Heylo peeps. Not entirely sure this counts as fanfiction, but basically, I wrote this a few months ago after reading Neil Gaiman's short story, and since then I've been really wanting feedback on it and haven't had much of an opportunity to do that. So, I thought, why not here of all places. I would very much appreciate any comments anyone has. And thanks for reading!
The Problem of Susan
(Inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia and Neil Gaiman's story of the same name)
"Foolish attire, six letters. Hah. Well, that could be anything. 'Foolish' seems to be the dress-code for most young people these days."
Susan quietly pondered the puzzle, her mind straying in disconnected patterns. Her mouth had gone dry again, she noticed, running a parched tongue across cracked lips. With a forced effort, she raised her hand to reach for the china mug on the bedside table, but the overwhelming fatigue that had been gradually draining her energy over the past few weeks would not allow it. Even that small movement set her heart pounding and her breath labouring. Fortunately, Susan's husband sat attentively by the bed as he had done for days, and he noticed the movement.
He sat up, putting the newspaper aside. The upturned page revealed a partly-done crossword puzzle. She and her husband would often do them together of a Saturday afternoon. She was little use now, of course, though he still read out clues to the room. She supposed it was his way of keeping things normal.
In fact, Peter used to do crosswords with her a lot, too. Back when the world was right.
"Are you thirsty?" the old man inquired. "Here, I'll get you another; this one's gone cold," he said, taking up the mug and turning to leave.
"No," she said, or tried to. Instead, it came out as an unintelligible moan of protest.
The man glanced back, a kindly smile crinkling the corners of his eyes, more so than it used to. He'd always had a beautiful smile. "Don't worry yourself, dear," he said, patting her feet through the covers, "I'll be back in a minute." He wandered from the room.
"No…" Susan remained staring desperately at the doorway. Panic rose through her chest. It wasn't long now; she had felt herself drifting more and more, her mind wandering into nonsensical fantasies. Each inhalation was more difficult than the last. Worse than all of it was the idea of going without somebody there with her. She'd soon be lonely enough without having the last moments of her life be the same. She thought she'd managed to come to terms with the concept of dying, but now that her time was so close, terror gripped her. What if there was no afterlife?
What if there was?
Pain suddenly gripped her and swept her mind into a maelstrom. Bizarre images and swirling colours flooded her vision. Through the fog she perceived a vast field of heather bordered by innumerable trees. Within the swaying purple fronds she caught sight of brown shapes hopping and leaping, ears twitching. Mermaids rested on an embankment of rock jutting out into a sapphire sea, singing gloriously in the summer sun, while wood nymphs danced by moonlight in the heart of a pine forest. Hidden at the centre of a small, snowy clearing, a Victorian streetlamp glows softly into eternity. And fades.
The pain subsided and she found herself in a cream-coloured room, tucked into a bed of pale blue sheets, arms sticking out of the covers by her side. But they weren't her arms. These arms were pallid, their dry, withered skin practically hanging off the bones. The backs of the hands were mazes of wrinkles and varicose veins. She could barely breathe.
A man shuffled through the door holding a steaming mug. "Here we are, love," he murmured, setting it down on the bedside table. She peered at him warily through bleary eyes.
"P-professor?" she croaked.
The man frowned and looked into her eyes. "Susan? Love, it's me. Are you alright? You still with me?"
The man wasn't making an iota of sense. What was he doing putting his hand on her arm like that? He wasn't the professor, she could tell that much. A throbbing wave of pain washed over her again, and she jerked her arm back.
"Susan, come on, stay with me."
"Motley," she mumbled. "Fools wear motley, Peter."
"No, sweetheart, it's Roger. It's me." For some reason, the man took up her hand and fiercely held it to his lips as tears began to pool in his eyes.
She reached over with her other hand and patted his cheek reassuringly. "Remember, Peter?" she said, smiling fondly. "Remember when we went hunting for the white stag? Do you remember?"
He nodded, lips pressed tight as though they contained some secret, as he gazed at her intently. "I love you so very much, you know."
She nodded back, though her eyes stared through him, and the smile slowly melted from her face.
Darkness and obscurity claimed her senses and she was lifted away. Time and space became intangible and she was but a drifting, vague impression of presence in a dimension of nothingness. She was still aware of herself, but she felt no fear, no trepidation, or curiosity. She felt nothing. She simply was.
There came a time - if the moment could be called such - when light began to filter through the darkness, ever so gradually. It didn't seem to come from anywhere, but rather, from everywhere, and eventually Susan found herself in a wood. As though just waking up after a life of fevered dreams, she blinked in the daylight, shading her eyes with an arm as she looked up at the periwinkle sky.
Sooner than the light had appeared, it faded again, and she fell to the ground. Stars erupted before her eyes. She gasped, finally realising that she had not been breathing. Curled up in the grass, eyes squeezed shut, she drank in the air, sucking life back into her body. As she lay there, helpless and weak like a newborn, she became aware of her body. Eyes still closed, she curled up her bare toes and stretched her legs, contemplating the movement and strain of her muscles. She noticed she was wearing a loose garment, covering her torso and thighs. Clutching at the grass with smooth, slender fingers, soil lodged underneath her nails, and she breathed in its fresh earthy fragrance. She wasn't sure how long she lay there, but after a time she slowly sat up and opened her eyes.
She was still in the wood, which, she decided, was entirely unfamiliar to her. Close by, there was a pond, small and rather murky. Lily pads grew at the edge, a couple of yellowish lilies blooming among them. Peering through the trees, she spied other ponds, dotted throughout the forest, some big, some clear, others overrun with weeds, and a few so small they'd almost dried up, leaving dimples in the lay of the land.
What was most odd, Susan thought, was that the wood was utterly silent. Not a sigh of wind stirred the leaves, no birds chirped nor sang, no fish disturbed the water. No manner of wildlife grunted, squeaked or rustled in the undergrowth. She was alone.
Goosebumps ran down her back and along her arms, though not out of fear. She felt a certain loneliness and isolation in this place, but also a kind of freedom, and a partly familiar sense of wonder and adventure, once known but long forgotten.
She began a trek through the woods, in what seemed to be a shapeless plain white nightgown, stumbling across the uneven ground, twining between trees and water. The noise she made was palpable in the silence. But, she reasoned, there really was nothing to disturb or draw attention from. Still, it caused her some uneasiness, and thus went carefully.
It was as though she was searching for something. Each pond she passed, she examined closely, looking for some clue or indicator of … something. Yet, each time, she gave up, unsatisfied with what she saw, and moved on.
As in the realm of darkness, time seemed to be suspended here, or didn't exist, for the light never faded, and neither did she get tired nor hungry, though it felt like she searched for hours, if not days. With some ponds, she would stop and stare for what seemed ages; with others, she merely glanced at them and moved on. Finally, though, she came to a dried up area, a dimple, where the grass was patchy and new. These had been rare - in fact, she'd probably only passed two or three in all. Yet there was something different about this one that drew her attention. It was special, though she wasn't sure how.
As she sat there, pondering the elusive anomaly, she gradually became aware of a presence behind her. So slowly did this presence enter her senses that there never came an appropriate moment for her to turn and inspect whatever may be there. Instead, after losing all concentration from the pond, she sat stiff-backed, as still as the wood itself, self-consciously debating with herself whether to turn or pretend there was nothing amiss and hope that whatever it was would go away. Which was ridiculous, as she knew it wouldn't. So, calmly and gracefully - regally, even - she rose to her feet, and glanced over her shoulder.
And was greeted by a familiar sight of grass, trees and water. There was nothing there. She recoiled from what she saw, so certain had she been that something (or someone) was there. And certain she still was. She knew it was there - could feel it - though she also knew that such a conclusion was hardly scientific in nature. On the other hand, nothing that she had experienced since departing from mortality had been what you could call 'scientific' in nature. Still, Nothing was there, and no matter how hard she squinted, Nothing continued to be there.
Yet, as she began to turn away again, believing her mind to be playing tricks on her, Nothing gave out a sigh. It was like the sound a bored dog makes as it lies down, having decided that its surroundings lacked adequate entertainment, though this was more deep-throated. She jumped and faced the direction the sound came from, eyes wide, as though it would help her to see whatever it was. She felt for a time that she took part in some sort of staring contest, for Nothing came along and happened again, and the being made no further noise, but remained where it was (she knew this much).
"What are you?" she said, before realising that such wording may not be entirely polite.
Nothing cocked its head to the side and twitched its ears. The thing emitted another sigh, got up and moved away. As it went, it made the faintest indentations in the grass, though she didn't need these in order to know where to follow. She felt compelled to go with it. It seemed to move in the same direction she'd come from, yet nothing was familiar; nothing was the same as it had been, as far as she could tell (having only trees and bodies of water to go by). It seemed that direction here was as incoherent as time.
Up ahead, Susan noticed a golden hue, reaching faintly through the tangle of wilderness, reflecting off the surfaces of the ponds. The trees began to thin as they travelled, and the glow brightened, until they finally stepped out from the edge of the wood. Grassy plains stretched now before her, shining effervescently as calm breezes rippled the surface. It was entirely devoid of any landmarks; no water dimpled the ground, nor any sign of saplings reaching toward the now pink-tinged sky. It was sunset here. A huge orange globe hung just above the horizon straight ahead, where a cliff rose up from the ground. How high it was, she couldn't yet tell from this distance.
She was alone again, now - the being had departed. She supposed there was nowhere to go but onward into the sun. And upward, if it came to that. So on she went, treading softly, and in no hurry, through the overgrown grass.
The cliff grew ever larger as she approached. It was immense, and there appeared to be no way of reaching the top. The face was almost vertical, and not nearly jagged enough to scale. Still, she carried on, seeing no alternative but to return to the wood and wander aimlessly for eternity.
The cliff was soon so close that the immobile sun was almost entirely obscured, though the cliff itself was still a long way off. It was at the edge of twilight that she finally came to a stop. She could go no further, though there was clearly nothing that physically restrained her.
"Miss Susan Pevensie," said an elderly male voice.
Once again, Susan jumped in surprise, and cricked her neck as she hastily looked to see who had spoken. Just behind her, to the right, a white-haired man in a brown woollen robe stood on a large stone tablet, cracked down the middle. He looked to be an amiable old man, unthreatening, though clearly weary.
"Queen Susan the Gentle of Narnia. Susan of the horn. Mrs. Hastings, if you prefer."
She stared back, open-mouthed, though she couldn't think what to say, or if she was even supposed to.
The man stepped down from the tablet, which vanished as his other foot came away. Yet, his feet were no longer feet, but hooves. His robe had melted away to reveal goat's legs, fur brown like that atop his head and on his chin. A red scarf was wrapped around his neck. She looked at the faun with wonder.
"You've been gone for a long time," he said, mournfully.
"Yes," she replied. "I'm sorry."
"And I've been guarding this gate for so long." He looked over her shoulder in the direction of the cliff, and she turned to see a magnificent golden gate now standing there at the border of twilight.
"There really is a gate?" she murmured, disbelievingly.
"Of a kind," he said, and as she watched, the gate seemed to fade in and out; at one moment solid, the next, insubstantial.
"You didn't see Him, did you?" She turned back, and saw that a dark-haired boy now stood there. A noble young man, he seemed, mature beyond his age. She felt something stab at her heart, as the scene of a devastating rail crash briefly flitted through her mind.
"I don't understand," she said.
The boy sighed in disappointment. "I thought so," he said, his form once more becoming that of the old man.
"I'm afraid this is as far as you can go, Susan," he said. "But do not worry too much, my dear. You won't be going to that other place. He would like you to stay here."
"Here?" she repeated.
"I am finally to be allowed to go on." His gaze looked longingly toward the distant cliff.
"I'm…to stay here? I don't understand. For how long? Why?"
The man shrugged. "Eternity?" he said, ignoring the last part. "Or until the next one comes along. Only He knows, really." He turned and reached for the gate. "It isn't so bad, you know."
"Wait!" she cried. "Please don't go." The man paused, a hand on the bars. "Have I not been punished enough? After everything that's…" Her eyes sought his, pleadingly, lips parted, as though to say more, but there seemed to be nothing more to say. Nothing that could be put into words.
The man turned back, looking her straight in the eyes without a bit of warmth in his face. "You are to stay here," he said, "as I have. It is His will. And that is all there is."
He opened the gate, and stepped through. "You ought to have known better," he said as he walked away. "I should have, too."
She watched him leave, silently imploring him to return, but he kept on going, getting smaller and smaller. From where she stood, a tiny corner of the sun peeked over the edge of the forbidding cliff and she gazed at it with equal longing and resentment.
Looking back toward the wood, she saw a figure emerge through the trees and begin to make their way across the vast expanse of grass. She sat down on the stone tablet, and waited.