Since Jem wished Radagast to speak at his mother's funeral, the Travelers did not leave that day as planned. Nell did not come to Greenjade that night, and seemed to avoid him altogether. She spent most of the day at Jem's anyway.
But at dinner, she told them what Jem had told her of his mother's last hours. His mother had called him to her side, and a wondrous change had come over her. She was smiling, as she had not smiled in a very long time, and she told him she had just had a vision. She'd been standing in a meadow full of flowers, holding a bunch of roses. Then she heard a sound from above, as something soaring high and fast, and she looked up to see something circling high in the clouds. She took it to be a bird, but as it came lower she saw it had no wings, and soon she could see that it looked to be a beautiful white horse, and it seemed to be falling slowly from the sky in a spiraling motion like a falling leaf, falling toward her, but she could not move. Its mane and tail streamed out long and free in the wind, and it circled around her several times as it fell lower and lower, until it landed as lightly as a cat falling from a tree. But it hit the ground running, and it ran in several circles all around her as she watched entranced, and finally it began to slow, until it came shyly up to her. She held out her roses and let it sniff them, then stroked its muzzle and forelock smiling in delight. Then she took the roses and fashioned a wreath, which she hung around the horse's neck. Then it nodded to her, and she knew it meant for her to climb on its back. And she did so, although it wore no saddle, and hung onto its mane as it began to run once more, running as no earthly horse ever ran, but she was not afraid. Her hair streamed long and loose behind her, and soon the horse was no longer running on the ground, but up a winding slope that she could not see. She was afraid then, but the horse told her to look up, not down, and it ran ever higher and faster, until she could no longer hear its hoofbeats. And soon they were flying, flying, until the clouds were beneath them, a snowy mystical landscape with fluffy mountains and silver-blue lakes, and then the sky began to darken and she could see stars winking out, and hear the most glorious music she had ever heard. Only then did she dare to look down, and she could see waves below her, and it was from there the music was issuing....
Jem sat beside her and held her hand, knowing that this was the end. She said he should not wait a year to marry Nell, but to marry her whenever he was ready. Never mind the custom, she told him, 'twas a foolish one, without nary bit o' sense to it, aye? Why not take what was given, instead of losing a whole year of one's life in mourning for one who had ceased to know pain and fear and loss and doubt? They talked well into the evening, she reaching up to wipe a tear from his face from time to time, until she finally fell asleep, her hand still in his. Years seemed to have lifted from her face, and she looked a good deal like the pretty girl in the drawing that hung in the front room. He watched her until sleep began to overtake him as well, and he drifted off in the chair beside her bed, to be awakened not by a sound but by a scent, that of roses....
Greenjade helped Mr. Partridge construct the coffin. He worked it carefully, trying to concentrate all his energies into the making of the box, marveling at this strange custom of putting bodies into the ground whole rather than burning them, which made far more sense to him, but he kept this opinion to himself. After Mr. Partridge had retired, Greenjade crept back into the workshop with a lantern and took up a chisel and sat up well into the night with it, looking over his shoulder from time to time to see if Nell would come from her room. She did not.
And in the morning, when the casket was born out of the workshop to put the body into it, there was a lovely rose carved into the lid, with graceful curlicue designs surrounding it. Mr. Partridge looked as surprised as any to see it, and he looked to Greenjade with lifted eyebrows. Greenjade kept his eyes averted, at the same time trying to see if Nell was looking his way, but she was behind him.
Radagast was looking at him in soft surprise.
The funeral was held at the Community Center, which was located the same place as the Springfest. Many benches were set on either side of the place where the coffin was set, surrounded by bunches of flowers. Greenjade, who had never attended a funeral before, sat next to Sméagol, between Miss Carrie and Mr. Partridge. Nell sat with Jem and Jem's Aunt Bertie, directly behind them. Nell's brothers with their wives and children clustered closely about, along with their wives' parents and siblings and their families...Greenjade had scarcely realized how many relations there were, although he had encountered many of them from time to time. The children were all dressed in dark and sober attire with their hair neatly combed and subdued, their normally merry faces looking serious and a little anxious. Gil came in with his wife Jennie, big with child now. The littlest one held to her hand, the other walking beside her father, Jennie's mother and younger sister following close behind them all.
As he and Sméagol followed Mr. Partridge to their assigned place, he heard odds and ends of muted conversation from those all about, largely about the dead woman.
She was a good neighbor. Always ready to help out.
Whenever somethin' needed doin', most likely she'd be amongst them a doin' it.
I never believed any of them spiteful remarks some nasty folk made of her. Likely they was just jealous. She was a hard worker and a right sweet lady. I don't remember her ever sayin' a wicked thing about anyone.
I see her younger lad, poor soul. Right devoted to her he were. Wonder if his brother is a comin' to pay his respects.
No such of a thing. That young scoundrel weren't worth his salt. Just like his good-fer-nuthin' dad. We won't see 'ide nor 'air of 'im, and that's a good thing.
Radagast, after instructing Nildë to stay with Sméagol and Greenjade, walked up past the casket, looking down once more at the rose design carved into the lid, then took his place behind the podium.
"My brothers and sisters," he began, "when I first came to this village, it was a joyous occasion. Now, as I prepare to take my leave, I find a sorrowful one. We gather to farewell a soul who suffered long and has at last been released from her earthly chains..."
Would that I could be released from mine, thought Greenjade, wondering if he might be able to slip away unnoticed.
He took note of the number of people who were weeping, and remembered Miss Carrie saying that very few folks would even go near the dead woman's house while she was alive. She seemed quite angry about it. But Greenjade felt that he could not blame them much.
So this is earthly living, he thought. Love and death. Work and play, learning, growing things, bearing young, raising families, various pleasures, suffering, illness, sorrow, the passing of seasons. And moving on. And remembering. Long have I sought knowledge, to see all, to know all, feel all, do all, discover, conquer, draw all to myself. Yet I knew nothing, really. Only now do I know what it is really all about.
Nell. She will carry and bear my child, I know. Of course she cannot come to Mordor. It is no place for children. Better she should remain here...with him. He who is willing to raise another's child. Just as my stepfather has done....There is so much I do not understand. This business of selflessness, of doing for others, sacrificing one's own wants and needs, suffering for those one loves, laying down one's life. Attending to others, giving all for them, and often not getting any reward for it. I do not understand it, even after all this time. Even after reading my stepfather's book. It is an important thing, yet still it is strange. In all my seeking after knowledge, this I never came across. I heard much of love, of ultimate union, the joys of the flesh...but of nobility, of self-sacrifice, self-abnegation...I heard very little. It seemed either unimportant, or else unfathomable.
Nell. He wondered what she was thinking. Whether or not she was looking his way. What Jem was thinking. So this is why Radagast warned me off from her, he thought. He remembered Clark's six-year-old son Chad, whose father was working on the roof one day, repairing thatch that had blown off in a windstorm, and his mother told him to stay off the ladder which was leaning against the house. He might fall off and get hurt, she said. She and her eldest daughter Delia were hanging out the clothes in the back yard, just out of sight of the ladder, and the second-eldest daughter Meg was supposed to be looking after him and little Linnet. But he quickly got bored with the babyish game of patty-cake his sisters were playing, and being as hard-headed and curious as Greenjade himself, he would climb that ladder...and yes, halfway up his little foot slipped and he fell. As he lay crying, Meg ran to him, scolding, saying his mum had told him to stay off that ladder but he just wouldn't listen, would he? Greenjade had not been there, but Reena had come over the other day telling all about it. She frequently came with such stories, which made Greenjade impatient. She had always a put-upon air, which the other women laughed about, saying as how she had married beneath her, her father having been a Gentleman, but Clark's good looks and charm had "proved her undoing" as her mother put it. The other brothers' wives giggled amongst themselves, saying wasn't it sad about her, she was so beautiful and had come from such a fine home, and all she had to show for it was a handsome, virile, hardworking husband, four lovely, clever, spunky children, and a nice sturdy clean house in a fertile and pleasant spot; she was so undone! Her lily-white skin getting all brown from the sun, her waist thickening from the childbearing, her eyes getting crinkly just like any common woman's.... She had been haughty with Nell, who had been just a child, when she'd first married, but strange to say, Nell was nicer to her than any of her sisters-in-law, and now they got along very well. Nell...what would the village do without her?
Should he have told her what he had about himself? Should he tell Radagast he had betrayed their secret? Did she believe him? Did she still want to have his child?
Greenjade shifted about on the hard bench. Finally he whispered to Sméagol, who was absently stroking Nildë's head and back with his bare foot, that he would piss himself if he didn't get away this minute. He slipped off and out of the building, then fled to the woods. It was a vast relief to be away from the others. He could not have born it there another moment. Well, what now? Hopefully they would be on their way tonight, or at least tomorrow.
And he would never see Nell again. Would never see his child. Would it be a male or female? He found himself wincing at the word "female"....
Perhaps he could yet persuade her to come to Mordor with him. He did not believe she had no feelings for him. He had seen it in her eyes, and her eyes did not lie. She wanted to be with him. To go with him, to live with him, have his children, be his wife...but duty held her back. What was that thing called duty, anyway? It was what made people do the right thing even when they didn't want to, he knew that. It sprang from the Conscience. But how did one make oneself do one's duty? Was it fear of the feeling that would come of not doing it? Or was it something higher? He had talked to Radagast of his stepfather, asking what it was that compelled the Ringbearer to take the Ring to be destroyed.
"You say he went through much pain and fear and privation," Greenjade had said, shortly after finishing the Book. "And I know it was so, from what he wrote in these pages. But why? I know he felt it the right thing to do. But he lost so much...and he knew he would. He did not expect to live. And he did not end with the feeling of accomplishing a great thing, and did not win the esteem of his people. I've seen the same with the soldiers here. They did not have to go, their country was not allied with Gondor. Yet they went, because of their duty. Why did they?"
"It is simple, and yet complicated," Radagast said. "It was love that compelled them--love of others. They cared more for others than for themselves. Therefore they were willing to risk losing all, including their lives, in order to do their part to rid the world of a great threat."
"Love of others," Greenjade mused, glancing toward Sméagol, who seemed to be pretending not to hear. "Well. But might there have been more to it? Might it have been that the feeling of not doing one's duty might be even worse than death or torment? The thought of being branded a coward, a failure, a nobody? Perhaps there was a secret longing for glory of a sort?"
"I said it was complicated," Radagast said smiling. "You have seen that the mercenaries had no personal glory or esteem until we made the people see them for the heroes they are. What if they never had? Do you think the soldiers would not do the same all over again, if it were necessary and they still had all the parts they came with?"
"I think they would not," Greenjade said. "Why should they risk all for a pack of ingrates? I would go my way, myself. Why be a martyr for naught?"
"Why, indeed?" the Wizard said. "And yet...somehow I think most of them would. I dare say Ben would not. He is a cynic, and never had any strong attachments. But the others? I think they would go."
"Why so?" Greenjade said. "They are not stupid. I can see that. What of my stepfather? Do you think he would go again, if it were necessary?"
"I could not say," Radagast said soberly. "I would like to think he would. But that is no surety that he would. He was not of a military mind, but of a more scholarly sort. I think even the best of us have our limits as to how far we would go, and so he did also. As for myself, I would give much not to have to go to Mordor. It is only my great longing to return home that compels me, and not duty. I know it is my duty to go, and so I go. But not for unselfish reasons."
Greenjade remembered this conversation as he slid down to the ground in the shade of a pine tree, leaning against its rough bark and idly plucking a small white flower that grew nearby. Then he sprang up, unable to sit still, and began to wander aimlessly with his hands clasped behind his back. Scarcely anyone was about. The stillness of the village was downright eerie, and he contemplated going back to the funeral, when he glanced up to see a familiar sign.
The Golden Ram.
The inn where he and Radagast and Sméagol first came to the village. Someone was going in now. Greenjade heard the sound of clinking glasses inside, and low chatter.
And he wondered what it would be like to get roaring drunk....