Nothing of Note

by Primula

25: Cattail Ducks


At first he hoped all he was hearing was the sound of some waterbird or other wetlands creature, but as he worked his way back towards the bank it continued; the sobbing of a child, somewhere in all of this brush and bog. Such a forlorn sound his heart tightened as he hastened to trace it.

Bilbo managed to clumsily navigate the log into an inlet that held it steady enough to climb off and up onto the overgrown bank. He tugged the end of the log up onto the bank as a moorage.  The crying sound only came intermittantly but he followed it, pushing aside towering cattails and rushes, jumping from wet hillock to hillock until it sounded very near, with unintelligible words occasionally mixed into the crying.  He pushed along another cart-length, then parted a curtain of grasses to find a startled, muddy, tear-streaked young face looking up at him, all eyes and curls, both as brown as the cattails surrounding them.

Why, he can't be above eight summers, thought Bilbo, poor little fellow.  He immediately crouched down to be closer to the child's own height, brushing futiley at the green mess the log had made of his shirt and breeches.

"Good morning," he said gently. "I heard you crying... May I help you? Are you hurt?"

"N...no. I'm not hurt I'm....." there was a pause as the dignified self-control the little one had tried to put forth for him broke apart and a flood of pent-up fears poured out in one long wail. "Looooosssst......!" This was followed by an equally plentious flood of tears, washing clean streaks across the plump, mud-grimed cheeks.

"Lost, are you? Well..." so am I, he thought. That would hardly comfort the child, through. "Perhaps we can work together to help you find your way back home, then!" He smiled, trying to comfort him. "What's your name?"

There was a series of sniffles, then a small voice. "Brush."

"Rush?" asked Bilbo, thinking it not an impossibility that the child's family would have named him after the bog if he lived somewhere near. Rushock wouldn't be such a bad name.

"No...not Rush, Buh-rush. Brush."

"Pleased to meet you, Master Brush. What might the rest of your name be?"

"Brushtail...Waterby...but I'm usually jus' called Brush. My da says it's a famous name, my uncle has it too." He was slowly cheering up now that he was past his initial fear and had someone with him. Bilbo tried to think if he had ever read or heard about anyone named Brushtail but was drawing a blank. A minor fame perhaps, the sort only passed down within a family.

"I see. And what brought you out here today?"

"I was lookin' for good cattail leaves, to make ducks."

"To make...ducks."

"Yah. And I had some too, they just...I lost them when I put them down, and then I couldn't find them. And I lost my knife for cutting the leaves, and it wasn't mine, it was my brother's knife and he'll be so mad....and then I....I couldn't find my things, and then I couldn't find anything and...."

Bilbo ran a gentle hand over the youngster's curls to comfort him. "We'll find our way, don't worry.  I'm sure your family will be missing you too, so we need to get you back home. Oh! And you must accept my apologies, Master Waterby, I haven't even given you my name. You may call me Mr. Baggins. Come now."

He took the little one's hand and looked around for the best path back towards the western bank. "While we go, how about you tell me about these 'ducks' you make."

This topic took some time for him to understand. It seemed to be something that would be easier to understand if he could just see one than the vague ideas he gathered from the child's animated descriptions.  Near as he could tell it involved tucking and wrapping cattail leaves in a certain manner so that when they dried they formed a floating duck decoy. Brush said he and his siblings had made many of these and the money they made when their father sold them at the markets as a novelty was their very own to keep. Bilbo found young Brush to be a veritable treasure-trove of information about cattails.  Coming from a family whose business centered on the plants, he knew how to make not only ducks but dolls and other toys. As they jumped, splashed and struggled along he talked about the medicines that his parents made from them and the parts that were good to eat. He agreed that the down was good tinder.  Bilbo had had no idea how useful the plants were and gained a much greater respect for them. He had previously only enjoyed them for the artistic look of their fat sausages of fluff.  Besides, it kept both of them from worrying about finding Brush's home.

Bilbo wasn't too worried, really. It was obvious the child lived very near the bog, so if they kept going westward they had to eventually find the bank, and then they could range up or down it until they found his home. Brush had been pale and fearful at first, but as they continued he seemed to take courage from the older hobbit's presence and the way they kept finding ways to get further and further back.  He became cheerful, describing the adventures he and his older siblings had had catching frogs or hunting eggs, even when he bogged down in the mud and had to be pulled free.  He was apparently used to being pulled out of the mud, and simply spread his arms into handles to make it easier to pull him upward.

It was a great relief to Bilbo when they heard someone calling in the distance. As they came closer, they could hear several voices in several different tones all calling out.  Brush brightened and began yelling back, and as Bilbo had just been bending over to lift him up from another mudhole he ended up yelling right into Bilbo's right ear, half-deafening him.

"I say! You've quite a set of good lungs there, young Waterby.  Just a minute. I'll lift you up and you can holler right into the sky if you like. They'll hear you better that way."  He knelt down and got the boy on his shoulders then carefully stood back up, hoisting him as high as he could. 

"Halllloooooo!" bellowed Brush as best as a young hobbit-voice can bellow. "I'm over here! I'm over here! I'm coming!" He waved his arms, trying to be seen over the screen of cattails, nearly unbalancing Bilbo who was standing on a slick hillock and was covered with mud anyway.

He shouted again, and then they heard the tone of the distant cries changing, the sound of excited discovery. They had heard him then. Bilbo lowered him back to the ground and they resumed their slow progress, focusing in on the direction the voices were coming from.  They were met halfway back to the bank by two young hobbit-lasses, both taller and older than Brush and by their appearance obviously two of his sisters. 

"Brush! Brush! Where have you been...where were you...are you all right? We were looking and....couldn't find you.... how could you.... thought you were lost!" they both cried simultaneously, jumping around and hugging their little brother.  In return he managed to smile, be worried about getting in trouble and ask for something to eat all in the same breath. When the initial wave of bedlam was past, the girls suddenly seemed to be aware of Bilbo standing by. Brush took their hands and gave them a little tug, pulling them towards Bilbo, speaking rapidly.

"This is Mr. Baggins! He found me, and he's been helping me. Did you see me over the cattails? He lifted me waaay up! I was yelling for you - did you see me?  He's real nice. He's from Hobbiton, and he doesn't have any cattails in his yard, but he wants to get one of my ducks for his the big pond they have there.  He says he's never seen one before. He's not from the bog. He was paddling on a log! He was. He was paddling like it was a boat, and he was crossing The Water when he heard me. Really!"

The older of the two sisters remembered her manners first. She bobbed a short curtsey. "Thank you for helping our brother, Mr. Baggins. He's never been lost like this before, he usually stays with one of us..."

"It's all right." said Bilbo, returning her curtsey with a small bow. "He was no trouble at all, and now that we've found you I shall place him into your very capable hands to see him home..." He trailed off as they all became aware of the crashing and splashing of someone else approaching nearby. "Over here!" Bilbo called.  The noises changed direction and came closer until the cattails were pushed aside and one of Brush's brothers clambered up onto the hillock. He was a sturdy lad in his early teens and had a sour expression on his face.  After a brief introduction to Mr. Baggins, he turned to Brush, put a hand on his shoulder and shook him.

"Where's my knife? Fern said you had it this morning. What did you do with it?"

Brush paled and looked like he was going to cry. "I... couldn't find it... I...."

His brother shook him again. "You lost it?  You lost my knife? First you take it without my permission and then you lose it?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, I lost it...and then I lost myself....!" His brother scowled. Bilbo looked at the two sisters. One was looking at her feet, the other had a worried frown on her face.  The brother had a temper. He stepped forward and placed a calming hand on the lad's shoulder.

"Now, now. Calm down. He didn't do it on purpose. You should be at least a little grateful that you didn't lose a lot more than your knife this day.  You might have never seen your little brother again."  The boy hesitated, then let go of Brush, looking mollified and a bit embarrassed. His gaze shifted to his feet.  Bilbo continued, "Perhaps it will turn up yet - it's out there...somewhere. And in the meantime, I have a small penknife you may make use of."

He shifted his pack, knelt down and opened it. Withdrawing his penknife, he considered it one last time. It had trimmed many a pen and sharpened many a pencil. It was a good sharp, bright knife with a lightweight staghorn handle, smoothed from long use. He mentally revisited its uses and bid it farewell, all in a moment then handed it over to the boy.  "Be careful with it, it's quite sharp.  And promise me you will share it."

The boy was all round eyes, taking the unexpected gift into his hand. He weighed it in his palm and appreciatively ran his hand over the smooth hilt, tested the edge of the blade with his thumb. "It's a very nice knife. Is it mine, then? To keep?" He obviously expected the answer to be no.

"Yes. Keep it. May it cut many a cattail leaf in its time." They all looked amazed. One of the girls suddenly reached into the large pocket of her apron and withdrew an object.

 "Here's something for you too, in return sir." She bobbed a little curtsey again and shyly placed it in his hands. It was a duck. The head wasn't too featured, being little more than a thick leaf end, bent to form a neck and bill and dried in that position. The body was solid, but made entirely of layer upon layer of tightly wound cattail leaves around a middle piece of cattail stem. It was cleverly tucked in somehow to keep them that way and dried.  He turned it in his had, impressed with the neat handiwork of it. At last he understood what Brush had tried to explain to him before. There was really no need for them to give him a gift in return, but he knew it would make them feel less beholden.

"Thank you. I shall be honored to keep it in remembrance of this day.  Now. I have to reach the far bank yet and the hour is growing late. Do all of you know your way home from here?" He recieved a quartet of nods. "Good. Then I shall be off. It was very pleasant to make your acquaintance, young Waterbys. And after this, please don't wander, Master Brush. I guarantee you the next time your family has a booth at the Hobbiton market, I will be sure to enjoy perusing your many uses for cattails! I had no idea they could be so useful. Farewell, now, farewell!"

After a muddy hug from Brush, and handshakes from the others, he turned and headed back into the sea of cattails. Useful or not the cattails were getting a bit wearisome. But more wearisome still would have been to have to spend time with the Waterby family, having to listen to the mother be grateful and the father be thankful and they were so indebted and so on and on and on. He was glad the lad was safe, but what typically followed after wasn't a pleasant thought. Better the mud and endless cattails to push aside than an ooze of gratitude and a sea of platitudes.

Working his way back seemed to take forever for he was getting extremely weary and hungry, pausing only when he had to. After hunting up and down the bank a short distance, he was as grateful to find his mossy log-boat as any sea-captain returning to a well-beloved craft. He sat down by it to rest and eat a very little, then tightened down his pack once more and set out upon The Water. Away from the sun-warmed shallows the current was uncomfortably cold, but he grimly lay across the log with his cheek on a patch of slightly slimy moss and paddled for all he was worth. His hands splashed in the cold water and his feet quickly took on the feeling of slightly-numbed lead weights.  Slowly, oh so slowly, he made some headway, inching across eastward even as he was swept southward.  How had Gollum stood it? He remembered the feel of that dark, terrible lake.  It had been icy and thick and somewhat stagnant.  The idea of paddling across such a thing, of untold years of crawling about in the darkness and the wet and cold...  His arms and legs ached and the smell of algae was everywhere, but at least the sun was shining and bright where he was...

He had to be careful how he angled across, for the slightest change in the log's angle increased his danger of being swept over. It turned and bobbed and bucked under him alarmingly more than once. By the time the bank was getting close enough that he could begin to look for a good landing place, it was getting late and the grassy bog was being left behind. There was a forest in the distance, with some straggling trees along the bank and clumps of willows. Finally bumping up onto a muddy incline, he staggered up off of the log and slowly made his way up the lightly graveled bank until he rested upon good dry grass. He was too tired and cold to do more than unfasten his pack and pull out his cloak for a covering, he simply lay down in the sun-scented grasses, curled up and promptly fell asleep.