Chapter 43

The old man sat on his porch and looked out across the green fields. Another good harvest coming this fall. And the sun shone on the glossy coats of the fat cattle.

One of his grandchildren came out and handed him a mug of mint tea. He grasped it with both hands and its warmth soothed his fingers’ joints. He looked at his granddaughter and saw her round smooth arms, the bright whites of her long-lashed eyes, her smiling lips. He drew her near and kissed the top of her head, smelling her clean fresh hair. He rejoiced in her rude health. He gave thanks for it.

A year ago a stranger had visited, drawn by his fame, and had asked, nervously, whether it was true what people said, that his sons and daughters had never died but rather had been protected by Hashem, set aside until the temptation was over, then restored to full life and health.

“No,” he had told the stranger. “No, it wasn’t like that.”

Unscoured

Frodo and his friends knew that the Shire would be changed, but they were not prepared for how radical the change would be. They had not been gone very long, really, but it might as well have been decades, so thoroughly had Sharkey reshaped the entire social order.

At first they were sure that if they but sounded the call the hobbits of the Shire would rise up against the tyranny that Sharkey had subjected them to. But soon enough they discovered that few saw the matter in precisely that light. It was indeed, the hobbits of the Shire thought, a shame what had been done to Bagshot Row — and not just to Bagshot Row: many other old edifices had been demolished, and fields paved over, replaced by factories. But for those who previously had gotten by with a series of odd jobs and seasonal employment, the regularity of factory work had a certain appeal. And the more accustomed hobbits became to a predictable daily schedule, the more daunting seemed the very idea of going back to a less structured, if more independent, way of life.

Moreover, some of the factories were devoted to supplying the parts for the Great Fence Sharkey had pledged to build around the whole perimeter of the Shire, which in these frightening days — Sharkey had started a newspaper, edited by Wormtongue, which kept the hobbits well informed about just how terrible things could be beyond their borders — was reassuring. And the building of the fence provided many good jobs. Some hobbits were now wealthier than they had ever dreamed possible.

The hobbits of the Shire had less time now to grow their vegetables and raise their animals, of course, but, in compensation, more and more inns opened to serve them prepared meals. And while the beer at some of the inns was not as good as it had been in the old days, at others it was better, because they all served the same beer now, so you always knew what it was going to taste like. Sharkey saw to that. There were few surprises any more — few for good, perhaps, but also, and surely more important, few for ill.

The returning hobbits weren’t sure what to do about all this. It quickly became clear to them that any rebellion they staged would get some distant sympathy, perhaps, but no real support. They could even find themselves locked up — though the more they talked it over the less likely they thought that would be. Why make martyrs of them, Sharkey probably thought, when he could make them nonentities?

They seemed to be faced with two choices. One was to stay in Hobbiton or one of the other towns, and try gradually to build up resistance among the people – to remind the hobbits of what they had once had, to remind them that ease and comfort and facility are not everything. The success of such an endeavor would depend on Sharkey’s willingness to tolerate dissent, which would be inversely proportionate to the popularity of that dissent among the rank and file of hobbits. But in no case would he allow any of the hobbits returning from the great War to tell their stories in his newspaper.

The other possibility was the one that Frodo chose. The house at the edge of the Old Forest still stood, was still isolated; no one came that way nor was likely to. Frodo could plant a garden. And then he could sit in his study and write his book.

Sam did not come to live with Frodo, nor did Frodo want him to. He knew it would be best for Sam to stay in Bywater and work at the rebuilt Green Dragon, because Rosie Cotton worked there too, so he hired Fatty Bolger — who needed anyhow to keep a low profile — as his general factotum. But on his rare days off Sam would come visit and they would sit over a pot of tea and talk about old things and new.

Chiefly Frodo wanted news of Merry and Pippin. Sam told him that Pippin was all for revolution, now — but Merry counseled patience, and the long slow work of winning over the people. Which meant, at first, trying to get them to understand that they couldn’t believe what they read in Wormtongue’s newspaper. “If only the King would come,” mused Pippin, “to set it all right,” but Merry thought that that was their job — not quite the job they had expected it to be when they made their way back from Mordor, but still. “Could the King get through Sharkey’s Fence?” Merry asked with a smile. “If he wanted to,” Pippin replied.

So Sam told Frodo. The hour grew late and it was time for him to make his way back to Bywater, so after embracing his old master and forever friend he set off down the road. As he was passing through an open meadow his hand drifted to his pocket, where a little silver nut lay — the one given him by the Lady. He had thought to plant it in the Party Field, but what had been the Party Field was a construction site now. As good here as anywhere, he thought, and dug a hole, and dropped in the nut. I wonder what will come of it. Or if anyone will see it.

In the house at the edge of the Old Forest, Fatty straightened up the rooms and washed the dishes. Frodo drifted back to his study and sat at his desk, the Red Book open before him. There were important stories to be told. Maybe someday they would find a ready audience.