Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters of J. R. R. Tolkien, nor any of the various dramatic incarnations thereof. No profit is being made from this work.
Greetings! Welcome to the story. Before we begin, there are, as usual, some important announcements. The first is a warning. This story deals with some fairly dark and disturbing issues, including a suicide. There is nothing particularly gory or gruesome here, but the pitch will run fairly high. If, at any time, you feel that the story is getting to be too much for you, feel free to stop reading it and read something else. I will not be offended.
All right. With that out of the way, a little background. Tolkien describes the fate of Frodo's parents very briefly at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, but doesn't offer much of an explanation, and the other characters don't seem to find what explanation is given especially credible. The implication is that the drownings were an accident; however, it is quite difficult to drown an adult in a boat. Most accidental fair-weather adult drownings are the unfortunate result of too much beer and horseplay, neither of which seem to have been much of a factor in this case. With that in mind, I asked myself a question which I usually ask myself no more than about five times a day -- "How did that get there?" This story is the result.
The action takes place from roughly early September to mid-October in the year 1380 of the Shire Reckoning. Take care of yourself, enjoy it, and I will meet you at the end.
1. The Heart Has Its Reasons
"Da! I'm home!" Frodo Baggins made his entrance with all of the flurry and noise of his eleven years. He slammed the door, shuffled his feet, kicked a ball, and crunched an apple. Drogo Baggins looked up from his mending and smiled. Frodo went through the knees of his breeches at an astonishing rate trying to keep up with the older lads. At least it gave Drogo plenty of opportunities to practice his mending skills. A few more patches, and he'd almost have Primula's knack for it. Much as he enjoyed his newfound skill, Drogo did wish that his wife would get well soon.
Frodo shuffled into the kitchen and reflexively sniffed the air. Every day, he arrived home after an afternoon in the orchards, or at the creek, or hanging around unwatched fields, and he hoped that this time he would smell gingerbread. Every day he hoped that his mother would be well again and baking his favorite treat. Every day he was disappointed. The kitchen was cold, and his mother still lay in her bed with her face turned to the wall, or sat idly in her armchair staring at her lap. It had been two months, but Frodo still held out a little hope.
He returned to the sitting room and draped his arms over the back of Drogo's chair in the almost-embrace of a half-grown child. "Still the same, Da?" he asked.
"Still the same," Drogo sighed.
"When will she be better?"
Drogo set his mending down. "I don't know," he admitted. "But you've got to be patient a while longer. The midwife said it might last a season or two."
"It's not fair," Frodo said. "She's my Ma, too. Why doesn't she think of me sometimes, not just Bluebell?"
"A daughter is special to a woman, Frodo. You've got to give her some time. You're her firstborn, and you're special, too. She'll remember you in time. Just be patient." Drogo carefully bit off a thread. "There," he said. "That's done. Not as neatly as your Ma would do it, but serviceable enough, I'd say. I'll get supper started. Why don't you go outside and gather some of your sister's flowers for your mother?"
"Yes, Da." Frodo went out and around to the back garden. Beyond the vegetable patch and the herb garden, past the beehive, there was a small stone surrounded by pretty blue flowers. The flowers were fading, but the stone still looked as raw and out of place to Frodo as ever. He knelt by the stone and traced the letters carved there. "Bluebell Baggins, 1380," it read. Primula had been absolutely sure her late second child would be a girl, and had chosen the name months before the baby was due in high summer. She had sailed through the pregnancy, looking forward to her daughter with girlish anticipation, until the day she noticed that the child had ceased to move inside of her.
Frodo had picked up on Primula's nervousness despite her attempts to stay outwardly cheerful in front of her son. Drogo had sent for the midwife, who arrived just after the noon dinner. The midwife had examined Primula and clucked sadly while doing so. She dosed Primula liberally with foul-smelling castor oil and hustled her away into the master bedroom. Drogo had sent Frodo out into the garden with strict orders not to return inside until he was called. Frodo had played outside all afternoon, then waited under the apple tree as the sun went down and the first stars began to appear. The moon had risen high in the sky, and Frodo had become quite angry at having been forgotten before Drogo had appeared at the door and called him. Frodo had seen his father's drawn face, and began to feel frightened for the first time.
Numbly, he had listened to Drogo's hushed explanation. The baby had been stillborn, the cord wrapped tightly around her neck. The midwife was in with Primula and poor Bluebell, and would allow Frodo to come in and see his sister if he wanted. He had gone in, and he had been terribly frightened by the emptiness he saw in his mother's face as she clutched the bundle that was his little sister's body. Drogo had buried Bluebell and arranged a stone for her, and Frodo had planted flowering bluebells around the grave.
There weren't many left this late in the year, but Frodo gathered the last of the fresh ones and added some late roses to the bouquet. When he thought the bunch of flowers was big enough, he brought it inside and arranged it neatly in an old jam jar full of water. Drogo examined the bouquet and pronounced it acceptable, and Frodo carefully carried it into the bedroom.
Primula sat in her armchair by the fire, dressed in a nightgown and wrapped in a light shawl. A clean, faded old quilt covered her lap. Her hands, which before had always been full of knitting or mending, lay idly folded, and she stared dully at the fire. Her hair fell in long tangles about her face. Frodo set the bouquet on the night table and went to his mother. He smoothed the rough hair back from her face and kissed her.
"I brought you some flowers, Ma," he said. "The baby's flowers, bluebells. They'll make the room pretty for you. Please come back soon, Ma. I miss you." He put his arms around Primula, kissed her again, and went back to the kitchen.
Drogo set down two plates of sausages, beans and carrots, all boiled until they were more or less tender. Frodo poked at his food. Drogo tried, but cooking had never been among his talents, and the years of marriage to Primula had eroded his already dubious skills. The food he had produced since Primula's withdrawal was nourishing but hardly inspired. Frodo sighed and munched a mouthful of carrots.
"Why can't we have stuffed peppers again, Da?" he asked. "Couldn't you make those one night?"
"I haven't the foggiest idea how to stuff a pepper," Drogo said shortly. "That was your mother's job."
Frodo sighed and stirred his beans and carrots together. "I'm tired of boiled dinners," he said.
"Why don't you learn to make something else, then?" Drogo asked. "I'm sure Esme would teach you, or what's her name? Merimac's wife?"
"Nina," Frodo supplied. "Not her. She's always got Berry hanging around. He'd get in the way. He's just a baby."
"Well," said Drogo, "I can see why you wouldn't want Nina to teach you. But what about Esme? She hasn't got any babies to distract you."
Frodo scowled. The idea of learning to cook appealed to him on a certain level. It might be fun, and it did offer the promise of better things to eat. But the thought of good food alone wasn't enough to cheer him. What he really wanted was someone to cook the good food for him and inspect his hands with a motherly thoroughness before he ate it. Frodo tried to remember to wash his hands, but sometimes he forgot, and Drogo sometimes forgot to ask. Frodo mushed some beans and carrots together with his fork.
"I'll think about it," he said.
Drogo smiled. "After you learn to cook, you could teach me," he suggested. "To tell you the truth, I'm getting tired of boiled dinner, too."
Frodo looked up. "Really, Da?" he asked.
"Really. My stars, boy, I've been eating your mother's cooking longer than you have. I'll bet I miss it more than you do."
Frodo giggled. "Bet you don't," he said happily. Suddenly, cooking didn't look so bad. Perhaps he would ask Esme when he went up to the Hall the next day to play with Cady.
Alone in the bedroom, Primula slowly looked up from the hypnotic dancing flames in the fireplace and listened to the faint voices of her husband and her son. She heard their laughter as they discussed their plans, and she made a decision.
Frodo spent the next day playing with his tweenaged Brandybuck cousins. Uncle Dino's youngest son Cady had been Frodo's idol ever since Frodo was big enough to toddle, and Cady had never seemed to mind having his little cousin tag along in his games. Today, Cady and his friends had taken Frodo to a nearby pasture where ponies grazed, and they had spent the entire day trying to catch and ride the ponies bareback around the field. The ponies were hard to catch and harder to stay on, but Frodo had managed a few thrilling gallops. By the time the boys trudged back to Brandy Hall, Frodo was tired and sore, but still glowing with the excitement.
He waved goodbye to Cady and was just setting off down the path to his own house when he remembered that he had something to ask. "Cady!" he called, trotting back to the door. "Is Esme at home? I want to ask her something."
"She ought to be," Cady said. "Why don't you come in and sit on the bench while I look for her? You'd better wipe your feet on the mat," he added, looking at Frodo's mud-spattered legs. Frodo obediently wiped the worst of the mud off and knelt on the bench in the anteroom. He was inspecting Uncle Rory's curiosity cabinet, an item that never failed to fascinate him, when Esmeralda Brandybuck walked in, wiping her hands on her apron.
"The little brass candlesticks are my favorites," she said. "They're dwarf-work, and there's none like them around here."
Frodo turned around and climbed off the bench. "Hello, Esme," he said.
"Cady said you wanted to ask me something."
"Esme," Frodo began shyly. "Would you -- I mean, you know how my mother is now, and Da, well, he's kind and he tries, but -- Esme, do you think you could show me how to cook?"
"How to cook what?" Esme asked, surprised.
"Everything." As Esme continued to look puzzled, Frodo elaborated. "My Da tries to cook, I know he does, but the only thing he knows how to make is boiled dinner, and I'm getting so tired of that, and so is he. He said I could learn to cook, and then I could teach him, and then we could have good food again, just like we had before -- before. . . " his voice trailed off.
Understanding dawned in Esme and brought with it a flood of pity. "Oh, Frodo," she said. "Of course I'll teach you how to cook. My goodness, what were we all thinking, poor Primula still out of sorts and only you and your father to take care of each other. I'll teach you how to cook whatever you want."
"Can we start today?" Visions of stuffed peppers danced in Frodo's head.
"We'll start tomorrow," Esme promised. "It's late, and you're tired and dirty. But I'll tell you what. I'll send you home with a right big covered dish. All you and your father have to do is put it in the oven and warm it up."
"We won't be eating your supper, will we?" Frodo asked anxiously.
"Oh, no," Esme assured him. "No, I was making chicken pies today, and I had enough pastry for an extra one. I was going to save it to pop in the oven tomorrow, but I'll send it home with you instead. You can help me make its replacement tomorrow."
"Chicken pie!" Frodo clapped his hands. Life was looking better already.
The chicken pie was delicious, and both Frodo and Drogo were in high spirits after their grand supper. Frodo chattered all through supper about his cooking lessons, and spun wild fantasies of elaborate dishes which he intended to prepare. Drogo laughed, and as he cleared the dishes away he ruffled Frodo's hair.
"Go tell your mother all your plans while I wash up," he said.
Frodo skipped into the bedroom, plopped himself down on the bed, and launched into his tale a second time. Halfway through, he became aware that something had changed, and he stopped talking in mid-sentence.
Primula had turned her head and was looking straight at him instead of staring at the floor or the fire or the wall as she had for the past two months. Overjoyed, Frodo ran to throw his arms around his mother and kiss her.
"You'll see, Ma, I'll be a real good cook," he promised her. "If you get better, I'll cook your favorite things for you to eat. You'll see. I'll take such good care of you, Ma."
Primula rewarded her son with her first smile in two months before slipping back into impassivity again. Frodo kissed her again before letting out a loud whoop and running to find Drogo.
The weeks that followed remained infused with a golden haze in Frodo's memory. Esme kept her promise to him, and every day, Frodo stood at her elbow and helped her cook, plain food, but nourishing and tasty. The first day he watched, but Esme soon had him chopping vegetables, stirring sauces and rolling pastry. Every day, Frodo carried home a dish that he had had a hand in making.
As his cooking skills grew, so too did Primula begin to emerge from her shell. She did not transform instantly into the strong, loving mother Frodo had known, but she did improve slowly. She began to talk again, and brush her hair, which glowed brown in the lamp light. One day, Frodo carried home a mushroom barley soup he had made all by himself and found Primula nicely dressed and ready to eat supper at the table with her husband and son.
The highlight of this golden time was Frodo's twelfth birthday. Esme baked him a cake, and a package arrived by post from his cousin Bilbo off in Hobbiton. Bilbo shared Frodo's birthday, and had been sending him marvelous presents for as long as Frodo could remember. In return, Frodo had always sent something small, usually strange childish drawings or oddly shaped clay pots. This year he had sent a box of small ginger cakes, carefully wrapped so as not to spoil, that he had baked with Esme's help. Bilbo's package contained a curved disc of glass set in a frame with a handle. When Frodo looked at things through the glass, they looked much larger, and he could see fine details he had never seen before.
He played with the glass most of the evening after supper, inspecting the rug, the portraits on the wall, the candlesticks and Drogo's bald spot until Primula announced haltingly that it was high time for him to be in bed. Frodo carefully laid the magnifying glass in its velvet-lined box and kissed his mother good night. She put her arms around him awkwardly, but soon tightened them into a real hug. "Good night, my great big darling boy," she said softly.
The next day, when Frodo went to see Esme, she filled his pockets with apples and sent him out to play with Cady. "You've learned most of what I can teach you," she explained. "You should start practicing on your own now. Besides, there's the big do coming up, and I won't have time to teach you for a while."
"What big do?" Frodo asked.
Esme smiled mysteriously. "I imagine you'll be hearing about it soon enough," she told him. "Now, why don't you bring this jug of cider out to Cady and the lads and play with them for a while. You won't get many more chances, for it'll be cold before you know it."
Frodo took the jug and skipped out the door to find his cousin. He was sorry to lose the attention from Esme, but he hadn't seen Cady for a while, and he wanted to show off his present from Bilbo. Frodo was willing to bet any amount of hazelnuts that none of Cady's friends had such a clever glass to look at things with.
Cady was indeed as impressed as Frodo had hoped, and the group spent much of the day catching insects and plucking leaves and flowers and examining them under the glass. When Frodo arrived home that evening, he was covered in mud from the creek bed. Drogo marched him firmly around to the back of the house and dumped several pails of water on him before allowing him inside.
As Frodo was cleaning the glass and packing it away in its box, he noticed a heavy, cream-colored envelope with a gold wax seal lying on Drogo's desk. "What's that, Da?" he asked.
"That came by post today," Drogo said. "We've been invited to Brandy Hall in a fortnight for a party."
"That must be the do that Esme told me about," Frodo said. "What's the party for?"
Drogo smiled. "Do you remember your cousin Milo Burrows?" he asked. Frodo nodded. The Burrowses lived rather far away in Pincup, but Frodo remembered fondly a few holidays spent there when he was little. "Well," Drogo said, "Milo will be coming of age in two weeks, and he's to be betrothed to Miss Peony Baggins of Hobbiton that same night."
"Peony Baggins?" Frodo asked. "Is she related to us?"
"Let me think," Drogo said. He turned his eyes to the ceiling and counted on his fingers for a moment. "Ah," he said at last. "I have it. She's third cousin to you, through old Cousin Posco. Your mother will be pleased. I think Milo was always her favorite nephew."
Primula did indeed seem pleased by the news. "Milo will be grown up and starting a family of his own," she said. "I have so wanted to see that. I remember when he was just learning to walk." She smiled a gentle, mysterious smile.
Frodo settled down on the floor with a piece of scrap paper and some charcoal and began to sketch idly. He drew Primula and Drogo sitting together by the lamp and he hummed a little as he made plans for the next day. He and Cady could go to the creek again and make toy boats out of leaves and sail them down the creek all the way to the place where the creek met the Brandywine River. And if he was careful to come home early enough, he could cook something grand for supper. And, of course, there was the great "do" at Brandy Hall to look forward to.
Just the thought of the party made him smile. There would be food, music, presents and dancing, and Frodo would be allowed to stay up well into the night. But best of all, the party would make his mother happy again. Frodo wiggled with joy at that thought. He considered the portrait he was drawing and added a smile to Primula's face.