The Great Divide
HIS280: From Fable to Modernism
A survey of the history of the Isles, from their split in the Great Divide to their re-merging in the Coalescence. No prerequisites required.
Professor Benas Longmire
What comes from the sea returns to the sea. We ate mostly fish, mussels and oysters, throwing their bones and shells back to the tumultuous waters once we were done. But the sea does not give; it only lets us borrow. We lost fisherman every fortnight to the storms. We knew better than to ask why. Flesh demands flesh, not bone.
You cannot imagine fishermen getting lost at sea? They need only follow the compass back to the mainland, you say? You must forgive me; I grow forgetful in my old age. Did I not mention that there was no mainland? Ah, don’t look at me like that. You children live in luxury. To have solid ground beneath your feet—to know your home will be in the same spot you left it yesterday—is privilege.
For you to understand the world your grandparents came from, you must first be familiar with the legend of The Great Divide. Sella, will you take notes? I can no longer reach the board; I need one hand on my cane. Yes, whale bone. It has been in my family for ten generations, but I carved these inscriptions—these ones along the head—myself. When I return to the sea, so shall my teachings.
Part I: The Legend
Ten generations ago, man and God lived as neighbors on a land not unlike the one you know today. The sea god Tavi brought food to our shores, gave us temperate rains and guided our ships across the waters. In return, we kept Him company. Despite our transience to Him—our mortal natures—we found a way to befriend the immortal Tavi as if we were one across generations. We taught our children His favorite songs, showed them how to banter with Him and to recognize the signs of His distress. To Him, we were a brother.
But occasionally, however rarely, He would grow attached to one of us in particular. These times were always difficult for Tavi, for not even He could grant immortality. That year ten generations ago, He took a liking to a young woman His equal in both charm and wit. But this woman was strange among her people—she feared the water and despised the smell of fish. She would ingest nothing that came from the ocean, subsisting on plants and sometimes gulls, when her father managed to catch them. Tavi brought her mussels, eels, scallops and oysters to feast on, but she would not touch them. He brought warm tides for her to swim in, but she would not dip a toe in the water. She maddened him, and softened him, and for this he loved her all the more fiercely.
They look at me skeptically. The tale must sound silly to them, and perhaps it is. But each time I recite it, I remember my own story of obsession.
I first catch sight of her on the beach: a woman with hair the color of the sky at sunset. I set my fishing net on the water and wade toward her like a blind man. My prey—the result of five hours’ work—wriggles free. She avoids my gaze, does not even look down as the fish begin to circle her ankles. I do not know what I have done to merit her scorn, but I will spend years trying to earn more from her. A glance, a smile, a word.
Tavi’s love? Kavalena was her name. She grew fond of Him, appreciated His company and even loved Him in her own, quiet way. He would stay with her on the mainland until his skin cracked and she had to beg Him to return to the water, if only for a while. Kavalena’s father had not heard her truly laugh until she met Tavi. It didn’t matter they had nothing in common, that they could not possibly stay together as long as she refused to touch the water and He could not be parted from it. Tavi was determined to wed her.
But a young village man came between them. He offered Kavalena roses instead of fish, wine instead of saltwater. He was not immortal and could grow and age with her. While her bond with Tavi was rooted in a deep friendship and affection, her union with the village man was more practical. She grew tired waiting for Tavi to return from the sea. She chose to wed the village man.
Here they scowl. How awful of her, they think. Yet I understand her.
I am betrothed when I meet Varja, but that doesn’t stop me from coming to the beach daily in hopes of a glimpse of her. My betrothed thinks I am fishing, does not ask even when I return empty-handed. The next time I see Varja is at the market. I buy her a box of hard saltwater candy and watch her give it to a nearby child. From someone else the gesture might seem kind, but from Varja it screams indifference. I realize then that I do not like her. What kind of a man wants—needs—someone he does not like?
I break my engagement the next day.
You must remember, now, that to Tavi we were all as one. When Kavalena scorned Him, so did we all. When the young man took her away, it was as if we were all refusing Him happiness.
He cursed us that day to suffer with Him, as brothers. If He were to never have a family or stability, neither would we. After that day, the ocean waters crept up and the land we lived on began breaking under the strain. Islands were formed—not islands in the way you understand them today, but floating masses of land that never stayed in one place for long. Soon the idea of a mainland became legend. Losing someone became literal. You cannot understand, now, how it feels to see your neighbors and friends drift away from you after a particularly wild storm. To feel the ground breaking beneath your feet and to know that when you next step outside, the world will be utterly changed.
What of Tavi, you ask? Our children no longer played seek-and-find with Him and our women no longer made Him crowns of flowers. He drifted into legend. Sometimes I think I glimpse Him in the clouds, now that order has been restored and the skies are no longer that muddy grey. But I am old, and my eyes are no longer what they once were.
Part II: The Aftermath
After the Great Divide, we had to acquire our sea legs quickly. The land was always moving, rolling on waves that never stilled. The sun ducked behind clouds. Rains poured down ceaselessly, and our skin grew clammy and wrinkled. Illness clung to us. It wasn’t until the third generation after the Great Divide that we stopped getting seasick and developed an immunity to the cold damp.
What was harder to get used to was the constant breaking of the land beneath us. In those first generations, families lost children in boarding schools across districts. A bad storm would break the land in two, and neighbors would watch each other drift away. Soon we learned to stay together. We stopped traveling for work and avoided being apart from our families for more than a few days at a time. Houses were latticed together with fishing nets and wire, but this only tore them from their foundations when a storm threatened to split the earth. Then larger, stronger dwellings were built using coral dug from ancient reefs. One such edifice housed three generations of the same family, sometimes close family friends as well. If we couldn’t stop the earth from splitting, we needed to make sure we didn’t lose each other during these storms.
I suppose our land became like a ship. We believed our navigator Tavi Himself. How else could it be that we’d been floating in the seas for generations without once coming across the mainland? We were still cursed. On occasion we would come across another island like ours, one that had broken away in one of the storms. Floaters, we called them. But these always looked uninhabited. As far as we knew, the people on those smaller land masses that broke from the Isles never survived.
Had I lost someone? I suppose it’s natural you wonder. I’ve lived through four major splits, one of which demolished the university where I studied. Ancient Mythology was my subject then; I’ve moved on to History since the discovery of the mainland.
The first split happened in the Fourth Isle, a district hundreds of leagues from my own. I was six cycles old, but I remember the terror I felt when all our ceramics came spilling out of kitchen cabinets and our wooden cots, nailed to the walls of our bungalow, slid across the floors. We used hammocks after that, though those came with their own perils. You could find yourself tangled in the mess of netting during a storm, which made it difficult to flee in case of a flood.
The second and third splits happened closer to home, but were of a lesser degree. One of my school friends disappeared after the university collapsed. I never learned whether he drifted off to sea with the land that got dislodged, or if he’d been inside when the building fell.
The fourth storm, of course, wasn’t a split at all. The Coalescence happened quickly and violently. It was cause for celebration across the Isles, but I found no joy in it. Have I lost someone, you ask? That day, I was the only one who did.
The day that Tavi cursed us—the day of the Great Divide—a legend was born. Not just of Tavi, the lonely sea god whose brothers betrayed Him, but of Kavalena, the woman who chose another. While she chose the village man willingly, there formed a hole in her heart that could not be filled. After her wedding, after the Great Divide, after the skies turned black and wept inky tears for one-hundred days and nights, she mourned not for her changed world but for Tavi’s absence. She learned to swim just to feel His presence. While the smell of the beach used to sicken her, she began going there in the middle of the night, when the tide was at its most dangerous, to hear His voice in the wind. Her husband would hear her weeping before dawn, calling for her friend. She stopped speaking. She began making chairs and tables and all sorts of things from what she collected at the beach.
I become obsessed with winning Varja’s affection. When we are together, I cannot tell if she tolerates my presence or enjoys it. Every smile I receive from her is a battle won. I return home after our outings exhausted. Why do I want this? Why do I want her?
Why didn’t Tavi return? It is possible He was still angry. You must remember that He was a god, and gods, you see, do not take rejection lightly. Twice she tried to join Him in the sea, and twice her husband saved her. Poor Kavalena, you say? Poor Tavi? Do not pity them. They made choices. It is Kavalena’s husband I pity. His name is no longer remembered, but he was, in my opinion, the victim of this affair. No one deserves to love so loyally and in vain.
I say this from experience, though I do not let my voice betray it.
I’m not sure if my love for Varja is not actually a hatred for myself. Even when she says she loves me, I wonder if she does not love someone else better. I fear I will lose her, that she grows tired of me with each passing day. I propose marriage with the same desperation of an unskilled fisherman spearing the water. I do not realize, then, that this fear will not leave me even when we are married.
Even after marrying and having children, Kavalena’s loneliness could not be ebbed. Her greatest desire remained to merge with the sea. It is said that Tavi left her His heart, and she would not rest until she returned it to Him. Or perhaps the Great Divide had traumatized her, made her mad. In any case, she lived and grew old, and her family interned her in an asylum to keep her from harming herself. When she died she was buried beneath the earth. Even after death, her wish could not be granted.
Now this part of the legend is less clear. Older versions claimed the only way to reunite the land was to reunite Tavi with Kavalena’s remains. But her grave-site was never found. Other versions—these thought by some to be born from necessity, after generations of searching in vain for Kavalena’s grave—claimed that one of her descendants had to be sacrificed to the sea to quell Tavi’s loneliness. Fishermen became bounty hunters. There were attempts on the lives of her children, then her children’s children until the family went into hiding and changed names. No one remembers how these legends came to be, for all accounts state that Tavi was never heard from again after Kavalena’s wedding. I’d always thought them born of human malice, not the god’s desire.
Until I found the letter.
Part III: The Descendant
I cannot tell you the Isles’ history without sharing a little of my own. Sixty years ago, I was less interested in mythology and more concerned with feeding my family. I had a wife, Varja, and a little daughter Essa. You know Essa by a different name now, but don’t get ahead of yourselves. Forgive me if I must pause, speaking of her. It is still difficult remembering.
Like many from my village in the Second Isle, I come from a long line of fishermen. Navigating between the Isles was a tricky business, suited only to those with a keen sense of direction. Even the stars were of little help in those days, for the skies remained black and angry. If a sailor stayed out too long, he would find the Isles out of sight, and even a compass could not help him when the land sought moves with the water’s currents.
The people of the Isles had found a way to anchor our four major land masses together—masses that had split during a storm before my grandfather’s era. Travel between the Isles was done seldom and carefully, mostly by merchants trading goods. Rather than building open bridges between Isles, we made closed tunnels—an intricate lattice of them—to provide more resilience during storms.
Yes, I had a keen enough sense of direction to go out onto the waters for hours, sometimes days at a time. Varja never stopped worrying, but it was for her and Essa that I risked my life. I needed to catch enough fish not only to feed my family, but to pay for Essa’s potions. My daughter suffered from violent attacks of the nerves. If they weren’t controlled with medicine, she could go into a fit that stopped her heart or damaged her brain. Sometimes she would have as many as ten in one day. Varja and I spent our lives anticipating them. Our worry and affection for Essa brought us closer together.
“I can’t do this alone, Benas,” Varja screams, so shrilly I no longer hear the gulls on our rooftop. “You’re gone all day doing God knows what, and I’m left here—”
“God knows what?” I try to speak calmly, but still spittle flies from my mouth. “I’m making a living for you and your daughter, that’s what!”
“My daughter? She’s just my responsibility, now?”
“She’s your fault. If you hadn’t been drinking while you were carrying her—”
Her palm connects with my face, hard. I relish the taste of salt and iron in my mouth, want to hit her back so badly that my palm tingles. It is easy hating someone you love. I started hating Varja the day I decided to marry her instead of my betrothed, and Essa the day she was born. I hated them because they could hurt me.
Because they did.
The day I learned the truth about my family’s history was the day Essa had one of the worst attacks I’d seen. We were at home, and it was one of those rare nights that the moon came out and sent a pale glow over the village. Varja and I were already in bed when we heard a commotion from down the hall. My first thought was that another storm had hit, that our house was being demolished, but I felt no tremors. I leapt out of bed and raced from my room to see Essa on the floor, shaking. She had broken a shelf on the wall holding some family heirlooms passed to me by my grandmother. I didn’t notice, then, how many of the heirlooms were destroyed. I gathered Essa into my arms and placed her on my hammock, held her down so she wouldn’t hurt herself while her episode played out. Varja scrambled for Essa’s medication and was bitten twice as she forced it down our child’s throat.
“Do something, Benas!” Varja screams. I hate it when she panics like this. Doesn’t she see that I, too, am afraid? Sometimes I need comfort; sometimes I need strength. But Varja looks at me with those terror-stricken eyes, her rusty hair sticking with sweat to her forehead, and I know I cannot afford those sometimes to be now. I hold my child down and stay calm for this beautiful, selfish wife I love and hate.
Luckily, the episode didn’t have any lasting effects on Essa. Only after I’d put her to bed and reassured Varja did I return to straighten the mess in the hall. My grandmother’s vase, the one that had survived two major storms, was shattered. I’ll admit, I felt a pang of sadness to lose it. The people of the Isles kept few decorative pieces, you understand, because decoration inevitably meant more to clean up later. This was something fragile I’d been able to maintain, something I’d succeeded in caring for. Perhaps I thought it made up for the fact that I could never care for my daughter as well as I wished.
The second piece Essa had broken was this cane I hold in my hand. Made of genuine whale bone by a skilled descendant long forgotten by my family. Someone of my blood had had skill enough to catch a whale! This had occurred to me before, but not until that night that I crouched on my hands and knees, picking up shards of pottery, did I wonder what it meant.
The cane was snapped in half, right here after the curve where ages of use have worn the engravings to faint markings. I found the inside of the cane hollow, and when I tipped it, a weathered scroll fell into my palm. It was tied with animal gut, but this fell apart as soon as I touched it. The papyrus bloomed in my palm, and inside I noticed the faintest scrawl written in a lilting hand. I couldn’t read all of it, not even most of it. But an excerpt about halfway through was clearer than the rest.
I still remember every word, the way the letters curled around each other and how the quill had left divots in the paper. “I have not lost hope, nor will I ever. Every time the earth shakes on the water, know it is with the force of my tears. Your people will suffer as long as we do. I will not emerge from the sea until we are together again.”
Remember what I told you Kavalena took to doing, after Tavi’s disappearance? That’s right: she became a skilled artisan, using whatever she could capture of the sea—seaweed, coral, bone—in her work. My hands shook as I studied the cane. Never had I imagined that the artisan in my family might be Kavalena herself; it would be several moons of further study before I came to accept the fact.
I told nobody what I had found. The cane and Tavi’s note would be taken from me, and though I didn’t know it for certain, I suspected I had reason to fear for my family’s safety. I spent all my free hours at the university—I was an Agriculture student then—locked in the Medieval History department. I changed my area of study to Mythology (for much of the information I sought was old enough to have passed from the realm of history). Varja was confused, but encouraging of my new-found passion.
“Stories don’t put food on the table,” she snaps, not looking up from the stovetop where she braises scallops. “Stories do not buy our daughter’s medicine.”
“I’ll be researching at the university. I’ll still be able to make a living.”
As Varja turns and begins shouting, wooden spoon pointed accusingly at my chest, Essa slinks from her chair at the dining table and begins crying on the floor. Then, when the yelling doesn’t subside, she begins to twitch. Varja and I race to her. Varja scoops her up and I go to fetch the medicine, but before I’m even out of the kitchen, Essa starts to laugh.
“I did it. I made you stop fighting.”
That is the first time I see Varja hit our daughter.
I could not tell Varja the source of my sudden interest in myths. The more I read, the more I realized Varja could never learn the truth. The god Tavi would not shine His grace on the world as long as Kavalena remained separated from Him. I was of her blood. To reunite the Isles, I would need to sacrifice myself to the sea.
Varja threatens to leave me if I do not return my studies to agriculture. Part of me wants her to go, to free me from these bonds. The other part of me feels a gripping terror at her threat. Since meeting Varja, I have resigned myself to a life of pain. Being with her is maddening, but being without her is agony. It is for Varja that I do all things.
I tell her what I found.
At first she laughs, a condescending laughter reserved for me. Later, when she holds the scroll in her hands, after she has torn its edges from all the times she’s read it, she looks up at me with that familiar terror in her eyes. Varja has eyes like the sea: green and always shifting.
“You can’t be serious,” she breathes.
I do not tell her that sacrificing myself is something I believe I am too weak to do. Instead, I savor this moment in which I am capable of hurting Varja. It is a cruel thing, to want power over one’s spouse. I am not a good man.
“My death will join the Isles,” I say. “We’ll all be saved.”
“Just wait, Benas. We’ll find another way.”
“There is no other way.” I don’t know this for sure, but I say it to see the effect it will have on my stoic wife.
“What about other relatives? Cousins, second cousins?”
“You would have me sacrifice a family member in my stead?” Varja’s callousness sometimes still takes me by surprise. If I am a bad man, it is because I’m weak—because she has made me weak. Varja’s wickedness, however, comes from strength.
She glares at me.“I won’t lose you.”
“This isn’t about you,” I say. But it is. I know at that moment that I will threaten but wait, just to prolong this moment in which I have won.
The day I went out to the pier to kill myself, I went prepared. I had two boulders in a burlap sack I’d hauled over my back, and thick, braided rope with which to tie them to my waist. Drowning is not something one does on purpose. You can enter the water fully intending to die, even stay submerged when the pressure in your lungs stretches them thin, but in the end the body wins over the will. Never rely on will.
I do not go out to the pier. I tell myself just one more day, one more day with Varja and Essa. I tell myself this for moons.
I’d chosen a secluded hill hidden from the road by boulders and trees. There were a couple of ships out that might spot me, but I’d be long dead by the time they reached me. I was determined. My sacrifice would mean a brighter future—literally—for Varja and Essa, would mean no more tethering of houses together for fear of losing loved ones. Varja could keep the delicate pottery she so admires, the kind sealed to the walls of museums. Essa could grow up with the sun smiling down on her. I clung to the thought as I tied the ropes around my waist and took the boulders in my arms.
Now that she knows she can lose me, I have her. Varja’s love for me is still selfish, but it is more than I had before. She holds on to me at night. She has never done that before.
I don’t remember how long I stood like that. What pulled me from my trance was not my own resolve, but the sound of a scream from the road behind me. I recognized that voice; it was Varja. She was calling my name, screaming it with an urgency I had never before heard. At first I thought she had learned of my plan and was coming to stop me. I nearly stepped over the edge, then, to avoid that confrontation. I could not watch Varja’s face as I fell to my death.
Then one word became clear to me. Essa, she kept saying. Essa, Essa, Essa!
Forgive me—this part of the story is always difficult. I untied the ropes from around my waist and raced down the hill back to my home. Through the window I could see Essa convulsing on the kitchen floor and my wife struggling to hold her down. By the time I reached her side, she had stilled.
I come home from the university to find Essa shaking on the floor, Varja calm beside her. When I go to fetch her medication, I cannot find it. Varja claims to have already administered it. “It will pass,” she keeps saying. “Like all the others, it will pass.”
My daughter’s attack that day claimed her life. Essa the Emancipator, you call her now. It was her blood, not mine, that rejoined the Isles. Varja and I laid her to rest on a bed of lilies and donated her body to the sea.
It was Varja who suggested such a funeral; I had not even thought of it, had not made the connection that Essa’s blood would suffice as well as mine. I did not ask Varja when the idea came to her. Tonight, when I go home and meet my wife at the threshold, I will smile and peck her cheek. I will not ask questions. Unlike my students, I do not want to learn.
Raluca Balasa is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno, where she also works as a teaching assistant. Her approach to writing is character-oriented, often dealing with love-hate relationships, antiheroes, and antagonists who make you agree with them. Her short work has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways, Aurealis, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. When she’s not writing, she can be found playing the piano or spilling things.