This story was written as a mathom for the Ringbearers
Remembered list's one-year anniversary on September 27, 2003.
Gardener in the Vineyard
To my Captain
The sun was still on its way up behind the hills when Wils Longholes stepped out of the hole. The iron frost promised a clear and rainless day, but so early in the morning, thick mists still lay over the plains. Down towards Whitwell, Wils thought he could see the top of the big walnut at the road to Longbottom. But he could be wrong and what he saw in the fog was naught but a darker patch of cloud.
The vineyard rested grey and silent as if in deep sleep. Wils could almost hear its breath rolling back and forth over the hills. All through the dark of November he'd been looking at it with something almost like anticipation. 'Twas the time when the grapes were getting ready to sleep and waited for snow to warm them in their summer dreams. There was no awakening in a vineyard in November, not even one as ancient as Old Winyard of Whitwell. Still each morning, before he set his eyes on anything else, Wils looked out towards the shadowed hillside. He took in the destruction of the terraces, the broad strips of land all torn up, the stonework ripped apart and crumbled. And waited – for what, he couldn't rightly tell.
The rolling breath came to a halt by the dark structure at the other end, and Wils let out the air he'd been holding inside his chest. With its roof half collapsed, the old shed was a hopeless sight. It looked as if it'd crash and fall to pieces right there at the foothills of the Green Hill Country. It'd been a sturdy building once. Wils' great-granddad had put it up to have a roof for the wine press. Bushels of golden juice the press had squeezed from the grapes of all the vintners around. Wils would have repaired the roof no matter what more urgent work needed doing – worked on it nights, if need be. But there wasn't any one good reason left to do so. The reliable old press was gone, burned to cinder with naught left but the scorched and broken slab of wood which had held the spiraling shaft.
Most days, Wils turned away when his eyes reached the shed. But this morning he left the hole and walked the stretch over to it. A breeze ruffled the hollies which lined the path, and suddenly there was a bitter-sweet freshness all around. Wils turned North towards where the pine trees stood and he had to close his eyes against the brightness of the first sunbeams blazing over the Hills.
He walked onward half-blinded, the sun's warmth on his face, walked right into the gloom of the shed. His shoulder brushed hard against the squared post which carried the roof. Wils reached out to steady himself, grabbed for one of the broken joists dangling from above. A small, sharp pain made him pull back and a droplet of blood appeared on his blackened fingertip. Then the damp stench of burnt wood hit him. He stumbled backwards and caught himself just in time so he didn't step onto the sullied tiles.
And then he stood where the vineyard used to begin. Broken poles still marked where the grapes had grown, in some places the wire lay in twisted tangles and half-buried. Weeds and grapes alike had burned all the way to the roots. Wils walked slowly along the topmost row, picking up the square stones and putting them back where the low walls had been. It was a useless task, and he knew it, what with the soil all washed away when the heavy rains had found the terraces in shambles, and no walls there to hold the ground. But Wils couldn't help but set one stone onto the other, clearing the rows that none but himself could make out on the ravaged hillside.
For almost two hundred years now Old Winyard had been in the hands of the Baggins family. Belladonna Took brought it into her marriage with Bungo Baggins. Back then folk had been losing heads and tails over the fact that such a strong-minded lass would make off with one of the Bagginses from Hobbiton and move into the new hole at Bag End, lock, stock, and barrel. At least that was what Granny had told Wils, for of course he'd not even been a wee thought in the mists way back when all of that happened.
The Longholes had been working Old Winyard for as long as anybody could remember. There'd never been any trouble and – at least to the Longholes' thinking – Old Winyard passing into the Bagginses' hands was no loss at all. The Tooks cared more for their pipeweed than their vineyards, and when Mr. Bungo took a special interest in the grapes, it was a welcome change for Old Vintner Karson. It was Wils' granddad, too, who'd brought some of the finest grapes from a place even further than Sarn Ford. The vines soon grew to make one of the best wines of the entire Southfarthing. Which was saying as much as Old Winyards was among the vintage wines of the Shire as none of the other farthings had neither the weather nor the soil for grapes. Sweet as wild berries and potent as honeysuckle during a thunderstorm, Mr. Bilbo used to say, and a strong red wine it was, best after having lain in a cool cellar for nigh a century.
There were no bottles of 1419 Old Winyards to be laid down. The Bagginses would have to make do with what bottles they'd stored in the years before, for in all likelihood the 1418 vintage was the very last of its kind. Wils felt this useless wishing again, that last summer would have been warmer, the grapes sweeter, and the wine fuller and richer. The grapes deserved an ending which brought out the best of their qualities, and while last year had been reasonably good, it hadn't been an outstanding year for the crop. And this year ... this year the vineyard had gone unwatered and untended. The grapes had dried up and died even before the fire.
Wils reached for a loose root which stuck out of the soil. The stink of the burnt shed was still in his nose and he brought the root close. There was a whiff of something green below the ash. He got his knife out of his belt and scraped the burnt skin away. Right underneath the root was scorched, a dead and brittle stalk, but deeper inside its flesh seemed soft and moist as if there was yet life in it.
Wils got up, root and open knife still in his hands. Till must have lighted the hearth, there was smoke coming out of the chimney over at the hole. He should go in, help Granny with the breakfast, see if Ma was willing to take some food. He twirled the root between his fingers and felt for the moisture that seemed to cover the small wound he'd made. Grapes were of an enduring kind, that much Wils knew as well as any vintner. But this vineyard was all but dead, and Wils was at a loss how to stir the bit of life that remained in the burned stumps. His dad might have known, but he couldn't ask his dad no more.
The Master of Bag End should hear about this, Wils thought. Old Winyard's rightful owner should know it was gone. Though likely Mr. Frodo Baggins had more pressing things on his mind right now, having returned from his travels just in time to throw the Men out of the Shire and now acting as Deputy Mayor and all. A ruined vineyard was to be counted among the lesser losses, what with folk having their homes and fields destroyed. Still, Wils was quite sure Mr. Frodo would want to know what'd happened to Old Winyard.
He touched the curved handle of the vintner's knife, the wood so smooth from age-old use it felt almost like water. It had been his dad's knife and his dad's dad's before. Family legend had it that Old Vintner Karson had got it from the Thain himself as a gift for a specially rich wine delivered to the Tooks' tables. Wils didn't fully believe this tale, somehow the knife didn't have the feel of a grand gift to it. He seemed to recollect that his granddad bought it from a traveling tinker, and he a small lad all in awe before the rattling ironware on the cart. But he'd imagined that for so long now, it might be as much of a tale than the one of the Thain's gift to the Longholes.
From over at the hole Wils could hear the door, a loud squeak that echoed across the hillside. Till stepped out with only his shirt on, and Wils could see his brother's breath like a ball of fog. Till rarely slept at home anymore, not since he'd married and went to live in Whitwell, right above the Worn Boulder.
Till waved over to him, and he moved his hand to wave back. Only then did he notice the dead root still in his hand, and he flung it away like it was on fire. It lay on the ground, an open gash in the silvery shroud of rime. It was the black on white Wils couldn't bear to look at no more. He couldn't abide it, even if 'twas just Dad's wooden bowl on the spotless white tablecloth on Highday, the wood so dark from daily use it was black and shiny like polished iron. The sweet fragrance of rolled oats and salt, and Ma pouring milk from a blue-rimmed pitcher, and Wils wished he could just stop the useless winding thoughts, the dark wood, the creamy milk, the white, the black – and why should he so dread these colours, when it was the red that raged in his dreams like the autumn storms had torn through the scorched vineyard?
The Wizard's robes had been a glimmering shade of white, and the Wizard's voice so soft and full, Wils had heard the ravenous hunger much too late. Mr. Lotho'd stood by when the Men set fire to the grapes, and when the Wizard had laughed at the furious vintner, Mr. Lotho'd given Dad a sharp nod to step out of the way. Wils couldn't remember where Mr. Lotho'd been later, at the wine press, when Dad had drawn the knife. A vintner's knife, wrought and whetted so to prune the vines with one clean cut and have the wound heal all the faster. It was a tool and not a weapon, right hopeless for defending home and livelihood against an enemy who was a master in swordplay and sorcery. And hopeless it'd all been, Wils' words, Ma's tears, and the Longholes' knife. A dark shadow on the Wizard's gleaming robes, that was all that Wils recalled. He'd never seen the club that'd left such a deep and jagged wound. The bright red that now was always in his dreams, he'd not seen neither. There'd been little blood in the grey hair, and it'd been the colour of wet rust. And Wils couldn't remember where Mr. Lotho'd stood, just the shadow on the robes, the black and white of it haunting him ever since.
The smarting in his closed palm made Wils realise that he held his knife in an iron grasp, his knuckles white and shaking, the sharp edge dangerously close to his skin. He loosened his grip, made himself feel the warmth of the wood. His dad's knife, and his dad's dad's before.
It'd been a hot day, the smell of new grass everywhere and streamers of hazy mist hovering over Whitwell. Dad cut a new shoot for planting, sandy soil still clinging to the reddish wood. He shortened it to the right length, aimed the knife's point where new buds would grow. A stranger with brown hair received the tender cutting, took it gently but firm, while rays of light flashed in his eyes and the air shimmered all around him ... but then, this was something Wils knew he had not seen.
"You're out early."
Wils looked up with a start, but it was just Till coming along the path. His brother had grown older since he married, he was ... not sturdier really, but fuller and settled, like he'd found his place in the world, and it was where he'd always been. Coming down from the path above he looked like he was the vintner, breeches hitched high and the shirt only loosely tucked in. He looked like their dad, Wils suddenly realised, in a way he himself would never resemble him.
"Just taking a bit of a morning stroll," he said and put the knife back into his belt.
"It's a good day for walking." Till came to Wils' side and put a hand on his shoulder for a greeting. For a moment Wils wondered what Till meant by that, for his brother had never been one to wander the countryside. News of the Shire came right to the Worn Boulder, and what his guests didn't bring to tap and table Till believed could be found in the foreign tastes of his Southern wines as much as in travels or tales. Then Wils remembered that they'd planned to set out for Waymeet today to see about new beer mugs for the Boulder. 'Twas the reason why Till had slept up here and not in Whitwell with Elly and the little ones, so that they could make an early start.
"Aye, right sunny and clear." He followed Till's gaze down to the plains where the sun was steadily burning off the mist. The road to Longbottom could be seen clearly now. "Till, do you remember that spring when Mr. Frodo came up to look after his vineyard?"
Till turned to him with a look of surprise. "Well, he's come most every year, ever since Mr. Bilbo left. Even came before as a young lad with his uncle."
"Yes, that he did." Wils nodded. "But I mean this one spring ... 'twas unusual weather, hot for Rethe, that year we almost lost the grapes to the wasps?"
"Back a couple of seasons, you mean? We got quite a few barrels of good wine from that year, though. 1414 I think it was."
"Might be." Wils felt a twinge of impatience for his brother's ramblings, but then they were his rambling thoughts, rather, and he had to smile and took Till by the arm. "I mean that one time when Mr. Frodo brought a companion along." A lad with a spark in his eyes. And a knife of his own, with a rosewood hilt and a slender blade. "Quiet, kind of. He and Dad got to talking for some time, about growing grapes and apples. D'you know who he was?"
Till stared at him, then said slowly: "The young Gamgee, you mean? Holman Greenhand's nephew?"
"That's who he was?"
"Grand-nephew twice removed, I think. His dad's come from Tighfield, from the ropers there. The bast we use for grafting – Dad's got it from Tighfield. Used to say anything string or cord was best made by a Gamgee."
The limp green under Wils feet was cold and sharp like frosted glass. He moved a bit so the chilly blades of grass dug deep into his soles. Tighfield ropes. They used to hang in neat coils at the back wall of the shed. Cutting the right-sized pieces of bast had been Wils' first job when his dad started to teach him vintnery. Bits of coloured string held the bundles together, yellows and blues. He'd always wondered what special kind of hemp would bring out that colouring in a string. The ropes were gone, burned with the press and all else that was stored in the shed. But ropes could be replaced, Wils told himself, all the while feeling for the grass and wondering how it could be that a growing thing was all frozen and lived whilst in the fire it died. They could buy new ropes and tools and fresh bundles of bast. Wils hadn't heard anything about the Men ruining the ropewalk up in Tighfield, at least.
"The lad's a roper then?" he asked.
Till laughed, and it seemed to Wils that with the laughter the sun finally reached the vineyard. He abruptly turned his head, and Till's laughter seemed to die in his throat. Wils felt his brother's hand on his shoulder again. Till worried about him as did the rest of the family, Wils knew that well enough. But he couldn't bring himself to look at the dead vineyard in full daylight. It was as if the sun, wintry pale as it was, burned into his eyes like the fire had burned the grapes.
"He's Mr. Frodo's gardener, that's who he is." Till's voice was quiet and he didn't remove his hand. The bitter-sweet of the pines wafted lightly from the hills, and Wils forced himself to turn and give his brother a reassuring smile. A gardener. Somehow it felt as if he'd known this before and it had seemed a curious knowledge. The sun blazed before his eyes, and he looked over Till's shoulder up to the pines. A small speck of a bird appeared in the sky, all icy pale with more of winter's grey in it than blue. But if Wils stood just like this, it was like it had been, the sky, the bird, the trees on the hillside ...
... and Old Winyard below. He heard his dad's whistling and at once recognized the song. Rain may fall and wind may blow. He said the words in his mind while his dad was humming the tune. A moist, earthy smell hung in the heated air from the rain the night before. And with the wine press so close, Wils could almost taste the sticky sweetness from the wood saturated with juice and now awakened by the early hot spell. A small animal rustled in the hedges, already green and growing, from below came the sound of rock on rock as the old vintner put a stone back onto the wall from where it had fallen. The young hobbit at his side asked a question, his head tilted slightly as he watched every one of the vintner's moves. Wils couldn't hear what the two were saying, but he saw his dad point to the round patch where the freshly planted shoots stuck out of the soil like chimneys out of so many tiny hobbit holes. There were some which'd already taken root, and Wils had discovered the first buds only yesterday.
"This is such a wonder to me," Mr. Frodo said softly beside him.
They stood on the walk between the grapes and were looking to where his dad and the young hobbit were now crouching over the new shoots. Wils felt in his breast the familiar ache which seemed to come more often lately.
"A wonder, sir?" he asked, a bit unsure if the words were meant for him to hear.
But Mr. Frodo answered right away, almost like he'd had the same question in his mind and was giving an answer to himself as much as to Wils. "How I can walk this part of the Shire for years and years. Know its roads and views so well, it is like looking out of the window in Bag End. And then I take Sam along, and it's as if I never set foot ..."
His voice trailed off, and Wils turned and for the first time saw the bit of cowslip stuck in the buttonhole of Mr. Frodo's jacket. Something about it made his heart beat faster for a moment, and he quickly looked down to the budding vines.
"The lad certainly knows a thing or two about grafting. I don't think my dad ever thought he'd hear something worthwhile on that from an apple-grower," he said and had to clear his throat to say it properly.
"I hope the old vintner does not take offence, then, that I brought a gardener to his vineyard." There was laughter in Mr. Frodo's voice, and Wils knew they both thought of the amazed look on his dad's face when the young hobbit had interrupted his long-winded talk to recommend a special kind of wax he used to close the cuts after grafting apples.
"He don't, sir. Dad's set in his ways, but he won't pass up a chance to hear something he hasn't heard before. Specially not if it has any bearing on the growing of grapes."
Mr. Frodo nodded, and they looked down again to the two hobbits. It didn't seem that long ago when Wils had stood in the very same spot and listened to what his dad had to say about soil and roots and the long time it took for healthy vines to grow. He smiled and needn't turn to know there was a smile on Mr. Frodo's face as well. Wils was aware of how the sunlight shone through his dad's grey hair and how Mr. Frodo and he were both looking at someone they loved and how close they were in height – which was an odd thing to consider really, Mr. Frodo being a Baggins after all, and he just a vintner.
But then Mr. Frodo whispered, "Look at them," and Wils saw that his dad had taken one of the cuttings from the pile beside the patch. He had his knife out and shortened the ends of the rod with quick, assured moves. The young hobbit stood by all intent, a knife of his own in his hand.
'Twas then that his dad looked up to Wils and their eyes met, and it was as if he, and not the young hobbit, was about to be given something. Something that was as much a rare grape and still something more altogether. Wils felt himself nod, then his dad handed the cutting to the gardener who took it with both hands, the knife's edge turned in an angle which made it catch the sun. Rays of light shot up into the pale blue sky, and a sparrowhawk answered with a high-pitched whistle, then flew off towards the pine trees and soared ...
... into the Green Hills above. A gush of icy wind was blowing through the hollies and Wils looked up to the Hills. Stern and cold they stood as if what happened to Old Winyard was none of their concern. Witnesses they seemed to Wils, but witnesses who chose to remain silent when all inside him wanted to scream. There'd been mornings when he'd looked at the Hills and wondered if he alone had seen and heard, if burning fire and dripping blood were nightmares he alone could not wake from. 'Twas then that he had to feel the scorched ground, touch the rusty spots on the shed's floor. Touch again and again even though the cold numbed his hands and left him all but shaking.
Wils didn't know how long he'd stood there that hot Spring day and watched the bird fade into sunlit blue. But what he clearly remembered was how Mr. Frodo had lightly touched his wrist and asked: "Shall we go down then, Master Longholes, and join them?"
Glistening dark the wood of last year's vines had been, when the gentlehobbit had led the way through the rows, skipping lightly from terrace to terrace. There'd been an eager spring in Mr. Frodo's steps like he was a tweener with all the world yet to discover. And there'd been a hopeful green sheen all around the vines like they'd been waiting for this very day to awake from winter's sleep.
What all else had happened that day Wils couldn't rightly say. He seemed to recollect that Mr. Frodo left with one of Ma's apple-pies in his pack stretching the canvas as if he were carrying a small wheel. But then, that might be a memory from another of Mr. Frodo's visits. He and Mr. Bilbo had given high praise to Ma's famous pies whenever the occasion arose, and surely the Bagginses never left the Longholes without an extra pie. Yet somehow Wils recalled that with this particular pie there went a heavier pack with a lengthy bundle sticking out of it, wrapped in soft linen with blue and white squares. Dad must have moistened the cloth and folded it carefully around the grape cutting he'd given to the gardener. It was many miles over to Hobbiton, more than a day's worth of good walking, and saplings didn't take well to being out of the soil too long, no matter whether they'd eventually grow into a grapevine or an apple-tree.
"To heal my heart and drown my woe." Wils only realised he was singing softly when Till took up the tune with his deeper voice.
"Ho! Ho! Ho! to the bottle I go." Till chuckled. "And what brought this on, Wils? Seems like I haven't heard you sing all year. Something to do with the young Gamgee, it has?"
Wils shook his head. "'Twas something Dad used to sing, remember?"
"'Tis not something I'm likely to forget, not with folk singing it in the Boulder most evenings. If you listen to the words, it's a song about wine, but the lads seem to think it goes just as well with beer." Till was rubbing his upper arms where the wind was tugging at the sleeves. "Makes me think of Dad, whenever a fellow starts the tune," he added with a voice so soft that Wils could hardly hear him. Which was a right unusual thing, Till's voice was so deep and booming it could be heard in the Worn Boulder even during Mid-year's eve when the crowds were the merriest and drinking heaviest.
Beyond the vineyard the hole lay in broad sunshine. The smoke rising from the chimney seemed quite at odds with the last of the purple asters which somehow shone brighter in the frosty air than they had all autumn. Wils suddenly realised his brother must be freezing, with naught but thin cloth between the cold and his skin.
"Let's go in," he said and started up towards the hollies. He walked the path back to the hole, all the while staring down at the shadow running in front of him. Once he turned to see if Till was behind him, and even though he held his hand over his eyes there was no escaping the sight of charred stumps and soil white with ash. Even the brightness of his brother's linen shirt seemed to sharpen the glaring light which split the vineyard open like a wound that couldn't heal. Wils closed his eyes and stumbled forward, feeling Till reach for him and then draw back when Wils recovered his balance.
Granny stood at the door with a thick scarf wrapped around her shoulders. Wils wondered how long she'd been watching out for them. But just when he wanted to call she turned and disappeared into the hole.
"She must think now it's the both of us wandering the vineyard at dawn," Till muttered. He gave Wils a wry smile, then started running down the path so he reached the hole before Wils could catch up.
"Till, wait," Wils called when his brother opened the blue door.
"Yes?" Till looked at him, and Wils noted that he was shivering underneath the shirt.
"I've been thinking," he quickly said, "with us going into Waymeet and all, I could spare a day or two and go on all the way to Hobbiton. We're all done with clearing up the mess over at Banks' vineyard, and if you came up in the evening and see that Ma's all right ..." He cleared his throat. "Mr. Frodo would want to hear about his vineyard. Somebody should go and tell him what's happened, I reckon."
Till gave him a curious look, then slowly shook his head. "It's a dangerous road, Wils. There's been lots of talk in the Boulder how there's ruffians still roaming in and around Waymeet. And the inns all the way to Bywater are still closed. You'd have to stay in one of the houses the Men built."
"I'll be careful," Wils replied. "Might be, in Waymeet I'll find myself a travel companion. Them ruffians are all quick when it comes to robbing a lone hobbit on the road, but they're wary to waylay sturdy folk that stick up for each other, I've heard. And I've heard the innkeeper in Waymeet's set up make-shift lodgings for as long as the old inn's in repair."
"You've got that all planned out, haven't you?" A quick smile flashed over Till's face. "Well, I think you're right to tell Mr. Frodo. He should know what came of this business of his, selling his vineyard to the Sackville-Bagginses, of all people."
Wils felt sudden heat rise to his face. "The Bagginses have always cared about Old Winyard, and if a bottle of wine turns sour I'm not one to blame the grape," he said with more fervour in his voice than he meant to put into it.
"I know," Till said quietly. "All I'm saying is, Mr. Frodo should know." He pushed the door open, then turned to Wils who still stood beside the asters. "You're the vintner, Wils, as much as I am the innkeeper. And I'd say it's high time you see what's left of this vineyard that's still worth tending."
There's nothing left, Wils meant to say, but then he thought of the moisture on the root's skin and the smell of green underneath. For a moment he stood in silence, then forced himself to turn around and look at the vineyard in full daylight. He tried to hold on to the asters' vivid purple and the tingling freshness of the winter air. But what steadied him most was Till behind him, moving closer as if he understood what Wils must be seeing.
What Wils saw was Old Winyard choked, burned, and utterly demolished. It made his heart stop and his eyes burn like blistering flames. All was white and black, like he'd known it would be, the asters lost to his view as if all he'd ever grown was turned to naught but ash. His heart hurt in a way it hadn't hurt all through November, and he reeled helplessly from the pain. But it wasn't as bad as his nightmares, it wasn't even that much different from the grey ghost of the ravaged hillside in the mornings. Wils took a deep breath, and the bitter-sweet of the pines finally brought tears to his eyes.
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