I don't own Narnia or the Pevensies.
THE END OF THE TRACKS
She is in the middle of what she knows will be her last breath of Narnia when it happens – the air turns to ash in her lungs, and something in her heart falters in the doorway and rips itself out so it can stay. She stumbles, choking on the smoke of the train; when Peter's hand touches her shoulder in concern, she does not know how to respond. Her breast constricts with some unspeakable grief. Though her bag is not heavy, her arms tremble as she lifts it up into the overhead rack, and Edmund gives her a questioning look which she does not return. Only Lucy seems not to notice. Susan can still see Narnia flickering in her eyes and supposes this is why.
The days go by, and Susan wonders when this feeling will pass. Every thought of home pierces her with a joy she cannot deny, a longing she cannot suppress and a loss that eats at her until she can't bear to face anyone anymore. She drifts in and out of her studies; her teachers wonder by never ask. From a distance, she watches Lucy with a deepening envy and wonders why it always seems so easy for her to carry on, to laugh with little girls as if she has never been a castaway queen, to believe as if everyone else does, to live as though they had never been torn away from everything they have had. Susan wants to see Peter and Edmund, to ask them if they are struggling like she is, but they are sequestered away at their own school and she will not see them until the holidays, and since she cannot adequately frame her feelings in words, she writes nothing of them in the letters they exchange.
"Susan, Susan!" her sister cries out to her after classes one day. She straightens out, tucking away her notebooks and forcing a smile onto her face (it isn't that she doesn't want to see Lucy, but lately smiling has become a conscious effort). Her sister's face is flushed with excitement and Susan surmises that she has been dying to talk to her all day.
"What is it, Lu?" she asks with as much curiosity as she can muster. The other students mill about the classroom.
"I had the most wonderful dream last night!" – Susan knows where this is headed and doesn't want to go there but it is too late and Lucy plunges in – "I dreamed we were back in Narnia, all four of us, and we were kings and queens again, and Aslan said that you and Peter could come back again after all and we rebuilt the Cair, and everything was just like before. Isn't it wonderful?"
A tense silence wells up between them, stretching to fill Susan's delay.
"It was just a dream," Susan says a little coldly, stung by the slap of her sister's reminder. She leans down to fasten the clasps of her book bag so she doesn't have to see Lucy's face. "It doesn't mean anything."
Lucy doesn't seem to know how to respond to this. When Susan finally looks back up, her younger sister's brow is furrowed.
"I…I just thought you might to know," she says at last, hiding her hurt badly.
"I'm sorry, Lucy," Susan replies, shouldering her back. "I don't."
"But don't you want to remember everything?"
"No. Not right now." She turns to leave, leaving Lucy looking lost at her back.
On her way out, a classmate falls into step beside her.
"What was that about?" she asks curiously, casting a glance back at Lucy, who remains at Susan's desk, unmoving. When Susan only mumbles something meaningless and shrugs, the other girl tilts her head to one side to look at her carefully. "Some game you used to play?"
Susan does not look back at her sister. She opens her mouth, then shuts it again, shaking her head.
"Something like that."
The weeks go by and the holidays come, and Susan sees her brothers again. Peter greets her with a warm embrace and whispers that he's been worried about her. Over his shoulder, Susan meets Edmund's dark eyes, and they say the same thing. Lucy, glowing with excitement, doesn't notice. She greets both her brothers with a leaping hug and a kiss to the cheek, and all four head inside to help their mother with supper.
At the table, she can feel her brothers' eyes on the side of her head, and catches them with her own once in a while. Lucy does most of the talking. Susan wonders if it's something she wrote in her own letters that's worrying the two of them, or if Lucy notices more than she gives her credit for; they have clearly guessed that something is the matter. She would ordinarily have spurned their concern, but Susan is not so proud yet as to reject the help she knows she needs. Though she is expecting the ambush after supper, she is still surprised when her brothers corner her in the hallway as if they are a single entity divided into a light and a dark half.
"Lucy wrote us," says Peter, answering her unspoken question. "She's worried, too, Su. She says you're moody and avoiding her."
She shifts uncomfortably. She had wanted to be the one to initiate this conversation, but as usual, Peter has led the charge. For a moment, she says nothing.
"Is it Narnia?" Edmund asks. His voice is soft, his eyes are gentle; she can do nothing to fight his utter tenderness, and so she nods. When Peter sighs, for a hopeful moment Susan sees her own pain flicker across his face, but it goes as quickly as it came and again she is left alone with this strange emptiness. He looks up at her.
"I know," Peter confesses. Edmund looks over at him, and a wave of envy sweeps over Susan when she sees that he understands. She imagines them at school, imagines Edmund staying the night in Peter's room to ease his brother's troubled mind, imagines what it might be to have someone who would not only care but share the burden. As much as Lucy wants to fix her, Susan does not need someone who understands faith but someone who understands loss, and there, Lucy cannot help her. Faltering, she tries to find a way to ask her brothers for help, because clinging to Narnia is making her lose her grip on both worlds, but the words are thick and stick in her mouth.
"It will get better," Peter promises. Susan wonders when. In a few more weeks? A few more months? Perhaps another twelve years will erase the haunting memories of the twelve lived under bluer skies. She cannot foresee an end to the despair that is welling up in her heart, seeping out of the hole the missing piece has left. It would be so much easier if her heart was merely broken; if this were the case, she could put it back together and smile again. But Susan is like a puzzle with a missing piece, forever incomplete.
When Peter sees that she cannot speak, he sighs and steps forward to wrap her up in his arms. She closes her eyes and imagines she is seeing him off to battle as she used to, but she knows that this time it is the other way around – this time, she is the one going to war, and he is the one trying to lend her strength.
"Just hold on, all right?" he whispers. She nods mutely, hoping he won't let go too soon, which he doesn't, though she is still disappointed when they part. She needs to cry, but not alone; she has spent too many nights lonely to face another like that. She finally gets the chance later that night when their mother comes in to tuck her daughters in. She cannot understand, of course, but Susan gets what she needs – a hand stroking her hair, a familiar voice cooing comfort, a chance to be a scared young girl again.
When she finally falls asleep, the tears drying on her cheeks, she dreams of green, green grass and deep belonging. Then she awakens to the grey, foreign ceiling of her English bedroom and weeps anew.
The months go by, and it does not get better, only different. What was once a wellspring of feelings – grief, resentment, loneliness, jealousy – dries a little, gumming up her mind and dulling everything. The pain in her heart changes from a short, sharp stab to a long, unchanging ache. She doesn't think of home so often anymore, even though Peter's letters are full of it. For a while, she had tried writing him of her feelings, but the words ran out before the loneliness could, so she gave up, and now writes instead of tests and weekends and parties, of Lucy's friends and the coming summer. He writes back of cricket and professors; the wasted envelopes pass through the post one after another.
Edmund writes little, just footnotes at the bottom of Peter's letters. Susan has a feeling he realizes how little any of them can actually put into ink.
Peter surprises her in the summer, the day after they get back from school. He walks into her room after breakfast and Susan notes with faint amusement that he has finally peeled Lucy off him (Lucy loves them all but she has always loved Peter best).
"Will you take a walk with me?" he asks. She is glad to be asked, and stands up from her desk. They tell their mother where they are headed and leave, the morning sun casting their shadows gently onto the fence. Susan notices that Peter's schoolboy shadow looks little different from the way it did in another lifetime, but she cannot see a queen in her own. After many quiet footfalls, Peter speaks.
"Do you remember," he begins cautiously, and with Peter, she is ready to speak about this, "When He told us to seek Him in this world? That He would be here, too?"
She nods. She remembers.
"Have…have you tried that?"
She shakes her head, for she has not yet found the courage to show her tearstained face to Him.
"It's made a difference for me," he says to her softly. Abruptly, he stops and takes up both her hands, his eyes boring into hers, and says with contained fervor, "I want you to try it, Su. I think it will help you. I think it will help you get past this."
She tries to turn her eyes away but can't, and finally she nods. Reluctantly, he releases her hands.
"I'll try," she promises, because she does want to get past this. She feels like a fool, trapped in this nonsensical sorrow, too weak to overcome it. He doesn't have to tell her where to look because neither of them is stupid; they both knew right away. It just took them a while to work up the resolve to actually try it. Peter has, though, and Susan can see it has delivered him from the worst of what they have borne together, and she is no masochist. So on Sunday, they go together, and though she insists on sitting near the back, she bows her head and reaches out into the darkness with her incomplete heart, and gropes blindly for the comfort of the Lion's mane.
Peter tells her after that it will take some getting used to – she is accustomed to a different perception of Him, and where she seeks a lion, they follow a man. But Susan isn't quite sure that's it, really. It is not the shape of the Lion she misses, but something else, something she can't quite place. But she listens to her brother and comes again the next week, and the week after, and the week after that, and so on. Sometimes, during the prayers, she will sneak glances at Peter. With his head bowed and his hands clasped, he looks reverent, peaceful, whole, but she feels none of those things. Assuming she is not trying hard enough, she returns each time to pray harder, to reach deeper, to open her heart further. But the end of their time together looms, and little has changed. She wonders if perhaps He doesn't want her damaged heart.
"Help me," she says to him one Sunday, catching his arm before they can go. She has never done this before and he is clearly surprised, but he stops and looks back at her expectantly.
"I can't do this, Peter. I can't believe in all this."
He frowns, reaching out to put his hand on her arm.
"You don't?" he asks in surprises. "Why do you come, then?"
It is a good question and at this point, even she isn't sure. She struggles to find an answer.
"Because I want to believe," she finally says. "I just…can't. Please, Peter. Help me."
"How can you not believe in this?" he asks in confusion, gesturing around them. Dim outdoor light filters through the eyes of stained-glass prophets, setting them alight with accusation; Susan cringes.
"It's not the same," she tries, and to her own surprise she finds herself choking up, flustered by the crease in her brother's brow as he tries and fails to understand. "These people…it's…it's just a routine for them. It's not at all like how we were, back…back home."
She can't explain this and it makes her feel stupid, childish; she wants to ask Peter why he doesn't have to justify his belief, but she has to explain her lack of it. Everything is wrong and she does not feel she belongs here, but she can't say that to him for fear that he won't understand or maybe that he will, and will prove once more how complete his mind and soul are next to hers, and even beyond this, Susan wonders if she cannot believe in a good and just God because she is still clinging to some proud anger, some lingering bitterness about her own powerlessness in the face of the Lion's will. To believe would be to give in, and her hurt feels too deep to let her surrender again.
"Well…of course it's different," he says. "But Su…you've met Him. How can you doubt, then?"
"It's not Him I doubt, it's just…all of this, it's wrong, it's not like it was," she protests again, too flustered to continue, and pushes past him, out towards the exit, away from the unfamiliar cross and the emptiness of her disbelief.
He follows; she can hear his footsteps behind her and she speeds up because the tears are coming and this time, she doesn't want him to see. But he has always been faster and he grabs her arm before she can escape, forcing her to stop. He has opened his mouth to speak but when he sees the look on her face he closes it. For a moment, they stare at each other, the found and the hopelessly lost, a foot and a world apart. Then she lifts her eyes.
"I've tried, Peter," she says at last.
"Well, maybe you just need to try harder."
She stares back.
If her bitterness stings him, he doesn't show it.
From then on, it's like they speak different languages. She reduces herself to simple terms, writing him only of feelings that can cross the narrow bridge left between them, and when he writes back of Narnia, she ignores it. She replies of New York and Philadelphia and asks how his studies are progressing with the Professor. After a while, he gives up, at least until the last letter, in which he scrawls in the post script, I know you don't care, but Ed says to tell you he and Lu got back.
She cares. The questions well up from the scabbed hole in her heart, but she puts the pen aside before they can reach it, because she does not want the answers from Peter, who has already written her off. She considers writing Lucy instead, because her sister would be the most detailed, the most excited to share everything, but Susan isn't sure she wants so much detail when it might utterly derail her. Then she thinks of Edmund's dark, troubled eyes, and picks up the pen again.
She gets only one reply from him before her trip ends; he writes little but she thinks she understands more from his eight sentences than she has from Peter's hundreds. When she goes with their parents to pick him and Lucy up from Uncle Harold's house, their eyes meet and for a beautiful moment she can see herself in them. Edmund has been this way since Narnia; he is a little bit of all of them. His brown eyes reflect the sky blue of Peter's strength, the ocean blue of Lucy's faith and the ice blue of Susan's utter loneliness. Then beyond that, there is always something more, something thoughtful and wary and intrinsically Edmund.
When they greet each other with an embrace, he whispers in her ear, "It's good to see you again, Su," and she knows he means it because no one else could have heard.
Peter will not get home until the next day, so after Lucy drifts off around nine, the two of them are left alone on the front porch, breathing the cool, thick evening air of their blitzed neighborhood. The house across the street is half-collapsed, its splintered roof sagging towards the basement on one side. On their own lawn, the boys have picked out the shrapnel and debris and piled them neatly by the remains of the fence so that Lucy can play on the swing, which somehow survived, and the bomb shelter shows its ugly roof to the darkening, grey sky. The one complete streetlight flickers; another casts a jagged light through the glass shards that cling to its frame, and the two of them sit on the steps in silence.
To Susan's surprise, she is the one who breaks it.
"How did it feel when you found out?" she asks.
He looks over at her, his chin on his drawn-up knees.
"That we can't come back?" he clarifies. She nods, and he looks back out at the street for a moment, thinking.
"It hurt," he says at last, a simple answer to a complicated question. "But…I knew it was going to."
"Did that make it any easier?"
"No," he confesses, stretching his legs out. "Not right in the moment. But…I knew it was supposed to be painful, so I was comfortable feeling that way."
She thinks on this for a moment. Despite having near a year to do so, she has not yet grown comfortable with hurting. She is afraid to give in to such intense feeling, afraid to lose control over the one thing she still rules over, afraid to enter her own heart when she isn't sure she can find her way out again,.
"How is Lucy?" she asks at last.
Edmund turns his eyes to the streetlamps and smiles.
"No different, really," he says. "She cried, but…well, she makes herself at home wherever."
Susan tries to be happy for her like he is, but jealousy slithers sourly in her gut and she can't manage it. Though she hates herself for it, in some way, she had been hoping Lucy would fall like she has so that her sister might show her the way out. But she knows (and has known since that last real conversation with Peter, really) that she has to find her own path. No one can find it for her.
"Su," Edmund begins hesitantly. "Peter says you won't talk to him about Narnia anymore. Is that true?"
She looks away and bites her lip, then shrugs.
"I guess so."
"Because…I…because we're not going back."
"And you want to forget?"
"No!" she protests, looking over at him in shock, but he is staring back without shame, as if he were being reasonable. "Why would I want to forget?"
"Because we're not going back," he says, using her own words. "And you can't remember any of it without remembering that."
She wants to deny it. Instead, she looks out at the bombed and broken world and wonders if there could ever really have been anything as blue as the eastern ocean, as wild as the western wood, as clear as the northern sky, as warm and gentle as the southern sun. Her memories have faded – she can no longer remember the colors of Narnian autumn, or the sounds of Narnian morning, only that they were more vivid and beautiful than anything she can find in this world. And she wonders at this point if that bleak thought is what is choking her out of this life, if by letting go of Narnia, she can perhaps be satisfied with this world of chaos and cracked pavement, of sin and smoke-stains.
"Sometimes it doesn't seem real," she murmurs, the lie tingling on her lips promisingly.
"You don't mean that."
Her brother's rebuke is gentle but immediate. He and stands up with his awkward, long-legged grace and says, "It's past my bedtime. Mum'll be after me soon."
"You're twenty-six," she can't help but point out with a quiet laugh. "You still have a bedtime?"
He helps her to her feet and she opens the screen door for him.
"See? You remember," he smiles as they reenter the house. "And while I'm pretending to be fourteen, yes, I do have a bedtime. Good night, Su."
"Good night, Ed," she replies, embracing him gratefully. She falls to sleep that night with such a lightness of heart, she nearly forgets the taste of that first lie.
The months go by, and Susan does not forget. She does not forget Narnia, nor does she forget that she once told Edmund she had. School resumes; she and Lucy ride the train together without exchanging a single real world, and when they reach St. Finbar's, they separate with unspoken relief. She is not as occupied with Narnia as she was when the pain was fresh; now she can go sometimes a day at a time without thinking of it or of the place in her heart where it is supposed to be, and after a while, she can almost begin to believe that this ignorant absence of grief is happiness, that light is actually just a lack of darkness. Then the dreams begin.
There is a mountain, but it is unlike any mountain Susan has ever seen – it rears up before her, higher than she can see, wider than the horizon. Whether this is the nature of the mountain or a limitation of her vision, she cannot tell. The sky above is grey and vast and empty and bright. Around her, people swarm towards it, some with joy and purpose and bounding strides, others with reluctance like lead in their feet. No two faces are alike, and everywhere, there is noise, voices murmuring or distantly shouting or weeping with grief or gladness or perhaps both. There are languages she understands and others she doesn't and all of it is very overwhelming, and she fears the great human tide will sweep her off her feet and smash her upon the rocky foot of the mountain, and she plants her feet desperately against it because she does not want to approach it this way. Then from somewhere behind her, Lucy's voice calls her name, and Susan turns.
This is as far as the dream goes on the first night.
Susan sits at her desk during Classics, tracing her finger over the wood where someone has scratched in a rough pair of initials. At the seat in front of her, Edith's pencil is sounding out a tap tap tap against her desk while the rain beats a hazier pattern against the windowpane. Sister Caspin's voice mixes fluidly into these other noises, lyrical with today's lecture on the story of Orpheus.
In the margin of her paper, Susan doodles a man's grief-torn face, perhaps Orpheus's. She lets her mind dip into the story and adds an etch of anguish to his lips, thinking of him, son of the muses, beautiful and loved the world over and utterly, utterly empty, consumed by the hollow in his breast where Eurydice once lay. The gods took pity on him, she recalls, rounding the curve of his cheek with the edge of her pencil. They heard his mourning song and wept with him, and sent him to retrieve his beloved from the underworld, bidding only that he not look back. But faithless Orpheus, doubting that his lover was truly with him, wasted his second chance and fell to chilly loneliness once more.
"Miss Pevensie," says Sister Caspin, and Susan's head jerks up quickly. The teacher thinks she is not paying attention; she isn't. She knows the story already, though where she learned it she can't recall.
"Yes, Sister," Susan replies, surreptitiously covering her drawing with her hand.
"You seem to feel you have no need of today's lecture," says the nun. Susan's face burns. At one time, she was a model student, but since she has faced challenges for which no classroom could prepare her, she has invested herself less.
"No, Sister," she murmurs, dropping her eyes down abashedly.
"Then I don't suppose you could tell us how Orpheus' story ends?"
She hesitates, recalling, then looks back up.
"In grief, he refused to sing for the Maenads' merriment," she says. "So they tore him to pieces."
Paused of her pupil's desk, Sister Caspin at last seems satisfied, giving a curt nod of approval before she moves back to the front of the classroom and resumes her lesson. Susan lifts her hand away from her sketch and sees that she has smudged the man's face – a grey smear travels down one chick like a dirty tear, and the eye from which it comes stares blankly, blindly at her, as if it is struggling to see something it never will, as if the man has wept away his sight.
She gives him a new eye, but it is the smudged one that stays in her memory.
On the second night, after the mountain and the crowd and Lucy calling her name, Susan again turns, and this time she sees her sister standing there in the throng. Lucy's face is radiant and her eyes sparkle as if she is standing in dazzling sunshine, though the sky Susan sees is unchanging grey. Presently, Lucy reaches her where she stands like a rock in midstream, people flowing around her on either side, and the littler of them throws her arms around her sister and wraps her in a tight embrace.
"I'm so happy to have found you here," she gushes as Susan stiffly returns the hug. "Do let's go on, Su."
Confused, Susan lets her sister take her by the hand and pull her towards the great mountain. It had looked a long ways off to her estimate, but surprisingly little time passes before they are standing there at its foot, staring up its steep, steep slope. Susan takes a deep breath to steel herself. By the time she has filled her lungs, Lucy has started up with such grace and ease and eagerness, it may have been downhill, or the last leg of an oft-made journey home.
"Lucy, wait," Susan calls, and wakes up.
Dear Edmund,Susan writes one day, alone at the desk she shares with her two roommates.
I presume you and Peter have also read Mum's letter regarding the telegram she received. Needless to say, Lucy and I are thrilled that Father will be home with us for Christmas, even if it is only for a week. I can't imagine how much this must mean to you as well. I know how much you've missed him – it's as if we haven't seen him for years and years. I should report that Lu is doing fine. Her teachers adore her and she seems to have made plenty of friends.
Here she pauses, wondering if she ought to update him on her own well-being. But really, she doesn't want to look too carefully lest she find that she is still not happy. She doesn't want to write that one more time, even to Edmund, who would do his best to understand. It is simpler now not to look. She picks up her pen and writes on.
I am enjoying my studies in the new chemistry program very much. Though occasionally the subject is quite difficult, the challenge is a welcome one. How are you getting on with Latin?
And the rest of the letter continues like this, until Susan has filled the sheet with her favorite formula, ten parts script to one part meaning. She seals the envelope, double-checking the neat address, then sets it aside to be submitted to the post collection at a later time. She sits idly a moment, savoring the quiet and solitude, thinking of what next to do. Though she is not disliked, she has no real friends and no schoolwork left, and her empty afternoon stretches unwelcomingly before her.
Then it happens that at that moment, Lydia opens the door; Lydia, the girl who is so much younger than Susan but who thinks herself much older because she wears lipstick and draws lines up the back of her leg to look like nylons and knows how to get attention from boys. She shuts the door behind her, all flushed cheeks and breathless color in the faded sunlight of their dorm room, and turns to Susan with a twinkle in her green eyes.
"Hear now," she says with a playful look, placing her hands on her hips as if she's scolding her roommate. "What are you doing sitting here in the dark? Haven't you got plans on a day like today?"
It's lovely outside, Susan must admit, though she hasn't much taken time to look at it until now. She shrugs.
"Nothing came up."
"Well, Madeleine and I are headed into town to catch a peek at the window displays," Lydia says thoughtfully. "If you wanted, you could certainly tag along."
Susan hesitates a moment; this isn't really her type of expedition, but it beats no expedition at all, and she is glad to have been invited.
"I suppose I could, if you don't mind," she says slowly, standing up. Lydia smiles – she is lovely when she smiles – and picks up her coat from where it is hanging on the bedpost.
"It's a date," she says, and opens the door for Susan.
On the third night, after the mountain and the crowd and Lucy leading her too quickly, Susan feels a strong hand clasp her own and draw her up beside its owner, and it is Peter, who looks back at her and says,
"I know it's hard."
Lucy is lost in the multitude which scrambles up the mountainside, already too far ahead to be seen. Susan bites her lip and looks up at her older brother, whose broad shoulders are set against the challenge of this uphill climb, and despite her nervousness, she feels her heart lift a little. His hand is warm and gentle and firm around hers, and his touch strengthens her feet to bear her forward, his steady breathing calming her own fluttering heart. Together they begin the journey, hand in hand. Yet with every step, the struggle grows; with every footfall, she feels a growing weight pressing down on her, forcing her down, further from her brother's side, and the people around them surge and press and jostle them until suddenly, she stumbles, crying out. Peter's saving hand is wrenched from hers by his upward momentum and her own fall; she hits the ground hard. Turning her face up frantically, she searches for his face in the crowd as she tries not to be crushed under the others; he has stopped and is looking back at her with fear in his eyes, but he does not move down the slope. It seems he can't.
"Susan," he calls back to her. Other bodies push past him in their rush up the mountain, not impatience but honest urgency. "Susan, get up." It is more a plea than a command.
Something, though, is keeping her down. Flustered, Susan runs her hand down her body, seeking injury, and is surprised to find a bulge in the breast pocket of her woolen coat. Her fingertips dip inside and meet smooth stone. She looks down and sees it then – her pockets are filled with rocks. Shifting to her hands and knees, she staggers upright with her unexpected burden, her limbs shaking under the weight. In her dream state, she does not question how the stones got there, whether they were always her burden, or if someone put them there, or even if perhaps she prepared the laden coat herself. They are now a fact of her climb.
"Help me," she begs Peter. He takes a step down the mountain but his expression is torn, as if his desire to come to her aid is battling his duty to continue, further up and further in. He opens his mouth. Susan reads the apology in his eyes and wakes up before it can reach his lips.
The fall term is nearing its end. Snow and news of the war drift through the air, chilling everyone to the bone, drawn coats and hunched shoulders against the wind. Since that first expedition with Lydia, Susan has taken to spending more time with her roommate and her friends. Without a doubt, they are silly, or at least sillier than Susan's usual company, and in different ways, but she enjoys being with them anyway. They remind her of herself, years ago, when she could blush at the flattering words of men, when she let her ladies-in-waiting fuss until every strand of her hair looked just so. She can stay silent at their perimeter, never truly one of them, but welcome nonetheless, and though they are silly, they are also kind and courteous and carefree. Slowly, the color of their thoughts and words begins to seep and spread to Susan's. They gossip and laugh behind their hands, and talk of their fathers and brothers away at war with grim expressions; they do their schoolwork carefully and try on ridiculous dresses at the shops just to laugh, and poke fun at Susan for her silence, which somehow doesn't bother her. Their foolish giggling makes her smile; their girlish fantasies fill her empty afternoons.
"Susan, darling," Lydia says to her one day, breezing into their room. She throws her coat over the chair and flops down on her bed, reaching down take off her shoes. "The Pickertons are throwing a Christmas party for the upper form students from St. Finbar's and Hendon House. It's the last Saturday before term ends, it looks to be a grand night, and Carol and Evelyn and I have decided that you ought to go."
"Have you?" asks Susan absently, returning her eyes to the thick novel she has open on her pillow. There have been parties like this before, and the other girls have gone, but she has usually abstained, preferring the company of her books and her thoughts to that of the boys from Hendon House.
"We have," Lydia confirms. "You're far too pretty to be cooped up in here like some fairytale princess. You're always so very serious, Su. We've all decided some dancing would do you good."
Susan laughs softly and turns a page.
"I appreciate the sentiment," she says distractedly. "But I'm not really one for parties. Maybe I'll tidy things up in here a bit while you all go."
"Oh please, Susan, won't you come?"
Susan looks up from her book. Lydia's lips are shaped in something of a pout, but the look in her eyes is one of concern, not petulance. She seems to be begging Susan to come not because it is a pet project or a fleeting desire but because she truly wants her there, and this surprises Susan enough that she finds herself retreating from her reluctance.
"I have nothing to wear," she tries.
"You can borrow one of my dresses."
"I don't think they'll fit me."
"One of Carol's, then," Lydia says, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation. "Come on, Su. It'll be fun."
"I'll think about it."
She buries her nose back in her book and the conversation is over. As she finishes her chapter, Susan has a feeling that Lydia has already won this battle, and to her own surprise, she is not bitter about it at all.
This is how she finds herself walking up the drive towards the Pickertons' the following Saturday, her friends on either arm to steady her as she copes with her borrowed shoes, too high in the heel, too tight in the toes. Her dress, also borrowed, is blue and modest, but for the moment hidden beneath her own long, black, woolen coat. Snow drifts down to nestle in her dark hair, sprinkles the padded shoulders of her coat with white, turns her cheeks pinker than the rouge Lydia put on them. A ways down the road, the Pickerton house is spilling light onto the snow-dusted lawn, warm gold glinting off cold silver, the tall estate home cast into pretty silhouette against the twilight sky, and it is the first time in a while Susan has found something genuinely beautiful. No window is broken, no wall is buckled, no door is ash-stained; the war, the world, cannot reach this place through the insulation of distance and old wealth. There is peace – false and temporary, but peace all the same. Susan lets out a breath she didn't know she was holding.
In the antechamber, the doorman takes their coats and shows them through, though they could have followed the soft sounds of music and laughter. Young men and women gather around tables or mingle on the plush couches by the fireplace, chatting politely with glasses of Christmas cider in hand as a record provides a soft undertow of strings. The Pickertons themselves, a couple about the age of Susan's own parents, are seated behind a table at the head of the room, exchanging pleasantries with the students who pass by them but mostly overseeing their party. From the looks of it, Susan and her friends are some of the last people to arrive.
"Oh, it's lovely," Lydia murmurs softly as she glides into the room, letting go of Susan's arm.
"Do you think there will be dancing later?" asks Evelyn.
"I expect so," replies Lydia, who turns back around with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. "If not, we can always start some."
They disperse. Lydia goes to get them cider. There isn't much food, but it is wartime and they are all used to rationing by now, used to wearing the same clothes and tending the school vegetable garden and fetching their gas masks at a moment's notice. Times are hard. Tonight, though, the girls and boys of St. Finbar's and Hendon House are forgetting the war, forgetting their schoolwork, forgetting their fathers off on the battlefields and up in the bloodied skies, forgetting the fearful phantom of their futures. The heady, uncertain fumbling of adolescent flirtation fills their horizons instead, like a game played by children in the dark; blessed distraction from overwhelming fear.
Susan, lost in a strange and seductive sense of security, is forgetting that she does not belong here.
They while the hours away. Susan stays by Evelyn's side at the start buts eventually drifts off into independence, making conversation with the other girls and with any young men who work up the courage to approach. She finds it easy to slip back into this role, like one she had in a life long gone, all soft, refined words and sidelong, subtle smiles. She catches a glance of herself in the polished glass case of a grandfather clock, sees the redness of her lips and the reflected spark of the chandelier-light in her eyes and she must confess like a shameful whisper in her soul that she likes what she sees. Towards the end of the evening, she excuses herself from her present company and makes her way to the table at the head of the room, to the place where the Pickertons still sit. She thanks them in flowery words she didn't know she had anymore, and walks away with a grace that has forgotten that her shoes pinch.
When they depart, the snow has stopped. From the porch of the hilltop mansion, they can see their school down the road one way, and distantly in the other direction, the lights of London. The fire-drenched skies above the city flicker soundlessly. From this distance, it is easy to pretend that the faint flashes of smoky light are just color in the skies – the girls are too far off to hear the bombs, and too content to acknowledge that the glow in the heavens above is but a reflection of the man-made hell below. They pause, watch it for a spell, then descend the steps back to the main road and reality.
Back in their room, Susan manages to undress and wipe off her makeup before she collapses onto her bed and draws the covers up around her. She's tired and her feet ache, but neither of these things matter because for the first night in more than a year, she falls to sleep without a single thought of Narnia.
On the train back home, Lucy asks how the party was. The question surprises Susan – she hadn't known that Lucy knew.
"Fine," she replies at last, turning her book over in her hands. It is just the two of them in the compartment for now, which makes the silences stretch too far. A moment passes.
"Did you dance?" her sister prompts.
"Yes," says Susan. She shifts in her seat.
"And how was it?" Lucy asks with a frown. "You're awfully quiet. Was it bad?"
"No," Susan says, frowning back. "It was quite nice, actually, if you must know."
"Was it?" says Lucy. "Nice like ours used to be?"
The crease in Susan's brow deepens.
"How do you mean?"
"The balls we would put on, in Narnia," Lucy says, beginning to look a little impatient. "The solstice ball, the harvest ball. You remember them, don't you? Was your party nice like they were?"
Susan opens her mouth, shuts it again. The answer is no, of course not; nothing on this earth could possibly approximate that vibrant melt of color on music, those wine-sweet hours that stretched deep into candlelit night at the Cair, but Lucy's question feels like a challenge, feels like a line being drawn: this is what I have – is yours as good? When Narnia became Lucy's, Susan doesn't know, but this is how things seem to have turned out.
"A bit, yes," she lies, turning her eyes down and carefully rearranging her skirt. When she finally looks back up, Lucy is staring directly at her. Those blue, blue eyes are filled with something between suspicion and pity, and it is the second of these that makes Susan draw herself up and clench her jaw defensively.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were so keen to know," she snaps, looking out the window.
"I'm sorry, too," Lucy says, her voice soft, her words heavy with meaning. Susan turns back to her, expression flat.
"Don't be," she says coldly.
"Next time, I won't ask."
The silence turns frosty. Susan grabs her book and opens it to the first place it will, burying herself in somewhere else, anywhere else, and the space between their seats opens up to swallow them both.
Beneath them, the train hurries on, towards the end of the tracks, and home.
Feet pound down around her, barely missing her limbs, her hands, her head. She cowers beneath them, bringing up her arms to shield herself, but it will not stop. On the mountainside, she struggles to her knees while the stones in her pockets drag her down into the dirt and the voices of the crowd curl into her skull and turn her thoughts to screams; rushing motion, roaring sound, blurring color, ceaseless sensation penetrate her mind, until she clenches her fists and squeezes her eyes shut and begs in a silent scream, release!, and suddenly, it all stops.
The people vanish. The noises fade to echoes and dissipate. Silence and stillness drop over the mountain like a shroud until there is only her own thudding heartbeat and the gradual slow of her harsh, panicked breath, disappearing into the calm.
Edmund steps across to her, and rather than offering his hand, sits down at her side.
"It's all right," he says gently. "Catch your breath."
She does. Moving off her knees, she collects herself bit by bit, swallows the gasps, slows her breathing, wipes the frightened tears from her eyes. Her brother waits in patient quiet, looking over the empty mountain from his place beside her.
"Better?" he asks at last.
She takes one more deep breath, then lets it out.
He nods in satisfaction and looks back over into the valley.
"It's hard to keep pace sometimes," he says quietly. "Especially when it seems so easy for everyone else."
Susan stares into space. She is remembering the way Lucy floated over the same ground that reached up to snag her own feet and sent her stumbling to her knees; she is recalling the way Peter carried on when her own legs buckled beneath her and pulled her hand from his.
"Is it easier for them?"
"Maybe," Edmund shrugs. "I don't think you can ever really know."
"Peter says I don't try hard enough."
Edmund pauses at this. He doesn't seem shocked; he's just thinking about his answer.
"Peter…cares about you very much," he says finally. "If he says you don't try hard enough, it's because he worries for you. He doesn't know how to help you, or maybe he realizes that in the end he can't, really, but he doesn't know how to say that. I can't know what he really thinks. All I'm sure of is that he wants the best for you, in the end. He's still your brother, Su. He still loves you. That much I know."
She bites her lip and glances down, one hand playing with the blades of tough grass on the ground beneath.
"Do you think I'm trying hard enough?"
Edmund looks over at her.
"You know I can never know your mind. But if you tell me you want to finish this climb, I'll do everything I can to help you."
She glances up once again, wondering if Edmund sees the mountain the way she sees it. Does he spy the same rock-studded terrain, the impossible steepness of the slope, the endless and uncertain stretch of this journey? Or is it different before his eyes?
A dangerous question lingers on her lips.
"And…if I don't want to go any further?"
His gaze is darker now, warning her not to play with this thought.
"What if I can't go any further?"
"I know you can."
"Do you?" she whispers. "For a fact?"
"Nothing is a fact out here," he answers. "Everything is what you make it."
Susan bites back the next question to look around her. Edmund's words would imply that this is her creation – the climb, the pressing crowd, the stones overflowing her pockets – but she cannot fathom why she would want any of this, why she would choose this bleak mountain for her dreamscape. She closes her eyes tightly, willing it all to change, her heart straining against this world she cannot defeat; she focuses all her strength on obliterating the mountain and the crushing obligation it represents, then she lets go the breath she has been clenching, and looks once more. The harsh light stings her eyes; the wind bites at her through the stone-laden coat. Nothing is changed.
"You're trying too hard, Su," Edmund says gently, reaching over to cover her hand with his own. He places the other over his heart. "It comes from here."
She closes her eyes again. This time, she eases into it, letting the world slip away, losing herself in herself for a moment. The wind lessens into nothingness; the hard ground beneath her softens, and in a moment she forgets it entirely, along with Edmund's hand on hers. A second later, she is unsure her brother is still there, and then the sound and feel of her own heartbeat fade until she is uncertain even that she still exists. As if emerging from deep water or a deeper slumber, she opens her eyes once more.
For an instant, it's all the same; the mountain still stands, barren and demanding as ever. But then, like water silently blossoming through thin paper, color begins to seep into the landscape. The valley below grows lush and green, and suddenly trees sprout before her eyes, slipping up through the ground and settling upright with proud, full foliage. A river wells up and gently carves its banks, blue and pure and beautiful, disappearing and reappearing through the trees, its banks soft with grass and so, so inviting. And then in the midst of it all, a great rumble begins in the earth below, and stone walls push up through the yielding soil, and a castle erupts from the ground, familiar as her own breath, yet not quite right.
"Susan," Edmund says quietly, reminding her that he is still there. "What's this?"
It is Cair Paravel, yet it is not. The stones are smooth and worn, and the turrets gleam in a sunlight that does not reach the mountaintop. But the windows are lined with glass - smooth, perfect glass that belongs to a different world, and the battlements are topped with balustrades wrought in calculatedly artistic loops and swirls of iron. Painted wood creeps out from between the stones like ivy, consuming the impenetrable façade of their old home, turning it into something that neither world can claim, something that belongs to the in-between. The castle succumbs silently. It is empty. It is forged. It is wrong.
Susan wants it.
She is up before she even realizes it, standing and taking a step down, towards what she has made.
"Su," Ed's voice sounds behind her, but she does not turn to look. "Su, you know it won't, can't be real."
"Why not?" she whispers.
"Because it's the easy way out."
"But it's still a way out."
"It's not the way we're meant to go."
"Maybe there's more than one way we're supposed to go, then," she bites back in frustration. Everything she does is wrong.
"The rest of us can't walk that path with you, Su," Edmund says quietly, and she doesn't need to turn around to see the expression on his face; she can read it from the tender fear in his voice. But she just swallows and shakes her head.
She takes another step, and hears Edmund shift behind her, hears him start to move after her, hears him falter.
"Edmund," she says, without turning to look at him. It is easier this way, not to look him in the eye, easier for both of them. "Don't. I'll…I'll be fine. Peter and Lucy will be waiting for you."
Before he can respond, she is off, her footsteps echoing unnaturally against the empty mountainside. Only when she knows she has gone too far for them to speak again does she turn back to see if he is watching. But her brother is gone, as if he had never been there at all, as if it has always been just her and the mountain and the cold, empty air. For a moment, her throat closes with the familiar fear of being alone, but she swallows it down, turning away. She focuses her gaze on the safety of the not-castle in the distance and advances. Her body sings in relief for the downhill path.
Even then, something in her knows that this is the beginning of the end.
"Has anyone seen my shoes?" Susan calls out, unsure even if anyone is home. She tucks a long strand of perfectly-brushed hair behind her ear as she roots through the contents of the front hall closet. There are Peter's work boots, and Lucy's Sunday shoes, and Edmund's slippers, but where the devil are…
Peter tosses them to her, the hard heels clattering on the tile when she fails to make the catch. She scoops them off the floor, muttering her thanks as she slips her feet into the pumps and straightens out. Turning to the parlor mirror, she quickly checks to see that her hair and her lipstick are still in place, and thinks to herself that it's so nice to be able to have glass on the walls again, now that the war and the Blitz are over. So much more convenient.
"Going out again?"
Peter hasn't moved from his place leaning in the doorframe of the entryway. She frowns, turning away from the mirror and picking up her clutch with hardly so much as a glance at him. This is such a routine now that she needn't look to know his expression.
"Yes," she replies. "And if I don't hurry, I'll be late, so if you'll excuse me…"
"Don't come home too late," says Peter quietly.
She throws him a look.
"I'm twenty years old, Peter. I can come and go when I like."
He opens his mouth as if to say something about that, then closes it, shaking his head and reverting to an old line instead.
"I'm just asking you to look out for yourself if you won't let me or Ed do it."
"Yes, well," Susan says impatiently, hand already on the doorknob. "I appreciate your concern, but I've actually done this once or twice, so I don't really think you ought to worry yourself."
And before he can get in another word, she is gone, throwing her coat around her shoulders as she steps out into the clear spring evening under a darkening blue sky. It is just a short walk to the station, and while once it would have been uncomfortable in the heels, they are her own now, not the borrowed ones of that school ball a few years back, and she has grown accustomed to that pain (among others).
The night is a blur. Evelyn and her beau pick her up in his car, an American model that draws just the right amount of attention when they arrive at the ball. Susan has no date herself but she has come to prefer parties like this, without the constraining weight of a man's arm in hers, just her own charm and appeal and her skill on the dance floor. Her polished femininity gives her a power and an independence she has been otherwise unable to find in this world – they are the only things that seem to win a woman worth here, short of becoming a man. So the suitors in her life come and go, wanting but never having, desiring but never attaining, just as she has lived her life between longing and devastating disappointment all these years. On some level, it is only fitting.
She comes home quite late, perhaps just to spite Peter, although that was not her conscious intent. In the darkness of the entryway, she slips off the shoes and peels off the nylons and winces, rubbing her sore toes as the grandfather clock chimes two o'clock. The house is utterly still. These hours are hers alone, and the careful quiet she keeps is more than just consideration for her family. It is a selfish ploy to ensure that she can have this time for herself, for her own thoughts and her own body, which she soon immerses in a scalding bath that melts the tension straight out of her.
Every so often as she lies there in the hot water, her mind will begin to drift to where she know she ought not go , but some practiced hand inside her always guides it away in time. What started as a hole in her heart has grown to become a hole in her very thoughts – a way of maintaining peace in the battlefield of her mind. Her only fear, and it is one buried much too deep for her ever to voice it, is that she is developing that same hole, that same emptiness, in her very soul. She does not dream much anymore.
She is awakened the next morning by a pounding on her locked bedroom door.
"Susan, wake up!"
It is Lucy's voice, intent and demanding. This hasn't happened since her sister was quite small, so though Susan is sleepy and none too thrilled to be roused after such a late night, she wraps her dressing gown around herself and stumbles to the door, undoing the bolt and opening it a crack.
"What is it?" she mumbles, eyes squinted against the light. It is already late morning, it seems; she has slept longer than she intended.
"I need to talk to you, and I need you to take me seriously," says Lucy.
"I always take you seriously, Lu," Susan frowns, a little insulted by the implication. "Except when you're being silly."
"Well I'm not being silly right now," Lucy responds. "Now will you let me in or not?"
Susan says nothing, just steps back and hides a sigh as she holds the door open for her sister. Everything is always so dramatic for the girl, like she feels she has to bring the urgency of childhood with her everywhere she goes. It is tiring.
Lucy takes a seat on the edge of Susan's bed, while Susan stands, arms folded across her chest, in front of the dressing-table, where last night's makeup still lies in disarray.
"Go on, then," Susan prompts, since Lucy seems to be waiting for her to sit down. Really, all she wants to do is go back to bed. There is a moment of silence. Then Lucy, seeming to get over her hesitation, cuts right to the point.
"Narnia is in trouble," she says flatly.
Something writhes inside Susan. It has no name – or at least, she's not willing to give it one. She stares coldly at her sister.
Lucy stares right back, an incredulous anger rising in her eyes. She could never hide what she was feeling, not like Susan. She has always been too good for that.
"And I know you care, so don't pretend you don't," she says, clearly struggling not to say something harsher. "Narnia's in trouble, and we're going to get back and help them. We're going today. And you're coming with us."
"That's a very sweet offer, Lucy, but I have other plans," Susan replies frostily, raising lie upon lie like a shield before herself. What exactly she is guarding against, she isn't sure, but all she knows is that she dare not take up hope again, not when it has taken her this long to learn to live without it, not when it offers so very little protection from the slings and arrows of real life.
Real life. Is that what it was all coming to?
"Susan!" Lucy snaps, standing up off the bed. Her fists are clenched at her sides; her jaw is tight. She reminds Lucy of Peter, regal in rage as he faced down…
Susan swats the memory – no, the daydream – away like a bothersome fly and turns to her sister, composed as ever.
"I told you how it is, Lucy," she says. "I always take you seriously…except when you're being silly. And right now, you're being quite silly."
"Susan," another voice comes from the door. It's Edmund. His dark eyes are soft and his voice is gentler than Lu's; there is no anger in him, only compassion and a sense of sorrow. "Su…you know Lu isn't playing around. None of us are."
He steps into the room, Peter close behind, and shuts it. Their parents need not hear this conversation.
"I don't recall inviting all of you in here," Susan says tightly. She wraps her dressing gown about herself more securely and folds her arms across her chest again, eyes darting between her three siblings.
"Don't change the subject," Peter warns. "We've put up with this game from you long enough. You know what we're talking about, and you know how important this is. Narnia needs us. It's time you stopped pretending and…"
"…I'm pretending?" Susan interrupts incredulously. "I'm playing a game? Are you even listening to yourselves?"
"I don't believe this," mutters Lucy, shaking her head in disbelief.
Susan's lip curls.
"Neither do I."
"Su, please," Edmund begs softly. "It's not just Narnia. We need you. And you need us."
"I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
"I know you are. But you also know that's not how I meant."
Susan grits her teeth and turns her face away from her younger brother so he won't see how his rightness has stung her. He always knows, somehow, and it's not fair.
"Are you all quite finished?" she asks finally, staring out the window as if she were not at all interested in this confrontation, as if she has better things to think about, when really her heart is beating fiercely, battling to make itself heard in her words, struggling to scream out, yes, take me with you, bring me home, make me whole again – don't leave me behind. Edmund is right. She can't bear to be alone. But even more so, she can't bear to let go, to dare to hope again, to believe again, to fall again, to break again. They are not fragile like her. They do not, cannot, understand.
When no one answers her question, she answers it for them.
"Good," she says, sweeping across the room to open the door again. "I thought so."
As they leave one by one, they look at her as if it is the last time they ever will. She ignores Peter; the pity in his eyes makes her want to scream. Lucy's gaze she meets for a moment, but her sister stares at her as if through the bars at a zoo, like she is some poor caged animal gone dumb in captivity, and she has to look away quickly lest she think too hard about that. It is Edmund whom she dares to truly see. Her younger brother smiles at her, but it is the saddest smile she has ever seen him give, the smile of a man who has already seen enough tragedy to last him a lifetime but whose heart is breaking now as if for the first time, and a part of her own heart breaks anew to see what she has done to him.
"Goodbye, Su," he whispers.
"You can tell me about it when you get back," she offers, faltering for a moment.
He nods mutely, then is gone.
Susan stands on the riverbank. The Thames is dirty, reflecting nothing of the grey light of the pale moon above; it is late, very late, and she should not be here. There are so many reasons and so many ways that this is true.
It has been nine months. Nine for the nine bodies she claimed in the station – her cousin and his little friend Jill; the Professor and his companion Polly; her father, her mother; her brothers and her sister. She has promised a month to each of them, for a week is too cheap and a year is too much. But nine months is over, and the start of this tenth belongs to her.
She believes again now, but it is not faith. It is merely surrender, a bitter acknowledgement of the cruel and crushing force that has made her life what it is. The cold air bites at her exposed skin, though there isn't much of it: she wears a long, black woolen coat over a plain dress and practical shoes, an ensemble from a dream she had once. She has reached that riverbank in the valley by the mountain, and the water is polluted. The grass is dead. Her castle is not there. The stars, it seems, have rained down from the heavens – or perhaps they are only hidden in the smog.
Closing her eyes, Susan lets out what she wants to be a deep breath, but it comes out a choked sob. She is trembling violently, half from the cold, half from fear of what she has come here to do. The darkness is heavy on her shoulders, but not so heavy as the stones that fill her pockets, that line her coat, that pull her towards the ground. Before she can think too hard about it, she steps forward, towards the edge of the riverbank, towards the choice she made before coming here, and wades into the water.
The cold steals her breath away instantly. The oily ooze of the water makes her recoil. But she tells herself that these discomforts cannot compare to what she has suffered these nine months in the aftermath of her own ruinous doubt. The world is emptier of meaning now than it ever has been; the things that do fill it disgust her. She wades further in, the water creeping to her waist. The stones begin to tug down upon her shoulders invitingly. It is almost time. Her heart shudders at the thought.
For a moment, she pauses, to give the world a chance to speak its mind. She half expects to feel Peter's strong arms wrenching her back onto the riverbank, to see Edmund's beseeching stare or Lucy's disbelieving tears, or to hear the roar of the Lion commanding her to cease this foolishness at once and come home.
But none of these things happen. In the distance, cascading sirens wail the city's own distress. And suddenly, it occurs to her.
She has been waiting for happiness to find her, for hope to prove its worth, for faith to fill her as light fills a darkened room.
She has been waiting for a savior to be her champion in the war she wages with her broken life.
She has been waiting for this world to become Narnia. And the time has come for her to stop waiting for the impossible.
As her head dips beneath the water at last, Susan fumbles urgently with the buttons of her coat, her fingers numb and clumsy with cold. When only one closure remains, she grits her teeth and simply rips the thing, stripping the stone-laden coat from her shoulders and letting it sink down and away, into the black. With the weight gone, she floats easily back to the surface, damp hair plastered to her pale face, and gasps in a deep breath of London's polluted air. It has never tasted better.
No one has come to save her. No one will ever come to save her now; Susan understands this at last. She has come to the end of the tracks, and out of the smoking remains, she alone has risen up to carry on. She alone has chosen this dirty, broken world of rubble and ruin and humanity, and the choice has been hers all along. Now, baptized newly in this tainted water, with this desperate act, she has at last found the place where she belongs.
It is too late for Narnia. For Susan, it has always been too late for Narnia. This is her world now.
"Further up and further in," she whispers into the darkness, and smiles at last, alone.