Title: The Taste of Strawberries
Author: Frodo Baggins of Bag End (FrodoAtBagEnd)
E-mail: febobe at yahoo.com (Use the symbol, not the word, obviously. :) )
Characters: Sam, Frodo, various others (Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf, Ioreth, etc.) by reference.
Rating: G to PG. This story falls within the guidelines of the FrodoHealers group in both letter and spirit, free from profanity or sexual content, and is entirely non-slash.
Feedback: Welcomed. Constructive only, please. . .no flaming.
Summary: Following the Quest, in the midst of all the ceremonies and festivities in Minas Tirith, Frodo is not faring well. . .but Sam makes a discovery that evokes memories, and perhaps he can help his master. . . .
Story Notes/Announcements: Extremely heavy spoilers for book and movie ROTK contained herein. If for some reason you're avoiding those, you'll want to avoid this story.
For permission to reproduce any part of this fanfic, please contact febobe at yahoo.com.
DISCLAIMER: The characters, places, and story of The Lord of the Rings are the property of J.R.R. Tolkien and consequently of the Tolkien Estate, with select rights by Tolkien Enterprises. This piece appears purely as fanfiction and is not intended to claim ownership of Tolkien's work in any way. Please e-mail me if you have concerns. Original characters are my own work; please do not use my creations in your work. Please respect my original contributions. Furthermore, please do NOT consider any treatments or remedies within this story safe or effective for use: these are included as fictitious hobbit care, not real human medical practice, and while some can indeed be traced to actual therapeutic practices, could be dangerous. Please consult your health care professional before treating yourself or others for any condition or symptom. Absolutely NO slash or sexual connotations are intended or implied.
THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES
They were on their way through the city when he saw it.
On the way to some to-do or another, honouring the perry-ann-whatever everyone called them here.
Hollow inside, that's how it all felt: Mr. Frodo was tucked up in bed in the Houses of Healing, for he had fallen gravely ill within only hours of their reaching the city, waking in such a bad fever he hardly knew even Sam at first, though his slender body shook with violent chills. At first, Aragorn had tended him constantly, not leaving his side for an instant, but as he grew better, there were demands that must be balanced, Gandalf said, and so the King had yielded to create a small circle of elite caregivers allowed to look after Frodo during the hours he was away, widening it only as Mr. Frodo's fever remained down for many days. But the great halls of the King were all but emptied with the celebrations, and even a small host of nurses and healers would have been hard-pressed to look after him alone there, with no easy way of running errands or calling for special herbs or fetching more water. Sam had offered, of course, even begged, to do all those things, but Aragorn had refused him, insisting that he must not exhaust himself so soon after their ordeal, showing him how safe and comfortable Frodo would be in the Houses of Healing.
And indeed, Sam had to admit that they looked to be doing a fair enough job of it: Frodo lay in the midst of a fine soft bed, propped with pillows, snowy covers smoothed over his thin frame. That Ioreth that had tended Mr. Merry didn't seem likely to leave the Ringbearer for half a moment; healers came and went to bring supplies or items Mr. Frodo might want, but she herself didn't stir from his side, not even when he was sleeping, her attention all given over to keeping cool cloths on his brow and warm blankets around his shoulders and soft, reassuring touch to his struggling frame when nightmares troubled him. One thing was certain: she at least understood the importance of making sure Mr. Frodo had all the water he wanted, and he'd slipped back often enough quietly on silent hobbit-feet after saying good-night or good-afternoon to his master, after she thought him gone, to watch that he felt comforted in this, having now seen that the slightest stir from him would call her attention at once, the slightest murmur for drink bring prompt offering of all that he wished. Sam was glad of it; he'd not have his master doing without. . .not here, not when it was no longer necessary. Still, she'd seemed so chatty at first meeting that Sam feared leaving Mr. Frodo with her, but reluctantly, with Mr. Merry's reassurances, he had yielded. . .and it seemed a match made well enough.
But it wasn't right.
It just wasn't right.
And Sam felt like a thief - an impostor - going in for such honour, with Mr. Frodo lying so pale and still in a quiet room. He'd been fading ever since days after they woke, even before falling ill again, and didn't seem to be doing a bit better in that.
But when he saw it, the dark thoughts drew back like storm-clouds, and he hurried away despite the abrupt and confused protests of Merry and Pippin. Even as they followed him, he shielded the place with his body, triumphantly straightening at last before turning about and reversing direction, ignoring every gasp and whisper. Only when they reached the little house that was Gandalf's and was to be theirs as well did he reveal his prize.
Even then they did not understand. Not fully.
But he himself knew. And that was more than enough.
"Mr. Frodo. . .Frodo, dear, look what your Sam's brought for you. . . ."
With an effort, Frodo opened his eyes, blinking against the gentle light of the room, still so aching and sore all over that for any other caregiver, the struggle might well have ended there. Even Ioreth, whom he had come to rely upon and of whom he was greatly fond, had offered him treats several times since this morning's breakfast, which had been fed him by Gandalf. . .only to be refused save for cool water, and a few mouthfuls of brothy soup at luncheon; cream soups still seemed too rich, and he could not stomach them.
But this was Sam, and his tone was so eager and pleading that Frodo could not help looking about for whatever it might be, though the prospect of actually eating anything at the moment seemed unappealing.
And knowing Sam, that was most likely precisely what he had in mind.
"Aren't you supposed to be at the Garden of Pheriannath opening-ceremonies this very moment, Sam? What have you brought?"
Sam beamed proudly, nodding. "That I am, sir. But I don't reckon I'm supposed to be there any more than I'm supposed to be here. . .leastways not seeing what I ran into on the very way there."
Taking a small tray from the bedside table, he set it carefully over Frodo's lap, lifting the lid gingerly.
For a moment, Frodo simply blinked. . .there was the iced-water he longed for, and begged to have upon every tray brought to him. . .and chilled milk, one of the few places he and the healers agreed regarding nourishment that he felt he could swallow and keep down. . . .
The answer, however, lay in the very centre of the tray, in three delicately arranged dishes. Wonderfully thick fresh cream filled the first of these, good as any the Shire could have called its own. The larger plate held slices of bread carefully cut into triangles, moist yet still soft-solid, a snowy covering of powdered sugar dusting the lot.
Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?
And the final plate was rimmed with strawberries, the rest arranged neatly in the centre.
It'll be Spring soon. . . .
"Sam - "
"I thought you might like to try 'em, Mr. Frodo. . .the first of the strawberries, with cream? And I made a bit of strawberry eggy bread, the way you like it, all sugared. . .that'll go down right nice with milk. . . . Mr. Pippin, he was all ready to fry you up some bacon to go with it, but I didn't want the risk of the house getting burnt down while I was trying to work, and it - well, begging your pardon, sir, but - it seemed right this way, considering. . . ."
And the orchards'll be in blossom. . .and the birds'll be nesting in the hazel-thicket. . .
He lifted a berry, extending it gently toward Frodo's lips.
"Come now, sir. . .just a taste?"
And they'll be sowing the summer barley in the Lower Fields. . .
Trembling, Frodo opened his mouth, closing his eyes as he took a tentative bite.
And eating the first of the strawberries with cream. . . .
Tart and sweet all at the same time. . .sweet and tickly from the lovely soft-rough outside of the berry, with its tiny seeds, the smooth pulpy insides soothing his perpetually dry lips at the same time. . . .
Do you remember the taste of strawberries?
A stray trickle of juice required his attention, and he licked it away before it could run down his chin, opening his eyes to find Sam watching with steady, anxious eyes, ready with a cupful of water.
All at once Frodo swallowed tightly, tears beginning to escape down his face.
"Why, Mr. Frodo, what's the matter? Didn't you like it? Didn't you. . ." Sam hesitated, lowering his voice a little. "recognise it?"
How could he explain? Frodo only broke into a smile, managing another swallow to enable speaking.
"It's just what I wanted, Sam. It's perfect."
And strangely, it was. He had been served so many good things. . .coddled eggs, buttered toast cut into tiny pieces, vegetable soup, mushroom-packages, sweet cherry dumplings, chicken soup with custard-shapes, iced seed-cakes, smoothly cooked and thinned porridge, peach foam, little ginger-cakes, beef broth with mushroom-flowerettes, apple jelly, miniature sandwiches in every imaginable variation, warm milk with flavourings added to entice him to drink. . . . With Merry's supervision, Pippin had even made his infamous Apple-Cheese Toast and some tomato soup,nd though the stories of its making had given Frodo an afternoon of laughter, he had been unable to eat even a mouthful of either delight left for him by his anxious cousins. "Is there nothing we can bring you that you would like, dear?" Ioreth would coax. To this, Frodo could only shake his head: he had heard Aragorn's instructions, and knew that he was not restricted to liquids or special foods, and that if it could be prepared in the city at present, it would be done for him.
And yet food seemed only an abstract memory, something he had no real concept of. . .and though they fed and bathed and dosed him daily, it felt as if he were no longer in his body at all, but watching it from some corner of the room. It was only a matter of what seemed least distasteful at the moment.
Still watching him closely, Sam positively beamed, taking up the fork.
"There now, sir. Let me just cut a bit of this up nice and ready for you."
Frodo nodded and settled against his pillows. . .but the tears continued to flow even as he watched Sam's steady, methodical work.
After a long moment, he withdrew his hand - the injured one - from its usual place entwined within the nest of covers, putting it cautiously toward the plate.
Sam looked up briefly, but said nothing, smiling warmly as he continued, forking a perfectly cut little bite of eggy bread, red-and-white with berry and sugar. "Just let me know when you want a drink or something, sir."
A slight nod. . .Frodo selected a berry, managing to dip it into the cream before bringing it carefully back up to his lips, balancing it without benefit of the additional finger should he lose his hold on the fruit. He didn't realise he had been holding his breath until he had to release it to take a bite.
After a moment, he realised that Sam had been holding his own breath as well, watching eagerly as his master ate a little.
"There now, Mr. Frodo. See if that's not just the thing."
Frodo nodded, sucking contentedly on the sticky-sweet juice and finishing the berry before allowing Sam to feed him a bite of eggy bread, then a sip of milk from the tumbler, before trying another berry, again taking it with his maimed hand, cautious in his tremulous efforts, pleased when the younger hobbit smiled reassuringly and offered encouragement.
Last summer. . .his last summer in the Shire, eating strawberries in the late afternoon at Brandy Hall when he went up to make what he thought might be a last anniversary-visit to the graves of his parents. It seemed fitting, somehow, to take them along after gathering them and rinsing them in fresh water, just as they had taught him when he was still small enough to sit in the big basket they used for berrying. So he did, and sat between them, telling them softly, in low whispers, that he must say good-bye.
Sam offered him another sip of milk, and he drank, retrieving another berry, this time more secure in his efforts.
His first summer without Bilbo. A dismal and joyous prospect it seemed at the same time, both gloomy and gleeful. . .until, that is, he had come down with the worst summer cold he had ever had: stuffy, dripping nose; aching eyes and head; dry, raspy cough; sore, scratchy throat; chills and fever enough to send him to bed, though not severe enough for him to call for Aunt Dora or for a healer or doctor. But soon there had come the soft sound of foot-falls, and Sam's sweet voice - he had worried, he said, at not seeing the master out, particularly as Mr. Frodo had been looking a bit peaked the last time he'd seen him, and so he'd come to see whether his master needed any looking after. And he had brought a basketful of things - hot chicken soup to clear Frodo's head and chest, a fresh loaf of newly-baked bread and honey to soothe a sore throat, fresh milk to be warmed and mixed with honey to help Frodo sleep despite his misery.
And best of all, there had been strawberries. . .wonderful, sweet, ripe, red strawberries which Sam put in milk with a bit of sugar and fed him. And that afternoon he had cried for Bilbo, sobbing like a child while Sam held him and rubbed his back and let him weep.
This one was a bit more tart, more bittersweet, yet still perfect with the characteristic smoothness of strawberry-firmness-and-softness in its texture.
A picnic. . .he had been so pleased, and then more strawberries at bed-time! It was like Yule and his birth-day and Uncle Bilbo visiting and everything good in the world all rolled up into a single day, and he had beamed with delight as Mamma snuggled beside him on his bed, letting him spoon up strawberries and cream with his special little silver spoon that had been a mathom from Bilbo when Frodo was very, very small. He had had all his favourite foods that day - and, better still, the company of his parents the whole day - and felt pleasantly sleepy, as only young hobbits with full tummies really can, at peace in the comfort of his mother's presence. Pushing the empty bowl aside, he yawned and put his arms around her warm figure, curling up against her and closing his eyes. He did not even remember when she laid him down in bed and tucked him in, but he remembered feeling the brush of her lips against his forehead - a light, tender kiss like butterfly wings - her usual goodnight-kiss when he was already mostly asleep. And he had smiled, because Mamma always kissed him goodnight, and Mamma always came to wake him with first breakfast in the morning, and so it would be until he was a tweenager, and waking on his own and going to meet her and Papa at the table. . . . But then he woke, what seemed too short a time afterward, to the smell of river-water and his aunt's sorrowful face as she clutched a familiar piece of ribbon. . . .
Tearfully Frodo smiled, accepting another sip of milk before attempting to speak, lifting his hand to allay Sam's concerns as the younger hobbit cast him an anxious look.
"Are you all right, Mr. Frodo? Do you need your medicine? Would you like some water? I can feed you the berries, if you'd like, though you're doing a right fine job all by yourself. . . ."
Frodo shook his head, reaching for another berry.
"I'm fine, Sam. Just. . .just remembering."