grew and grew until I felt like a larger version of the phial, radiating out into the night as the rain turned all silvery and then I could see gleaming whiteness in the distance more clearly and heard a faint voice of singing over the waves. Cheering broke out on the deck.
I felt they were singing to me. A sweet green fragrance slowly unfurled itself into the night, into the blossoming of the dawn. I could hear the Island awaken. I heard shuffling feet and opening doors, the lighting of candles, bath-water splashing, children yawning, a chiming of bells from lofty towers. They were awaiting me.
“Sam,” I whispered to the glass above the din, “we are here. We’re safe. I’m home.”
And as if I had spoken the usual charm to light the glass, it began to glow once more, and it felt warm indeed in my frosty hand.
The idea of the white bird is from Shirebound.