The island of Leng is split down the middle by a deep ravine – so deep that the ocean flows through it. The ravine is hundreds of feet deep, with crashing waves and sharp rocks at the bottom. The wind from the sea is always blowing through it. You could even say (because of the water in the ravine) there are two islands, but no one says that. Instead they just say call the two halves “Leng proper” and “the western bit”. And because of this ravine splitting the island of Leng, a curious custom has arisen.
You see, Leng proper is where everyone lives; it is where they are born and inevitably where they die. But many people like to spend time on the western bit too. It’s genuinely nicer there – the grass is greener, the air is fresher, and fruits and flowers grow there that grow nowhere else. Because the natural treasures of the western bit exists regular travel to the western bit improves the lives of everyone in Leng proper, whether they go to the western bit themselves or not.
Getting to the western bit is not easy however. There is a long, narrow bridge crossing the deep ravine. It is built about as well as anyone knows how to build bridges of this type, but it is still narrow, and shaky, and when the wind blows the whole things vibrates like a harpsichord string. The fact is that the great majority of Lengers are too easily frightened to cross the thing without help. The several who have tried discover a latent acrophobia and immediately return to Leng proper before getting ten steps from the edge.
The allure of the western bit of Leng is so great though, and the demand to go there so strong, that a profession has arisen to meet the need to cross the bridge. A certain few of the Lengers have become “Walkers”, and they are so called because they walk across the bridge with anyone who wants to cross. Walking however is not their core professional skill. Anyone can do that. Their primary skills are the ability to conquer their fear of heights, and a willingness to lie.
The job of a Walker is quite simple. People come to the Walker’s offices, called a “branch” for some reason, which are situated at a safe distance from the ravine where neither the cliffs nor the bridge can be seen. The walker then places a blindfold on the customer and leads them up the path to the bridge and across it to the western side. All along he whispers lies into their ears about how safe the path is, how no one could ever be in any danger, and also (those these are truths, not lies) how green the grass and how fresh the air is on the western bit of the island. Once safely across and sufficiently far from the ravine that it cannot be seen the walker takes the blindfold off the customer and sends them off to grow the fruit and collect the flowers that only grow on the western bit of Leng.
Despite the lies of the Walkers however, the bridge is not perfectly safe. It is narrow and high, and when the wind blows it vibrates like a harpsichord string (as I mentioned above). This makes the footing a bit unstable, but the Walkers are used to this sort of upset and quickly mention to their wards that it’s perfectly normal and nothing to be afraid of. Happens all the time. And if the occasional customer is blown off the bridge and dashed on the rocks below, they must have brought that fate upon themselves somehow. Nothing wrong with the path. It’s safe. Sound. Everything’s fine.
So long has this custom been practiced on the island of Leng that many of the residents (the ones who are not Walkers anyway) have convinced themselves that there really isn’t a bridge at all. After all, they’ve never seen the bridge, and neither has their father. There must be some sort of natural connection between Leng proper and the western bit, which no storm or wind can dislodge. Or maybe there is a bridge, but it’s made of such strong stone and steel that the islands would sink into the sea before the bridge would go out. And the Walkers keep nets under the bridge anyway, don’t they? They wouldn’t just let people fall. The point is, the people have listened to the Walkers lies for so long, and so strong is their need to believe that the western bit is accessible and safe to go to, that their powers of self-deception have caused them to genuinely believe that which is not so.
Once a century or so, though, a storm comes along. Not an ordinary storm, but a great storm. Greater than the bridge can withstand. Greater than even the western bit of the island can offer safety from. When the storm comes, all the Lengers on the western bit of the island are swept out to sea, never to be seen again. And all Lengers on the bridge are thrown into the ravine, to die on the rocks below. The Walkers are thrown off the bridge too, of course, and some of them die, but most of them are wearing parachutes made of a soft golden cloth you see – they land safely enough on a ledge they have stocked with supplies and shelter, having prepared themselves for this very day.
(As an interesting aside, part of the myth of the Walkers is that they are brave, but this is not so. Most of them are just sociopaths who have seen to their own comfort with the adornment of parachutes and opulent lodgings, and don’t really care whether their wards are safe or not. Like all Lengers, their powers of self-deception allow this play to continue for many a year, but instead of believing in the false safety of the bridge, they have convinced themselves that this “easy work” will continue indefinitely.)
For the residents on Leng proper though, this is all too much. A great anger fills them, and they demand that the Walkers be held accountable for the damage done by the storm. After all, someone must be at fault for the danger found on the bridge and Leng’s western bit. It wasn’t constructed as well as it ought to have been, and the western bit of the island should have been outfitted with proper shelters from the storm. Safety must be restored! And never mind that no one knows how to build a bridge better than the old one, and that covering the western bit of the island with shelters will prevent it from growing the fruit and flowers that are the reason anyone goes there in the first place. The residents of Leng demand a return to the status quo that existed in their heads, you see, where safety existed and they eat the fruit too.
And so, protests occur, and politicians pass laws. The old Walkers are told to retire, and some of them actually do, but for the most part they are replaced by the same sort of men (or even the exact same men). The bridge is rebuilt much the same as before, but this time with politicians offering advice on the placement of support structures and tension wires. And while the residents of Leng are told that shelters have been built on the western bit of the island, they are small, and over time dismantled by the fruit-growers who want more land for crops. And the new Walkers are still called Walkers (not something more accurate, like Liars, for that would defeat the purpose of their employment), telling the same old lies and collecting the same old tolls. And the people of Leng enjoy the fruit that is grown thereby.
Are the people of Leng bad? Are the Walkers? It seems that fear of heights is something inherent to most of the people there, and if the lies are not told then the people will not cross and the fruit will not be grown, harvested, and eaten. Life in Leng proper will suffer as long as the truth is scrupulously told. Occasionally a crazy person in town square, who sees the truth and cannot un-see it, will be driven to yell at his neighbors “Have courage!”, or (even less likely to happen) “Be satisfied with the fruit grown here!” — but who wants that? No one I know.