That the grounds were called Hobbitland should’ve been my first clue. It wasn’t. The word Hobbitland conjured up people who dressed like Elves and Wizards and sat around in the field smoking long clay pipes while reading aloud from The Silmarillion. I came across these people all the time in my quest for solitude and I usually smelled them before I saw them. Despite the air of authenticity lent by leaf-dappled sunlight, Shakespearian diction, and hand-sewn woolen robes, it wasn’t Longbottom Leaf in those pipes.
That day the field was empty. It’s a stretch to call it a field; it’s more a of a large clearing, fragrant with knee-high grass and wildflowers and surrounded by towering oak trees. A number of tumbled boulders sat strewn amongst the grass, bleaching slowly with the seasons of weather. In one corner a claw-foot bathtub was sinking into the earth. Most of the enamel was gone. What little remained had graffiti scratched into it: years of graduation, initials, strange geometric eyes. Someone had scrawled SALLY SUCKS! with what looked like the edge of a key and another person had scratched an ejaculating penis with the word OOOH written beneath it. The tub had been spray-painted several times but the paint did not stand up well to the ongoing passage of years.
I asked a guy in my Archaeology class why it was called Hobbitland. “Duh,” he said. “The bridges.” I went searching on a spring day of exceptional beauty and found the bridges on my own: little wooden footbridges arching across cracks in the land, dozens of them, spanning tiny ribbons of water too small to be called creeks. I asked a girl from Calculus why it was called Hobbitland and she turned her big vacant eyes on me. “Things,” she said. “There’s, like, things in there.” I asked her about the things, and with the solemnity of the perpetually stoned she leaned forward, enveloped me in a fading cloud of patchouli, and whispered, “Fairies. Wood nymphs. Shit like that. I’ve seen them. But you have to watch real close because they know how to hide.” The only thing I ever glimpsed in those woods were wind-driven shadows and the occasional used condom.
I picked a place in the field because it was empty and it was sunny. Winter is long and harsh in New England and while there’s still sun you want to drink in as much of it as you can. I took off my sweater and leaned my back against a boulder and the stone gave its heat to my spine. For awhile things felt like they always felt and then they just didn’t. I want to mark the moment in time where it shifted, but in looking back I can’t. There is all right, and then there is the kind of absorption that erases time, and then there is not-all-right. Not-all-right began as a gentle feeling that bloomed into a hyper-awareness. There were birds chirping and that was all right, there was the pleasant sound of wind moving through leafy trees and that was all right, but when I held my breath I couldn’t hear the almost subconscious drone of highway noise, and that was not-all-right. I went still as an animal may, without knowing why but obeying some deep-rooted imperative, and I listened. I struggled to listen beneath the surface sounds. What else was not-all-right? No highway noise and no airport noise. I glanced across the field and the tub was still there. A sense of relief at seeing the tub came over me like a swoon. I started to giggle. If anyone had ever told me that the sight of that mangy old thing would thrill me beyond belief, I never would’ve believed it. Not in a million years would I have believed it. The tub was there but that sense of strangeness, of not-all-right, remained. I ignored it and went back to my reading. A wind blew in my face and it was the freshest breeze I had ever received. Its purity slapped through all of my reveries and took deep clutching root in my mind and all I wanted to do was inhale again, draw in air through my nose. I put down my book and did just that. Such sweetness, such everlasting sweetness. The not-all-right knocked on the insides of my instinct but I ignored it. What a beautiful day! What a gorgeous, sweet, magnificent, lovely…
The wind shifted and brought with it the strong gagging odor of unwashed bodies. I thought of the homeless people. Sometimes they camped up here and most of the time they were harmless. I thought about packing up my stuff and heading back. Most of the time the homeless folks were harmless and lots of times they were drunk, but sometimes they were crazy and I didn’t want no business with crazy. This kind of crazy was its own hot-eyed thing. It had been a long time since a student ventured into Hobbitland and didn’t venture back out again, and even longer still since someone digging around had turned up a set of long bones. I liked my bones just fine, kept inside my flesh where they belonged. I gathered up my books and my water bottle and slung the pack onto my back. Those stinky bodies were sneaky, as you can well imagine. Their footfalls made no sound and there wasn’t much to be done about the wind, but even with the wind I was unaware enough to find an arrow nocked and pointed at the hollow of my throat.
I’ll tell you something, ladies. The real Legolas? He’s some kind of weird looking.