Frodo watched the revelers with a slight smile on his face, yet his thoughts remained disconnected from any pretense of levity. He was musing over the peculiar feeling that had taken hold of him as the hobbits began to dance. As the music gaily leapt from one note to the next, the round, sturdy bodies of hobbits wove their way through a time-honored pattern of rhythm and symmetry. Didn’t I dance that very same dance years ago? He was sure that he had. And yet, the bright faces and red cheeks of the hobbits suddenly seemed as strange as the barren landscape of Mordor. It had gradually grown upon him, this recurring feeling, and it still managed to disquiet him, though he spoke of it to no one. After the Quest he had hardly expected to feel the hopeful buoyancy of youth any longer. But he had thought, perhaps, to savor the slower, thicker joy that comes with earned rest and a deeper appreciation of peace.
But it was not to be.
Frodo slipped his maimed hand into his pocket. Joy was elusive, or at least in the sense that he used to understand it. His emotions ran like drops of water along a thin, fragile thread that was often bound up in thoughts too complex and burdensome to give way to simple emotions like happiness or sadness. Or joy. Often they were unexplainable. Difficult. And often they had nothing to do with what was happening in the present. At the simplest times, every emotion was tempered by his experiences, fired until molten and sometimes beaten almost unrecognizable by his many pains. At its most unfathomable, his heart was a deep well of yearnings and cravings that sickened him and humbled him. He knew had much to be thankful for, though his journey had changed him far greater than sight could give testimony.
They all thought the lost finger was the worst of it. The hobbits. They could not look at his hand without a darkness coming into their eyes. Those he knew the best often showed it the most, even though they knew the truth of his journey. Only part of the cumbersome tale had been lifted and grappled with by the eager gossip-mongers– that his finger had been bitten off by a rabid creature of some sort. Entirely his own fault, of course, for journeying outside the Shire doing who-knew-what with who-knew-who and surely a punishment for the folly of taking along two of the Shire’s most well-known young hobbits and even his own gardener and exposing them to danger and who-knew-what-all. The rest of the Quest was left in unexplainable, undesirable heaps. Even Pippin’s exhaustive explanations left holes that the ordinary hobbits could not fill with their common sense and folk lore. So they ignored it.
Frodo understood that. It was part of the Shire that he had tried to save, the innocent minds who simply could not conceive of the darkness that had nearly taken them over. It was part of the Shire that the Rangers had fought to protect, and that Gandalf had found so fascinating. Frodo smiled thinly. He understood now how Gandalf felt when he visited the Shire, back before Bilbo had gone. There had been a strange, fond look in Gandalf’s eyes as he had surveyed the hobbits in their natural atmosphere, even in their most quibbling short-sightedness. Now Frodo knew that it was when Gandalf left the Shire that his real work began, the tedious gathering of information, the renewing of acquaintances and the sorting of reports that had to be done to combat the Shadow that had risen in the East. He was still awed by the memory of all that Gandalf had done to thwart Sauron’s plan. How he wished he’d been there when Gandalf and Aragorn and the others faced the Mouth of Sauron on the Morannon. For just a fleeting moment, hot adrenaline poured in Frodo’s veins, immediately followed by a sickening nausea in his stomach.
No. It was there they had the news that he’d been taken and humiliated by the orcs. He had heard it was the bleakest of moments for them all. And, of course, he could not have been there because he was entering Mt. Doom at almost that precise moment, on his own bleak, dark errand. Frodo’s eyes widened. If he did not turn his thoughts he would be there again. Heat scorching his face, soot choking his lungs and the Ring screaming. A roaring grew in his ears. Frodo reached out to catch the table beside him. The whirlwind of hatred and putrid thoughts swept through him until he was breathless. No. The Ring is gone. The Ring is gone. He took in slow breaths as the not-real world around him settled back into shape. It was slow, and he spent an agonizing minute debating the reality of where he was.
He could not be at a party. There could not be happy hobbits around him. They could not still be happy in a world that held such evil, such consuming hatred and malevolence. Yet as his eyes focused on the brightly-clad dancers before him, they were swinging their partners in the Grendrubble dance, clasping hands and laughing, always laughing. Smiles everywhere. Bright, happy faces. Red Cheeks. The only flames were in the torches around the party field. The only darkness here seeped out from somewhere in his own heart. The Ring was gone. Frodo sat down heavily.
The emotions faded away as they always did, leaving an emptiness that drained him. He tried to stop looking through those around him as the dancers halted their dance. They were really here, clapping for the band members to continue with enthusiasm. He was really here. The music began again, and Frodo turned to watch Amaryllis Thistlewaite place a gently possessive kiss on her new husband, Gemison Rustlerow. A ghost of a smile graced Frodo’s face once more. The threads that bound the couple’s life together appeared almost visible to his soul-drenched eyes. He could see the ruddy joy on Gemison’s face and tried to hold it in his mind. His eyes scanned the crowd, contemplating the joy he saw on so many faces.
But too soon sorrow came on him as his gaze turned to Gemison’s grandfather, Geminy Rustlerow. The old hobbit sat in the corner, watching the celebration with the benevolent joy of forgetfulness and innocence. It was obvious to Frodo that he was only days from death. The faintly luminous threads binding him to this life were unraveling slowly. His death was there in every movement of the slow, trembling hands. His entire life had been spent in the Shire, one full of love, children and hard work. And he would die peacefully, in his bed, Frodo believed, with only one grandchild still unmarried. Success, indeed, as measured by hobbit standards. But the loss would be hard for his family.
Frodo gazed around the room restlessly, not wanting to see more of that world. Despite himself, his gaze lighted on five-year-old Petunia Hornblower, sitting with her thumb in her mouth, alone at a large table. She was a bright-eyed, chubby child, watching the dancing with giggles and squirms of girlish glee. She raised a hand toward her mother as she swept by in her twirling. At the movement, horrified tears came to Frodo’s eyes. A faint glow intensified around her figure, as though she were awash in starlight. No. Her parents were still dancing. Her older brothers, Hayman and Haystred were cackling in the corner over some imagined triumph. Frodo looked back at Petunia, but the glow was already fading. His gaze became melancholy, watching over the joyful reunion as her mother finally returned and scooped her up then settled her in her lap. Frodo knew. Over the next year, the threads binding Petunia to life would start to pull away also. She would succumb to an illness and pass on. Petunia’s mother had wanted a girl for so long and losing her would be a blow to the entire family. Frodo stretched his thought forward, seeing her brother Haystred much older and still sorrowful, not able to settle down until….until…
Frodo searched the room a moment, his mind working as if to solve a puzzle. Finally, his eyes lighted on young Cornflower Bobbinshoe as she danced in circles with her ribbon flag twirling in waves behind her. Ah, yes. Cornflower and Haystred would marry and then Haystred would recover. The loss of his little sister Petunia would be difficult, but he would not have trouble finding his way out of the dark. After all, he is a hobbit.
With an effort, Frodo pulled his gaze back to the dancing, but it was of no use. The music was simple. Joyful. In a way that he could not fathom. He knew too much. He always knew too much. Yet it struck him now, as it had before that this feeling was perhaps, Elvish. For them, mortal life was intriguing but bewildering, something they could witness but not take part in. Yes. Frodo looked around the party one last time. This is not for me. He turned toward the door. A few smiles were aimed in his direction as he walked out, but no one spoke. The decision was made. He easily shed the uncomfortable baggage of hobbit society as well as the light and noise behind him and walked out into the quiet night.