Morning brought a sweet rush of chilly air that pooled upon the surface of the pond. A light fog formed in whirls and eddies upon the still, dark surface - magic rising from an elvish mirror. Frodo stood with one foot in the water. He had no jacket. The air was cool, but not spiteful, as early spring weather sometimes was. The water was very cold.
He stepped in, relishing the frozen rush up his legs. His bare arms erupted in gooseflesh as he choked out startled laughter. He wrapped his arms around his body and fought the urge to run.
Further back, Samwise watched timidly. Cotton grass and moss curled against his toes. Grouse muttered awake in crowberry shrubs. Sedge and heather ran flat against the hard ground. It grew so thick sheep and cattle could not chew it. Here and there, little pools hid beneath blankets of peat that colored the water a rich, shadowy brown. The smell and taste was bitter, barren – no fish lived in it. Only the dead and dying loved the acid womb.
Black and hard as stone, the wood fetched a good price at market. Every year an unfortunate few perished while harvesting the bogs. Years later - brown and silent, pickled as herrings, their corpses would be found. Families fled, children grew old and died: no one mourned the wizened fruit of the bogs. No one spoke their names for they were nameless.
Sam didn't trust water, but he did trust Frodo; water held no mystery for him. Frodo was raised with river-people. He knew what water could do, and so he'd brokered an understanding with it. That's what Frodo did; he negotiated with fear. Sam lacked the necessary detachment for such diplomacy. What lay beneath the dark glass simply frightened him to tears.
A nauseous swirl soured the pit of Sam's stomach. Frodo wanted him to swim. Brandy Hall bordered the Brandywine River which loved to drown hobbits. Sam was not allowed to drown, so he must swim. Nothing must harm Sam. Sam was the light of the world, or so he sometimes thought. Once, just once, he wanted to be casually stupid and not feel that Frodo's world would come down: just once – but not today.
After a nasty argument both could have done without, Sam negotiated a settlement: he would float. Frodo politely agreed. They found a small pool free of peat where the water was sweet and mild. Sam walked the perimeter, searching for treachery. There was nothing unusual, save a great number of frogs. In the oasis, the frogs celebrated by producing multiple generations of jubilant progeny. No predatory birds lurked near the pools; there usually wasn't anything worth eating.
The frogs were untouched by violence until Frodo frightened them all away. He stomped and hooted, tossed rocks in the pool, booted a slow, fat saucer shaped old king far ahead of the rest then chased him off. Sam thought the frogs would remember this, and found it mildly satisfying.
Frodo unwound his arms. Apprehension filled his face, and then he appeared to remember Sam was watching. "When you go, do so quickly, lest you invite a chill," he said.
"Yer cold, then?" Sam replied, thinking it astonishing for Frodo to admit he was a Hobbit.
"I'm used to it," Frodo replied tersely, then dove.
Arcs of silver bubbles boiled on the skin of the pond. The water swallowed him from tip to toe. In that sudden void, it was as if Frodo never was. Sam could have imagined him.
A full minute later, Frodo broke the surface. Water sluiced down his face and shoulders as he took a deep, thready breath. He bobbed a little, then nearly sank again. The water was well over his head.
Sam felt a rush of panic. Water was a jealous bitch; it hated yielding secrets and when it did, they were lies. Water changed things around, made them disappear, and ruined familiarity. Everything needed water to survive, however, too much or too little killed you.
Frodo righted himself. His dark hair lay in flat ringlets pasted to pale flesh. Brushy eyebrows and stark, black lashes looked false against the surreal blue of his eyes. He floated for a moment, then punched at the water, churning it to warm himself.
Sam thought it looked like fighting.
Frodo swam to the edge of the pool. He stood up. Water fled in runnels down his sodden clothes. The water here was shallow, not halfway up his knees. The pool quieted, then turned to glass.
"There's a rather steep drop just there. The bottom is sandy, clear. I didn't feel anything you might catch on," Frodo said. The unnatural pallor of his face slowly filled with color; a stark hint of rose on his cheeks, a bit of red on his lips. Sam studied the transformation closely. What sort of shock could strip the life right out of you then send it back with such force?
"It's refreshing – though I dare say you won't think so at first," Frodo smiled. "Come on, then - your turn."
Sam did as he was asked. Frodo's fingers felt like frigid little claws. Disjointed images flashed through Sam's mind; a familiar far off memory of unnaturally soft, wet flesh. Glimpses that made no sense; swollen lips, a feeling of fear, the ashy taste of horror – at once he knew he'd experienced all of this before.
When Sam was small, a lass fell in the By-Water pool after a dance and wasn't found for three days. The Gaffer and his mates fished her out; she was swollen as a toad and fish belly white. Her mouth was open. The inside was white as her skin. Her tongue looked like a fat maggot.
This was not what sickened Sam; the girl lay hidden under the pool for three days without a soul suspecting where she was. She disappeared.
The water would have hidden her forever if Sam's father hadn't gone to look for a ball lost during a game with the Cotton lads. The Gaffer found her, and before he could stop him, Sam toddled forward for a look. The girl's frozen, dead hand floated gently in the reeds – nails embedded in flesh so swollen it resembled veal sausage. The fingers were splayed open like rigid, meaty stars. Her face had lost all character.
The Gaffer looked so sad, then. His usual gruff demeanor folded into a grief so painful that Sam thought it must have been his mother lying there, and that's where she'd been hiding for years.
"That wasn't her," Sam shouted into the stillness. "That wasn't her!"
Frodo jumped. At once, he was filled with anxiety and remorse for pushing Sam so hard. He gripped his lover's hand tighter.
"Please, Sam - tell me what's the matter?" he said gently, willing him calm.
Sam looked at him incredulously. How could he not know?
"Your mother?" Frodo said next, guessing. He waited for Sam to respond. When he didn't, he decided to press. "Your mother didn't drown, did she?"
This did have something to do with his mother; Frodo was certain. She was a huge subject that remained largely off-limits. Frodo knew she was dead because Bilbo had warned him off asking about her. He'd often wondered if this was because Sam didn't know how his mother died.
According to Bilbo, Sam was quite small when she passed. The poor woman died giving birth to his younger sister, Marigold. It was possible Sam's family felt it best for all involved if they simply moved on.
"Do you know, then?"
Sam stared at him. "I 'ent sure."
This verified Frodo's suspicions. "No one ever told you?"
"No," Sam answered. He looked stunned. "She were there, then gone. Da' and May tol' me she passed. I weren't more than a bairn. I can't...remember?"
"I thought so." Frodo thoughts trailed off into a mix of intuition and his own painful memories. He'd often found necessity did not mesh with expectation. The presence of Sam's family hung in the short space between them. They never told Sam how she passed, only that she was never coming back. "Do you want me to tell…"
"She didn't drown!" Sam's breathing picked up, his eyes fixed on the water. The pool rippled passively, listening. Dawn blended with morning across the flat horizon. Chimney smoke from Stock faded into wan, brown ribbons. The Shire woke in a sideways, lazy drift upon the Marish. Already, the air was growing warmer.
Frodo tugged on Sam's arm, willing him closer.
Sam resisted, then took a step. "I know she didn't drown," he repeated.
Frodo was ready to give up. It wasn't his place to push Sam to crisis. Moreover, he didn't wish to hurt him, impose on his privacy, or increase the chances of Marigold finding out. These secret belonged to the Gamgees – not him. He was someone other than family.
"Perhaps…that was best."
"I don't think so."
Sam realized what was wrong – but the panic remained sharp. Fear had mixed up his memory, making it seem like the water hid his mother's secret. The girl and his mother had changed places. He could not look at water and not think of her lying there, drowned and empty.
There was no truth to it - just lies and the confusion of a lonely little boy who missed warm arms he barely remembered. "Not knowin' what happened caused me to wonder. I don't think I ever stopped? Now I'm not knowin' what to think!"
Frodo shivered. The day was suddenly ugly. His urgency abated into anxiety. His own memories threatened to drown him.
He knew, in detail, the circumstances of his own parent's death. All of Buckland helped search, but it was Frodo who found them tangled in discarded fishing nets under the Brandywine. Not much was left, and what was there never left him.
Every innocent question, every kindness meant to comfort built and built until words drowned him. He became a story. He was the boy who survived and a hundred different things all put on him by someone else.
The water had taken Sam's identity, too. Frodo understood that now.
"Better mystery than infamy," he said hollowly. "They wanted you to move on. Your family didn't think the circumstances of your mother's death were necessary for you to know. They wished for you to get on with life, and I believe this may have been your mother's wish as well; she couldn't have known it would pain you so when you tried to puzzle out who you are, or who you were. Their concern was not to burden you with what could never change, and that you had nothing to do with."
Memories of fear trickled through Sam's mind as he filled up with wounded anger. Sam trusted his father implicitly; if the Gaffer withheld this, there must have been good reason.
"Bein' I was so little, then – I mixed it up. I were thinkin' 'mam jus' left us, an' no one's the heart to tell me, like it t'were all a lie. Da said I used to look for her everywhere – under the table, in the garden, out by the Party Tree – like if I jus' looked hard enough, I'd find her. He said I'd turn me head whenever I'd hear a woman's voice, and call for 'mam. When Hal left for the north, a bit o' me thought he were goin' off to find her. I knew by then she were under the garden. Da' showed me, but it 'ent stuck here," Sam patted his chest. "I'm thinkin' it never will."
"You never stopped looking," Frodo looked up at the sky. "How could you?"
"Aye," Sam agreed, then quickly dismissed any blame. "I should have."
"I should have reckoned wi' it and got on. There's no good in stayin' fixed on what you can't change."
"That's your decision, then? What you want for yourself?"
"Oh, aye." Sam smiled. "'Tis a funny thing. The Gaffer likely thought I did, and so he didn't say. T'weren't needed. He knew I'd suss it sooner than later."
"And you have." Frodo said wonderingly as he considered his own journey. "You did suss it out yourself."
Sam rested back against Frodo's chest. Frodo clasped one arm around Sam's shoulders, left his other arm free. A cool hand felt about Sam's face, located his nose and gave it a playful twist. Sam sneezed. The hand darted back.
"Tha's what ye get!" Sam admonished. His voice was reedy, thin. The idea of deep water hadn't settled with him, yet.
"Try not to thrash," Frodo said, then stepped back. Sam stepped with him.
One moment, the sky was shot with silver and a deep, reddish plum. In the next, it was gone. The water closed over Sam's head. He panicked. His limbs spasmed out, grasping blindly for purchase. The arm across his shoulders was a steel band, unyielding.
Sam's hands found nothing – only water. He opened his mouth to scream. A great whoosh swept past his ears, and then his head broke the surface as his scream found air.
"Gods, but you're a heavy beast!" Frodo hissed in his ear. 'Kick out! Kick out!"
Sam's mouth closed with a pop. His body raced with adrenaline, shoving back a cold so deep his guts shivered. He smelled the cold – everywhere and inside everything. His legs pumped, snaring Frodo's.
Frodo kicked back mercilessly as his free arm stirred the water like a rudder, keeping them both steady. Sam's legs spread out. Cold gripped his balls as his body drew back inside itself. He kicked wildly, thwarting the pain, then was amazed as he slid back through the water. Frodo moved with him.
Frodo worked him until satisfied Sam could push-off the bottom, right himself, and then float on his back. These were all the lessons the pool would allow, and they would have to do.
The quick-running Brandywine was a different story – one filled with treachery and currents that eagerly snuffed hobbit life. If he'd not been convinced of Sam's ability to keep above water, they would have returned home. Frodo would not compromise. What that terrible river could do was evident in the ruined bodies of his parents. He'd not endure the water claiming another love.
As they rubbed each other warm on the bank of the pond, Frodo wondered at how easily the most difficult of things fell apart so swiftly for Sam. He made a decision, and that was that. There was no dithering to and fro, no meandering over complications. He either did, or did not as he chose.
Sam's life was his own. His existence might rely on things beyond his control, but Sam's life was his own – he was free. That took courage, Frodo supposed – a courage he had lacked.
"Well, we should be off," Sam said to him as he shouldered his pack. "Mind, there's naught to eat here and a ways before we settle on good company again. Yer Aunty will be wonderin' where we've both gotten off to if she's heard news from Frogmorton."
"I want to go home." Frodo said.
Sam cocked his head expectantly.
"We are going home." Frodo finished.
"But you put so much into the coming?" Sam was confused.
"Didn't I?" Frodo smiled. "I think I was rather wrong to start, to be honest. It's somehow not important to me now."
Sam rolled his eyes. "I could have tol' you tha… Didn't I tell you that? I did, didn't I?" he laughed, then gathered Frodo into his arms. "Ah, ye can be a git, Frodo Baggins!"
"I had to suss it out for myself," he replied as he snuggled against Sam's steady chest. "I must work this out my way. I don't know how, yet."
"No, it doesn't," Frodo sighed. "Let's just go home."