And then from the backseat, you hear a fidgeting restlessness. He begins to speak, and from the second the sentence ends, you feel the air around you change.
“In the last chapter of Narnia that we read, they killed Aslan.”
You grip your hands tighter around the steering wheel. Your knuckles turn pink-white, hard.
You reply, breathing evenly.
Yes, they did.
You know this is not the end. You wait for the next. You can feel questions creeping, circling around the pathways of his brain, only almost-five years old.
“That was really bad. The White Witch cut his mane to look like a kitty cat’s mane. And all the creatures on the Witch’s side made fun of him like he was a little kitty cat.”
Your fingers ease up on the wheel. Maybe it is not the question you think. Maybe it is not why-did-Aslan-die or why-did-God-let-him-die or why-did-Maggie-and-Abby-die.
Maybe you are just talking about the book.
Yes, they did cut his mane and make fun of him. That’s a hard part of the story, isn’t it?
Your breath begins to deepen. This is not so hard.
We are only talking about the book.
And then he continues.
“But when we read a part of the book that is bad or sad, why do you always say, ‘This is such a good story’?”
There it is. The breath is caught and the knuckles are whiter and the pathways of your own brain flood with a torrent of worry: I cannot do this, I do not know the answers, this is important, don’t screw it up, say something.
Well. You start to reply.
Well. Where is the answer.
I say that because even when it is a hard part of the story, the story can still be good.
There can still be good that comes out of it.
This is all you know. You hope it is enough. There are no answers.
“Oh,” he says. You glance in the rearview mirror to see him looking out the window, green fields rolling by, hopeful waves of spring.
You want to say more. It is not enough. You start to say something about Jesus, the part of the story when he died and people hurt him and made fun of him and killed him.
That was a terrible part of the story, right? But there was still good that came out of it. Right?
“Right,” he says again. He is still staring out the window.
It is not enough. Your heart sinks. Stubborn stories of resurrection, how are you supposed to know what they mean, nothing makes sense anymore (if it ever did make sense Before) and the world is full of staggering suffering, heaps deeper than your small life will ever hold, and yet God is still unrelenting goodness, and you have no idea how to understand this, let alone explain it to a child.
Does that make sense? You wonder out loud, hoping something might be enough in the face of nothing.
He is silent. Still turned away.
“Yeah,” he finally says. “But can we read another chapter tonight?”
Yes, you rush to say, yes of course.
You want to keep going, to say something else, something about how there is always more to the story, something about how the hint of what comes next can be enough to keep us going, something about how the promise of hope can make even the hard chapters good. But you cannot find the words.
And when you do read it again that night, books and brothers and blankets all heaped into one bed and all of your heads together on one pillow, and Lucy and Susan are wandering and despairing like Marys at the tomb, and suddenly Aslan appears again, brilliant and breath-taking and pouncing and playing and all of them delighting in each other, more than they ever did Before – only then, after the last paragraph has ended and you close the cover and you hold the book to your chest and sigh that satisfied smile, only then do you realize how he was right. You do always say this, after every chapter, the terrible and the triumphant, no matter what happens.
Isn’t this a good story?
Because somehow you know it still is. And he reminded you.