West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Under the Ympe Tree
Gaffer Gamgee worries about his missing son.
Author: Bill The Pony
Rating: R

 

"Loke, dame, that tow be
to-morwe her vnder this ympe-tre,
and than thou schalt with ous go
and liue with ous euermo...."


--"Sir Orfeo," ed. J. R. R. Tolkien

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~



I've heard plenty of tales in a long life, about mights and nevers, about could haves and wouldn'ts. There's all manner of foolishness and wisdom in the world, and some as is both. But if I lived to be a hundred and twenty, I'd never have thought to see things come to such a pass as they have today.

Yes, I will have a spot of brandy in that. What a clever lass to hide such as that away from the Gatherers! Yes, a lass, for I still remember the sight of 'ee, flouncing to show a bit of ankle in the dance back before I married Bell Goodchild. Though mayhap I say such things as I shouldn't. But it's been a tidy few years since Bell went, and yet few more since 'ee sneaked away to let me steal kisses behind my father's haystack. Leastways, we did till old Rollo Rumble wooed 'ee and wed 'ee. But knowing 'ee as long as all that? Well, I reckon it just goes to show that there's still some folk as a body can trust even with the world gone mad the way it is this year and a half or more.

It seems the whole of the land is turned on its ear, what with these ruffians and Men come to take charge of what they shouldn't. Gathering and Sharing? They go gathering from us but it's themselves they share with, if 'ee ask me. Not none o' us as grew the stores or brewed the beer, though that's a thing we ain't supposed to have nowadays nohow. A sore trial it is on an old hobbit, too.

'Ee know right well how they've gone and dug up the Row and turned me out of my own hole. That I should live to see such days! And such changes-- changes for the worse, if I do say so. There ain't never been such doings here in the Shire, and shouldn't be by rights. And now they're going about cutting down the trees and all! From what I can see, it's not even to feed the fires, for there's less firewood this winter than ever before, and don't 'ee be thinking my joints don't know it.

And now it's come September, but there's no merrymaking to be had. We used to celebrate the Baggins Party this very day each year, but as I come up the Road I saw another sight. Sharkey's men have got crosscut saws going after the trees up near to Bag End, and each rough stroke is a death knell to an old hobbit's heart. Like enough they'll keep on till there ain't a one left, not even the Party Tree, as has stood there for time out of mind.

But I ain't of a mind to meddle, not since I saw what happened to Mistress Lobelia, and that's a fact. That was summat as had to wait till after Sharkey come; I can't believe her Lotho would have stood for it if he'd been about. Which he ain't, if 'ee take the time to notice. I've started to wonder what's happened to him, but I reckon there's no asking unless I want to cool my old bones next to a Baggins and the Mayor down in the Lockholes.

So I kept my head down as I walked on past quiet-like, hoping for just a bit of this good herb tea to ease my joints. And I thank 'ee, for it does go down well. Most times the Men are so busy with their mischief they won't spare a thought for an old hobbit just limping past on business of his own. And I come over well before the curfew says I oughtn't, though that don't always signify with the likes o' them.

As I kept coming along, I heard a tree come toppling near behind. I reckon it's a good thing I wasn't just passing under it, if 'ee follow me. I'm thinking they wouldn't think aught of sending it down right on top of me, or any other hobbit in the Shire.

The ground fair shook when it hit, just as I passed under the shadow of the old Oak up top the Hill. Now there's a tree what stands yet, its leaves just turning brown and its mossy old branches blocking out the setting Sun. They ain't touched that tree today, and I reckon they won't, not if they know what's good for 'em. That tree, now-- it ain't any ordinary tree, if 'ee take my meaning. That's an ympe-tree, as old Holman used to say.

Now I know what 'ee may be like to say; that it's an oak just as plain as the nose on my face. "Ham Gamgee," they all say to me down to the Dragon, "Any fool can see that's an oak, what with its leaves and the way it grows and its bark and all." But that don't mean it ain't an ympe-tree. The being ain't in the seeming; it's in the doing.

Don't go telling me a tree can't do aught, neither. And don't look at me like I've turned fool in my old age, for I ain't so simple as all that. I'm not telling tales of trees come alive to roam about, like that nephew of mine Hal from Overhill. There's more ale in that boy than sense, most times, but no matter. I ain't talking about no walking trees, for that's just foolishness.

So what is an ympe-tree, if it ain't one as gets up and wanders about? Well, there's all manner of tales, but 'ee got to judge which ones is true. It's a grafted tree is what most says, but there's some like our Hal who'd say they walk. Others say they turn 'ee mad or make 'ee waste away, if 'ee linger under branch or bough. I've heard it said many a time if 'ee sleep under one, the goblins will come and drag 'ee off to their caves under the Mountains far away. And there's some as say they can talk, or maybe there's some restless spirit lives inside all watchful-like. But there's darker tales, too. They say that off in foreign parts there's whole woods full of ympe-trees, but I don't hold with that notion. Still, they have more than their share of them in the Old Forest east past Buckland, I'll warrant.

When did I first hear tell of such a thing? When I was naught but a little lad, now, and 'ee were only a wee lass. My Daisy wasn't yet a twinkle in my eye when Mr. Bilbo up and vanished the first time. Old Holman says to me, "That's what comes of sleeping under the ympe-tree, Ham, which old Mr. Bungo grafted onto an elm's roots from Tookland when first he brought his lass here to bide. Don't let me catch 'ee at it, or I'll give 'ee cause to wish the goblins had found 'ee first!" I didn't pay him no mind, but then Mr. Bilbo didn't come back. I started to wonder, and no mistake. I did my sleeping elsewheres, and a time or two I did wish the goblins had found me. Old Holman had a strong arm, and no patience with lazy lads.

When Mr. Bilbo come back, I reckoned Old Holman hadn't got a drop of sense. After all, if the goblins had got Mr. Bilbo he wouldn't have come back. But he did, and in time to save most of his things, too. But he weren't a proper hobbit after that, to most folks' reckoning. A fine gentlehobbit and as polite as can be, but a bit queer. Mind you don't go repeating that. There's those within a stone's throw as would say the same and mean harm by it. But he's gone away again now, and I don't mean aught except he was changed.

Old Holman saw the difference in Mr. Bilbo too, and he said as much to me. "Ham," he said, "When I was just a boy, my grandmother told me a thing. She said if I didn't do all my chores, the ympes would come creeping out after me on a dark night. Everyone knows they'll take a child out of its crib if it ain't watched, and leave a changeling in its place."

Aye, he said it to me meaning to scare the shirk out, and what's more he added a bit before he was done. "I didn't never think to see such happen to a full-grown hobbit," he said, "But I reckon it's happened to our Mr. Bilbo, mark my words from this day."

And sure enough, Mr. Bilbo had a rare tale to tell once he'd turned Otho and Lobelia out and put things to rights. He'd been dragged off to those goblin-caves, just like I said to 'ee afore. And he'd turned queer, like Holman said. He started gathering every book he could find, and what's more he went to writing his own. He'd talk to anybody who'd listen about queer stories of Elves, and say all manner of poetry. And he didn't never take a wife, not for love nor money. Instead, he kept company with Dwarves and wizards and such. That was all the stranger, if you ask me.

So while I grew up, I never sat down under the shade of that tree. I kept clear, I did. I worked hard so those ympes wouldn't come for me. I made it a habit, and a good one to have whether 'ee believe in ympes or no. So I kept an eye on Mr. Bilbo, as often as I could spare it. That garden takes a deal of work, so I had plenty of chance. I saw an eye-opener or two that way, I can tell 'ee. There's a reason this hair on my head ain't brown no more, but I ain't sure I should be telling 'ee aught of what I've seen. It's Mr. Bilbo's private business, and that's a fact. But there was queer doings up there for many a year before young Mr. Frodo turned up.

"Don't meddle in the business of your betters," my mam used to say, "Or you'll wind up in trouble too big for 'ee." I've tried to tell my Sam that many a time, but here he's done it anyhow and wandered off somewheres foreign without so much as a by-your-leave. And all the Shire gone to rack and ruin in the meantime!

But that will have to keep a bit, for there's more of the tale to come first.

By and by as the years passed, the Sackville-Bagginses took heart. They saw there wasn't to be no heir, and they counted up years on their fingers. It looked a sure bet for Lotho to come into the smial when Mr. Bilbo passed. But Mr. Bilbo didn't never get no older, and that was peculiar. More than peculiar, it was downright unnatural. Near as unnatural as-- well, my tongue would run away if I let it.

So out of the blue, Mr. Bilbo goes off to Buckland and comes back with a lad. Moves him right in to the smial. Anybody could tell he meant to graft that lad right onto old Mr. Bungo's rootstock. Mr. Frodo Baggins, half Brandybuck-- slight and pale and more than half-fey, to hear it told. The worst young rapscallion in Buckland, by all accounts. I looked at him that very day he come to Hobbiton. The very day, mind. I says to myself, "Ham Gamgee, that lad's a changeling as sure as the Sun rises in the east." But it weren't my place to say, so I didn't.

Otho nor Lobelia had no liking for it, and that's a fact. But there was naught they could do, not till the will was made. And not after it, neither, for it was done up proper-like. But I'm ahead of myself, begging your pardon.

Mr. Frodo, he moved in to Bag End and settled hisself right down under that ympe-tree just as quick as 'ee may please. It suited him, 'ee might say. Right down to the ground, where his own new trunk come up from its old roots that sunk right into the soil of Hobbiton. And I reckoned maybe it wasn't so terrible to have him grafted on here so comfortable-like. If that was an ympe, than maybe an ympe wasn't a bad thing after all.

More fool I! That was afore my Sam started getting his growth, and I didn't know what was to come.

Yes, a bit o' biscuit would go down right well. And here; I was like to forget. I brought up a little pot of jam that my Daisy put up this summer-- dear enough it is, but she wanted you to have it. You're looking too thin lately, and I don't like to see it, if I may say so.

Now where was I? My Sam, that's right. Young Mr. Frodo only seemed settled after he come from Buckland. I reckon he wasn't never really settled at all, leastways, not like a proper hobbit. At any rate, when my Sam started getting his growth on him, I started getting glimpses of that ympe looking out from Mr. Frodo's eyes. Rare wild, it was, and fey, and it didn't care for naught but what it would have. That much I could see right off.

"Ham Gamgee," I says to myself, "that lad's a piece of trouble as is best nipped in the bud." And so I put Sam to work as best I could. 'Ee must grant me that-- I worked the lad as hard as ever old Holman worked me, plus more to the measure. There wasn't no more foolishness about letter-learning; he knew enough to get by. What's more, I reckoned he already had more of Old Mr. Bilbo's tales rattling around between his ears than was good for him.

It wasn't long afore I knew it was too late, for the thing had a hold of him, too. Once such a thing sets it grip it don't never let go. It's worse than a pond-turtle or an adder, which bites down and won't hearken to naught till it thunders. Meek enough he was, and mild when it come to his work, and ready to pull his share. But he wasn't so biddable as he seemed, and all it took was time for the spell to work. Spell? Mayhap not a spell. Or maybe 'twas. There's no difference how it was done; the fact is, he wasn't my Sam no more. All it took was waiting for it to show its face, seemingly.

I won't never forget the first night my Samwise slept under the ympe-tree. 'Ee take my meaning? Mayhap 'ee do. I went in to rouse him and there lay his bed, never yet been slept in nor touched for all the dawn was in the sky. He was waiting for me in the garden up the Hill, and still with enough shame to blush at his old dad when I coughed at him.

I could see the ympe in his eyes that morning, wild as in Mr. Frodo's. Stubborn and old as the elm-roots burrowed down through the walls of the smial. Bright-glittering and fey. And him with suck-marks all over his neck, wearing his shame for the world to see! "Samwise," I said, "If them bites ain't from Rose Cotton, then I don't want to be hearing whose mouth made 'em on 'ee. For pity's sake, lad, turn up that collar and get about the weeding."

He done it, and what's more he done a good job in the garden that day and the next and the one after, for all the bags under his eyes and the bites on his neck. So I let it be, knowing there wasn't aught to be done. And I had a fool's hope. I hoped I was wrong and they was from Rose after all, or mayhap I hoped he'd grow out of it.

But he didn't. The years run on the way they do, and one day....

No, I ain't gone to sleep. It's the words. They don't come easy. It ain't that I don't trust 'ee-- for I do. I wouldn't creep down here from that dratted house to see 'ee so much, elsewise. Some days it seems 'ee must be the only one I've got left as I can talk to. Sure, Farmer Tom Cotton puts in a bit of attention my way every two-day or so, but he don't know what I know about Sam, and I'm thinking his reasons for tending after an old hobbit will come to naught.

'Ee may as well hear it straight. It wasn't so much my joints that made me give up tending the gardens on the Hill. I could have gone on a tidy few years, what with a bit of liniment to mend my aches. It was what I seen. A hobbit don't... he don't see his lad do summat such as I seen, not and come away the same as he was when he rose that morning.

I meant to help Sam prune back the gorse, that was all-- I'd been down in the kitchen garden with my hoe, but there wasn't much to be done in it. When it was done I climbed up quiet so as not to trouble Mr. Bilbo. He loves his sleep of a morning, and so does-- so did Mr. Frodo, only it seemed there was summat he liked more: my Sam.

At any rate, I didn't know what I was seein', not at first-- just Mr. Frodo sitting in the hay-grass like he sometimes did. It gets that tall up there I couldn't see naught but his shoulders. He didn't have on his shirt nor weskit neither, and that made me stop before he saw me. And a good thing, too, for he was swaying like the branches of that cursed tree, and talking all sorts of crazy chatter-- using them fey elf-words decent folk don't know. I ain't too proud to say I made the sign to ward off evil, just like so. I didn't want the ympes a-catching hold of me nohow, and still don't!

I reckoned I'd best get myself back down in the yard quick as thinking, but then I heard it: my Sam's voice. I'll be blasted if it wasn't-- coming from the grass under Mr. Frodo, talking that ympe-talk right back at him. And I couldn't stir a step, not for any money; I was that bebothered. Mr. Frodo set in to moaning and crying like a ban-sidhe, and my Sam kept crooning them evil words. Before I could say aught, the two of them were so far gone in the spell all there was left of them was mouths and hands gone hungry everywhere upon the other, and still that foul spell rolling off their tongues-- I could have sat right down and cried. I was shivered to the roots like a trunk struck by lightning.

Well, the short of it is they went to rolling and I could see my Sam, him and Mr. Frodo grafted right together at the root, if I may speak so plain, begging a lady's pardon. Only I knew that wasn't my Sam at all; some devil had come and took him away right under my nose and left a changeling in his place, and there wasn't no getting around it.

Now I ain't even got that changeling left to comfort me; he's gone off with Mr. Frodo to foreign parts, and don't look like coming back.

A drop more brandy, there's a kind lass. Thank 'ee. As soon as I could stir a step again, I climbed back down right quick, and 'ee may be sure it stole my heart for workin'. I took to my bed for the day. Not that I slept; it was all as I could see when I closed my eyes, and what's worse, I could hear it just as clear as if I was there. I wondered if I had the rights of it all. I wondered how that Brandybuck lad treated Sam, and whether he cared for him at all. I wondered what I ought to have done different so as to see my Sam marry a comely lass. But I reckon I won't never dandle my own son's babe upon my knee.

That was the way of things, and it didn't change none when Mr. Bilbo went off. The only difference was Sam didn't hardly sleep in his bed none at all no more, and May had to buy a sight less breakfast sausage.

So when Mr. Frodo up and sold Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, I knew there wasn't aught I could do. That Sam would follow him to the moon and leave me naught to say about it. I counted it lucky they only moved so far as Crickhollow-- but then they vanished from there, off through the Old Forest by all accounts. Mayhap like calls to like, and them ympe-trees there called a kindred soul back home. Or mayhap Sam followed Mr. Frodo's mad fancy right down to the goblin caves. For all I know that's where they are now, or summat worse. My heart told me so when it got so bad last winter, what with all the Men showing up and that Mr. Lotho getting above himself.

Yes, above himself, I said, for all that Lotho Pimple's a Baggins bred, or near enough. Above and beyond, and all of us gone to ruin right along with him. I'd take Mr. Frodo a dozen times over that, for all his follies.

Leastways the old ympe-tree is still standing. They ain't cut it down yet. I don't know whether to wish they would, or whether to pray they leave it be. Mayhap while it stands there's hope: Mr. Frodo still bides alive, and my Sam with him.

Or mayhap it's a fool's hope, and that tree's found itself a way to bring us all to the grave.

There now, lass, don't cry. I don't believe that, truly I don't. 'Ee best give me your hand, and keep a hope in 'ee like I do. If we don't, then there's precious little to hang on to, if I do say so. We're still alive, ain't we? Where there's life there's hope... and need of vittles. Have a bite of cheese and dry those tears. Look, now! It's turned night outside, and me still here.

Of course I'll stay. There's naught else for it, and I wouldn't leave 'ee to cry the night with them ruffians about. A pallet in here will do fine, and I--

Well, I suppose, if there's only wood for the one fire, I might bide with 'ee....

Ah, lass, 'ee make an old hobbit feel fair young again.

-The end-
 

 

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