Nothing of Note

by Primula

Chapter 64: Berries and Apples

It was two days before Bilbo remembered he had stashed the Will over at the Cotton's farm, or rather that he remembered at a time when visiting would be acceptable. It was an ongoing problem he had, thinking of things that needed to be tended only in the middle of the night or some other time when it was impossible to take care of them.

Bag End was neater than it had been in a long while, thanks to his hours of work cleaning up his trickery with Lotho and company. With early September just feeling its way toward Autumn, the weather had turned overcast and a little chill in the mornings and he had found it necessary to stoke his fireplaces, all the windows being opened to air out the sulphuric stench; he was glad to see it clearing up outside this day.  He pulled on a light coat and tucked an apple into one of the pockets.  The Cottons would most likely be working in their orchard, it being the beginning of their apple-and-cider season, so he headed down the sidepath to cut towards the back of their land instead of taking the road to the farmhouse itself.

The fields were still damp-feeling and the grasses were filled with life, mice gathering grains against the coming colder days, rabbits burrowing deeper into the earth. Birds were only just beginning to flock together, flying from tree to tree in groups that would grow ever-larger over the next month or so until the days when they would all suddenly rise into the air by some unspoken sign and fly away, ragged clouds blown before the winds of the winter.  It was hard to think of winter right now, he thought, with the harvest and the sunlight still laying so amiable and mild about the land.

Picking his way past the remains of a small hay-shed that had long since been overgrown with wild blackberries, he could see the last of the berries were still fat and full on their brambles, up out of easy reach. Deep inside the thorny briers were many more, still plumply shining, temptingly purple-ebony under their brown whiskers. All around them hung the shriveling remains of the earlier bunches that had likewise tempted pickers the month before, stuck here and there with wayward thistle-down. It would take a very determined hobbit to find a way to those inner clusters, so of course they appeared to be the most sweet. He wondered how many poeple really would take the time, and the scratches, to reach them... Most would simply resign themselves to it being out of reach, convince themselves that they were probably sour anyway. He wondered if Frodo would walk away or burrow in towards them, given a chance.

Tugging himself loose from a bramble that had snaked its way out from the rest and hidden in the tall grasses, he paused to blow on his scratches, examining the small damage to his cuff. The cuff having become adorned with a trio of minuscule lemon-white spiders, he flicked them away and then brushed at it briskly as if to remove even the memory of their passing from the fabric. True, they were no larger than a freckle, but he never had cared much for spiders...

Behind him the bramble became suddenly alive with with a small flock of tiny grey-drab birds, landing upon it all at once, hopping about and twittering. They had no troubles reaching those berries, none at all. He recalled what his mother had called such berries now, any berry that was unreachable or even (to Hobbits) inedible, no matter its color or size:

'What are those called?' he would ask, and her answer would always be the same.
'Birdberries. Those are just birdberries.'

He had wondered greatly, in his youth, that birdberries grew on so many different kinds of plants... he watched the birds for a moment. What a difference it was, he thought. Those who must steal their treasures have to work and suffer so...and those to whom it rightfully belongs just jump right in past the thorns and gather it up.  He snorted lightly and continued on. Birdberries....

The Cotton's orchard was on a well-tended swell of land, deep brown and mossy right beside the deep golden of their hard-wheat harvest. The scent of the moist loam rose up to meet him as he entered the shade of the gnarled apple and pear trees, the tang of overripe windfalls and the hum of wasps settling upon them to drink of the sweet juices all around. It was cool and soft underfoot and very peaceful and orderly.  Up towards the end he could see them working, the ladders leaning akimbo, crates and boxes for eating and cider apples standing here and there. Several of the Cotton's relatives were there, lifting and picking and sorting, lending a hand in exchange for a share of the cider from the cider-press. Farmer Cotton noticed his neighbor approaching through the trees and came to meet Bilbo, wiping apple-juice from his hands as he came.

"Mr Baggins! Good day - what can I do for you?" he asked.

Bilbo smiled and gave a polite nod. "A good day to you also, and to your family - and I see you have more than usual of them with you here today too. I don't want to interrupt your work, just needed to see if I might be able to retrieve that jar that I had left in your safekeeping recently. I can take it off our hands now, with my thanks."

"Oh yes! Hi! Tom! Come here for a moment." he hailed his young son, who was picking up the sounder windfalls for the cider bins. Grateful for a reprieve, as children always are, the lad left his bucket behind and stuffed the two apples he had in his hands into his pockets as he came.

"Here now, Mr. Baggins left a jar with your Mum, and he needs to get it back now. She'll know which one it is. You run back home and bring it back here right quick..." Tom began to skip off. "Hey now! ...but you be careful! It's not to be dropped, understand?"

"Yessir!" said Tom and skipped away, his apple-bulging pockets bouncing as he went.

His father watched him run and then gave Bilbo a crooked smile. "He'll fetch it, he's a good lad, don't you fear. I can see you're a worritin' about your jar being skipped along like that.  It'll be fine. Now, you said once the need for its safekeeping was over and done with, you'd tell me a little about all this."  He pushed his hat back and stuck his hands in his pockets expectantly.

Bilbo was quiet for a moment, listening to the conversations between the workers, the caws of  a trio of crows, flapping away from the very accurate stones being whisked at them as they dipped down for a taste of the ripened wheat. His companion waited patiently. Farmer Cotton was nothing if not a patient hobbit, and he had a bit of an inkling what it might be about anyway. Bilbo, realizing that if he could overhear the workers they would be just as able to hear him, hesitated.

"Come, walk with me a bit. I'll show you round the orchard." said Farmer Cotton. "Some little pitchers have big ears, after all."

Bilbo smiled. It was always pleasant to be understood. "I'd be glad to see your orchard. Tell me a bit about the apple harvest, and I'll share a little news of my own as we go." He followed his neighbor's ambling walk through the neat rows of trees, away from the workers.

It was a pleasing enough ramble, and the better part of a half-hour went by before they slowly made their way around the bend of the trees and back towards the barn. Farmer Cotton had related a little about his harvest, as requested, and Bilbo returned it with an earful and more about his own familial situations and choices, ending at last with his recent decision to amend his papers for an adoption.  Tolman Cotton's eyes crinkled up in the corners as he smiled.

"Ay-yup. It's right. It's the right thing to do, Mr. Baggins. Sounds like you've had a time and a half with the other relations, more than your share.  Not meaning any disrespect by it, of course, but there's other Hobbits in the Shire that would give their eye-teeth to be able to have a chance at that Hill of yours, and you've done right to get it all legal and proper. No one will be nay-saying your lad, once they settle down on the idea. You wait and see."

"I do hope you're right. Of course I would like to keep it under our hats, so to speak, until I have a chance to tell Frodo about it..."

The sun-weathered head bobbed in agreement. "Good seed makes a good strong crop, as long as you can keep the weeds at bay.  Poor seed no good for anything but animal feed. 'Tis a shame. But no one can say it's the family entire, why look at yourself and your young fellow, Frodo. Plenty of good folks too. Family tree just needed a little pruning, or at least a bit of a spray to keep down the codling moths."

"Coddling moths?" he was vague on this, though it sounded familiar. Something the Gaffer had spoken of, perhaps.

"Right nuisances they are for apple trees, always gettin' in the fruit, hide in the bark, they do. And speaking of moths, that reminds me. You know, we had a bit of news about that lass that Lotho had taken up with this summer past, the one who kept on a-flittin' around him." He waved one hand in the air with a flutter. "Mrs. Goodbody was here just a couple days past, helping my Missus with the preserves you know.  Seems that lass of hers, Ivy,  has taken up with some sausage-master clear off in Deep Hallow, guess they have some relatives there that she's been staying with, along with her brother. They've set a date for the following Spring, they have, so she shan't be returning to Hobbiton long, but is going to be a sausage-mistress instead."

Bilbo tilted his head thoughtfully. "If I understood right, her brother was apprenticed to that sausage-master. Doesn't that put her in charge of him?"

Tolman chuckled. "Come to think of it, you're right. Well, they'll hash it out - family's always do."

This brought a slight grimace to Bilbo's face as he thought of the legal tangle he'd just had to wade through. "Generally. I suppose my own is a bit out of the ordinary." He kicked at a wayward windfall.

His companion gave him a look that he usually reserved for children in need of a lecture. "Now Mr. Baggins -You got a right good family. And a hand-picked one at that. No one can say you haven't got a right good eye for quality, and always pick the best. Eh? You got the finest home, and the finest clothes, and the finest manners in all the Shire. Wasn't no thorn-bush nor crabapple what sprouted your tree."

Bilbo had to smile at that, though he felt somewhat abashed at having to be lectured on his familial pride by his own neighbor. "I apologize, Mr. Cotton. You're right, I have much to be thankful for and much to be proud of. Having a fine neighbor such as yourself among them, for I do not consider your family to have come from crabapples nor thorns either."

"'Course not. We've sprouted up from cotton plants." came the reply, without missing a beat. Farmer Cotton gave him a grin. They both watched as Tom came to them over the gentle swells of the tree-roots, pushing a small goat-cart in front of him. It seemed to be laden with more than just the jar Bilbo had requested and as the lad came closer they could see it carried a large and generous basket of lunch from Mrs. Cotton as well.

Tom tugged the cart to a stop, puffing. "Mum said to bring along your luncheon, Da. She said to tell you it's a.....a..." he scrunched his brows, remembering. "A cryin' shame that you'd keep Mr. Baggins standing out in the orchard instead of inviting him in."

"She did, did she? Well, how do you like that, Mr. Baggins? You've been invited to luncheon, if you'd like."

Bilbo shook his head. "While I appreciate the thought, I really ought to be heading back to my own home. Next time you see your mother, give her my sincere regrets young Tom." He lifted his sealed jar from among the cushioning picnic-blanket that was folded around it. "And I'm most grateful for this. Thank you."

Farmer Cotton was peeking inside the large woven hamper of food. "This can't all be for just me, or even me and you. Tom! This must be a bit of a bite for everyone - tug it over thataways. I'll be there soon. Go on."

Young Tom reluctantly grasped the handles of the goat-cart and headed for the busyness of the ladders and crates nearby.

The elder Tolman lowered his voice and gave a nod to Bilbo. "Well, I thankee for the news about this willing and adopting and such. I'll let my missus know about it, to pass it on to the Goodbodys later, after the young Mr. Baggins is settled in. You know, I gave a hand to moving young Offal's goods down to Deep Hallow and I think he'll be right pleased to hear all is well, seeing as he spoke well of your lad all during our drive."

Bilbo nodded in return. "That would be fine. Thank you, for so many things. I'll be putting in an order for some of that incomparable cider of yours, so be sure to save some for me."

Farmer Cotton waved back over his shoulder as he turned to amble back to his work. "I've no lack of apples, that's a fact, but with all these cider-hogging relations, I'll have to move right quick won't I? Good day, now." He laughed lightly and continued on.

"Good-day!" returned Bilbo, and turned back towards his home, cradling the jar with the Will safely under his arm.

 
A little after tea, the Gaffer arrived at his back door with a crate of apples, Bilbo's own apples from his own trees.

He lowered the crate inside the doorway and then straightened his back. "Here y' go, Mr. Baggins, sir. 'Fraid we don't have too many this year, the trees bein' not at their best and all the saplings too young to bear, but the ones we have are good an' sound." He pulled a sack that he had looped over one arm to the fore and fished around in it.  "And this here's the last of the good cucumbers, vines nearly done for the year with these cooler nights comin' on, the rest won't be good for naught but a pickle. Just as well the garden work is windin' down soon, seein' as we'll be needing to do a few re-pairs around the Hill. Everythin' fallin' apart an' all."

Bilbo winced inwardly. That broken windowbox. He knew as well as the Gaffer what was being referred to. He had given thought to just telling him the whole truth of the events, but finally decided against it. Not that he was a gossip, but the fewer that knew, the better when it came down to it, and it was something of a family matter.

He kept his eyes on the apples and his voice slightly distant. "Yes, I suppose there might be. Always one thing or another needing a little work, and you do it all so well. Thank you, Gaffer."

Gaffer Gamgee paused, clearing his throat slightly. "I was a-thinkin' on doing a little woodwork. Maybe tighten up the rest of the windowboxes."

"Yes, yes, that sounds like a fine idea. Go right ahead." Bilbo paused, then glanced over to him trying to not appear awkward. "While you're at it... you know, I've been thinking on those flowers that you mentioned a bit ago. How about a new set of flowers for the windowboxes? Some mums, perhaps, a bit of phlox and asters...? Anything you would like to plant would be fine. Anything at all. I completely trust your judgment."

As he had hoped, this guilt-gift of free rein in the gardens was taken up like a stack of hotcakes after a fast and all was forgiven. "Yessir! Yessir. I've some bright mums, and you might even like a spot of kale, that creamy-coloured lot. They'd look right nice with the colors. I'll be puttin' in some cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli in the garden, and bringing in the onions. The hollyhocks need a bit of propping up..."

He continued on with enthusiasm. Both he and Bilbo knew this offer, for him, was a generous one. The Master of Bag End loved his flowers, and didn't often allow anyone else to have say over what was planted, at least not unconditionally. He and the Gaffer usually carried through in a sort of dance each year, proposing and suggesting, considering and approving.

He accepted the small stack of cucumbers and gave the Gaffer a nod. "Thank you, Gaffer. I'll take care of these. Why don't you go ahead with those flowerbeds then?"

"Yessir - thank you sir." His gardener went back towards the garden with a spring in his step that hadn't been there for a while. Bilbo smiled and closed the door, taking the cucumbers to his kitchen where he heaped them in the sink to wash and slice up later. Outside his window the cannas, lilies and dahlias were blooming among the slanted lines of drooping hollyhocks. A small decorative bush whose name he no longer recalled had the last of its summer blooms plumping up into waxy white berries that would cling through the winter. Birdberries. He propped his elbows on the sill and simply enjoyed the colors for a while, surrounded by the scent of apples and thoughts of his own recently grafted family tree.