How does it feel to be the last of one’s kind? After my grandmother died, I knew. The feeling is not one that any hobbit, man, elf, or dwarf should have to go through.
I buried my grandmother as far away from the Anduin as I could possibly carry her. I could not bear to be alone but for a week; I was driving myself mad. My parents and relatives departed from the Gladden Fields when I was young and left me to care for my grandmother, whose line had been cursed with long life. She was frail and unable to make the journey.
With no money and no contacts, I set off westward. My parents hoped to join the rest of my kin who had traveled there long ago, so I decided to go, armed with only a small haversack and a flicker of hope that I would ever see another of my people. The rumours concerning plagues of old weighed heavy on my mind.
Through rough terrain I traveled, thinking of my lonely but beloved home every step of the way. Somehow, by some means of Providence, I made it across the Misty Mountains unscathed save for a few bumps and bruises. I knew nothing of the world outside those mountains.
My weary feet protested but I hardly camped during my long journey. The foreign night wilderness frightened me to no end. Usually I foraged for food, like I was used to doing my entire life. Occasionally, traveling parties left scraps. I stayed out of sight until they moved on, and scrambled to eat and drink their remains. How I desperately wanted to talk to them! But there was no way to tell who was dangerous and who wasn’t. It seemed there were other poor folk about, because one night, I fell asleep with my haversack by my side, and when I arose it was no longer there.
Throughout my journey, I tried to travel in a straight line due west. I vaguely remembered my father telling me that if I just followed the sunset, he would be there. He told me I would someday join him in a civilization where hobbits had lived in peace for centuries. That was over ten years ago, when I was just a wee twenty years old. My heart burned within me as I hoped the promise was still good.
When I felt like I could hardly carry on, an amazing thing happened. The trees began to thin and the sky brightened over a grassy land. Although I had no idea what I was looking for, my heart could sense that my destination was near. The hobbit footprints I passed and the smell of the air were promising evidence.
I came to a wide river and rejoiced. How I longed to swim and bathe again in the cool clear water. During my repose, I became quite content with the prospect of living out my days on that riverbank, but vowed to continue on. Yesterday, I came to a smaller river that parted and rejoined to form an island, and have been recuperating here ever since.
Night has fallen, and I am feeling rather well, but fear that I must do something about my clothing. I wore a pair of my father’s breeches and a shirt for the journey, the only tokens of him I had left. But now, they stink of death and travel.
In the shade of the shrubs, I wake to the sound of voices. Peering through the trees, I see two hobbits at the riverbank, talking intently: an older one with greying curly hair, and a slightly taller, thin one with dark matted locks. For that matter, they both appear thinner than any hobbit I’ve seen back home, including myself. I look down at my bony arms. After what I estimate to be two months of grueling travel, I have lost nearly a quarter of my weight.
My heart nearly explodes…so this is hobbit country! I knew my intuition hadn’t deceived me. I ached to run down there and have a proper conversation with them, and especially inquire about my family. But they are talking intently and I don’t want to interrupt. What’s more, my stench might drive them away all on its own.
I keep extremely quiet and still, letting their words drift up to me from the water below.
“Why can’t I, uncle?” the younger one says agitatedly. “You’d be right here in the event of an accident.”
I decide to take advantage of their minor tussle. Sitting upstream from the hobbits I spy blankets, pots and pans, and two haversacks of belongings: camping supplies. Scuttling silently through the trees, I reach the sacks, my eyes remaining on the hobbits all the while.
The older one places a hand on who I now assume is his nephew’s shoulder. “You’re forgetting something, my lad. Though I have scurried up a tree or two in my day, I’m afraid I don’t know how to swim either.”
“I know that,” replies his nephew. “But you could throw me a line if I start to drown.”
At that, uncle playfully shoves nephew away from the water. “Come on now, let’s head home before Lobelia decides it’s alright to make off with more of my silverware.”
The younger hobbit chuckles and starts to retreat from the riverbank.
Grabbing something that resembled clothing, I tuck it underneath my arm. I had hoped to steal more, but the uncomfortable silence tells me that the pair are finished speaking. Carefully closing the satchel, I dive behind the trees without a moment to spare.
I see a ten-year-old version of myself close his eyes and drink in gentle zephyr skimming off the water. I am standing at the bow of a wooden boat. My father is with me, but I cannot see his face. He holds an oar in his hand as we scour the river, which is blurry but appears to be the Brandywine. What are we looking for? Where is my mother? My father looks up and I discover that this man with the little boy is not Drogo Baggins at all. I am staring into my own eyes.
“Frodo!” Uncle Bilbo’s voice awakens me from my dream. I cannot decide if it should be classified as a nightmare, but the image was rather unsettling.
“Frodo!” He comes sauntering into my chambers, with only one brace fastened, toting a thick book in one hand. Typical Uncle Bilbo.
“Yes?” I say, rubbing my eyes. Sunlight streams in through the window. I welcome its presence on my face but nonetheless feel distressed. Have I overslept again?
“Have you seen my old pair of breeches? The one with the patch on the knee?” He places a hand on his furrowed brow. “I could have sworn I brought them on our excursion.”
“You know I didn’t take them,” I tell him. “The waistband is far too wide for me.”
Uncle Bilbo knocks me on top of the head with his heavy book.
Suddenly I have an idea. “But I’ll go look for them for you!” I exclaim, perhaps a bit too excitedly.
“Back to the Water? You’d do that for your old uncle?” He is already growing suspicious of me as I rise and dress to meet the day.
I hurry to the pantry and grab some portable breakfast and second breakfast edibles, primarily fruit. Uncle Bilbo follows me, still behaving like a nervous wreck.
“There’s no rush!” he calls. “Stay and eat! It will take you hours to get to the island.”
“Exactly right,” I reply. “That is why I must leave now.”
I am out the door of Bag End before Uncle Bilbo can utter another word. The Gaffer is already at work planting a splendid new array of blooms to celebrate the commencement of summer. A giggle and the sound of a child falling tell me that he has brought Sam with him today.
“Hi, Mr. Frodo!” Sam stands up, popping out behind some bushes. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
Despite my rush, it is only polite that I take a brief moment to compliment our gardener.
“What dazzling choices, Gaffer!” I say. In fact, upon inspecting his arrangement, I realize that this particular variety of flower is altogether unfamiliar.
“No time to explain now, Sam! I’ll tell you all about it later,” I yell over my shoulder, already forming a fictitious reason for my sudden departure should he hold me to that promise.
Bounding down the stairs, I am on my way. As I walk through town, I greet the few relatives and friends who are awake and out of doors. I consider asking a friend to come along but think better of it; if I am to do this at all, it must be alone.
Along my journey through the fields, I consume my first and second breakfasts consecutively (really I have only brought enough nutriments for one and a half breakfasts). When I am finished, I still have nearly an hour to travel, which leaves me alone with nothing but my thoughts.
The real reason I came all the way out here was not to satisfy my uncle but was based in a more selfish motivation. Lately I have been having recurring thoughts and longings towards my parents that intensify whenever I spend time near water. My mind and heart have long accepted their deaths, but I fear there is no closure until I can accomplish something. I am going to learn how to swim, and if I do not succeed at least my attempt will not be in vain.
Finally, I come to the long bridge over the Water, leading to the island where Uncle Bilbo and I camped a few days ago. It was a surprise to me when he suggested the outing, but I was obliged to take him up on it. I love Bag End dearly, but time immersed in nature draws me nearer to the written word, to Uncle Bilbo, and to my own soul.
I cross the bridge in anticipation, and in little time I find the spot where my uncle and I visited. The river rolls along quietly here; minimal rocks and rapids make it the ideal place for beginners like myself.
Before setting foot in the water, I scan around for the breeches if only to tell uncle that I endeavored to find them.
No, they aren’t behind these bushes. No, not buried in the sand. All right, I will search the roots of a tree he slept under but then it is time to swim.
I offer the ground beneath the tree no more than a passing glance. Two glowing green eyes stare back at me in an expression of shock, which much mirror my own visage at the moment. Upon meeting my gaze the young lass immediately stands up. The top of her head reaches my eye level; the tallest female hobbit I have encountered, not to say I pay much attention to such matters.
She smiles, looking travel-weary and slightly bruised but clean and refreshed. Her clothes look awfully familiar as well, complete with patched breeches, worn braces, and a splotchy brown shirt. It is quite uncommon to see a girl dressed like this.
For some odd reason, I think of what to tell my uncle. Yes, I have found your breeches Uncle Bilbo, would you also like the lass who came with them?
I suppose I have been staring for longer than I realize because all of a sudden she has extended her hand to me in greeting.
“Hello, sir,” she says meekly. “My name is Zinnia Riverbottom.”
“Frodo Baggins,” I say, returning the gesture. “But I’m not sure I should be shaking the hand of my uncle’s thief.” That phrase clearly rolled off my tongue incorrectly.
She stifles a giggle as she radiates with an irresistible sheepish smile. She looks down at her clothes. “I pray your uncle can forgive me, Frodo. I promise to return them as soon as I can earn money to buy my own.”
“I am sure he can,” I say without a second thought. I scold myself for improper hospitality. Although this is not my island, the Shire is my home and it is clear that this lass is far from hers. She talkes with an unusual accent. Perhaps Bree is her usual dwelling place, but in the recesses of my mind, I doubt it.
“Here, drink some fresh water.” I offer her my canteen as she bows her head and thankfully accepts the fluid. She takes a few gulps and the excess runs down her chin; she is parched. My heart is moved with compassion for this strange hobbit. I examine her more closely as she drinks. Her long red curly hair is strewn all about haphazardly down her back. Freckles snake up and down her face, neck, and arms, masked only by sunburn. Shadows under her eyes speak of poor sleeping patterns.
Finally she is finished and hands me back my canteen.
“May I ask where you are from?” I say.
She hesitates for a moment. “You may think me a liar, but Gladden Fields,” she answers.
Gladden Fields? I vaguely recognize the location a far off place a great distance west of here. Uncle Bilbo may have mentioned it in one of his stories.
“I came to find my family who departed before me, many years ago,” she continues. “Are you acquainted with a Jadno or Clover Riverbottom?”
“Not personally,” I reply. Her expression deflates like the foul atmosphere of a gustless spring day. “But perhaps someone in Hobbiton or Buckland would recognize the name,” I add, attempting to sound hopeful although I am ninety percent sure no one by those names has ever lived in the Shire. I just want her to follow me back home so she can be fed and rested.
“I would be much obliged should you show me the way,” said Zinnia.
“The pleasure is all mine,” I said, leading on.
Regrettably, swimming will have to wait until the matter of what to do about this mysterious lass is cleared up.
Although I have not found my family yet, it gives me great comfort to be accompanied by another hobbit. It doesn’t hurt matters that he is lively, talkative, and does not ask me to explain my history or how I ended up in his territory. What’s more, years have passed since I have seen another hobbit my age; for the most part my grandmother and I lived in solitude.
Frodo and I walk for miles through fields and rolling green hills that are a feast for my eyes. Speaking of a feast, my stomach rumbles reminding me that I have eaten nothing but bony fish and leaves for quite some time.
Frodo tells me we are nearing Bywater Pool, not that I would be able to tell the difference between that and Bag End – what he calls his home. We approach the edge of a farm sprouting mushroom crops. A rumble erupts that is too loud for Frodo not to hear. I glance down and feel my cheeks turning red.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were hungry?” says Frodo. “I’ve run out of food, but it looks like luck is with us.”
He spreads his arms, gesturing to the abundant crops. “Have you ever seen so many mushrooms? I used to steal them all the time from this fellow down in Buckland as a child.” It is his turn to smile sheepishly as he picks some mushrooms from the earth, hands me a few, and hurries on.
I gobble them down and nothing has ever tasted better, even though my insides squirm at thieving for the second time in two days.
We reach a large, still lake. The afternoon sun glistens off the surface of what I assume is Bywater Pool.
Frodo stops and looks at me with a mixture of pity and caution. “This is the south bank.” He points to the opposite end, towards little doors built into the bottom of rolling hills. “Hobbits live on the north bank.” He hesitates, kicking the dirt with his foot. “I don’t know how it is where you come from, but hobbits around here can occasionally come off crass to strangers.” His eyes glance from my head to my toes, and I realize he means my hair and clothing are nowhere near acceptable. “Before we walk through a village with hobbits about, I think it best to…”
Out of politeness he can’t finish the statement which I find charming. “I understand,” I cut in. “If you would be so kind as to help me find work, I’m sure I could earn enough for new clothes in no time.”
“Oh, no,” Frodo says as we walk down to some shrubs near the water. “I will buy you something in Bywater, just over that hill.” He laughs, as his long eyelashes shut and his nose crinkles. “Uncle Bilbo will be pleased to have his garments returned today, as he’s quite fond of those old breeches?” I am ashamed but can’t help joining in his merriment.
“Can you wait here?” He asks, and I am taken aback; he has no reason to be this generous and helpful, save for pity, perhaps? Is it a look of mercy I see in his dazzling blue eyes? Why am I apt to perceive the color of my companion’s eyes but fail to notice the mosquitos buzzing around my face? I do not swat them away until Frodo’s form disappears from sight.
I am buying a frock for my visiting cousin. My birthday is in two months and I must start shopping for presents early. My sister is getting engaged. I must decide upon a believable excuse before entering Bywater’s tailor shop.
Taking a deep breath, I open the wooden door. An unfamiliar lady sits at a sewing loom as the clerk stands behind the counter and counts his coins as they are handed to him by a child customer from the looks of it. Good, I sigh inwardly with relief. I won’t be encountering anyone I know.
The paying customer turns around and I cannot contain my astonishment. It is Merry Brandybuck, my wee cousin (he would hate for me to call him that – he is sixteen now) from Buckland.
“Merry!” I cry. “What are you doing out here?”
“Frodo!” He throws his short arms around my waist. “My family and I are on our way to the Great Smials for Cousin Pimpernel’s birthday this week. You know, my mother likes to take the East road to Tuckborough instead of the shorter way. More places to shop.” He sighed a heavy, overdramatic sigh.
Of course! I had forgotten about our cousin’s upcoming nineteenth birthday party. When the cousins are all together, I rarely spend time with young Pimpernel and usually focus on getting her tiny brother, Peregrin, to play along with Merry and my pranks.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me enthusiastically.
The shop is so small that the clerk and seamstress have no choice but to listen to our exchange. I needed to end our talk quickly.
“Which is exactly why I’m here, Merry. I’ll see you back in Hobbiton, then?” I hurried the conversation along.
“Cousin, I’m no longer a baby. I know that we give presents on our own birthdays and accept them at others’ parties. What are you doing here, Frodo?” he said slyly.
My face grows hot, but I cannot tell him the truth yet. People would talk and word will spread fast. I do not know much of her yet, but I value Zinnia enough to give her a fair chance before I let folk start spreading rumors about her. Or am I more worried about folk spreading rumors about us? I push the thought deep into my mind where I hoped not to find it again soon.
Merry shrugged. “Well, I guess it none of my concern. Good bye, Frodo,” he said, carrying a spool of thread with him and shutting the door.
That was easier than expected.
I peruse the sparse selection of ready-made garments and decide on a light green frock that should match her eyes well enough – that is, looks presentable enough to satisfy any crowd and preserve her of her dignity.
After I make the purchase, I nearly run out the door.
“Aha!” Merry shouts. He almost scares my life from me and uses that moment to peer into the sack I dropped on the ground at my fright. “What do you need with a frock, Frodo?” His eyes perk up with sudden illumination. “Ohhh, don’t tell me you’ve got yourself a lass?”
“Where is your family, Merry?” I ask.
“They’re still shopping in town, but mother asked me to pick up some thread out here. Why?” he replies, not letting go of that mischievous gleam in his eye.
“You’d best get on back there before dark,” I say, trying to impose my older-cousin influence on him. I begin walking in the direction of Bywater pool.
“You can’t hide forever, cousin! I’ll get it out of you!” I hear him holler as he takes off running towards town.
I am glad I stopped in town before visiting the tailor shop; this way I won’t run into Merry again. It is hard to keep the truth from him, but I can hardly accept what is happening as truth. Who exactly is Zinnia aside from a strange, intriguing (and beautiful) newcomer? Perhaps all of the answers I seek will come to light when we reunite with her family. However, something deep inside the place I never go, the place that is still an orphan, taunts that we shall never find them.
After waiting for some time, the hot sun is too much for my skin to bear; I am used to living by a river in the moist cover of trees. I could retreat into the woods behind me, but then Frodo may not find me when he returns. The water beckons me with its blue sunlit wave. It takes little time and effort to persuade me to walk to the pool’s edge.
Frodo’s uncle will want his clothes cleaned anyway, an inner voice tells me. With that, I dive into the cool, glassy shallows, startling a spotted green frog on a lilypad. He jumps in with me. I open my eyes and see all kinds of fish swimming around and feel at home for the first time since my journey began. The sun dances through the water, illuminating their many-colored scales.
As I surface, Frodo is approaching and I greet him with my first real smile in months. Hope rises in my stomach that my family is nearby, poised to hear about my adventures while rejoicing and grieving my grandmother’s passing.
I swim closer and see that Frodo carries two sacks, one in each hand. He sets them down with a bemused and slightly distressed expression on his face.
He holds a basket exuding delicious smells. I hesitate to leave where I feel at peace, but my stomach protests. I exit the pool and gratefully accept a biscuit and an apple. They both taste heavenly. “I will gladly repay you when I find my family. They will surely have some money,” I say confidently. Frodo looks at the ground and chews his food.
“You know how to swim?” he asks me. I am puzzled at the hint of admiration and jealousy in his voice.
“Why, yes, of course,” I reply. “I grew up adjacent to a river and fish was my family’s main meal.”
He marvels at my words with his wide eyes. “The surprises are never-ending with you,” he says wistfully.
“Do you?” I prod. “Know how to swim, I mean.”
“I’m afraid hobbits around here are not so skilled in the water,” he says, his voice slightly catching.
We continue eating and when we are finished, Frodo hands me his other sack. “I hope this fits,” he says, his cheeks turning redder than they are normally.
“Thank you,” I say, taking the sack. Well, we’re about to find out. I head into the forest and look into the package. Sitting on top of the garment is a piece of twine to tie my hair with. After bunching it together as neatly as possible, I pull out a soft woven frock. The sleeves are delicately sewn and red cords lace up the front of the fitted bodice. Do my mother and cousins now wear fine clothes like this? It looks too lovely to wear, but I hurry up and change into it nonetheless. Instead of patched breeches, a full skirt in a becoming shade of dark green flows around my legs.
I emerge from the forest, presentable and ready to set out again. This time, I can undauntedly ask passersby about my family.
Frodo is waiting for me, eating an apple that he obviously had tucked away. “It’s beautiful; I don’t know how to thank you,” I tell him, carrying the sack with his uncle’s sopping clothes now inside.
I pause, waiting for him to lead the way, but he does not budge. Nor does he continue eating his apple. What is the matter with him, I wonder. But then I follow his transfixed gaze and realize that he is staring at me. I do not know what to make of this, but decide that I must find my family at once. He has served me well as a generous and unexpected guide, but my heart aches to reach town.
Eventually, he snaps out of the trance and clears his throat. “This way,” he says, “It’s not much further down Hobbiton Road.”
Zinnia and I arrive at Bag End just before sunset. We did not pass too many travelers on Hobbiton Road for her to question about her family, and the ones we did had heard no talk of a family named Riverbottom. At each denial, my heart sank and confirmed my previous suspicions. “Don’t let your heart be troubled,” I encouraged her. “There are many villages in the Shire and an abundance of families.” I was lying through my teeth; even across great distances, everyone had heard of everyone in the Shire. Still, there were some hobbits who preferred solitary, private dwellings; perhaps her family was one of them. If anyone could be expected to be acquainted with even those evasive hobbits, it was Uncle Bilbo.
As we approach the front door, I think of what we ought to tell Uncle Bilbo about Zinnia’s identity. He’ll immediately be suspicious; I’ve never brought a lass to supper. And if he doesn’t know of her family like I unfortunately suspect, what shall become of her?
The smell of supper cooking wafts through the door and I salivate. My stomach is in disarray after missing two meals and I cannot imagine my companion’s hunger. Amidst all of the uncertainty about her, one thing I have learned about Zinnia is that she never lodges a complaint.
“Your home is unlike anything I’ve seen before,” says Zinnia, before I can open the door. “The flowers, the grass, the air – truly magnificent,” she adds. She spins around, taking in the beautiful blooms.
I smile at her. “You can thank our gardener for the fine landscaping,” I tell her. “Wait until you see the inside; my Uncle Bilbo is quite the decorator.”
Her expression brightens even more. “Oh, I haven’t seen zinnias in ages,” she cries, walking over to the batch of flowers that the Gaffer just planted. She giggles. “The flower I was named after.” I gasp at the peculiar coincidence.
“The Gaffer just added those,” I say meekly. “They’re my favorites.” The pink, yellow, red, orange and white blossoms truly are the brightest in the garden.
Taking a deep breath, I decide to let my uncle hear the truth, or at least as much as Zinnia wishes to tell him.
She grabs my arm to hold me back and my skin prickles. “What shall I call your uncle?”
“Mr. Baggins should suffice,” I say, attempting a smile. But I find that it is hard not to smile, looking at her in that dress, freckles adorning her body like jewels in the orange sunlight. I hastily take the sack of Uncle Bilbo’s partially dry clothes into my arms. That’s one truth I would rather withhold from him, at least.
We enter my home, and I lead Zinnia through the entryway, past the sitting room, and into the dining room. I notice that she tries to hide her expression of a little child experiencing summer for the first time.
My mouth drops open when we reach the dining room. Uncle Bilbo is sitting at table just beginning a feast with none other than Gandalf! The old wizard who took my uncle on his first adventure and rousts about the lands, stirring up trouble and excitement wherever he goes. I wonder what he is doing here but it hardly matters; how my uncle and I love him dearly!
“Gandalf!” I exclaim, unable to hold my tongue.
They turn to look at us, smile, and gesture for us to sit down.
“Frodo, my boy, good to see you,” says Gandalf. He looks at Zinnia and quiets down.
“Frodo, it’s about time! I was beginning to think you no longer enjoyed my cooking,” Uncle Bilbo says, laughing.
“Uncle Bilbo, Gandalf, I’d like you both to meet Zinnia,” I say pulling out a chair for her, across from my uncle and next to Gandalf.
“Hello, my dear,” says Gandalf.
“I see,” says Uncle Bilbo slowly “And how did you two become acquainted?”
I make sure that I am the first to answer. “We met on the Hobbiton Road, when I was returning from retrieving your lost garments,” I say holding up the sack in my hand. Zinnia does not look at me and holds her tongue.
Uncle Bilbo takes the sack and places it behind him on a small table. He looks at me quizzically before meeting Zinnia’s gaze. “Welcome to Bag End,” he says, “And help yourself.” I am suddenly proud of my uncle. I knew he could not turn her away.
Staring at Gandalf, Zinnia seems frozen in place and I gather that means she has never seen a big person. I meet her eyes reassuringly and she sits down. “Thank you, sir, uh, Mr. Baggins,” she finally manages.
We all eat for a while in silence, filling our bellies with a medley of fresh vegetables, chicken, potatoes, and finally scrumptious pie. I eat ravenously but worry fills my thoughts. That is, until Gandalf chimes in with an amusing tale of the first time his elf friend of his tried blueberry pie. Zinnia and I are in stitches as Uncle Bilbo tries to top his story by painstakingly detailing the first time Balin ate watermelon.
After everyone is nearly finished, Uncle Bilbo pipes up, seemingly reenergized. “Miss, what is your family name?” he asks Zinnia. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you in town.”
Zinnia takes a sip of her drink and says, “I’m actually looking for some relatives who may reside in these parts, who go by the name of Riverbottom.” She continues slowly, hesitant from the many rejections from her earlier inquiries. “Might either of you have heard of them?” she manages to peep out.
I notice Gandalf become very quiet as his eyes cloud over with a misty otherworldly film. Uncle Bilbo glances uncomfortably around the room and finally rests his gaze on her.
“Hmm… I’ve heard talk of Riverbottoms south of Tuckborough,” he answers tentatively. He must know something, or be lying.
At that moment, we could have dimmed all of our lanterns because the light in Zinnia’s smile was enough to brighten the entire room.
“You know, we happen to be going there near the end of this week; we could take you,” I blurt out, as Gandalf observes my outburst with a smug smile.
Uncle Bilbo is surprised as well, but soon the hospitable host in him takes charge. “Have you not visited Tuckborough before?” he asks. “Where did you say you came from?”
“From the East,” I interject, hoping he assumes I mean the East Farthing, as Zinnia nods. Thankfully, Uncle Bilbo does not press the matter. Instead, he and Gandalf eye each other as if speaking silently.
“Well, thank you, dear Bilbo, for a fine meal,” says Gandalf as he stands up. “But then I would expect nothing less.” He walks over to the front room, remembering to duck lest he bang his head against the chandelier. He’s done that enough times that he should know better, or so my uncle tells me.
I follow him, disappointed to see him go. “Wait, you can’t leave yet!” I protest, a little too forcefully. “You never told us what business brought you to the Shire.”
“Oh, something very important that I haven’t time to discuss now, Frodo,” he says opening the door. “I have left you with a present for your cousin’s birthday party, though.” He winks, shuts the door, and is gone from Bag End as quickly as he came. I can never keep up with wizards (not that I know any others besides Gandalf).
Uncle Bilbo pushes back his chair and begins clearing the dishes and silverware. “Frodo, help me bring these to the kitchen,” he says, and I oblige, leaving Zinnia alone.
As I place the dishes in the washbasin, I fret aloud. “It’s a pity that Gandalf had to leave so--“
Uncle Bilbo cuts me off. “Frodo. What has gotten to you?” he asks in a hushed but urgent voice. “What do you propose we do with this lass? I don’t know where she hails from, but she looks rather discombobulated, not knowing whether she is coming or going.” He sighs. “And she certainly cannot find Tuckborough by herself.”
So that is why he called me in here. “You said yourself that she can come to Pimpernel’s party with us. Her family is probably there and that will be that,” I say.
Uncle Bilbo purses his lips. “Will it?” he asks. “And until the party?” He taps his foot agitatedly and I look at him, silently pleading for a positive response. “Oh well, I suppose she can stay here…the guest room is only collecting dust after all.”
I brighten and hug my uncle, quickly turning to tell Zinnia the good news. But before I leave he grabs hold of my arm. “Frodo, don’t get any ideas that lads your age tend to get,” he said. “Although you might forget it, I was young once, too.” He laughs, but then grows serious. “And remember, I often pace the halls with a midnight snack,” he raises his eyebrows and then gives me a tap on the back, as I race back into the dining room.
Frodo’s home is so luxurious and his uncle so kind that I almost forget the aching in my heart to be reunited with my kin. I welcome their hospitality and the nourishment that certainly beats what I have eaten the past two months.
After my first real meal in days, I am exhausted. To my surprise, Mr. Baggins has agreed to house me in their guest room for a week until we all travel to Tuckborough – where there is talk of hobbits with my family name!
They give me a tour of Bag End before I go to sleep, and it turns out that Mr. Baggins owns many books. He writes stories, poems, and songs, and Frodo knows how to read and write as well. Who would have thought! Has my family learned to do these things, wherever they are?
As I crawl beneath the sheets that are rivaled only to fresh goose feathers, I feel at peace for the second time today.
That night, I do not dream of perils and the dark, but rather, my mind’s eyes pictures light and laughter. Merriment fills the dreamscape as I see the cousins of my youth all grown up, with children of their own prancing about in the rolling hills of the Shire. Are they here? I toss and turn in my sleep but not before I see myself in the dream. I am at my usual plumpness – the weight I was before I left home – but my stomach looks rounder than usual. A fellow walks over to me and puts his hand over my belly and his arm around my shoulders. I push the raggedy brown hair out of his face to reveal gleaming cerulean eyes staring back at me.
I spend the entire first few days with Zinnia, bringing her to all my favorite places near the Hill and Overhill. I tell myself I am only being polite in offering my guidance to a stranger, but I could never believe that lie. Within a day or two, I could have easily taken her to Tuckborough, but if she knows this, she hasn’t uttered a word. Is it compassionate or selfish of me to want her to shield her from the disappointment my heart tells me she will find? Or am I keeping her here for another reason, one I resolved to lock away?
Zinnia meets my friends and relatives in town who do not question her identity (for the most part). She meets the Gaffer and Sam, who wants to know everything about her. Thankfully, she fares extremely well with young ones and does not find him the pest that I do on occasion.
On her third day here, I offer to take Zinnia on a picnic by the northwest portion of the Water. Before we leave, Uncle Bilbo tells me to remember our talk in the kitchen and that the same warning still holds true.
We arrive at a sunny grassy knoll, partially shaded by trees. We set down our large blanket and unpack our basket full of lunch. I made it myself, barring Uncle Bilbo’s entrance from the kitchen until I had fashioned roast mutton, mashed potatoes, and apple pie. It took me all morning and even then I wasn’t sure how the dishes turned out.
Zinnia’s eyes light up as I take out course after course, along with some fresh apples and lemonade.
“You outdid yourself,” she says, taking a bite of mutton. “Mmm,” she smiles a closed-mouthed smile. Her compliments get better and better after each dish as I try to keep from getting inflated. But as I eat my own food, I am surprised at how well I did.
We can see the Water from our perch on the hill and my desire to learn to swim once again overwhelms me. Zinnia turns and follows my gaze, then looks back at me. “This is perfect!” she says. “I’m going to teach you to swim.”
As quick as the wind she grabs my hand and pulls me up off the ground. We are running down to the Water’s edge, when she loses her footing on the steep hill. Suddenly we are tumbling down and down on the grass. When we come to a stop she immediately stands up and dusts herself off, while it takes me a little longer to regain my bearings.
Zinnia continues on to the water’s edge, and I decide to use the moment to sneak up on her. She turns around, still thinking I am on the ground and we are face to face. She doesn’t flinch, though, and she presses her hand against my chest, below my heart, which beats furiously. I grab her elbow, pulling her nearer to me. I breathe in the earthy scent of her and rub my face against her soft, curly hair, as lovely as an autumn leaf, which she has brushed and tied up off her neck. She runs her hand over my left brace and entwines her finger around it.
“I just realized,” she says seriously. “I can’t go in there. The water would ruin this dress…”
I stay close to her, letting the words sink in. A smile creeps across my face and turns into a laugh. She mirrors my amusement and rubs my left brace between her fingers.
“Right,” I say, still smiling.
She lets go of me and faces the cool breeze blowing off the water and through her hair.
After everything Frodo and his family have done for me, the least I can do is return the favor by teaching him to swim. He seems to want desperately to learn, though I can’t understand his particular interest in it.
Staring out at the glimmering river, I turn around. “Why do you want to swim?” I ask.
He hesitates, and then walks to my side. “My parents died in a boating accident,” he says softly. My heart shatters when I find out he is an orphan; I feel a pang of numbness and understanding.
“They drowned…you might think me a fool, but if I could learn…” He stops to swallow and take a breath. “It would mean a great deal to me,” he finishes.
“But I wasn’t expecting a lesson today,” he quickly adds. “I will teach myself one of these days.”
“It’s impossible to teach yourself to swim,” I say, as I begin to untie the front of my dress. “Even I learned from my father.” I lift it over my head and toss it gently on the grass so I’m only in my chemise and white cotton breeches. I have some misgivings about this, especially because of my unsettling dream last night, but I push them from my mind.
I dive in, cold water flowing around my body. When the water reaches my neck, my feet settle on some smooth rocks. I turn and face Frodo who is staring at my dress on the ground. He looks at me with a smile the size of the sun and rushes into the water.
Our afternoon is spent floating, breath holding, and paddling. He learns surprisingly fast for one his age. His build is slight but strong, and he becomes skilled at blending his paddling and kicking. When the sun is about to set, he tells me that he wishes to swim underwater, with the fish and the turtles. I say we better head back so we don’t worry his uncle.
We exit the river, laughing, alight and alive from the most pleasant day imaginable. I lie on the grass to catch my breath and dry out, and he lies next to me. We face West and absorb as must of the distant sun as possible.
“What river did you say you grew up on?” he asks breathlessly.
“The Anduin,” I say. I never told him.
He is silent, then as if recalling, he says, “No, you can’t mean it!” He turns to face me. “Beyond the Misty Mountains?”
“It’s true,” I turn towards him on my side. “Whether you choose to believe it or not.”
“Of course I believe you, Zinnia,” he says gently. “I just did not know any Hobbits lived out there…”
“They don’t anymore. It was just my grandmother and I. My parents left for the West many years ago,” I tell him.
He gazes at the sky, and if he feels pity for me, it does not reveal itself in his eyes. “What a grand world we live in,” he marvels. “You think you know so much only to discover your world is just a sliver of what lies beyond.”
I look at the sky, too. He is right; throughout my journey, I have learned this truth better than anyone.
“How long did it take you to get to the island, then, where I found you?” He is suddenly inquisitive, but I don’t mind.
“About two months, if I kept my dates correctly,” I reply.
Frodo stands up, as if he doesn’t know how to express his surprise. “Just two months? And you encountered no dangers?”
“Oh, yes,” I say. “One can never travel anywhere without danger.”
“But you made it,” he says. “You are truly blessed, Zinnia Riverbottom.”
Hearing this spoken in his voice make me almost believe it.
It is near 5 o’clock when a re-clothed Zinnia and I and return to Hobbiton. The only word to describe today is pure bliss. As we walk through town, we cannot help but smile at the hobbits who are working or sitting outside their holes. They smile back, but when we pass, I hear them whisper to one another.
“That lass has been staying at Bag End for three days now!”
“What is Bilbo thinking?”
“Is Frodo her suitor?”
As if Uncle Bilbo needs more gossip surrounding his home throughout town, though he never seems to mind. I look at Zinnia and wonder if she hears them, too, but I see only bright green eyes drinking in the sky with a look of contentedness.
As we arrive at Bag End, I spy the Gaffer finishing up work for the day. Sam is there again, obediently taking direction as to how much water a tomato plant should receive. I wonder if he has now officially become his father’s apprentice.
We climb the stairs and I wave to them, moving to open the front door. Instead of following me inside, Zinnia walks over to the Gamgees.
“I love tomatoes,” she says, gesturing to the prolific green stalks and greenish-red fruit. “You two are wonderful gardeners.”
The Gaffer nods and thanks her as he packs up his tools. Sam is on his knees, molding the moist soil around the plant.
“Thank you, Miss,” he says gratefully.
She laughs a gentle laugh. “I told you, Sam, you may call me Zinnia.”
“Thank you, Miss Zinnia,” he corrects himself. Typical Sam.
Zinnia holds back more laughter so as not to insult the sensitive young fellow. “May I try one?” she asks.
“They’re not quite ripe yet; should be ready in another couple of days.” Sam replies, proud of his ever-growing knowledge of plants.
“What a pity,” Zinnia sighs. “I may not be here in a couple of days.”
“Why not?” Sam seems alarmed. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to live with my family south of Tuckborough,” she says as surely as she knows the sun will rise. A vine chokes my heart, as I say nothing.
Sam looks at me and says with grave seriousness: “Really? I thought you and Frodo were fixin’ to get married.”
Zinnia smiles and tousles his shaggy blonde hair like an older sister might.
“If you ask me, I think you ought to,” he continues.
“Well, nobody asked you,” I reply forcefully, opening the front door. Perhaps I am a tad too defensive, as Sam silences and bows his head.
“Good evening, Sam,” Zinnia says, as we both walk inside my home.
Our daily adventures continue throughout the week and end all too soon. On the morning of Pimpernel’s party, I wake to the instantly recognizable smell of eggs, bacon, and pancakes. I rub my eyes and peer through the curtains; the sun has not yet rise. Uncle Bilbo surely must have gotten up early. I roll over, but then I hear high-pitched humming drifting through the door from the kitchen. That’s not Uncle Bilbo, I think, and draw back the covers.
When I arrive in the dining room, the breakfast that I smelled is served, along with buttermilk and biscuits. Zinnia walks out from the kitchen with one of Bilbo’s aprons tied around her waist. She looks funny like that and I crack a smile.
“You did all this?” I say, stupefied, humbled, and grateful. “How?”
“I figure I should at least earn my keep around here before I leave,” she says, as uncle Uncle Bilbo comes groggily out of his room and looks equally dumbstruck.
The breakfast is wonderful; even Uncle Bilbo agrees. I can’t help but ask myself if all hobbits have an innate command over the kitchen.
Uncle Bilbo tells us that Gandalf left us a buggy and pony, complete with some supplies for the party (fireworks). He has been storing these items under a hill behind Bag End. A buggy has been under my nose for a week and I haven’t taken notice. I suppose my Uncle didn’t want me finding out about the buggy for fear I would use it or break it. It turns out that he didn’t have to worry because my thoughts were elsewhere all week.
Nonetheless, having the buggy saves us hours of travel to Tuckborough. Uncle Bilbo is at the reins, I sit next to him, and Zinnia rides with the cargo: bales of hay and the fireworks. We arrive at the Great Smials with a slew of other guests from throughout the Shire. The party is mostly taking place outside, complete with tents, lanterns, and a whole lot of food.
As Uncle Bilbo talks to a distant cousin, I help Zinnia off the buggy and anxiously tote her around to meet all my cousins, or all least the ones I can stand. It is easy to sneak through the crowd unnoticed. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people are here who were not invited, and simply wish to tell their neighbors they attended a Tookish gathering, for the daughter of the Thrain no less.
We see Merry and wee Pippin peeking at the desserts. Pippin sticks a finger in one of the cakes and smudges some icing on it. He brings it to his mouth as I intercept it from him and eat it. He pouts, but then jumps into my arms in an embrace.
Merry looks at me triumphantly. “Aren’t you going to introduce me, Frodo?” he says, eyeing Zinnia a little too closely for my taste.
Zinnia sticks out her hand to my cousin. “I’m Zinnia, pleased to meet you,” she says.
Pippin takes another scoop of frosting, as Merry tells her his name. “Are you courting my cousin?” he asks.
Zinnia smiles. “No, Merry, I’m not. But he is the kindest hobbit I’ve ever known.” She looks at me sweetly and I have never seen so much beauty condensed into one being.
Merry jokingly sticks his finger in his mouth, as I shove him. Pippin assumes he is being told to take another mouthful of icing.
“Merry, go look under the hay in the buggy that Bilbo road in on,” I tell him. “You won’t be disappointed.” I would love to see the look on his face when he discovers Gandalf’s fireworks.
“Will I see you later?” he asks.
“Of course,” I say, warmed by the devotion of my little cousin.
After they run off, I see Zinnia’s eyes grow impatient for the first time since I’ve known her.
“Frodo, who might I ask of the whereabouts of my family?” My heart sinks as the truth of the matter hits me. That was the only reason she was excited to come here. It had nothing to do with me, my family, or the new dress I bought for her. And here I am sending her to pain and heartache.
Finally, I concede, “You should ask Eglantine Took,” I say. “She’s Pimpernel and Pippin’s mother, and is familiar with every hobbit in these parts.”
I stand in front of a proper looking, plump woman in a magnificent dress whom Frodo claims will tell me what I long to know. Months of travel culminate in this moment. She will send me to the Riverbottom residence and I shall have my own family and perhaps we can even throw our own parties.
“Hello, Mrs. Took,” I say, clearing my throat, as she nods politely. “Congratulations on your daughter’s birthday!”
“Thank you, miss.” She smiles at me. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“My name is Zinnia Riverbottom, and I ---“
She is aghast, looking at me in awestruck wonder. “Not the Riverbottoms from Gladden Fields, in the Vales of Anduin?” she says.
Finally, someone understands. My toil was not in vain. I nod my head vigorously and strain to keep myself from kissing her cheek.
“Oh, my, I don’t know how that is possible.” She rises from her chair and wraps her arms tightly around my back. “You poor dear,” she soothes.
“What do you mean?” I say, confused. The next few minutes that seem like hours as she explains the long history of Riverbottoms in the Shire. As far as she knows, the Riverbottoms died out long ago. Many died of that plague I heard whispers about. Then she slowly tells about the last couple to leave Gladden Fields, who died crossing the Misty Mountains. My parents. Who are not wearing fine clothes, living in a comfortable hole in the ground, who have not made a new life for themselves.
My face and eyes grow hot, my mind swirling in images and nightmares that have come to life. I cannot politely thank her, like I know I ought to. She is the wife of the Thrain, and deserves more respect than running out, face dripping with sobs, into the cover of trees.
Trees have always been my friends. They have never lied to me, gotten my hopes up, or brought despairing news. I hug one and sink to the ground, a mess. No more pitying orphans for me; I have been one myself for nearly ten years.
A blast rattles through the ground, and I gaze at the sky as the tails of a blue firework rain down overhead. They are in the shape of mountains and I look away, cradling my knees.
I hear footsteps approaching. I open my eyes and know whose they feet they are without raising my head: those of a fellow orphan.
He stands close to me and offers me a hand. To preserve the last of my dignity, I take it, and stand to face him. My face is blotchy and I still heave the occasional sob but I meet his gaze.
I stand motionless as Frodo looks at me all over, not at all surprised to find me in such a condition. His eyes move from my face to look at my whole body, but he doesn’t stare; instead, his eyes read my soul.
“You are the most beautiful lass I’ve ever laid eyes on,” he says, placing his hand atop mine. He doesn’t speak of my family but focuses his whole being on me. Shivers vibrate throughout my body at the prospect of feeling something other than agony. Is this love? Is love the tingly stirring in my veins that makes me reach for his other hand? Or is it the whisper in my soul that promises, I’d do anything for you?
I don’t know, so I say, “And you are the handsomest lad.” I manage not to blubber the words. More fireworks erupt overhead but we are oblivious.
Frodo half-laughs and gives my hand a squeeze. “No,” he says. “You just haven’t met enough young hobbits to know the difference.”
“Yes I have,” I protest. “There are plenty of hobbits our age at the party you just left.” Joyous music plays in the distance. “But none of them compare to you.” That was the truth, and not mere flattery.
“If you say so,” he replies, brushing back my hair, then resting his hand at the back of my neck. A memory surfaces: a time when I had seen my parents behave this way. If their gestures are any indication then I know what is coming. I let go of his hand and place my arm around his shoulder, weaving my fingers through his thick brown hair, the color of tree trunks after a fresh rain. The tangles feel cool and smooth and tough. I am suddenly glad that male hobbits never tame their locks.
“I need you like the moon needs the sun and the bee needs the flower,” he breathes against my skin. Where did he fashion these words? Must be from all those books he read. His face moves close, and softly his lips touch mine. They taste of morning dew droplets, a mixture of fresh and salty water; or is that the perspiration and tears rolling down my face? But most of all, he tastes of hope. I close my eyes, waiting for our mouths to entwine. They never do.
“I love you, Zinnia Riverbottom,” Frodo says against my lips. The words hit my face like a strong, sure wind; alarming but life-giving. “You are not only beautiful, but strong, brave, and never thinking of yourself.”
This is not the truth, and I do not feel worthy of the praise, so I cast my eyes down, away from the one who had cared for me and been my friend.
He tilts my chin up with his hand.
“Riverbottom is a cursed name,” I say.
It pains me to push him away, but I do and slide down the tree, resting my back against its sturdy trunk. He follows me down and refrains from touching me again.
“I must tell you the truth,” I draw a quick breath in. “My grandmother was cursed with long life,” I say. “A curse that I share.”
“Sometimes it can seem that way,” Frodo says evenly. “I bet you wouldn’t believe that Uncle Bilbo is nearing one hundred and eight himself.”
He is right; I do find his uncle’s age hard to fathom for such a vivacious hobbit. “No,” I say. “Not a figurative curse, but a real one. Her ancestor, Olea, was out fishing one day when she saw two young hobbits fighting over a small metal object – a ring, she claimed. One killed the other, and a kind of spirit appeared, tying her descendants to the fate of this object. Everything is very hazy now, but I suppose it’s my destiny to live a long and solitary life.”
I watch his face grieve with me as my words sink in. “You must have loved your grandmother very much to sacrifice your entire life to care for her.”
I nod. “It was my duty. I couldn’t deny it.” Remembering some fond times, I add, “Besides, she was good fun to live with; I think she and your uncle may have hit it off.”
Frodo shakes his head and brushes back one of my tears with his finger. “You’re wrong about one thing. I don’t believe in destiny.”
He presses his lips against mine and a part of me that was hungering is fed.
“I love you, too, Frodo Baggins,” I say, now somehow knowing this but not fully comprehending.
After I say this, I feel free and it soon becomes obvious that Frodo does, too. His lithe, page-turning fingers are all over my face, neck, and body. My water-working hands are eager to explore all of his. My touch roams lower and my fingertips reach his hipbone. His hands slide down my waist. The finale of fireworks explode and we part for a moment to watch them. We still hold each other close, and I want to stay in his arms forever.
I have been waiting ages to touch her, but hearing her speak love for me aloud is even more nourishing than the sweet flavor of zinnias in spring. She tastes like the flower she was named for.
Eventually, Zinnia and I fall asleep in each other’s arms on the mossy wood floor. Some time later, a bright light awakens us. I rise groggily to see the tip of Gandalf’s staff near my nose. I look up, and see the wizard riding a snow white horse. Nudging Zinnia, I stand up, not ashamed, but awestruck at Gandalf’s sudden visitation. Zinnia also stands at attention when she sees who has arrived in our midst. Gandalf is normally twice my height, but he seems taller now. He seems more powerful and radiant than ever in his grey robes; I am almost afraid of him.
“Zinnia Riverbottom,” he bellows. “Your presence is requested in the Undying Lands.”
The look on her face tells me that she must be thinking the same thing.
“I have been told to take you to your family and end the curse placed on your line long ago,” his voice resounds through the trees.
“My family? They are alive?” she cries.
“Departure of Middle Earth does not always end in death,” says the wizard cryptically.
Zinnia is silent but as she stares at Gandalf’s face, it is as if she is suddenly tetherlessly pulled onto the horse. She kisses my cheek once and walks from me, taking the wizard’s extended hand as he swings her onto his horse. Her eyes glaze over with film, but she appears joyful. I know Gandalf, and I know he will not allow harm to come to her, but still I feel the life go out of me.
“Frodo, soon you will learn that forces exist beyond your comprehension, but we must answer to them nonetheless,” says Gandalf.
“No!” I say, “You cannot do this!” I recall Gandalf’s visit to Bag End a few days ago and grimace. “Gandalf, you knew you had to do this. Why did you let me spend all this time with her? Why didn’t you just take her to begin with?”
The old wizard clicks his tongue. “Your meeting may have had greater benefits beyond your own personal feelings. This ‘chance encounter’ may play a larger role in the scheme of things. Your care of her during her last days told Zinnia that her time removed from the outside world wasn't in vain. She knew she was loved before she parted.”
I think on this for a moment. “But why must she part at all?” I implore. “I love her.”
Gandalf tosses his robe over Zinnia, securing her in place. “"She and her family line have suffered more than you know. More than you may ever understand,” he says.
“I am sorry, Frodo,” he says, gripping the reins tightly. “But this is for the best.” He begins to ride off. He takes my love with him. The lass I would have married. How can this be for the best? If I thought I had the slightest chance of keeping up, I would run after them for days and days.
“May we meet again under better circumstances,” Gandalf calls, and they are gone, lost to the wind.
It has been months since Zinnia left me, and I still think of her often. I see her visage in the reflection of every pond and pool. I see her smile when I dive under the water. I’ve hidden her dress in a trunk and sometimes take it out when Uncle Bilbo is not around. Yet as sure the birds sing messages of hope, I know she is safe and reunited with her family. Often I question myself: was I too selfish to notice her weariness? Nonetheless, I live on without her by my side, soaking in the sunny days and reading on the rainy ones, cherishing my family and the Shire life, longing for nothing but to one day love her again.