The Broken Vessel
It seems so long ago when I first came to visit the Shire. There was a time when my body was weary from toil, and my heart despaired at the endless nature of that toil. Dear friends, with whom I had toiled together for some time, sent me to this place. They told me that a holiday here would do me much good. My goodness, but they were right!
I wandered the meadows and the fields, where brooks flow under stars that glow. Weariness gave way to a newfound vitality, and despair turned to hope.
But, as much as I cherish these lands, I came to love its people all the more. The friends I have made here, and how much they have come to mean to me, is beyond my gift with words to ever express.
It shames me to admit that this feeling is not returned in kind. Many of my hobbit friends comment on Bree-land at times, Bree-town in particular, and those comments are not often kind. My first reaction, of course, is to defend my homeland.
But, as I start to speak, my fervor is quelled by their words of the past. Of their stories of ‘lookie-loos’ and ‘patty-cakes’ going on in the back rooms of the Pony. Of cabbagers* attempting to ruin times shared amongst friends for no better reason than they can and the joy they derive from it. Of empty faces, without even a friendly smile to somewhat bridge the gap between them.
There is nothing I can say that could ever make amends for all of these things. But, in this special place, amongst friends new and old, I would like to tell a story.
This tale is about a woman who lived not far from Bree-town many years ago. As a young girl, my mother’s mother knew this woman as her teacher. She told this story to my mother, who later shared it with me.
‘The Broken Vessel’
Many years ago, a daughter was born to a man and woman who lived in a village near Bree-town called Staddle. They named her Eavan, and she was a delight to her parents and to all they happily showed her off as well. She had an infectious laugh, and her hands were always reaching out to touch those around her.
But, as she began to grow older, her parents noticed something. The child’s hands were not growing with the rest of her body. She kept her fingers curled in upon themselves most of the time, and they were often stiff and cold. Her mother would massage her hands, trying to open them and keep them warm, but Eavan would cry out in pain. She was brought to the healer in Staddle, and even to Bree, but no one could determine the cause or find a cure.
Very quickly, the young girl’s hands became nothing more than the ends of her arms: two small nubs that were cold and lifeless, devoid of any feeling. Her parents were heartbroken over their daughter’s impediment and what it meant for her future.
One evening, they were sitting at their dining table after supper discussing this, when Eavan’s mother began to cry.
Eavan heard this and came walking into the room from her bedroom and up to her mother’s chair. “What’s wrong, Mama?” Eavan asked.
Eavan’s mother lifted her onto her lap and kissed her on the cheek, wetting her face with her tears. “Nothing is wrong, dearest one,” she said. “Your Papa and I were just discussing how you might do your lessons when you start school.”
Eavan nodded slowly and sat still for a moment. Then she leaned forward, where her mother’s arm was resting on the table. She ran her tiny hand back and forth over her mother’s forearm.
“Don’t worry, Mama,” Eavan said. “I will just have to learn my own way for doing things.”
Eavan’s mother and father stared at one another. For that moment, all of their fears and concerns were washed away. Eavan’s father reached across the table and took his wife’s hand in his, while Eavan gently stroked her forearm.
When she became old enough, Eavan’s parents sent her to the small school in the village. Many of the children of the village learned their letters and figures there. The staring that Eavan had felt upon her before, once kept distant by her parents as much as possible, was now all around her. Eavan folded her arms over her chest, hiding her hands beneath them and lowered her head to stare at the ground before her.
Her teacher, a very stern woman, walked over to where Eavan sat and lifted her chin with her hand. “Eyes on the board, Missy, or you never know what you might miss,” she said softly, with a wisp of a smile. Eavan made a promise to herself that day to never look downward in undeserved shame ever again.
Sadly, the stares were the easiest thing she had to deal with from her classmates. It did not help that Eavan took to her studies better than the other children. She most always had the right answer when the teacher asked for someone to correct one of the other students in class. Most left her alone, but some of the boys in her school called her names and teased her endlessly.
The worst was a boy her age named Kiernan, whose father had a small farm just outside the village. Most were of the feeling that Kiernan’s father sent his son to the school not because he valued book-learning, but that he did not want the other men in the village to have something up on him.
Like his father, Kiernan would rather answer with his fists than with words given the chance. Words did not easily come to him, and he spoke very slowly and deliberately. Kiernan did not like Eavan knowing all the answers, and this was all the excuse he needed to tease her, even about her hands.
When the children were let out to play, Eavan stayed away from most everyone. She walked amongst the trees by herself, while turning to look at the others playing together every now and then.
A few years later, when Eavan was twelve, she was walking amongst her trees during the school recess, when she saw Kiernan sitting on a tree stump leftover from where one of the trees had been felled. She started to slink away, hoping to go unnoticed, but she realized that Kiernan was weeping. She went over and sat beside him on the tree stump.
Kiernan looked over and then quickly looked away. “Go away,” he said.
“What is it?” asked Eavan. “What is wrong?”
He would not say at first, but she persisted until he blurted it out. “Corey and Kenneth tricked me into asking Melinda to go steady with me. But I said it all wrong, and everyone laughed at me.” He paused for a moment before adding, “It ain’t fair, it ain’t! Why tease me for something I can’t do nothing about? No one should have to endure that.”
Eavan looked off into the distance. “I’m enduring it,” she said.
Kiernan hunched over and turned away from her even more. He felt more ashamed than ever.
They were silent for a minute before Eavan said, “But I would like to help you, if I could. If you will let me. I practice my words all the time, here with my trees, and at home, too. Maybe you just need someone to practice with.”
Kiernan worked hard to steady his voice before saying, “Pa don’t care for words none. Why you want to help me, anyways?”
Eavan thought for a moment, then said softly, “There are a lot of things I cannot do, because I’ve tried and found out. But there are a lot of things I thought I couldn’t do but found out I could after all. There’s nothing wrong with not being able to do something, or not being able to be something. What is wrong is deciding that before you ever try.”
Kiernan started sobbing softly again. Eavan paused for a moment then said, “Think on it this evening. Then, if you want, come meet me here at the stump during recess tomorrow, and we can work on it.”
Kiernan closed his eyes tightly to squeeze the tears from them as he heard her stand up and start to walk away. Then he felt what seemed to be a hand caressing his cheek, its thumb sweeping the tears under his eye away. For a brief moment he sat still, for such caresses were not something he was given much at home. Then he quickly opened his eyes and turned, but Eavan was walking swiftly away.
The next day Kiernan met Eavan at the tree stump, and they spent all of their recess together. They became the best of friends.
With Eavan’s help, Kiernan learned his words and learned them very well. And, with Kiernan at her side, Eavan was able to find common ground to relate to the other children of the school. By the time Eavan was sixteen, most every student at the school considered her a friend and were proud to be.
Then one day, during their last year of school, Eavan and Kiernan were sitting on their stump talking. Kiernan said, “So, I have finally decided to ask another girl to go steady with me again!”
Eavan nudged his shoulder with hers, “And who is the lucky one to be? Not Melinda again, is it?”
Kiernan laughed, “No, I would not embarrass her like that again. Take another guess!”
Eavan thought a moment, “It isn’t Lisbeth, is it? She is sweet on you, methinks,” she said wryly.
Kiernan sighed disappointedly, “No, Eavan. One more guess.”
Eavan realized he was being serious. She pondered a bit before saying, “I’m sorry, Kiernan. Why don’t you just tell me?”
Kiernan reached over, taking her by the wrists, putting one of her small hands over the other and holding them in his own.
Eavan looked at him bewilderedly a moment. “Kiernan, I…”
Kiernan looked down, “You do not care for me in that way. I understand.”
Eavan’s voice quivered as she softly said, “I do so. I have for a very long time. But there are other girls who can give you so much more.” She trailed off, “I can’t even hold your hand…”
Kiernan was prepared for this, and he smiled at her while laying his trap. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with not being able to do something, or not being able to be something. What is wrong is deciding that before you ever try.”
Eavan laughed in spite of herself, wiping tears from her eyes, as Kiernan held out his hand before her. Eavan used her small right hand to balance his on top, while running her left hand over it.
When their eyes met, Kiernan said, “You have held me with your gaze alone since the day we first sat together here. That alone would have been enough.”
Eavan began to pull Kiernan’s hand closer to her. With a few attempts, and some help from him, she brought his hand up to the side of her face. She pressed her cheek into his hand and closed her eyes. “Not enough for me,” she whispered. And the two of them sat together until the stars rose high in the sky.
He courted her for two years before asking for her hand, which she gave him happily. A few years after their marriage, they were blessed with a daughter of their own, whom they named Joanna.
Then one day, not long after Joanna had turned two, there was a knock at their door. The village mayor, a few of the town elders, and the old teacher from the school were on their porch.
Once they were invited inside, they explained that the teacher was to retire after that year’s term. The lot of them could think of no better replacement for her than Eavan.
“But how will I teach figures and letters when I cannot write them on the chalkboard?” Eavan asked.
“You taught me,” Kiernan smiled, “with no blackboard at all.”
“You will have an assistant to help with that, if you wish,” the Mayor explained. “But you have to say yes. Many of the younger parents were classmates with you when you were a young student at the school. They have been asking for you ever since they learned there was to be an opening.”
Eavan looked down and smiled. Then she looked to Kiernan. “What do you think, beloved?” she asked him.
“I think this is something you were born to be, and I will be there for you, in every way you need,” he replied.
Eavan started teaching at the school the next year. She was beloved by virtually every student and their parents. More and more students came to the school each year, from further and further away. Children told stories to their friends about Miss Eavan and her lessons. Mothers boasted about how well their children were learning their words and figures to other mothers. Fathers spoke to each other about how well-mannered and respectful their sons were to them and to others.
When Joanna began to attend the school, her classmates teased her on the first day about her mother being the teacher. Eavan overheard this and saw her daughter looking downward from her seat in the front. She walked over and knelt before her daughter, lifting her chin up to look at her while smiling.
“Eyes on the board, Missy, or you never know what you might miss,” she said.
Joanna smiled back at her, “Yes, Miss Eavan.”
Eavan stood up and looked over the rest of the class, “And that goes for the lot of you.”
“Yes, Miss Eavan,” the class droned and giggled.
Eavan smiled at them all, welcoming them to her classroom, and began her lesson. And for over twenty years, she began each term by saying that very same thing. By inviting her students to do their very best, until the Fever claimed her, and she did not awaken with the new day.
Hundreds of people who had known her came from near and far to pay their respects. They gathered near where the old stump used to lie, where Eavan and Kiernan first began to speak. Where she was to be laid to rest. Kiernan rose and turned to speak to them all.
“I…” Kiernan stammered, once again the little boy who spoke with his fists, seeing the field and remembering things as they were thirty years before.
Joanna, seeing her father struggling, stood and went to stand beside him. She absently began running her hand back and forth over his forearm. They both realized what she was doing at the same time and smiled at each other through their tears. Kiernan nodded and turned to face the gathering.
“Even for those of us living in the same village, sharing the same community, we oftentimes are alone. Sometimes we nod and smile at those we pass by, or wave a greeting to someone we know in the distance. We can even stand face to face with someone, speaking to them for a good while. Yet there might as well be miles separating us, for what feels like the space between.”
Kiernan took his daughter’s hand and held it up between them, “But with a simple touch, that great distance is traversed in an instant. We feel the other person’s warmth, a tingle on our skin. And for that moment, two separate vessels on a treacherous sea are buoyed together, each helping the other to keep afloat.”
Then Kiernan held his hand against his cheek for a moment and said, “But Eavan’s touch was very special. She found in each one of us a place laid bare by our grief, our doubts. “She worked to fill the hole, until it was not only gone but we were the better for it, better than before it was even there.”
Kiernan held his hands up before him, “And the mortar that she used was these. I do not believe for one second that Eavan’s hands ever stopped growing, that they ever became lifeless.”
“I think that, from the time she was very young, her hands found these holes in the spirits of others. And she could not help but fill them with a small part of herself, giving of herself, so that others could be made whole.”
And the people celebrated the life and mourned the passing of this wondrous woman.
This broken vessel, who used her own timber to help patch the holes in the vessels around her. Yet she did not run aground or merely remain adrift, but rode everything the treacherous sea cast at her with grace and quiet dignity.
I know that one woman cannot redeem a legion, but it can be all too easy to paint with too broad a brush. You just never know what you might find, if you stay your hand.
* – “Cabbagers” – My dear friends, the Bounders of Addernotch Station taught me this word. It seems that once some rambunctious ‘tweens decided to have some fun by throwing heads of cabbage into perfectly good casks of ale, thereby ruining them. To ‘cabbage’ something became a term used to describe something being ruined, and a ‘cabbager’ as someone who willfully and purposefully ruins something not theirs.
It turns out that the woman in this story is my great-great aunt, being the aunt of my mother’s mother. Her great-granddaughter, my cousin Eavan, was named for her, and is one of my cousins from Staddle. She has come to visit from the South, where she was serving with some squad or army or somesuch, and is staying with me at my smial for the time being. I have told her about you all and that I would like her to meet you, so if you happen to see her about, please say hello, will you?