Let’s talk about being the eldest son. Susan was more sensible than him, Lucy braver, and Edmund more clever. Peter had never been able to see what he gave to this family.
He didn’t ask, because that would be fishing, but Edmund told him one day anyway. “You’re our rock, Peter,” Ed said and laughed, a boy, a king, a repenter. “Get it? Peter: it means rock, right? From the Latin? Or the Greek, I forget.“
When Aslan told him and Susan they could never come back to Narnia, Peter’s first thought was what did I do wrong?
Peter thought yes sir. He thought of course, of course, this isn’t the sort of place someone like me belongs.
(He thought, what should I have done better? Tell me, tell me, tell me, I will do anything)
Susan squeezed his hand and he did not ask her what she was thinking. He assumed it was sorrow. He assumed she would take it with grace, with worries, stiffness, and lists, like Susan did with everything. He did not think she would forget.
(She did not forget. She walked away. There is a difference.)
Edmund and Lucy and little awful cousin Eustace fell through a painting and landed in a sea.
Peter sat through a drizzling summer in the Professor’s country house while his little sister and brother touched the salt-strewn edge of the world. He got letters from Susan, her penmanship blithe and elegant in a way he did not recognize as desperation.
The Professor taught him advanced Greek, dead Latin, and Peter thought about how trees could talk– the lisp of the lilac and the croak of the old oak– what it had been like to help make a treaty between the willows and the creatures that nestled in their branches.
Birds shrieked in the trees out the Professor’s house. Wolves howled and the neighbor’s dogs, out of sight over the hill, howled back. Peter’s hands itched the write dispatches, pen proposals, to right conflicts. He had had war at his heels once, peace in his hands. The fields had been his to watch, to worry over, to defend. Now, he walked them on long afternoons, empty hands in empty pockets.
He did not know the power he had here. He knew the weight on his shoulders of a kingdom left behind, but he did not know the kingdom he stood in. All the same, when he found boys scuffling in the dirt when he went to fetch the week’s groceries, he pulled them apart, settled it out. He brought the housekeeper tea and biscuits, did her bookkeeping because her eyes were getting old and tired, and his were younger than they had been in years. He went out walking, spine straight, gait steady, and learned the rise and fall of this land every bit as well as he had known Narnia.
The wardrobe in the Professor’s house remained a wardrobe only. Peter did not open the door and push through the moth-balled coats and check, but sometimes he knocked on the wood and listened for echoes.
Cousin Eustace came back sun-bronzed, steady, having shed layers and pounds of bitter scales. When he came to visit his older cousins that winter, the warmth hadn’t faded yet from his skin. Eustace shook Peter’s hand, met his eyes like they shared something beautiful, and Peter tried not to be jealous of the things the boy had seen from a ship’s deck built with good Narnian timber.
Eustace touched his upper arm occasionally, like it ached. Peter noticed, because he was Peter. Edmund told him the story (greed and growth), later; so did Lucy (dragons and mercy), who liked to come sit on Peter’s bed on nights when she was restless, hearing dryads where there were only trees.
Eustace told him, too, years later, when he was as far from Narnia as Peter was– when Eustace told it, it was about a boy, silly and blind and selfish, almost lost. It was told lovingly, it was told laughingly, and Peter kept trying not to be jealous.
Let’s talk about being the eldest son when you are stranded in an impossible world. Lucy had the strength to believe, to go chasing down canyons on faith, but she also had the opportunity– Peter had to think about safety and madness, where they would sleep and how to keep the younger children close.
That was where he and Susan met, again and again– they turned games into spelling practice, thought about logistics and sanity, worried. When they lost Susan it made him wonder if doubt lived in his gut too.
He could not save Susan. So what did he give to this family?
He could not save any of them. (When they stepped into the light, at the end of everything, he was still counting, murmuring, trying to remember all the things he’d done wrong, left behind, let fall).
(But they stepped into the light–Lucy laughing, sprinting; Jill barefoot, lanky, never fully grown. Edmund grabbed his big brother’s hand and dragged him forward into a new country.)
(Susan buried them, but that was another story. She buried them, packed her bags neatly, took a boat to a new country.
She left her blinds open, all her life, and let the sun wake her in the mornings, soft and blinding and real, lighting up the sky except on the cloudiest days.
She did not regret. She did not repent. She was not lost.)
Peter grew tall. He did not grow old, just a gangly boy– but he was always the oldest of them, you see. It did not matter that his beard was only just learning how to come fully in the day the light found them.
He was the High King, even when Edmund finally grew taller than him. He was their rock, even when Lucy was the one who knew what to do. He led them, even when it was Jill who could find her way through the trees.
He did not understand what it meant– that Lucy curled up at the foot of his bed when she wanted to feel present in this world but undoubted in the impossible things she dreamed/believed/knew she could still hear; that Edmund looked to him when old, icy things stirred in his gut, calling to him on winters’ days; that Susan, lipsticked, nyloned, looking for a place in the world that no one could forbid her from, still called him up on sad Saturdays.
Narnia had loved Susan, had forgiven Edmund, had known Lucy–but Peter was followed, looked to. He did not know, because he so rarely looked behind him, except to check if everyone back there was okay, well-watered, rested. He did not look down to meet anyone’s eyes. He knelt.
People looked to him, all his life– kids on the schoolyard and his friends in university, strangers on the street. When things went wrong, back in England– a car accident, a towel caught on fire in his dormitory kitchen, a death in the family– faces turned his way and people he’d never really talked to asked him, "What do we do?"
And Peter would breathe in, lift his chin, settle his shoulders– and try to answer them.
A lion breathed on him once. A lion called him magnificent. But for all it felt traitorous to doubt, Peter never believed him, not for a single day of his short/long life.