Nothing of Note

by Primula

26: Tree-watching

When he next opened his eyes the shadows had deepened into early twilight and a breeze had sprung up to herald the setting of the sun. Bilbo slowly uncurled, still damp and cold and uncomfortable from his unorthodox river ride. He stood up, brushing at the layer of grass-seeds that were now adhered to the layers of algae and mud. If the water in the river hadn't been so cold he might have washed up a bit, but right then the idea of the chill was worse than the mess he was in.  No one was around to see him anyway.

Moving and feeling like a gaffer, he hobbled along towards the edge of the nearby Bindbale woods. By the time he had covered half the distance he had unstiffened enough to be able to walk a bit more normally and had begun to pick up odd sticks along the way for kindling. Reaching the edge of the woods, he cleared a place for a campfire as it was nearly dark. He sure hoped Brush's reassurance about the cattail down being good tinder was true. He was shivering with the damp and cold and his hands were stiff so that it was difficult to start a flame going at all, but to his great relief the down smoldered then caught and he soon was able to nurse the little flame into a reasonable twig-fire. 

Sitting beside his fire he gradually added larger sticks and then stood to rotate like a roast trying to warm and dry all sides. The wind kept shifting, and between trying to avoid the smoke in his eyes and the need to apply even heat he found himself dancing about in an irregular circle.  It was just as well there were no prying eyes - what a tale someone would make of this, he thought. Did you see old Mad Baggins? He had covered himself in mud and was dancing in the woods. He slapped at the insects that were attracted by the light and mentally added, and waving his hands around in the air like an idiot. He paused to examine his own collection of assorted bugbites, scratches and grass-cuts. What a day this had been! If he had known he might have just taken the bridge home and been done with it after all.  He wondered if he should go ahead and cover some of the distance home that night. He had rested for a while, and it was pretty straightforward; all he had to do was follow along the edge of the woods going south. Easy as cake. Or was it pie?  He was hungry.

He had a small bite of his dwindling provisions while allowing the fire to slowly burn down. Poking at it, he broke up the embers and mashed them with the end of a stick until the last spark was dead, then he headed south. As he had thought, near the wood's edge the going was easy.  Even though the moon had not yet risen he was able to make out the silhouettes of the trees well enough and the grassy land between the woods and The Water afforded little obstacles. He had been walking along lightly humming for only an hour or so when his path approached a tree that was slightly out from the main woods by itself.  He ambled towards it, ready to duck around it and continue on.

The tree moved.

He stopped in his tracks.

It had been just ahead of him and now was just slightly to the left. He experimentally leaned to one side then the other to test his own balance. All was normal.  So it wasn't his own moving. He had a very active imagination and made good use of it with frequency, but he knew when he was imagining and when he wasn't. He knew the difference between dreams and reality. Didn't he? The tree had moved.  It had sort of stepped aside, out of his path. He had seen it. He was sure of it. 

He very quietly and slowly came closer to the tree in question, half expecting...something. He wasn't sure what. It was a tree. A nondescript tree with smooth, fragrant bark and leaves that moved softly in the light breeze. It had roots that radiated out at its base. Nothing extraordinary.  He peered around all sides of it.  He ran his hands up the trunk, still half-expecting...something. What?  A breath, a heartbeat? He knew enough about the world to know there were strange and magical things in it. Not all things were impossible.  He wished Gandalf were here. He would know what to make of this.

It didn't feel dangerous. He couldn't place his finger on why he would even think such a thing, here near the heart of the Shire, but no, it didn't feel dangerous. And yet... It felt like something.  Something vaguely familiar and yet not. He wasn't tired enough to chalk it up to fatigue, either.

"Well, what shall I do about this?" he asked the tree. "I am sure I saw you move just now, and while I appreciate your courtesy in stepping out of my path I would even more enjoy a conversation with you.  Would you move again, if I asked nicely, I wonder?"

There was no movement, no reply.

"You don't need to fear me. I won't tell anyone else, or at least not anyone else in the Shire. I do have a friend you might know. Have you ever heard of Gandalf the Grey, the wandering Wizard? He's been around a tolerably long time, near as I can tell, and might have known you when you were a sapling."

He waited, but the only sounds were his own breath and the leaves and grasses in the night.

"So here's a nice kettle of fish. What shall I do? You are most remarkable. If you don't mind, I would like to stay here beside you a while, in case you decide to take me up on the offer of a good bit of conversation. I'm not in such a hurry that I can't wait a bit for something truly wonderful like you."

Silence.

He spread out his blanket on the grass near the base of the tree and sat on it facing the tree, wrapping his cloak around him.  "I'm right here." he volunteered in case it's night-vision wasn't very good. What would it use for eyes anyway?  He mused upon animals that could feel the vibrations in the earth when something was coming and wondered if that was what the tree had felt, though he had been going softly.   After a short time he had an idea and got up to test it. He went to where the tree had originally been and bent over, running his hands over the earth. His heartbeat quickened with excitement. The ground was stirred up, as if it had been plowed. Something had very recently broken it up.  He felt outside the area. The ground was hard and smooth. He looked back up at the tree with wonder in his eyes.

"So it's true. You really did move."

He settled back onto his blanket to watch the tree. The night grew older, the moon rose above the trees and it began to lightly rain. He didn't move except to put up his hood. The rain gathered on the peak of his hood and ran down onto the blanket in small rivulets as he kept his vigil. Every now and then he would wipe the water from his face and shift his position. The minutes stretched into hours and he had to resort of slapping his own face to stay awake. It was futile. By the time the sun began to lighten the eastern sky his eyelids closed of their own accord and he fell asleep sitting up where he was, facing an unmoving, silent tree.

He abruptly woke back up when he slumped sideways and his face landed off of the blanket's edge in a very cold and wet clump of prickly weeds.

"Aggh..." he said, sitting back up and rubbing at his sorely prickled cheek. He blearily looked up at the mysterious tree, which stood as unmoving as ever in the early morning light. He clambered up off of the ground and went over to it again.

"I'm still here." he offered, running his hand politely over the bark of the trunk. He didn't know if it could hear, or feel touch, but it was worth a try. He took another look at the stirred-up earth then turned his eyes upward, seeking among the branches for something, anything. 

"You're not going to be cooperative, are you? I guess that's the way of it. But I shall be sure and certain to remember you. You are a most interesting creature!  I can't help but wonder now how many of the trees in that wood there are actually a bit like you. What an interesting idea that would be! I shall have to write something about it."

He no longer expected any kind of reply. He patted the bark in what he hoped was a very friendly way and gathered up his things.  After sitting for another hour or so on the off chance the tree was just waiting for daylight to move again, he reluctantly left it and headed south towards Hobbiton.

Thanks to his late-night vigil he was terribly fatigued and achy too. Never had the uneventful, open miles from the Bindbale to Hobbiton seemed so long.

When he slowly made his way through the square up towards Bag End at last, the few hobbits that were out and about past the dinner hour gaped and whispered. He was head to toe mud, dried algae, grass-seeds, burrs and who knows what else. And he was too tired to care what they thought.  He slowly plodded up the path and finally up those last few familiar steps and in the round, green door.  It was cold and dark inside, but it was home.

He didn't even start a fire in the fireplace, but simply dropped his pack, peeled off his caked traveling clothes and pulled on a clean nightshirt. Burrowing into his own dear, soft, lovely, wonderful, clean bed he finally allowed the weariness to wash him away into a deep and dreamless sleep.