The Love That Split the World

BOOK: The Love That Split the World
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Copyright © 2016 Emily Henry

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eBook ISBN 978-0-698-40815-9

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


For those who have loved me into the world: thank you;
And for those who have grown weary: you are well loved.


The night before my last official day of high school, she comes back. I feel her in my room before I even open my eyes. That’s how it’s always been.

“Wake up, Natalie,” she whispers, but she knows I’m awake—if a fly buzzed in the hallway, I’d wake up—just like she knows the drooling, snoring rug of a Saint Bernard at the foot of my bed, the
Mom and Dad got to help me sleep better, will keep drooling and snoring through our entire conversation.

I open my eyes on darkness, push back the covers, and sit up. The crickets are thrumming outside my window, and the blue-green moonlight shines through the foliage across my carpet.

There she is, sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, as she has every time she’s visited me since I was a little girl. Her ancient features are shrouded in night, her thick, gray-black
hair loose down her shoulders. She wears the same ash-colored clothes as always, and though it’s been nearly three years, she looks no older than the last time I saw her, or even the first time I saw her. If anything, she might look a little younger. Probably
older, and generally less terrified of wrinkles and age spots than I used to be.

I contemplate screaming—twisting the knob on the bedside lamp, doing anything my eighteen years have taught me will make Them disappear, just to teach her a lesson for leaving me for so long, for letting me think she was finally gone for good.

But despite my bitterness, I don’t want her to vanish, so I stay still.

“Nice of you to stop by,” I whisper. The words hurt my throat, which hasn’t woken up yet. My vision’s still settling too, piecing together the wrinkled details of her face, the laugh lines around her mouth, and the sweet crow’s-feet at the corners of her dark eyes. “Where have you been?”

“I’ve been right here,” she says. It’s one of her typical, cryptic answers.

“It’s been almost three years.”

“Not for me it hasn’t.”

Again—for the thousandth time—I survey her tattered shawl and the threadbare dress hanging on her bony body. “No,” I say, “you’re outside of time, aren’t you?”

Her right shoulder shifts in a shrug. “Your words, not mine. Have any
come to see you?”

I rub the heels of my hands over my eye sockets, stalling for time. I’m ashamed to admit that no one’s come and that I know exactly why. Though I want to be mad at her for
abandoning me, it’s my fault I haven’t seen her in three years.
caused her disappearance. But it doesn’t matter whether I admit it or not—she already knows everything anyway. As if to prove that point, she says, “I think Gus farted.”

I lean over the bed and look down at the shaggy dog. His tongue is lolling in his sleep, and his perpetually oozing nose is busily sniffing. One of his back legs starts to kick in response to a dream, and the horrible smell she must’ve been referring to hits me.

I cover my nose with my forearm. “Ugh,
. You’re a monster, and I love you, and you’re disgusting.”

I wait for the worst of the odor to pass before I answer her question. “There haven’t been others. They’re all gone. Dr. Langdon thought the EMDR therapy worked. She said that’s why you stopped coming. Apparently any trauma I had was resolved. I’m a lucky girl. Or I was until five seconds ago.”

EMDR: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It’s a type of psychotherapy used to treat the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and, in my case, to shut out the woman in front of me and the various others who’ve appeared at my bedside over the years.

She thinks for a moment. “You know, just a moment ago—a moment for me, that is, three years for you—I told you something about Dr. Langdon. Did you pass it along?”

I keep staring hard at her.

“Do you remember what I told you, Natalie?” she presses.

I nod once. “You said she would die in a fire.”


“She’s still alive,” I supply. “She also suggested I try Ativan
though of course Mom didn’t approve. Apparently this is just a stressful time in a teenager’s life.”

God—the private name I gave her years ago, though she insists I call her Grandmother—laughs and looks down at her
weathered hands, folded in her lap. “Girl, you have no idea.”

“Were you ever my age?” I ask.

Her thick eyebrows rise up over her cloudy dark eyes. “Yes,” she says quietly.

“And it was stressful?”

She jams her mouth shut. “When I was your age, I knew nothing. Nothing about myself, nothing about the universe or about heartbreak. I remember being terrified to grow up, afraid of losing my friends, sure I’d lose my mind. Life felt like a blender that wanted to eat me. But the things that happened to me when I was just a little bit older than you are—those things made the blender feeling seem like a bubble bath.”

I look down at the tear in my quilt. Mom made this blanket from a pattern while my birth mother was pregnant with me. It was going to belong to a different baby, from an adoption that fell through. Instead, it became mine when I became my parents’. “I missed you,” I tell Grandmother.

“I missed you too.”

“I thought you said it was only a minute for you.”

“It was.”

For a while we’re both silent, staring at one another. Then she asks, “How are the twins?”

“Good,” I tell her. “Coco’s transferring to a performing arts high school next year. Jack’s still playing football. Mom’s
so proud
of us all that she’s liable to explode any day now, so
that’s good. At the end of summer she and Dad are taking us to San Francisco then up to Seattle.” The trip is a tradition they’ve had since they got married. Mom had never really traveled anywhere before, and her only reservation about marrying
Dad was that she knew he loved Kentucky so much he’d never leave. They were poor then, but Dad still promised they’d see the world, or, at the very least, the continental U.S. Thus the annual Cleary Family Road Trip was born.

Grandmother closes her eyes for a long moment, and their corners crinkle prettily when they open. “I thought this year was Boulder down through Denver and into Mesa Verde,” she says. “Jack gets food poisoning, and Coco won’t eat anywhere that’s not a chain after that.”

“That was last year,” I say. “This year it’s all Highway 101. Probably a good time to buy stock in Dramamine, if you’re looking for a hot tip.”

“And you? How are you?”

“I’m great. Moving to Rhode Island in August, to go to Brown—but you probably already knew that.”

She nods, and again we fall into stillness and silence. I’ve missed this feeling, of sitting awake at night with her while the rest of the world dreams. The last three years have felt chaotic without these moments of quiet.

“Is it true that God leaves you when you grow up?” I ask. “Is that why I haven’t seen you?”

“I’ve never said I was God.”

It’s true—she’s avoided the question of
exactly she is since she first appeared when I was six, and not for lack of my asking, guessing, and hypothesizing.

Before Grandmother, the hallucinations had all been terrifying: black orbs floating a foot over my nose, grizzled men in green jackets with eyes like endless pits, women painted like clowns posing at my bedside. When they came, I’d scream,
reach for the light, but by the time my parents came running to my bedroom door, the things would be gone, evaporated into the walls as though they’d never come at all.

“It was just a nightmare,” Mom would assure me, running her long fingers through the tangles in my hair. Then Dad would get blankets from the hall closet and make a nest on the floor beside their bed, and I’d finish the night in their room.

But when Grandmother appeared beside me that first time in the dead of night, things felt different. It’s not like I had an extensive vocabulary for the spiritual or metaphysical—my family is the “church twice a year” type, and those biannual visits have never done anything for me—but I also never had any aversion to the concept of God Itself, just to the idea that we could possibly nail down all Its details.

God is a thing I think I see in glimmers all over: an enormous and vague warmth I sometimes catch pulsing around me, giving me shivers and making tears prick my eyes; a mysterious and limitless Thing threaded through all the world and refusing to be reduced to a name or a set of rules and instead winding itself through millions of stories, true and made up, connecting all breathing things.

And I’d given Grandmother that nickname not because I thought she
that Thing but because I saw It in her, and knew she belonged to It. I had no other word at my disposal that could encompass a being who came out of the walls to
protect me from the dark.

The Shining
-esque visitations hadn’t been enough to make my parents take me to a shrink, an elderly American Indian celestial being showing up to tell me creation stories
had. When I’d mentioned
over breakfast, Mom immediately left the kitchen to call Dad. It was obvious I’d done something wrong—I just didn’t know
until a week later, when Mom got home from her meet-and-greet with a child psychologist and had her first
with me.

“It’s only natural to wonder about your heritage, honey,” she’d said, voice shaking. It sounded like a line from one of the
You Were a Special Gift
books she read to me as a toddler, in lieu of the more devastating “You’re adopted” speech some other kids I knew got later. “It’s okay to explore your identity.”

“My eyes were open,” I told her then. “I wasn’t dreaming. Grandmother’s real.”

I couldn’t convince Mom or Dad or Dr. Langdon, but I still knew: Grandmother was real. And she may have never admitted to being God, but I knew she was something, or a part of something, sublime.

“Fine,” I say, “the Great Spirit, the Above Old Man, the Earth Maker, or Holitopa Ishki, or whatever exactly you are or call yourself—just answer the question. Are you going to leave me now that I’m an adult or . . . whatever it is I am?”

Grandmother’s mouth tightens. She stands, and my heart starts to pound—she’s never stood before, in all the dozens of nights she’s come to me. She crosses the room, perches on the edge of my bed, and takes my hands in hers. Her skin is impossibly soft, like velvet, like powdered sediments or antique silk.

“This,” she says, “may be the last time you’ll see me, Natalie. But I’ll
be with you.”

I blink back tears and shake my head. My oldest friend in the world, someone who doesn’t exist according to all the
experts, who is only and fully mine. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I’m leaving for Brown in three months. Soon, that rocking chair, this bedroom, the rolling blue hills of Kentucky will all be things of the past. Did I really think she’d come with me? Still, I hear myself ask her, “Why?”

She smooths my hair back from my forehead, the same way Mom always does. “Lie down, girl. I’m going to tell you one last story, and I want you to listen well. It’s important.”

“It’s always important.”

always important.” She returns to the rocking chair, stopping to scratch behind Gus’s ear when he lets out an unconscious whimper. She sits and clears her throat. “This is the story of the beginning of the world, and the woman who fell from the sky.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” I remind her. “Actually, I’m pretty sure it was the first story you ever told me.”

She nods. “It was the first, and so it’ll be the last, because now you’ve learned to listen.”

Learn to listen, listen with your bones, let the story fill you
. Things she’s always saying. Honestly, I have next to no clue what she’s talking about, partly because I only ever see her in the middle of the night when my brain’s full of fog, and partly because her voice is the phonic equivalent of a music box playing “Clair de Lune,” so soothing that the words get lost in the blanket of the sound. I lie back and close my eyes, letting that voice wash over me now.

“There was an old world that came before ours,” she begins, “a world that had never before seen death. And in that world there was a young woman who was very strong and very strange. The woman’s father was the first person to die in the
world, and even after he did, she would speak with his spirit often. Death had opened her father’s eyes to all sorts of secrets the woman could not yet see, and because of this, his spirit told her to marry a stranger in a distant land whom he had chosen for her. So against her mother’s wishes, the young woman trusted her father’s spirit and journeyed to that distant land and presented herself to the stranger. This man was a powerful sorcerer, and he received the woman’s marriage proposal skeptically, since she was still very young and he would need a wife with strength and resolve. He decided that he would give her three tests, and if she should pass, then he would marry her.

“First, he took her into his lodge and gave her corn. ‘Grind this corn,’ he told her. And she took it and barely boiled it, and though there were many mounds of it, she ground it against the stone very quickly, and the sorcerer was amazed.

“For the second test, he ordered her to take off her clothing and to cook the corn over the fire. As she did, it popped and splattered on her, the mush burning her skin where it landed, but she didn’t flinch. She stood, unmoving, as the corn burned her until the mush was finished.

“For her final test, the sorcerer opened the door to his lodge and called to his beast servants, who came running, and he invited them to eat the mush from off her bare skin. And though their sharp teeth and tongues sliced and cut and
repulsed her, she still remained serene and steadfast. So the sorcerer agreed to marry her.

“For four nights, the wed couple slept with the soles of their feet touching, and then the husband sent his wife back to her
village with a great gift of meat for all her kin. He told her to divide it evenly among all the people in the village. He also told her that they should peel back their roofs so that he could bless them with a rain of white corn that night, and so she did, and it was so.

BOOK: The Love That Split the World
9.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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