by Bryant Burroughs
Author’s Note: I’m intrigued by how Susan Pevensie could have lived in the “real” world after her adventures in Narnia. C.S. Lewis, himself, encouraged his young readers to write that story. This is my attempt.
This is a momentous day!
Susan Pevensie is on a train!
The silly doggerel leapt into Susan’s head and overstayed like an unwelcome guest, despite being alternatively shushed and ignored. Yet she couldn’t deny that it was, indeed, a momentous day, her first time venturing onto a train since the Great Wreck at Waterloo had orphaned her two decades earlier. Susan had survived the carnage but bore wounds deeper than the scars still visible on her back and legs. The act of walking onto the station platform and climbing aboard the train to Swansea had emptied her courage reservoir.
As the Southwest train rattled across the ridge and headed down toward Swansea, Susan was reminded of the W.H. Auden poem and frowned to herself at the concluding line of how everyone longs for letters, “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten.”
Why have I been forgotten? Susan thought. He said he would be here, and I would find him, but I’ve looked for him every day. He wasn’t in the hospital with me or school or London or in the countryside. He has forgotten me.
“Are you OK, Miss? asked the conductor.
Susan looked up, realizing she had been talking to herself. “Yes, I’m fine,” she lied. She always lied when asked any question that even remotely touched upon Aslan, even when his name went unmentioned.
Swansea was a little seacoast village that bore its own wounds and scars. Over the centuries, its fields had been trampled by Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman conquerors, its ancient priory destroyed in the English Civil War, and the manor house that once hosted Henry VIII was now only a ruin. Yet, the village had survived. The belltower of St. Mary’s still pealed for births and weddings and deaths and day’s end, as it had since the church’s charter by King John in 1204. Centuries of gales howling from the sea had scoured away names and dates on many of the headstones that circled the church, but the stones remained.
Susan had emptied her savings to buy the little shop with its three-room flat above it. The widow, whose house and garden were in the lane behind the shop, had tried to keep the shop going after her husband died, but the memories had exhausted her. Now Susan, with her single bag in hand, put the key into the front door lock and pushed into the shop. Light streamed through the windows. Floor to ceiling bookshelves cried out for books and the readers who would caress them. The air seemed to collaborate with the light and the bookshelves to produce a wonderful sense of old pages that contained life’s wisdom.
She went right to work, sweeping floors, dusting shelves and unpacking boxes. Her bookshop would offer only children’s books, which she carefully placed on the lower shelves within easy reach of young readers. After three hours of work, she had filled the brown trash bin behind the shop and the bookshelves looked ready and inviting. She retrieved her bag, which was at the foot of the stairs where she had dropped it, and carefully withdrew with both hands a wooden plaque with a small chain. She stared at it for a few minutes, then walked to the front door and hung the plaque in the door window. Now anyone passing by, on their way to Taylor’s Tea or Land’s Inn Pub next door or to St. Mary’s across the street, would know the name of Swansea’s new bookshop: Aslan’s Place.
A few minutes later, she lifted the steaming teakettle from the stove in the tiny kitchen at the top of the stairs and prepared her first tea as Susan the Bookshop Owner. As she stirred the cup, she heard from downstairs a soft plop and then a staccato rustling. Maybe a book had fallen from a shelf, she thought and, after a quick sip, walked downstairs. Books stood straight on the shelves, and several empty boxes were in the corner. Then one of the boxes shivered, and out popped a golden tabby with round yellow eyes. The cat flopped at her feet and rolled over and over on its back. Perfectly at home in the bookshop, the golden cat stayed with Susan through her tea, dinner and bath, then curled up at the foot of her bed for the night.
It was not a restful sleep for Susan. The Dream had tracked her to Swansea and found her again that first night in her flat above the bookshop. Whether memory or dream, she was once again Queen Susan, friend of Aslan and keeper of the bow and arrows. She was back in Narnia, the land known as Aslan’s country, into which she and her three siblings had stumbled through a wardrobe in England. She was back, too, helping Aslan save Narnia and its creatures. She had reigned as Queen Susan the Gentle for fifteen Narnian years, until the day Aslan told her that she would return to England, never to come back to Narnia because she had achieved all that was needed of her.
How she hated being forced to leave Narnia after her exciting life as queen. Narnia had been different—a place where right and wrong, good and evil, honor and shame were clear, direct, actionable. In her “real life,” she had yet to find anything more real than Narnia, Aslan, and its courteous, considerate inhabitants.
The Dream disintegrated as Susan awoke with a start. Something was breathing on her neck, then she realized it was only the cat. Sadness flooded her at the memory of the times that Aslan had breathed on her, and she had taken heart. His breath had healed the ill and brought courage to the fearful. She wept bitterly as a line from Virginia Woolf pounced on her sad spirit: “Life is a dream. Tis waking that kills us.”
“There I go again,” Susan said aloud to the cat, as she stroked its soft golden fur. “All my friends are not really friends—just people whose books I’ve read.”
In the morning, as Susan ate her toast with jam, the cat jumped into the kitchen sink as if such behavior was its normal way to request a bowl of water. After a long drink, the cat scampered to the back door. When Susan opened it so that the little cat could return to its home, a large, beautiful charcoal gray cat with a proud, erect tail bent at the end waited outside. It peered up at her, as regally as a cat could be while holding a mouse in its jaws. The golden cat greeted the newcomer with a friendly head-butt. The gray cat dropped the mouse and walked into the bookshop to explore. The golden cat watched for a moment and then raced across the lane to the open gate in the wall of the widow’s house. There it rubbed the legs of the widow named Alice who was waiting at the gate.
“Well,” Alice called to Susan, “I see you’ve met Buster and Jazzy. Why don’t you join me for tea this afternoon?”
Susan waved a weak “Love to!” before realizing it was Sunday, her last day to get her bookshop ready for customers on Monday morning. She cleaned furiously for an hour, until the bells of St. Mary’s began pealing with such beauty that she postponed the rest of her work and walked across the street and slipped into a chair next to one of the massive stone pillars that had held the roof for seven centuries. She placed a hand on the unmovable stone pillar and thought, Here is something that lasts.
Amid the quiet and the candles and the morning light, she was drawn to the stained-glass windows, three on each side of the church and each depicting a scene from the Gospels. As befitting Swansea’s history as a seacoast village, each featured a water setting: Jesus teaching from a small boat at the shoreline; Jesus holding up his hand to quell a storm; Peter stepping onto the waves to walk on water. On the opposite wall were images of lambs and fish and feeding the hungry and a woman at a well.
After an hour of looking from scene to scene, something shifted inside her and a deep truth bubbled up. “I’m orphaned,” she whispered aloud, her words half a prayer and half a demand. “Cut off from those I love in Narnia and those I love in England. Was Narnia just a dream? Were my parents and family just a dream? If so, how do I know what’s real or not? Aslan said we would know him in this world, and I suspect for some reason that he meant you. But I turn and search and wait, and I don’t find Aslan or you. Why are you and Aslan hiding? Why are you keeping happiness just outside my reach?”
The stained glass was silent.
Promptly at teatime, Susan walked through the gate into her new neighbor’s garden. Instantly, she was enveloped in Alice’s kindness and conversation and tea, and most of all by her cats. She formally met Buster, the golden cat who was a social extraordinaire, and Jazzy, the regal charcoal-gray stoic who promptly jumped onto Susan’s lap and took a long nap. She had a long-distance introduction to Izzy, who peeked from the kitchen doorway.
As Susan sat quietly in the warm peace of the garden, Alice described everyone in the village and promised to bring them to Susan’s shop next week. She told stories about her husband and how much she missed him, and her happiness that their beloved bookshop was in Susan’s care. She recounted how each of her cats had wandered into her garden needing rescue and home and love. All the while, draining two teapots and stroking a snoring Jazzy, Susan felt at home for the first time since leaving Narnia.
As sunset waned and stars began peeking out, Alice covered Susan’s legs with a blanket.
“Now tell me, if you wish,” she asked gently, “what is a young woman looking for in Swansea?”
Susan took a shuddering breath, then launched into her whole story, from wardrobe to Narnia to Aslan to queen to train station and to life as an orphan. When she sobbed, Alice held her hand, and when the story was completed, Alice hugged her tightly.
“Dear, dear girl,” she said. “I’ve never heard the name Aslan and I’ve certainly never seen a lion walking free in Swansea, but I think I’ve heard his voice. I know you’ll find him.”
Days and weeks and months went by, filled with happiness, for Susan, Alice, Buster, Jazzy, and Izzy. Buster greeted everyone who stepped into the bookstore as if he were the sole purpose of their visit, and Susan began introducing him as “my best salesclerk.” She took lunch and tea every day with Alice, and in the evenings, she read with at least one cat in her lap.
At the end of each day, after closing the shop, Susan walked across the street into the little church and sat for a while, taking in the stained-glass scenes and recalling every word of Aslan. Often, she would whisper her plea:
Where are you,
Lion who is good
But not tame?
You would be here, I understood,
But I don’t know your name.
In Narnia side-by-side we stood
But here nothing is the same.
Please, I beg you, make good
Your promise and give me your name,
Because to be real, things must have a name.
A gale swept rain sideways into Swansea early one evening after Susan had walked over to the village church. As the downpour crashed into the stained-glass windows, Susan knew there was no better place to shelter from the storm than this little church that had survived seven centuries of such blasts. Alice and cats were safe and warm at home, so she decided to wait it out for a bit. She sat directly in front of her favorite window depicting the shepherd holding a little lamb that had wandered away.
“I live my life in widening circles,” Susan said to the lamb, reciting words from a René Rilke poem. “Is that what you were doing? Is that why you wandered away from your parents? Were you looking for the shepherd and couldn’t find him straightway?”
She frowned at the shepherd. “And where were you when the lamb walked away into danger? Didn’t you know it was lost and scared? Was it worth it to put a lamb in danger so that you could play the hero?”
The only answer was the sound of rain pelting the window. She wanted to dash back to the comfort of her books and tea and fire, but she feared that the shrieking winds and lashing rain would knock her off her feet. “They might even blow me through the graveyard and into the sea,” she said to the shepherd in the window. “And who would know? Who would care, other than Alice and three lovely cats?”
Susan closed her eyes for a short rest, but what came to her was a fitful dream of lambs and lions, a dream that brought her no rest at all.
She was startled awake by a change in the wind—still ferocious, but now somehow joined by thousands of voices all talking at once. A humming rattle drew her attention across the church to a little door that had begun vibrating. The door had withstood the slamming rain and gale, but now was quivering and shaking under the violent pressure of the voices. Suddenly the door burst open, and the bodyless voices surged into the church. Susan pressed down in her seat in fear.
Clamping her hands to her ears to resist the deafening roar, she heard a single voice rise above all else. “You don’t need to search for me,” it said softly and kindly. Immediately the thousands of discordant voices went silent as if this one voice was the only one meant for her.
Susan jumped to her feet. “I know that voice!” she shouted. “It’s you, Aslan!Oh, thank goodness you’ve come. I’ve looked all over for you and…please forgive me…I’d lost hope.”
Her eyes scanned the church, but no Aslan, which puzzled her because Aslan was too big to hide in such a small space.
She cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, “Aslan! Where are you?”
“Look where you know you will find me,” she heard in response.
Raising her eyes to the stained-glass scene of the shepherd and lost lamb, she stared straight into the deep, kind eyes of Aslan. Then, just as when she had first heard his name in Narnia, Susan felt as if a warm blanket or wonderful music had wrapped itself around her.
Unsure of whether to laugh or cry, or even if asleep or awake, Susan heard Aslan speak from the stained glass. “You knew me as I was in Narnia and you know in your heart who I am in your world,” he said. “I have other forms and other flocks. I can’t be described in a single way.”
Susan stepped closer to the stained-glass window. “Aslan,” she pleaded, “I need your help. It’s so different here. Narnia was so special. I was special.”
“Yes, it’s different here, but it’s special too,” the Lion said. “You see, all my worlds are connected—Narnia, Earth, Heaven, even other worlds. The air in your world is a bit hazy, so you need wisdom and memory and courage to live wisely.”
Susan shook her head. “But I’m nothing here. Not Susan the Gentle, Queen of Narnia. Not even Susan Pevensie, because my family is gone. Pevensie is just a name rather than a family.”
After a moment, as he did long ago in Narnia, Aslan breathed on Susan’s uplifted face, and she felt his gentle, warm air soothing her heart and tingling throughout her body.
Aslan spoke, and his words warmed Susan as much as his breath. “Whether you are known as Susan, Queen of Narnia or Susan, Bookseller of Swansea, your real name is ‘Susan loved by Aslan.’ Remember it. Store it in your heart. And remember, you don’t have to be a queen to be Susan the Gentle.”
The church became quiet and comforting, and even the candles had somehow begun burning again. Susan—lover of books and poems and Aslan and Narnia and Alice and Buster and Jazzy and Izzy—recalled the line from Auden’s Christmas Oratorio: “Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.”
She smiled up at the shepherd and lamb in the stained glass. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for your name. I’d better go check on those rare beasts you’ve given me. They’ll likely want to sit with me by the fire.”
Bryant Burroughs writes stories and poems as reminders of those things he hopes are real and true. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Upstate South Carolina with their three cats.