Can we talk about Susan Pevensie for another moment?
Let’s talk about how, when the war ends, when the Pevensie children go back to London, Susan sees a young woman standing at the train platform, weeping, waving.
First, Susan thinks civilian; and second, she thinks not much older than me.
Third, Susan thinks Mother.
They surge off the train, into their parents’ arms, laughing, embracing. Around them, the train platform is full of reunions (in her life, trains will give so much to Susan, and take so much away).
Over her mother’s shoulders, Susan sees Peter step solemnly back from his father so that Edmund can swoop in to get his hair paternally ruffled. She meets Peter’s eyes across the space, the way they saw each other over battlefields and tents full of the wounded, in negotiations and formal envoys.
She has always seen Peter when others only saw the king, only duty embodied in a young man’s slight, noble features. Susan can see him now, the way he looks at their father. Once, parents had meant protection, authority, solidity. But Peter’s shoulders are slender, are steady, will be weighed down every moment of the rest of his life. She can see it in him, the unreasonable hopes he had that as mighty a figure as a father might take some of that weight from him.
Their father has one hand on Lucy’s round cheek and he is weeping, for all he is pretending not to. He’s a good man, a portly one, thinner than when they left, but Susan can see the loss in the slope of Peter’s shoulders. This good man cannot lighten the king’s load; he only adds one more responsibility to the towering pile. Susan crosses the space to take Peter’s hand. He inhales and straightens his spine.
"You’ve all grown so much," their mother says.
Edmund is too young to register, but older now than he was at his first war; Lucy, who had been so young when they had left, grew into herself in a world filled with magic. All of them, they have responsibility pressed into their shoulders, old ropes they can’t even grasp for. No one is asking them to take that mantle on their shoulders, and that’s the hardest part. You get used to the weight. You build your world around it, build your identity into the crooks and crannies of the load you carry.
Can we talk about how much the gossipy young girls who cluster in the schoolyard must feel like children to her? And Susan has forgotten about being a child. She is the blessed, the chosen, the promised. Susan has decades on them, wars, loss and betrayal, victory and growing fields, the trust of her subjects. It was a visceral thing, to have all those lives under her protection and to know that her subjects slept safe, peacefully, on dark nights. Here, on this drab concrete, her people are untouchable, indefensible; her self is vanished, her kingdom gone; she can feel the loss like a wound. She has lost her power, but that trust, that responsibility remains. It circles her ankles, trips her in the school hallways.
She barely speaks to her schoolmates. The first few years back, guilt lives in her shaking hands.
For a long time Susan doesn’t want to be tied down to anything (she doesn’t want anything tied down to her, because she has, it seems, a pattern of disappearing). Peter pours himself into schoolwork and extracurriculars. He wakes and works, excels in his steady way, like he owes someone something.
Lucy befriends wayward girls like they were shy dryads, sly naiads. Lucy walks the playground with all the bright, sprightly grace of a girl who could find worlds in the backs of wardrobes, and she finds smiles in schoolgirls, finds enough of herself to give away.
Lucy gives faith, Susan gives effort, time, work—there are many differences between them, these two sister queens, but this was one. But for a long time, after they return, Susan doesn’t give anything. She is a queen who has abandoned her kingdom and she feels that in the very bend of her spine. She will build no more kingdoms, she swears. Her shoulders ache under the weight of a responsibility she will never lose and now can never answer to.
It is Edmund, of all of them, who understands. He is the other who gets angry, for all he holds it in these days. He is Edmund the Just, after all, and weighs each word before he says it. She is Susan the Gentle, because she will give, will build; because where Peter is elevated by duty, she carries responsibility in soft hands, on worn shoulders, pours all she has into it.
It is Lucy who makes things more than they are. Girls are dryads and bullies are the cruel kind of wolf. Trees dance and every roar of a city bus is a hallo from a lion who is not tame. That is Lucy’s battle and she is as glorious as her sunrises. It would kill Susan to live her life strung between two worlds. They go on walks together, Lucy and her effortless blaze, Susan’s quiet sturdy stride. Lucy sings, but Susan watches; the trees do not dance. The trees are only trees.
A boy pulls at a girl’s pigtails across the schoolyard, yanks at the bow on the back of her dress. Susan sees a bully and she marches forward as a friend, a foe, a young woman furious and proud, a kingdomless queen. Susan draws herself up, the scant inches of height she will some day supplement with heels her siblings will scoff at. Dripping majesty, she moves across the ground (crowds part in her wake), and steps between the girl and the bully.
Let’s talk about how Susan was reading a book the day they went through the wardrobe; how she found it sitting, neatly bookmarked, beside her bed the day they came back. Her arms still felt clumsy then, her legs too short but also too gangly. She kept thinking about white stags, about if her mare got home safe, after, about the meetings she had lined up for the next week with the beavers, the heraldic university, the stonecutters’ union. She had paperwork on her desk she had meant to get to, petitions and letters from faun children who wanted to come on a field trip to Cair Paravel.
Susan had this waiting for her here, left out on her little bedside table: a penny and dime novel about a schoolgirl romance, half-read. Susan sat down on the twin mattress and took it in her hands. She remembered buying this, faintly (it had been years now; weeks before they boarded the train for the country, years from this weary shaking moment). She had wanted a detective mystery, but this had seemed more appropriate and she hadn’t wanted to look odd at the cash register.
At school, Susan sees a girl in mathematics who looks like a dryad, willowy limbs and distracted eyes. Where is your tree? Susan wants to ask. Is it safe? Is it blooming? She would fight to keep her safe, talk to her guards, go out on diplomatic missions, negotiate with the local woodcutters.
There’s a girl in the back row, shy, steady, who takes the best and swiftest notes in her very own shorthand. Susan finds herself wanting to recruit her for the Narnian scribe service. She shakes herself, but she approaches the girl after class anyway. Susan reads through wanted ads and helps the girl send out applications for internships.
Or another young woman; this one blazes bright, drawing people in her wake as she chases after efforts for raising money for a new library wing or cleaning up some local empty lot for the children. This girl laughs, shakes her mane of hair, and Susan wants to take her under her wing and teach her how to roar.
"Edmund is so solemn," says her mother, worried, to Susan. "Is he alright? And Lucy seems even less…" Her mother hesitates, chewing a lip.
"Present," Susan offers, because Lucy still has a foot in Narnia the way none of the rest of them do. Peter still holds the weight of his crown, certainly, and Edmund the load of his mistakes. Susan has the faded ink-stains of a hundred missives, orders, treaties, and promises she never got to send. (She wakes now, some nights, full of nerves for a formal audience the next morning, and remembers it is just a literature presentation. She feels relieved and useless).
But Lucy, Lucy walks in light. She dreams of dryads and when she closes her eyes she can hear them dancing in the wind on the upper boughs of the trees in the garden.
It is a stubborn faith, a steady one, harsh even. Lucy clings to things with two small hands that remember having calluses from reins, remember holding hands with dryads and dancing in the moonlight, remember running though a lion’s wild mane. Lucy grins (it is a defiance, not a grace, not a gift); she bares her teeth and goes dancing at midnight under trees that creak in a storm’s gale (she gets a cold and misses a week of school, for that). Lucy will believe until the end of the world, burning with that effortless faith.
This is not effortless. “Such a happy child,” their mother says of Lucy, sighing relief, glancing uneasily at Edmund. Susan is not a happy child, but she is not meant to be. She is their stability, their quiet, the little, gentle mother, the nursemaid wise beyond her years. No one looks. They rely, and it makes Susan want to scream.
“Luce?” said Edmund. “Happy? I suppose. She’s more a fighter than any of us.”
Lucy gets up early in the mornings and goes outside to watch the sunrise while she eats her toast. Susan is jealous of her ease, for years; an early riser, a morning person, effortlessly romantic. There are days, when Susan is angry at schoolteachers, or missing her seneschal’s dry wit, days when Susan cannot find even the most glorious sunset to be anything more than just glaring light in her tired eyes. But Lucy, no, every day Lucy watches the sun rise and lets that fill her. Easy thinks Susan, jealous, and she is wrong.
It is not for years that she realizes how much effort is tucked into Lucy’s bright smiles. The joy is not a lie, the faith is not contrived, but it is built. Lucy pulls herself out of bed each morning. She watches the fires of the day climb and conquer the sky, and dares her world to be anything less than magical.
Susan tired of bullies before she and her siblings had even finished with the White Witch’s defeat. She will stand it no more in this world than she had in Narnia. For the cruelest bullies: she digs up their weakness, their secrets, and holds them hostage. The misled, the hurting, she approaches sidelong, with all the grace of a wise ruler, a diplomat’s best subtle words against a foreign agitator with borders along an important trade route. The followers she sweeps past, gathers up, binds to her own loyalties. They may be allowed to become her fine guard if they deign to learn kindness, or at least respect.
Susan joins the newspaper because extracurriculars look good, and if she is going to live in this world she is going to do it well. She finds she likes it. She rubs ink into her palms and feels almost at home. She hunts down quaint little school stories overzealously, like the detectives in the novels stacked by her bed, like a queen hunting down secrets at her court.
(Lucy contributes poetry to the arts section of the paper. Susan only reads them on weeks she is feeling brave, because, like all of Lucy, her poetry picks you up and takes you away).
When Susan wakes up, these nights, dreaming of ink on her fingers, she doesn’t expect to find her desk at Cair Paravel. Or, when she does, she squeezes her eyes open and looks around at the newspaper room on submission night. The copy editor fumes quietly, a writer hyperventilates in a corner, another clatters away. An editor coaxes into the telephone, talking with their printer, negotiating for time. It is not quite a council of war, but it is hers. It is not quite a kingdom, but Susan’s still a child, after all. She has time to grow into this skin.
When Caspian’s horn calls them home, the Pevensies stand in the ruin of their palace. Thick, old trees, not saplings, not young wildflowers, grow over the graves of the petitioners Susan had never gotten to meet with, of the children who had written her letters in careful, blocky handwriting. When I grow up I want to be as beautiful as you.
Susan, standing in ankle deep grass on the cracked flagstones of the home she had spent most of her life in, has the gangly, growing limbs of an adolescent. A horn’s call (her horn) is ringing in her bones, centuries too late. That call has always been ringing in her, really, shaking her hands, reverberating her lungs, since the day a queen tumbled back through a wardrobe and into a life she hadn’t missed.
Susan stands under a mound, in the ruins of a castle, on a battlefield. Her Narnia has grown out of itself, grown into itself; her subjects are gone, but there is an army at her feet who trusts her. She left, but they did not lose faith. Susan does not feel absolved. She feels guiltier than ever, to know they kept faith she didn’t deserve. She wonders if this is how Aslan feels about Lucy.
The very shape of the land has changed. Mounds stand over old broken tables and rivers have become deep chasms. Her body is the body of a growing child, and her heart is that of a widow twice over.
When Susan leaves Narnia for the last time, she steps back into a world where she has ten articles to review by Monday, an essay due the next week, and a mathematics test on Friday. She has dishes to do and Lucy to keep an eye on. She wants to weep for days, but instead she goes home, plucks a detective novel off her bedside table, and tries to remember where she left off.
Susan doesn’t cry, but she hardly sleeps. That call is still humming in her bones (it always will, even when she learns to call it by other names). Susan snaps at her lioness, her dryad, her scribe; her bully boys flee at her short temper. One of her friends finally takes her aside. “What’s going on, Su? You can tell me.”
She forgot people could give you kindnesses back. “I lost something important,” Susan says, and the tears finally start to fall.
She weeps into her friend’s shoulder while she murmurs comforting things. “I’m right here.”
You are, Susan thinks. And so am I.
There is wind in the treetops. They are only trees.
Susan was the chosen, the blessed, the promised. She does not want to be promised. She wants to promise, instead, to take the hands of brave friends and try to build something new.
The only thing that will compare to this grief will happen years later, a train crash, a phone call to her flat to tell the awful news to the next of kin. Now, losing Narnia, these four are the only ones here who will remember that world. There is a loss in that. There is a fragility in that which terrifies.
After the crash, Susan will be the only one left to remember them.
Maybe it was a shunning and maybe it was a mercy, to leave Susan to grow old. She had had too many kingdoms ripped from her aching fingers to be willing to lose this one, so instead everything else she had was taken away.
Maybe it was an apology. Maybe a lion could better understand mourning the loss of a kingdom than the loss of siblings. Maybe he thought he was being kind.
As Susan grows, her schoolmates stay in touch, young girls who grew in her shadows or strode in blazing light before her (both are strengths), the ones who walked with her and learned majesty from her older bones. She gets letters from her bullies, too, the ones she subverted through threats or kindnesses. Some are fathers, railway operators, preachers, bookshop cashiers. Her girls are mothers, some, or running libraries, charities, businesses from behind the throne; one is a butcher’s apprentice of all things, another battling her way towards a Ph.D.
One married a farmer’s boy with a warm smile and moved out into the country. Susan goes out to visit and they go walking through her fields and little copses of trees. The trees are only trees, and some of Susan’s heart will always break for that, but she watches her friend’s glowing face as she marks out the edges of her land, speaks with her hands. The trees are only trees, but they are hers.
Susan goes home by train, the country whisking by outside. She pours over notes, sketching article outlines in her notebook, deadlines humming in the back of her mind. Her pen flicks over the paper, her fingers stained with ink. This is hers.
Years later, Susan digs up old copies of her school papers. She goes through them, one by one, and reads each of Lucy’s poems.
Cross-legged on the floor, she cries, ugly sobs torn out of her, offered out to ghosts of sisters and brothers, parents, Narnian children grown old and buried under ancient trees, without her. Lucy’s poems take her away (they always do) and leave her weeping on her living room floor in her stockings.
Susan stacks the papers neatly, makes herself a mug of tea and goes outside. The trees are only trees. This is a curse. This is a blessing. She breathes deep.
Peter was the only one who understood as well as she did what it was to be the rock of other people’s worlds. She remembers Edmund every time rage swells in her stomach, every time she swallows that rage down and listens anyway.
On early mornings Susan rolls out of bed, all groans and grumbles, and scribbles down a thought or two about her latest article if anything percolated during the night. She does her make-up on her apartment’s little balcony. Susan watches the rising sun light the sky and dares her life to be anything other than hers.