Disclaimer: The characters belong to Tolkien. So does Beleriand.
Mild warning for nudity - but no slash
When our Elvish guest promised to remain with us for a while I did not expect his stay e to last longer than a few weeks. He had told us he had a home, with friends and kin waiting for him. But how shall mortal men measure the time of the deathless? As we watch the growth of a tree? Most of us think it a waste of time to observe it even for an hour. Before long, I discovered that the Elven year outlasts even the ancient among us by more than half a lifetime. I wondered why a tall, strong tree would pay attention to the weeds sprouting and withering at its feet.
'But we both feel the rain and the sun, and the wind. There is life and love in both of us,' he said. 'And death, too, for a tree can be felled or struck by lightning or hollowed out from within, and wood burns as well as dry weeds, albeit more slowly. Though I would rather compare you to flowers, mellon.'
He insisted on naming me friend. But as he knew I could not bring myself to call him the same, judging it presumptuous, he did so in his fair Elven tongue. Thus, I could hold the word at arm's length and pretend this was a name like any other; I had not mastered his tongue half as well in a month as he had mastered ours in mere days. It remained strange to me, fitting me like a loose garment rather than a skin.
'Flowers are beautiful,' I objected. 'And you are the fair one here, not we.' When he opened his mouth I said swiftly: 'I know. Beauty is more than what meets the eye.'
'I could not have said it better,' he said with a slightly lopsided smile.
'I have listened attentively to one I would name wise.' I had him there, knowing he was as reluctant to be called Nóm, Wise one, as I was to claim the honour of his friendship. Yet, though I knew his name was Finrod, it did not seem to fit into my mouth.
He sighed. 'The road to wisdom is long. I have walked but part of it, wanderer though I am.'
We were strolling along the grassy bank of the sunlit stream called Thalos. Belen, the younger of my sons, was with us, an eager boy bouncing all about us like a young dog, though not quite as noisy. The weather was hot, and the wet gleam of the water such a tempting sight that I was not suprised to hear my son ask if he could bathe.
'If you stay close to the bank,' I said, for he could not swim well enough to brave the current.
In no time my son shed his tunic and splashed into the water, shrieking with pleasure. I watched him fondly, and so did my Elvish companion, though with a tinge of sadness, it seemed to me. 'Father, I will catch me a fish!' Belen shouted at us, and we laughed, but not for long. Children can be unpredictable. This one sought his fish too far out, and before we were aware of it he had plunged into waters too deep for him, and was taken by the swift stream.
I kicked my shoes off, my heart jumping to my throat, and made for the river. The movement I discerned from the corner of my eye told me that the Elf hurried away along the bank, but I could not pause to wonder why he did not follow me.
The cold of the water was not nearly as chilling as my fear, and I waded in until I gained enough depth to swim. Looking for Belen I saw that the current thwarted the child's feeble attempts to keep his head above the surface; a flailing arm here and a kicking leg there was all my eyes saw of him. With great hauls I tried to close the distance between us, but he was light as a swirling twig, while my saturated tunic and breeches made me heavier than I was. As despair and fatigue dragged me down a voice inside my head told me to think of myself, for I had more than one child to care for. An entire people.
As I floundered, I heard a loud cry: 'Swim to safety, Balan!'
Blinking my moisture-filled eyes I saw my wise Elf. He must have raced ahead along the bank, gaining enough on the running river to intercept the boy. Now he was clutching Belen to his chest, struggling back, kicking with his legs to free himself from the greedy pull of the current. And I, less heavy now, my limbs unburdened, reached the shallows in time to receive my child from the arms that had saved his life.
Incoherent with relief I stammered my thanks; if there was a reply I missed it, pressing my child against me.
After that, we said nothing for a while, too busy to make Belen spit out water and rub warmth into his chilled body. When he sat up at last he was pale and shaken; yet I would have rebuked him most sternly - if I in my turn had not failed to protect my son against himself.
When I returned with the child's tunic the Elflord had stripped and spread his garments over a bush to dry. I did the same. Belen, recovering from the twofold shock of near-drowning and finding himself less strong and able than in his boyish fancies, stood and observed us both, a pensive look on his face. I observed him, and it struck me that his body bore a closer resemblance to the Elf's, smooth and flawless, than to my own, coarse and hairy and showing the first signs of aging. But to my surprise, my son said: 'We are all alike below the waist, are we not? We all have a cock and balls.'
I could not help myself. Hearing a child declare himself the equal of two adults on this particular count was too funny. I roared with laughter. The Elflord's mirth was less exuberant, but he laughed as well.
It did not escape my son that he was the source of our merriment. 'Well, it is true, is it not?' he said indignantly, and with his chin up he stalked off into the trees growing along the riverbank, his tunic slung across one shoulder.
My laughter subsided when I watched his small, slender back disappear among the greenery. But one cannot keep a lively boy on a leash.
'Do not worry overmuch. Your son has more of a squirrel than of a fish,' the Elflord said. 'He will climb carefully, so as not to make himself twice the fool he fears to be.'
So he had caught both my concern and the boy's intentions. This happened again and again: whenever there seemed to be a similarity in which I could take comfort, he had to do or say something to drive home the difference between himself and us mortals not gifted with Sight, or power of making story and song come tangibly alive, or the uncanny ability to know the minds of others.
'Is it true? Are we all alike?' I asked.
I was grave enough, but he noticed my change of mood, and grasping the reason behind it he tried to make light of it. 'You mean, below the waist?'
If that was what he wanted to speak about... but I would not let him off so easily. 'If I am not mistaken,' I replied, 'two young widows among my people have offered you their favours. I do not know that you bedded either. Nor do you take an interest in any of the maidens who smile at you when they think their fathers do not watch them.'
Suddenly the fire in his bright eyes flared dangerously high. 'Ah! You mean that one of your race would accept such offers?'
Throwing caution to the wind I replied: 'Not unlikely. If he was capable. Unless he preferred males.'
He cast me a smile I would have called crooked if it had been sitting any less straight on his fair face, and turned his entire, long-limbed body towards me. For a moment, I was deceived into thinking that he took my reckless words for an invitation, and was about to act on it. I tensed.
The fierceness of his gaze diminished, and I realised how ridiculous my thought was. 'Have you not noticed, then, that I am bound, mellon?' he asked.
'Bound? You have a wife? How could I have known, wise lord?' I asked, out of my depths.
He, too, seemed puzzled. 'By reading my eyes, surely, as I can read yours? Can you not -'
When he saw me shake my head he fell silent, and to my dismay I felt the rift between us widen ever so slightly.
'So you disregard our women because you are wed...'
'I regard them highly, but desire them I could not.'
It was none of my concern how literally he meant this. Nor was I willing to point out that some of us mortal men would never let a wife stand in their way, for this would make us seem even more alien in his eyes. 'Will I meet your lady one day?' I asked quickly.
If I had hoped to broach a more comfortable subject, I failed. An abyss opened in his face, and out of it rose naked yearning, brushing past me on frantic wings to seek things fair but far away. 'She is in the West that is barred to me,' he said at last.
He had told me of the rebellion and exile of his people, and of his sorrows and regrets, but it was only now that I could fathom the least bit of their depth, and it wrung my heart.
Suddenly, though, a different thought struck me. 'But how do you hold out?'
A slight frown.
'Surely you have... your desires?'
Understanding dawned on his face. 'I do,' was all he said, making me wonder which of the two questions he answered.
'But... you told me you cannot return?' It seemed impossible. Unbearable. The question whether he had left any children behind clung to my tongue; asking it would but hurt him more.
He rose to pluck his clothes from the bush, though they could hardly be dry yet. 'If I ever see her again, it will be far beyond the Houses of the Dead,' he said softly, 'and both she and I may have moved beyond desire.'
I could not even pretend to understand. Despite the heat of the sun and the warm wind on my skin a chill, deeper than the cold waters of the river, crept into my bones. A shadow seemed to ripple across the glittering stream and the blue of the sky. I shivered. And while my ears caught a rustle of leaves announcing the return of my son, I saw my wise Elf tremble as well: with sorrow, with dread - fear of darkness, fear of death - and for a brief instant the rift between us was no more than a seam in the skirt of the universe* that had borne us both.
My son's sudden voice broke our silence. 'I climbed to the top of a tree,' he cried triumphantly!'
'And what did you see from above?' I asked, happy to see him hale.
'The whole world!' Belen said excitedly. 'Well, most of it,' he added when he saw us exchange a look.
'And did you like what you see?'
'It was great!'
'Wise are the eyes of a child,' said Finrod, his smile returning. 'It is.'
*the phrase 'skirt of the universe' was taken from a poem by the Dutch poet Lucebert
According to one of the genealogies of the Edain, Belen was the forefather of Emeldir the Man-hearted, mother of Beren.