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The Problem of Susan

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The Problem of Susan is that, one day, my daughter will come up to me and ask what happens to her. She will ask why Susan is not there at the end of The Last Battle and if I only tell her what is in the book, I will have to tell her that Susan is no longer in Narnia because she started wearing nylons and lipstick. But I refuse to tell her that, so here’s what I will tell her instead.

When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy were Kings and Queens of Narnia, they ruled together, each of them with their own responsibilities. Peter was the Good King, always doing the right thing. He was in charge of the army and was the moral voice for the country. Edmund was the diplomat and the spy master. He was always very good at saying what people wanted to hear and he made a good diplomat because he was not quite as intimidating as Peter. People felt like they could trust him. Lucy was the cheerful and bubbly young queen. When she wasn’t visiting people all around the country to make friends and see how they were doing, she built the first real hospital in the country and helped train the nurses who worked there. But then there was Susan, who did all of the practical work to keep the kingdom running. She would double check all of the treasurer’s math. She started a better postage system so that communication could run smoothly across the country. When Edmund went on diplomatic missions, she would sometimes come along as well, for a variety of reasons. She would take the time to observe the workings of the country, the infrastructure, and then she would apply her learning of what worked and what didn’t to Narnia. She also provided Edmund with more clout, seeing as she was High Queen. And when it came time to deal with more hostile nations, she would almost always go as Edmund’s back-up because she learned early that men are more likely to listen to a beautiful woman than a logical man in some matters. It was manipulation, pure and simple, but it got the job done, so Edmund and Susan never listened to Peter’s complaints about it. She set up hours every week where she would listen to the complaints of the people and figure out what she could do to help them. Her siblings sometimes sat in on these sessions, but she usually ran these sessions alone except for a scribe or two at her side to take notes of what needed to be done. Peter was the face of the kingdom, but Susan was the power behind the throne.

When Susan and Peter were told that they were no longer be able to return to Narnia, it hit Susan hard. It hit Peter too, but nowhere near as hard as it hit Susan. Peter had not truly wanted to be King, after all. He liked doing the right thing, but he had felt under a lot of pressure with how much people looked to him as the High King. He felt horrible for not being able to help the people of Narnia anymore, but there was a part of him that was secretly relieved for no longer having to shoulder the burden for an entire country. Susan, on the other hand, was heartbroken. She had come to relish waking up and go about her day helping others. There was no power in England for a teenage girl in the years after WWII. She closed herself off from the others and threw herself into her school work, needing the distraction. She started taking a class in accounting because numbers are same in every world. When her parents offered her a chance to travel to America with them for a summer, she accepted.

When Susan came home from America, Edmund came to her and told her that Aslan had said that he and Lucy would not be allowed to come back to Narnia either. She wrapped him in a hug because she knew that he was suffering from that same loss of power that she was still suffering from. When they were done hugging, she made him a cup of tea, sat him down, and asked him what his interests were, for it felt like she had not talked to him in years. Edmund drank his tea, talked about reading, and listened to Susan talk about America. They did not talk about Narnia.

Comparatively, Peter and Lucy coped well. They talked about Narnia openly sometimes, but never around Susan. Sometimes they would convince Edmund to join them in their reminiscing, but it was usually just them. They were hurt, of course, but they had accepted their hurt and turned their focus to activities in the real world. They had never relished that power, so they did not suffer from losing it.

Susan did not like to hear any talk about Narnia. Living in denial was better than coming to terms with it. She stayed buried in her schoolwork because she was safe there. One rainy Saturday afternoon, she was working on an assignment for accounting in her room when she heard a tap on the door. It was Edmund, asking if he could sit on the couch in her room and read his book. Susan was hit by deja vu, back to days at Cair Paravel where she would be working on calculations for the treasury and Edmund would come and sit in her study and read books on political theory. They had taken comfort in those quiet hours back then, a brief respite from everything around them. But everything was different now. Susan pushed those thoughts out of her head, cleared her throat, and told him that she was busy. As she heard his footsteps make their way away from her door and towards his own bedroom, she almost called out to him and apologized, but she heard his door click shut and the words turned to dust in her mouth.

Susan watched her siblings start to grow back into the kings and queen that they once were. Peter was captain of the rugby team, the natural leader with his small army. Edmund started to reclaim his old charm and wit and was elected to serve on his school’s student council. Lucy went out of her way to try to befriend everyone and had come home talking one day about standing up to a bully. Susan had asked if she was alright and Lucy turned to her with a raised eyebrow and said that she had faced down the White Witch when she was eight years old; a schoolyard bully could never compare. Lucy had then watched as Susan’s face went carefully blank at the mention of Narnia, before being distracted by Edmund knocking his cup of tea to the floor. She missed the look that passed between Edmund and Susan, a look that spanned two worlds, a look that spoke of times that they had used that exact same trick to get themselves out of sticky situations. Susan found comfort in the look, but was scared of it all the same.

Later that evening, she asked Edmund if she could work on her schoolwork in his room while he read. He let her in. Over time, they grew close again. Susan still couldn’t spend too much time with Peter or Lucy, but Edmund understood her. They still did not talk about Narnia, but that was okay, because they had other things to talk about.

Peter enlisted in the army. Susan enrolled at the local college, but she could not decide what to major in. She was good at accounting and at general management, but business was not a field where women were readily accepted. She told Edmund that one day, when she was sipping her tea and worrying. He had replied “since when does that matter to you?” without looking up from his book. Susan had smiled, and resolved to stop by the advisors’ office at the school and tell them that she wanted to major in business. Edmund was looking at majoring in law and becoming a barrister. Lucy was talking about possibly becoming a nurse. They seemed to have their lives all planned out, but then the unthinkable happened.

You see, Peter and Lucy had been visiting Professor Kirk and his wife Polly, the original visitors to Narnia. They had dinners often, and one night, when Peter was on leave from the army, they had talked Edmund into coming with them, for “old time’s sake”. Eustace and Jill were there as well. That dinner was the one where the specter of King Tirian from Narnia had shown up, and while the spirit did not speak, everyone at the table agreed that something horrible had to be happening in Narnia. They hatched their plan to return to Narnia and when Peter and Edmund were assigned to gather the rings that allowed the Professor and Polly to go to Narnia originally, Edmund took a moment to call Susan on the telephone and tell her of everything that had happened and what they were planning to do next. Susan was shocked at the appearance of the spirit and at the audacity of the plan, but she made it clear that she would not be returning with them to Narnia. She had suffered enough leaving it twice. She would not go through that pain again. Peter and Lucy would have hated Susan for the statement, but Edmund understood. The little boy who had once been tempted into betraying his family had grown into a young man that understood why his older sister would turn down the chance to return to Narnia, a land she had been exiled from all those years ago. Susan told Edmund to come home safe after he had finished saving Narnia and not to leave his torch there this time. Edmund laughed, said that he’d try his best, and signed off with an “I love you, Sue.” Susan had been slightly surprised, because Edmund was not one to openly voice sentiment like that, but she replied “Love you too, Ed.” She wondered if he had some premonition of things to come.

A few days later, she was identifying his mangled remains where they lay next to Peter’s. Lucy’s body, less damaged, looking almost asleep, had already been identified and it was in a coffin along with the bodies of their parents. A split second, and Susan had lost them all.

They were buried then, three children and their parents. Susan cried for all of them, but she cried hardest for Edmund.

That night, Edmund appeared in her dreams. He was back at Cair Paravel again, flipping through a book. She tried to call out to him, but he could not hear her. While she was watching, Lucy ran into the room and started talking and gesticulating wildly. Susan could not hear what she was saying, but she could tell that Lucy was excited. Then her parents walked into the room with Peter, and Susan froze. Then Professor Kirk and Polly were there, and Eustace and Jill too. There was a happy reunion for everyone except Susan, who was crying now, unable to hear anything her loved ones were saying and unable to speak to them either. Out of nowhere, Edmund made eye contact with her and took the few steps to wrap her in a hug, just like the one she had given him when he had learned that he was exiled from Narnia. “It’ll be okay, Sue. Just live, okay? Live the life that we thought we had the chance to live. You’ll see us again someday.” She tried to hold on to him, but the dream dissolved and she woke up crying in her own bed.

Days were long and miserable. She slogged through her classes and whenever she considered quitting business, she remembered the day that Edmund had encouraged her to go for it, and that gave her a small burst of renewed energy. After graduation, she started working as an accountant at a corporate firm there in London. She worked hard and came home exhausted every day, but she would look around her tiny studio apartment and feel thankful that she was alive. When cleaning out an old drawer, she happened upon an undeveloped roll of film, probably taken by Lucy when she was interested in photography a few months before her death. When she went to get them developed, one of the pictures turned out to be Edmund hunched over a book with a slight smile on his face. She got it printed and put it in a little frame on her desk at work, because she finally understood the value of accepting one’s fate. It hurts, the reminder that he is dead, but the comfort that the picture provides is enough that Susan leaves it on her desk.

The picture is still on her desk 40 years later, when she has become CEO of the firm. She has spent those 40 years re-honing the skills that she had perfected when she was a queen and the fate of a country was on her shoulders. The fate of a business is a lighter load, but a welcome one. She is nearly 65 years old and has never married, never found someone worth her hand in marriage. She reads more, not just the politics and history that Edmund loved, but the great works of literature too. She reads To Kill A Mockingbird and hears Edmund in every line Atticus speaks, Lucy in every one of Scout’s. She travels the world because she wants to. The days are long and her bones ache, but she keeps living, determined to have a lifetime of stories to tell her family.

She’s 89 years old and lying in a hospital bed. She hears the doctor say faintly to the nurse that it’s not likely that she’ll live through the night. Susan is not paying attention to that, though. Instead, she is composing her life story in her head, trying to pick which stories she wants to tell Edmund first. She’s thinking about how she wants to describe the Hagia Sophia when she hears a crash from the other side of the room, a tea cup falling to the floor. Everything is starting to fade, but Susan smiles because she knows Edmund is there, making a diversion for the nurses so that she can die in peace.

She opens her eyes and sees him standing there, with that look on his face he wore in the kitchen nearly 70 years ago, when he last broke a teacup for her. He offers her his hand with a small smile, and she takes it. She takes one last look back at her body, the wrinkles that tell the story of a life thoroughly lived, and follows Edmund out the door into the sunlight.