Chapter Eighteen : In a Glass Darkly
The conversation began then, but – with breaks for food and sleep and overlain with moments when she learned skills as well as knowledge – it continued for the next four weeks or so; up to the very day the great crusade left the port of the Cair for the Lone Islands. It was a week later Michael returned from the north. A week after that the ship came hastening from Galma, riding the wings of the winds and with her sails in tatters as the Winter storms battered her, bearing the message ships would be rendered unto the Narnian crown for a payment of silver and sapphires. Three weeks from the beginning of the conversation, the five hundred swords were billeted at the Cair and a week after that – at the end of Wildsnow, the very gates of Frostmelt, when the downward slope of the other side of the hill of Winter could be seen – the crusade actually got underway.
And – for that month, a whole cycle of the great silver orb in the sky turning and working the magic it did on the world below; tides of salt water and blood and more – Susan and Elizabeth talked.
It began that night on the balcony when Susan asked Elizabeth if she swam. It was a segue into a private conversation – a finding of a common ground to base future contact on. Of course, swimming could not provide such a contact – although she swam privately for exercise, it was a means to an end. That end, of course, was childish lounging on yachts and beaches in bikinis designed to frame rather than conceal.
Which – Elizabeth came to realize swiftly – Susan did not. It was, perhaps, strange this woman – beautiful beyond the normal measure of such things and quite aware of her own beauty – did not understand the concept of posing in a swimsuit; Elizabeth was certain such a thing had existed in the 1940s, or what else did GIs pin to their lockers and stencil on the side of bombers? Yet it was clear Susan viewed swimming costumes as something practical rather than something worn to be beautiful; swimming was one of the things she was good at and Elizabeth suspected she was valiantly defending this enclave against the encroachment of beauty's requirements.
Elizabeth and the Queen had remained talking far into the night, long after the others had gone to their beds – the common ground found was not swimming, but rather the seemingly inconsequential feminine things that do not group women of differing ages as mother-daughter, but rather as simply aspects of that eternal female men have divided into three; Maiden, Mother and Crone. It was as well Elizabeth did not preserve that distinction in her mind – for she might have wondered where she fit in that cycle.
Elizabeth made it clear she would like to learn more of the arts of war, as Edmund was going to be taking her on crusade. Even as she said that, she realized the choice of words was not perfect, and was certainly not what Edmund would have used.
"Take you on crusade?" asked Susan. "Ed'll take his sword and armor, he will be followed by his armies and accompanied by you and Lord Michael." Elizabeth smiled self-deprecatingly and shrugged. "Still, I understand how you feel – if you can't fight then you might feel like a spare part."
The conversation moved on – to a place where Susan said she had no little skill with a blade and she would be happy to teach Elizabeth. It moved past that swiftly, the two women realizing this night was for a grounding of their relationship. A kinship based on nothing more than gender men would have sworn was based on more was swiftly building.
Men, Elizabeth reflected, talked about things; they spoke with nouns and verbs. In their conversations, things did things to things. In women's conversations – of which, she realized (living in a world where she was a women in physiology only and only allowed to be a pseudo-man as long as she looked like a girl) she had had few – things felt things about things. The conversation was not nouns and verbs, it was gestures and tones of voice – Elizabeth began to believe the figure that ninety percent of a conversation was paralinguistic.
A wholly feminine conversation was a novelty to Elizabeth, and perhaps to Susan as well. Both of them lived, for better or worse, in a world where masculinity either ruled or was present. Here, in their private conversations, they found they not only could but wanted to move away from that.
The conversation over the four weeks was not of lipsticks and nylons and invitations; for such things are only feminine, they realized, in so far as defined by men. They were things – concrete, measurable objects. The conversation made some headway in that direction but stopped, perhaps by the air of Narnia itself. Who, they asked themselves, would they be wearing pretty dresses for? Susan admitted to herself she looked less in looking-glasses in Narnia than she ever had at home – for those who looked at her were her looking glasses. Both of the women realized, perhaps that night for the first time, that the desiring of the desiring of one's own beauty was the vanity of Lilith, but the desiring of the enjoying of one's own beauty was the obedience of Eve.
Neither did the conversation slide long into the he-said-she-said school of that art; not simply because there was little common ground of acquaintance for such gossip to spread and flourish, but because the two of them realized that, again, was feminine only as seen by the masculine. That was not about feelings – it was about reactions. It did not talk over what the conversationalists felt about these actions; it merely discussed them – as things, as objects, as events. He-said-she-said was nouns and verbs.
The conversation explored these avenues, moving down familiar passages of convention in the labyrinth – only to find, after a turn or two – that the hedges were uprooted and the walls razed to the earth. Here, they were outside convention – two women, alone but for the other and without preconceived notions of what they should be. By then, the moon had set and – bidding Elizabeth to meet her at the rocky promontory at dawn – Susan went to bed.
Elizabeth wandered slowly back to the chamber set out for her use – she had expected, perhaps, to possess a greater understanding of the feminine than Susan given her greater age and living in a "more equal" time. But it was Susan, the girl, the one from a time when women were mothers and wives first and foremost, who had felt the wind of freedom blowing through the maze walls. It was Susan who had managed to grasp what feminism was; it was not what Elizabeth thought – trying to be the equal of the masculine. It was, simply, to be feminine – and there was nothing masculine about that.
It was a truth so profound, so simply obvious it kept Elizabeth awake long after she had undressed for the night – for she had dismissed her ladies-in-waiting and simply flung herself naked and uncombed on the bed – staring at the ceiling and wondering at it. The feminist movement, in its literal sense, should be a movement to be more feminine. That was clear enough – how was it then that it had become what it had? How had it become – for she had now been sharpened to such things and her radar for injustice was acute – such an unfair movement? Where was the equality in demanding men and women be paid the same, yet giving women more leave for children? How was it the demand was perpetually made for men to get in touch with their feminine side, yet when a woman got in touch with her masculine side something was wrong? The glorification of the feminine was, by its very definition, not an egalitarian thing. Yet feminism wore the badge of equality and delivered none of it; and not even in the way it was supposed to.
Elizabeth stood and – wrapping a robe around her – padded barefoot through the icy castle. She stole into Edmund's room – something within her uncomfortable with the emasculated world she found herself in – but the boy was lying comatose on his bed, his lupine face gentle in repose, sleeping the sleep of the just. She closed the door and continued her walk.
Feminism did not so much glorify the female as try to make it into the male; women asked for an equality where no equality was possible because of fundamental differences between the sexes. Elizabeth herself remembered being offended when men held the door for her, and then raging when they did not. There was a hypocrisy there, a flaw in the battle-lines. Who was it, really, who had cheapened the role of housewife and mother? Who was it who had done these things? Her immediate response was to say it was the men, but she knew from her own experience that was a lie. There were plenty of men she worked with – older men, men from a generation past, men with wives and children – who valued their women. They did not joke about the little woman at home, they did not make vulgar jokes about their conquests around the coffee machine. They worked at their job and earned money and then went home and loved their wives and were fathers and husbands.
Elizabeth had read once it was a forty-thousand-a-year job to be a housewife; that is how much it would cost to hire child minders and cooks and cleaners and the rest for twelve months. The feminists – one of which she had been – decried this as an example of women being marginalized; they were slaves, they said, being forced into unpaid drudgery.
And so they went out and did other jobs for real money, and spent it and their time and health on doing what the previous generation had done for free. Children were raised by nannies and meals pinged in microwaves.
If the job was so important, why not do it? Elizabeth asked herself. At what point did money become the be-all and end-all of our lives? Yes, it allowed one to buy things – but why buy things one could make oneself? Men could not manage a household – she knew this, it was an article of faith of the feminist movement and something she genuinely, even now, believed. Men could not raise children half as well as women, they could not keep their intelligence diverted on a dozen things at once. Women – with their greater communication skills and multitasking minds – could. Men, on the other hand . . .
Even now, she could not admit it to herself. No, men were not better at maths and spatial reasoning. The fact they could concentrate on a single subject to the exclusion of anything else was not an advantage, it was a reflection of their lack of multitasking. Men were better at logic, but intuition was better than that. Men were strong brutes, good for the days when meat needed to be brought back, but now?
She sighed, the question demanded an answer. Why had women abandoned the sphere where they ruled supreme and moved to the male one? Why had they said – for it was in women's magazines and literature this idea had risen, and the editors and writers of those periodicals were women, and so were their readers – the feminine was weak and wrong and bad? Why had they glorified the male and called it feminism?
Her own success was determined by how male she could be – she remembered trouser suits and brandy and cigars, bawdy jokes and delighting in being called "a girl with balls". And yet, there was a chronic fear of growing old in her, of no longer being the little girl, of no longer conforming to some impossible ideal.
And whose ideal was that? Who really set the standards for female beauty – or, rather, the fashionable standard? For she knew clear as day that men – virile and desiring and passionate – looked for one thing in women with eyes that used calipers set by God Himself millennia before; women were looked at as child-bearers. It was all about the Golden Ratio in hips and waist – so tell me why we are starving ourselves and pinning ourselves back and tucking ourselves in? Who made this waif, this emaciated little thing the ideal?
She wanted to say men, she might have even wanted to say the Church – but it was no use. She knew from where the ideals came; the fashion magazines, the catwalks, the models – a female world. Men (and even the Church, if the truth be told, as a cursory glance around the Vatican museum and the sculpture and paintings of even the most chaste Sanctae would reveal) had always desired and promoted the figure she (now, and perhaps only now) thanked God she had been blessed with; curvy and voluptuous, healthy and alive. As a girl rounding into puberty she had had the figure of the Rokeby Venus and now – after two decades of dancing and athletics, cheerleading and kickboxing, good food and better genes – she would put a Trafalgar Square mermaid to shame.
For years she had almost endured her wide hips and bountiful breasts, her well-fleshed shoulders and thighs, the muscular stomach rippling in the center of her improbable hourglass figure. She had felt burning jealously towards skinny girls, and it was only when she could turn that outwards she found a measure of peace. Flat-chested shrimps with hips like boys she called them, interior envy turning to exterior hatred and disdain, looking down on them (metaphorically and literally from her amazonian height) with bitter longing, exulting in the fact they always looked hungry and miserable, never looked full or satisfied – even as dissatisfaction of her own making gnawed emptily at her.
What, Elizabeth asked with the shock and horror of revelation, have we done to ourselves? And then, realizing she was not her whole sex, the personal element redoubled – what has been done to me?
It was regretful, perhaps, that such a question should be couched in such terms. Old habits die hard, and Elizabeth found it easier to rationalize the lie something was not her fault than accept responsibility. A scapegoat, a target for her ire, was always attractive.
And so it was that Elizabeth, fallen Catholic and risen Christian, found herself feeling attacked by a man she thought she knew and seeing his face through a glass darkly, angered by the words of epistles she had read before she understood and returned to like a general studying maps of enemy territory. A succession of sexless men, repressing her gender and tagging her as Eve and Lilith and whore, appeared before her eyes. She had given a name to her pain, and it was the Church.
That had repressed her gender, that had spread lies and calumny about her, that had lain ritual and guilt and ancient superstition over the Truth and hidden the Face of God. As she looked at it now, she didn't see the Church as her enemies did – spread through all eternity, terrible as an army with banners, a crusade that God Himself had promised could not but prevail – but still stood shoulder to shoulder with them. She saw simply a grubby little collection of men with base lusts and passions and flaws; not Saints, just ordinary humans. It was a nice idea, she thought, forgetting just Whose idea it had been, but it was flawed. Christianity could rule itself, could regulate itself. What was needed but this simple Truth that she had felt? She did not, she felt, need to be part of the Church to be part of Christ.
It was very late now, and it she was certainly too tired and enraged and self-righteous to compare her new-found understanding of the feminine with the Church she railed against. Had she done so, she might have made a very different picture of the fragments of her knowledge – a picture which was not as black and white as she might have desired.
She went to bed, and slept dreamlessly.