Bilbo usually slept soundly, but something in the night wakes her gently - as if lifting her chin above the water - her consciousness sharpening little by little until her eyes open. The purple dimness of the chambers are a strange sight for her, who turns in early in the evening, and enjoys the luxury of being roused by soft hands, well after sunrise, when her husband is leaving for work at Marlborough Mills.
To-night, the culprit of cutting her rest short is, not surprisingly, Mr Thorin. After the initial alarm has passed, now that Bilbo knows no emergency or calamity has befallen their household, she feels annoyance at having been awoken at all. She does not know how it happened, and so she turns around in bed, huffing, to look directly at John.
Frustration turns into fear once again, when she sees her husband vigorously scrubbing at their white sheets with a rag, the impossibly wide stain of blood painting the middle of the mattress not showing sign of disappearing.
‘Dear heart? Where is that blood coming from?’ asks Bilbo, her body rising along with her hands, which long to touch his skin under the nightshirt, and look for injury.
His jaw is visibly tensed, the muscles underneath are bulging, and Bilbo can see their lines under light of dawn. ‘From me. I apologize for waking you. I did not want the maid to see…’
Blinking, and trying to understand the meaning of his words, Bilbo continues looking at John’s figure, searching for the source of such bleeding. Only when the soapy smell of his nightshirt travels over the coppery tone of the blood does she realize that John has changed from his usual one. For what reason? The night is brisk enough not to sleep in the nude, and the shirt was clean just yesterday.
‘Do not worry over me. There are months when such things get out of control.’ She could recall many a time, back in warm Helstone, when she would wake to an entire puddle of bright red blood painting her thighs and sheets. ‘Let us change the bed, and leave the linen soaking. I have seen it done before, it should help.’
The silence is uncomfortable while they strip the bed, John looking angry at himself, and visibly worried. Bilbo chooses practicality over emotion: she puts on a robe over her nightclothes for modesty, and rushes out to bring them a fresh spread. It is decidedly lucky for them that she knows where the towels and sheets are kept, from having lived there long enough after their wedding. But she touches her ear to the door, so as to listen for any maid, or John’s mother walking in the corridor, early as it was. She tiptoes to the great oak wardrobe near the servants’ door, and stealthily feels for a bundle big enough to match the wide linens that would cover the large mattress, being careful not to make any noise while closing it shut once more on her way back to the master bedroom.
John steps in as soon as Bilbo is back, to turn the brass key and lock the door behind them. It makes her jump, his large stature unexpectedly coming close. Before there’s a chance to console him for any embarrassment, he hurries to finish wiping the surface of the mattress. Then, they change the bed, and Bilbo runs to help fold the corners below the heavy mattress. Not wanting to aggravate his mood, she silently folds one of his towels - dyed a dark indigo - and places it on his side of the bed. It would help contain any leaks, and she knew this one trick from experience.
He finishes tucking the sides of the thick blanket around the bed, and upon noticing the folded towel, John’s shoulders lower, and he looks more dejected than ever. Bilbo kneels on their freshly-made bed, waiting for him to join.
‘Should they ask, we can tell them it was me. I don’t tell them about my own menses, so they will not know.’ Seeing her husband’s red face, his body unmoving next to the bed, would move her to promise far more than so small a humiliation. ‘I do not mind.’
As if hearing the saddest story of his life, John crumbles into bed, his large back curved, arms around his knees. Bilbo catches sight of his black-dyed drawers around his thighs, and understands that there is more than one reason for his low spirits. So that the maids won’t discover his secret, John dyes and washes his own underclothes including his corset of special make, which flattens his chest. Bilbo only has a small notion of what it is like to live as John does, and sometimes she wishes the world were a fairer place.
His rough palm appears through the curtain of her red hair, and pets her cheek in a much softer manner than she expected, from his mood.
‘You are the best person. The most wonderful wife.’
Bilbo pushes her long hair behind an ear, and watches as John’s throat bobs, his eyes glistening. His emotion is obvious even under the weak light of the crescent moon.
‘Oh, love. This is nothing…’
‘I often ask myself how should an angel such as you want to live with a…’ He struggles to find a word low enough to describe himself, to match his sadness. ‘...a man like me?’
‘But you’re a most special man, John. You must stop doubting yourself, for I have told you many times that I love you as you are.’ Bilbo pauses to sprawl herself on the bed, tugging the weighty covers over their bodies. ‘And I will tell you every day if I must.’
A sob rises from his chest, and he manages to half swallow it. ‘Oh, Bilbo… I cannot even give you children. I… I’m simply…’
‘Shh… Now is not the time to worry about such things,’ says Bilbo, brushing the curly hair on the nape of his neck. ‘We are not a conventional couple, and I do not want conventional things. As I’ve told you many times, I take pleasure in helping those in need. Milton is full of people of whom we can take care.’
John is shaking his head, and Bilbo bravely speaks on, intent on making him listen. ‘Now, if we should ever determine to raise children, then we will discuss, and adopt. For doing that would give me great satisfaction, and you should know it by now. I am but a Rector’s daughter in my upbringing, and nothing would make me happier, than to have the life I am having now.’ This makes John’s brow crease, and his temple rests on the pillow to watch his wife.
Bilbo mustn’t let herself shy away from such subjects, especially to-night, when John needs it so. Even though it makes her face colour, she adds, ‘I know you must be having a fit of low mood from your menses, but I assure you I am saying this from my heart, and not only to appease you.’
His eyes blink rapidly, the way they do when he is deep in consideration. ‘How do you mean? From my menses?’
‘Oh. Well, you’re aware of what Medical Science has discovered about menses.’ The repetition of that term makes her want to lower her voice. ‘That one’s mood changes.’
‘I had not heard of this before,’ says John, his cheeks also flushed, where his beard does not grow. ‘I have been taking my medicine for such a long while, I believe it has affected how often… “it” happens. ‘
‘But surely, your mother or Fanny must have told you how to look for the signs?’ ponders Bilbo, even though the mere thought of having such a conversation with her sister-in-law sounds very difficult.
‘My mother only taught me how to keep it from staining clothes.’ The subject of his mother is sensitive for both of them, but Bilbo has long learned how to respect boundaries in his presence. ‘I do not remember the last time I have had an accident such as this. And I did not know there were any symptoms to look for, other than the result.’
Never would Bilbo have conceived of a married life where she could be so open about womanly things. It’s familiar, comfortable, and she knows that John is not one to judge her words for being truthful and informative. They have shared many intimate moments, and having bodies that function in similar ways means having practical knowledge that can be shared, where a more conventional marriage would have demanded she learn such things entirely anew.
After having discussed the matter of keeping John’s anatomy a secret, their private life together had surprisingly become affectionate, tender, and as romantic as Bilbo had always wished for. He is as intense a man as she is a woman, and there is no end to the regard both carry for each other.
‘There are things such as increased appetite, or lack thereof; inexplicable sadness and weeping; sleepiness; or… changes in bowel movements…’ Bilbo has to look to the ceiling not to shy away from saying it all. ‘Soreness, especially around here.’ She indicates her breasts with flustered hands, her embarrassment at doing so not lessened by the realisation of such a symptom in their love-making not long ago.
Some might ask where admiration could lie, when one’s body was of the same shape as one’s partner. But Bilbo shall always feel like a woman, once her husband sets his adoring gaze on her skin. And it is no hardship to view John as a man, being as his own figure is much different from hers.
He spares her further shame, simply nodding and not adding any remarks. But his eyes follow the movement of her arms, to where the loose nightgown is clinging to her chest, and Bilbo feels herself heating in interest. They mustn’t carry on like this, now that John is in a delicate state, so she continues.
‘I must admit, after knowing you better, I thought the issue of your sour mood came from this problem,’ says Bilbo, already regretting having done so. Her palms fly to cover her mouth, but John is thankfully smiling, and trying to pry them away.
‘We should watch for the signs of the next, then. Thank you for explaining all about this matter to me.’ John’s strong arms pull her close by the waist, and she smiles warmly at him, before stealing a kiss from his startled lips.
‘Now, let us go back to sleep. We may catch a few good hours of rest before the house is up,’ says Bilbo, her last sight of the night a chagrined but very happy expression on her husband’s face.
Bilbo sighs when John slowly brings the bulk of her body to rest against his. He must certainly be enduring discomfort, but he still adores the nape of her neck with nuzzles and kisses. It is only a few minutes until their hands give in to the warm lull of sleep, pausing in the middle of tender caresses.