still not too old to die young (the problem of susan)
“You’re beautiful, you know.”
They are naked in a grotto they won from the selkie clan for summer use, floating lazily in the bath-warm water.
It’s been five hours or five hundred years – time matters far less here than it did in either world Susan previously called home.
Wendy scoffs and kisses her, lips wet and salty from the sea, teeth hard and sure, eyes blazing.
She never closes her eyes when she kisses Susan, as if to remind herself even in the act who she is giving herself to. Susan learned long ago (or earlier this morning) to close hers against the sight, to sink into the moment.
One of them needs to.
(Needs to what? she wonders.
The answer is: live.
But neither has done that fully outside of each other in an eon or two, if only this land would allow them to remember. And without this place, it’s doubtful they ever would again.)
“I know the perfect way for Miss Pevensie to work out her… Issues!”
Miss Darling’s voice was a fraction too bright and perky in the Headmistresses’ dim office, discordant and jarring. The Headmistress winced slightly – though at the sound or the interruption or Susan’s mud-torn uniform, no one can say.
One minute Susan had been dutifully walking through the hall on her way from one class to another (she supposed) (so much of her life now was merely the act of putting one foot in front of the other and make-believing that a cousin or a brother would pop out from around a corner ahead and take her away) and the next she had been yanked by the arm into the Headmistress’ office, much to her own annoyance.
(Later Susan will wonder why Wendy went through the trouble of this charade, this meeting. Even later, she won’t remember what a school looks like, let alone feels like and so it won’t matter. Maybe all it was just for the story of it. Maybe it was all for the game of it.)
“I highly doubt the Journalism Club—”
“Oh but they are such a sweet bunch of girls!” Miss Darling interrupted shrilly.
Susan sunk lower in her chair as the two women argued over the finer points of women in journalism, British class structure, and the many complications that arise when ensuring the spiritual well-being of a wealthy orphan. She’d heard these debates – and others of similar ilk – in every form and order, sitting uncomfortably in a chair across from one or another of the four Headmistresses of distinguished schools in the past six months since her family… died. At the last school, it was the athletics department head that came sniffing around Susan like a potential pet – accidentally letting her archery skills slip was one mistake too many at that school.
Orphans, it seems, were in constant danger of being adopted by well-meaning and bored teachers. Even sullen teenage orphans – or perhaps, especially the sullen ones. She didn’t have enough experience in the area to know for certain. The teachers she had met so far with this inclination seemed to be hoping for a prodigy, the opportunity to be the next Anne Sullivan, possibly.
“Are you listening, Susan?” the Headmistress was staring her down quizzically, as if to ask: What could a girl like her possibly be thinking about as women discussed her future over her head?
Susan wished she could tell her – tell her all about diplomatic missions and arranged marriages and peace treaties and dancing in gowns worth more than this pitiful building and wars and banquets and debates at court with her courtiers and enemies on all sides. She wished she could tell someone, could rise with the bearing not of a sullen, mournful child, but with the grace of a queen and speak in that low tone that drove men to distraction and arguing peasants to silence.
She didn’t deign to answer the question.
Why would she listen to a conversation that was of her, but didn’t concern her? It was the sort of action that only lead to heartache, in her experience.
Instead, she shrugged, a simple action that she felt dissolved her of responsibility, but in this moment seemed to solidify a decision.
“I wash my hands of it, Darling,” the Headmistress said in her no-nonsense tone, ending whatever discussion the two of them had been in the thick of.
From what little attention Susan paid to the school gossip, she had gathered that Miss Darling was not a favorite of the staff – far too young to be sticking her nose into so many well-established rules and regulations. She was some pet of the Board, sent here from the city with her diploma fresh under one arm and her twentieth birthday still on the horizon. Susan avoided her no more or less than she did any other figure on the staff. Or … anyone else for that matter.
She was no longer in the habit of making friends.
YOU CANNOT COME BACK, DEAR, he’d said, as solemn and proud as he said anything.
And she’d held back tears because she was a Queen and a Queen did not cry and pout when her god gave her a direct order.
LIVE YOUR LIFE, SUSAN and he filled her mind with visions of laughing girls and boys, cups of coffee on a late night and wine at breakfast, of walks in the park and debates in the library. If she were a prophet, it would have been a call to arms, as it was she was only a girl, and so it was a call to live normally.
Every action that evoked the feeling Aslan gave her in that moment that they said goodbye forever, felt as sacred as her horn or her bow. Felt as sacred as the church her grandparents dragged her to on summer holiday. Felt more sacred than any prayer she had ever whispered on her knees. Normalcy was her calling, was her mission, was her messiah.
‘You can’t come back,’ apparently meant something different for her than it did her siblings. She threw herself into her new life
her real life while they mourned.
And now they’re gone and all she has left is space and time to mourn.
“You want responsibility for the girl, you have it – all of it. I don’t want to see either of you in my office before the end of term.” The Headmistress began shuffling papers on her desk, clearly dismissing them.
Susan stood slowly, eyeing the doe-eyed Journalism teacher, and noticed for the first time the childish affect her long bronze curls had on her appearance, long and thick like Mary Pickford’s unnatural blonde locks, held back from her brow with one blue ribbon like a child still in the nursery. At the time, it felt whimsical. (Later, Susan realized sickeningly how carefully contrived they were.
It never occurred to her to suspect the young Miss Darling was hunting.)
The other teachers called her modern, but she looked to Susan’s eyes a little out of time in the opposite direction. A surge of commonality tugged at her heart, but she ignored it.
She was used to such surges around women, but it all seemed so ridiculous now – chasing after girls when all she wanted was her life back. Her crown, her thrown, her purpose.
YOU CANNOT COME BACK.
Susan sneered churlishly at the young woman and crossed her arms over her chest, as if the action would negate the sudden rapid pace of her heart.
“Susan you are now under Miss Darling’s constant supervision, though I doubt this will make any difference at all, should you cause a mishap in the next six weeks to end your time with us, Miss Darling’s time will also come to an end,” she looked up sternly for only a moment. “Your parents’ expectation was that you graduate – since the thought of losing your substantial fortune has not affected your desire to act out, perhaps the future of another resting on your shoulders will instill a small modicum of respect out of your soul. You may be willing to throw your own life away, but I hope you will think twice before acting in such a way to lose Miss Darling her position here.”
The dreaded Will - the only reason why the passel of lawyers wouldn’t release the pitiful funds she needed to book passage over to New York, where she’d hoped to start over. Perhaps the Yanks would take more kindly to her than her own countrymen… as if this lot had anything to do with who or what she was anymore.
…a British education…
YOU CANNOT COME BACK.
We know a proper British education will enable our children to enter their majority with all the tools they require to make a purposeful and fulfilling life, if we are not there to guide them through. Though it will break our hearts.
Headmistress Bartram watched Susan’s show of rebellion with a sore heart. The words of the young girl’s previous caretakers and that of her parents’ will rang through her head each time Susan was carted into her office over one charge or another. Mourning as a child could be difficult enough, as Bartram well knew, and while it was excusable to an extent to act out under such circumstances, there was something so calculating and cold about Susan’s poor humor – as though she weren’t in mourning at all, but rather full of a fury that no one could touch or understand.
Wasn’t it enough that she was beautiful and sad and wealthy, did she also have to be valedictorian and a ne’er-do-well on top of it all?
There was nowhere in the world for a girl like Susan, and she knew it.
Miss Darling… well… maybe now that she had a project to keep her busy the rest of the staff would stay well enough away from Bartram’s office with their complaints over her odd behavior and disregard for school regulations. Even if putting a nineteen year old prodigy in charge of a seventeen year old orphan was not something she would consider under normal circumstances well….
Well, these weren’t normal circumstances, were they?
When she first met Pan – somehow standing on a cloud as if it were a solid landmass and not a floating collection of invisible moisture, overlooking a sea dotted with tropical islands and volcanoes and pirate ships – Susan swallowed a lump in her throat and pretended that she didn’t care what he thought of her.
All the while her heart beat, please please please don’t send me away, please please please let me stay in a steady drum that threatened to swallow her whole.
His eyes were dark and brows furrowed when he looked at her, there was nothing sacred about him, nothing quite so tamed as the god she was accustomed to. He was the embodiment of all that was profane and innocent.
The pixie perched on his shoulder whispered something to him and he grinned wickedly, his freckles standing out suddenly on his dark face as his face split and Susan knew, in that moment, that he would never let her stay.
Wendy stepped in front of her, suddenly tall and straight and wild in a way that Lucy would have found intoxicating and Susan found suddenly, overwhelmingly tempting. “She’s MINE.” And that was the first inkling for Susan as to why she had truly been brought to this strange land.
Pan scowled and the pixie seemed to giggle at an untold joke.
WAR, THEN, he whispered and then hooted like a crow before flying head-first down to the largest island as cannons began firing from a ship below.
Wendy kissed Susan sloppily on the cheek and then they were at war with their host and it seemed to make him happy in a vicious, terrible way that caused Susan to fall in love with him just like everyone else did.
It wasn’t the first battle and it wasn’t the last. The war seemed a permanent fixture in their lives, their insubstantial and frozen lives.
There was no true responsibility here, because Pan was ultimately responsible and didn’t believe in responsibility. And so, war was war with blood that ran but didn’t stain and injuries that could be cured with a wink or a kiss from a pixie and no one – nothing – ever died.
It took Susan’s breath away every time. Stepping away from a bloody battle, only to have no losses and only victories – and no true victories. There was nothing for her to lose.
That was fine with her, she’d already lost everything.
Perhaps that meant that she’d already won the war, or perhaps that she had no stakes in it at all. It took her little time at all to recognize that it was the only game left for Pan and Wendy to play that didn’t have an ending they couldn’t see through together. Opposite sides of a war fought with children and chieftains and warrior-princesses and mermaids and pirates didn’t feel like a commonality, but for them it was – or it wasn’t and that was the point.
In the hallway, Miss Darling pulled Susan in a big bear of a hug, surprising her so much that it took a moment for her to remember to fight the instinct to melt.
“Are you ready for an adventure, Darling?”
(And in that moment, she claimed her – gave her her own name. There was no going back, no freedom in the way Susan might have remembered to want. Darling has never meant so little of its intention.)
For the next few days, Susan and Miss Darling settled into a strange rhythm afforded to outcasts and ‘special cases’ – playing hooky from class in the name of independent study and sleeping late in the name of … well, whatever justification Miss Darling gave, Susan never asked.
In a storybook, Miss Darling would have been a darling and pet to the students, a favorite at tea and in-between times. She was young and fresh and flustered the older generation of teachers and liked to have picnics in the rain in the name of science. But this wasn’t a storybook. The Journalism Club consisted of an old class hamster no one cared for anymore, Miss Darling, the librarian’s niece and two other ‘scholarship students’, and Susan. As far as anyone could tell, no publication from the Club would ever be funded or fought for.
It felt as if she had been dropped into an island of Lost Toys with a mad scientist at the helm.
And life, classes, tomfoolery went on as before. All the actions Susan had been punished for in the past became Miss Darling’s set curriculum and they spent many days curled up in the old garden with ragged paperback novels and the feral kittens that made their home there.
Until the night of her eighteenth birthday, three days before the end of term, when Miss Darling arrived at her door in her nightgown just shy of midnight with a bottle of champagne and a delicious smile playing at the corner of her mouth.
Finals had been taken and counted, all papers turned in, and there was a serious debate in the teacher’s lounge whether they really could stomach Miss Pevensie as the valedictorian that year, despite her attitude and strange relationship with the gardener. Technically, Susan could leave at any moment, and in fact she had already written a missive to the team of lawyers overseeing her inheritance with instructions to book her passage to America and secure a residence in New York, as she had been dreaming of for the past two years.
Technically, there was nothing left to do, no expectations left to fulfill, no promises to the dead left to see through.
And so when Miss Darling, with a mischievous sparkle in her eye, took her hand and jumped them both out the fourth-story window, Susan didn’t flinch.
”Please, Peter,” Wendy begged, tears streaming down her dirty face, an ache in her heart and tingling on her lips and warmth in her belly begging him to pull her closer, to let her win this game – just once.
It was always his wish to think of her heart as a game he could win. As if he hadn’t already won a thousand times over. As if he hadn’t refused to win a thousand times over.
YOU NEED TO LEAVE…. his voice cracked as he spoke, … YOU’VE BEEN HERE TOO LONG ALREADY his muscles seemed broader, there was a faint fuzz of light-blonde hair on his upper lip.
She was tearing him down, bit by bit. She was wrecking him and he was stomping on her heart.
Just once, her body whispered to him and in every moment that she remained, his responded. Second by second, minute by minute, reaching out to her even as he threw her away.
“I need…” she didn’t know how to explain to him what she needed. She needed his hands, his lips, his long legs, his broad back, the length of his neck, the sweat in his hair.
Somewhere, a cloud cracked in response to his anger. The whole world would change if he changed.
She couldn’t imagine a negative outcome to that, but all he saw was red.
Wendy’s small, chapped hand reached for him and he shrank away, a picture of disgust and fear on his face.
DON’T COME BACK….. he paused and sighed. He couldn’t live without her any more than she could live without him. BRING WHATEVER YOU NEED, BUT DON’T COME BACK WITHOUT A SOLUTION. He looked so tired and suddenly, so very very old.
Tink fluttered around her ear, whispering secrets that she refused to hear.
I CAN’T DO THIS AGAIN… PLEASE DON’T MAKE ME?
Had she ever been capable of denying him anything?
In the thick of battle, with whoops and hollers all around, from the trees and the sky and the sea, Pan’s little knife grazed her cheek, landing in the tree at her back in the same moment that her arrow sent his feathered cap flying out of his reach.
SHE LOVES ME BEST, he hisses in her ear as he retrieves his knife.
Susan stands her ground. She knows how to battle with her life and her heart and unlike the children around them, has no reason to ever stand down.
“Perhaps,” she whispers boldly back. “But I love her, so I’ve already won.”
Tink settles on her shoulder and kisses the bottom tip of her ear, causing a wildfire to fly through her legs. Pixie kisses are as intoxicating as poison, as dangerous as this young god, floating in the air before her as she mocks him.
DO YOU? he smirks and turns away to whisk Tiger Lilly to the valley where the real battle rages. Today, they are allies – tomorrow they won’t be.
That’s how it works here.
Her heart drops to her knees and it has nothing to do with the incantations Tink is whispering in her ear.
When Wendy takes her hand and they fly back to their hollowed treehouse and settle down together on a feather mattress, Susan’s hands seek and her lips find and it almost, nearly, feels like enough.
“You’re beautiful, you know,” Susan tells her, as they float together in their secret grotto won from the selkie queen.
It’s been an hour or a thousand years – time doesn’t mean the same thing here as anywhere else Susan has been.
Wendy stands up to look down at her, eyes curious as a cat’s. Tink lies in the valley of Susan’s breasts, fast asleep as the warm water laps at her lazily and Susan is frozen in time, breath caught, heart hammering.
You don’t have to say that, her voice is interrogative and suspicious.
Her voice is as much a part of the landscape and the sound of birds in the distance as Pan’s is an echo of the clouds in the sky and the sun on the horizon. Daily she becomes more and more an essential aspect of this world, rather than a visitor.
It’s Susan’s first inkling of awareness of change, and it frightens her.
“I want to say it,” Susan gasps, attempting not to disrupt the pixie sleeping on her chest or the motion of the water or this feeling of time slipping by and change all around her.
Wendy stares at her for a long while, naked and glistening in the setting sun, her bronze hair long and sleek down her back. Susan wonders as she stares, whether she has also changed in some unmistakable way.
Stars appear in the sky and Wendy disappears from overhead to float beside her until the water cools with the dusk and Susan once again feels hollow.