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The plain was red and dusty and broader than the limits of human perception. Depending on one’s sense of reality, its edges either curved down – making it subtly and irreparably convex, or they curved up – in which case home was one huge, concave depression. The latter came with a feeling of being trapped. Permanently bounded. While a convex earth was associated with the small but undeniable feeling of continually sliding away. It was possible, one theory went, that the outer reaches of this red and dusty place curved up or down in perfect correlation to whether one believed life was going to crush them, or shake them off its edges. Most of the locals, however, weren’t much interested in theories.

A creek ran across the plain. A bubbling, gurgling brook that helped put the locals to sleep at night. It was bounded on both sides by a sheer cliff face of some hundred body-lengths in height, which is to say that the creek was sunk into the plain to this depth. And which was unanimously known as Hai-Richi Gorge. The creek itself didn’t have a name, and was so hard to see from the edge that no-one could tell in which direction the water flowed. But the locals didn’t care about the creek. They didn’t care which way it flowed, or where it went. They didn’t even care to speculate how long the creek could have taken to form such a stark gorge. What interested the locals was the gorge itself. Not because it was the only feature of its kind on the plain, but because it was the only feature of any kind. Anywhere.

If the distance between one side and the other were any greater, the gorge would have represented nothing more than a geographical singularity of vaguely ridiculous dimensions. But it was the very fact that the gap, though sizable and imposing, was manageable, that defined the hearts and souls of the locals. Hai-Richi Gorge could be jumped across.

The locals didn’t know how they came to be locals. Their oral and written traditions didn’t reach that far into the past. All they knew was they lived on a vast and unknowable plain, alongside a manageable gorge, and there was nothing else to do – but by God nothing else – than to jump across that gorge. Of course, they asked themselves the obvious question. Was it simply chance? Was this bizarre imbalance – humans living on only one side of a hole in the ground – just dumb luck? And the answer, since before history and knowledge and self awareness itself, had been no. They lived next to a manageable gorge for a reason. They were meant to jump.

The only other thing to be said about jumping Hai-Richi Gorge was that it was fatal. One’s first attempt was always one’s last. No-one had ever, ever, been successful. To say the gorge was manageable was a kind of hopefulness designed to feed the soul. Even so, the expression induced a sense of sourness that was not lost on them entirely.

The locals always gathered at the edge to witness every attempt. There was nothing else they wanted to do. There was nothing else to do. 'This could be the one', they said. And, truly, every attempt could have been the one. But it never was. And every failure stung somewhere, deep inside, and in an incalculably disturbing way. Every time a jumper failed, the edges of this red and dusty plain curled up, or down, just that little bit more.

The best one could hope for a jumper was that they wouldn't drown. It was those poor souls, the ones who were dismally under-prepared, who didn't even lay a finger on the other side. Those were the ones whose screams would grow quieter and finally be damped by a splash of water. Drowning in the creek at the bottom of Hai-Richi Gorge was shameful. It was a clear and undeniable badge of everything that was queer and limited in the human spirit. Drowner's lives were not celebrated. If anything, the locals tried to forget them completely. Of course, it was hard to erase such vivid and frighteningly solid examples that perhaps, just perhaps, the gorge was never meant to be jumped.

The best jumpers, the very best of the best, would hit the cliff face on the far side only a few feet below the edge. And of those, some managed to cling there, with barely a crack in the speckled rock to hang on to, for as long as a few minutes. Then they would slip down that far face of Hai-Richi Gorge, start the inevitable tumble, and be opened up. Literally, and absolutely. From bowel to brain to bone. The screaming would stop about a third of the way down.

It was these attempts, these ‘near successes’, that always made the most terrible spectacles. Hordes of locals would scream questions at jumpers clinging desperately across the way, about what it felt like over there, in reality, only to be silenced by the dash and slurry of flesh on rock. The elders had to institute a system. Something orderly and reasonable. One person, and one alone, was to ask the jumper what it felt like. The answers to which they could all bear witness.

There was much debate before the multitude of questions were pared down to just the three.

Are we doing the right thing?

Is it less painful over there?

Do you feel closer to God?

In truth they were all the same question, but it didn’t really matter. Despite the apparent simplicity, no-one answered even one of them. Ever. The very existence of these questions affirmed, with an unsettling sleight of hand, every local’s deepest fear - that the gorge wasn’t manageable. There would be no time ‘later’ to ask the jumpers anything. It had to be done immediately. The very existence of the questions caused a drought in near-successes that lasted decades.

It was a terrible period in local history, but it did come to an end. Abruptly and absolutely. He was a jumper with a jolly disposition, a bright smile, and a thick, red mane of hair. And as he fell to his death, every local heard him say those words, clearly and unmistakably, that were to haunt some into a subtle madness. 'Tastes like bread.'

No-one knew what it meant. In fact, no-one had any idea. The only thing that was clear was that there was a dimension to reality they had not previously suspected, and that their sickeningly simple questions were 'drowners'. To better everyone's lot in life, they agreed not to ask any more questions until someone was standing on the other side. Standing there and facing them all. The frequency of near-successes went up immediately.

Of course, when locals talked about bettering a person's lot in life, they were only ever talking about men. Theirs was not a world of chance, theirs was a world of meaning. So in a world where the only thing to do was jump a gorge, and where men were physically superior, the only possible conclusion was that the jump was meant only for men. Naturally, the women-folk didn't enjoy this reasoning terribly, but acquiesced to its undeniable biological underpinnings. And occasional beatings from their fathers, brothers and husbands. They had to admit they were indeed smaller of stature and leaner of muscle than men, and therefore second - and last - in the divine lineage. Those poor women born broader across the shoulders and deeper in the chest than most were ridiculed and shamed and finally corralled into a life of stooped and beaten misery.

Being taller and stronger, therefore the guardians of athleticism, men were obviously the chosen. Men were the ones meant to interpret what it was that God intended for humanity. And so it was that men's business became all those dealings in relation to jumping Hai-Richi Gorge. And the business of women became absolutely everything else.

But the human spirit, divine in nature, and not solely reposited in the bones of men, could not be bound indefinitely. Women found their own way. Their elementary act of defiance undermined in every way the fragile but fiercely defended edifice that men had built up over the centuries. After the men had lay down to sleep for the night, growing numbers of women-folk simply began to congregate at the gorge to witness their own attempts.

Amazing things emerged out of these nocturnal expeditions. Truly amazing. Every jump was another discovery. The rate of near-successes was clearly higher than that of the men. And of the near-successes, the quality was immeasurably better. None of these women knew why, but they speculated without pause. It was their strength-to-mass ratio that allowed them to jump that much further. Better reflexes, others ventured. More highly developed co-ordination. Lower surface area and therefore lower wind resistance. The offerings became increasingly skewed only because the actual reason was so obvious. These women simply believed in themselves more than their male counterparts did in themselves. It was the sort of quality that was bound to develop after being told repeatedly one was 'not allowed'.

Excuses had to be made, of course, when men began to find their wives going missing. And the stories that these women came up with were glib and hollow and self-deprecating. To hear that someone’s wife had accidentally slipped into the gorge while fetching water, or had become lost on the plain and would surely starve to death, beggared belief. They were the sort of excuses that invited suspicion, almost willing men to discover their trespass. Which, of course, they did.

One fine, moonlit night, after the women-folk had departed for the gorge, their husbands gathered together and executed a long-standing plan to make liars out of their wives. Under the steely composure of unhealthy volumes of alcohol, they went in pursuit. None of them wanted to speculate what kind of depraved and desperate sex they would catch their women-folk in the middle of. Perhaps for the better. Even a small measure of thinking would have led them to anticipate something spectacular, if indeed all their wives had stolen away to seek sexual satisfaction from the same man, as the collective action of these husbands indicated.

Their path led them to Hai-Richi Gorge. There they saw their wives, not engaged in sex, but standing at the edge and holding hands. One woman was running toward the edge. And not casually. By God she was sprinting. They'd never seen anything like it. She was lean and hard like an athlete. She was, like a man. Moving like they'd never seen anyone move before. The sound of her feet thumping down on the flat and dusty earth was like a true and honest heart beat.

And then, there she was, mid-flight and mid-gorge, suspended in a timeless and surreal moment none of them ever wanted to forget. At the very top of the arc she was on her way to a clean landing on the other side. The sound of these men, in a collective gasp of wonder and disbelief, made the air resonate.

That woman, that jumper, was as close to God in that moment as anyone had ever been. She looked like an angel travelling back to creation. The long and well-defined muscles in her forward-stretched legs shone in the moonlight. The hair swept back from her face like a plume of fire. But for all her power and explosive strength, she radiated an unearthly calmness.

She did not, as everyone anticipated, land cleanly on the other side, but on the rock face less than an arm's length from the top. It was something these men had never seen before, and it made them stumble, trance-like, toward the gorge. Then all of humanity came to a high water mark, as this angel of a woman reached up and put her hand down on the flat plain of reality. The truth had been cracked open. Hai-Richi Gorge was manageable. And here was the proof. Many of them panicked in that instant, trying to remember exactly how the three questions went. Others began laughing in short, hysterical bursts. To everyone the plain seemed to brighten, as if lit from within. A moment later, she lost her grip and shot down to her death.

Without a word, they all grouped at the edge of Hai-Richi Gorge and clung to each other as they wept. All except one. The angel's husband sat down on the spot, at some distance from the edge, and stared at the palms of his upturned hands. He did not move from that position, or reply when spoken to, for over a day. He didn't sleep or even close his eyes. On the second sunrise, without formality or announcement, he seemed to return to himself, then looked all about like a child into the world for the first time. There was a kind of wonder in his expression that made his face look like a flower opening up. He gazed up to the sky, smiled as he said a short prayer for his wife, and wandered off. There was considerable concern for his safety, with much speculation that in his state of shock he might inadvertently do himself a mischief. But all he did was walk silently until he found what he was after. His two young daughters were staying with close family. He took each girl by the hand, leading them out some distance, and sat down with them in the early morning sun. And then, he did something very strange indeed. He asked them to forgive him. There was a second of silence, as the two young girls looked to each other, wondering what was wrong with Father. It sounded awfully like a joke. Except that Father never joked. Never. They giggled a little hesitantly, and just hoped for the best when they pinched his ears and pulled at his nose. He took it as a 'yes', and laughed in a way only the forgiven can understand. Both daughters squealed in delight as he swept them up and squeezed them to his chest. And never again did he chorus at them the things they couldn't, shouldn't, or mustn't do.

Amongst the other husbands and wives on that day, the day of the angel, there was a good deal of discussion. They sat and talked until sunrise. Not like men had talked to women in the past, from a position of domination. Not even as equals. They talked like the very concept of equality was entirely superfluous. They talked about the jump. Her jump. All the other jumps these women had witnessed. About techniques. Physical and mental preparations. Success and failure.

By mid-morning, their discussion had attracted much attention, with most of the locals gathering around. Soon the elders were called to witness the proceedings, and to participate. For their benefit, the whole story was told again. From the start - the first woman to attempt the gorge - right up to the angel. The elders went wide-eyed when they heard how she'd put a hand on the other side, and asked for her story to be repeated several times. There were murmurs from the audience. Then the elders went about dissecting each near-success in turn - calmly and systematically. After a thorough analysis, when everything had been said, and all the facts were in the open, the women, their husbands, the elders, and everyone gathered around sat in a long and thoughtful silence. Only the breezes whistling out along the plain accompanied the gradual realization of what all this really meant for life along the Gorge.

On sunset of that day, the day of the angel, all the women who'd witnessed the jump were executed by strangulation and pushed face-first into Hai-Richi Gorge. The angel was branded a whore, and all her followers became liars, harlots and blasphemers. So began a period, for the remaining women, of un-paralleled beatings, rapes, sexual assaults and murders.

The long jumpers of Hai-Richi Gorge turned to their God. The men-folk pleadingly – asking for the strength to return their community to the path of piety. The women-folk accusingly – alleging betrayal and spitting insults. Either way, either kowtowing or defiant, they all shared the same awkward relationship with their God. They looked upon their circumstances, their life on a red and dusty plain at the edge of a ridiculous hole in the ground, and saw them as miserable, dark and insane. Of course, this would have put their God in the rather unfortunate position of being a cruel and mean-spirited entity. And because the locals could not countenance such a God, nor deny their ludicrous conditions, they returned all the blame upon themselves. They had done something wrong, forcing Him to punish them thusly. The inevitable response was the concept of 'purity'. An exact definition for which was never offered, but in practical terms amounted to 'only the pure go to heaven'.

With such an extreme notion of goodness, it was little wonder the quiet lad came to be such an outsider. He had slender limbs, soft eyes, and quite a feminine, little mouth on him. He grew his hair down to his shoulders, never had the need to shave, and on those rare occasions he actually did speak, it was almost in whispers. In profile, as if succumbing to the tow of gravity, his body traced out the shape of an S. There was no jumper inside that lad, the locals were sure. The pity was, there no womb in him either. Even before the day of the whore, and the true and just execution of her followers, he was considered strange. After, he was seen as something close to contagious.

Oh, how this lad hated his life. How he hated not belonging, and being directionless, and not feeling the security of the crowd. He would dream of being close to people. Faceless strangers. Talking with them. Laughing with them. Feeling the touch of their hands and hearts. When he dreamt like that, he felt whole. He felt safe. But he would only ever open his eyes to another painfully slow day, in which no-one would share with him even the crumbs of their stake in reality. His existence was pointless.

The pretty lad might have thought his isolation a cruel and mean-spirited act on the part of the locals. But for him to be right, so many others had to be wrong. Alone, he could not deny them. Nor could he deny his personal pain. So he returned all the blame upon himself. He had done something wrong, forcing them to punish him thusly. It was his own fault he was not like the rest, and they were right to keep away from him.

Year by year, his self-loathing grew. It started in his feet, with a heaviness he couldn't shake off, and gradually crept up. It reached his stomach and gave him a constant feeling of illness and fever. He punched himself in the gut to make it stop. It didn't. By his early manhood, his frustration and hatred for himself had filled him up to the chest, like his ribs were a pair of hands slowly squeezing the life out of him.

The day finally came that his self-loathing went past his throat, and past his eyes, filling him up so quickly he felt the top of his skull splitting open. When he screamed out, every local thought he'd fallen into the gorge. They turned to look, but saw him running at them instead. He bolted right up to the eldest of the elders and slapped him across the mouth. The old man went down with a groan. Then the pretty lad started kicking him. Screaming that he was the same as them. The same. And they weren't ever going to treat him differently again.

The locals, caught by surprise, took a little time to gather their thoughts before pulling the lad away from the elder. Contrary to calming him down, it proved catalytic. When he started swinging those thin and hairless arms around, grown men began falling. There were casualties in all directions before the locals showed enough common sense just to stand back.

His eyes were dark and his feminine, little mouth twisted at a cruel angle as he roared at them. Finally, it all made sense. It was them. It was always them. It was their fear and their weakness and their superstition that put him where he was. As if they could be clean by making him dirty. As if they could put themselves across the gorge by tethering him on this side. To hell with them, and to hell with this life they'd made. And if that's what God wanted, then to hell with Him too.

It was with those last words that the locals reached their limit. Theirs may have been an all-powerful God, but He needed defending just the same. When they finished with their accusations, the girl-boy barely had the strength to turn his back and stumble away. They went back to their lives, confident and proud of the lesson they'd all been part of teaching. In truth, the girl-boy did learn a lesson. But it wasn't what they thought.

Dizzy. Disorientated. Confused. The girl-boy went right to the precipice of Hai-Richi Gorge, stopping only when his toes hung over the edge, and pelted out a single word that echoed down and wide and away.

''No.''

Either a gust of wind would take him, or he was going to stop living in fear.

He put his arms out, closed his eyes, and felt every inch of his skin prickle with sweat. He soiled himself. More than once. And after a time, became too exhausted to continue bawling. All he could do was hang his head loosely and work hard for every breath. Then, very curiously, his small, white teeth peered out from behind his lips. And a sniffy, playful laugh escaped through his nostrils.

Suddenly, everything looked different. Identical, but different. He couldn't remember the name of anything. Not a thing. It was all, just what it was. Just there. Just itself. And it gave him an intoxicating feeling of relief. He looked across the gorge and giggled. When he started nodding, he did it with his whole body.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, he did a hand stand on the edge of the gorge. He swung his feet in the air and let the breeze tickle his toes. When he righted himself, it was with a nimble back flip, simultaneously undressing himself as his laughter went up an octave. Then he wiped himself clean, sighed loosely, and faced the world naked.

When the girl-boy ran back into their midst, the locals wouldn't even look at him. Not only was he shamefully naked, but he was flapping his arms around, and bouncing up and down. It sounded like he had something stuck in his throat. And he did. It was a word so big he simply couldn't dislodge it.

One after another, they turned away. The girl-boy kept pointing at the gorge, giggling, and waving for them to come along. But no-one would. They didn't care. And when he saw no-one was paying him any attention, he simply smiled, shrugged absently, and set out for the gorge at a decent trot. And then, the girl-boy with the pretty eyes and the gentle features went right over. He landed cleanly on the other side. No flashing lights. No holy fanfare. Just the earthy sound of him landing, like a child falling into its mother's arms.

The locals ran to the edge of Hai-Richi Gorge and stared mutely. The vibrancy of their joy made the wind whisper its secrets.

On the other side, the girl-boy looked about, stuttered a few steps, and just nodded his head. Then turned back to the locals and came close enough to be heard. But he didn’t know what to say.

After a very long time, someone had the presence of mind to call out and ask him if it really tasted like bread. To their astonishment, the girl-boy sat himself down and began to cry. When asked again, he nodded and smiled, but his tears would not stop. Many of the locals began to weep as well. Not out of sadness, or even the belief that the girl-boy was sad. Instantly and intimately, they all understood reality to be of an unspeakable beauty. Amongst the locals, these joyful tears went on for hours. Days for some. For the girl-boy on the other side, they never ended.

When he finally turned away, he did not say goodbye, or explain, or even wave a hand. There was no need. The locals simply watched his long, steady walk into reality until he disappeared on the horizon. A horizon which they had not yet noticed appeared flat for the first time ever.