eat earth, dig deep
Merry knows an awful lot about the old forest
Merry is very young
The forest misses being that young
At first, Pippin thinks it funny that Merry always has leaves in his hair. "Hey now," he says, plucking at the bits of green caught among red curls, "hey now, have you been adventuring without me?"
At first, Merry laughs. "Yes, Pip, I've been through hedges and along queer moving paths and talked with trees." It's so fantastical that Pippin doesn't even think of believing him, doesn't think of these jokes when Merry starts vanishing for longer and longer periods of time. Merry's older than he is, after all. Merry has important things to do.
Merry will never be able to say why he doesn't tell Pippin that all the stories are true. Surely he's thought more than once that it would be nice to have a companion to laugh with on the forest paths, someone to reassure him that it's all right, that the trees are unfriendly, not dangerous, that the path really is just right there. Pippin would be up for an adventure. The forest would like to have him there as well.
But he only has those thoughts in the forest, and when sunlight falls on him again he wonders if the thoughts were ever truly his. He goes back into the forest, alone, again and again, and slowly forgets that he shouldn't.
Merry's hair moves without wind, these days. Merry is quiet and solid and still, these days. He has more than leaves in his hair, and Pippin stops laughing about it.
Merry dreams of floods, of the Brandywine rushing over its banks to sweep him away. He wakes on the floor, clutching at earth, a scream suffocating him. After the third nightmare, he stands at the edge of the forest past dark for the first time. There's a song rising and falling under the murmuring of the trees, and he remembers how to breathe again.
The Shire is too bright, now, and its field the wrong color green. Merry catches glimpses of things in the corners of his eyes that always resolve to something absolutely normal: a sheep, Rosie Cotton, a signpost. He shivers at those resolutions. He's come to expect the flickering, waiting unnameable. The shadows want him. He goes searching.
The song in the forest has words, hey dol, come merry dol. It calls to him, it knows his name, and he follows the rhyme deeper into the forest than ever before. Blue and yellow flash around the branches and tree trunks, always one step ahead of the end of the path, and Merry follows, hums along under his breath.
He has a companion in his wanderings, cheerful and capricious and old, as old as the forest and maybe older. But this companion is even better than Pip, because Pip doesn't know the old forest like he does. Tom Bombadil, his companion sings, understands.
The forest speaks to Merry. He can't speak back, can barely understand, but he hears more from the trees than he does from his fellow hobbits now. Even Pippin is concerned, concerned enough to follow through the hedge -- but never past the forest's start.
Merry doesn't mind. Merry meets a woman whose hair drips water from the Withywindle and whose damp dress doesn't move in the breeze. "The forest wants you," she says slyly. "Come to the river with me instead. Goldberry River-Daughter will take care of you." Merry remembers his dreams of floods, and flees deeper into the trees.
He shelters in the roots of a willow and watches Goldberry hunt him, shelters behind the draping branches of a willow and listens to Tom Bombadil sing. There's another song now, a willow-song that flows along the counter-melody to Tom Bombadil's voice. Together they draw Merry against the trunk and further, further back.
Merry is asleep when Old Man Willow takes him in and Tom Bombadil sings the crack shut. He will never know why he was chosen. He will never be anything but grateful.
Still Merry dreams of drowning, but safe in the willow he does not scream.