Bag End. Winter 1420 (S.R.)

Another somnolent snowflake lazes its way down to the earth, and I watch out the round window in a darkness all my own.

"It's looking like a white start to Yuletide, Mister Frodo." Sam's voice startles me silent in reply. "Not too white, mind you; perhaps just enough to dust the ground and give the lads snowball fodder... They always need some fun this time of year, don't you think?"

"Yes..." Those smothering snowflakes. "Yes, I suppose they do." Somewhere out there, beyond the cold, beyond the weary snow, the world rushes on in a mad gallivant for what really matters. I sit by the window, and don't meet Sam's eyes.

He is quiet for a moment, clucking his tongue once, softly, sadly. "You're coming to the Cottons' to eat with us tonight, aren't you?" The inflection in his tone can't deceive me: it isn't really a question. "It won't be right without you."

But it will be. "Thank you, Sam-"

My dearest friend, if only I had your resilience; if only I could hear lays sung in Rivendell, stare into the profundity of Kheled-zaram, watch the sun set over Mordor, wear real power on my hand- and remain content with a snowy night and a mug of ale. Does this pettiness not chafe at the scars of our quest? Is it not an unseemly epilogue to the awful splendor of the tale of the Ring?

I pick idly at the bone jutting out from my right index finger's remains. "-but I think I'll just stay home tonight."

"And the next night and the next and the next?" Sam sighs. "You can't let your shadows lock you in here, Mr. Frodo."

I muster my best laugh. "What shadows?"

"Both of us know just what." His tone won't retain that darkness long: "You'll be there, Frodo, if I have to send Nick and Jolly to drag you over by your toes." (My best laugh is closer to a dry cough.) "Don't worry about no presents; don't worry about no food. Just come."

The snow lulls me, fitting the dead yellow grass with a ghostly pallor. "I'll try."

"There's no trying to it, Mr. Frodo; you're coming. Thought I'd stop home and tell you before the family's expecting me back." He places his bronzed gardener's hand on my shoulder and squeezes like any friend ought. After that he's gone, and within a minute I'm watching him walk past the window, disappear slowly into the monotonous white haze.

And so it goes with life. All things are eventually swallowed up by oblivion, whether in a crescendo of blackness or a lullaby of grey. I rise slowly, deliberately, feeling my stiff bones pop and creak at the change in position; they've grown accustomed to the seat by the window.

I limp my way across the cluttered room as full circulation returns to my legs, staggering like a blind man around stacks of Bilbo's books bound in red and blue and gold. I reach the wardrobe and open it delicately, picking out breeches, a shirt and coat in something like aggravation. I'll hear about it from Sam and Rosie both if I don't make an appearance tonight, and some shimmering, distant line of thought knows it's best that I go out. Maybe, just maybe the fesitivites will distract me.

Wash face, comb hair. Off with the stale clothes and the tea-stains on the sleeve; on with the fresh, and slip the elven cloak over all; its fabric is soft against my hands and neck. Tucking the Queen's jewel under my shirt, another glance in the vanity mirror reveals a skeletal figure, one whose clothes sag off his shoulders and who peers out of the glass with bloodshot blue eyes.

"What does it matter?" I say aloud to the image. A few more minutes of preparation- digging out gloves and scarf (both green), snuffing a few lamps and lighting one to walk by-and rolling my shoulders back I open the door and cross the threshold. A sudden, bellicose wind slams Bag End's door shut behind me.

The walk over to Bywater is long and chilly in the snow and the gathering dusk. Between the flakes I at last see the Cottons' farmhouse, yellow light pouring out of its round windows like a pair of beacons. I climb the steps lethargically and ring the doorbell.

Mrs. Cotton answers. "Come on in, Mr. Frodo! We're just sitting down to eat." A gap-toothed smile crinkles her rosy face, and she beckons me in.

"Thank you, ma'am." I return her smile, setting my lantern down and placing my cloak, scarf, and gloves in her now out-stretched hands. "What's for supper?" I inquire, once she's hung my gear from a peg in the hallway. "It smells heavenly."

By the way she ticks items on her fingers, she must be taking a mental inventory as she escorts me to the dining room. "There's roast pork and mince pie; taters, mashed and fried... Two kinds of squash, a whole goose (with a fine gravy, I might add), white bread and butter, green beans; then pumpkin pie and a plum pudding for dessert." She finally takes a breath. "I'm afraid we dipped into the pork and vegetables at dinner, but don't you worry, there's still plenty to go around."

"You're making me even hungrier!" I plaster a brittle smile across my face, hoping it will hold up for the night. Laughter and talk from the dining room resound down the hall. The smile must hold.

"And a good thing, too!" she answers. "You could take some meat on those bones; I'd say you're about half the hobbit you were before you went away."

"I suppose I am," I half-reply, filtering my half a voice through half a chuckle.

"Well, we'll remedy that tonight!"

Before I can reply, we've emerged into the dining room; it's brightly lit, with lamps all around and a robust fire crackling felicitously in the hearth. Mirth swirls around the long table stacked with food; there must be a crowd of twenty Cotton-relations seated.

"Mr. Frodo, you've made it!" Sam's voice comes from my right, and he indicates an empty chair across from him. "Go on and sit!"

To a smattering of "Hullo, Frodo!"s and a single drunken applauder, I seat myself and fade into the hubbub of conversation, listening tamely as bowls and platters begin to make their way around the table.

"Tell me, Cousin Bell," says Jolly Cotton beside me to a kinswoman nearby, "do you remember the last time it snowed for Yule?" He passes a bowl of mashed potatoes blindly to me.

"Aye, that I do," answers a buxom, wild-eyed woman (Cousin Bell, I presume) from across the table. "I remember exactly how heaven dumped a foot overnight, and you three growing boys had to stay over a week. There wasn't a bite of cake left in the house by the time things had melted enough!"

"Nor a drop of ale, as I recall, Cousin Jam..." puts in Nick from somewhere down the table.

"Well, you've got to ease the pain of a cake shortage somehow!" booms a voice, presumably Cousin Jam's. "Not to mention having to cope with three nuisances in your house a week too long." Laughter resounds from most of the clan, and I see a few mugs clinked, their frothy contents sloshing out down the sides.

I skewer a few slices of goose to match my conservative dollop of potatoes and absently pass the fowl to my left as another, even more raucous story fights its way to the top of the conversation, something about why not to slaughter your own hog indoors. A spoonful of squash; my mind wanders, eyes drawn to the fire. It and I both belong in Rivendell, in the Hall of Fire, lending an ear to tales that matter, in the end.

If only to hear of the burdened Men of old: Turin and his battle with the golden Dragon, Hurin who spat at Morgoth, Beren whose love won a Silmaril from Morgoth's crown; men under honor, under curse, under duty; men among whose ranks-say Elrond what he will-I and my fractured soul could never belong.

"Sam and Rosie tell me you're writing a book." Jolly's voice is a mallet to the glass mosaic of my thoughts. He's holding the bread-basket and attempting conversation.

"Right. Yes." I clear my throat, take a roll, and pass the basket. "It's going well, thank you."

"What are you... writing about?" I can tell the phrase is new to his tongue; Bilbo and I are likely the only writers he's heard of, most of the Shire being far too practical for our art.

"My journey. My story." My answer emerges more stiffly than I intend.

"Oh. Do you think many people will read it?"

I shake my head, turn my lips upward into most of a smile. "Not in the Shire; not for a long while."

It isn't quite a riddle, but Jolly's forehead crinkles briefly, and his eyebrows scrunch together into a centipede, before his face smoothes over, vacant. "Well, good luck to you, Mr. Frodo." He raises his mug in my direction and turns to a relation on the other side, leaving the riddle to puzzle himself out.

I pass on pork and turn to my squash, picking at it until I realize it tastes so awful because I've let it go cold. Conversations around me fade into a musical thrum; tittering flutes, squeaking viols, blaring trumpets, incongruous with the dirge of my thoughts.

I sit here numbly, eating without savoring, studying patterns in the chipped white paint on the arms of my chair. Triviality swirls around me in mundane stories and pointless songs; the nuances of life are to me as the smoke of Mordor, not as ashes to choke the lungs but as a mirk to smother the spirit. What a burden is the calling to great and terrible things.

Does it not beckon to my companions from what history they know, scream at them from between the botched lines of their few lays? Even Bilbo sensed it, though he stifled it for years with country walks and "sensible" living before his journey. It haunted me through boyhood and pursues me to this very seat. It: the nagging notion that You were made for something more.

I glance down at my plate and find that my picked-over supper has been replaced by a generous slice of pumpkin pie and a square of plum pudding just as large..

"How are you liking the dessert, Mr. Frodo?"

My head whips up toward Mrs. Cotton, and I stick a fork in the pudding and the fork in my mouth mechanically; now I have an answer. "It's delicious," I reply with a full mouth.

"Very easy to make, too. Mum always used to let me help when I was a little girl; plum pudding meant the start of a wonderful Yule. We always dried our own fruit for it, you know, picked out nice, ripe grapes for drying. Do you know how to tell when a grape's ripe?" She doesn't pause for answer. "Well, it's all in the skin..."

My mind ambles away from her, and I'm soon nodding numbly along between bites of dessert. An elaborate lecture on raisins and dates and a colorful combination of what must be every spice in the Shire is repelled by my indifferent ears.

I polish off my dessert, and a fleck of paint falls from my chair when I shift my elbow. The rest of the night passes in a sallow haze and sweet solitude. Almost I can fancy I am alone with my thoughts, my deep, dark thoughts like oil to the free-flowing water of chatter around me; an absymal eternity of thoughts, and a tangle like so many branches in thick woods.

"Mr. Frodo, it's going on midnight." Sam's voice breaks my rumination. "It's probably time we got home, if you're ready, that is."

About half the table appears to have cleared out by now, and Sam and Rosie stand across from me, Rosie's hand resting lightly on the swell of her pregnant belly. I smile, nod, and rise quietly. Rosie's parents follow us to the door with a clamor of benedictions.

"Good night!" "Much love!" "Stay warm!" "See you later this week!" My own, "Thank you very much." Mrs. Cotton kisses each of us on the cheek, and I slip on cloak, gloves, scarf, lifting my dead lantern. (Sam and Rosie have a better.) The door opens, icy air surging into the hall, and we step out

Outside, the snow has stopped, leaving a seamless white layer over the frozen ground. The sky is raven-dark above us, moonless, starless, promising more snow. Sam's lantern casts a wavering yellow beam before our feet.

"How was it, Mr. Frodo?" A puff of vapor follows the question out of Sam's lips

"Wonderful," I virtually recite. "Good food, good company. I'm glad I went."

"So am I, then." I can see and hear Sam's grin. He and Rosie talk, and I fall in step behind them. It's a long walk home, following that thin ray of light.

Once inside, I wish Sam and Rosie a good night, and am soon in my bedroom, lighting lamps to undress by. I furiously rub my arms against the cold and slip on a dressing gown. The Queen's white jewel is ice on my chest, and I slip the chain off over my head, finger the argent pendant thoughtfully.

It glitters in the lamp-rays like the Evenstar itself, the Silmaril in the holy West and its light in Galadriel's phial. Arwen promised two things when she gave it to me under the White Tree: that this jewel would cripple my shadows; and that if even then they were too much for me, a grey ship would carry me far from them. I can fathom no higher destiny, dream up no finer adventure.

No peace remains for me here, no solutions to the enigma of purpose. Here I am lost; here I dull; here I unravel. There is no hope.

I curl my cold, dry fingers around the jewel, clutch it tightly, and press it briefly to my lips. It tastes like the ocean I have yet to see.