"But what does it really look like?"
The inside corners of her eyebrows pull center. She's been sitting at her end of the tired, blue-striped couch, gazing slack-jawed at the carpet for over an hour. Now, she looks right at me. Direct eye contact, unblinking and clear.
Jen and I are reading "Three is Company," Chapter 3 of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring.
The fact that we're even sitting here on the couch with the decades-old, thousand-plus pages of red-leather-bound fantasy is a personal victory. When Jen was 5, I read "The Hobbit" at her. She paid half-attention until shadows of Mirkwood became too present in the corners of her room. Shortly after her 9th Birthday, just weeks ago, she asked if we could resume Bilbo's journey. I knew it was just an excuse to spend time curled up in the arms of her sometimes-distant and distracted father. Knowing broke my heart no less.
By the time Smaug lay dead under the waters of Lake-town, she was entranced. The night we finished "The Hobbit," we immediately started the trilogy, and have been making our way out of the shire with Frodo for the last few days.
"What do you mean Jen?"
Her eyes bear witness to a frustration her grown-up face won't show. "I know he says what it looks like, but sometimes I can't picture it in my head."
I'm not sure how to answer. Tolkien, for all his faults as a writer, paints beautiful still-life. I re-read the section:
The sun went down. Bag End seemed sad and gloomy and disheveled. Frodo wandered around the familiar rooms, and saw the light of the sunset fade on the walls, and shadows creep out of the corners. It grew slowly dark indoors. He went out and walked down to the gate at the bottom of the path, and then on a short way down the Hill Road. He half expected to see Gandalf come striding up through the dusk.
"I don't know Jen, I can see it pretty clearly in my head. The way the house can look old and tired at the end of a long day. When the sunset stops being orange and starts just seeming gray, and we haven't turned on the lights yet? It's a sad, kind of melancholy time of day."
She quiets, thoughtful. I let the silence sit, marvelling at the wisdom of 9 years: able to pose questions yet often too full of chaos to walk to the answers.
"There's a movie of this, isn't there? Can we watch it?"
"No." I laugh. It's my best parenting laugh. I call it my "Are you insane?" laugh.
"Why not? If I'm old enough to read the book, why aren't I old enough to see the movie?"
She's across from me on the other end of the couch, knees pulled up to her chin. Her short brown hair frames her face, and for a minute she seems a 20-year-old ball of young woman. She pouts, cracking the mold and becoming my little girl again. I give her foot a squeeze.
"It's not that you're not old enough. I just want you to have your pictures in your head, before you see the movie and get someone else's pictures in your head."
We read on. The chapters in "The Lord of the Rings" are far longer than I remembered. Reading it aloud, the prose seems more dense, but also more fluid. Forty-five minutes later, Frodo and Sam and Pippin have spent the night with elves. Jen laughs and squirms with delight at Sam's reactions to the fair-folk, channeled through my best vaudevillian camp. She throws her head back in deep, full laughter. I'm delighted to realize that Sean Astin's Sam -- the one from the movies -- is nowhere in my head as I play the part. My sense of character is entirely my own.
After the inevitable cries of "More daddy, more!" I shovel her into bed. I kiss her palms, and she rubs the kisses into her cheeks, a ritual some 5 years running. I shut her door halfway, and stand a silent vigil for a handful of seconds, as I have nearly every night for a decade. She rolls over a few times, tumbling blankets and pillows as she nests.
I descend one flight of stairs.
"She down?" asks Jess.
I nod. I kiss her briefly, hug her hard, nuzzling the soft spot below her ear.
"I'm going to get back to work, K?"
She nods, and I retreat one more stairwell and one lifetime to the basement.
Sitting behind the blue glow of the screens, I re-enter Middle Earth, this one rendered not by Tolkien's prose or Peter Jackson's cameras, but by the computers sitting in the cubicles of programmers in Westwood, MA.
I wasn't planning on playing Lord of the Rings Online tonight. Kids asleep, I have work to do. But it's not playing that I'm doing anyway, it's wandering. At first, I jump into the Mines of Moria, Turbine's latest expansion. Pure tourist, I walk across bridges and along the beds of underground streams, examining the pattern of light as it reflects through ancient columns: god rays rendered solid in the mists from omnipresent waterfalls.
But my mind keeps going back to Frodo, leaving home on that night so long ago when I was 10. I switch characters. I too have a small, portly and frightened hobbit holding station in Hobbiton. It's mid-day in the Shire, but I make my way up the hill to Bag End. I wait. The sun sets. The light of the sunset fades on the walls. Shadows creep out of the corners. I half expect to see Gandalf come striding up through the dusk.
"This is what it looks like Jen," I mutter to the concrete walls and the numbing hum of computer fans.