The Historian’s Dilemma
or, A Problem with Susan
So, I’ve been on a Neil Gaiman kick lately, and I’ve got my hands on a copy of Fragile Things (it’s one of his short story collections).
I’ve had to pull myself aside after The Problem of Susan. The story is, of course, about the Narnia books - I’m deeply distressed by it. But I like it. There’s this shocking duality of sex and death and male and female god energies, and you also get this juxtaposition of youth and age. I felt like I had something to say about it, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was, so I wrote a bit of a story to explore that. I’ll probably clean it up and cross post with my ‘real author’ website later on but I wanted to post something now.
The historian lived in a small cottage down Abernathy Lane. Indeed, it was the last house to be found on the street, and where the original paved road had ended, a tidy strip of asphalt continued on, past the copse of elderberry trees that littered either side of the lane, until at last it dead-ended in a dirt-and-gravel driveway.
The house itself was tidily kept; the woman it belonged to had eschewed the practice of scattering her things around nearly ten years ago after a sunny September day had gone awry. Control was something she practiced with regularity. She’d had so little control that September, over anything at all, and had spent all the time since making up for it.
That’s why it was so vexing that she could not find the manuscript she had been reading the night before. It had been sent to her through a colleague, a tiny, jocular man who’d been named Goliath by his father when his mother was dazed and distracted from the pain of his delivery.
Goliath had enclosed a note: Not so far outside of your field of study. Perhaps the missing piece you’ve been looking for? I’ll be meeting with Land this coming Tuesday; if you’d like, I could make an introduction.
There was no further clue to the identity of the author. A.S. Land was inscribed on the title page, but she’d never heard of anyone by that name before.
She’d begun reading the pages late that evening, a growing sense of excitement prompting her further up and further into the manuscript, until at last the reminder of an early morning meeting had convinced her to retire.
She hadn’t slept well.
For years she had dreamt of lions and ice, each of them devastating in their own way. She couldn’t remember when the dreams had begun - certainly before That September, but was it before or after the year she’d received her first kiss? They’d started off slowly, the dreams: a creeping sensation of cold, or the tawny flash of fur in the distance. Over the years they had returned. She’d been drowned, ice in her lungs and wrapping around the heart in her chest. She’d frozen to death, her younger brother’s hand wrapped tightly around hers as they’d fought to keep moving. She’d taken an ice spear to the head, or to the gut, or been run through by the tusks of of some unknowable creature, more reminiscent of a frozen statue than a true beast of frost and cold.
She’d never been able to understand the lion.
Sometimes, the warmth of his fur against her side would seem to keep away the chill like the comfort of a warm blanket. In some dreams, she’d sat astride his back, her arms thrown open in victory; in others, he (for it was always a he, even when his mane had appeared short and clumsily shorn) loomed over her, the sharp teeth jutting from his gaping maw threatening dismemberment - if she were lucky.
The cold was always out to get her. The lion vacillated. She’d never been able to understand why.
And she hadn’t had a dream of either force for a year before it woke her up, panting.
In the distance, her brothers and sister stood, gazing out over the rolling hills that shaped the landscape beneath them. From the west came a cool breeze. It would have been refreshing, but when she turned her head, she could see the ice creeping along the earth, inch by inch, a great devourer.
“Why are you afraid?” the lion whispered. It stalked in front of her, tail whipping against the air.
“I’m not afraid,” she claimed.
By Tuesday she’d still been unable to recover the manuscript. It was as though it had disappeared entirely from her house in the night. She’d searched her bedding and bedside table and under the furniture, although she clearly remembered leaving the pages on the desk in her study before she went up to bed.
The study itself she searched top to bottom. Each drawer in her desk was opened and examined; the wastepaper basket sorted through. She looked through the notebooks she had stacked in one corner of the shelving, underneath the soft cashmere blanket she kept neatly arranged on the chair next to the window, and behind the books that lined their cases like soldiers standing in crisp formation.
When at last she’d given up the hunt, her black hair escaping the bun she wore in frazzled tendrils and her lips red from the way she bit them, distressed, she sank into her chair and began to make notes on the things that she remembered.
For half a moment she’d felt like not taking advantage of the opportunity to crash Goliath’s meeting. It seemed disrespectful to admit that she’d not finished the work, and that she’d misplaced the papers besides.
But Goliath had been right as well; she’d been investigating a bit of a historical puzzle for nearly five years now, and it seemed as though A.S. Land, whoever they were, might prove a valuable resource for her to finish.
Which was why she was stood in front of the door to Goliath’s office at the university. She smoothed down her jacket. She wasn’t sure why she felt so nervous. And at last, she raised her hand to the door to knock.
“Ah, there you are!”
Goliath pulled the door open straight away, gesturing her inside. There was a man already there - Land, she presumed. He couldn’t have been much older than herself. His hair was tawny and thick about his face, and the way his amber eyes fixed on her gave him the feeling of a predator.
It was a disconcerting feeling. She cleared her throat.
Introductions were handled quickly; she’d walked in during the middle of their conversation and was content to let them finish while she tried not to stare.
There was something familiar about Land.
The lion crouched in the grass, his eyes fixed. She gulped. He wasn’t tracking any animal; his amber eyes were fixed on her.
She didn’t have time to run before he pounced.
The grass at the back of her head was soft - softer than she’d imagined it would be. The weight of the lion pinned her into the earth, his coarse fur dragging along her bare legs. Her skirt had hiked up when he’d caught her.
She waited for his mouth to open wide and his teeth to find her skin, but instead of killing her, he dragged the flat of his sandpaper tongue over the side of her neck.
She looked into his face, eyes wide, blood rushing in her ears, but his attention was caught elsewhere. A hailstorm, rolling in across the vista.
“Why do you freeze yourself?” he asked her, his voice low and rumbling.
“It’s not my ice,” she denied.
“Are you alright?”
The voice shook her from her thoughts and she flushed. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “You’ve caught me woolgathering.”
But Land’s eyes were frank and knowing. “Have dinner with me,” he proposed.
She hadn’t been to dinner with a man in ten years. She’d only been spared her family’s fate in The Accident because she had been away, taking advantage of the warm Indian summer with a day at the shore, and a night spent cavorting under a starry sky.
It was the last time she’d worn her hair loose in public.
That night, as she stood in front of the mirror despairing of the severe cut of her nice dress, she reached a trembling hand to the pins securing the bun at the back of her head.
“Have you remembered yet?” the lion asked her, and his eyes seemed unaccountably sad, as though he wasn’t sure of the answer.
Flashes of a life lived swam in front of her. A child’s game in a dusty old house. Growing up, and stepping into her own power. Being pulled back again - a child. Forgetting who she was - questioning. Am I real? Throwing herself into what is. The Accident. The search, the quest, the Work to distract her. Her night with Land, shivering from the heat beneath the stars. Memory after memory flitted through her consciousness with such alarming speed that it would have been painful if it wasn’t such a relief.
Further still - primordial fire and elemental ice. The knowledge of what souls are made of. The dizzy shallows of existing outside of time, and choosing to thrust back into the rushing stream as it burbled past.
The future. The present. The past.
She opened her eyes.
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