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How the Skeleton Aches

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Two days after Polly returned from Germany, she appeared at Digory's doorstep with no prior warning.

This was not wholly unusual behavior, since he had long since set aside a room for her exclusive and personal use, and all his staff knew she might as well be family, but when Digory detached himself from his books and ventured down to greet her, he found her ensconced in his study and already halfway through a second glass of his good brandy.

Digory locked the door.

He had never had much use for magic, not like his unfortunate Uncle Andrew, but he had picked up odds and ends over the years, and his study was no longer quite in the same world as the rest of his house. Once the door was locked, all of England might burn and they would still be safe -- not to mention nobody could overhear them.

He dragged an armchair over to the front of his desk and sank into its upholstery. "I didn't expect you for another week. Was Berlin that unbearable?" he asked.

Polly stared blankly at her brandy. "There was no point in staying. The Times won't run my stories. Any of them. Not unless I turn them inside-out and remove every hint of violence. They wouldn't even reimburse my travel expenses."

Digory poured himself a matching snifter and made a wordless inquiring noise.

"Röhm is dead. Hitler and the others, they had him killed. Berlin was a bloodbath, with hardly any effort to keep the mess behind closed doors. But all Dawson wants to print is that Germany is lovely in the summer and we're still owed our reparations," Polly said.

"Ah," said Digory. "Have you considered--"

"I've tried all the other broadsheets, and they're not interested either. 'Not politically wise at this moment,' they said," Polly said. She set down her empty glass and let herself fall across the length of his sofa, staring blankly up at the plaster ceiling. "I don't understand, Digs. Even people who've been there keep telling me, 'Oh, it's so wonderful to see the Germans get their spirit back!' or 'Isn't that Hitler such an amazing fellow, just what we need in England to shake up our own lot.' I came back to England and it was like waking from one nightmare only to realize you're still trapped in another."

Digory turned his glass between his palms, staring down at the golden-brown liquid glinting in the lamplight. "It will get worse, then?"

"Yes," said Polly.

Digory closed his eyes and breathed in the complex scent of skin-warmed brandy, trying to blot out the remembered stink of mud and wounds, gunpowder and illness. It never quite worked, but just as those memories lingered at the edges of his mind, so did the memory of Aslan's mane and the unearthly sweetness of the garden in the uttermost west. There was space for an ordinary life in the middle, if he could only keep his balance.

"Sometimes," he said, "I wish I could shut myself up in here forever and let the world hang itself without requiring me to witness."

"I know the feeling," said Polly. "But you won't."

"No, I won't," Digory agreed. "Not that I can do much, regardless. All these grand political nightmares make me feel very small and powerless." Polly made a distressed noise. Digory considered his words in light of her current publication predicament, and shifted to a slightly different train of thought.

"Do you remember how I used to eat myself up inside, wondering what Jadis might be doing in Narnia? As if through her I was the sole author of evil in that world?"

"And I would tell you that we did all that together," Polly said.

Digory opened his eyes and met Polly's clear gaze across the room. "I was still the one who rang the bell. But the older I get, the more I realize how trivial it all was. Evil isn't something separate, something outside ourselves that can be fought cleanly and cast out forever. Evil springs from within our own hearts, when we stop seeing God reflected in each other and see only objects. Jadis was a symptom, not a cause."

"Mmm. No. She was both," said Polly. "And she did need to be fought, as will Hitler and his circle. People can't close their eyes to his true nature forever -- though it seems he'll be given more time and rope than I anticipated."

Digory rolled a sip of brandy around his mouth, then set his glass on his desk. "Right. It seems to me that if the broadsheets won't print your work, you can always try the tabloids. They love a bit of blood and death. Or if you'd prefer to stay respectable, I expect I could persuade Milford at the university press to issue a collected edition of your more notable articles plus a few new and exclusive pieces. He owes me a favor or three."

Polly pondered this in silence for a moment. Then she sat up, reclaimed her glass, and said, "Let's do both. The more voices speaking truth, the better. And I think I shall write to Sigrid Schultz and her other American friends to see if their terms of employment will permit double-selling stories. They don't seem to have trouble getting printed back home -- I think American publishers worry less, having an entire ocean to insulate them from any madness on the Continent -- but no writer ever wished for fewer readers."

"I would dispute that," Digory said.

"You would, wouldn't you?" Polly said fondly. "That's what comes of trying to explain ideas that dissolve into madness if you breathe upon them too hard. Whereas I am simply paid to be clear and factual, and to write a snappy opening sentence. Now let's finish this admittedly excellent brandy and start making plans."

Digory raised his glass in a toast, then drank the remaining swallow. "To plans and truth. But first, I suggest some dinner. I'm certain Mrs. Macready will have outdone herself with the incentive of a guest."

"I hardly think I count as a guest these days, but she does seem to be under the strange impression that I'm a good influence on you. I shan't argue when it wins me such excellent meals," Polly said. She raised her own glass. "To truth and plans. And to vigilance against evil, both within and without, in every possible universe."

"Just so," said Digory. He unlocked the study door, and they ventured back into the world together.